Category Archives: Parenting

City Adventures in Berlin

Given the huge amount of history contained within this European city, it’s really no surprise that there is an incredible number of museums to visit in Berlin and somewhat understandably, by the end of our penultimate day, both children were beginning to grumble about feeling a little “museum-ed” out. We were lucky to enjoy some glorious sunshine whilst we were there, so we took every opportunity available to venture out on foot as well as making using of the “hop-on, hop-off” bus and highly efficient public transit system. I think (hope) we managed a good balance between those museums with exhibits about Nazi Germany and those about the Cold War era and it was great to hear G being able to explain in more detail some of the topics she has learned about at school. Here’s a list of some of our city adventures in Berlin this May:

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: A strangely effective and emotive memorial built within 5 minutes walk of the Brandenburg Gate. These 2,711 concrete slabs vary in size and shape and are constructed on undulating ground, which once formed part of the “death strip” that split the city into East and West by the Berlin Wall. There is no attributed significance to the number or design of this memorial, but instead it intends to invoke a sense of unease as you wander through the rows. Beneath the memorial, there is an information centre, which contains details and memories of some of the Jewish families affected by the horrors of the Holocaust from 1933 on. Unfortunately, the centre was closed on the day we visited and we didn’t have time to go back, but it is somewhere I’d be keen to revisit if we had the chance.

DDR Museum: Located on the banks of the River Spree, the DDR museum details life in East Germany under Socialist rule and is a fantastic interactive experience, which M really enjoyed. It looks at all aspects of everyday life from school and work to holidays, transport, national service and beyond. M was particularly taken by the opportunity to try his hand at driving the Trabant P601 simulation, whilst G spent a long time at the interactive desk which gave in-depth information about different parts of the political history of Berlin. My Grandad came from Czechoslovakia to the UK as part of the Allied forces during the war years and I found that the exhibits invoked many memories of how my grandparents lived, albeit in Northamptonshire, as well as of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1988 to visit our family who still live there. A great museum which kept us busy for between 2 and 3 hours.

Palace of Tears: This tiny museum is one we almost missed, but is definitely worth dedicating at least an hour to wander through it. It is based in the former border crossing point at the Berlin Friedrichstraße station, which was only used for those leaving East Berlin for West Berlin. It covers the timeline from the building of the Berlin Wall to its collapse, looking at the stories relating to the checkpoint as well as the process to achieve the reunification of the country. M and I spent some time watching the video of the fall of the Berlin Wall and talking about the fact that this event was living history for me – something that I remember happening during my childhood when I was about his age.

Jewish Museum: This was one of the museums recommended to us by G’s history teacher, but unfortunately the permanent exhibition is currently closed as it is being redeveloped. However, we spent the morning seeing what was open to the public and it was definitely time well-spent. Split over a couple of floors, we first visited the Holocaust exhibit, which displayed mementos, letters and photos from many Jewish families and relayed some of their history as well as detailing whether they died in a concentration camp or were fortunate enough to survive that terror. From there, we ventured outside through a memorial garden, before heading back in to the “A is for Jewish” interactive exhibit, which talks about the many varying aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Germany. Finally, we walked through the “Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves)” art installation, where you quite literally walk on 10,000 sheet steel faces of varying sizes symbolising all innocent victims of war and violence.

Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie: This was one of the surprise hits of our holiday and one that we wouldn’t have visited if it hadn’t been for my insistence that I wanted to go to see Checkpoint Charlie on foot and our need for something to occupy our unplanned afternoon. Filled with an absolutely incredible amount of exhibits, it started with a look at the story of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who is thought to have saved thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust before he disappeared in 1945 and was presumed to have died whilst imprisoned by the KGB, although there have been very many question marks surrounding the circumstances, and timing, of his death. Upstairs the exhibit moved through very many escape stories from East Germany, which absolutely fascinated M, not least of which was the armoured escape vehicle on display. There is also a huge area dedicated to human rights and worldwide civil unrest, including Ukraine and North Korea. An absolutely fascinating museum and one that you could easily spend a day, or more, exploring.

German Spy Museum: The unquestionable highlight of all the museums we visited in Berlin and it got a definite thumbs up from both children. Starting with a timeline of the development of espionage worldwide through the ages, this museum blends its interactive experience with a particular focus of espionage during the Cold War era. The main exhibit was divided between East and West Berlin and how spies played a part on both sides for many years. The laser maze gives visitors the opportunity to see if they can successfully work their way through the lasers to reach the abort button before enemy missiles are launched. Sad to say, neither G or M managed it, triggering the alarms as they made their way through it, although they both had great fun trying. There was also a section about fictional spies, most notably 007 himself, James Bond with some memorabilia and clips from several of the films. We hadn’t left ourselves enough time to see everything this museum had to offer as we had to head back to the airport for our flight home, so it’s definitely one to revisit in the future.

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Mental Health Awareness Week 2019: Body Image

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW19) in the UK and the focus this year is on body image – how we think and feel about our bodies. I’ve talked about mental health in relation to our family before as there is no question that the ongoing challenges of M’s ill health and the restricted diets of both children have impacted not only them, but Mike and me too. Just because I’ve not written about body image issues before doesn’t mean we haven’t faced them and I thought it was finally time to try and put my pen to paper and talk about our experiences honestly.

It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the way I look. I am not a size 10 having, as I have often said, passed through it on my way to bigger and better things. I struggled as a teen being taller and bigger than some of my friends and again as a new Mum, when some of my antenatal group bounced back to their size 8 jeans within a ridiculously quick space of time, something I was never going to achieve. The depression that has haunted me since my early teen years didn’t help with my sense of self worth and it has taken me 40 years to finally accept that I am the way I am and that that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have a crisis of confidence even now, but I have learned to wear clothes that flatter my shape and can truly step out with confidence when everything comes together to help me feel good about the way I’m presenting myself to the outside world.

There is no question that G is the spitting image of Mike and his side of the family, which gives her beautiful tanned skin and dark hair, although her build is very similar to mine. She has struggled at times with not being as slender as some of her friends and these days complains that she appears to have stopped growing whilst her friends are still inching past her. She is a beautiful young lady on the inside as well as out and we encourage her to find her worth in the way she behaves and reacts to the people who are around her and not her physical looks. We have all heard the criticisms of both print and social media and the airbrushed images that all too often create unrealistic expectations in our children and young people. The increasing popularity of taking selfies and then using social media filters to manipulate the image presented to the world can add to our unrealistic perceptions about the way we should look. I still remember a discussion we had with one of the paediatricians when she was little, who told us that the danger these days is that our perceptions and expectations of body shape and size are such that we fail to recognise when people are a healthy weight for their height and instead view them as overweight. G is learning to eat healthily, keep active, believe in herself and, most importantly, to not constantly compare who she is to her friends.

It is easy to believe therefore that if you’re slim you have no reason to have body image issues, but I can tell you that’s not true either. M is the complete opposite to the rest of us and has always been on the slender side. He is chatty, witty and can ooze absolute self-belief at times, and yet he has struggled with feeling too thin, too short and lacking muscles when compared to some of his friends. He refused to wear shorts during his Junior school years, even when the weather was gloriously sunny and we asked for permission for him to wear jogging trousers rather than shorts for PE – all because he hated the way his legs looked. These days he’s a little more prepared to reveal his legs, particularly when it’s too hot to be comfortable in jeans, but he frequently comments on just how much taller than him many of his classmates are.

Boys can be just as much affected by body image issues as girls can and we’re lucky that our secondary school is very aware of that fact and looks to support all of the pupils in its teaching about these matters. We are all aware that puberty is a tricky time and one that needs to be carefully navigated by all involved. At home, we look to help both G and M grow up with a positive self image and belief as well as teaching them the importance of balanced meals and regular exercise. We also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with us about how they’re feeling about various issues, not just about the way they look, and will help them find answers or solutions if they want. Our youngsters grow up sadly believing all too often that they need to be thin and conventionally beautiful to succeed in this world and I find it devastating that they do not truly understand and believe that there is so much more to achieving success than the way they look.

Young Carers Awareness Day 2019

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day 2019 and the purpose of the day is to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by young people because of their caring role, and to campaign for greater support for young carers and their needs. Young Carers often struggle with mental health problems of their own due to the strains they can find themselves under, hence the launch of their #CareForMeToo campaign.

I was recently invited to write a blog for Over The Wall about the impact of their camps on our family and I chose to particularly focus on the importance of the siblings camps for children like G, who is recognised as a Young Carer locally. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts here too.

 “…when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it…”

Jamie-Lynn Sigler

When you live with chronic illness you know that it is about so much more than just the disease itself. Pain, exhaustion, medicines, appointments and hospital admissions are often accompanied by a loss of self-confidence, doubts about self-worth and mental health issues that need time, patience and understanding to come to terms with and overcome. As parents to a child with a rare illness that is little known and little understood, Mike and I have had to find a resilience and strength within ourselves to not only support M as he finds his way to understanding his condition and living his life to the fullest, but also to fight those battles that he is not yet ready to tackle himself.

For the last 8 years, since our appointment with M’s first gastro consultant, our focus has been on finding answers and researching ways to give him the best quality of life we can despite the challenges he faces. As he now heads into his teens, we are seeing the fruits of those endeavours as M begins to make his own choices about the foods he eats, knowing full well the reactions he may experience, and taking on more responsibility for his medicines.

You could say that we’re achieving what we set out to do when we got his diagnosis: to raise a young man who won’t let his illness define or constrain him and who believes that he can be successful no matter what; but we have not been alone in supporting M. Family, friends and our local community have walked every step of this journey with us, helping us in more ways than we could ever imagine was possible; but there is one person who has been there since the very beginning, without any choice and yet who loves M unconditionally and is an indisputable rock for him, even when they don’t always see eye to eye.

She is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unsung hero in our family story.

Since the day her baby brother arrived prematurely in her world, G was determined to help out whenever she could. She put up with his incessant screams from what we now realise was undiagnosed pain and looked to comfort him however she could – making him laugh, giving cuddles, reading stories or just bringing him “Cat” when nothing else would do. Like so many siblings to children diagnosed with chronic illness, G has inevitably been side-lined when that illness has dominated family life and despite our determination to make sure she doesn’t miss out because of it, I know there are times when we haven’t got that balance right and given G the attention she deserves and needs.

From the interruption of frequent hospital appointments to badly timed admissions over her birthday 2 years in a row, G has had to take the back seat to M’s illness more times than seems fair and these are not the only ways in which her life has been affected by his diagnosis. We cannot ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has had a massive impact on G and her mental health too. Anxiety, panic attacks, facing fears and anger management issues are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another and it has been crucial we find a supportive environment for her that has taught strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provided a safe and understanding outlet for them. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group as well as applying for a place at the Over The Wall Siblings camps have been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health has had on her over the last 15 years and have helped her feel that we really do understand and appreciate all that she has had to put up with and sometimes give up too.

That time away at OTW was a week for her to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister and encouraged and allowed her to take time to focus on herself without worrying about him. G came home a different child to the one who had left us, having realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances and she had found a sense of self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. G’s second camp experience saw her develop a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer. OTW brought G out from the shadow of M’s ill health, helped her rediscover who she is as an independent individual and gave her her childhood back – and for that I can’t thank them enough.

Battle of the Birthday cakes

December is always a busy month for our family, what with birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas to celebrate and squeeze in alongside the end of term and all the added demands that that almost always inevitably brings. As well as the last-minute rush to make sure cards have been written (and sent) and that presents have been bought (and wrapped), I also have to make sure I have time to bake the perfect cake to help us celebrate G’s birthday in style.

Over the years I have tried my hand at all sorts of cakes and I love spending the time to let my creative side really come out, though Mike might disagree as some of my more complicated masterpieces have kept us up into the early hours as I strive to get every detail just right. Last year I attempted a gluten- and dairy-free red velvet cake for G, which tasted great, but didn’t look as appealing as I’d have liked and so this year I was determined to create her a special treat that looked and tasted the part. G is a definite chocolate lover, something that can be a little tricky when you’re dairy-free, but there are lots of great dairy-free options available and I was determined to use a mix of them to make G a cake that the whole family, including M, could enjoy.

The obvious starting point was the beautiful chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes that I had perfected for Mike’s birthday and which I knew I could turn into a fantastic 2 layer cake. I wanted to create a really sumptuous filling and to my delight discovered this salted caramel flavoured icing mix as I wandered around our local supermarket. Mixed with our regular dairy-free spread, this made the perfect buttercream filling and topping for G’s cake. I finished it off with handfuls of Freedom mallows, shavings of Moo-free chocolate and sprinkles of Sainsbury’s Free From White chocolate chips. The final cake was a huge success: gooey, delicious and everything my chocolate-lover could have wanted for her 15th birthday.

Once G’s birthday celebrations finally came to an end, I was then on to my next birthday cake project, which was to bake a cake for my Aunt for her birthday on December 23. This year was her first celebrating without my Uncle, who sadly passed away earlier in 2018 and the plan was for a family gathering at my Mum’s house to mark the day. Mum was keen for me to bake some more of the chocolate cake that I had made for G’s birthday, but I wanted to do something a little different, especially with Christmas right around the corner, and instead settled on one of M’s firm favourites, banana bread.

When it came to making the cake, G was a huge help and offered to bake a dozen cupcakes, whilst I decided how to decorate them. She did a great job and by the time I’d found the perfect design and all the necessary ingredients, there were 12 wonderful looking cupcakes waiting and ready to go. I took inspiration from the front cover of a fantastic cupcakes cookery book that I’ve used before and gave a nod to my Welsh heritage with a plateful of sheep cupcakes. Safe buttercream icing, a small supply of Freedom mallows, safe cocoa powder and a little fondant icing was all that was needed to create these fun birthday treats,which were not only enjoyed on the 23rd, but saw G and M through Christmas too.

Polar Dip

Despite the assertions of some Canadian friends that it couldn’t be a “real” polar bear dip without having to break some ice, in the middle of December Mike decided to take part in our local New Year’s Day polar swim. With just a smidge over 2 weeks to prepare for this madness, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Mike was completely mad – believe me when I say it was something that went through my mind too – but the reason for it is actually a fantastic one.

You have all heard me talk a lot about the amazing charity, Over The Wall, who provides free therapeutic camps for children with serious health challenges as well as their siblings and families. G and M have been fortunate enough to go to these camps twice each over the last 3 years and the difference it has made to them both is incredible. Since G’s first trip to the South Siblings Camp in 2016, we have taken every opportunity we’ve been able to find to raise awareness and funds for them – from M’s presentation at school to G’s sponsored hair-cut. I’ve talked to more people than I can even begin to count about just how special this charity is and in the last year have been delighted that 2 fellow EGID Mums were successful in their applications for camps too.

2019 marks 20 years since OTW’s first camp in the UK and they are looking to mark that anniversary by being able to send 1,000 children, young people and families to one of their camps. We want to help them achieve that goal, knowing from firsthand experience just how invaluable their camps truly are, and will be spending the year finding new ways to support them just as they have supported G and M.

And that’s why Mike kicked off our fundraising year in style with his Polar swim. He chose to swim in 9° water for 20 minutes – 1 minute for every year that Over The Wall is celebrating this year – and we set a tentative target of £200. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, Mike not only more than managed his New Year’s Day dip, but also raised a fantastic £223!

If you’re able to give even a small amount, I know that Over The Wall will make very good use of it and you will be helping enrich the lives of young people living with health challenges, just like G and M. You can donate via their special 20 years donation page here.

Welcome to 2019

It feels a little strange to be putting fingers to the keyboard and sharing news with you all once again. Since the last time I wrote, we’ve celebrated Christmas, seen in the New Year, made some big decisions about future plans and the children have headed back to school. Mike kicked off the New Year in style – something I’ll share more about in my next post – as part of our family commitment for 2019.

To be honest I was glad to see the back of 2018, which had challenged us all from almost the beginning of the year, thanks to a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu and…well…everything else that then followed on from that. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and there were also lots of highlights from our year to celebrate too. Unfortunately and almost unbelievably, 2018 finished in much the same way it started with the sad news that one of my Godmothers passed away just before Christmas and 2019 obviously didn’t get the memo that it needed to improve on our experiences and kicked off with further news of ill-health for both friends and family.

However, I’ve learned some important lessons in 2018 and will be taking them forward into our New Year. I have some wonderful freefrom finds to share amongst other news and I’ve no doubt there will be discoveries and adventures to write about as 2019 unfurls.

Here’s to a year of discovery and wonder for us all.

Supporting local business

As Christmas fast approaches, we are all in that mode of frantically searching high and low for the perfect presents for our loved ones, or, at very least, the best price for whatever it is they want. My two are complete opposites when it comes to writing their Christmas wish lists: M knows exactly what he wants, be it the latest computer console and games (PS4 and Fortnite), musical instrument (electric bass guitar plus amp) or the slightly more random Tempur mattress (just don’t ask). Whilst these all come with a significant price tag and the ongoing conversation about having any one of them as a joint Christmas/birthday present, at least we know what to look for, although I’m not convinced he’d be that happy if all he got was a new mattress!

G, on the other hand, is a little more challenging. For the last couple of years, her list has been small and fairly inexpensive, which is great from a financial perspective, but far more challenging given she’ll be turning 15 just 2 weeks before Christmas and various family members want suggestions for both occasions. Having given the best idea to my Mum, I’m not quite sure what Santa will find to leave in her stocking this year, but hopefully with some hard work, heavy head-scratching and even brainstorming, we’ll get there in the end.

One of things that I love to support is local business whenever possible and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have spotted the memes on social media asking folks to consider buying from small, local businesses at this time of year to find something truly unique when it comes to gifts. We’ve been doing our bit to support our local business community for at least 10 years and love discovering new opportunities to do so along the way. We started with buying our weekly groceries from our local food co-op, who source local meats, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, baked goods and even ready meals and deliver to our door. They work very much in the same way as some of the bigger names in this market, but with all the added benefits of locally grown and produced seasonal products, thus reducing our carbon footprint as much as possible. Our nearest big city has an active fruit and vegetable market too and so they can also offer the more “exotic” items, such as bananas, which means we’re not heading to a big chain supermarket for just a handful of groceries too often.

Over the last 15 months, we’ve been supporting another local enterprise and one which is bringing great health benefits to us all. A local farm has converted one of its unused buildings into an environmentally friendly swimming pool, using water from its own bore-hole and heated by burning grass grown on the farm. It has a limited occupancy due its size and so rents the pool out on a private basis to small groups, who can book a regular time slot to spend there swimming. Every Tuesday evening at 8.30pm, our family can usually be found eagerly splashing into the pool, ready and raring to go for 30 minutes swimming time. It is conveniently close to us – just 10 minutes from home by car -, impeccably kept and we have developed a passing acquaintance with the 2 groups, 1 family and 1 a group of friends, who swim in the slots before us. We are allowed access to the spacious changing rooms for the 15 mins before and after our slot and despite my fears that M and G would dawdle, they both manage to get themselves showered, changed, dressed and ready to go by 9.15pm at the latest.

Even better, not only does this local farm provide this fantastic facility which has seen M’s confidence in his swimming skills soar whilst G, but we are also able to buy fresh eggs from the farm door on an honesty box system and their Christmas offerings include beef and turkey. I have long said that we have the best of all worlds where we live, being just 8 miles from the centre of a vibrant city with amazing theatres, music venues and sports stadiums, but having a cottage on the edge of farmland and being able to see fields and green spaces for miles. The children have grown up with a dairy farm just across the road and are accustomed to seeing cows or sheep in the field next door whilst they’re bouncing on the trampoline in our “paddock”. I love being able to access so many things so easily, even the coastline is just 20 minutes away, and truly appreciate and understand just how lucky we are. Supporting the small, local businesses that are trying to survive and thrive in challenging times is just one way we can help our local community continue to grow for years to come…and hopefully will help me source some great presents for G in time for December!

Birthday Wishes

Turns out that October 15 is a popular day for birthdays. Old school friends, work colleagues and even M’s adored Godmother, but we’re celebrating a special day a lot closer to home. Cue Friday night celebratory meals, Saturday evening at the theatre and a Sunday afternoon spent baking a batch of M-friendly Chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes all to mark this occasion.

So, what more needs to be said other than Happy Birthday to our favourite husband and Dad!