A Nice Story about The National Trust and Disability.

For a while, back pain and poor mobility meant I almost become a recluse, venturing out when I had to. Then I decided that back pain and disability was not going to win; I am not going to stop living, I would just have to do things a bit differently. Some experiences have been shockingly negative. But some experiences while reclaiming my life as a person with chronic pain and disability have been uplifting.

I’m a member of the National Trust, have been for a while, ever since they put their Wembury Beach car-park fees up to £4.50; a single membership was cheaper than paying each time I kayaked and bodyboarded there. Then I had children and it was an invaluable way of getting out for fresh air in lovely locations. And now, my membership gets me out with family and friends when I might otherwise hide at home avoiding crowd and difficult situations.

There are some fabulous National Trust properties and gardens around the South West – Saltram House in Plymouth, Cotehele, just into Cornwall off the River Tamar, and my favourite Lanhydrock, further into Cornwall near St Austell.  National Trust have an inclusive attitude to disability – where possible, bearing in mind many of their properties are in old houses where lifts can’t be installed, or with rocky steps leading to hidden gardens that would be ruined with ramps put in. Although some places within their properties remain out of bounds, every location has as much access as they can put in without destroying the historic places themselves.

At Lanhydrock particularly, I hold the staff in high regard after one key visit. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without stopping, had two children, two crutches and my mother-in-law with me. Immediately, the door to the little octagonal admissions hut was opened for me (possibly also for Mother-in-Law before she charged off; a spritely 80 something year old with a healthier back than me).  Carers go in free, so I have single adult family membership and R or a friend comes with me.  Without having to provide evidence of my disability, we were guided to the Golf Buggy that was to drive us the long walk to the house and gardens. This discretion was refreshing, having experienced other places where not much short of providing a full medical examination outlining the nature and extent of disability will allow a carer to freely accompany you watching your family go on rides that you can only look longingly at (Legoland – click on the link and view the section ‘Accepted Forms of Proof’ if you think I’m joking there).

The driver carefully helped me onto the Buggy and let Summer Girl sit in the front seat; took the bags from my mother-in-law, and told me to call from the restaurant when I was ready to come back. He would collect me before the main stop outside the grounds. Impressed so far? There’s more.

The house has a few floors, some of which are not accessible for disabled people (to be honest, I can’t say I missed much, I am not a huge history fan, love the gardens but it occupies the children for an hour). There’s a lift available (if you’re not afraid of small confined spaces) to some of the floors, hidden away and powered by what felt like small children and only available for disabled people. I was shown this with a smile, told how best to see the house with a disability, and a volunteer offered to help me up the stairs of the last section if I wanted to view it. I told you there was more, but keep going!

The children tried on top hats, searched the house for wooden mice so they could get a badge with a hedgehog on it, and pretended to cook in the vast kitchen. Halfway through, i crashed on the comfy sofas and rested while mother-in-law finished the rest of the house with the children, before heading back out for ice-cream and coffee and a hobble around the gardens. Plenty of benches to sit on and take in the beauty.

On the way back on the driver picked me up first as promised, dropped everyone else at the admissions hut and told me and another person to stay put. He then drove us a further 5-10 minute walk straight to our cars. I was so, so grateful, I hurt so much and literally couldn’t walk another step. I was dreading that walk and he must have read my mind. Amazing huh?!

I love that most of the National Trust staff seem genuinely family and disability friendly, not just because they have to be, but because they care about their work, their countryside and want everyone to share it. Ok, let’s not lie, there is always going to be the odd person having a bad day right? I can cope with that.

I’ve spent three days in the last two weeks at Saltram House; Winter Boy and Summer Girl playing croquet and badminton on the lawn with friends while I sat on a deck chair and drank coffee from a fancy tea-cup. Not a bad way to reclaim my life back.

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Books are for People, Not for Genders.

Winter Boy is just learning to read. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine. I thought he would have grown out of this almost 4 year long phase by now, but he loves is as much now as he did when he got his first Take and Play train. When it comes to books, he’s pretty clear about his interests. If it’s about Thomas the Tank Engine he will try to read it, stick it, colour it, press buttons on it. Although, i will give him his due, he is just starting to read actual words in books, and he eagerly reads whatever books he has from school, and he will attempt to read the words on anything that happens to be lying around.

Even bedtime is Thomas related if he has his own way. We try to break it up, for our sake as much as anything, as reading about a Really Useful Smug Engine can get quite annoying. Outside of the Land of Sodor, Winter Boy has no preference for ‘boy’ stories or ‘girl’ stories, whatever is easily reachable tends to suffice.

Summer Girl has gone through a (big) phase of insisting on ‘girl’ books. Glittery, princesses, fairies in tutus and pink sparkle everywhere; it has adorned her bookshelves since she has been able to read herself and be in charge of the book choosing. She has insisted on having the Rainbow Magic books, which are, in my opinion, dull, badly written and without imagination. However, in the spirit of wanting to encourage her to read, read, read, and not restrict or discourage her, I bought her a box set of 15 from the Book People, to place along with the classics on her bookshelf – Enid Blyton’s through to the complete Roald Dahl collection, and my absolute Favourite Book ever as a child – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I am unashamedly delighted that she has tried and failed to get to the end of a single one of the Rainbow Magic books, which are deliberately targeted at ‘girls’; the covers are marketed for girls – pink and sparkle and fairies, the fairies in all books are girls, the main characters are girls and beyond the lure of maybe finding your own name it has very little substance. Not surprisingly, she has quickly become bored and has even forgotten which ones she’s started reading.

Summer Girl has on occasions been drawn into the ‘boy/girl’ advertising, struggling to have the courage and strength to choose what she would like. She is only 8 so I wouldn’t expect her to have those skills yet. Instead she has been guided by the glittery lights and pinkness of the bookshops, posters and book covers around her, and by what her friends are reading. She once stopped in her tracks when I suggested she bought a dinosaur sicker book, (having watched her delightfully help her brother do his) and hesitate, before reaching for the Fashion Dressing Up sticker book, again.

I have tried to not dictate to her what she can and can’t read, stick, colour, draw. But R and I have encouraged her to think about what she likes, have the confidence to look beyond the dazzle of pink and flowery, and to read all the things around her that might interest her. Conversations about it being ok to enjoy science, have ribbons in her hair, play with her dolls and playing football have included book reading and it’s starting to sink in.

Last month we all went to London. She dragged me, literally, into an antique bookshop and browsed the dusty old books, and marvelled at them with wonder, while Winter Boy sat himself on the floor, flicking through the solitary small ‘new book’ box tucked in a corner, reading (you guessed it) Thomas. Bella picked a book; 105 years and one day old, from the day it had been inscribed with a message to its first owner. The cover is dark green, with no pictures, with real typed pages. No sparkle, no pink. ‘please? can I have it?’ So i bought her Tom Brown’s School Days. It’s her prized possession, although she is waiting for the Secret Garden to be finished so we can read it together.

If she didn’t have the courage to ignore the mass advertising and inevitable impact on her peers, she would have been denied this experience of choosing a book that has inspired people for years. She wouldn’t be able to enjoy all books to escape on the many journeys they can take us; she would miss out on so much.

Luckily, she is learning that its ok to read what she wants. which, at the moment is everything she can get hold of. But this hasn’t happened with the help of bookshops and publishers, who continually thrust in her face that she, as a girl, shouldn’t be reading Star Wars magazines, but should be reading magazines about make-up and jewellery; she can do those things, but as well as, not instead of. Although if you asked her directly she would probably still chose the make-up magazines if I didn’t heavily encourage her to get something (anything) else.

I will continue to encourage her to push through the constant barriers set around her to define her femininity as one-dimensional. I will continue to encourage her to be anything, and everything she wants to be; to read anything and everything she wants to read.

I shall also encourage Winter Boy to do the same, But, I won’t be encouraging him to read the Rainbow Magic books; not because i don’t want him to read ‘girl’ books, but because they are shit.

Sleeping with Darth Vader and Emmet. It’s Wrong.

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I am writing while sandwiched between two sleeping children, two Lego alarm clocks and a glass of Weak Lemon Squash that I can’t reach. On a Saturday night. The rock and roll lifestyle is to be envied across the world. I am hoping that I don’t need to take a pee anytime soon as the process of clambering over them fills me with dread as my back is not in a great shape today.

We have been watching the Lego Movie in bed. To celebrate their new Lego Alarm Clocks – Winter Boy has Emmet and Summer Girl has Darth Vader. The purchase of said alarm clocks was to install a sense of time in them and not wake me by pretending to be invisible, crawling through the slightly open door and along the bedroom floor, while almost silently giggling. At 6am. On a Saturday.  The message was clear. The alarm clocks will go off at 7:30am tomorrow. They are not to leave their room apart from to use the loo, if they really absolutely have to. They are not to play music, musical instruments, whistles, sing, laugh loudly, go into the kitchen and try to make me breakfast, put the tv on. They can play with their Lego, tidy their bedroom up (they actually laughed at that one), read to themselves, read to each other. And most importantly, in the ‘not to leave the room’ bit they absolutely must not Wake Me Up.

The irony is not lost on me. They have carried these alarm clocks everywhere today. Winter Boy in particular has not let his out of his mitts. Except now, as they snore (not so) gently next to me, their alarms are still set for 7:30am but by my head, one on each side. And I can’t move the sleeping babes as I can barely stand straight. I forgot R was away tonight, so his usual putting of them to bed when he comes home is not happening. They are staying put until 6am. Instead of in their own beds, until 7:30am with me in my kingsized bed All On My Own.

Bollocks.

I might sleep on the sofa.

“Let Boys Be Girls”

I am lying in bed trying to summon the energy to do some much needed chores: calling in sick at work due to another ‘relapse’ of back pain; calling a good friend to arrange her to visit so I can countersign her passport; checking on Winter Boy who is doing goodness knows what in his bedroom, and well, er, going to the Loo. My reluctance to call people is because this involves a game called ‘Hunt the Phone Charger’; my reluctance to do that, aside from the pain this produces is also largely for the same reason as not wanting to go to the loo and not wanting to check on my boy – Every Single Room in this place looks like we have been burgled and I cannot bear to wade through toys, clothes and other debris just to find a phone and to find my son.

So, instead I am sitting here with the skylights open, the sun on my face, putting it all off in the name of ‘writing’. I have been thinking, with a smile on my face, about my little boy (who has, during the time of writing this wandered upstairs with the iPad asking me for daddy’s password so he can upload a Toy Story game) and his love of dressing up; it has got me thinking, not for the first time, about our values in this family of ‘boy toys’ and ‘girl toys’ especially with campaigns around such as Let Toys Be Toys (encouraging retailers to change the way they advertise their toys to ‘boys’ and ‘girls’) and with some surprising attitudes of those in our social circle.

Like my daughter as a toddler (who, apart from occasionally forgetting to put knickers on before going out, has developed a sense of shyness about her body in front of friends and strangers in the last 6 months), he much prefers to be stark naked than trapped in the constraints of clothing; often discarding his clothes the moment he gets home. And even when he concedes that he needs to wear clothes, getting dressed can be a battle as he changes his mind about what he wants to wear for pre-school or to the park every 30 seconds or so. When Winter Boy has clothes on, he adores dressing up; between him and his big sister they have an ecclectic mix of princess dresses, doctors outfits, nurses uniforms and cowboy clothes, along with a few of my old clothes from when I was a size nothing (can’t believe I ever fit into some of those things).

But Winter Boy is never happier at the moment than when he is dressing as a ‘girl’. He has recently been photographed wearing his sister’s emerald-green sparkly party dress which shimmers in sunlight. Apart from being huge for him, he actually looked quite stunning in it and looked the spit of his sister at the same age. He wanted to be a princess and go to sleep as a princess that night, and so after a few enormous, sad, rolling tears of protest dropped onto the dress we let him get into his Thomas the Tank Engine adorned bed as Princess Winter Boy and after a princess story, he insisted we say “goodnight princess” to him.

We have just been given a big bag of clothes from a parent at Summer Girl’s school for Winter Boy. It’s all too big, but that hasn’t stopped him insisting on wearing his new Ben 10 shirt for 4-5 year olds to pre-school and his new 5 year old ‘Cars’ PJs to bed. However, despite his love of his new ‘boy’ clothes, he insisted, at 8pm on Friday evening, after stripping out of those much-loved ‘Cars’ PJs, that he was going to bed as The Queen of Hearts. After a few attempts at refusing by us parents (purely on the basis that it’s not jimjams), we gave in and let him dress up as the Queen of Hearts, have a story about Queens in bed; he went to bed without a fuss, tucked up in his Gruffalo duvet, with the little fluffy sleeves of the dress poking over the covers. He corrected me again when I gave him a kiss goodnight “say ‘Goodnight Queen of Hearts’ not Winter Boy!”. About 5am when he woke proclaiming that he no longer wanted to be The Queen of Hearts. R changed him back into himself and he snuggled with us, happily announcing that he loved being a Queen, but prefers being Winter Boy before going back to sleep.

I have been shocked at some of the things people around us have said about these events. Seemingly intelligent friends of mine have made comments such as ‘you can’t do that to him! it’s cruel!’ and ‘he won’t forgive you for that [photo]’. When he has had a colourful wrap in his (apparently far too long) gorgeous blonde hair, there have been cries of ‘but he’s a booooy!’ and one time a male friend actually took the hair braid out when I wasn’t there (I was a little cross about that one I can tell you).

Seriously, what do those who have a problem with him twirling in a dress or having fun braids, or wanting to be called ‘Queen of Hearts’ think is going to happen to him, other than growing up to be a well-rounded, well-adjusted child, and then into a well-rounded, well-adjusted man? Wearing dresses and having long hair and hair wraps wont ‘make him gay’ or ‘transgender’. If he is ‘gay’, well, then that’s just how he is anyway; as parents, and as his peers around him, we should be supporting and developing that aspect of his character as he grows, not stifling it by providing negative labels, which could lead to issues around sexuality, and ultimately unhappiness, as he grows into a man. If his sexuality is not already defined as ‘gay’, being the Queen of Hearts is not going to change that, it will just mean he is being a child having the time of his life. And I am loving watch his fun, cheeky, happiness grow.

Interestingly, my Summer Girl has just started a football club, as a result of a local good football club bringing coaches into her school. No-one seems to bat an eyelid at the notion of her dressing in a masculine manner, having her beautiful blonde hair scraped back, wearing football boots, shin pads, and football shorts, as she will ‘grow out of this phase’. She too is being the child she wants to be, not constrained by the expectations of adult society. And it’s fabulous. I should probably get up now…

My Letter to Father Christmas

Dear Father Christmas.

I have not kept my room tidy and have not always taken my medicine when I should, and have not always done what I have been told – sometimes I have carried heavy things, including my children, and last week I went down some water slides – and sometimes I have been angry and not controlled my emotions well.

But, mostly I have Been Good. I have been a Loving Mother, even if I have not done my share of the School Run. I have been a Loving Wife, even if I have not always shown it as well as I should have. Ok, I have been an appalling employee but I have tried my hardest to get there.

In fact, I have tried hard this year to be as good as I can be at everything I do and I have tried really hard to find a way to manage my back problems.

So, I only have one thing I would like this Christmas, please, if you can find it in that massive warehouse of yours:

Can I please have some respite from this back pain that means I cannot walk, or play, or help with anything, for Christmas Day? Just that one day would be fabulous. Right until Boxing Day Morning.

Many Thanks

Wine.

Why My Winter Boy Can’t Hug Me Right Now

My back has ‘gone’ for the millionth time. I am moving, but it is painful. R has just gone to do the rest of the Christmas shopping. My Summer Girl is happily colouring.

My Just 3 Winter Boy is in a happy, lovely, cuddly mood. But, he is not in a still, quiet, calm, cuddly mood, but the type that has him climbing all over me being a cat – he is twisting over my back, hanging off my neck and laying across me – normally it would be wonderful. But, right now I am having to keep asking him to stop and be still, and as he can’t, to sit next to me. He simply won’t stop.

I remind myself that this will not affect him negatively in the long term, but how can it not? How can he possibly understand that sometimes mummy loves snuggles and a little rough and tumble love, but sometimes not? It’s inconsistent. And yes I tell him it is because my back is feeling poorly, but he just does not understand that, or rather, yes he understands I have a painful back, but does not make the connection between that and jumping on me.

And it hurts me so much.

Thankful Thursday – 4 More Sleeps To Go…

On Monday, we are going to Center Parcs Winter Wonderland for 5 days.

You will easily spot us. Our family will consist of 1 Mother with sparkly christmas hat, badly singing christmas songs and the top of her voice, swirling and twirling and clapping and whooping. You will see a 6-and-a-half-year-old girl with a matching hat, singing with me, dancing and twirling and touching everything she sees. You will see an Exactly-3-Year-Old, crying because mummy is insisting that he wears his very own sparkly christmas hat, and occasionally falling over as he desperately runs after us, trying to join in Mummy and Big Sister’s craziness. You will see a slightly subdued, embarrassed Father hanging slightly back, asking everyone to calm down and occasionally getting cross with the children for not doing as they are told and, likely also telling his wife off for the same thing.

We really need this break. We need to shake the negative out of this year and get ready for a positive 2013. We are going to sit by the open fire and wrap christmas presents and write out christmas cards, while drinking mulled wine as the children sleep. We are going to drink hot chocolate and eat mince pies, sing Christmas songs and watch christmas films. We are going to ride our bikes through the woodland, swim in the Tropical Paradise Pool and do a 12-Days-of-Christmas Trail. We are going to visit Father Christmas in his Woodland Workshop, have a Christmas Carvery, and maybe I might even fit in a massage or facial.

I am thankful that I booked this at the end of January 2012 to cheer me up after feeling so rotten last christmas due to serious back pain. I am thankful that I am well enough to make this holiday. Despite still struggling to shake a general feeling of unwellness (my blood hurts, how is that even possible?!) at the moment my back feels relatively stable, and although I am aware it can ‘go’ any time, I am enjoying how it is now, and just praying it will last for the holiday.

We might even have snow -how magical would that be?