Sunday 28 June 2009

Fraught parents

New mums and dads are still expected to be besotted with their little darlings, loving the experience of being parents, and getting a whole new lease of life from child-rearing.

Any parent who steps out of line and tells another parent they're disillusioned, depressed and disheartened is still seen as a bit peculiar and lacking normal human reactions.

But anonymous internet sites tell a different story. Parents let rip with their secret thoughts and feelings and some of them are at their wits' end. They fantasise about getting their children adopted, killing them, killing themselves. And they wonder why on earth they wanted children in the first place.

It may be just a small minority of parents who feel like that, but nevertheless it contradicts the stereotype that once your child is born the natural parental instinct kicks in and you turn into a loving, devoted mum or dad who takes to childcare like a duck to water.

Sites like Mumsnet, Netmums and Parentline Plus are full of despairing confessions from parents who feel totally inadequate and inept and are begging for advice on how to cope better with a hopeless situation.

What causes all this hidden misery is anyone's guess. The experts have plenty of ideas - post natal depression, too much anxiety and stress, perfectionism, rosy expectations of parenting, the urge to compete, you name it.

Certainly it can't help that having a child is so often idealised as the best experience you can have, giving your whole life a new meaning and totally reinvigorating you. If the reality falls in any way short of this utopian picture, then of course you're going to feel pissed-off and cheated and wonder where you're going wrong.

But the fact is that childrearing is full of trials and tribulations and pitfalls like anything else in life, and it doesn't necessarily come naturally to anyone.

Perhaps if we were more realistic about what it involves, there might be fewer distraught mums and dads wanting desperately to turn the clock back.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Shoplifters galore

When people are hard up, one thing they resort to to make ends meet is shoplifting. Not surprisingly, shoplifting is rising rapidly in Britain - last year it was up 8 per cent on the year before and the number of shoplifters in jail has jumped tenfold in ten years.

It's not just poverty of course. People also shoplift for the sheer thrill of it, because they're dared to do it, or because they're addicted.

And haven't we all been tempted when something's absurdly expensive but we really really want it? We think, there's no staff in sight, I could just put this in my bag, walk out the door, and nobody would ever know. But guilt and decency stop most of us before we actually do it.

I've only shoplifted once. When I was much younger, I stole a few things from a grocer. I wasn't poor, I had no need to steal, I did it for the thrill and also because I thought the shopkeeper was a mean old skinflint and I wanted to get even. But I felt so guilty afterwards, I've never shoplifted since.

Naturally shops don't like to talk about shoplifting, they try to pretend it doesn't happen. Which means shoplifters themselves don't often get the chance to explain why they do it. They're just seen as common criminals and frequently slung into jail* rather than getting the help they need to break the habit.

Many shoplifters are women trying to keep their families afloat and stealing out of sheer desperation. Putting them in a prison cell for months is no solution. But the real solution - reducing poverty and raising incomes - is one the politicians always shy away from.

As for the teenagers who shoplift, nicking lipstick and eye shadow to keep up with their favourite celebs, that's more about the endless obsession with image and appearance. And that's an even harder nut to crack.

* One in three female prisoners are shoplifters, and more women are jailed for shoplifting than any other crime (Home Office figures)

Monday 22 June 2009

The ties that bind

What makes a house a home? I've been chewing this over ever since we moved, and the answer has come to me -emotional ties.

The thing that turns an anonymous house into one that's your own, one you identify with, is not simply specific things like books or pictures or momentoes or favourite chairs but those emotional ties that get richer and richer the longer you live somewhere.

The more you've done in a house, the more you've experienced there, the more visitors you've had, the more things you've bought for it, the more changes you've made, the greater those personal connections that make the house feel endearing, familiar, cosy, lovable.

Just filling a house with bits and pieces, however beautiful they are, doesn't in itself make the house your own. Which explains why some houses look so spartan and unlived-in even though they're sumptuously furnished with the trendiest items. In the end it's up to us to add all those extra personal echoes that bring everything to life.

Memories in particular increase those emotional ties. The longer you live in a house, the more memories you have of it - both good and bad - and those memories add meaning and significance to your physical surroundings. The day the boiler packed up, that wonderful birthday party, next-door's cat pawing at the door. This is where it all happened.

When you first move into a house, you have yet to build all those personal bonds. You're conscious only that this was someone else's house, full of all their associations and not yours. Step by step you have to strip off their imprint, like stripping off old layers of wallpaper, and replace it with your own. It's a long process, but also an exciting and creative one.

Of the 115 Romanians forced to leave their homes in South Belfast, only two are staying in Northern Ireland, while the rest are returning to Romania. Despite all the offers of help they received from local residents, in the end it's a victory for the racists who have managed to ethnically cleanse their neighbourhood. The politicians, police and other authorities have trotted out the usual ritual condemnations but never gave the ousted families the protection and security they needed. Jenny has more to say about it here.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Plane blight

Our new home is about three quarters of a mile from Belfast City Airport, which is handy if we're taking a plane. And it's far enough away for any aircraft noise to be barely audible. But it's a different story for those right next to the airport.

There's been a continual stand-off for some years now between the airport, which wants to extend the runway, have more flights, and generally see a lot more passengers, and local residents who bitterly oppose any increased activity.

The airport always minimises its expansion plans, insisting the planes won't be any bigger, the flights won't be any more disturbing and so on. The locals are deeply suspicious (and right to be) and fight each new proposal every inch of the way.

Of course the airport says the residents are just standing in the way of progress and economic prosperity. And if they really object to the airport so much, they're free to move somewhere less noisy.

It's a thorny issue - freedom to fly wherever you like versus peace and quiet for ordinary houseowners who don't want to install triple glazing simply to have a normal life. Why do so many people have to fly to so many places, often for no good reason except a bit of self-indulgent pleasure? Can't they do something else that doesn't involve flying?

Well, I have to say I enjoy flying and I enjoy visiting places that realistically you can only fly to. Perhaps the real problem is airports that were thoughtlessly sited near to residential areas and now keep growing regardless of the rising antagonism.

They could easily be resited somewhere less populated, and reached on high-speed transport links. Although that would bring fresh protests from those wanting to protect the green belt.

Is there any simple answer to the flying dilemma? I suspect not, it's a bit of a zero-sum game. I fly, you pop in the earplugs.

Some 115 Romanians have been terrorised out of their homes in south Belfast by racist thugs. They are now under police guard at temporary accommodation. And a man who helped organise an anti-racism rally has been told his house will be firebombed. See Jenny's post on this sickening episode.

Monday 15 June 2009

Say cheese

You'd think that someone who ate virtually nothing but cheese would be really unhealthy. How could you possibly get all the nutrients you need? And wouldn't you be begging for a heart attack?

But it seems that Vicki Zukiewicz is quite healthy on just such a diet. The only things she can stomach apart from cheese are the odd potato, hunk of bread or slice of pizza (with cheese topping). Yet she's alive and well.

She says the texture or taste or smell of anything else turns her right off. No matter what delicious meal her husband is eating, she won't touch it. Try as she might, she can't overcome her engrained aversion.

It creates huge problems when she's socialising. In fact she avoids any social occasions involving food and usually eats at home, where at least her phobia is understood and allowed for.

Naturally everyone tries to psychoanalyse her, asking her what childhood experience brought this on, and diagnosing all sorts of fancy conditions. But she pooh-poohs them and says that's just the way she is and there's no rhyme or reason for it.

I do wonder how healthy she really is, though. Does she have regular medical checks to confirm her physical fitness? Is she a normally energetic, alert 32 year old? Or is she storing up trouble for the future?

I've heard of people with similarly limited diets before - and they were surprisingly healthy too. There was a boy who ate only marmite sandwiches and apparently came to no harm.

It seems awfully sad though that she finds so many tasty foods utterly repugnant. I can't imagine going without the fantastic flavours and aromas of all my favourite dishes. I would feel bereft, diminished, shorn of an essential everyday pleasure.

And much as I like cheese, eating it non-stop would smother its appeal pretty quickly.

Photo: Vicki Zukiewicz

PS: Cheese has more nutrients than you might think, including calcium, phosphorus, protein, amino acids, vitamin A, the B vitamins, iodine, magnesium, zinc, sodium, aluminium, nickel and selenium.

Friday 12 June 2009

Vile bodies

Why do women criticise their own bodies so mercilessly? I think most men get very impatient with this constant self-loathing, particularly when they've failed to notice any of the so-called imperfections.

Enormous bum? Hideous nose? Huge feet? Where do these obsessions come from? Presumably from endless comparisons with unreal supermodels who bear scant relation to ordinary women.

All my ex-girlfriends made much of some alleged deficiency which usually was invisible to me. No amount of reasoned argument would convince them they were just fine as they were.

Celebs interviewed in the media will invariably mention some part of their anatomy they'd love to be rid of, it's so loathsome. It seems to be female etiquette never to say that actually you're quite happy with your body. That would suggest a goodie-goodie-two-shoes surfeit of complacency.

I think it's time for a women's self-acceptance week, in which women are forbidden to criticise their bodies and can only appreciate them, listing all the features that are attractive and likeable. Plastic surgery would be banned for the week, as well as all media articles telling women how to improve their bodies.

Men would make a point of complimenting women, though predictably the recipients would see it as phoney flattery and wonder what the man was trying to get out of them. "You're just saying that", "Ha ha, pull the other one" and so on.

Or perhaps we men should spend a week being as relentlessly self-critical as our womenfolk, systematically pulling ourselves to pieces and wishing we looked more like Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio. It would be interesting to see the reaction....

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Be my guest

Short of guests for that all-important social event? Racking your brains for remote acquaintances you can barely remember? Easy - just hire some fake friends to plug the gap.

If you live in Tokyo, there's a company that does exactly that - hires out "friends" to make your birthday party or wedding go with a swing.

Simply attending costs £127, while there's an extra charge for making a speech, singing or dancing. They can pretend to be anything you want - a lover, a secretary or a distant relative. In fact whatever you think will impress the genuine guests.

But who on earth would be sufficiently devious or insecure or pretentious to go to such lengths? Are there that many people who're so desperate to keep up appearances and pretend they've got a huge social circle?

Surely they'd be found out pretty quickly when one of the bogus guests failed to know some elementary fact about the person throwing the party or housewarming? That's funny, they never heard about the car accident. Or the overdose....

Mind you, recollecting some of the dismal social events and vacuous conversations I've had to endure in the past, maybe a few fake guests would have livened them up a bit and sent me home pleasantly happy rather than wanting to shoot myself.

Now we've moved to the other side of Belfast, Jenny has relaunched her blog as East Belfast Diary to write about her new neighbourhood.

Sunday 7 June 2009

A lethal lapse

If ever you needed proof of the devastation a moment's careless driving can cause, the heart-rending story of the Beachy Head suicides really brings it home.

As Josephine Elias, a property consultant, was driving at top speed round a blind bend on a country lane in 2005, she smashed head-on into the car driven by Kazumi Puttick, whose 16-month-old son Sam was sleeping beside her.

Sam was thrown through the windscreen and across the road, severing his spinal cord and leaving him quadriplegic.

His distraught parents gave up their jobs to care for him and were totally dedicated to giving him the best possible quality of life.

Two weeks ago Sam developed pneumococcal meningitis and died. Kazumi and Neil Puttick were so shattered they threw themselves off Beachy Head in Eastbourne, with Sam's body in a rucksack.

This catastrophic chain of events was triggered off by one simple act of carelessness by a self-absorbed driver. According to reports, she was also distracted by dogs in her car.

All she had to say this weekend, in a statement from her solicitor, was that she was "deeply saddened". An amazingly cool reaction to the trail of damage she has left behind her.

I can guarantee that at this very moment there are other drivers hurtling down country lanes at breakneck speed, equally oblivious to who or what might be round the next corner.

If it was a food product that was causing this level of carnage and tragedy, it would be taken off the shelves. Unfortunately cars are too necessary to be banned, so idiotically reckless drivers will continue to ruin other people's lives for years to come.

Photo: Sam Puttick

Friday 5 June 2009

Lovers apart

It must be really hard maintaining a long-distance relationship, where a couple are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles and only meet up at long intervals.

Their passion for each other must have to be pretty strong to overcome the obstacle of being so physically divided, not to mention sexually deprived.

When I lived in London, I once had a girlfriend in Birmingham, and we would only see each other at weekends. It was so frustrating and agonising not meeting more regularly that she eventually moved down to London.

Ironically the increased proximity led to less passion rather than more and we split up six months later. It really was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.

But how people cope when they're in London and New York, or for that matter one partner is working away from home for months on end, I just don't know. At times they must be desperate for physical contact and the emotional warmth that goes with it.

You have to be very trusting too, not to suspect your loved one of having other relationships behind your back. Anyone liable to paranoia would soon be in trouble. You have to be confident your partner is honest and loyal and not a compulsive flirt.

When you do manage to meet, you're anxiously looking for any sign that your partner's enthusiasm has dimmed, that while you've been apart they've noticed all your bad habits and disillusion has set in.

That so many long-distance relationships not only survive but thrive is a tribute to the doggedness of the human heart.

Monday 1 June 2009

New home

Phew! We've finally moved house and what a strange experience it is. It's a bit like being shot into a parallel universe, leaving a familiar locality and suddenly being in a totally different one.

All my expectations and routines have to be rewritten as everything has changed - the house itself, the local streets, the shops, the neighbours, even the overheard conversations.

But what fun it is exploring a brand-new neighbourhood, having no idea what's down the next street. What will I discover? A fabulous restaurant? A useful dry cleaner? A lovely old church? Or a row of derelict houses and a pawn shop?

I could wander around for hours drinking in all the sights, alternately delighted and horrified, wondering why something amazing isn't more widely known about, or why something monstrous hasn't been burnt down.

As for the house itself, it always takes months or even years to get a place exactly the way you want it, reflecting your own tastes and interests, creating a sense of friendly cosiness. What works in one house is inexplicably wrong in another.

For a while there's always a lingering feeling that it's all a dream, that I'll suddenly wake up in my old house and find the new one was a passing mirage. Slowly it'll dawn on me that it's for real, that my senses aren't deceiving me.

In fact a couple of neighbours have already introduced themselves, as well as their cat Katy who had a good sniff round our kitchen diner before sloping off looking distinctly unimpressed. She was no doubt hoping for a new feline buddy.

And just what makes a house a home? Leah said it all in her brilliant post here.