Category Archives: Sophie is

Learning to meditate

I have been an advocate of meditation for years. I used to love dropping into the London Buddhist Centre whenever I got the chance, just to soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. I held the thought of finding that inner peace, that inner silence, on something of a pedestal.

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When I started teaching I quickly became interested in holistic approaches to helping teenagers cope with the stresses of school, and enthusiastically read reports of daily meditation transforming students’ experiences. I tried to find ways to feed it into the school day – created resources featuring links to guided visualisations for my colleagues to use in tutor time. It seemed to make such perfect sense: take the time to breathe, to reconnect with yourself, and suddenly everything would be so much easier to cope with.

I have a confession to make, though: I had absolutely no idea how to actually do it.

I still don’t.

There was a leadership course I went on that sticks in my mind. It was about Project Management I think, and there was a whole section of it focusing on Work Life Balance. I’ve always struggled with that. Once I get stuck into something I find it almost impossible to let it go, only to collapse in a heap when it’s finally done. Harder to take that approach with a kid to look after mind… The thing I remember about this section of the course, other than being told by the facilitator that I really needed to work on my Work Life Balance (thanks) was being led through a guided meditation at the end of it.

Being a Teaching Leadership course, this was as with everything couched in its potential in the classroom. That I could totally get behind. But to do it? To actually stop moving and quiet my brain enough to attempt the meditation myself? That kind of scared me a little bit.

I’d never really stopped to think about how odd this all was. How I can be completely won over by something both in theory and through the positive impact I’ve seen it have on other people, how I know that this thing is probably exactly what I need to help me deescalate my tendencies towards stress and anxiety, and yet how I have never, in the twenty years or so that it has been on my radar, made the effort to include it in my life, for me.

I guess ultimately reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day is a whole lot easier to get my head around…

But part of my ‘kick 2017’s ass‘ plan of action is to change that. January is proving a little bit extreme in my efforts to jumpstart this year of productivity – I’m going for a full-on no booze, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten, no sugar (etc) detox, upping my activity levels with more walking, swimming and yoga, doing all sorts of life-organising, goal-setting, motivation-boosting work related stuff AND trying to find the time to meditate, every day.

And mainly it’s working.

Almost every single day I’m managing to fit in ten minutes of guided meditation. I don’t think I’m very good at it – stilling my mind is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever really tried to do – but I’m giving it a go, and I’m learning.

I’m learning what kinds of meditations work for me, and which ones don’t.

Visualisations, for example, are really tough. I think it’s the writer in me – I find myself either judging the narrative for its plethora of cliches, or else getting drawn in just enough to begin to flesh out the story around the scenario. Why am I in this secluded cabin in the woods? Am I really alone? Is that safe..? This beach… Where is it exactly? Can I swim? I’d like to swim… And so on. It’s a real effort, trying to stop my mind from riffing on the words. And as for being able to turn them into images that’s really not working for me so far.

Stuff focused on my breathing is better. I like breathing – consciously. It’s a bit of a hangover from my acting days I reckon. And as long as I don’t get too competitive about it it seems to work to chill me out.

There was a new meditation I tried tonight, on cultivating kindness and compassion. I was a little sceptical I admit, but actually there was something incredibly healing about all of those positive vibes. (Especially when directed towards the people who have been monumentally stressing me out over the past 48 hours, but I’m not going to dwell on that…)

Basically this is a journey that is worth continuing. And possibly one I should have started a lot earlier… But hey – we have to let go of the past, right? Focus on the present, and build our resilience for the future.

That’s what I’m going with anyway.

 

 

In search of clarity

I have never been a huge fan of the January detox.

The thought of depriving myself of the treats that make the longer winter nights easier to bear has just never really appealed, and I have been far more often found curled up on the sofa with iPlayer and a glass of wine than sipping herbal tea and counting steps as the festive season fades.

This year, however, is different.

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There are lots of reasons why. As 2016 hurtled along, each day bringing new disaster on a global or personal scale, I found it hard at times to catch my breath. Even though my little corner of the world remained relatively unscathed the noise in my head escalated until it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I found some space on this blog to give voice to the flashes of inspiration that fought their way through the mire, but I never had the clarity to follow them through.

I found temporary respite in a newly kindled love of cold water swimming – I just kept getting in the sea as summer turned to autumn and have yet to stop – but aside from those rushes of endorphins I spent way more time than I should have done wallowing in despair at the state of society, and fearing that my own small efforts were doomed to be forever futile.

Christmas and New Year were a real escape from all that – even with the hecticness of a fourth birthday in between it all it was a wonderful couple of weeks of hanging out with family and friends, the physical reinforcement of the wonderful online community that kept me going last year.

January, though, has brought me down with a bump.

My head is fuzzy through weeks of too much booze and too little sleep, my body feels ungainly and sluggish, my heart aches for something that I am finding it impossible to put into words.

This New Year angst is making me want to raze everything to the ground and start again – to shelve my blog, to resign from the council, to scrap the plans I began to articulate as 2016 drew to a close. It all seems like pointless clutter – although, writing and Arthur aside, I have no idea what else I want to be doing with my time!

It is that, really, that’s giving me pause, and making me realise that I need to take control. I need to get my mind back in proper working order, and I know that the state of my mind is intrinsically linked to the state of my body.

So: detox.

A resetting of my physical state driven by clean eating (and clean drinking). A renewed effort to build on the physical and mental boost that sea swimming has given me with more of the same, reinforced by finding as many other opportunities as I can to get outdoors and get active. I want to build in regular yoga again, too – and to steal a few minutes each day to meditate. And to sleep, properly and deeply, to recharge and rejuvenate my soul.

I’m not setting myself strict rules or targets (I’m still too much of a rebel to respond well to those), but I do have a couple of tools that I’m hoping will help. For Christmas I was given a Bellabeat Leaf, a health monitor that in the couple of days I’ve been using it has already had a hugely positive impact on my motivation. I have sought out a goal-orientated diary, too – the Inspire Now journal, which I can see has lots of potential to help me bring about the clarity I crave.

And I might discover, as this month unfolds, that the detox will extend to other parts of my life too – that I will need to make some difficult decisions about how I use my time, to become more focused and more selfish.

2016 was a challenging year, but I fear 2017 will not be any easier – the seeds that have been sown point to things getting a whole lot more difficult before they begin to turn a corner. I want the resilience to deal with that, and hopefully in my own small way to make things better.

And that’s not going to happen unless I am physically and mentally strong.

Today is the day

Today is the day: the day that thousands of parents up and down the country refuse to accept for a moment longer that what the government is doing to our education system is ok.

I am so impressed and inspired by how the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign has grown, in little over a month, from five parents concerned about the impact the SATs are having on their own children to a national movement. It has been covered by all major news outlets in the UK, with public debates raging about the damaging nature of the SATs and the extent to which taking kids out on strike will have an impact.

To that I would say: it has already had an impact. Teachers and school leaders across the country have come out and expressed their thanks and support for the campaign, the NAHT has passed a motion calling for a complete review of primary assessment, and the DfE has shown its disquiet in public statements from Nicky Morgan and the release of pro-SATs propaganda which, as all of us would expect, shows a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes meaningful learning for our children.

If you are taking part in the strikes, awesome. If you can’t – whether because it’s not right for you and your kids, or you don’t have kids of the relevant age, or you don’t have kids – then that does not mean you do not have a part to play.

If you are keeping your kids off school today, then please include the hashtag ‪#‎THISislearning‬ in your social media posts about whatever wonderful activities you get up to.

If you will not be taking part in the strike for whatever reason, then please use the hashtag to add your voice to the debate – share with us images, experiences, quotes, links, or anything else that will help this government understand what learning really looks like.

So many people I know are despairing about the state of our education system at the moment, but too many of them believe that there is nothing they as individuals can do to make a difference.

But we are not just individuals any more, and now is the time for our voices to be heard.

Together we are stronger.

 

Happy New Year!

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I am wandering around in a bit of a haze today.

It’s always a bit of a blurry day, the first Monday after the festive season, and this one is made no easier by our journey home this weekend from our adventures in Iceland and the USA. It took approximately twenty seven hours to get from the house we were staying in to our front door: fun and games at the best of times and made that little bit more challenging with the addition of a three year old.

It’s the longest journey by far we’ve attempted with him, and actually he was pretty amazing – he slept for almost all of the two flights and a fair portion of the car journeys. Though of course that meant that at 2am this morning I was left negotiating with a temporally confused toddler who wanted nothing more than to play.

So today is a little more blurry than usual. But in between the essential sorting I am trying to get my focus on and think about the shape I want this year to take.

And part of that has been pondering about the place of this blog.

I feel like I’ve been prevaricating for a while now – not entirely sure what I’m blogging for, but not wanting to give it up entirely. But after taking a complete break for the past couple of weeks I’m getting closer to understanding why I’m still here.

It comes back to the initial intentions of this blog really: a place to carve out my new, post-motherhood identity – for myself, and anyone else who wants to listen. After a mostly enjoyable but emotionally turbulent couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year with my family that is feeling more important than ever.

For reasons I may or may not elaborate on in the future I’ve come back feeling the opposite of invigorated – my self-esteem has taken a bit of a beating, and that sense of identity I thought I was getting closer to having all worked out is suddenly seeming more than a little elusive.

But I know it’s in there somewhere, and this is the place, I reckon, to work it all out.

That’s not to say I have entirely worked out the shape these ponderings will take, but I have the beginnings of ideas – and certainly more than enough to get me started.

I want to continue to document Arthur’s childhood, and I’m going to do that a bit more explicitly with a shift over to The 52 Project as the drive behind my weekly photo. I’ve been sort of doing it for a while, but I want to use the project now to focus my lens a little more closely on Arthur as he grows – and maybe even to inspire a shift to ‘proper’ photography rather than a total reliance on my phone.

I also want to look more closely at Arthur’s learning and development through a journal about the beginning of our explorations into homeschooling. Whilst I don’t know for sure whether this is the direction we will take when it is actually time for him to start school, I don’t see the damage the government are doing to our education system easing any time soon. Besides, I’ve already started down this road to an extent by dint of the fact that I have chosen not to send him to nursery or preschool – a decision that rightly or wrongly it is feeling increasingly important to defend.

In fact there is much of my approach to parenting which is coming under increasing scrutiny as it continues to diverge from mainstream expectations, and this is something I’m keen to explore further in the coming weeks and months. I’m intending to start with a ‘parenting manifesto’ – a summary of the principles driving my approach and what I am hoping to achieve – and as I begin to thrash out the contents of this in my mind it’s spawning lots of ideas for further posts about the choices I have made when it comes to parenting.

Finally there is of course my writing. I am still waiting on feedback on the latest draft of my second novel from my agent, but I am hoping in the next few weeks to not only have an idea about the next steps with that but also to start work properly on drafting novel number three. And as part of this whole process I’m looking forward to continuing to link up with the lovely What I’m Writing community – without whom, if I’m honest, I might not have made it through my rather sketchy year of blogging in 2015 at all…

So there you go. A little bit of focus to the haze, a few ideas to get me started, and hopefully the beginning of a bit more blogging this year. Because whilst I have a million other things going on to take up my time I have come to realise that this one is pretty damned important to my sense of self – and I owe it to myself to get that sorted.

 

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Who am I?

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When I started this blog, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Not just with the blog itself, though that was definitely uncharted territory, but more generally too: over the previous couple of years everything I thought I knew about my life had changed. I liked where I was, most days, but I couldn’t help being curious about where I was headed.

The name of my little corner of the internet, ‘Sophie is…’, was the beginning of a sentence that I hoped I might be able to complete some time soon. With actions at first, and then, as time went on, with a label – something to replace the title of ‘teacher’ which I had worn with pride for the preceding decade.

There were obvious contenders – ‘a mum’ being the strongest one. I remember having a conversation with one of my oldest friends a few weeks after I’d entered the weird and wonderful world of blogging. Like me, she had recently celebrated the first birthday of her first child. Like me, she was struggling to come to terms with putting to one side the career she had worked so hard for. And also like me any regret or guilt she felt at that was still superseded by a strong sense of relief at being allowed, if she so chose, to be ‘just’ a mum.

We spoke about the power of that little qualifier, how hard it was for us – and for society – to accept that nurturing a child was a worthwhile use of our time. We discussed how there were days when being a mum felt more than we were capable of, even with all the time in the world, and others when we longed to be filling our time with something that reflected more of who we used to be, not just this new person we had become.

I think about this a lot, still.

I have not yet been able to relinquish my son to nursery or any other form of regular childcare. I worry that we would both miss too much. But at the same time I have not been able to entirely throw myself into being a mum.

I have needed something more.

And so, as well as ‘a mum’, Sophie is… ‘a writer’, ‘a school governor’, ‘a local councillor’, ‘an education consultant’. All of these things are exciting and fulfilling, and take an increasing amount of my time. Only the last is guaranteed to bring in any income, though I’m still holding out for those novels finding a publisher.

I know I am incredibly lucky to have the choices that I do.

But now I worry that I am spreading myself too thin. I still have not found a satisfying way to complete the unfinished sentence that began this blog.

And the blogging itself is confusing me recently – not the act of doing it, but what it’s all for. I found myself in a heated discussion about this a few weeks ago with someone who shall remain anonymous but whose opinion means an awful lot. The nature of the argument is too complicated and personal to go into here but it left me feeling a bit empty, a bit pointless.

Except I love this blog. I love how it jumps from one topic to another, piquing the interest of a wide range of people even though it never lures them in as deeply as it might if my writing was more focused. I know I don’t play by the rules, I know my target audience isn’t clearly enough defined to attract advertisers, I know that I’m not interested in making the blog in itself a commercial enterprise. I know I could channel my efforts much more effectively if I picked an area and stuck to it, but I don’t want to – not yet at least. And that is where this blog, still, is a mirror of my life.

It hasn’t yet decided where its priorities lie, it’s enjoying making the most of all the new opportunities that are presented to it, being able to say ‘yes’ to all the ones that look like they might be interesting or fun.

It’s hard, though, going from an existence where you think you have it all figured out into one where you’re not even sure what your goals are any more, let alone how to reach them. It’s particularly hard for a validation-seeking, confidence-lacking, perfectionist like me.

But I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge.

And so I think I’m going to have to put to one side this desire to figure out who I am and what I’m doing with my life. It may be hard to get my head round, but I think I’m going to have to accept that, for now, Sophie just is.

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Amazing words: amazing women

I was sat on the sofa last night, wanting to write but lacking the words, too tired to drag myself upstairs though I knew I should, when my eye was drawn to a programme on BBC iPlayer: Women Who Spit.

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I’d noticed it before, had idly thought I should check it out to feed my neglected love of performance poetry, but something else had always seemed more important. Yesterday though I clicked the link. And I’m very glad I did.

I hadn’t known what to expect, but here were five stand alone short films, each capturing a spoken word performance from a supremely talented female poet. From the first few bars of the very first poem I knew I’d have to watch them all: it was a bolt of pure inspiring awesomeness.

The words and the rhythm and the spirit and the sass pulled me out from underneath the detritus of the everyday.

I had become buried beneath the very real mess that is piling up on the surfaces of my life, my thinking blurred by the metaphorical steam rising from the watched pots of my first two novels as I wait for feedback from my agent. My notebooks are taunting me with their scrawls of unexplored ideas which keep moving just out of reach as I fail to battle through the seemingly endless tasks that have ranked themselves as more important.

These women reminded me that I need to carve myself some space to wrestle back control.

The first voice which made me sit up and take notice and realise that it was going to be a late night after all was Megan Beech, with her searing analysis of the sexism still ingrained in the BBC and right across our media institutions. I felt recognition, even pride, at her words: ‘I leave the house, get out of bed, because some things need to be said, and somebody needs to be the one to say them‘. I found myself nodding too as she proclaimed ‘we need to stop the laddish, loutish laughter at women displaying their intelligence; their eloquence and elegance and excellence‘. We need to aim high, be role models, get our voices heard.

This was reinforced by Vanessa Kisuule, with her insistence that we, as women, should ‘take up space‘. This resonated with me particularly at the moment because anxiety has been rearing its head again, making me shrink apologetically from the me I know I am deep down. I needed to be told: ‘don’t wait for approval‘, ‘give yourself the space to be fickle … to fluff your lines and make things up‘ and especially ‘don’t doubt the benefit of being the brightest you on the spectrum‘. Because it’s easy to forget.

Cecilia Knapp‘s approach was quieter, gentler, but no less powerful. She spoke of articulately of emotion and memory and the guarded face we show the world because ‘it’s fine, we’re fine, we’re getting on with it‘. Her words wove a tapestry of reasons for why she writes, and I found one of her concluding statements particularly resonant: ‘I write to find a version of myself I’m not at odds with‘.

After this quiet introspection Deanna Rodger‘s poem turned the focus out onto an unfriendly world: a fascinating précis of how the architecture of our cities is undermining our sense of community and duty of care to those who have nowhere to go. Spikes on the edge of pavements, bus shelters that provide no shelter at all, and awkwardly un-ergonomic benches that underline the transient nature of the comfort provided by the urban environment: ‘Sit here for a second it says… Slide here. Don’t stay’.

Finally I smiled and gently hugged myself as I watched Jemima Foxtrot battle it out with her inner demons in front of the mirror, a strong, confident woman longing for the day that we can ‘stop battling the haters on our mission to be free‘ and ‘look in that fucking looking glass and smile‘. Her words captured the ongoing fight that so many of us have to find peace with ourselves and the voices in our heads as ‘we hope together that all of this might be over one day‘.

I have loved performance poetry since I first discovered its power as a newly qualified English teacher trying to get inside the heads of teenagers in East London. There’s something about the lyrical wizardry that comes from a perfect combination of vocabulary and flow that finds its way right to my very core. These films had all of that, and it was reinforced by the visual poetry of beautifully framed shots and synchronistic edits to lend the words and the people who spoke them even more power.

I’m now working on internalising that power to get my writing mojo back. I’m particularly keen to revisit my own spoken word artist, Lili Badger, the heroine of my first novel. She hasn’t found a publisher yet but suddenly it seems even more important that I get her story out there. I just need to make sure I’m telling it right…

If you haven’t seen these films, I recommend you find half an hour somewhere, somehow to watch them. They’re available on iPlayer for two more weeks. I promise you will not be disappointed.

 

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Top tips for taming anxiety with a toddler in tow

The last few weeks have been pretty bonkers. So much so that this week, now that everything has started to calm down just a little bit, I’ve found myself struggling to focus and teetering on the edge of panic at the slightest thing.

It’s a tendency I recognise from periods in my life when I have been overcome by anxiety. Not the anxiety that is borne of a genuinely nerve-wracking situation, but rather the insidious and potentially overwhelming feeling that the world is about to spiral out of control.

It’s frustrating to say the least – there was so much I wanted to get done this week, and sitting here now at the tail end of it there is so much I haven’t achieved. But most of what I wanted to do required focus, a clear head – and those are the things that have been most elusive.

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The difference though this time round is that I’ve recognised my symptoms for what they are – my sometimes fragile mental health crying out for a little attention after a relentless period where I was embroiled in the unknown territory of election campaigning (it worked by the way!), and my core support network of husband and mum have themselves been tied up in finals revision and preparing for my brother’s wedding respectively. But my anxiety hasn’t got the better of me, and I have made every effort to make sensible choices to enable myself to keep going.

Being accompanied by a toddler pretty much every minute of every day has definitely added a different dimension to that process. And not necessarily in a bad way.

It seems pretty apt, with this week being Mental Health Awareness Week, that I share a little of what’s been on my mind. So without further ado, these are my top tips for taming anxiety with a toddler in tow.

1) Catch up on sleep

I reckon this is possibly the most vital, though also the trickiest, part of the plan. I have tried to get to bed a bit earlier this week, though I’ve never really been very good at the discipline that involves (especially as we’re deep in the midst of season five of The Walking Dead).

For me snatching sleep has mostly happened during the day – taking my iPad up to bed so in the morning the toddler can snuggle up with a movie whilst I get a few extra zzzs, and for the first time in ages trying to nap when he naps.

I realise I’m lucky he still does, else I’m not entirely sure how I would have coped…

2) Eat healthily

I’m ordinarily pretty good at keeping a healthy diet going for all of us, but it had certainly started to slip over the last couple of weeks. I couldn’t face the battles that potentially ensued if I moved too far from toast and pasta, and didn’t have the energy to prepare something different for myself so ended up having my diet dictated by a two year old.

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It’s silly, because I know how much good food makes the difference. This week I’ve been upping the fruit and veg, cutting down on carbs, (mostly) remembering to take my supplements – and feeling all the better for it.

3) Get some exercise

There’s been an awful lot of walking involved in the election campaign, but that was accompanied by a sense of drudgery in the later stages. This week I’ve, albeit tentatively, started reintegrating yoga and hula-hooping into my routine. With that and the Friday trampolining sessions that I’ve just about managed to keep ticking over I’ve started to feel the spring returning to my step.

4) Get outside

I have a real tendency when I’m feeling overwhelmed to go into hibernation mode – even opening the doors to the garden can feel like too much at times. But having a little person around who would ideally spent every waking moment outside definitely comes in handy.

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We’ve had lunch outside a couple of times this week, and spent time just lounging around and looking up at the sky. The sunshine has helped – but actually the fresh air simply works wonders whatever the weather.

5) Tidy up!

Now this is something I’m rubbish at, and I still have a long way to go, but it is amazing how getting rid of the mess and the clutter makes the world seem so much more manageable!

I had a bit of a manic afternoon on Wednesday getting the kitchen ship shape as yesterday morning we were visited by a reporter from our local BBC News to interview me in relation to the local elections. It felt a little bit like torture at the time, but the kitchen is now definitely my happy place, a little oasis of calm amongst the widespread detritus which has come from just not having a second to get things under control (at least not without the toddler wreaking his own brand of havoc).

6) Tick some things off your to-do list

Now I have to admit first of all that the ever-increasing list of things I have to do is still residing mainly in my head. I know this isn’t helpful. My poor diary, that gave me such satisfaction when I first filled it in back in January, hasn’t had a look in for weeks.

I’ll work on that…

But in the meantime I have been having stern words with myself about just getting things done rather than ruminating over how much I need to do them. Writing blog posts, for example. Or emails. Or paying bills. All sorts of little bits and pieces that have literally felt like a weight off my mind once I’ve actually achieved them.

(It still took me until this evening to get round to writing this post. I never said I was perfect.)

7) Be kind to yourself

This is another biggie, and is one that is challenging to put into practise when your head is full of noise. But in order not to be consumed by it, it is vital to work on your internal dialogue.

I say dialogue, because at times like this there are two voices in my head rather than just the one. There’s one that seems determined to pull me down – with comparisons, with regrets, with paranoia. And there’s another, the one that needs to fight to get heard, that is trying its utmost to focus on the positive – to remember that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed, it’s ok to slow down, it’s ok not to achieve everything I wanted to, because actually, on balance, I’m doing a pretty awesome job of this whole life business.

8) Make the most of all the cuddles

This is where the toddler truly comes into his own, where having an extra little shadow really does become a blessing rather than just another cause of messiness and having too much to juggle.

I don’t know about yours, but my little person absolutely loves to snuggle up. Not all the time, but certainly more than I normally slow down to give him credit for. And this week I have been making the most of all of that physical contact filled with warmth and love – whether it’s lingering in bed a little longer in the mornings, cosying down together to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the umpteenth time, or seeing off an approaching tantrum by whipping him up into the sling.

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There have been many times when I have been the centre of calm for my child, but it is a wonderful realisation that he can return that favour too.

 

My word of the week this week is anxiety.

The Reading Residence

Also linking up with this week’s prompt of calm. I’m getting there!

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