Monday, 17 December 2012

Panicked Parenting

I had a nightmare last night. I dreamt that I took Jess to the park but left her to walk home on her own. She vanished for ages and then came home with a woman who had found her. The woman was a nurse and started proceedings to have her removed from me. I vividly remember running down the road searching for Jess and this woman, sobbing and calling for her. I woke up shaking and on the verge of tears.

I often have frightening dreams and since Jess was born, around 85% of them are about her. If you asked me what my worst fear was, about 5 years ago I would have replied ‘loneliness’ – not being on my own, but losing the people I am closest to. Now, not surprisingly, it’s something happening to Jess.

I don’t think I’m too over protective. I am always tempted to watch her like a hawk, but I give her as much freedom as I can. I endeavour not to be a ‘helicopter parent’ although I don’t think I could call myself a ‘free-range parent’ either. I try to strike a balance between keeping her safe and allowing her to explore.

I am guilty of doing too much for her. If I’m rushing to get ready for work, it’s so much quicker to get her dressed myself; I’m not the most patient of people! I’m trying to back off and it is definitely easier now that she can reach the light switches – when I had to go upstairs to put the light on so she could get something, it was easier to just do it myself. I am trying to be more hands off but it does go against my nature!

You are probably familiar with the terms ‘helicopter parent’ and ‘free-range parent’. I have some sympathy with both schools of thought. If you haven’t got a clue what I’m on about, a helicopter parent is one who hovers over their child, limiting their freedom or keeping them safe depending on your point of view. A free range parent is one who gives their child freedom to do their own thing, encouraging them to be independent but also protecting them less.

It’s tempting to wrap our kids in cotton wool. Every time I switch on the television or pick up a newspaper, there seems to be another story about children being abused or abducted. I put on a cartoon for Jess a couple of days ago and found myself watching a newsflash about the horrific school shooting in Connecticut. If something so terrible can happen while our kids are ‘safe’ at school, how can we let them out of our sight? If something happened to them while they were playing in the garden or walking to the local shop, how would we ever forgive ourselves?

Let’s talk about Madeline McCann. No parent deserves to go through what her parents must be going through every day of their lives. To wonder where your child is, if she’s alive, if she’s in pain, and at the same time know that if you hadn’t left her alone she’d probably still be with you; how do you live with that?

If you were the parent of one of the children shot in Connecticut, how would you feel if your kid had complained of a headache and hadn’t wanted to go to school that day? I’m sure it can’t just be me that would beat myself up every day for the rest of my life for making them go. We know that those families cannot be blamed one iota. They did nothing wrong. And yet I would put money on the fact that most of them will be asking themselves what they could have done differently. Did they choose the wrong school? Did they check the security properly? Did they see someone acting suspiciously? What could they have done to keep their child safe?

Despite all this, we know logically that for the most part, the odds of something happening to our children are slim. Whether we are scared of someone taking our children away or them being hit by a car, we know that the chances are very small. And of course, we put safeguards in place. We teach our kids how to cross the road. We tell them not to go with strangers. We lock our doors.

But where do we draw the line? Do we stop our kids playing in the garden? Going to the park? Having sleepovers? Walking home from school? How small does a chance have to be before we take it?

Maybe we should just keep our kids under lock and key where we can see them.

But if we do, what kind of childhood are we giving them? A safe one perhaps, but a very limited one. A huge part of learning comes from developing independence and exploration. If our children don’t get chance to run around outside, playing with other kids and exploring without our constant supervision, they are missing out on a whole raft of experiences.

It’s not just these experiences, it’s also about learning to deal with things themselves. Things like how to stand up for themselves, how to interact, how to share and compromise, how to entertain themselves, what is safe to do and what isn’t, what risks can be taken and what should be avoided. It’s the first introduction that children have to skills that we use every day as adults.

Most of us did play outside with our friends when we were kids, or went to the local shop on our own. My childhood was more sheltered than most; my brother and I didn’t play in the street and our ‘free’ time was quite restricted. I can’t comment on whether it made much difference in the long run as I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t go off the rails as a teen (it’s hard to go mad when you only get to go out one night a month and then have to be escorted), but when I went to university I felt completely out of my depth. I remember the first time I took the tube in London on my own; I was so proud that I rang my family to boast! I was convinced that setting foot outside my door after 6pm meant I’d be mugged, and found it hard to do things alone.

The problem is you can’t protect children from everything. I was approached three times as a kid despite hardly leaving the house alone. Once was with my younger brother, walking to the local shop in a crowded street on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The second time was in a packed congregation at church! And the third time was crossing a well lit road in the early evening was I was a teenager. Obviously nothing terrible happened; I had been brought up not to go with strangers and got away without being scarred for life, but I’m not sure what else my parents could have done to protect me – not let me out alone until I was married?

I presume that most parents, like me, walk a somewhat wobbly middle ground. I try to protect Jess from the big bad nasties of the world while still letting her explore and have a bit of freedom. I don’t want to be one of those parents who still insist on walking their sixteen year old to school every day; equally, I want my girl to make it to sixteen in the first place.

It’s difficult finding that line. If anyone finds the answer, do share it. In the meantime, I’m adjusting the fact that my baby starts school next year and that soon she won’t want me by her side every second, watching over her. Goodness knows how I’ll cope when she wants to walk to school alone. Anyone got any binoculars?

Monday, 10 December 2012

Living the dream

As I may have mentioned, I’m quite ambitious. I’m always looking for the next opportunity, the next promotion, the new job. Even when I’m in a job I enjoy, I’m keeping an eye on the job pages, just in case something better comes along. It’s a part of what pushes me to do well in whatever role I’m in; I don’t know how long I’ll be there so I want to do the best I can for them, I want to leave a good impression, and I might need them as a reference!

Which is why I recently found myself applying for a role several pay grades above my current one. The role was advertised internally and sounded very interesting. I was fairly sure I was out of my league applying and they wouldn’t look twice at me but that’s never stopped me applying for anything before. I was offered an interview for which I had to give a short presentation (definitely out of my comfort zone there), and I spent several days drafting, redrafting, asking everyone for ideas, and redrafting the redrafts.

The interview was tough, although made a little easier by the fact that I knew two of the people on the panel. They asked several questions that I really didn’t know the answers to and I found myself babbling a few times and had to reel myself back in. I felt my presentation went well but I wasn’t at all sure I’d covered everything they wanted, so I was overjoyed when I received a call later that day offering me the job.

The thing is, this is my dream job. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years. It’s fully flexible hours, reasonable money, with a base only a mile from my home. I’ll be working with people I like, travelling to different places and meeting new people. I’ll have an actual budget – the money to do the role properly! – and the facilities I need. It is literally my perfect job. I’m totally in love with the job and I haven’t even started it yet.

There are a couple of things I will miss. I work with a fantastic team. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some terrific people over the years; I’ve also worked with some awful ones such as the woman who used to throw broken glass into the sink and cover it with bubbly water whenever it was my turn to wash up. My current workmates are great and I’m really going to miss them. The hours of the new job may be very flexible, but I could do with a few more of them. And… well actually, I think that’s it. I don’t officially start for a few weeks but I’ve attended some training and  meetings, and I’m fairly sure I’m going to love it.

So… what now? How can I look for other jobs when I’m already in the job of my dreams? What will drive me on now?

Believe me, I’m not complaining. I’m just a bit thrown. How do I react when the dream comes true? Can I just enjoy it, or do I need to go and get another one?

As it happens, the role I’ve landed is a temporary secondment, so my contract is only for six months initially. It may be extended but it depends on the budget and the success of the project. So I will still be driven to succeed, especially if I want it to be a long term prospect. It’s just a little confusing for me; I’ve never before been in a position where I haven’t been looking for the next stop! And on the theory that I can make such a roaring success of this that they will make it a permanent thing (a lack of self confidence with work is not one of my problems), I’m curious: Once you reach wherever you want to be, what happens next?

Cooking update / reviews – following on from ‘Cooking Up a Storm’

I’ve now managed to try a few new recipes and have also had a tasting session with the ones a made a couple of weeks ago. So here’s an update so far.

Salted caramel lollipops
After the first batch, I bought some silicone moulds which worked really well. The lollies remained very sticky though and disintegrated quickly – I left some covered up on a plate overnight and they melted into goo! After lots of experiments, I have finally got a system that works, so to save you the trouble:
Invest in silicone chocolate moulds (I got mine for a couple of pounds from ebay)
Also, get some plastic lolly sticks and proper sweet bags – it makes things much easier in the long run.
Put any flavourings straight into the moulds and pour the caramel on top. Chopped nuts work really well, as
does small pieces of candied ginger.
Do bother to add the salt, it adds to the flavour.

Melt the sugar as before, then use two teaspoons to fill the moulds (much less waste than pouring).
Give them a minute or two to start setting, then put in lolly sticks once the caramel is tacky but not hard.
Let them set fully, then pop them out of the moulds. They will be sticky and will disintegrate if you leave them out – I tried dusting some with icing sugar, DON’T do the same, it makes them melt more quickly!
Either put them straight into sweet bags and keep in the fridge, or dip them in melted chocolate and leave to harden on greaseproof paper before putting them into the sweet bags.
Tie the bags with a paper twist (I got some lovely glittery red ones) and keep somewhere cool.

Verdict: Despite all the messing about, once I’d figured out the best way to make them, it was quick and easy. I’ve been making loads of batches because it’s just a case of putting sugar in a saucepan and melting it – easy to have some cooking away while I’m making dinner.

Apple and Cranberry Chutney

1 kg cooking apples, peeled and chopped
500g eating apples, peeled and chopped
450g red onions, peeled and sliced
50g root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp black peppercorns
500g sugar
250ml cider vinegar
500g cranberries (fresh or frozen)

Put everything except the cranberries in a large saucepan and bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for about an hour until the apples are tender and there is no watery vinegar left. (If there is still a lot of watery juice left after more than an hour, you can strain the mixture and discard the juice).

Add the cranberries and cook for a further 10 minutes until the cranberries have softened but not turned to mush. Spoon into sterilised jars and keep somewhere dark and cool for a couple of weeks before opening. Will last about 6 months unopened. Keep in the fridge once opened and eat within a month. Makes about 3 - 4 jars.

Verdict: I was really impressed with this recipe. I’m not a fan of chutneys, but even I loved this one. It’s especially good with cheese or cold meat. I was just going to make one batch as presents but I’ve ended up making several so I can keep some. Easy to make as well, I’m always a fan of recipes that involve sticking everything in a saucepan and leaving it alone!

Cranberry-Orange Vodka
Bottle of cheap vodka
250g cranberries
Zest of two oranges
175g sugar

Put the cranberries into a bowl and stab them with a fork. Put everything into wide necked, sterilised jars. Seal and shake. Leave somewhere cool and dark for a couple of weeks, shaking occasionally to ensure the sugar dissolves. Strain through muslin and put into bottles. Leave for another couple of weeks before drinking. Will keep almost forever in the freezer if you can keep your hands off it!

Verdict: Another very simple and really impressive recipe. I don’t really drink but I could happily polish off some of this. The cranberries turn the vodka a very festive red and you get a great orange hit as an aftertaste. This was very popular with everyone!

Stilton-apricot pots
300g stilton
100g butter
40g chopped walnuts
25g dried apricots, chopped

Beat the butter until soft (easiest in a mixer), then crumble in the stilton and mix well. Pack into ramekins, leaving space to add the topping. Mix the walnuts and the apricots, sprinkle over the stilton and press down. Cover with cling film and either eat within a week or freeze for up to a month. Makes 2 – 3 ramekins.

Verdict: Gorgeous! The addition of the butter makes the stilton milder and beautifully creamy, and even if you aren’t keen on walnuts, try it anyway – you don’t taste them, they just contribute to the texture and the depth of flavour. I am definitely making this again; it’s really good on crackers or crusty bread.

Nutty Chocolate Fudge
The BEST fudge recipe in the world! I’ve tried about 20 recipes for fudge and this one is by far the easiest to make and the nicest.
150ml / 1/4 pint of evaporated milk
350g / 12 oz sugar
large pinch of salt
50g / 2 oz chopped nuts
350g / 12 oz plain chocolate chips or chopped plain chocolate

Put evaporated milk, salt and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to the boil while stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the chocolate and the nuts. Keep stirring until the chocolate has melted. Pour into the tin, even it out, and leave to set. Once set, cut into squares, store in an airtight container (separating the layers with greaseproof paper) and try not to eat it all in one sitting!

Verdict: I make this recipe every Christmas, I absolutely love it and so do my friends and family. Rich, chocolatey and delicious. I’d make it every week if it wasn’t so fattening!

Taste reviews

Ginger syrup:
This was lovely mixed with lemonade and it’s supposed to be good for colds too!

Candied ginger:
Nice to nibble but very strong in flavour; try using it in ginger cookies or fruit crisps instead, or adding it to anything you would use mixed peel in.

Smoky Paprika Peppers:
Don’t bother. They looked fabulous but no one was keen on them. They had a rather odd taste and we ended up throwing them out. A lot of work for a poor return.

A homemade Christmas

I’ve been making homemade gifts and cards for as long as I can remember. As a child, I would make cards, as a teen I’d bake cookies, and as an adult I make anything I can think of. I have an ex who says it looks as if I’m cheap but I don’t see it that way – for a start, it can be more expensive to make things than to buy them! It’s certainly more time consuming, but it’s also a lot more personal. People can see you’ve put in the time and effort. It’s also fun, and I love that Jess can get involved too. I put on a Christmas CD, get out the craft stuff and suddenly it feels like Christmas.

For the last couple of years Jess and I have made chocolates and sweets to give to our friends. They usually end up a bit misshapen (it’s Jess’s job to put the chocolate in the moulds) but they taste terrific. Last year we made:
White chocolate with strawberries (melt white chocolate and mix in dried strawberries)
Dark chocolate orange (melted dark chocolate with grated orange peel and juice)
Nutty milk chocolate (milk chocolate mixed with chopped nuts)
Peppermint creams (icing sugar, peppermint essence and green food colouring)
Nutty fudge

I use silicone chocolate moulds that I bought at a poundshop (easy to get the chocolate out), and places like Lakeland and specialist cooking stores do some beautiful moulds, but if you want to try and make some cheaply before investing in moulds, you can use the plastic tray from a box of chocolates or a small ice-cube tray.

The better quality the chocolate, the better the finished product. I am usually trying to keep it cheap so I tend to use store-brand which works just fine, but if you can afford good quality chocolate then it is worth it. And please don’t use ‘cooking chocolate’ unless you want the lot to end up in the bin!

Once they are made and set, I either pack a selection in a pretty box or just pile them up on cellophane sheets and tie the top with ribbon. You can get proper sweet bags if you are so inclined but I think the cellophane sheets work just as well and are often prettier.

We also made salt dough decorations which came out surprisingly well and which Jess had great fun making. There are lots of different recipes for salt dough, just google it.

One word of caution: there are also a number of methods online that talk about drying your salt dough in the microwave. Being the impatient sort that I am, I gave it a try. The mixture bubbled and discoloured, and we ended up starting again. Stick to the oven, it gives a much better result. However it also took much longer to bake than all the recipes suggested; we seemed to have them in the oven for the whole day! The results were lovely though. I set Jess loose on them with glitter pens and fake jewels (from the poundshop), and they came out so well that we ended up giving several as presents.

Last year Jess and I made Christmas tree cards. She decorated several pieces of card with paint and glitter, then I cut out Christmas tree shapes from it once it had dried. She stuck the shapes on the cards, added a few stickers, and voila. We’ve also made cards using a potato cut into a Christmas tree shape as a stamp and sprinkling glitter on while the paint is wet. I’m looking at different ideas for this year. Several friends made reindeer cards using their children’s handprints which seemed to come out well so we may go down that route, although I’m also thinking of wrapping paper oddments to make collages of presents.

This year I’m making Christmas hampers for most of my family, boxes or baskets filled with homemade Christmas themed treats. I’m starting early because many of the things I’m planning to make are nicest if they have time to develop; I’m also going to need so many jars that I’ll be collecting for quite a while!

I’m planning to make pot pourri which is something I make for my own home every Christmas although I’ve never made it for gifts before. I’m planning cookie mix jars (glass jars with layers of cookie ingredients and a tag with instructions, e.g. mix with one egg and cook for 20 minutes), cranberry and orange vodka, apple and cranberry chutney, stem ginger in syrup, smoky paprika peppers, apricot and stilton pots, candied ginger, caramel lollies, spiced syrup, flavoured sugar, and anything else I fancy along the way! I’ll add a few cookies and some fudge and hopefully it’ll turn out to be the perfect present for a variety of friends and family. Not only will they be fun to make, but my family will thoroughly enjoy the tasting sessions that will need to take place!

For pot pourri, the earlier you can start collecting ingredients the better. Pick up bits and pieces as you see them, take them home and put on kitchen paper to dry out for a few days. Most of the ingredients are free and you can use any combination of things. So far I’ve been collecting moss-covered twigs, holly leaves, red berries, rosehips, pinecones, lemon and orange peel, pieces of moss and bits of bark, red flowers and red flower petals, any interesting leaves, nuts and nut shells (acorns, hickory etc.), sprigs of herbs and anything else that I think looks nice. I usually add odd bits of tinsel, ribbon or glitter to mine but you can of course go for an all-natural look if you prefer.

Cut or tear your larger items up if necessary, and add some cinnamon sticks, a couple of bay leaves and some whole cloves if you have them. If you want a proper scent rather than just something that looks nice with a delicate smell, try adding a few drops of sweet-smelling fragrance oils – cinnamon, clove and orange oils are a good bet. You can add fixative if you want the fragrance to last longer. If you want a quick version try using holly leaves, cinnamon sticks, dried orange slices (you can dry them in the microwave), tinsel and a couple of Christmas baubles. Even without the oils, the scent should last well into Christmas and the mix looks gorgeous in a decorative bowl.

I also read a tip about putting a scoop of the mix into a pan of water and heating it on the stove to produce a real Christmas scent that permeates the house. I haven’t tried it yet but will do at some point – I’ll check the oils aren’t flammable first though!