When my husband proposed to me it was the most romantic and scary evening of my life. It was quite the defining moment. He’d pursued me for two years and I’d run in the opposite direction. He was the most gorgeous, caring, chivalrous man I’d ever met, but divorced and a daddy.
For two years he stood at a distance, saying hello only now and again, smiling and trying politely to pin me down for a coffee. I’d wriggled and pleaded a packed diary. I had a feeling he had a soft spot for me but couldn’t imagine for a moment why. He was a tall, Congolese African with bulging muscles and a smouldering look. He was a model, a hip-hop choreographer, son of an Ambassador and great grandson to a tribal chief. I was an awkward Yorkshire lass from a country village where we fed grass to the local chickens at the bus-stop for entertainment. I was a closet sci-fi fan and resolute wearer of jeans and trainers, girlie at heart but not so much in appearance… We were not the most obvious of potential couples.
And yet we clicked. I gave up resisting. We dated, snuggled, compared childhoods and found nothing in common apart from our faith in God and a real love of each other. On an early date I ask him how he got the scar above his eyebrow. Expecting a reply similar to ‘I fell off my bike when I was eleven’ he said, ‘A crazed gun man came into our house when we were living in Sweden. He shot glass and mirrors when the security system locked him in the games room. I slipped on the glass when he’d been removed by the police.’
‘Right then… Well this scar on my finger is when my hamster bit me’. Chalk and cheese, black and literally white, African and English. Asylum seeker-turned (then) nearly British Citizen (no Mum he’s not chasing me for his citizenship) and someone who took her security and passport for granted. Daddy and not a mummy. It was the biggest step of my life.
I was terrified about meeting his girls (Sunflower and Sweet Pea who were 8 and 5) for the first time. At that time they didn’t live with their Dad full time, so I was able to delay the encounter until a few weekends into the relationship. We finally met and had a simple day out, applying for Daddy’s citizenship, as you do. I even wore a skirt and heels for the occasion. And while Daddy was in filling in the endless forms the girls and I went to the town hall library. I remember it being a frosty, bright day and the girls were just as nervous as I was, but we seemed to warm to each other. We read books, we coloured in at the activity table, we talked, they relaxed. I just about relaxed and then Daddy came to find us.
Daddy and I got the odd sideways, suspicious… no, curious look when we held hands but it was permitted with grace. We had lunch is a sweet little café, unaware of the fact that we’d share many a meal together around a table like this in the years to come. Then we played in the local playground. The heels didn’t help on the climbing frame but my willingness to play seemed to help with the kudos.
Daddy later revealed to me that he’d involved them in the whole process, before he’d even asked me out. He’d shown them my photo on Facebook and told them he fancied me. Risky, but it worked out. They’d said they wanted him to find a new wife because they didn’t like him being lonely when they weren’t there. So that explained the big wide eyes when I saw them occasionally at church!
Before we got engaged I had one request. OK then two:
‘When you ask me to marry you, please make it memorable and please also ask me to be step-mum to your girls.’
I saw the latter as being a big commitment too. And if I said yes to it at this moment, there would be no turning back. No regrets. I wanted my commitment to the girls to be as important as my commitment to their Dad. Gulp.
Later on, December, 2009, Sunflower let slip that a Christmas Day proposal was on the cards. I pretended I hadn’t heard and got on with life nonchalantly. So when a simple trip to the cinema on the 18th was suggested I did not have a clue what was about to happen.
We agreed to meet at the underground near the cinema. I was late. He was later.
We watched Avatar. I snuggled. He was strangely rigid. It was a long film. Now… I usually stay right to the bitter end of film credits to tip the hat to those who made the movie and to see if there are any sneaky extras at the end hinting at a sequel.
This time there was something hinting at my future.
I hadn’t really expected there to be much at the end of Avatar, it had cost that much to make that I didn’t think James Cameron would rush to make another one so soon, so I started putting my coat on. But hubby was still rigid. Staring at the screen.
‘Look!’ he suddenly said after the credits had faded away… and there I saw a black and white sequel hint? No. A pop video? No. An advert? Nope. My man… on the big screen… Singing at me. From the heart. ‘Only you can make me Happy’. Very sincere. I started giggling with utter nervousness. I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.
Imagine this on the big screen. My heart was properly pounding:
And as the music faded he said,
‘Flame Lily, will you marry me? Will you be my wife and be the mother-in-law to my daughters?’
I melted. English is his third language so I knew he meant step-mum. I was still giggling as well as sniffing, shaking, wobbling. I was over the moon and of course I said yes, knowing full well the weight and elation carried in that small three-letter word.
I must admit for the next 12 hours I was shell-shocked. I woke up the next morning and the ring was definitely there. It had definitely happened. I started giggling again. Then the joy came. Utter bouncy, teary joy.
It turned out he’d been hatching this for ages. My best friend had helped him with the gorgeous ring. And my colleagues had worked with him, filming and editing the video, (the director a BAFTA-winner!) all keeping absolute schtum about the plan, listening to me moaning about having to wait till Christmas to get engaged.
And where were the girls in the movie? Bless them, they were there, out of shot, enthusiastically spinning the office chair their dad was sitting in as he mimed into the camera.
And the reason he’d been late meeting me at the underground? He was so intent on getting the mini movie cued up with the cinema projectionist, testing it on the big screen before I arrived… that he’d forgotten the ring and had to go dashing back to fetch it. I love him so much for all the trouble he went to. I loved him before that. I love him still and I always will. Cheesy, yes but oh so true.
We got married last July in a Scottish castle, with the men in kilts and a token dowry of a chicken for my mum. But that’s all a whole different story. We lived happily ever after but that’s far from where it all ends. It was only the beginning.
Two months later, a little sooner than expected but oh so right, I was buying school uniforms, helping with homework and finding myself at parents’ night. The girls had come to live with us full time and I had become Suddenly Mum…
Summer in Scotland is well and truly over. In fact it ended about 2 days after it began in this funny old land that is Scot, where mist is rain and sunshine is witchcraft. OK, perhaps I exaggerate, but many would agree that Scotland does not have the most dependable of climes. Four seasons regularly happen in one day and it has been known to snow in June and well… snow in December too.
You wouldn’t think there’s much of a difference between my home land of England my adopted abode of Scotland but you’d be wrong. I now see why the Scottish schools break up for summer in June rather than in July like they do in England. Summer arrives earlier and ends very quickly in Scotland. Granted, we do have the advantage of long days in the summertime – you can be watching the 10 o’clock news when a live report coming from Downing Street is in total darkness but it’s weirdly light outside here in Glasgow…
…Light yes, but not necessarily bright.
And therein lies the rub. The thing that really gets me here is the dullness, the clouds, the grey, the feeling if bluurrrgh when you look out the window in a morning… and it’s especially starting to hit now. The trees are turning, the winds are up and the temperatures are down. We may get longer summer days but boy do we pay for it in the short, stubby, stroppy days of winter.
It’s a time that is especially tough for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) sufferers, of which I am one. And being married to a man who is used to the tropical temperatures and glorious sunshine of Africa, and who goes into hibernation at the first hint of a cloud, I think Hubby might be a sufferer too. In fact, he’s having an afternoon nap next to me as I type right now. A peaceful rhinoceros, you might say. Do Rhinos hibernate? No, probably not. OK then a hedgehog, a really big snory hedgehog.
Fortunately the girls don’t tend to go the same way, which is a boon, and long may it stay that way. But then I haven’t encountered them in a winter without my fabulous lightbox shining its magical stuff about the kitchen.
Now I don’t know about you but what with our environmentally friendly house chock full of those low energy lightbulbs that wouldn’t attract a moth in space, our collective family eyeballs are in need of a high lux dazzling each morning and our box does all that dazzling to an energising tee.
A few years ago I would have described such a treatment as airy-fairy, hippy bonkers madness. But since giving in to the dark side of Hadrian’s Wall I started to understand the simple logic. Scotland is dark, buy light box, world is bright again – or at least the kitchen is. I bought my box four years ago and have so far had three whole winters of being able to get out of bed at a reasonable hour, of eating my breakfast with my eyes open and not having my face type gobbledegook as I slump at my desk by 4pm.
According to many studies, not least the one from Columbia University, exposure to a high lux illumination of around 10,000 for up to 30 minutes a day can kick your body back into the activity levels you might expect in the summer time. There are plenty of boxes on the market. And my box has been going strong without the need of a bulb change yet so the moths and the environment can rest easy in a wintry harmony.
If you find yourself being knocked sideways by the onset of winter, here are some of my own dazzlingly obvious tips for combatting SAD or the Winter Doldrums (aka ‘feeling blurrgh’ or ‘duvet love’)*:
1. Buy a lightbox. They’ve come down in price since I’ve bought one. The cheapest I could find 4 years ago was £120. They now go for as little as around £45-50. Still not cheap but well worth the investment.
2. Put your alarm clock at the other side of your bedroom so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. Always amusing when you have a dead leg – but guaranteed to wake you up all the more alertly.
3. There are some alarm clocks that produce a gradual dawn effect so you get a gentle awakening by light as well as sound – but be aware that not many of these alarm clocks have a high lux light (which is thought to be needed to most noticeably help the effects of SAD). A bright lux alarm clock would be quite a rude awakening I guess. If you’re up for a shock you can always set a socket timer on a normal high lux lightbox which is what I used to do in my bedroom. Not fair now I have a hubby though, so I don’t do that any more.
4. I don’t claim to be an expert and do please consult a doctor first but a healthy intake of vitamin C & D can boost your energy levels (and immune system too). I tend to drink an effervescent Vitamin C drink each morning while I’m waiting for my morning coffee to brew. Also eat your greens!
5. Make sure your lightbox is pretty close to you as you expose yourself to the light. Experts don’t recommend looking straight into the light (which is diffused but still very bright), but putting it somewhere as you eat your breakfast, do your make-up etc. can help. I find a morning exposure is the best time to absorb the light to set you up for a brighter day.
6. Moderate exercise can boost your energy levels and reduce your levels of lethargy. But you knew that already I’m sure!
Hope you’re able to go from SAD to happy soon. ☺
*NB. Always consult your doctor. I don’t claim to be an expert 🙂
‘A two-minute talk on any subject you like’ the letter from school said. Sweet Pea had been set her first big homework task: to prepare a talk to give in front of the whole class about anything she liked. The chosen topic? “My Funny Daddy”.
Now, I know this is a proud, shameless step-mum talking but I reckon her talk must have utterly trumped the others’. Who else could claim to have a daddy who split his trousers in front of the Queen? That alone could have done it, but with the claim that he also kept a pet baboon as a kid, that must have blown away the fierce seven-year-old competition good and proper. Brilliant!
He’d first told me about this just before dropping off to sleep a few days into our honeymoon. No amount of shaking would get any further information out of him until the morning. I just lay there giggling through the night.
‘We had monkeys as well,’ he continued the next morning, ‘but they were naughty, they’d pinch food and cause havoc. A lot got killed by the dogs or had heart attacks. They didn’t last long.’ The guard baboon meanwhile, would be let out at night to guard the premises, in the morning he was lured into his cage with bananas by a nervous domestic or human day guard. ‘He was a mean baboon, far from cute.’
The girls, who like me, have spent most or all of their life in the UK, find this fascinating. And so did Sweet Pea’s class. For Hubby, it was just a passing point of mild interest and ever-so normal.
But despite the menagerie of exotic pets, the monkeys, the baboon, the parrots, the dogs – the one that was sold without Hubby and his brothers knowing and the loyal Lassie dog who ran after their car all the way to the airport as the family left China after their dad’s time as Congolese Ambassador there… Pets in our Glasgow house are another matter.
The girls are desperate for a dog. So am I. I’ve had a West Highland white terrier on the top of my Christmas list since the age of seven. Still no luck. But I can’t help but think there is still hope. The girls would prefer a golden retriever or a sheep dog collie. When we went to my boss’s house the other day his very patient Collie ended up wrapped in Sweet Pea’s pink cardigan. We count dogs on the way to school in between times tables and spelling practice. And we especially like it when they’re carrying funny things, like massive sticks, bottles or shoes.
But a dog in our household? Well I think we’ll have to wait until we’re a bit more settled, have a bigger garden, have time to take it on walks blah blah blah. A baboon, on the other hand, could be a little more likely at this rate…
I was recently asked how do I organise and plan my week? I work on the concept of what’s most pressing and when’s the next slot I have coming up in the week to do said pressing task? I do mental lists, mental calendars, have a moleskine notebook in my handbag, notes on my iphone synched to my MacBook and a kitchen calendar. They give me a warm sense of being organized when the reality is a little more shambolic. But a quick glance at the mental calendar on a Sunday night flags up any birthdays, parties, guests, errands and then the housework gets done in between making the coffee and toast in a morning. I’ve been known to clean the shower whilst in it and pull an all-nighter ironing. Oh and the new kids’ pocket money chores chart is making everyone happy!
Looking forward to watching ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’… if I have the time!
Just a flippant aside, but despite what my hubby told me, they do indeed drink Um Bongo in the Congo! OK so perhaps it’s not exactly the national drink, but that hippo and rhino were telling the truth all along!
Thanks to Gabriel in the Congo for pointing this out! And showing a flood of sweet photographic Um Bongo evidence!
The Queen tends to feature at our dinner table quite a lot these days. Not that she’s visited in person recently, but Her Majesty doesn’t half come up as a topic of fascination for the girls. It all started well before the Royal Wedding had even been announced. In fact, I think it all started when I told the girls that my mum had met the Queen when she was an officer in the RAF. The Queen came to have dinner with all the officers and in preparation they had to learn how to eat politely, which knife and fork to use when, which glass was for water and which were for wine and how you should never put your elbows on the table.
It was around about this point that the succession of ‘Why?’s ensued.
“Why do you have to eat well in front of the Queen?”
“Because it’s polite.”
“Is she a bit grumpy about these things?”
I’ll admit it was a ruse on my part to encourage Sweet Pea to stop licking her knife. I’d been brought up on the strictest of table manners, perhaps they were instilled a slight bit too much, but the knife-licking, at least, had to stop.
It didn’t take hubby long to mutter under his breath in his deep French accent,
“Pah the Queen, what is she good for? Going from one place to another on horses.”
I know he was being provocative and it made me laugh. He’s good at feigning grumbles. I think he likes to do it especially now that there are three women in the house. Three against one gives him licence for his grumbles and we love him for it. For someone who was brought up with so much protocol and formality as a son of a Congolese Ambassador, he knows more about the importance of etiquette in those sorts of situations than I did.
Hubby met the Queen when he was about 10 years old and his father was Ambassador in the former British colony of Zambia. The Queen was visiting the capital, Lusaka, and his dad was off to meet her with all the other dignitaries of the city. Hubby asked his mum if he could go with his dad, and they’d agreed. He put on his best suit and travelled in the motorcade feeling very important. He sat up front with the driver of the tinted window car, flags of Zaire (the old name for Congo) flapping on the wings, his waistband feeling snugger than last year…
When the time finally came for him to meet the Queen, Hubby was very excited and stood in line with many dignitaries standing behind him. His mum had told him to be sure to bow when he met her… And as Queen Elizabeth herself stood before him he obediently bowed, promptly splitting his trousers right up the back. The dignitaries standing behind him stifled guffaws and the Queen started chuckling along, not really knowing what everyone was laughing about.
Of course, mini chubby Hubby couldn’t stay any longer and was sent home early in disgrace. Poor thing. Needless to say the girls love this story and still ask him to repeat it, usually at dinnertime. In fact it’s even featuring as the topic of her two-minute homework presentation at school.
Another favourite Queen-associated activity is finding out what the Queen has on her shopping list. I mentioned in passing that some products have the Royal seal of approval or are singled out ‘by Royal Appointment’ if the Queen likes to eat it. These lucky products have a coat of arms stamped on the box and if they looked very carefully they’d find them. Well…. I thought the kitchen was on fire when I was brushing my teeth one morning. A stereo yelp followed by elephant feet on the stairs made me open the bathroom in alarm,
“Mwhat iv it?!” I asked through a mouthful of toothpaste.
“The Queen’s on the Coco Pops!”
Brilliant. Simply brilliant. The girls’ couldn’t believe it. But there was the seal right above the copyright note for Coco Monkey. And from that moment on the Queen’s shopping list has been something of a family challenge. And the table manners aren’t half bad now either.
This Sunday was UK Mothers’ Day or Mothering Sunday and this was the first time I could legitimately stand up in church with all the other mums to get some chocolate! Before I did though I looked down the row to the girls to confer. Did I count being a step-mum? Chocolate was at stake here so I was hoping for an affirmative answer. I got the thumbs up and stood – no, jumped up. Chocolate has never tasted so good!
They then played this on the big screen in the service. I cried with a bitter-sweet blend of laughter, a mini chocolate-high and utter shock as I heard my mother and now myself in these lyrics. I may not have the bingo wings yet, but after only 7 months of my step-mum crash course, I’ve been wheeling out most of these corkers already:
It’s not been the easiest past couple of months. We’re all getting a bit more used to each other as a family now and with that familiarity have come a few mood clouds (both in the kids and me – but probably more in me if I’m honest!). Forgotten gym kits, fathoming last-minute maths homework (again, them and me) and the morning scrambles for getting to school on time have all led to a few raised voices and the odd tear and sniff… And as Mothers’ Day has approached, I wasn’t putting to much weight on the day. I wasn’t sure where I stood as a step-mum. I didn’t want to stake a claim on something that was really the girls’ own mother’s day, right?
When we were at the supermarket a week ago I asked the girls if they wanted to choose a card for their mum. They did. Sunflower (10) chose in a flash, a card with a monkey on the front, but Sweet Pea (7) took what seemed like an eternity to choose hers as I made myself look busy and not-at-all a little uncomfortable, staring intently at some decorative secateurs across the aisle for a little longer than what might be considered normal. Eventually she made her choice and asked me what I thought. ‘Thank you for always being there’ it said inside. And for her mum, who isn’t allowed to see the girls without supervision right now, I tried sensitively to help her pick out more appropriate suggestions. In the end she settled on a pink, sparkly design which dazzled with love and affection… and I settled on the fact that they will always have their mum whom they love very much. She’ll never stop being their mum. But I would do my best to always be there… as their step-mum.
Soon afterwards I sat down to write my own mum’s Mother’s Day card and suddenly realised that this was the first non-sarcastic, non-arsy, non-jokey and somewhat sincere card I’d bought for my mum. And then it struck me, I think I was starting to understand this motherhood thing. Only the very beginnings of it. The very tip of the iceberg. But I could finally appreciate, after 31 years, what mums, step- or otherwise, are all about.
On Mothering Sunday morning, the girls were waiting for me outside the bedroom door. Before I could even engage my brain, the mum-esque words of, ‘What are you two up to?’ tumbled out of my mouth, only for them to count to three, stand up and declare in unison, ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ I was then handed two beautiful hand-made cards complete with sparkly paint and screwed up tissue-paper flowers, ribbons and pictures of puppies and daffodils.
And inside the recently-not-so-sunny Sunflower’s card it read:
To the best Step-Mum in the World!
We have been through some hard times, laughing, crying and just being moody, but you get me and I thank you. Happy Mother’s Day.
I ate my chocolate at church with pride that night. My new life as a step-mum had definitely begun.