Am I a slave to social media? 

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Lately I’ve realised that, once again, I’ve fallen into that habit of constantly checking my Facebook newsfeed and looking at everything through an Instagram lens. So as it’s half term and I really want to focus on my children and not my iPhone this week, I’m taking the rest of the month off. No social media for me until they’re all back at school and I can afford to waste time watching YouTube videos of cats who are afraid of cucumbers (although in all honesty, can I ever really afford to waste time watching YouTube videos of cats who are afraid of cucumbers??)

Part of this resolution stems from the fact that social media stresses me out! I’ve been doing a little low grade soul searching lately to figure out how to be happier; how to be calmer, less anxious and to embrace the much mused about art of mindfulness. I’ve started Tai chi and Pilates classes in a bid to use exercise and breathing techniques to help me relax. I’ve made a list of books I want to read before I’m forty to motivate myself to devote more time to quality reading instead of swiping through blog posts and the ASOS sale pages (the irony of writing a blog post about reading fewer blog posts is not lost on me by the way!) And I’ve tried to make space in my day to practise a bit of mindfulness meditation. It’s really not that easy though, both finding ten spare undisturbed minutes in the day AND training myself to think ‘mindfully’. My thoughts are constantly wandering to the extent that it sometimes feels as if I’m channel-hoping around my brain.

One of the side affects of my obsessive social-media-ing (I think it’s only a matter of time before ‘social-media-ing’ becomes a recognised verb) is that my attention span is appalling! (I can’t even write a sentence without punctuating it with an aside thought in brackets.) I find myself constantly craving screen time, not just when I’m flopped on the sofa trying to watch a film, but also when I’m in the middle of cooking dinner, when I’m stuck in a traffic jam and even when I pop to the loo for a quick wee. I’ve dropped my iPhone into the toilet twice this year so I really should have learnt my lesson by now!

The competitive and judgemental world of social media is also a stressful place to be. All too often I’ve felt abject disappointment when my photos haven’t achieved a respectable number of likes; or deeply anxious when I’ve realised that friends have made plans without me (hashtag FOMO!); or seriously pissed off by an innocuous comment on an Instagram post. Life is too short for this shit!

I’ve been here before – I’ve tried various Facebook fasts and an entire 40 days of abstaining from social media for Lent – so I’m really not trailblazing with this. But those experiences have always helped me to re-evaluate my social media addiction and take small steps to change my habits. The problem is, as any self-respecting addict knows, it’s so easy to fall off the wagon and I have done time and time again.

Friends have shared with me their own frustrations about their social media habits and at one point I was inspired to start some sort of Social Media Withdrawal Support group until I realised that the only place I could effectively advertise this would be on Facebook or Twitter. So until someone develops a social media withdrawal patch that I can stick to my arm to help wean me off my habit, or a Facebook-free gum that I can chew to distract me from my newsfeed, going cold turkey seems to be the only way. So here goes….

Hi, I’m Abbi…and it’s been 17 hours and 22 minutes since my last Facebook post…

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5k A Day you say? Oh go on then…!

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One of my favourite 5ks…with my bike-mad big boy as pace maker

Lately I’ve been distracted and drained by negative things. I’ve let everything that winds me up, stresses me out and generally saps my positivity dominate my waking day and my sleepless night. So with the summer holidays just around the corner, I decided I needed to re-focus and re-energise myself with a new happy project to drag me out of the doldrums.

My 100 Happy Days phase phased out after an amazing week in NYC and after Day 48, I stalled. It was almost too tough to top such a steady succession of happy days. That’s not to say I haven’t had a fair few since though! Some particular favourites have included running the Hackney half marathon in a PB time; enjoying the great outdoors and plenty of giggles at Center Parcs; performing live on stage at the 02 Arena with Take That; and watching Federer and Murray on Centre Court at Wimbledon…but I digress (purely to brag!)

So on a quest for a daily endorphin high, and in a bid to get beach-ready, I decided to set myself the goal of running 5k a day in July. This challenge required a certain amount of logistical planning given our family’s weekly routines and limited childcare options. But I reasoned that surely it wouldn’t be that difficult to find half an hour in every day to devote to pavement pounding when I frequently find myself wasting hours of my life Facebook-stalking and Instagramming my lunch.

The first few days felt easy, fun even. My usual running routine is limited to three runs a week; one 5k, one longer pace run (7-8k) and a distance run (10k or more). So not having to run more than 5k at any one time felt a bit like a luxury. I also soon discovered that I could multi-task whilst running short distances. Dog walking can be easily incorporated into daily runs if I plan my route around the local park. My energy-infused puppy then bolts about my legs as I do laps of the playing field panting far harder than he ever does. Childcare can also be managed during short distance runs. By plonking the boys in the playground (with strict instructions not to leave the fenced area), I can run rings around them which is ironic really as they usually do that to me! I’ve yet to work out how to do the ironing and reply to emails whilst running but with a few days left to go to until the end of the month, there’s still time.

In a bid to be sensible and kinder to myself I’ve allowed myself one rest day per week. There have been some days when squeezing in a 5k simply wasn’t going to happen. Last Wednesday for example; after leaving early to drive to Surrey for work, I then had to rush home to walk the dog before legging it to school to watch the Year 3 Folk Dance Festival, whereafter I collected the boys from school, the toddler from nursery and the tea from the pizza aisle in Tesco, before heading straight off to watch an open air performance of Mr Stink as soon Dave walked through the door. When I finally flopped on the the sofa that evening, I’d have rather boiled by own head than gone for a 5k run.

But has it been worth it, this pig headed and fairly pointless goal of mine? To be truthful, I’m not really sure yet. Physically I am exhausted. My body just isn’t used to running every day. My shins are sore, my legs are stiff and I’m fairly sure my muscle fibres are refusing to refuse just to spite me. Some days I’ve run so slowly that when I’ve caught sight of myself in a shop window or car door, I’ve looked like I’m jogging on the spot! And when I’ve reluctantly laced up my trainers simply to stick to my schedule, my NMA (negative mental attitude) has added seconds to my split times. I’ve also noticed how much my diet effects my daily runs. I’ve often used my running routine as a way to legitimise my bad eating habits. Chips for tea or biscuits before bedtime can be justified when I tell myself, it’s ok, I’ll run it off tomorrow (which BTW really isn’t ever the case as a half hour run only ever burns about 300 calories which is barely a bag of crisps!). So this challenge has taught me that I really need to learn more about how to better fuel and condition my body for exercise, instead of using exercise as an excuse to pig out and binge drink.

I’ve also learnt that I run faster first thing. And getting up early to clock my 5k before the kids are awake is hugely satisfying. I can then enjoy the endorphin rush and smile smugly to myself for the rest of the day, happy in the knowledge that I can put on my slippers not my running shoes once the little ones are in bed. Conversely, on those tough and tiring days, the thought of having to do a run when Dave gets home from work is almost as physically painful as the run itself!

So with the figurative finishing line in sight, it’s safe to say that I’m looking forward to going back to my less demanding ‘as and when’ weekly running routine. In fact, I plan to take large chunks of August off as a reward for my efforts this month! Assuming I make it to Friday without injury or apathy, I’ll have run 130 kilometres in one month which is considerably more mileage than I’ve ever achieved before. And maybe my legs do look a teeny bit more sculpted than they did in June, so my beach ready remit has in some small part been addressed. But give me a week in the Med and on the prosecco and I’ll no doubt be back to where I started…but hopefully with a clearer idea of how to chase my thirties with a bit more direction and dignity.

  

Why comfort-loving city slickers are hopping on their bikes and heading to Center Parcs…

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Not too shabby!

Center Parcs is the perfect place for middle-class urbanites to go off road and embrace the great outdoors from the comfort of their state of the art, WiFi enabled log cabins. What’s not to love!

It’s our second visit to Woburn Forest since it first opened last Easter and we’ve even ended up booking the same cabin, much to my children’s delight. Having learnt firsthand how important bikes are for getting around the site, we’d invested in some hardcore bike racks for the trip. And by defying the laws of physics, we managed to strap five bikes and a roof box to our trusty Citroen C4 before braving the M25 to get here. I could tell Dave was nervous as he gingerly manoeuvred our beast of a vehicle into the slow lane of the motorway. The boys waited with baited breath, craning their necks to watch out of the window in case disaster struck. Admittedly something small and plastic did detach itself from our heavy load somewhere in Hertfordshire but after a quick inspection on the hard shoulder, it was deemed “unimportant” and we completed the rest of our Center Parcs pilgrimage without incident.

The convenience of advance online check-in means that you can drive onsite and straight to the door of your luxury lodge with the minimal amount of fuss. Once inside, those lovely CP peeps really have thought of everything. Flat screen TVs embedded into walls adorned with woodland murals come as standard. The quality of the accommodation is certainly ‘not too shabby’ and a world away from the Haven hellholes we’ve trudged to in the past. The clue is in the price tag, for sure! But care and cleanliness are evident any which way you look. The no-cars-on-site rule means that you can relax as the kids career about on their bikes and scooters. And the sense of detachment and escapism from the real world is indulgently addictive in the bubble that is Center Parcs World.

A holiday here is not without its challenges though. I’ve learnt that wearing make up at Center Parcs is pointless. We’re in and out of the pool so frequently that no sooner have I applied my mascara, I’m wiping it off again in preparation for another chlorine overload. Repeatedly riding the rapids with a bunch of over-excited thrill seekers means that you will invariably end up bum-bumping a hairy middle-aged man as you coast uncontrollably through the current. You also need to be prepared to suffer finger nail scratching and incessant elbowing when your 8 and 6 year olds realise they can only dunk and breathe, dunk and breathe for so long before needing to claw onto a parent for self-preservation purposes. Add hair straighteners, shoes with heals, jewellery and handbags to the list of ‘things that are surplus to requirement at Center Parcs’. I’ve been hopping on and off a bike and in and out of the pool ever since we got here. As a result, only a rucksack and trainers will do and I’ve been rocking the ‘post-swim, air-dried frizz do’ around the clock. And did I mention saddle soreness?! I’m really not used to pedalling to the supermarket to buy milk but that’s what you do here. Lots of little journeys can feel doable during the daytime but my inner thighs beg to differ after dinner. Waddling John Wayne-style becomes mandatory.

Don’t get me wrong though, I feel lucky to be here. The absolute delight on the faces of my children as the screeching monkey alarm alerts them to the fact that the wave machine is about to start is priceless! And the opportunity to watch them scale climbing walls and high ropes is brilliant, compared to our normal weekends on the monkey bars in the local park. Even going on an organised bear hunt with my 3 year old turned into an adventure of sorts; an expedition to Starbucks in search of Rupert struck me as both hilarious and embarrassingly bourgeoisie! In a place where the standard bar snacks menu includes hummus with crudités and you could easily pinch the communal hair-dryers as they’re not bolted to the wall (we didn’t!), I do feel a little spoilt. But as I hope our bank manager and my inner thighs will agree, you get what you pay for in this uber eco, gloriously green, pedal-pushing paradise. And we think it’s worth every penny.

 

Once upon a time there lived a stressed-out mummy…

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Has anyone ever checked into the Priory with birthday-planning-induced-stress? No!? Then I’m intrigued to know how other parents juggle everything amidst their other daily responsibilities. And PS, by “other parents” I actually mean mums; dads are far more detached from the whole party-bag organising, pass-the-parcel wrapping, perfect-cake ordering ordeal!

It’s my baby girl’s birthday this Friday and she will be 3. With three other older children who have collectively enjoyed 25 birthdays between them, it’s reasonable to assume that I would have picked up a trick or two when it comes to planning birthdays. But in my case experience counts for nothing. I’ve left things far too late and am now having sleepless nights as to whether or not the much-hoped for Princess Elsa dress will arrive on time.

Feeling smug sometime ago, I extensively researched my options online. I shopped around for the best price, I subtly took measurements from her other prized princess-themed costumes and I preordered the perfect dress from an online fancy dress stockist earlier this month. My order arrived last week and as lovely as the dress turned out to be, it’s about four sizes too big. Damn those confusing European measurements!! I should not be left unsupervised with a tape measure in such detail-dependent circumstances again.

I’ve since contacted the retailer but an exchange for a smaller size would have taken too long to arrange so I’ve had to place a new order for the smaller size (and will return the enormous dress for a refund as soon as I find time in my life to get a post office…how retro!) 

Thinking myself clever, I arranged for the second dress to be delivered to Argos using their free collection service and thereby sidestepping the risk of getting one of those ‘sorry we missed you’ cards through the letterbox. But little did I realise that the Argos delivery service takes longer to process (yadda, yadda) and the expected collection date for my order is now three days after the big day. Cue mild to moderate heart palpitations and a series of frantic emails to the retailer. No my order can’t be fast tracked as its already in the system! 

In desperation I order a third dress to be delivered to my home address using the Express Delivery/expensive delivery courier service. Estimated delivery date…Thursday, t-minus 24 hours to B-Day.

All the while my little lady-in-waiting (literally) keeps chattering excitedly about the prospect of finally getting her very own “dress like Frozen“. This week her conversations have been peppered with affirmations like “if I be a good girl, I will have a frozen dress on my party” and “for my present it will be a princess dress if I be good“.

After relaying my fears and frustrations to my other half, we decided we needed a backup plan/dress in case one of the three dresses I’d already ordered doesn’t arrive in time. My earlier consumer research stood true; Amazon and Toys R Us did not have the right dress in the right size. The Disney Store sees it fit to charge £40 for their ‘official’ version but as my toddler is yet to become label savvy, and because I thoroughly object to spending that kind of money on a dress she will wear for dog walks and Tesco trips, the Disney dress was designated Plan D (to be bought in desperation on Thursday evening if all else fails). Talking of Tesco, they currently only have Elsa-style dresses for 7-8 year olds (God help us if she’s still bonkers about ballgowns at that age!) Our hopes were raised when I rang Matalan and a woman named Mandy went to check stock. I held my breath expectantly, as if I was waiting to secure Glastonbury tickets or hear exam results. “Sorry, we don’t have the Elsie dress at all. Only the Anna one in 5 to 6years“. Aaaaaaaargh!! It’s Elsa! It’s Aah-na! It can’t be this hard!

So although I can congratulate myself on having booked the hall, sent out the invitations, ordered the cake, bought the party bags, haggled with the bouncy castle companies and planned the menu, I may just fall at the final hurdle of giving my daughter the one and only thing she associates with and hopes for on her birthday. First world problems, right!

So it may be time to start seriously considering Plan C – telling our little princess that her birthday isn’t actually until Saturday. This would give us an extra 24 hours to get our act together and to receive one of the many deliveries that should surely arrive by then. After all, she’s only 3. She can’t read the newspaper, she’s not on Facebook, she doesn’t have a calendar, she won’t bloody know! And besides, the date never bothered her anyway….

Now, if only we can convince her three brothers to stick to the story, then everyone will live happily ever after.

 

Why so weary? 

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My beloved running shoes that literally have my name written all over them but that I’m struggling to get into

I’m in a running rut. This has happened to me before but this time round I’m beginning to panic as I’m signed up to do the Hackney Half Marathon in less than 4 weeks time (and I really don’t want to pull out of my second race of the year….hashtag-sadface).

I blame New York. It’s all New York’s fault. Although we walked our asses off (28,000 steps on one day alone you know!) and I was very happy to take a break from my weekly running regime, I’ve struggled to put my trainers on and my heart into it since we got back. And ordinarily it really wouldn’t matter much as I could ease back into regular running in the same way as I’ve had to ease back into my regular post-holiday routine. But with the Hackney Half hanging over me, and with a handful of my super-fit runner friends preparing for the run themselves, I can’t escape this (largely self-inflicted) pressure to get race-ready. 

As a result, I’ve started philosophising why I run in the first place. I first started regularly ‘jogging’ (as the word ‘running’ is actually a generous and slightly misleading word when it comes to describing my pavement pounding, heavy panting technique) just after baby number 2 was born in 2007. My friend Anya coerced me into entering a 5K with the objective to run the entire race without stopping. We did it, and in addition to the flushed selfies we took afterwards, I have happy memories of that day. Thereafter I aimed a bit higher and entered a 10k the following year and then a half marathon a year or two after that. 

Running helped me to shift the baby bulge. Running gave me the opportunity to listen to interesting audio books or my much neglected collection of trance albums instead of Charlie & Lola stories or the Hokey Kokey. And running afforded me a little bit of status; “Oh, you’re a runner? I like to run too. Signed up to Royal Parks yet? I did that one last year…” Running was always supposed to be fun, and for the large part, it always has been.

So why can’t I snap out of this ‘reluctant-runner’ mindset? This week I’ve started to think up new ways to trick or kick myself into feeling motivated to go running. 

These have included:

  • Eating an entire Cadbury’s Easter egg in one evening – I hoped the guilt will force me into Lycra the next day. But it just made me feel sick! 
  • Buying a new sports bra – the temptation to try out my new kit did prove irresistible, for one run. Thereafter the novelty was lost.
  • Tracking my runs in miles instead of kilometres – going for a 5 mile jog somehow sounded less exhausting than going for an 8k run (it wasn’t!)
  • Finding an audio book to become obsessed with – I’ve been listening to Serial, a 12 part true crime story, in the hopes that my impatience to find out what happens next would motivate me to head out for some headphone-alone-time. But then I started cheating by listening to it on my commute to work and whilst dog walking too. Fail.
So despite my very best psychological efforts, I’m still feeling weary; it’s as if I’ve lost my running mojo. So what’s a girl/wobbly-woman-approaching-40 to do next….? Do I force myself to go the distance (quite literally!) and enter the Hackney Half to enjoy the accompanying sense of achievement and belonging, but knowing all the while that I will under perform and potentially dent my long term confidence? Or do I re-categorise myself as a fun-runner content on running the same routes and routines week in, week out but risk permanently damaging my morale and the chance to ever improve on my PBs? Dilemma!

 

#100happydays – day 48

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Thursday was our chance to take one last bite out of the Big Apple before heading home. But we began the day with some hasty last minute packing. The concierge at our hotel helped me to weigh my bulging suitcase at which point I realised I’d probably bought one (or six) Gap jumpers too many and was dangerously close to my baggage weight allowance. With a remit to buy more luggage for our NYC loot, as well as some last minute souvenirs, we headed to Times Square. We’d previously found a brilliant comic book store in the Financial District that had a sister shop in Mid-Town, so we happily spent a few more dollars there. We then braved the flagship Disney Store and bought bags from the brilliantly cheap Forever 21.After walking around in the sunshine with our shopping bags, we caught the subway to the Lower East Side for lunch in what was purported to be New York City’s best deli, Katz; and it was! This is the place where Harry met Sally, where a pastrami on rye will fill you up for a week (and cost almost $30!) and where you can ‘lunch’ alongside every stereotypical New Yorker imaginable. We both ordered the pastrami along with pints of the rich and delicious Katz Dark Ale. It was a heavy meal but our visit to such a quintessential New York eatery was well worth the stomach ache. With a sense of reluctance (and a little bit of relief, after days of exhaustive sightseeing and carb loading away from our families), we finally caught a cab to the airport. There we flopped in uncomfortable bucket seats in the departure lounge and pondered exactly how aeroplanes stay in the sky and whether or not we could squeeze in one more glass of wine before takeoff.  Our trip was a fantastic break from the routines and responsibilities of every day life and I arrived home with the feeling that we’d taken full advantage of the opportunity to eat, sleep and breath this brilliant city. Since then I’ve avidly been watching Manhattan-based TV dramas hoping to spot a familiar landmark or recognise a street name or two, and I’ve been overusing the phrase “totally awesome” much to the amusement of my children. It actually all seems a little bit like a dream that never really happened. But thankfully I have a photo-stream full of pics, a wardrobe full of bargains and a hundred happy memories to keep forever from our New York City adventure.    

#100happydays – day 47

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By Wednesday we’d spent three days straight exploring Lower Manhattan and had begun to feel like downtown locals, so we decided to focus our sightseeing efforts further north with renewed determination to find the uptown bus stop. It was a sunny morning so I made the optimistic decision to wear my thinner Laura Ashley wrap jacket instead of my more ample winter coat. Mistake number 1. 

Our joy at finally finding the goddam bus stop was short lived when the heated open-top tour bus was too full to take on more passengers so we instead boarded an unheated open-top bus where we were greeted by an energetic Japanese lady dressed in a mountaineering jacket and waving a microphone. Mistake number 2.

For the next hour we sat tightly huddled in our top deck seats, ducking to avoid low hanging tree branches and straining to understand the commentary. As Antonia noted, it was like having intermittent telephone reception….”something, something, something….Central Park…something, something…Woody Allen, something, condominium apartment…” And as my body temperature plummeted, I began to daydream about thick jumpers and wooly hats, rendering it impossible to concentrate on our enigmatic tour guide. By the time we reached Harlem, Antonia had turned blue and I’d lost all feeling in my bum cheeks. Our survival instinct finally kicked in (not at all inspired by the large Banana Republic Outlet store on the corner) and we hastily disembarked to buy jumpers (along with one or two other bargains). One Starbucks later and we were finally feeling thawed enough to venture back outside.

Harlem felt like a world away from the skyscrapers and designer stores of Mid Town. Groups of people were gathered on street corners and ladies pushed shopping trolleys piled high with clothes, plastic bags and cool boxes, presumably full of food (??). The further we walked away from the main stretch of shops, the more backwards glances we got from passers by. And the idea of using a selfie stick or even a map in Harlem felt a tad foolhardy. We bought Cap’tn Crunch cereal and squeezey cheese from a local supermarket and Antonia came to the aid of a fairly scary woman with a nose bleed, before we felt it best to catch the subway downtown to a more central spot on the Upper West Side. There we stopped for pizza slices and sodas in Famiglia (a favourite hangout of Sarah Palin’s, if the pictures on the wall were to be believed) before walking through Central Park and along Museum Mile. The park, as with the High Line, felt a little unloved. Overgrown pathways, unruly hedges and brown grass did little for its idolised image but the dramatic backdrop of the New York City skyline and the impressive architecture of the Guggenheim and Met museums were photo-worthy sights to see.   By this point, our shopping bags were cutting off the blood circulation to our hands so after a whistle stop to buy the kids candy from the far too sweet-scented and psychedelic Dylan’s Candy Store, we checked our bags into the Bloomingdales’ cloak room. We then spent the next hour exploring the retail Mecca of Manhattan and sipping prosecco in the Flip bar.

Later on, after a shower and short recharge at the hotel, we hailed a taxi to a restaurant in the Meatpacking District, recommended by Antonia’s New York-savvy spouse. We finished the day with an overpriced bottle of red (why is it so hard to find affordable wine in New York??) and burgers held together with toothpicks. Too many Manhattan happy moments to count!