today, i am grateful

(I wrote this post yesterday, but dropped my phone in the toilet and it wouldn’t transfer any photos to the computer. I didn’t want to leave them out, so waited till today – but trying to rewrite the post saying ‘yesterday’ just didn’t work. So I hope you’ll allow my a little artistic license, and read this post as if it were yesterday!)


Today, my sweet girl turned two.

Cake for breakfast, a family birthday tradition!
Cake for breakfast, a family birthday tradition!

Often, when it comes to our children’s birthdays and other landmarks, we either look back nostalgically, and mourn that life is passing too quickly, or we look far, far ahead, feeling that somehow life will be easier or our kids more rewarding once they can do thisunderstand that. In other words, we show our disappointment in what we have today.

Enjoying the swing!
Enjoying the swing!

But as I was pushing Missy on the swings this morning, I remembered photos of Mister on the same swing on his second birthday, and just how different it was. When Mister turned two, we had a 3-week-old newborn in tow. I believe the day was boiling hot – an unusual week-long heatwave at the end of September 2011 – and we spent it in the park, enjoying a family lunch at Ambience, and then relaxing in our garden, Mister enjoying his new cricket set and us devouring my first, semi-disastrous attempt at cake pops. But, to be honest, most of this I know only because we have photos from the day – I was far too sleep-deprived to really know what was going on!

Mister on the same swing on his second birthday!

So today I have experienced immense gratitude that we are where we are. Gratitude that we’re well and truly out of the baby phase, gratitude that I got a full night’s sleep last night, gratitude that I’m only dealing with one child in nappies, gratitude that my children now happily go to other people, gratitude that both are weaned, gratitude that I could afford more time on the cake pops, etc, etc…

If you can't wear a party dress to the park on your second birthday, then when can you do it?
If you can’t wear a party dress to the park on your second birthday, then when can you do it?

Today I’ve simply been enjoying Missy being 2. I’ve felt immense gratitude that certain things are a lot easier now than they were two years ago, wilfully ignoring the fact that other things are a lot harder. I’ve felt immense gratitude that I’m still enjoying her at home for a good while longer, despite the fact that her future – going to school, spending more time out of the home –  will bring more time and opportunities for me.

Today, I am grateful. I am grateful for today.

Pushing the buggy beats anything at the park.
Pushing the buggy beats anything else at the park.

Missy is determined, feisty, cheeky, funny and strong-willed. She wants to do everything her big brother does: climbing, jumping and wrestling. She loves to draw, stick and model with play dough. She adores babies – both real ones, and dolls, who she plays with non-stop. She plays a mean game of Old Macdonald Lotto, switching boards when she fears she may be losing. She gets away with it because she is just so damned cute. She is starting to understand who Jesus is, communicated via signs and play.

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Communicating without language is one of Missy’s great skills. She is confident to socialise with peers and adults, and can get herself involved in games and other activities remarkably skilfully for one who cannot yet say many identifiable words.

This third year will be an interesting ride. Should I be concerned about her sparse language? It’s pretty common for kids not to communicate much before the age of 3 or 4. But if there is a problem – surely early intervention is crucial? We are at the very, very early stages of gaining some outside assistance with Missy’s language. It will be play-based, in a group of other 2-3 year olds. Low-key. But hopefully helpful to Missy. And to us, as we watch her development and decide on future intervention.

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Our culture often writes of parenthood as a right. Friends, let us never, ever forget that children are a blessing, an enormous responsibility, and a huge privilege. All around me, friends are experiencing struggles in conceiving, miscarriages, and the early deaths of their children. I pray for a third year with Missy – but I could never demand it.

Today, I will be grateful for today.

birthday party on a budget (part one)

It’s all Kate’s fault.

Kate, mum extraordinaire, just happened to drop into conversation one day that she sets each of her oldest three kids a £30 budget for their birthday parties.


She makes them a cake outside this budget, but everything else (food, entertainment, decorations) has to fall under £30. As a result, they’ve come up with some incredibly creative ideas for how to celebrate their birthdays, including combining budgets for a joint party, and taking advantage of a cheap deal at the local pool.

Well, being one to like a challenge, I wondered whether I could set myself a £30 budget for each of my kids’ birthday parties. It seems insane to spend so much on just a couple of hours’ fun, and yet I happen to think birthdays are really important, worthy of a decent celebration. (Of course, this doesn’t have to be a party – but our family really loves parties!)

So – the challenge: can I produce an economical yet classy birthday party for nearly-two-year-old Missy? I’m sitting here post-party so I’ll spoil it for you: yes I can. Here’s how:

We had a dollies’ tea party. There was no other choice really: Missy adores dolls and plays with little else.

2013-09-07 07.36.03Eight little people (1 and 2 year olds) attended, plus four of their older siblings (3 and 4 year olds). So – what would we need? Small children don’t need a lot of planned ‘events’ at a birthday party – but I thought a couple of short, simple activities would go down well, give the afternoon some structure (reducing the time for arguments over toys!) and provide an ice-breaker for the parents, all of whom are my friends, but didn’t necessarily know each other.

Entertainment (£3.70)

After a bit of free play time, I invited the kids to decorate bibs for their dollies/teddies. This activity cost nothing: I cut out the bib templates from card we already had, and the children used felt tips and stickers to decorate them. I had a couple of train templates at the ready for anyone who wanted an alternative – these were left over from a previous party.

2013-09-07 15.29.31I was amazed at how much care the girls – and boys – took over these, and how involved they got. I was expecting it to last a couple of minutes – but it must have been nearer 15. Not bad for something free!

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Later we played Pass the Parcel – even tiny ones can enjoy this. In fact, I think the game is improved when its participants haven’t realised that by holding onto the parcel for longer they can improve their chances of the music stopping with them. (Actually, they can’t: the grown-up in charge of the music is watching and making sure everyone gets a turn, but don’t tell the kids!)

I used newspaper and old wrapping paper for the parcel (free), spent £1.50 on the prize (a foam craft kit from Morrison’s) and £2.20 on raisins to go between the layers. After I’d bought the prizes I realised I could have done this cheaper: the pound shop has lots of nice ideas for prizes – books, stationery sets, kites, hair accessories – and I’m sure I could have found wrapped sweets for less than the raisins. Tips for future parties! Anyway, the kids all participated and the raisins kept them going till tea-time!

Decoration (£3.75)

You can spend a fortune on party tableware and the like, so I was determined not to fall into this trap. Specialist designs (e.g. dollies) are usually only available online, so then you’re factoring in a delivery cost as well. Instead, I used the well-worn budgeting principles of make do and re-use. Rooting around in my party supplies I found more than enough balloons, and I also got out Missy’s nostalgia bunting from last year. Those of you who’ve been hanging around this blog for a while might remember this semi-successful craft project. This year, with help from my Mum, all the letters got re-outlined with thicker embroidery thread – I think the result is good! (And obviously this was free, as I’m re-using it. Originally it cost me – oh, perhaps the cost of the bunting ribbon?!)

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On the table, I went for a powder-blue tablecloth, which I would be able to clean and re-use for Mister’s party in a few weeks’ time, and pink plates (there had to be some girlyness in there somewhere!) with a few red ones for the boys who might have otherwise complained. Cups, bowls, etc were going to be our everyday non-breakable ones – except that I found some pink cups in the pound shop, and also discovered some pink napkins my Mum had bought us.

Food (£18.78)

This will always be the main expense. I kept costs down by using what we already had and planning (and sticking to) a menu, rather than hopping round the supermarket, buying whatever looked party-ish. We had the usual fare – sandwiches, cocktail sausages, veg sticks/hoummus, crisps, party rings, pink wafers, rocky road – with a couple of Missy-orientated additions (olives, which she adores, and marshmallows, which are possibly the only sweet thing she’ll usually eat). And, of course, no tea-party is a proper tea-party without scones. So I made these fresh, a couple of hours before the party, using ingredients we had in the house, and served them with jam. And then, of course, there was the cake, free from budget restrictions.

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Having decided upon our menu, the next trick was to make it look special. So I got out our cakestands and pretty serving dishes:

2013-09-07 15.59.24I put some small foods in teacups to stick with the ‘afternoon tea’ theme:

2013-09-07 15.59.54I cut the sandwiches into little fingers (cutting the crusts off, of course!), and made the scones bite-size. We lined all the dollies and teddies up on the sideboard with their own plates and cups.

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Party bags (£0)

OK, so you’re caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. Either you spend a bomb and fill them with decent things – or you do them on the cheap and fill them with plastic tat. (Or you don’t do them at all. But we don’t live in that world. Anyway, I think it’s a nice tradition to give something to your guests who’ve made an effort to come to your party, something we only seem to do at kids’ parties and weddings.) Now, don’t get me wrong, my kids are big fans of plastic tat. We put it all in our travel bag and they delight in playing with it whenever they have access to it. But I probably don’t want to be buying it – for environmental and financial reasons, and (if I’m honest) issues of snobbishness. So, what to do?

I wanted Missy’s friends to leave our party with something they might actually have a small chance of playing with over and over, something related to the party theme, something which preferably didn’t cost any money…so I made eight little dolls’ quilts, using scraps of old fabric and wadding left over from a previous craft project.

2013-09-05 14.17.19 I use the term ‘quilt’ loosely, for they were essentially bits of old things sewn together. I am not a seamstress. But my friends are a forgiving bunch, and I figured they wouldn’t mind a little shoddiness in the name of ethical, personal party favours.

2013-09-07 14.34.27Hopefully the quilts will get played with: Missy has already used hers as a blanket, changing mat, and comforter…isn’t it amazing how resourceful children can be with simple playthings?!

Total cost of party: £26.23.


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the case for ‘pre-loved’

Anyone who knows me knows I love a bargain. I break all rules of conversational etiquette when someone compliments me on something I’m wearing by responding with an enthusiastic declaration of how little it cost, and from where. Charity shops, second-hand sales, eBay – I love ‘pre-loved’.

But, over the last couple of years, I’ve been challenged to make this a central part of my shopping philosophy. Let me explain: I’m not talking about casually wandering into charity shops, buying the odd thing or two which, quite honestly, we don’t need anyway. I’m talking about changing our lifestyle so that we don’t buy new unless we absolutely need to.

Mister needs a bed – we search the community furniture store. We need a camera – we browse eBay. The kids need next season’s clothes – I scour charity shops and second-hand sales.

Joel's bed - or, should I say, 'hotbed' of pre-loved goodies: bed, bedguard and duvet cover.
Mister’s bed – or, should I say, ‘hotbed’ of pre-loved goodies: bed, bedguard and duvet cover.

Unless we need to buy something new (e.g. for safety/hygiene reasons) OR we simply can’t find what we need second-hand, my preference is to buy pre-loved.

Why such a fuss about pre-loved?

* To slow the unnecessary production of new goods. The earth simply cannot sustain the incessant demand on its resources to create yet more ‘stuff’ which will only be disposed of a few months or years down the line. We need to be re-using and re-using as much as we possibly can!

* To reduce the profits of companies which exploit their workers. For example: clothing. I’ve explored various ethical clothing options over the last few years, and have come to the conclusion that the most affordable ethical option is to buy pre-loved clothes. I hate the irony that my children’s clothes may have been made by similar-aged children who don’t share their privileges – and I was appalled to discover, shortly after the Bangladesh tragedy, that two ‘bargain’ cardigans I’d recently bought were made in Bangladesh. Buying pre-loved high street clothes doesn’t change the fact that they weren’t made ethically – but it does mean that those companies aren’t making extra profit from me buying their clothes brand new, and of course it frees up my money to give to charities and fair trade businesses who are working for justice.

* To lessen landfill waste. Why should someone have to chuck something still perfectly usable? If I can take it off their hands, that’s much better for the environment.

* It’s cheaper. This might mean that a better quality product can be obtained, or that more money is saved to give away. Or both.

If we call ourselves Christians, we have no choice but to be concerned about these issues. God is clearly concerned for the earth (He created it), people’s well-being (He created them), waste (which ruins the earth He created) and money (which is His anyway). We need to align our concerns with God’s concerns.

My beautiful sewing machine. The best thing Freecycle ever gave me.
My beautiful sewing machine. The best thing Freecycle ever gave me.

So what’s stopping us?

* Pride. Perhaps the biggest obstacle between us and the pre-loved market is that we don’t want to be seen with an older or scruffier version of what we really want. We’re concerned with what people think of us, and, to some extent, our identity is wrapped up in what we own. Amy Ross, CAP Intern, challenges us to be ‘free from fashion’ in her excellent article about being ethical on a budget.

* Choice. We live in a consumer-orientated culture, where we can be picky down to the tiniest detail of colour, shape, size, style and brand of whatever we’re buying. I do this regularly – and usually don’t even notice, sucked in as I am by the world’s way. I have to ask myself, Does this really matter in God’s kingdom? Whether I buy a doll’s pram which is wooden or metal, pink or blue, close to the floor or ever so slightly elevated? Does it matter, from an eternal perspective?

* Time. Finding what we want in a pre-loved state is often time-consuming. It could involve hours spent trawling through eBay and Gumtree, frequenting a large number of charity shops, or putting second-hand sales in the diary. It is much quicker to simply walk into a shop and buy what we want straight away.

* Organisation. Pre-loved items, unfortunately, don’t always present themselves at the time you need them. Often it takes a bit of forward planning to get them. If the fact that my children need wellies only dawns on me at the point at which they move up a shoe size, I probably have no option but to buy new ones. The cost? £10 for me. Rubber, plastic, fossil fuels for the earth. Perhaps a day’s badly-paid labour for someone on the other side of the world. But if I can predict that they will need wellies in the future (and in the UK, let’s face it, it’s not a difficult prediction), then I can search for them in the next few sizes up whenever I’m in a charity shop or at a kids’ second-hand sale. It’s difficult to be organised about shopping, when our culture is all about being able to buy whatever you want whenever you want it – but perhaps it’s a small price to pay in order for God’s earth and God’s people to be treated with respect.

Joel's wellies - a bargain at £2ish. I have a mild obsession with pre-loved wellies. I say mild obsession - it's bordering on mental illness.
Mister’s wellies – a bargain at £2ish. I have a mild obsession with pre-loved wellies. (I say mild obsession – it’s bordering on mental illness.)

* Quality. There are often no guarantees with pre-loved items. They could break within days of receiving them. However, my experience has shown this to be the exception rather than the rule, and with the money saved overall, the odd mistake is affordable.

* Instant satisfaction. We want something now and buying pre-loved takes longer than that. But perhaps instant gratification isn’t good for us. Perhaps we’ll appreciate our possessions more if they’ve taken longer to source. Perhaps we’ll appreciate them more if we know that, through their purchase, we have done some good.

Don’t some of us need to buy new items, so that the pre-loved market stays healthy?

Perhaps there is some argument here. But I don’t see any slowing down of the availability of pre-loved goods. Car boot sales and charity shops are everywhere, and Ebay ain’t going out of business just yet. Let’s first plunder the second-hand market for all it can give us – then perhaps we can argue this statement a little stronger.

But when I buy a new item, surely I’m helping to provide jobs for people?

Yes – kind of. You’re providing a job for a Western shop assistant, and others involved in the (probably Western) company. But perhaps somewhere else on the planet, another person has lost a job because their trade is dying out due to cheaper products being mass produced elsewhere. Perhaps the person who made the item isn’t being paid what they should. Yes, they have a job – but not one which can support them.

Also, some second-hand outlets do provide jobs – for those who really need them. By buying from them, you’re indeed creating the right jobs. The wonderful Bike Rescue Project in York (who supplied Mister’s new bike, his pride and joy) employ and train ex-offenders and unemployed people. I like that my money has gone to them. Some charity shops pay some of their staff. And, for all we know, people selling at a car boot or on eBay may be selling things in order to support their families.

Joel's new bike.
Mister’s new bike.


This is an issue which has been tugging at my heart-strings recently. (Can you tell?!) Of course there are lots of times when it’s just impossible to find things pre-loved. I have tried, and failed, to source pre-loved toys for the kids’ birthday presents this year. I’m currently not having much luck finding pre-loved bunk beds. It’s a real privilege to be able to buy new items whenever we need them – but from now on I want to make pre-loved my first choice.

* Do you buy pre-loved? If so, how do you go about it? How do you make it work for you?

* If not, what stops you? Is it lack of time, the possibility of damaged goods, or something else?

* How do you consider how you spend your money? Do you see it as a force for good?

(P.S. Sorry for the poor quality of the photos. My pre-loved eBay camera is currently having its flash fixed. I’d love to say this was an ironic joke but, sadly, it’s not. See point about ‘quality’ above.)