Sunshine in Lockdown (Naomi Ager)

I’m really pleased to share this guest post by my wife Naomi, one she surprised me with late last night.

Yesterday’s (Thursday 15 October 2020) visit to Sunshine Wood turned out to be quite emotional for me. No, not in a gushy crying way, but instead a rush of overwhelming relief that finally I’d found somewhere lovely, stimulating and safe for my youngest child Pollyanna to explore and enjoy learning opportunities again, one that involved little people like her and not just with mummy.

My older children, Freddy (5) and Matilda (4) have benefitted socially, academically, and emotionally from the daily toddler groups and play cafes we toured before they started school nursery and then fulltime school.
They also got to go to nursery from the age of two for 15 hours which really built their confidence.

Then coronavirus lockdown happened, resulting in Freddy and Matilda being ripped abruptly away from their school in Wallsend back in March 2020, and not being able to return to say a proper goodbye to their school friends before we moved house to Norton in Stockton. Pollyanna had just started her journey at Shining Stars Nursery before lockdown stopped it in its tracks.

I found myself, like many thousands of other parents, at home with the prospect of a whole new ‘adventure’ – home schooling! These children had been used to proper organised activities, play groups, nursery etc. How could I compare?

We remained sensible and only left the house to go for long walks in open spaces, and filled the rest of each day with learning games, drawing, talking together, playing, lots of cuddles, and togetherness as a family.

Eventually, the schools reopened, and in September, the big two started their new chapter at their new school. This left Pollyanna and me at home alone facing long daytimes, still with toddler groups closed. A few places I had heard about from friends only took bookings, and I guess because I wasn’t used to being pinned down and kind of forced to attend, booking felt too official for this mummy and daughter duo who just liked to wake up and go where we felt like going.

Anyway, when Pollyanna’s little friend and her mummy invited us to go, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and get us both back into the swing.

Sunshine Wood greeted us with such warmth and friendliness, whilst still making sure the rules they had implemented were followed and understood. The facility itself was so clean and well set out and having a number limit really allowed those parents that were there to have a really quality experience with their child.

Pollyanna explored most areas at least once. Though she was particularly drawn to the excavators and rocks in the sand pit. She relaxed for ages there and found it really therapeutic to explore with the sand. In the hour and a quarter we (Mummy, Daddy and Pollyanna) spent at Sunshine Wood, watched our little girl come out of her lockdown shell and remember the fun she used to have with children her own age. She was a vet, a farmer, a shop keeper, and a builder. In those precious moments and she sparkled her way through every role. She also loved the painting area and proudly clutched her numerous works of art when it was time to leave.

As a doting mummy, I take copious amounts of photos so I can look back on the memories. Today, at Sunshine Wood, my heart took a photo, and they are always the best kind.

Sunshine Wood (Billingham)

Sunshine Wood is a natural educational and play centre for young children set in the Billingham Beck Valley Country Park. Naomi and I took Pollyanna this morning and she met her friend Isabelle there. There’s also a cafe, toilets and baby changing facility. It was our first time there, and Pollyanna really loved it. We were particularly impressed by the excellent coronavirus safeguarding precautions being taken, with thorough cleaning between sessions. There’s also a QR code for checking in with the NHS track and trace app for smartphones. You can find Sunshine Wood on Facebook.

After our visit to Sunshine Wood, we enjoyed an autumnal walk round Billingham Beck Valley Country Park, and I returned later with Freddy and Matilda after picking them up from school. Matilda needed to collect autumn objects for her school homework project.

The Story of Alex (Jemma Smedley)

On a special anniversary (16 February 2020) my friend Jemma Smedley posted the story of Alex on Facebook. I was so moved by her story that I was prompted to ask if I could share the story here. With Jemma’s permission and final approval, I’ve edited her words to tell the story as a guest post in Baby Loss Awareness Week.

13 years ago today at 5.30 am our beautiful boy Alex came into the world sleeping, a day when I really thought I was going with him, but let me rewind and tell you the story of Alex Smedley…

It was the day before Valentine’s Day 2007 and off me and Richard went for my 20 week scan at QMC, we were so excited to find out whether our baby was pink or blue. We left Leah and William with my mum and promised to bring a present back from the baby, so first stop when we got to QMC was the shop a Barbie for Leah and a teddy for Will.

Then round to antenatal, booked in and sat waiting for my scan. You watch smiling couples walk out the scan rooms clutching scan photos, thinking that will be me in a minute. My name is called, yeyyyyyy our turn! I lie on the bed, cold jelly on my tummy holding Richard’s hand excited to see our baby, chatting to the lady doing the scan.

I can see the screen, then after a few seconds…silence and the screen is turned away…sorry I just need to get someone else. OK Jemma take a breath, this isn’t happening – I knew what was coming!

I’m silent, yet in my head I’m screaming. Another senior sonographer comes in, and they whisper while I stare at the ceiling in the dark and Rich squeezes my hand then the words, “we are so sorry we can’t find a heartbeat your baby has died at around 18 weeks.”

I ask them to check again, “there is nothing we are so sorry.” I see for myself, hands feet arms legs nose and face perfect outline of our baby, but no heartbeat. Gone, but still there inside my tummy, safe and warm. I cry, the tears won’t stop, I’m trying to wipe the jelly off my bump while I stand up. Now what do I do?

We were taken into a side room with pictures of lilies on the wall, and Miscarriage Association leaflets on the table with a box of tissues. This is the room no parent ever wants to enter, but here I am with Richard and a lovely woman. She’s talking asking me how I want to deliver my baby. What I think is, is she joking, not a chance they are taking him, I’m off home. I heard inducing labour with tablets or operation, at that I was out of the door, nope I’m keeping him, and I was sobbing and crying for Rich to take me home!

That’s where I went, home. I walked into the house and straight upstairs, I sat there numb. Leah and Will came up, I gave them their presents and told them that Alex sent them, but he had to go to heaven.

The hospital rang to say if I hadn’t started to lose Alex in 2 days I had to go back, that gave me 2 days with him. So, Valentine’s Day came, and Rich had twelve roses delivered from Harvey Nichols, they were stunning. I stood up to sort them, and blood was gushing everywhere. Shit, what had I done by coming home!!

An ambulance was called, and off I went to hospital. I was admitted onto the gynaecology ward to save me having to go to maternity with all the new mums and babies. By now it was late, the bleeding had stopped, and I was told get some rest, we will scan you in the morning…and they did. Great, back to antenatal to sit with all the pregnant women going for their scans!

I’m sat in my dressing gown hooked up to a drip in a wheelchair with blood shot eyes when just 2 days ago I was one of them, into the scan room I go.
Cold jelly, screen turned away, until I say no I want to see; and there again is my perfect beautiful boy. still safe in my tummy. I remember smiling just looking at his silhouette, and I asked for pictures of every angle, as I knew this was the last time I would see him.

Up on the ward I’m told that I’m booked in later for that day to have an operation. The anaesthetist came, forms were signed, I asked for the Chaplain, and I cry as she prays for Alex and tells me about the ceremony and cremation he will have at Wilford Hill. I felt better that he was going to have a Christian funeral, and we could go to the service of remembrance. The day dragged, I’m nil by mouth, waiting, waiting, waiting, then I’m told my operation will be tomorrow as they’d had an emergency. Fine, I get to keep him a bit longer. Richard visited me; we didn’t have much to say as we were both just numb. What do you say?

I lie awake watching the car park out of my window. I must have fallen asleep as it’s still dark outside. Suddenly, I’m woken by pain ripping across my stomach, I manage to get to the loo on the ward and OMG, blood everywhere again, I pull the red cord, alarms go off, I’m put in a wheel chair, and taken back to my bed. The contractions are coming thick and fast. I’m screaming in pain. At 5.30am I push Alex out, still in his amniotic sack, protected in his little bubble. The lovely young nurse carries him in her hands out of the curtain as I lie there, I feel a warm sensation by my feet, I look down and the bed is soaked in blood. I’m surrounded by doctors sticking drips in every vein possible, being told I need to go to theatre as the placenta is just bleeding out and it’s stuck.

The red button’s hit at the back of my bed, alarms sound. I’m dizzy, not quiet with it, and absolutely terrified, screaming for Richard. The porter comes with a bed, the nurse said no time to transfer me, I need to get to theatre now as they were waiting for me.

The porter runs with my bed, all I can see is the lights on the ceiling flashing by, the young nurse that took Alex is running by my side holding my hand, I feel the mask on my face and I’m gone…

…I wake up shivering in recovery, hooked up to fluids and blood. I’m soon back on the ward. I’m now known as the lady that lost her baby. The other patients were lovely, one even ringing her sister to bring me a cake in at visiting time and asking to see my scans.

The doctor that looked after me came to see me and hugged me. He told me I was as white as a ghost, but at one point he thought I was going to be a ghost! Two days later, I went home. I had Alex’s remembrance service at the hospital to go to, losing Alex broke me in more ways than I can say. When I lost the twins, we didn’t have any other children. People understood that we were childless, so we got support then. With Alex, it was “Oh, at least you have Leah and William.” The support wasn’t there. I do remember Richard’s dad buying me three boxes of chocolates. though he said nothing. But he didn’t need, to it was his way of saying sorry.

Today, I tell our story. We remember you; we miss you, but most of all we love you. Happy 13th birthday, my beautiful boy.

100 Days of Retirement

Today (Thursday 8 October 2020) marks 100 days since my retirement, an appropriate time to take stock and reflect. In the build-up to this significant event I wrote that my retirement was never going to be a normal one because I have three young children under six, even before the coronavirus pandemic which well and truly threw our plans into disarray.

It was a nightmare having to carpet and furnish a new house in lockdown, while packing up and preparing for a new occupant to move in (as an officer you move into a house that has been cleaned and prepared for you). We were originally going to move on my retirement day (1 July) but had to postpone it for a week (8 July) and even that made it very tight, we only just had the carpets down and furniture in before we moved.

The supply chains and lockdown regulations made life extremely difficult. Trips to the local tip were by appointment only, and we eventually used up our limit. The tight timescale also made it difficult for property work that needed to be done before the new officer moved in on 16 July. Of necessity (not choice) I had to do numerous trips between the two houses before and after our move to finish off. I’m normally so organised at moving, even though it’s never easy.

Settling in took a while, there were still things to be done (and several problems encountered along the way) and we didn’t get our sofas until the middle of August, but we managed. Our children were unsettled by the move, as well as the challenges of having been off school since March.

We’re now settled in our new house and life, with just a few jobs to finalise and boxes in the loft to sort out. Freddy and Matilda are happy in their new school, although we’re still looking for nursery options for Pollyanna. The pandemic continues to be a concern, as it does for everyone.

Overall, we’re moving on, settling into our new routines, and actively building our new life together as a family. See also my wife’s guest post Sunshine in Lockdown.

Aeolian Motion (Phil Johnson)

This morning I took Freddy with me to do some jobs in Stockton-on-Tees town centre, but we also had some fun and did some sightseeing. Freddy got soaking wet in the fountains and had to walk back to the car in wet shorts and bare feet, fortunately there were some spare clothes in the car. You can see the photos here.

We also had a walk along the riverside, passing a striking piece of constantly moving public art entitled Aeolian Motion (Phil Johnson). It was erected in March 2001 as part of a regeneration plan for the area and was inspired by the endless flow of the river and its rich history (see plaque below).

Stewart Park with Matilda

I seized the opportunity to have some Daddy/Matilda time while Naomi was out with Freddy and Pollyanna today. It’s great to be all together as a family, but equally important to have one-to-one parent and child times as they can really deepen relationships.

As I was thinking where we could go, one of the places I came up with was Stewart Park in Middlesbrough to see the animals. Without prompting, she said she wanted to go to a park with animals, so that was decided. We’re obviously in tune with each other and on the same wavelength.

We saw the animals and did all the usual stuff you do in a park on a sunny afternoon (including having ice creams) although she was quite happy making sandcastles and adding ‘details’ (her words not mine) of stones, leaves, pine cones and sticks. You can see all the photos here.

Walk in Coatham Wood

Since moving to Teesside (strictly speaking back to Teesside) I’ve been making a list of places to visit, and this wood was somewhere I discovered recently. Naomi is out with Pollyanna today, so I decided to take Freddy and Matilda. We only had time to see a small part of the wood, so we’re sure to visit again.

Visit this vibrant woodland habitat, bursting with wildlife for you to discover. Coatham Wood, found near Stockton, is a newly planted community woodland, with the first trees planted in 1999. The mosaic of broadleaved and conifer trees, as well as ponds and meadows makes Coatham a great habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Look out for newts and dragonflies around the ponds, or you may spot a deer grazing in one of the open areas. All 5 native species of owl have been spotted around the woodland. Forestry England.