Vivien has lived such an interesting and well-traveled life and I am so excited to share her story of living with kids with you. Vivien is a single mother, raising two terrific teenage girls in a small village in North Wales in the UK. Her home is beautiful and sweet and full of meaningful touches from the places she has lived. Plus, Vivien edits a magazine targeted at pre-teen girls, so don’t be surprised if you love the things she has to say about parenting daughters. Welcome, Vivien!
Living With Kids: Vivien Jones
I live with my two daughters, I (17) and S (13), our dog Riley and cat Gizmo. I is at the end of her penultimate year at high school, studying for her ‘A’ levels in English Literature, History and Psychology. In 2019, she will head off to university so it’s an important time for her. S is in her second year of high school, so she still has a few years ahead of her (and at home with me!).
I am the youngest of three kids with an older brother and sister. We were all born in Kenya where my father grew up and our parents were married. They met at a dance not far from where we now live when my father was at university in the UK studying law. In 1957, at the tender age of 24, my mother, who had never left England, packed her bags and flew alone to Kenya to marry my dad. She didn’t even know her bridesmaids!
She tells the story of how the journey took days rather than hours — the planes weren’t pressurized and could only fly relatively short distances before they needed refueling. They stopped for lunch in Rome, spent the night in Malta, dropped some people off in Benghazi, before continuing the journey to Kampala in Uganda where my father met her to drive to Kenya. Mum says that the eight passengers on board were great friends by the end of the journey!
After Kenya and a brief stint in the UK, my father took a job in Botswana, where we lived for five years. Barefoot in the bush and running free with my dog is how I remember it! After that we moved to the Seychelles for a few years, and then Hong Kong, where I finished high school.
After completing my degree in English Literature in the UK, I went back to Hong Kong and worked as a magazine writer and editor, met my daughters’ father, moved to India for a short while, then back to Hong Kong, where we had two beautiful kids. I. is smart, strong-willed and sassy, while S. is intelligent, insightful and empathetic. I’m immensely proud of them both.
We currently live in a small village in North Wales (population 1,400) just on the border with England, which is a couple of miles away. We moved here in 2010 from Hong Kong. It’s a pretty village on the River Dee, with a ‘corner’ shop where they sell basic groceries, milk, local eggs and bread, as well as newspapers, etc. Along with the pub, this is the hub of village life.
We also have a fantastic butcher’s, a little post office, a ‘chippy’ (i.e. a fish-and-chip takeaway — part of the fabric of British life!). a library, which is open three times a week, and a village hall where the local Am Dram society stages its performances, and the annual produce show is held (as well as kids’ parties, school fundraisers, music nights and so on).
There’s a church, a primary school, a doctors’ surgery, some playing fields, a cricket pitch, bowling green, and tennis courts. It’s an incredibly green and verdant part of the world (Wales gets a lot of rain) and there are many beautiful walks in our neighbourhood. We often go down to the river in the summer for a picnic or barbecue. With the long summer evenings we enjoy in the UK, it’s a beautiful spot (and you can swim if you’re hardy enough!).
Our nearest city is Chester, and beyond that Liverpool and Manchester are both easily reached in an hour or so. Chester is where we head if we want to go shopping or to eat out. It’s full of history and has some fantastic Roman architecture, including the walls which surround the city and the amphitheatre. There are many medieval buildings as well. Every summer, we enjoy open air movies in the Roman gardens and theatre in the park. London is about three hours away, and I try to go once a month or so for work and to meet up with friends.
Once we decided to leave Hong Kong, I spent endless hours online looking at properties in this area and sending my mother and my sister to look at any which seemed to have potential. Unfortunately, I’d watched too many episodes of Grand Designs and had some fairly unrealistic ideas of what we could achieve. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that because I saw our current house and it ticked all the boxes.
It was in the village, so within walking distance of the girls’ school and the local shops (at the time, I couldn’t drive, which is another story). It had a large garden (I had ideas of wafting around, gardening in a flowery dress with a straw hat and wellies — another story that turned out a little different in reality!), and a treehouse, something we promised our girls they would have when they moved to the UK. Four bedrooms, a large living area (with a big fireplace), and a double garage, which we converted to an office/ dark room space.
If I’m honest, it was not my dream home — it’s a relatively new build (1999) timber-framed house that at the time had a lot of dark wood and dodgy carpeting, but it was the right size in the right place at the right time for the right price. We couldn’t argue with that. So, having only seen it online, we made an offer which was accepted! I think the house had been on the market for less than three weeks.
The first thing we did — almost before the previous owners had disappeared down the drive — was to pull up all the old carpets and linoleum. The house felt quite dark and gloomy and we wanted to brighten it up so straight away we painted everything white — walls, doors, window frames, staircase, fireplace, everything that had been a dark wood or bare brick was painted white. It was a big job that made an enormous difference to the light in the house and made everything feel fresh. We replaced all the carpets with sisal downstairs and wool carpets upstairs, and laid a white wood laminate in the kitchen. A couple of the rooms — the hallway and my office — had parquet flooring, which we kept. The only major structural change we made was to knock through from the dining room into the kitchen to make one large kitchen-diner. This made an enormous difference and we absolutely love it. It has large windows at either end, which are east- and west-facing so we get sunshine flooding in in the morning and warm evening light as well.
After we had a contractor pull the dividing wall down, we ripped out the old kitchen units (which were pine and sticky from years of use) and replaced them with an IKEA kitchen. I did lots of research and had quite a few quotes (some eye-watering) but at the end of the day, the IKEA kitchen won for value and style — I think their kitchens are great and can be adapted in so many ways. Of course, none of this happened overnight and we lived with a cement floor and a make-do kitchen for quite a few months.
After being in the house for about seven years, I finally renovated the bathrooms last summer. They were incredibly dated and I hated them but didn’t have the money to fix them up. I did them very much on a budget but they are an enormous improvement. The girls love their walk-in rain shower and I managed to pick up a claw foot bath on eBay for £100 for my en-suite bathroom.
The other major ‘room’ of our house is the garden, but I have to admit to being a bit of a failure in that department. Our house is built on a double plot so we have a relatively large outdoor space, which was great for the girls when they were younger — we have a treehouse, trampoline and swing set out there — but does require a level of maintenance that is rather beyond me!
When we moved into the house, the garden was incredibly overgrown and out of control — the nettles were so high in the backyard that at first we didn’t even know there was a treehouse out there. We have managed to tame it a little bit (and a lovely man called Ted comes and mows the lawn for me in the summer) but it is still rather wild. But I am trying to embrace the weeds and regard them as beautiful in their own right.
We have a big walnut tree, which keeps the squirrels fat and happy all year round, an apple tree that yields delicious fruit, a cherry tree which is less generous with its bounty, strawberries, gooseberries, rhubarb and blackberries. The real star in our garden are the raspberries, which are prolific and when I find the time, make for delicious jam that lasts us all year.
One of the reasons for moving to the UK was to bring the girls up close to my family — my sister lives in the village with her family, having moved here from South Africa a decade ago. And my brother lives in the south of England with his family so we get to see a fair bit of him too. My parents live nearby, and it’s been lovely to be able to spend time with the whole family, something that was quite rare in years gone by when we were all scattered to the four winds.
My father died three years ago and I was privileged to be with him at the end of his life, something that I might not have been able to manage had I lived 6000 miles away. And it’s been good to be around to support my mother now that he’s gone.
Having spent almost my whole life living overseas, I also wanted the opportunity to explore what it was like to live in my own culture. Living as an expatriate, you’re always an outsider to some extent. I wasn’t quite sure where I belonged. I wanted to start a new chapter in my life and the UK was somewhere that I really didn’t know very well!
I will be honest and say that moving here has been a mixed blessing for me (and in ways I still feel an outsider). I sometimes miss Hong Kong — for me it feels like home, the place that I know like the back of my hand, where my memories are woven, where some of my best friends live, where I met my daughters’ father, where our girls were born. It’s an amazing city with an incredible energy and dynamism.
Luckily, the girls have made the transition much more smoothly! They are very settled here and Hong Kong is just a distant memory now. They have made great friends and family makes it home. Since their dad and I separated, I have stayed here to give them continuity in their lives.
The idea for a magazine for pre-teen girls had been swirling around my head for a few years — since my elder daughter was a pre-teen, I suppose. I was disappointed by the magazines available to her at that age, which seemed to focus almost exclusively on fashion, beauty and celebrity gossip. Girls are so full of potential and yet they are fed a narrow stereotype of what it is to be a girl (essentially, pretty in pink). I have been a magazine editor for the past 20 years and I just thought I could do better.
I talked it through with an old friend of mine, Nicky Shortridge, who is also an editor, and together we dreamed and discussed and planned and ultimately created KOOKIE (for smart KOOKIEs everywhere), which we launched at the end of 2017 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. KOOKIE is 100% ad-free and is published quarterly in the UK and Australia for girls aged 8-12+. We ship worldwide and already have subscribers in Canada and the US, Europe and Asia. We’ve just published our third issue and are really proud of it.
We feel strongly that girls have to “see it to be it” so each issue of KOOKIE features powerful stories of inspirational girls and women. We’ve had great interviews with the ballet dancer Darcey Bussell, the writer Liz Pichon, record-breaking solo sailor Jessica Watson, BMX and archery champions, a centenarian choreographer, an all-girl ukulele orchestra, and many others, plus original fiction and comics, topical debate, environmental issues, book reviews, puzzles, craft, quizzes, pets, problems and loads more.
The whole magazine is produced by a team of women and pre-teen girls — giving our readers a platform and a voice is really important to us. Our readers contribute their opinions to the debate, they write the book reviews, conduct our interviews, showcase their art and writing, send in their pet photos, tell us their embarrassing moments and share their problems. Hearing from readers is hands-down the most rewarding part of the job for me. With KOOKIE, we want to create a magazine that engages and encourages girls, builds their confidence and resilience as they prepare to move into their teens, and gives them a well-rounded and optimistic sense of their place in the world. The response to KOOKIE has been fantastic and Nicky and I have loved creating something that really reflects the change we’d like to see in the world.
Being a full time single parent living with kids and working, publishing a magazine, is tough — no two ways about it. Apart from the practical logistics of taking care of my daughters, there is the pastoral care that is so important and challenging. As teens, they need me as much, if not more, than they did as young children. The playbook on how to raise a teen changes every day and there are so many complex issues to contend with — from the implications of social media and peer pressure to boyfriends and exams. That’s the hardest part and I feel the responsibility weighs heavy sometimes. I think being a single parent has made me tougher on my kids in some ways — the buck stops with me and so I tend to err on the side of caution when there is a hard decision to make because I don’t want to get it wrong.
The playbook on how to raise a teen changes every day and there are so many complex issues to contend with — from the implications of social media and peer pressure to boyfriends and exams. That’s the hardest part and I feel the responsibility weighs heavily on my shoulders at times. It can be lonely and a bit overwhelming. I think being a single parent has made me tougher on my kids in some ways — the buck stops with me and so I tend to err on the side of caution when there is a hard decision to make because I don’t want to get it wrong.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression though — being their mother is enormously rewarding, and seeing them grow into themselves and become strong, opinionated, confident young women is wonderful. I love the rituals we have (the bedrock for parenting teens, I think): supper at the table every night which is our chance to catch up on the day, watching whole TV series together night after night (Friends and Gilmore Girls most lately), those times when one or other will come and sleep in my bed with me (I have the biggest, most comfortable bed in the house), long car rides with the music playing loud…. Even the most mundane things will soon be looked back on with nostalgia, I am sure.
I sure hope they remember all those times I got up early to bake them fresh blueberry muffins for breakfast! Honestly, I hope they remember home as somewhere warm and comfortable and safe. Somewhere their friends were always welcome, somewhere they could be their true selves — in whatever form that took: happy, sad, bored, truculent, joyful. I hope they remember that I was always there for them — from early breakfasts to the late night pick-up from a party. I hope they remember how much they are loved by their parents. I also hope they remember how their mum had a vision for something and worked hard to make it happen. What I hope they don’t remember are the times that I was less than patient or was busy with work, the times I didn’t keep my cool!
I remember when my eldest was born, looking into her face and thinking: “so that’s what you look like, that’s who you are” because it felt like I’d always known her and yet had never met her. I love the quote that babies come “out of the everywhere into the here”. To spend time with these two beautiful people who, in a sense, have always been part of me is a privilege and a joy.
Now they’re older, hanging out with them takes on a new aspect — they make me laugh, they make me think, they challenge me, sometimes they frustrate me, all of which has made me grow as a person. I’ve had to learn not to be so reactive and to try and diffuse situations rather than add fuel to the teenage fire.
I miss them as babies, of course. That special time is so anticipated, so intense, and yet so fleeting. I miss being that little family unit. I miss the smell of a drowsy baby and the sticky hand-holding and endless questions of a toddler. I think about all those ‘last times’ that I was unaware of — the last time I breastfed, the last time I changed a nappy or the last time I carried my baby on my hip. Those significant moments that slip by us unmarked and are gone forever.
Everyone tells you how fast time flies and you don’t believe it, especially when your kids are very little and some hours really drag by. But it’s true: the days are long but the years are short. Enjoy the here and now because you will look back on it all with so much love and fondness (except perhaps the sleepless nights!).
I also wish someone had told me that it won’t matter how much you limited their screen time when they are small because they’ll grow into teens who never put their phones down!
Thank you, Vivien for sharing your living with kids story! It’s always so interesting to me to hear someone else life’s journey — from Kenya, to Hong Kong to Wales. And I love all the accents and artwork around the home that were surely gathered during her well-traveled life. This home is so full of charm and light it must be a really comfortable places to gather as a family.
As a parent of teens and pre-teens myself, I really loved what Vivien says about building rituals with her kids, like family dinner and binge watching TV shows together. I find it fun that as my kids grow up and start to really grow into their own personalities, that the way interact with them changes and evolves. And didn’t you love what Vivien said about how kids need to “see it to be it?” I think it is so powerful for kids to see examples of people who are like them thriving and succeeding in life. I love that Vivien has channeled that into magazine to give girls a wide perspective of successful women and a place to hear their own voices. What a wonderful endeavor!
How do you help your kids find great examples in their lives? Do you think it is easy for your kids to find representation in the media and pop culture? Or are you not a fan of the examples they see? What have you done as a parent to help guide them to the right examples and models to look up to?
Kitchen island (IKEA)
Photo credit to Suzanne Ross-Hughes. Check out Vivien’s magazine for pre-teen girls here. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at email@example.com