Raising a finicky daughter and autistic son hasn't always been easy, but Ciara Attwell has turned the challenges of parenting into a new career as a food blogger, writes Julia Molony
Ciara Attwell had just given up her job as a solicitor and moved to the English countryside with her young family when she started her blog about the struggle of finding healthy food to give her fussy toddler.
At the time, it was mainly a hobby. But it was, she admits, a hobby propped up by the hope that she might be able to turn the project into a job she could juggle around raising her two children.
Now, several years on, she has hit the bloggers' holy grail - her blog is read by tens of thousands of people around the world, she has partnerships with major retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Co-op, she's appeared on daytime telly and last month she launched her first recipe book after a proposal she wrote was snapped up by a publisher.
It's been a funny old journey to this point, which started when she moved to London from Ireland as a student to read law at the University of London.
She was working as a solicitor when she fell in love with a Londoner and not long after that she found she was unexpectedly pregnant with their daughter, Aoife. "Literally, life just changed overnight," she says.
"We weren't even living together at the time. I was living in west London, he was living in Canary Wharf. Our whole lives just stopped in the space of a day."
Ciara went back to work six months after their daughter was born and the baby went to a childminder. Due to the long hours her mum was putting in, baby Aoife was often there for 10 or 11 hours a day and it was the childminder who weaned her and introduced her to new foods.
"We did that for a year, but within that year, we decided this is not really working for us... it just felt like we were working all these hours and we had nothing left at the end of the month and we were exhausted. It was quite stressful. I never felt like I was doing anything very well. When I was with Aoife, I felt like I should have been working, when I was working, I felt like I should have been with her," says Ciara.
They decided that the solution lay in a change of lifestyle, so Ciara quit her hard-won job as a lawyer and the family moved to rural Kent, to a little village outside Maidstone.
The change was abrupt and a bit disorientating. "Suddenly I had this 18-month-old child who I'd never really fed," says Ciara. "Because she'd spent so much time at the childminder."
Ciara had little to no experience as a home cook. "When you read these books or articles about people who are into food, they're basically like, 'Yeah, I shot out of the womb with a wok in my hand'," she says. "I wasn't like that. Before I had Aoife, I worked long hours and I had a really active social life. I didn't cook, I ate ready meals and sandwiches."
Very quickly, bad habits set in. "I was a bit slack with it," she says. "I then got pregnant with (her younger child) Finn. I felt quite sick throughout the whole pregnancy and didn't want to eat much. I wanted beige food and white bread and pasta. So then that obviously had an effect on Aoife and her eating. When Finn was born, suddenly I was like, 'Oh my God, I've got this really picky child on my hands'. And I knew that it was partly my fault."
As she set about trying to broaden her daughter's palate, she decided to record and share the experience online. That was four years ago. "Just after Finn was born, I set up the website. It was very much me just trying to find my feet with feeding a toddler, I'm trying to do this, starting from scratch," Ciara says.
She's had some experience of building a blog and had loved it. "Whilst we were in between Aoife and Finn, we got married. And I set up a wedding blog at that time. I was really interested in what I was doing and I wanted to share all the stuff I was finding. I just really enjoyed this new online world and wanted to be part of it. I enjoyed the sense of sharing and the sense of community. I really loved that, but soon as I got married, my interest just went overnight. Shut it down," she says.
Her new idea, however, offered more scope for longevity. And there was a quiet determination to make it work. In the back of her mind was always the motivation that she didn't want to go back to law. "About six months into it, my husband said, 'If you could just make enough a month on this website, he said if you could make £500, that will be enough. You won't have to go back to work for the next few years. We'll be fine on that. At the time, that was a gigantic goal."
Evidently, her kitchen-table enterprise is now considerably more profitable than those early, modest aspirations. Ciara grew up in Kilkenny, where she and her two brothers were raised single-handedly by her mother, who was a teacher and whose hard-working, resourceful approach to life has, she admits, influenced her a lot. "She worked really, really hard and that has been instilled in all of us," she says.
"Until I became a mother myself, I didn't realise how much she'd done. I talk about how I was only given six months' maternity leave, but I think I was three or four weeks old when my mum went back to work.
"This was 1981 in Ireland. She was offered a full-time permanent position, there weren't many of them around and she had to take it."
It's that determination and resilience which seems to have characterised her response to the biggest challenge her family has faced. Last year, when her son was three years old, he was diagnosed with autism.
"The last year has been very tough for us as a family," she wrote on Instagram, sharing the news with her followers. "We've known for some time that our little boy was 'different' and we finally received an autism diagnosis last week."
She speaks openly on social media about the particular struggles she and her husband face parenting a child with special needs.
In one post last year, she wrote: "Finn's behaviour is probably the worst it's been in months and certainly the worst since we got his autism diagnosis... my arms are covered in bite marks and bruises where he has bitten, pinched and hit me.
"It's heartbreaking to see him so upset and on edge all the time and knowing that he is feeling anxious and confused in his little head. Parenting is hard enough, but parenting a child with special or additional needs can feel like a long and lonely journey."
She says sharing her struggles so openly has afforded access to invaluable support through direct communication with other parents facing similar challenges.
"Speaking to people online that know exactly what you're going through, that's probably been the most help," she says.
"Connecting with other mums who are going through the same thing. Although once we started using the word autism, we accepted it very quickly, it was a case of wondering, where has this come from? There's no one in my family who is autistic. None of my friends have autistic children, so you can feel very much alone; that you're the only person in your surrounding environment dealing with that situation or dealing with particular behaviour," she says.
"But when I open up about that, particularly on my Instagram, I get so much response from people going through the same thing. It's a two-way street, I am helping people, but people are helping me as well... it's like anything with parenting, it takes a bit of getting used to. They don't come with a manual. You just have to adapt and do your best in the situation."
She's had to develop a thick skin raising a child with autism, because of judgment she faces both on and offline.
"A lot of Finn's behaviour is not what people associate with typical autistic behaviour. I guess, maybe it's more common for autistic children to be hypersensitive to noise and light and their surroundings. Finn is the opposite," she says.
"So rather than become closed and shut down in say, a busy cafe, he almost feeds on the energy and goes crazy. He'd be running off and saying 'hello' to someone and it's difficult because people look at it as bad behaviour, or bad parenting, or they think you should just discipline your child."
She's learned to shrug off the disapproving glances. "I can't educate everybody and if people want to have that view, that's fine."
Part of her mission to take on fussy eating is motivated these days by her son's relationship with food. One of the common aspects to the condition is issues and aversions to foods. Autistic children commonly have "sensory reactions to food", she says "how it looks, feels, smells, tastes. There are a lot of children who aren't on the spectrum, who will have similar reactions".
She says: "Finn likes what he likes and he would eat the same thing three times a day, every day, if I let him. There are a lot of other four-year-olds who are the same.
"It's sometimes hard to separate the autistic behaviour from four-year-old behaviour. But I try as much as possible, just the same with Aoife, to give him a variety and to give him choice."
My Fussy Eater by Ciara Attwell, £14.99, Lagom (Bonnier Publishing)
My first tip to parents is always to relax and try not to get too stressed about the situation. Most parents will deal with fussy eating at some stage in their child's life, so you are not alone. Children can intuitively pick up on your stress, so don't let them know that they are in control, no matter how frustrated you are feeling on the inside.
Recent research has shown that a child may have to be offered a new food up to 20 times before they will accept it and eat it. That might seem a bit daunting, but begin by introducing foods in really easy ways. Let them see you eating it before you start offering it to them. Start with very small amounts with no pressure - a one-bite rule is a great way to introduce new foods.
As parents, we have a tendency to want to fill our kids up with as much food as possible. But we need to be conscious of portion sizes, particularly for younger children and toddlers, as their stomachs are a lot smaller than we may realise. Large plates of food can also appear overwhelming, so start with small portions and you can always add more food later.
GET THEM INVOLVED
Get the kids into the kitchen making food with you, and I don't just mean baking cakes and cookies, but everyday food. For toddlers, it can be as simple as allowing them to choose which vegetables you cook for dinner or helping to make a sandwich. The older your child is, the more responsibility you can give them in the kitchen, but any kind of involvement is sure to make them more interested in the food when it actually reaches the table.
MAKE IT FUN
Meal times can be a little dull for children, so try injecting a bit of fun into it. My kids love bright and colourful plates and cutlery. Snack Plates with a wide variety of different fruits and veggies will look colourful and enticing to children and even a few colourful napkins or toothpicks can transform a packed lunch into something more kid-friendly.