Ask for what you need; stand up for what you think

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‘Use your words.

I can’t understand whining.

Tell me what you need. Use your words.’

If I had a shiny pound for every time I’ve said this in the last few years, I’d be running off to purchase the entire stock of Waterstones and a personal Elton John concert. I am not a mind-reader. When the boys need me to put right an injustice or provide something they desperately want, I need words.

It’s just struck me lately that, funnily enough, if I have learned anything from seven-plus years of marriage (apart from to defend your share of pizza with your elbows and all the ferocity you possess) it’s this same thing. Ask for what you need. Stand up for what you think. He is not a mind-reader. It’s been one of the most defining shifts of my twenties and it’s become one of the most important things I want to encourage in my children. Knowing yourself well enough to work out what you think and what you need – and then doing someone the courtesy of explaining it so they can be part of your solution – seems to be a recipe for good emotional literacy, self-respect and self-care.

Maybe it takes a while to know yourself well enough and be brave enough to express needs. Maybe you feel timid about taking up emotional space in your relationship, because you feel like you don’t really deserve it. Or you expect someone to automatically intuit what you need without having to ask. I think all of those things were true of me (still are, some days).

We were in our early twenties when we got married. I had graduated university and was a year or so into work; Tim had returned from two years pounding streets in South Africa and was well stuck in to his degree. We were settled and extremely happy. I remember those early years as being all world-building and discovery. It was lovely.

But no matter how well you know someone, once you live together you’re literally warts-and-all. There’s lots to get used to. I had a pathological inability to close a cupboard I’d just opened, and he moonwalked his socks off his feet every night and left them there on the floor by his bed. And there was so much I didn’t understand about myself or about him. The way men and women interact in general and the way we interacted in particular, fresh from and marked by our own families and experiences.

Half our arguments in those early days could’ve been avoided if we’d just asked for what we needed. But maybe it’s the sort of thing you need to learn together, over time.

One of my dear friends says this, and she’s right: relationships are a miracle. That you found someone who makes your soul sing, that’s a miracle. Out of all the people in the world! Of all the choices you could have made, and missed each other! You didn’t. You found each other. You are the answer to someone’s deep and searching questions, and simultaneously, they are yours. What on earth were the chances of that?

I would add this, now: the other miracle is that you get to grow together. You learn things from each other and in the process you learn about yourself, and then you try to change. I mean, I still leave cupboard doors open. WHY CAN’T I SEE THAT THEY ARE OPEN WHEN IT WAS ME WHO OPENED THEM. But over time, and sometimes painfully, I am learning to ask for what I need.

I had a bit of a rough summer, actually. Lots of rain, lots of solo parenting, not very many changes of scene. The boys and I got sick of each other, and the twelve hours I spend with them a day started to feel more like a ball and chain than a delight. By the time we got to late August I was exhausted by resentment and CBeebies. Then one evening I had a light bulb moment: I do not have to be miserable. Life with small children does not have to be miserable. It’s just that there are things my soul needs that I am not getting.

I worked out what they were and then discussed them with Tim the next day. Time by myself. Time with just him. Time pursuing my own career goals, however meagre they might be at the moment. He’s a man: he enjoys working out the logistics of a solution. We decided on some different things we could do with our calendar, and I felt like things would get better.

They have. So I feel like this will be my endless refrain to my children, when they start looking for relationships, and to myself in the mirror, and to you, lovely reader, if you want it and it feels right.

You are worth the effort it takes to be happy, and you can take responsibility for working out your own needs. Use your words, and let someone else in.

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That time a McDonalds addict counted calories for a summer and did not die

Imagine this. (Not the eggs, this:)

1. You are in a state of pudginess not far enough advanced to embrace your identity as an curvy moon goddess, but just enough to make you bulge out of all your clothes. You are tired. You are thirty. You wish to fit inside things without the constant risk of indecent exposure. You put aside the cold chicken nugget you are absentmindedly chewing and decide something MUST BE DONE.

2. You consider: cutting out sugar, cutting out carbs, cutting out dairy, cutting out potatoes, cutting out cold chicken nuggets. Every dieter you read about sounds taut and weary, like they have decided to give up joy and rainbows in return for lycra selfies and sadness.  You will not do it. You will not. You decide to count calories instead.

Counting calories has several advantages: there are many apps that do the maths for you; you do not have to cut out anything, least of all potatoes; and you can bargain yourself more calories, Dr Faustus-style, by offering up exercise as a blood sweat sacrifice.

Long walks: a literal bacon-saver

Long walks: a literal bacon-saver

3. You set it all up. Your husband – who is not carrying so much as a spare teaspoon of fat and picks up exercise disciplines as casually as you pick up blocks of cheese – is enthusiastic about doing it with you. You discover, together, that calorie counting is boring. Instead of sitting down to lunch like a normal human being, you hover around the kitchen scanning barcodes and weighing individual olives. Compiling a basic salad is such a lengthy process that you come out in cold sweats. And that’s before you’ve even faced the idea of just eating salad for a meal, as though suddenly you’re a horse that doesn’t like bacon or something, like what is wrong with you, self-horse.

4. You spend a week furious about calories that are in things. Pastry has betrayed you. Salad dressing has betrayed you. One morning you make a bowl of porridge, log it and realise you can only eat half, because OATS, WHAT IS THIS. Margarine is so calorific you might’s well have better-tasting butter. And bagels. Do not even start on bagels. Is it really living, when you know the truth about bagels? Can you carry on?

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Better than bagels.

5. You explain to everyone who asks – and you’re eating 3 Doritos instead of 27; they always ask – that you’re just doing it for a month, it’s easier than cutting out sugar, haha. You try not to sound like a weight loss fanatic. You don’t give a flying buttress about kale or clean eating. You like eating dirty, actually. You just want to fit in your jeans.

6. Low point: one day you eat at McDonalds for lunch. You don’t go mad. Medium meal, no apple pie. After totting it all up, you realise you can’t have any dinner. Approximately 23 minutes later, you are hungry again.

High point: the day you discover that crumpets are fewer calories than bagels. Quite slimline really. My Fitness Pal soon puts crumpets in your ‘Frequent Foods’.

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7. It’s getting easier. The app remembers the stuff you eat most often, so there’s a lot less olive-weighing in your day-to-day. You’re starting to enjoy fitting in extra walks and bike rides – not just to earn yourself some ice cream after dinner, but for their own sake. You are having to ask yourself – all the blimming time – whether you are actually hungry or just fidgety and bored. It’s a useful exercise. You haven’t had to give anything up (except dinner that one time), and you still worship heartily at the Shrine of the Pie. It’s not half bad.

8. For the first two weeks you lose not a single pound, and you chalk it up to all the anger you’re carrying about the bagels. Then suddenly half a stone is gone. Then ten pounds. You’re starting to feel sick when you overeat. You’re starting to think this is probably a good thing.

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Cooking with lentils: a useful guide

9. You think you might be alright to carry this on long-term. You have discovered that food makes you happy – all of it, the bread and meat and croissants and carrot sticks and cheese blocks of life. You believe that happiness is good. You believe that moderation is good too, and good for you, and not a habit you were especially practising before, especially in the area of cheese blocks.

10. You still do not believe that salad is a meal. Bacon or bust, friends. BACON OR BUST.

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Like liquid gold, ain’t it.

Notes from the trenches: 7

‘You’ll miss this when it’s gone!’ people tell me.

I like to remember this when I’m watching the slow seep of faeces under my fingernails, or engaged in a full-body wrestle with a boy and a supermarket trolley (‘Bend your legs. BEND THEM. BEND. YOUR. LEGS’). Then I do a hollow laugh, likely as not.

Actually, I know they’re right. The brain is a tricky beggar, and airbrushes out the worst bits once enough time has gone by. I’ll forget the number of times I texted Timothy in all-caps or locked myself in the loo for five minutes. I’ll get used to having no stains at all on my trousers around the mid-thigh-snotty-nose level.

That’s why I collect these text messages to the husband in one place, brain. So that I’LL WIN IN THE END.

Here’s my last six months’ worth of notes from the trenches. Weep.

5th March

Teddy is poorly enough for us to have to stay in under a duvet this afternoon. We’re watching Happy Feet. Is it me, or do these penguins react to dancing in a sort of…sexual way? I feel uncomfortable. 


20th March

What I really wanted for my birthday was a cowpat cake, so thank goodness we filled that hole.


27 March

Just arrived at Tesco. Dentist went about as well as it could, given the adult: child ratio.

Ted is a menace. Dentist is about the loveliest man alive.

They are not in a great mood, so pray for me *horror face*


8 April

I swear H actually just said this [while watching The Avengers for the first time]

H: ‘Where’s the Increbibble Hulk?’
Me: ‘He’s that man over there. He hasn’t changed yet.’
H: *sigh* ‘Can someone tell him he needs to be a superhero and not a man in a pink jumper?’


16 April

Today was the first time in this kid’s life that I said he had to eat some cheese toastie or he couldn’t have a yoghurt. It went super well.

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21 April

H, looking at the completely dried up frog puddle: ‘I can see a few tadpoles…they’re not moving though.’
Me: ‘Mm, perhaps the rest moved to a different puddle?’
H: ‘Yes, or probably they died.’

Real talk.


22 April

No one ever told Teddy how to eat an apple and he’s just discovered he loves them, so he’s winging it.

Ate all of it bar the stem.

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28 April

Some Tesco men are all jolly and help you in with your bags. Some Tesco men look like serial killers, and stare from your front door while you laboriously empty a hundred items into your front hall. Guess which one we had today?


13 May

So Sainsbury’s keeps their pregnancy tests behind the pharmacy counter. Which only had one waiting person when I first arrived, but they took so blimming long that by the time it was my turn there were seven or eight listening people.

I’m sure I looked well in control of my life asking for a p-test with two shrieking toddlers in the trolley. Wanted to shout ‘IT’S ONLY A MEDICALLY ADVISED PRECAUTION, JUDGERS’, but felt that would go too far.


16 May

Ted’s first time on a bus. 

He’s singing a self-penned hello song to the assembled. Defo doesn’t have his brother’s confidence issues.


18 May

T: ‘Whezzer apple, Herry?’

H: ‘I threw my apple around the room so many times I can’t have it back.’



26 May

So far H has wept over

1) the chocolate sauce on his porridge being in his tummy rather than in the bowl, and

2) the blanket being ‘too fluffy’ on his bottom.

It’s a hard old life, eh?


28 May

Milkshake meltdown. I never learn.

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[Tim: He’s a junkie. One is never enough.]


31 May

I’m in SS. Both boys ok. 

By which I mean Sunday School. I haven’t jollied off to join the Nazi secret police. 


13 June

I have never been to Costco before opening time before. Everyone’s queued up at the door with trolleys like it’s an episode of Supermarket Sweep.



18 June

‘Daddy, daddy!’

‘Daddy’s gone for a run’

‘Mummy, mummy!’

‘What is it?’

‘There’s a big fly in the house and I have to gun it!’

*pointed look*


30 June


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18 August

H is listening to a song I have just realised is about sexy times:

‘This song is about NIGHT EXPLOSIONS, Mummy. How curious’.



2 September

Good news! I have just about jogged enough for a single digestive biscuit. Living life. 


I told him the Night Explosions song was about fireworks. So help me, I’ve already given him the anatomically correct name for my ladyparts, and I’m not ready for anything else down there yet.

(Previous Notes from the Trenches here, here, here, here, here and here. Is it me, or is my life slowly getting less insane? OMGOSH IS THIS PROGRESS?!)

Dear boy: you can be unpretty here

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Some clichés about life with children just turn out to be true. It’s almost disappointing how predictable you are. That hilarious obsession with your first child’s milestones, followed by a wry detached affection for the progression of your second? Tick that box. The fact that you will get fat on leftover pizza crusts if you’re not careful, and one day catch yourself eating a chocolate chip cookie crumb straight from your toddler’s thigh? Yes, sorry. For that one I’m sorry to myself most of all.

Here’s our latest living-the-cliché moment: that four-year-olds spend their first weeks in September behaving impeccably at school, and like screechy rage demons at home.

‘I know he’s tired, and unsettled, and going through a huge transition’, I said to Tim the other night, wearily. ‘I know that. He has good reason. It will pass. But I’m still bearing the brunt of his meltdowns, and it’s awful’.

It really is. What I didn’t expect is that H starting school has been hard for me too. Is that a stupid thing to say? That’s how it feels. Quite apart from the new stresses of buying and labelling uniform, making sense of a bewildering forest of forms, incorporating an extra six miles of school run into the day, remembering to order school dinners and send in his PE kit, and trying to make a good impression with new people while soaked to the skin in a cycle helmet, I miss him. He’s gone most of the day, and when he comes back he spends a lot of it flinging himself into the deep end over taking his shoes off. We circle warily around each other, bumping against our respective pressure points until I snap, or else sit down on the floor, sigh out all my breath and say ‘shall we have another break for a hug?’.

He always does come in for a hug, regardless of how angry he is. I think that’s something.

What it has reminded me is that I am the safe place for all his crap. At school he is politely making sense of new people and routines: self-conscious, on edge, trying to fit in and impress. Then he comes home and hurls all his less-pretty parts at me. It’s the most backhanded of compliments, but compliment it is.

Because I am his constant, the backdrop to his universe. The messy labour of his day-to-day is mostly mine; I am his normality, for better and worse. When I’m reminding him to stop answering back, buttoning up his pyjamas while he tries to jump out of reach, or holding on to the kind-but-firm tone by the very skin of my teeth during his fourth time-out, it can just feel like work, bloody and unedifying. I sometimes wish he’d stand on ceremony for me too, just a little.

But he needs somewhere he can be unpretty. A place he can throw out his worst parts and have them gathered kindly in. Someone who has his back, in public and private. Hard as it is, I think I can do that. I think that has to be me. There’s something sacred in it, after all, being someone’s first line of defence. Even though in the moment it feels like being skinned alive by scream.

Come on then, you exhausted little rager. Let me have it. Here’s your punching bag. Here’s the bucket for your assorted crap. Here stands your safe place, letting you know when your behaviour’s out of line, loving you and your messy parts even through gritted teeth, making yet more lasagne you’re too tired to eat.

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Old friends. Bookends.


We spent our Saturday at the gorgeous wedding of my gorgeous friend. She is an old friend in the sense that we’ve known each other for over a decade, though also in the sense that one of us, at least, is much wrinklier than when we met.

(It’s me.)

It was the most beautiful wedding. The service was conducted by a sassy female minister in an old village church, bell peals showering over us as we arrived. Thankfully one of our group had remembered tissues, because we made it through our readings and then bawled. After the ceremony and some confetti, we moved to a reception at a nearby farm barn. We had the happiest afternoon I can remember in a while, eating canapés, taking photos, sitting down at an exquisitely laid table for an amazing dinner, sniffling through speeches, applying celebratory temporary tattoos, hogging the vintage photobooth, roasting fist-sized marshmallows over fire pits, dancing shoeless next to a smoke machine, and eventually turning down the pizza and cheese that kept appearing at our shoulders, because I’d eaten so much my sternum was bruised. And if you didn’t know it was possible to do this, you clearly haven’t been trying hard enough.

Everything was beautiful, thoughtful, understated. Em is that sort. She’s one of the kindest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. She’s a good egg.

Spending time with old friends always gets me thinking about old friends. It is such a sweeping relief, spending time with people you’ve known for ages. There’s no need to have awkward first-time conversations about the fact that you don’t drink, or that you think nightclubs are a bit of a gross unnecessary faff, as it happens, because you got all that out of the way years ago. You don’t need to try to be cool, or worry that you’re not. You can talk about Elizabeth Barrett Browning; you can tell them how work is actually going (even if the answer is Not That Great). You can tell ancient jokes that are still funny. You can say things you didn’t quite mean and not worry about them thinking the worse of you. You hand over insecure confidences at odd moments without worrying they’ll be mishandled. You have twelve years’ worth of leeway to give them, and yourself, whenever it’s needed.

I am not so good at new friends – I am taking deep breaths and fixing on smiles twice a day in the school playground, and it makes me come out in cold sweats. But old friends, yes. Any day of the week. As long as we’re not in a nightclub. As long as we’re eating beef and cheese.

September 151

PS, I read this poem during the service. I practised it twelve hundred times in the weeks leading up to it (‘I HATE THIS POEM’, Henry exploded, towards the end), and managed to stay dry-eyed less than twice.

PPS, I missed out the stanza about thighs. I dunno, I might be a bit stodgy, but I don’t think thighs have a solid place in church.


Say yes.
That word on your lips
is a kiss;
is a promise already made.
We made it.

Love did not turn from hurt
or hard work.
When lights failed, it did not switch off.
When love had no road,
we willingly built it.

We shouldered its stones
and its dirt. So thank god
there are days like this when it’s easy.
When we open our mouths
and the words flood in.

Put the word of your hand
in mine.
We have learnt to hold to each other
when nothing was given by right;
how love will insist
with its ache; with its first painful
tug on the guts;

its snake in the nest of the ribs;
the bomb in the chest;
in the Y of the thighs; the red, red
red sun of it, rising.
How love must, at all costs,

be answered. We have answered
and so have a million before us
and each of their names is a vow.
So now I can tell you, quite simply
you are the house I will live in:

there is no good reason
to move. Good earth,
you are home, stone, sun,
all my countries. Vital to me
as the light. You are it

and I am asking.
Say yes.

Love opens a door
then slams it. It does.
It loses its touch and its looks.
But love needs its fury.
We have fought

and when times make it necessary,
we will again. When night draws in,
we won’t forget
how once the streets ran wet with light
and love. Like blood. They will again.

But for now,
we make our promises gently.
This extraordinary day we have made.
Listen –
the birds in their ordinary heaven.

Tonight the sky will blaze
with stars. Today, my love,
rooms bloom with flowers.
Say yes.
The sky is ours.

Clare Shaw

Inappropriate places I have peed in: a four-year-old’s guide to raising mum’s blood pressure

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No, you cannot wee on a national monument DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT WEEING ON A NATIONAL MONUMENT PLEASE.

Every mother has their weak spot. Something about living with and caring for small children that makes them certifiable, out of all proportion to the offence.

This is mine: pee. The waft of gently warmed underwear dribble. The need to find and queue for and visit public toilets, everywhere, every flipping day. I would burn every public toilet in a fire, if I could, and cackle and dance while I did it. Put me behind a trolley outside a toilet door, flicking attention between my groceries, and T, rioting in the trolley seat, and H, jiggling frantically with the classic four-year-old distress signal (‘I nee-ee-ee-d a wee-ee-ee-ee!’), and that red ‘Occupied’ square on the door lock, REFUSING TO MOVE because the person inside is having the slowest poo ever, and, well. I could happily flay something. And then you have to go in, and everything is disgusting, and all of it is within toddler reach, and it’s like it was designed to be a special kind of hell.

We do that several times a week. Oh gosh, I am getting furious just thinking about it.

In the wild it’s fine, of course. H is brilliant at just getting on with it. Off he pops into the ferns, often without telling me, and I just get the hand sanitiser ready for his return. But you can’t be in the wild all the time. And indoors, H’s bladder is a ninja. It has a finely tuned, impeccable sense of when would be the least helpful time to explode, and dances around until precisely that moment.

Dear reader, imagine yourself in the following real-life scenarios, and then imagine ‘I nee-ee-ee-d a wee-ee-ee-ee!’ spiraling up into the air like a bomb siren during the Blitz. Or imagine it’s not wee, but worse. SO MUCH WORSE. Are you panic-breathing yet?

  • (the classic): in the supermarket, when we have put just too many items in the trolley to abandon the endeavour for a loo break, but still have too many things on the list for him to cross his legs till we’re done.
  • at the park. Once he announces it I have about thirty seconds to hoist T under my arm like a parcel, grab H’s hand, locate the nearest dog waste bin to position ourselves behind and sprint there. It’s like an episode of Challenge Anneka, with more weeping.
  • just pulling into a space in the overcrowded, very stressful hospital car park. There are only eight minutes to go till my appointment and I still don’t know how to get there, let alone where the loos are.
  • while stuck up a tree. He has just this second climbed a little too high for me to get him without climbing up myself.
  • halfway home from nursery (EVERY DAY. We watered that bush EVERY DAY).
  • waiting for Daddy in the car at the airport. We can’t leave the car because T has chicken pox. I find a penguin he’s made at nursery from plastic bottles and felt, and dispense with the felt.
  • while driving to the garage to pick up the car. The garage will close in ten minutes. We are in stop-start traffic.
  • thirty-four seconds after we have already stopped very dangerously and suddenly on the motorway hard shoulder, because T reached forward and opened his door.
  • three separate times in the shower block of our camping ground, when I’m trying to get both boys through the shower myself. T is afraid of showers, and is making it known. The toilets are in a separate cubicle. Everything is hell.

Can we just go back to nappies?

Hello to all that (on first days at school)

September 15

This is it. Don’t get scared now.

I was going to write about sending H off to school as though it were an ending. In lots of ways, it is to me. Our longest, toughest (? maybe?) shift together is done. No more nappies, night feeds, rhyme times at the library. No more chopping grapes in half to better wheedle them into his mouth, or convincing him into the shopping trolley seat. No more making the universe he lives in, and bashing my brains out over getting it right. Did I only have him to myself for four years? It seems longer than that, and shorter. It seems like everything we’ve known so far is changing, because it is.

But as we sit over celebratory Happy Meals and chocolate milkshakes – because after all, you have a first ever day at school only once – it feels much more like a beginning.

Hello exercise books and HB pencils, magic E and book bags. Hello to PE on the apparatus, recorder lessons, and scarecrow tag in the playground.

Hello to libraries, and more books, more stories and more worlds to discover than you ever thought existed.

Hello to the Romans and the Tudors and the blasted Industrial Revolution.

Hello to beloved and crappy teachers, and beloved and crappy friends. To make ups and break ups. To being tested and passing, or failing, and learning things about yourself in the failure.

A beginning then, and a hopeful, thrilling one at that. I can’t keep him to myself when he has all this waiting in the wings.

The sun is out, Hen. September’s calling. You’ll feel that golden, autumnal pull towards change all your life, probably.

Go out there and get it.

Toddlers, tents and big open skies

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I write this while the boys are in the bath. A bath! No one is overbalancing into a puddle of muddy water, or shrieking about having their nappy removed in a strange cold cubicle, or opening the door to a crowd of curious onlookers while you struggle blindly into your underwear. WOT LARKS.

We are home from our camping holiday, in other words, and there is nothing like camping to make you embrace your own house when you get back. It’s so warm and comfortable and waterproof, it’s a bit indecent.

Still. There’s nothing like this, either. There is nothing like this at all.

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This little patch of Dorset is a happy place for me. It means waking up to birds, and cows bellowing so loudly you worry they’ve wriggled themselves into your sleeping bag. It’s the ruined castle gleaming across the valley and then looming, white-walled, over your head. It’s the steam train with Harry Potter compartments and jacquard-patterned seats.

It’s pale sands and paler seas. Little villages. Long heather-purpled moors. Fish and chips with salt and vinegar, so hot you burn your fingers.

Porridge over a camping stove. Rain pattering on a tent roof. Wearing a furry dressing gown with muddy wellies at absolutely every available opportunity.

We had friends come with us this year, which more than made up for the fact that we had more rain than we wanted, and that an unsoundproofed two-year-old in a crowded field is a popular kind of guy. HOLD ON HERE COME THE PHOTOS. I couldn’t even stop myself.

Eating outdoors really does make everything taste better – thanks, Enid Blyton. Holding fire on the tinned tongue though, if it’s all the same.

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We broke with tradition this year, and did the beach first. The boys insisted on carrying their own chairs, which was a-ok with us.

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Does it say something about the stage of parenthood we’re in that the reason I love the beach is because it’s so hands-off? Go on, boys! Dig yourself into ditches! Climb up sandy dunes! I sat, read a book, passed out the occasional round of bagels, dug out an amateurish speedboat, and it felt like a holiday.

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Ted, kindly stop making me want to eat you.

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Man oh man, I do love these flinging-sand-at-the-sea, wheel-barrowing boys.

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Did someone say steam train? I believe we said steam train. I didn’t get a photo of the Hogwarts-esque compartments we sat in later, as by then our four four-and-unders had started doing things like sticking their heads out of the windows, and swinging from the lampshades. But just picture a steam train with lampshades (!), and you’ll get it.

Daddy love. What a beaut that man is.

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Spot the blue steel. That girl spent the whole holiday killing me dead. DEAD.

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Don’t we look happy? Oh, hang on, I mean sweaty. We look sweaty.

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And then there’s a castle to climb at the other end. It was a funny mixed day: hot one minute, overcast and drizzly the next. We’d already had the open air cinema cancelled the night before due to inclement weather – sob! But the thing about castles is, they’re always glad to see you.

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Don’t tell them H climbed some walls. There was a lady with a loudhailer there for miscreants like this, and she was all over it.

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And now I make an inarticulate noise in my throat.

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It turned out that we’d taken an identical photo last year, so we got to squeal some more. H’s cowlick is keeping its game strong. T’s hair…well. The devil got in it.

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It’s not the easiest thing to take little kids away to live in a tent for four days, but I always surprise myself with how much I love it. Take me back to the spaghetti hoops on a camping stove, with that ole castle just visible through the rain cloud! Alright, don’t – I’m nice and warm now – but we’ll be back next year. How on earth could we not?

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PS, I wrote a more practical guide to camping with kids on TalkMum last month: 7 ways to totally win at camping with kids (even if you hate camping). Which may be more your bag than all this gushing. Have a look!

On parenting a mini-me: why similarity is so much harder than difference


These are some first draft thoughts I think about a lot. Would be interested in hearing yours. 

You know, I thought this would be much easier than it is. I thought that having a child who was very like me would make parenting a breeze. When I imagined the slammed doors and hurtful arguments of the future (still mostly in the future, thank goodness), I pictured an angry teenager whose depths and fathoms I didn’t fully understand, so couldn’t empathise with.

It’s not like that at all.

H and I are cut from the same cloth. When we do the personality tests in my parenting books (more on those later) we come out with the same numbers. We’re not carbon copies of each other, of course, because no two people are. He is only four, and has years of change ahead of him. But when I look at him and see stubbornness, social awkwardness, fear and words and quickness and bossiness and insecurity coupled with an absolute belief in his own authority, I recognise those things in myself. My four-year-old self as well as my grown-up self. The best of me and the worst. Which makes it all rather difficult.

This is what I think it does: it makes parenting a loaded process. It becomes a matter of bias. I’m not seeing his strengths and faults just as they are, in him: they come with a lifetime of feelings already attached. When I find strengths in him that I recognise, I am overly invested in encouraging him in that direction. And that’s not too bad, but when it comes to the weaknesses we share – when I know how much bother they’ve caused me over the years, when I see things in him I would rather not even see in myself – I am desperate for him to cut them loose. I want him to do better than I did. I want this so badly that I am more likely to lose my temper, less likely to be understanding.

Isn’t that strange? Where I should be the most understanding – because these are things I still struggle with myself – I am the most impatient. Because it’s so much harder to be detached about them. Because they mean something to me, outside and apart from what they mean to him.

I am often parenting from a place of fear and anxiety, in other words, not just love.

It’s been interesting to start covering some of the same ground with T, who is a different creature entirely. His energy is all outward and active, his emotions simpler and louder. I find it so much easier to comprehend him, and to be detached about his bad days. His tantrums are exhausting, but they’re not emotional (for me).  They don’t hold the key to a character flaw that will ruin him. They’re just tantrums. He’s two, and they’ll pass.

I’ve never been able to be so blasé with H. Ever. Partly because he’ll always be my learning curve, bless him; that’s the curse of the eldest child. Whatever phase he’s in, it’s the first time I’ve seen it. But partly because I invest every last thing he does with meaning. Which doesn’t tend to be good for either of us.

I would be worried about this pattern (ok, I DO worry), except that patterns can be rewoven, and noticing them is the first step to doing it (right? Right?!).

I think he deserves to make his own mistakes – that aren’t a type of mine, whatever I might think, but his very own. I can’t swoop in and protect him from every difficulty, no matter how much I want to. He needs to grow in his own space, as himself, without the weight of my expectation and anxiety.

I’m going to try harder to let him be himself. If we end up being able to bond over a cheery fondness for semicolons, that’s a good result but not essential. And for T, well: I’m going to buy some earplugs, probably. And hug them both more. And apologise more. And tell them I love them until they get sick of hearing it.

I don’t think it will ever stop being a work-in-progress.

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Five books…to help with starting school

Five books to help with starting school

Thanks to commenter Rachel for this suggestion!

Right, we’re on the countdown now, aren’t we? Two weeks left to buy all of H’s uniform, get his feet measured for shoes, practice writing his name and cry a bit into my pillow at night. We’ve talked a lot about starting school, and he’s been for a practice morning, but we’ve still got a whole avalanche of newness coming towards us.

I think there’s nothing like a picture book to help a preschooler visualise change. It means that when the first day comes, even the new things are a little familiar. Reading about it has helped both of us to get used to – and excited about – the idea. Here are our five best books about starting school.

Lucy and Tom Go to School, by Shirley Hughes

Lucy and Tom

We got this one from the library just the other week. Honestly, is there any better comfort-author than the lovely Hughes? We love the Alfie books, and one of my favourite poem-and-story books of all time is her Out and About. Lucy and Tom Go to School is a brilliant introduction to the change when one sibling is old enough to start school, and the other isn’t. The classroom in the illustrations looks just like the one I remember from my own primary school: peg, ‘home corner’ and all. Gorgeous.


Harry and the Dinosaurs Go to School, by Ian Whybrow

harry and the dinosaurs

The Harry and the Dinosaurs series is always a favourite here: the illustrations are colourful and fun, the stories tend to have an undercurrent of sly family humour, and of course anything with dinosaurs in it gets an automatic stamp of approval. We enjoyed this one very much: Harry isn’t sure about his first day at school, especially when he has to go into his classroom without the dinosaurs. But then he makes a new friend, the dinosaurs come to the rescue, and everyone has a jolly old time. I’m impressed by Harry’s four-year-old drawing at the end, by the way. In this house we’re lucky if we get semi-coherent scribbles.


Charlie and Lola: I am Too Absolutely Small for School, by Lauren Child

Chalie and Lola

In this book, Lola is finally ready to start school – phew, thinks Charlie, a bit less underage childcare for me – but she’s not convinced she’s big enough. As ever, while she raises objection after objection, good old Charlie talks her out of them with wit and patience. And Lola has a marvellous first day. The usual creative illustrations, fabulous wallpaper, and true-to-life toddler speak from Lauren Child. It’s beautifully produced. Can Charlie come and live at my house?


Starting School, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Starting schoolIf you really want to get inside a school-aged child’s head, go to the Ahlbergs. Please Mrs Butler – still on my shelf, and just about in one piece! – was one of the first books that showed me poems can be relevant and fun for children. Some of the first poetry I memorised, too. This one is great too, particularly if you have a detail-oriented child who wants to know the specifics of absolutely everything (*raises hand*). It’s quite methodical and not the most dynamic of reads. But it takes in just about everything a child will encounter in that first year, and is invaluable for that. Lovely illustrations too.


First Day, by Andrew Daddo

First Day

I have been trying hard to get hold of this one after it was recommended to me, and so I recommend it to you in turn: if you find a second-hand one on Amazon or eBay, snap it up! From what I’ve been able to see, it’s a book about first day nerves written with humour and warmth, and the illustrations are distinctive and beautiful. And apparently there’s a twist at the end. What is it?! I must know. I’ll keep looking.




Happy reading! And hey, good luck to all of us with new starters this September. Our kids will be fine. And with the judicious application of cake and hot chocolate, so will we.


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