What does Father Christmas eat for breakfast? Weeto-ho-hos. (Sorry.)

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Forget personality types – this is all I want to know right now: are you a short-and-sweet Christmas person, or a tree-up-in-November person?

Mostly I like to keep my Christmas in December. I think it’s more magical when it’s extra-concentrated. Like condensed milk straight from the tin (YES). That is, until we got an invitation to have breakfast with Father Christmas at Wyevale Garden Centre last Saturday. At the end of November. But it was breakfast with Father Christmas! How could we refuse?

Of course, breakfast meant quite an early start. When we arrived at our local Sherfield-on-Loddon branch, minutes after it opened and with no other cars in the car park, we wondered at first whether we’d arrived in the right place. Awkwardly we shuffled through deserted aisles of greenery and scented candles, watching nodding Father Christmasses and tiny battery-powered trains moving eerily for an audience of no one.

‘This is, um, weird’, Tim whispered to me, while the boys tried to warm their hands on a pretend fire. It sort of was.

Then, huzzah, it turned out that we were in the right place after all. Elf-ladies ushered us and a few other families into the restaurant area, where we found a gorgeous Christmassy table laid up for us. H and T had name badges and colouring mats waiting for them, and there were crackers to pull and photo props to pose with (which they loved).

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Barely were our comedy moustaches in place when the cooked breakfasts arrived. The boys recently decided that bacon is their favourite food item in the whole world (same, guys, same), so they were hilariously excited. The staff were lovely, coming to check on us frequently and refilling our giant hot chocolates whenever we looked around.

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After breakfast came snowman cookies to decorate, with sprinkles, marshmallows and little tubes of icing. H and T were already beside themselves by this point, so got stuck in and really enjoyed it. Bacon, chocolate, marshmallows, royal icing, Elton John’s majestic ‘Step Into Christmas’ bouncing along in the background: check. ENTER SANTA.

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I am sorry to tell you, if you’re new to this parenting lark, that Christmas is where you become a wobbly sap of a human being. This is the first year both boys have been old enough to properly ‘get’ the Father Christmas thing, and it’s already melting the ice around my curmudgeonly heart. They gathered the children all together on the carpet and made them shout for Santa and, oh, oh. Look at their faces.

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Spoiler alert: he arrived.

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The lovely thing was that after he greeted all of them together, everyone went back to their tables and each family got some time to themselves: a little chat with Father Christmas, lots of photo time, and then their present (which was included in the ticket, huzzah). When it came to our turn, T whispered frantically ‘I want to show Santa my cookie!’ – then, alas, ran so hard with the plate in his hands that he dropped the cookie and broke it…twice. But Father Christmas soon cheered him up. It was ADORABLE. Is it always like this, parents?! Am I going to cry every December from now on?

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Once we’d waved goodbye to Santa, we had loads of time and space to finish eating and drinking, (re)decorating broken cookies and gathering up our things. We saved the presents to open in the car and they both loved them. Then we got to go home, still well before lunchtime, and huddle up together on the sofa all day. It felt like such a treat.

I don’t know if Father Christmas is a really central part of the festivities for you, but for me he’s never really been the lynchpin of the whole thing. My favourite parts of December tend to be Christmas trees, carols, food, nativities – though I don’t know whether that’s the adult in me talking now. This year, suddenly, I am in love with it; every little bit of it. They were so utterly thrilled by the experience that it set our December off beautifully. Even if it was still in late November. Bah (un)humbug.

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Disclosure: we were invited to try Breakfast with Father Christmas, which was jolly lovely of Wyevale Garden Centres, but (as the photos show, I hope) all the festive glee was ours. They also do a Tea with Father Christmas, if early mornings and bacon aren’t your thing. You can look up the whole schedule for December here. We’re definitely going again next year!

Angry mummy: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

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Tim is away for a fortnight. It’s the longest he’s ever been gone. The night before he went, I admitted I was nervous.

‘It’s not that I can’t handle it’, I told him. ‘I can. We will be fine. It’s just I’ve never done solo parenting for so long with two children AND a pregnancy. I have never been more short-tempered than I am now, and they have never been less inclined to listen to me. So I don’t know how it’s going to go’.

It’s true that if you’re looking for something that will poke holes through your parenting self-esteem, pregnancy will do the job nicely. They are watching much more TV than I would normally allow – hours of it, while I shuffle through glacially-paced housework or just sit next to them, exhausted – and I am snappy. Irritable. I am not willfully unkind (we still read, talk, laugh at each other’s jokes), but there is so much less give in me. I can feel it, bleeding through the edges of my self-restraint: a brittleness that means I raise my voice the second time, not the tenth; that means I want things done now, immediately, in exactly the way I’ve asked.

None of this has been my finest hour. I feel it. I think they feel it too.

I have been in a couple of parenting discussions lately where we’ve talked about the importance of being authentic in front of your children. I read a lot of articles where the language of motherhood is expressed in endless, self-immolating sacrifice. Cherish every moment. Sleep next to them, and wake up whenever they wake up. Carry them constantly. Play imaginatively at the park. When they push back, draw them in with extra love. Be present. Be present. Be present.

Now I should say here (before the Emails come) that there’s nothing wrong and an awful lot right with all of these philosophies: if they work for you and your child and make you both happy, go for it. I use many of them myself, and try to do better in the many areas I fall short. But my issue is that they all seem to combine without leaving room for human error, for normal human limitation. I don’t see a lot of acknowledgement that you are a person too, a person with a long history of her own that existed long before you became a mother, with loves and hates and boundless complexities, plenty of which have little to do with your beloved children.

I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t automatically put their children’s needs before their own, and I’m not advocating the opposite here. But is their emotional health well-served by watching us give and give without any space for ourselves, without any visible screw-ups and apologies? I don’t want my children to aim for perfection, swallow their own flaws and beat themselves up when they inevitably get it wrong – but they’ll try, if that’s what they see me do. I want them to make mistakes, learn from them, and empathise with other people’s. I want them to feel the value of a heartfelt, meaningful apology. I want them to know that the substance of life is in the repair, not the plain sailing.

I want them to know that everyone has their own stuff, their own boundaries, their own imperfect histories. And they will too. And they should. To be this way is not a failure. Or, rather: failure is not a failure. It’s part of being a human in the world.

So sometimes they play and I read. Or they watch TV and I scroll through Twitter, only half-listening. Everyone in our family functions better if we get a good night’s sleep, so everyone is supposed to sleep in their own damn bed. I will happily read them three-inch piles of stories under a blanket for as long as they want, but I need them to make up their own games at the park. Sometimes they push me too far or ignore me for too long, and I shout. Sometimes I want to sit in a chair by myself for five minutes, until I’m ready to leap back in. I have an unusually small tolerance for baby voices (LITERALLY ZERO), but if they want to dance, I will always dance. And I place a great deal of value on treating books and people well, not littering, and apologising properly when you’ve messed things up.

If they had a different mother they’d have different stuff, but there’d always be plenty of stuff.

I want them to know that I will always try, always love them, always make it my highest priority to be their safe space, always make mistakes, always have my own way of being their mother, always, always apologise and mean it.

And they will make do with me, as children do. We will make room for each other, and they will tell laughing stories about my failures around the dinner table, in the time-honoured way children have always mocked their parents. That’s fine. I think, finally, I’m in a place where I don’t want them to only see my good side. It’s more important to me that we learn and keep learning – together, messily, and over and over again – how to be a human in the world.

Gloves on backwards, as per. Good HEAVENS I love that child.

Gloves on backwards, as per. Good HEAVENS I love that child.

This business of working out how to be a more patient parent is, um, an ongoing series. You can find the other posts here

October, you beauty

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Hello.

Here I am, which is unusual enough, because whenever I have a spare hour and have to decide between Lying Still or Anything Else, the Lying Still tends to win. It’s frustrating having to slow down, especially now the sickness has gone (whee!). I like to get on. I keep having to remember not to define myself by things I can’t always do.

I feel quite anxious about this pregnancy, in a way I didn’t with the others. Oddly my visits to the midwife make this worse, not better. Most of the time I can assume (or tell myself to assume) that everything’s fine. When I go to the midwife, I have to wait the agonising three minutes before she finds the heartbeat, and get test results back where ‘this is a little unusual, but nothing to worry about’, I mean CLEARLY I WILL NOW WORRY ABOUT THAT THING, WHAT DO YOU TAKE ME FOR.

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Still, without the sickness, I am gathering myself together again, bit by bit. Folding some laundry. Taking the boys out for walks in the woods. Making proper dinners, and eating them. Meeting deadlines, cleaning the kitchen. Reducing my snack breaks from seventeen a day to an entirely reasonable eight. On Sunday I wore a dress that I loved, and pushed Tim off to bed while the boys and I went exploring and did not eat a single bag of beef crisps all day, and it felt like the best day of my life.

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Yesterday I baked a new kind of apple cake that turned out to smell (like apples) a great deal better than it tasted (mostly like baking powder). Still, the baking was therapeutic, and it was a much cheaper way to make the house smell nice than dropping £30 on a White Company candle.

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I feel like doing a Rocky air-punch on the rare occasions I get to hand out fat slices of homemade cake after school. It makes me feel like Mary Poppins. Although –

H: ‘What are these on top?’

Me: ‘They’re called almonds.’

H: ‘Urgh.’

Me: ‘They won’t taste of much by themselves. You’re supposed to eat them with the cake.’

[Five minutes pass]

Me: ‘H, haven’t you started yet?’

H: ‘No, I’m taking out all of the Normons, because they look awful.’

Take that, Normons. Sorry for the body-shaming.

We’ve got our back-to-school bugs and September Rages mostly out of the way now, I hope (T is feeling ‘asspalootely better’, if you ask him). Both boys have settled into their new routines. We cycle to school whenever the weather’s kind, and then after school H and I do a mad dash from one playground to the other, a mile and a half away. T comes bursting out of nursery, jumper sleeves rolled up to the elbows, usually filthy and clutching all his bags, which he hands over to me before they race their bikes home. H would always win, except that T cheats.

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See? Cheating.

See? Cheating.

It feels like autumn has been slow in coming, but now we have crunchy leaves, misty mornings, and reddening holly berries all over the place. There’s a whole colony of enterprising mushrooms growing out of the gigantic pile of horse poo down the road, and I feel compelled to point them out every time we pass, for educational reasons. While also holding my breath. Motherhood is weird.

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I’ve been reading a lot. There’s something about cold weather that gives me permission to retire with a blanket and a book – which is what I really want to be doing all the time anyway. I read a very unusual book (From A Clear Blue Sky) about grief and siblings by Timothy Knatchbull, who was on Lord Mountbatten’s sabotaged boat when it was bombed by the IRA in 1979 (Mountbatten was his grandfather, and Timothy was in his mid-teens). Timothy survived, and so did his parents – just – but his twin brother Nicholas died. Years later he wrote the book to come to terms with the griefs he’d buried at the time. It’s not political at all, very honest and completely fascinating. I thought it was wonderful.

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I’ve also reread The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver has never written a better), Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (because I watched the BBC adaptation, and missed it), an Agatha Christie every other week (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. FLAWLESS) and last week got hold of David Mitchell’s new-ish novel, The Bone Clocks. Which is as mad as David Mitchell ever is, and as delightful. And if poetry’s your jam, or you would like it to be, you must get hold of The Emergency Poet. It was compiled by a superhero woman who literally bought a discontinued ambulance and drove around in it, offering consoling poems to people who were struggling. What a life! It’s a gorgeous thing.

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Are you watching Poldark? It’s as beautiful as ever to look at, but I’ve been put off a bit this series by the fact that Ross Poldark is kind of a jerk. Look, screenwriters, if you want us to believe that everyone likes him, you have to give us some reason why. It can’t always be scything topless and glistening in golden fields. That combination of getting into debt, being surly and condescending to his wife and galloping worryingly near cliff edges is not calculated to set the heart afire.

Also Bake-Off. BAKE-OFF. Every episode brings us closer to the last one ever, and the fact that this series is so delicious is both helping and hurting. Like eating an entire plate of Tudor pies in one go (I would. Did you see them? I WOULD).

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

Who ate all the pies? (Me, probably.)

T helped me watch the first Harry Potter film a few weeks ago. Some observations:

‘Dumbledore! He’s the master…head’. (‘Headmaster?’ ‘Yeah.’)

‘Look, it’s Yogrid!’

‘Harry is using a… a feather crayon.’

‘My-knee? Who’s My-knee?’

(Harry, onscreen: ‘And Snape wasn’t blinking.’) ‘I’m blinking. Look.’

[sigh] ‘I am weally not a-pwessed.’

I’ll win him over eventually.

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Chicken, and all my other love stories





When I want to give them Sunday, I give them roast dinner.

Food is my love language; it’s the tongue I speak with most feeling. I remember bleary bouts of flu as a child, interrupted with lunch trays of velvety rich Heinz tomato soup, buttered crumpets cut into tiny triangles, webs of melted cheese skittering over the top. It’s the meal I go back to when I feel in need of succor, the one I make when someone else is. I snip the crumpets into triangles with kitchen scissors, and lick the butter as it runs down my wrists.

Yorkshire being Yorkshire, and Sunday being Sunday, we made and ate roast dinners every week after church – not just in our house, but in everyone else’s too. We banished our younger siblings to the carrot-and-potato peeling, while we applied ourselves to the tricky bits. Mixing the Yorkshire pudding batter by sight, watching for the proper glub-glub drip off the end of the whisk. Crumbling unwrapped stock cubes into a pan of meat juices in order: two chicken, one lamb, one Oxo, one spoonful of marmite, stir. My mum added precisely the right amount of salt into the boiling mass of potatoes with a flick of the wrist. Vegetables, stuffing, crispy-skinned chicken, gravy: it rose and steamed and crisped and browned, until it was done and we ate and poured lakes and lakes of the gravy onto the food we’d made together.

We did that every week, and called it Sunday Dinner, and I never knew it was possible to do anything else.

The south has given me food-love too, or it’s probably more accurate to say that adulthood has, and the south is where I’ve spent it. We have our own special dinners now, food that means more than food: pancakes on Saturday mornings, pints of Phish food ice cream from the carton on Friday nights. I know what their favourites are, and plan steaming lasagnes for Tim after a hard day, sausage pie with buttery pastry for Henry, cheesy pesto pasta for my heathen toddler.

But when I want a special Sunday, when I want to offer them something in my open hands that means comfort and care and togetherness, I buy a whole chicken. Tim has never been trained in the roast dinner dance, so I direct him to vegetables while I whisk creamy Yorkshire pudding batter, toss salt over boiling potatoes, unwrap gravy stock cubes and lie them ready on the counter like surgical instruments.

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I make a diagram with lots of arrows to make sure I know when everything comes in and out. Open the oven door, slam it shut. Roast and stir and carve. Good glasses on the table, pretty napkins on the mats. Until it’s all ready and I push it towards them, watch them pour lakes and lakes of gravy on their plates, and eat.

And they don’t speak my language, of course. A roast dinner is not a Sunday Dinner, not in their world. If I made a roast dinner every week they’d get bored. They wouldn’t understand that I am offering them Sunday afternoon, a childhood, a warm kitchen exhaling the smell of roast chicken. All my love, and the best of gifts I know how to give them.

They don’t speak that language at all, but I hope they see my open hands; that somehow, we are communicating love through chicken – love and love through all my wordless, clumsy signs.

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Take three

An appropriate visual metaphor for this, the first week of sickness.

An appropriate visual metaphor for this, which was the first week of sickness. Down to earth with a bump.

I cried when I saw the little cross on the pregnancy test.

I always do cry, because all those things you’ve signed up for nebulously, ambiguously, in your head, are now out of your head and busy turning into a blastocyst in your actual body. Suddenly they’re all definitely going to happen. Doesn’t matter how much I wanted it – and I did want it – I usually need ten minutes, a cry and a Dairy Milk to get my head around it.

(‘I can do this’, I’d said to Tim some weeks before, propped on my elbow in bed, when we made the final decision. ‘Look at me. You know I can do it’. He’d heaved the sigh of a man who could see years of bubbly white vomit on his shirt shoulders again, and said ‘Yes, I know. Let’s do it, then’.)

The first trimester is a weird, lonely time, I find. You beat yourself up because you’re so lucky, think of how lucky you are in comparison, what a miracle, what a flipping lucky miracle – and instead you feel sick, and headachy, and fat, and angry, and not lucky or miraculous at all. The guilt about what you should be feeling adds to the rest of it, and you can’t tell anyone about it. Isolated in a bubble of misery that often, honestly, feels like a bad dream.

I found out early, by chance, and spent two nausea-free weeks furiously cooking two dinners a day, and freezing the extras. This helped.

Other things that helped: getting outside even in slow motion, singing loudly in the car with a spear of icy air pointed directly into my face, and eating a continuous, joyless parade of meat-flavoured crisps, cheese crackers and cold Sprite (someone call Deliciously Ella). By the first week in September I had a sore throat, and was – in the tradition of Gaston – roughly the size of a baaaaaaarge. Which was a neat coincidence, since I also had a Gaston-like level of personal charm. Especially in the evenings when the boys wouldn’t go to bed, and I would happily have paid a cadaverous man a large sack of gold to take them away in an asylum cart.

We got through the days quite nicely with morning outings, lunch and then a movie for them while I laid in bed and gently moaned. I cracked sometimes in the evenings and cried about how useless I felt and how much TV they were watching. But mostly I didn’t look further ahead than the next meal, and felt alright about doing what I had to do to keep going. Tim picked up absolutely everything I let drop and never made me feel bad about it. I thought to myself all the time that it was lucky H had no idea what pregnancy was like or what it was for, or he would’ve cottoned on immediately. He was terribly concerned about my ‘very long germ’, worried that the rest of them would catch it, asked whether I was going to be sick whenever I retched in the car (eventually I started passing them off as burps, which gave me a reputation for belching prowess that I do not deserve). But he gave me so much leeway. He was so kind. I was amazed.

I also spent quite a lot of time lying on floors. I haven’t vacuumed for several weeks. Make of that combo what you will.

Eight weeks after the cross on the pregnancy test, the Dairy Milk, the crying, we walked into the ultrasound room at the hospital. The screen blurs and bubbles and then there it is. A heart, a hand. An apricot-sized baby that is real, after all, and really there. This baby refused to get into the measurement-friendly horizontal position, and spent ten minutes bracing its legs against the wall and springing up and up, like an Olympic swimmer. I’ve never had a baby do that during a scan before, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Brace and spring, brace and spring. Underneath my skin having the loveliest of times, all this time.

(‘There is a baby in here and it will have to come out of me‘, I gasped, on the way out. ‘I know! You wanted it to!’ Tim said, half-exasperated, half-amused. He bought me a Kit-Kat, and a packet of Malteasers.)

You tell people, and everyone cheers. The bubble pops. Out you come, and find yourself not alone, not a misery after all: just a grower of an actual heart-and-hand baby, and the luckiest one of all.

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Don’t worry, mama: the first day of school makes you cry for a reason

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So anyway, that was the first week of school.

H went back on Monday. My social media feeds have been full of kids going to school for the first time (and the accompanying parental meltdowns). It brought back last September for me in a great, vivid wave; I could almost taste it: the fear and the excitement and the pining, almost. I saw a lot of mothers apologising or feeling embarrassed for getting so emotional – as I did too, last year. What is it about starting school that means so much to us? Perhaps it’s the first determined step in a long road that leads away from us? Or maybe it’s because we’re sending them deliberately, and for the first time, into an environment where they have the possibility of being hurt. In a lot of ways, it represents an ending for us as much as a beginning for them. I know I worried that I hadn’t done enough, been enough, tried hard enough, during that time when I’d been everything to him.

It was less, this year, that feeling. But still there: he’s not the baby anymore, and watching him march into the big school building towards proper Maths and Stuff, tearfully clutching PE kit and book bag to his chest, was a bit of a killer. It was a big deal for him, but he did it, all week. I was proud of him, and so were his robots and superheroes (they are too manly and stiff-upper-lip to say so, of course, so they expressed it through the medium of doughnuts).

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I saw someone say online that the first day of school and the first time they learn to ride a bike are the same sort of milestone, the same sauntering off into independence while we hurt and hope behind them. As it happens, he learned how to ride a bike this week, too. GOOD TIMING, BUDDY.

We cycled to and from school for two days. He’s weirdly happy and confident about it – willing to try again when he messes up, improving astonishingly quickly, and asking for extra cycling sessions with Tim after dinner. I was surprised, but I think he’s just stumbled across his freebie: that thing you’re good at without having to try very hard. He’s found his Nimbus Two Thousand, basically. See also: me and eating cake. See not also: me and riding bikes (I crashed more than H did. T is heavy).

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Then T, who had two settling-in sessions at nursery towards the end of the week. I was totally blase about this one – he isn’t afraid of anything except invisible spiders, and definitely not rooms full of toys or new people. He had a blast, and was about as loud as one. And yet I STILL got ambushed by Feelings: if anyone knows how to look at your three-year-old stomping off in his miniature shiny black school shoes and too-large trousers without whimpering audibly, let me know. It didn’t happen here.

So now, a new frontier: T starts properly on Monday, and I’ll be without them both for two hours a day. I’ve been trying to think of useful things to do with that time – my first regular, unbargained- and unpaid-for time alone for some years – and so far all my brain’s come up with is naps.

Anything else, brain?

No?

I guess we’ll start there, then.

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This feels like the stuff childhood is made of

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Sometimes I disconnect during our camping trip to Dorset – mind buzzing up and away from its normal constraints under all that empty sky – and wonder what our ancestors would think, if they could see us leaving our safe, waterproof Life Boxes to sleep under a flimsy, pegged-down balloon. Voluntarily huddling round open flames to cook our dinner and warm our bones.

I’m not putting myself forward as a candidate for the Stone Ages or anything, but camping really isn’t as mad as it sounds. Sometimes. This time, the boys a tiny bit older, the weather better, friends and their baby with us, and all our plans working out like a dream – it felt like five days of bliss. Even though there is such a thing as camping hair, and it visits my head with the wroth of a thousand fuzz-fires. I just try not to look in mirrors.

Camping haaaaaair

Camping haaaaaair

Our little experiments, back when we first tried this in 2012, have solidified into traditions we look forward to for weeks. Plan to arrive before dark. Actually arrive after dark, and put up tent in glare of headlights and frayed tempers. Eat breakfast overlooking the valley and the steam train. On the sunniest day we head to the beach, all purple heather and white sand. This year H surprised us by galloping into the sea first thing, and staying in there most of the day. Apparently he’s not afraid of water anymore? I wonder if I will ever learn not to assume his dislikes and fears are permanent. Probably not, but it’s one of those occasions where it’s nice to be proven wrong over and over again.

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After a hot and windy day in Studland bay, we drove into Corfe for the Purbeck Film Festival, which runs an open-air cinema every year in the castle grounds. We order hefty boxes of fish and chips from the local pub, and eat them under blankets, waiting for the sun to set. This year we watched the new, live-action Jungle Book, which Tim and I thought was ace, and both boys decided was ‘weally scary, actually’. (It was, a bit.)

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The next day we went to Brownsea Island, surely the Enid-Blytonest day trip ever invented. We park on Studland Bay, take a chain ferry over to Sandbanks, and then a little yellow boat over to the island. Brownsea is a nature reserve (red squirrels! Peacock babies!), and also the place where the first Scout camp was held in 1907, though it’s much older than that: a solitary hermit monk set up camp there in the 9th century – lording it up spectacularly, I’m sure – and it hasn’t been left alone since. These days there are amazing clifftop views, lots of bright heather, a cracking wooden adventure playground in the middle, and lovely forest for little hikes. The island is small enough that even the longest hike is a doable challenge for toddler legs. It’s my favourite day, this one. No matter how many people get off the boat with you, you always feel like you’ve got the place to yourself.

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Then, of course, the castle day. I keep expecting H and T to get bored of coming to Corfe Castle, but they haven’t yet: they loved it this year more than ever. We got there on the steam train – always a pants-wettingly exciting experience for these two – and then had a good ramble around the ruins.

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And a sword fight. Can I get one of these furred tabards for casual leisure wear? It was like being embraced by a bear who respected personal boundaries.

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We always take the same photo in this window, and it always takes us at LEAST half an hour to find it again. Which leads to me bellowing across a crowded castle yard ‘I’ve found it! I recognise the mould patterns!’

They are very distinctive mould patterns, to be fair.

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(If you open this in a new tab, it’s bigger.)

That evening I settled into my million layers and read a book under a duvet, while Tim and our friends played cards, and Teddy wailed through firmly-zipped canvas ‘BUT I WANT TO KEEP THIS HOLIDAY FOREVER AND EVERRRR’.

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The next morning we packed up, loaded the car, and drove away in the direction of Durdle Door.  We’d never actually been to Durdle Door – silly, because it’s one of the main tourist attractions in the county – and it was busy, but utterly breathtaking. Not a beach ideal for little ones, because it’s pebbles rather than sand, and you have to climb an awfully large hill to get back to the car. But the view! I couldn’t stop looking.

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On the road out we always pass a little footpath sign that marks 2 1/4 miles to Corfe Castle, and I think ‘one day, when their legs are long enough’. Maybe in a few years. In a few years they’ll spend rainy mornings reading in their sleeping bags. In a few years, we can cycle. It’s rather a lovely thing, knowing that your August bank holiday is only going to get better and better – even if that’s not true, alas, of your hair.

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(The castle, the island and the beach car park are all owned by the National Trust – we already use our yearly membership to death, but even if we didn’t, this one holiday would make it even out. The steam train, the film festival and the little ferry (still free for under-sixes!) tend to be our only activity expenses, which is extremely happy-making.)

Real girls fly helicopters: why gender really matters on children’s TV

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Kids have horrific taste in TV, but you don’t hold it against them. Back in the tender early days of their development, when they watched three carefully vetted programmes occasionally and on rotation, I thought this TV thing would be a doddle. Har. They just didn’t have trashy opinions yet, and trashy opinions always come. Twenty years ago we spent many hours watching Power Rangers and the Chuckle Brothers, so I try to remember that things made for five-year-olds are not necessarily made for me.

But there’s one thing I can’t get over. It’s in more of their programmes than I expected, and it’s like noticing the disturbingly cavorting fruit on Maoam wrappers: once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee. Let me take you through a brief summary.

Paw Patrol – a pre-teen boy miraculously owns six dogs that can use human language, operate machinery and have mastered individual trades. Rather than hot-dialling The Sun to make his fortune, he runs a rescue service, mostly saving cats and chickens from their own stupidity. Five of the six dogs are boys. One is a girl. She wears pink. She flies the helicopter. Her name is Skye.

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Dinotrux – in a strange, post-apocalyptic world, a race of dinosaur-machines have arisen: large, aggressive Dinotrux, and tiny, timid Reptools. It has occurred to no one that the Reptools might usefully run their economy by fixing the Dinotrux, until a group of Dinotrux and Reptools agree to live in bro-harmony in a clubcave. Four of the Dinotrux are male. One is female. She’s a long-necked dinosaur, and does the intricate high-up jobs. Her name is Skya.

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Transformers Rescue Bots – Four Transformers are sent to earth with a mission: impersonate rescue vehicles and integrate themselves with a police chief and his rescue-service family. I don’t know why. Reasons. All four of the Transformers are male. Of the five humans, four are male. One is female.  She flies the helicopter. She wears a skin-tight jumpsuit, and her head is bigger than her waist. Her name is Dani.

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Good luck if you can find her.

I know, I know it would be easy to say ‘so what?’. It’s a children’s programme. It doesn’t matter. Killjoy feminists, reading too much into everything. I would probably have said the same a few years ago.

Before I had sons. Before it was my job to raise them into men who truly respect women as their equals, and expect them to be so. The stories we hear turn into our expectations. They show us what looks normal, how things should be. Last time I checked, the male population didn’t outnumber the female by at least four to one, and we’re allowed to wear whatever colour we like (though you’d never know it, in your average children’s clothing aisle).

I want sons who enter a scientific field and aren’t surprised to find girls there too. I want sons who participate in group discussions and don’t feel, subconsciously, that their opinion counts for more because they can shout louder. I want sons who expect and encourage their partners to take whatever career path excites them. I want sons who can have a female superior at work and never resort to calling her ‘mouthy’ or ’emotional’ or ‘bitchy’. I want sons who know a woman’s body (and the way she dresses it) has absolutely nothing to do with her capabilities or her culpability.

I want all of this to feel like it’s not too much to ask.

How can they make space for the women around them, if their stories don’t? It’s not like it will get better by itself as they get older. Boys who don’t think women have a place in their stories become the men raising hell about a female remake of a janky eighties film. Or the men making Star Wars merchandise and excluding the main character because she’s a girl. Or the powers-that-be behind comedy panel shows, who exert themselves to book one female comic per six shouty males. Or the men covering the Olympics and writing headlines like this.

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We have conversations about Paw Patrol or Dinotrux at least once a day. They like to choose favourites, discuss their favourites, ask what mine are. They always assume my favourite will be the girl, and of course I only ever have one to choose from. Tough luck if I don’t like helicopters. Tough luck if she doesn’t appeal to me. There’s only one of her, and that’s an awful lot of representation to carry. I tend to choose another character and give different reasons, but there’s only one of me, too, and a lot of this.

It matters. It really matters. I can handle the terrible jokes and background music (it even becomes endearing after a while, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome way). But oh, please, please: do this mother of sons a favour, and give me some real girls.

One thousand, eight hundred and twenty-six

 

Dear Henry,

Today is your birthday, and you are five. You are asleep, finally, after an exciting day where you have made all the important decisions: bacon and waffles for breakfast, a trip to London to visit the ‘dinosaur museum’, hot dogs and milkshakes for lunch, episodes of Transformers Rescue Bots for an evening treat. At every pause in the day you have told me how happy you are. ‘Isn’t this the best day we’ve ever had?’ ‘Mummy, I’m having such a nice time’. ‘I wish we could do this day forever and ever!’ If I’d have known that this kind of loveliness would be the reward for year three, I’d have kept my chin up rather better than I did.

Because you are lovely, Hen, quite unexpectedly. I don’t mean that to sound like an insult – I mean that you are such a stubborn, inquisitive, emotional boy that you have often brushed your way through the world like a porcupine with all its quills out. Interested in everything, refusing to back down if you feel you’re in the right, never moving with the crowd for the sake of moving. Honestly, it can be (has been) frustrating having a child who is so resolutely not a people-pleaser. You are yourself, always. You mean everything sincerely. You will not perform. At school we had to find other motivations for you to try hard other than ‘your teacher will be pleased’, which left you unmoved, as much as you loved your teachers. We settled on something like ‘getting better at things makes me feel good’. These days I feel like this total, self-contained integrity will be one of your greatest strengths.

(I don’t want ’emotional’ to sound like an insult either: another one of your superpowers is that you can always articulate exactly what you’re feeling and sense what others are feeling too. That’s pretty rare, and very valuable.)

But then yes, in the past year – loveliness too. More calm, more logic. More space for your natural sense of humour to hold sway. You have let your brother keep one of your new birthday toys in his sticky fist all day, without complaint. The other day he fell over in the park, and I looked up to find you guiding him tenderly down the stairs towards me, so I could help him. (You also bicker A LOT; I mean, we’re not in Utopia here.) You are still obsessed with dinosaurs, bikes, books, sausage pie – but now you prefer showers to baths, hoodies to jumpers, cereal to porridge, and those vaguely hideous dinosaur trainers to basically everything else on the planet.

And you talk. Constantly, hungrily, melodramatically. You pick up words and facts from obscure places and bring them out later, much to our surprise. One day you appear in the doorway holding your arm and screeching ‘Teddy! You did that on real big purpose!’ Or when I’m trying to convince you to wear a winter hat: ‘I’ll never be with you if you force me to wear things. YOU FORCER’. The next day you’re refusing to go to bed until we’ve read the encyclopaedia page on the Industrial Revolution (‘Ohhh. I’ve been thinking about that.’ ‘You’ve been thinking about…the Industrial Revolution?’ ‘Yes! All the time!’) and correctly identifying, after an internal rummage, a duck-billed platypus in the Natural History Museum (‘How did you know that?’ *shrug* ‘Oh, I dust picked it up somewhere.’).

Anyway, on you go. Back to school in September, and no longer the baby. Buying a bike tomorrow with your birthday money, with no stabilisers. I exclaim twice a minute how big you are – this must get annoying – but really, Hen, I’m not sad about it. You child of my heart; you beloved, vulnerable, fiercely defiant boy. You are growing into yourself all the time. And you’re making, oh, such a wonderful job of it. I am so proud. I look at you sometimes and I can barely breathe for it.

Happy fifth, with much love.

Your mother.

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Something to bake (with kids): strawberry cheesecake muffins

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Sometimes you bake with kids and it’s a dream. They get on well, they take turns, everyone’s laughing and just a little flour-smudged in a photogenic way, like you’re in a Cath Kidston advert and someone’s about to present you with a lifetime supply of floral patterns.

Then other times you bake with kids and they screech and elbow each other and drop eggs and poke dirty fingers into the mixture and throw flour around by the bucketload. Generally speaking, if I post something about baking and the boys are in the photos from the start, we’ve had the Cath Kidston scenario. If they’re only in the last photo, eating the cake, then…it was a crapocolypse.

You may draw your own conclusions from the photos below.

Still! Flour-flinging aside, these strawberry cheesecake muffins are great to make with little ones. Like most muffins, the method is simple enough; the assembly involves enough detail to be interesting but not so much that they can get it wrong. I will defend my lacklustre Muffin Feelings to the death: they give you a sky-high calorie hit for what is, let’s face it, a pretty uninteresting mouthful of crumbs. I’d rather have proper squishy cake or pie any old day of the week. But these are delicious, and less stodgy than they should be because of the surprise strawberry-and-cheesecake filling baked into the middle.

The recipe is here (weirdly, this sad little misspelled page is the only version of it I can find online, but it must be an official BBC Good Food bake, since it’s in my book). Mix your wet and dry ingredients separately, then combine. Apparently you should mix sparingly after that, because the less you touch it the lighter the muffins will be. I always find it difficult to overcome my fear of leaving lumps in things – a hangover from a lifetime of making Yorkshire puddings, I reckon – but in this case you have the universe’s permission to leave the lumps just chilling in there. Outrageous.

Then comes the assembly: fill half the case with batter, then get your willing children to push in strawberry halves with chubby fingers. Tell them every time not to push the strawberry to the bottom, then watch as they push the strawberry to the bottom. Add a spoonful of the cheesecake mixture, then top with more muffin batter.

They take fifteen minutes in a hot oven and come out as proud and glorious golden mounds. You’ll be tempted to eat them immediately, but remember that there’s a boiled strawberry lurking in the middle somewhere, and it’ll be like sticking your tongue into a volcano. Wait ten minutes. Then eat with caution, and many ‘mmm’ noises.

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