A little au revoir

So flipping good at this.

So flipping good at this.

You know, blogging is a funny old thing. I started in 2009 because I wrote diary entries from India and couldn’t stop once I got home. I feel about writing the way Harry Potter (aw!) feels about getting on a broomstick for the first time: a rush of fierce joy. Words are such intricate, beautiful things. You can search for exactly the right one and put it in exactly the right place, and all of a sudden you’ve created something that makes people feel. There are lots of things about my writing style I would change, and I’d love to do a creative writing course and get critically slapped into shape. The graft of it, though, fills me up like nothing else. And when you get it right, oh, you soar.

And so to this blog. I started writing about babies once I had them, and it was a way of recording things I might forget, and reaching out to parents in similar situations. It puts shape to the emotional seismic shifts that come with having children. If motherhood is a hopeful, flailing leap into the unknown – and it is, and the unknown includes much faeces – then blogging helps me map out the fall. Where are we now? What does this feel like? Where are you, dear reader? Are we both here together?

Here’s where I am: parenting blogging is sometimes overwhelming to me. We are in an intense phase of mother-and-toddlering at the moment, and it often feels like toddlering is all I can think about. Sometimes I want to read gentle advice articles, and humorous you-know-you’re-a-mother-when-this-sucks blog posts. Sometimes I want to write posts like that. Sometimes – more often, at the moment – I want to write about something else, ANYTHING else, and I scrabble around inside for another topic and can’t find one. And then I am frightened that I am an empty well, scraped clean by dirty nappies, and I have lost my words and they will never come back and nothing I’ve ever written has ever done any good.

I am keeping the melodrama tamped down tight, since you ask.

This means that sometimes the world of parenting blogging is my salvation, and sometimes I can’t bear to look at it another second. There are days I write something that gets picked up by Mumsnet and feel great about it, and days I want to be free from the anxiety that I am not as talented or popular as the people I follow on Twitter. I am very aware that these things are not Real People Problems, and that it ends up with me spending too much time on the internet. It all feels like a lot of bother, over a blog.

So I’ve decided to take a little break for at least the rest of the year, while I decide what it is I want this space to be. It might be a more streamlined place to talk about children, or it might be something else entirely. Or it might be just the same because, like Mariah Carey, I’ve decided I can’t liiiive if livin’ is without you[r stupid blog]. I can’t not write (I know this already) but I’m not sure what I can write that is worth the reading. I’m hopeful that it might, at least, be somewhere where I learn to write shorter sentences.

I’m sorry for rambling on at such self-indulgent length (if you enjoyed this you may also enjoy my sixteen-year-old diary) but I wanted to explain why Make a Long Story Short will be disappearing for a while. Because every single person who has ever read this blog, left a comment or told me they enjoyed it has done something for me I can’t really describe. Off I jumped into parenthood, arms flailing, wondering what in the heck I was doing. But there you were, too. There you were. Thank you.

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It’s all coming up gums around here.

Curses for your worst enemy

May you be the sort of person who forgets to shop online until your cupboards are bare.

May you find yourself here, frequently, despairingly, with sad sense of the justness of fate.

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May you be forced to wrestle your youngest and sweet-talk your eldest into the trolley every time, and those times many.

May they squabble and shriek the whole way round.

May your distraction be such that you buy the half-fat sausages.

May your trolley always be full when your eldest announces the need to relieve his waters.

May you pack and pay like a woman gone mad.

May the disabled toilet always be occupied and disgusting.

May you spend a full fifteen minutes in deathly fear that your offspring will pee on your groceries.

As the door opens and the occupant waltzes out, may your boy turn to you and say, in tones of impeccable surprise,

‘oh, do you need the toilet Mama? I don’t’.

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Cake for breakfast

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And so we discover that time, that fickle mistress, halts for no man, and no matter how sunny your good looks are, EVEN YOU WILL BE TWENTY-NINE IN THE END.

Or, in other words, Tim had his birthday this week, which means I’m not the only one in this house officially on the short slide to thirty. HARDEE HAR HAR.

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We had a lovely day. We decided to keep Henry in nursery in the morning, because it would make it more likely that family naps could happen (and they did). But before that there were presents, bunting and cake for breakfast. I don’t know why we haven’t just done cake for breakfast every birthday morning before this, by the way. It makes everything better. Maybe it’s a special milestone in adulthood, being able to decide that cake is a meal without any regrets? If it is, we are there.

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I found this root beer float cake on Joy the Baker’s glorious site some time ago, and bookmarked it immediately for Tim’s birthday. He is the sort of chap who drinks his own weight in the stuff every time we head across the Atlantic. Last year my sister got him a boxful of different brands in murky brown bottles, and he sat us all down and conducted serious taste comparison tests. With a spreadsheet. Love him.

Anyway, it’s a fabulous cake – the root beer comes through quite beautifully, and not too strongly – and I am a convert to bundt tins, because no more ugly first slices. My version was a little rough and ready, mainly due to the fact that a) I made it at 11pm, and b) I can never be convinced that it’s worth the effort of sieving cocoa powder and icing sugar, until my frosting comes out in pimples, and then I remember that it is. To make it a proper root beer float cake I stacked Cornish vanilla ice cream into the hole in the middle, which I think is the best labour saving device invented since I gave up the sandwich and started just eating peanut butter and jam off the same spoon.

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We took the boys swimming in the afternoon, then around dinner time left them with Tim’s lovely mama to go on a birthday date. We tested out some digital radios for our kitchen in John Lewis, then went for obscenely good steak (mine came with beef dripping sauce. Hnnnnggghhhh) and watched Interstellar at the cinema, groaning from our overstuffed stomachs.

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Interstellar is astonishing. It almost tries to cram in too much, and has some usual Nolan problems (some clunky dialogue, a twist a minute). But the visuals, the themes, the scope of the thing, Matthew McConaughey’s beauteous craggy face…oh my. We were overwhelmed.

We have a happy day whenever this guy has a birthday. Like steak and root beer and the great McConaughey himself, he only gets better with age.

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The invisible soldier

I edited a book this summer and loved it. It was about the history of the LDS church in the St Albans area, but really it was about family history. I spent afternoon after afternoon looking at cracked and grainy photos of family groups, fascinated: Victorians in ruffled collars, navy men, women in fur coats with luminous eyes. And then there was Ernest.

There were two of Ernest, taken at the same time: one by himself, and the other with his wife and four tiny children. He is in his early thirties. He has a pencil moustache. His army uniform is so new you can almost see the starch. They took the photos, and then he left for the trenches. I imagine they took them in case that was the last piece of him they had.

It wasn’t, thankfully. He was lucky, or as lucky as you get when you’ve served at the Front. He came back, had another baby, resumed his life. He had a beautiful tenor voice, and sang in the choir. But his health was bad, now. Nine years after coming home from the mud and filth and gunfire, he was dead at 43. His oldest boy was fourteen, his baby only three. There are stories then about his son, forced to be the man of the house in his early teens. There are photos of them all as adults: the mother, the daughters, the son who had to take his father’s place before he was ready. The space where Ernest should be.

I read it, pushed away my computer, and sobbed, heartbroken. I won’t ever find Ernest’s name on a memorial, but the war came to find him just as surely as it found the boys in the fields. And so his wife, and his son, and his daughters were victims too. The war – this war, and all our wars – left fractures everywhere. So many of them were invisible, but no less painfully felt.

And so I find myself wearing a poppy this Remembrance Sunday because there are things I would say to Ernest if I could. I would tell him I was grateful. I would tell him that the life I lead is directly thanks to the choice he made to defend it. I would tell him they probably missed his voice like anything in the choir.

I would tell him that I remember.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!
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Live a little

Come and sit by me, I want a chat.

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I feel two-dimensional, often, as the mother of two toddlers.

And I need a better way of categorising them than that, for a start. ‘Two toddlers’ is too brief to convey the sweat and tears and bruises and seesawing emotions. It says nothing about the early mornings, disturbed nights, battleground mealtimes, or constant anticipating and managing of their shifting moods.

It doesn’t talk about how they’re both toddlers, but at different stages with entirely different needs, and yet all of those needs are relentless and all the time, every minute that they’re awake.

It doesn’t get across the joy of it, either – the absolute heart-hurting beauty of their expansion and questioning and love. What a privilege it is to watch. How often I fall short of the trust they place in me, because they have to, because I make everything they know.

It consumes me. I never wanted to be consumed.

Over the summer I started getting twitchy about how much time Tim was spending on his bike. We have always encouraged each other to pursue our own interests: the ones that we fell in love with in the first place, that make us well-rounded people. But I was irritated by his ‘time off’ not because he wasn’t allowed it, but because I couldn’t think of anything I could do for myself in turn. I asked myself what my hobbies were, and came up with a buzzing blank. All of my thinking, writing, talking: all of it, about these boys.

Let me say that I know this time is short, and I will miss it when it’s gone.

Let me say that I believe creating and moulding this family will be the most important thing I will ever do.

Let me say that, despite all that, because of all that, I need to show them that I am their mother with my whole person. There are depths beyond the business of their immediate care. There are places I find joy that no one else can touch. They need to see it. If I do not start by showing them that women are three-dimensional, complex and interesting, how will they believe it of the women they will meet later?

I was revolving this around late one night, yearning for something I couldn’t put into words. What is it? I thought. What is it I want?

The answer came, eventually.

I want a richer life.

***

I’ve had that in my head as summer has deepened into autumn. A richer life. Not a different one, and not a busier one, but one with better things in it. More little things that make me happy. More balance. More connections. More attention to my spirit. If the canvas of my day felt like mostly pastel watercolour, I wanted oils. Have you ever seen a Van Gogh close up? The brush strokes are tiny, but every one of them is richly coloured and meaningfully placed. It’s one of the reasons I love him so much.

Um, I’m getting carried away.

I think it’s worth a shot, though, so I’ve been trying hard to put little dots of richness into my everyday. Here are some of the ideas I’ve been trying out:

- spending more time outdoors, in nature

- expressing appreciation to friends

- starting a book club

- choosing our family activities more carefully, so we’re outside/interacting/seeing new things/performing service

- exercising a couple of times a week (WHAT, I KNOW)

- using the fancy pottery and napkins at dinner

- having flowers on the table

- making my phone harder to reach from bed

- buying the good ice cream

- resurrecting old interests in art, history, music, theatre, and making dates to enjoy them

Not all of them at once. I’m not looking to be more stressed, just better balanced. I am in here somewhere, and so are you. So I am choosing little things, richly coloured, meaningfully placed. To help me feel like I can stand out on the canvas. Life in oils.

I think I’m starting to feel better.

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So tell me, because I need solidarity: have you ever caught yourself being COMPLETELY wrapped up in what you do for your kids? And what weird and wonderful interests do you have (or once have) that make you yourself? I can name the wigs in any episode of Alias you care to mention, and could tell you some things about the Tudor court that would make your hair curl.

We have a TV for the first time in seven years…but what on earth do we do with it?

Super good at proper screen distance.

Super good at maintaining proper screen distance.

I have had a very important evening. Mostly I have been Nodding Wisely While Tim Adjusts the TV Bracket. I am taking this task very seriously, because I have it on good authority that wonky TV brackets are the woooorst. And I have never had to think about TV brackets before, because we have never had a TV.

Ok, not never. We had a TV at home, growing up, and loved it like a fifth sibling. I know the Postman dance from SMTV Live, and on Thursdays I had special permission to stay up late so I could record episodes of Buffy onto VHS tapes, which we then watched until they were glitchy.

Tim really did never have a TV at home, a circumstance which has resulted in him knowing everything about everything, being able to play the drums in this incredibly hot fashion, and many exchanges like this:

Me: HAHAHA REMEMBER THAT EPISODE OF THUNDERCATS WHEN -

Tim: no

Me: oh, right.

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Lolololol

Anyway, by the time we got married I hadn’t had a TV since university, and so we just never bothered. We had a projector, lots of movies, and more catch-up TV than you could shake a stick at, and this made up for not being able to watch Embarrassing Bodies exactly when it aired. Once babies arrived, we had to work a bit harder to find programmes they might like – trying things out on iPlayer rather than stumbling across them by accident – but as baby problems go, that one rated way below keeping Henry in vests that didn’t smell of sick.

This house doesn’t have room for a projector, so for the first time in seven years, we have a TV, and a bracket, and CBeebies, and everything.

Kitted. Out.

But what is this thing called CBeebies? Why is it full of grown-ass people trying to show the camera every last one of their teeth? Why do they all talk like they’ve got an excited weasel bouncing on their diaphragms? What in the actual heck is going on with Grandpa in my Pocket?

There’s this thing called Swashbuckle, and I can’t decide whether I’m excited that the two lead pirate characters are both women, because women can run pirate crews and nick off with jewels too, yay, equality, or appalled at that hideously perky thing they’re all doing with their faces.

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oh my goodness STOP IT

The boys are enthralled, obviously. All this gurning is like toddler crack, and who am I to deny them a bit of harmless swashbuckling? I do, though, want some proper screen rules in place now that we need them. There’s a lot of good onscreen – not least an unlimited supply of Thundercats jokes – but I want them to use it, not have it use them.

At the moment they watch about an hour of TV while I make dinner – though that doesn’t include the emergency Sarah & Duck I put on for Teddy when he doesn’t want to nap, or the 5am Small Potatoes when he decides he’s had enough of sleeping, or the afternoons where I’ve got so behind we binge on Pixar instead of going to the park. I have a rule that we don’t watch anything that makes me feel ill (GRANDPA IN MY LUNATIC POCKET). I have another rule that there are no rules at all when anyone is cutting teeth or (when this was relevant) growing a foetus.

As with most things, I am tweaking and refashioning as we go, trying new strategies, keeping the ones that feel right and trying not to feel like I’m making things up as I go along. As with most things, this is not true.

What are the screen time rules in your house? Can your kids watch TV without having a gale-force meltdown when it’s time to turn it off? And can you get through Swashbuckle without wanting to throw up a bit in your mouth? 

PS, Sarah & Duck is gorgeous. Sarah & Duck can stay on this TV all day long if it wants. Do not mess with Sarah & Duck. 

Bundle o’ joy

This is a catch-up post about bears.

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He is sixteen months old, and this is his favourite face.

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See?

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As I type he is ‘reading’ Monkey and Me to himself and dancing with glee. In a moment he will get bored of this and push the book at me, honking like a chip-crazed seagull, until I read it. After that, he’ll totter off to find another one. He has already emptied the two picture-book shelves onto the floor to more conveniently find his favourites. I have had to decide that I put them back only twice a day: 1) just before Tim gets home, and 2) once Teddy is unconscious. This is to preserve my own sanity, already hanging by a thread after reading Sarah and Duck Meet the Penguins three times an hour for the past month.

Books are Teddy’s cave of wonders. He can’t stop, because he never knows what might be in the next one. I do not need to tell you how much I love this, Sarah and Duck and the Blasted Penguins aside.

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He finally started walking at about fourteen months, and watching him schlump into a room, all WHAT UP GUYS, still cracks me up. He’s losing his chub (sob!), but he’s still heavier set than his brother. All flying hair, beaming smiles, bull-in-a-china-shop energy. We call him the human demolition ball.

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He said ‘Mummy’ before ‘Daddy’, and ‘yes’ before ‘no’, and both tell you something about him. No other words yet, though a lot of tuneless singing. Sometimes I think he’s a classic second child: mama’s boy to a fault, robust and easy-going, but with a yell loud enough to make your ears bleed when he really wants your attention. Other times I think that’s just him. He’s started being seriously fussy with food recently, and I’m reassured to know that some things are as constant as the sunrise, and that sixteen-month-olds refusing anything but yoghurt is probably one of them.

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He still wakes up once a night. We do not speak of this. He’s moved house and popped out five teeth in a fortnight, three of them molars (seriously), so we’re holding fire on sleep-training for now.  He loves Henry. He loves wandering around outside and finding dangerous looking stones to put in his mouth. He loves your face, almost certainly. Probably the only thing he doesn’t love is Any Item On A Spoon Which Is Not Yoghurt.

This, we can live with.

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