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This Is Where We Are: a letter to my children on Mother’s Day (6)

Every year on Mother’s Day, I write about how I mother my babies day-to-day. I think they might like to know how the little things felt, as well as the big ones. Here goes the sixth, an entire week late (this is the first year I’ve had a proper excuse). 

Dear Future Versions of Henry, Teddy and Imogen,

This has been my sixth Mothering Sunday, and you are five-and-a-half, three-and-three-quarters, and two weeks old, respectively. And this is what we looked like today.

It’s a bit odd writing this letter, this year. We have never been so far from our normal day-to-day, and I’ve never, till now, had a Mother’s Day where I’ve been here in this most intense phase of mothering, the no-sleep, hands-on one where it’s impossible to do anything else. I spend most of my time sat down under various blankets, feeding, and Daddy is home picking up all of my slack (which you love). We’ve spent this whole weekend at home, watching Conference sessions, going for walks, eating, colouring, admiring your new sister in her stripy jersey dress, making monster cars out of Lego. It’s not normal, but I am so enjoying it. I hope you are too.

***

Imogen, here you are at last. We brought you home after that unpleasant forty-eight hours in the hospital, where none of us slept and they made your little heels bleed over and over, and the three of us buried ourselves in clouds of white duvet and slept for four hours in sheer relief. I spent the first week largely on autopilot, in shock, with you an unknowable, ravenous little thing beside me. The second week it was like you’d always been here. You have a head of black hair, like your middle brother did – in fact you look exactly the same as he did, so we keep speculating whether your hair will fall out and grow back bright blonde, like his. You have a delicate pixie-ish face, chubby cheeks, long spindly fingers. One of your toes – ridiculously small – folds under the one next to it, after it spent several months crammed under my ribs.

Two weeks isn’t terribly long to be anything, and most of what you’ll be is unwritten. But you are remarkably unfussy, for a newborn. You sleep in good three hour blocks, and feed happily from me or a bottle. In the evenings you watch our faces intently, dark blue eyes wide. You only screech when we change your nappy. In the bath you stretch out in the water, sigh and close your eyes, a look of bliss on your miniature features.

There was an evening last week where I sat, too late, pyjamas on, and rocked you a little while for the pleasure of it. Little bird, I loved you. It was new, and so strong it hurt my chest. I can’t wait to see where you go next.

***

Teddy, you’re in front of me right now, pushing a toy car from one end of the piano to another, cracking poor jokes for my benefit and humming to yourself. Which is you all over: happy, fidgety, affectionate, unintentionally hilarious and so. very. loud. You hum all the time – one constant, buzzy stream of song fragments – which means we’ll never lose you in a supermarket, but also makes it hard to concentrate. Now you’re a new-minted middle child, you seem huge to us, though in fact you’ve been getting older on the sly for a while. You wake up at a fairly civilised hour, and you’re starting to dress yourself and put on your own shoes. After we’ve dropped Henry off at school we spend the morning together, then you speed off on your balance bike to nursery. You can read, now, and recognise numbers. You just rushed up to tell me that it’s very important to wash your hands after handling your pets (we don’t have any pets) and that ‘boys have eyelashes too, you know’. Apropos of nothing, as per. You represent total, uncomplicated joy to me, still.

You love Where’s Wally books, your bike, Transformers, and any Lego vehicle you can persuade Henry to make for you. You would eat pasta for every meal if I let you. You idolise your brother, even when his reticence frustrates you and your chatter irritates him. You won’t do anything you don’t want to, until I’ve counted to five. Just occasionally now you get tongue-tied and nervous, quite unlike your usual fearlessness. The threenager rages are less and less frequent, now we can see four on the horizon. Which is to say, my baby-no-longer-baby, that you’re growing up.

***

Henry, this is you. Somewhere between five and six, and in the middle of a big year. Self-contained and quietly stubborn. Cautious and intuitive. An endless, vocal worrier. You are dryly funny, an insatiable fact-hoarder, and can communicate ten sceptical things just by raising your eyebrows. You love reading, cycling, dancing and singing (strictly in private, those two), Pokemon, dinosaurs, Lego, and sausage pie for dinner. You hate having to do anything quickly, and being reminded that I am in charge. At home you are kind and capable, though you have flashes of defiant temper and always want the last word when we disagree (I have a feeling this will come up again in, say, ten years). You dress yourself, like your own space, and direct Teddy like a benevolent general when you play or do chores together. Yesterday I was in the middle of making Sunday lunch, and came in to find the two of you poring over your Pokemon encyclopaedia, you making up quiz questions and Teddy guessing the answers. You are increasingly inseparable. It’s everything we hoped for, for the two of you.

At school – such a huge part of your life now – you are the youngest in your class, and I think you feel it without knowing precisely what ‘it’ is. You are quiet and unshowy there. Sometimes you struggle with who to play with in the playground. You feel things very deeply. It can be difficult for both of us. I try hard not to wish away your sensitivity because, my love, I want you to remember that emotional literacy is a powerful thing, and not something to be ashamed of. To know always what you’re feeling and how others feel too – do you know how rare that is? If you can work up the confidence to listen to yourself, you’ll be a wonderful friend: the sort of steady light in the corner that people are drawn to; the sort of person people feel safe with. And I couldn’t ask for anything better for you to be.

So there we go. I don’t know what our normality will look like over the next few months; I expect things will be chaotic for a while, and you’ll have to be patient with me, as you have been for the best part of a year now. I hope it counts for something that I love your company. That’s all I wanted to say: that I love your company, and I love where you are, even with all your contradictions and complexities.

(I’m also very tired.)

Here’s to our new gang of five.

Much love,

Your mother.

This Is Where We Are: a letter to my sons on Mother’s Day (5)

Every year on Mother’s Day, I write about how I mother my babies day-to-day. I think they might like to know how the little things felt, as well as the big ones. Here goes the fifth (late again – will this become part of the tradition? Yes).

Dear Future Versions of Henry and Teddy,

This has been my fifth Mothering Sunday, and you are four-and-a-half and two-and-three-quarters, respectively. And we look like this.

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In previous years we’ve taken Mother’s Day photos in natural light, somewhere outdoors, possibly with matching outfits. We ran out of time for that, this year, but I’m glad. When I look back at this phase in our lives, this is how it will feel. We are dishevelled and muddy from walking home through fields. I wear those trousers every day despite the giant hole in one knee, which I got from kneeling on asphalt wrestling Teddy into pushchairs. Henry in school uniform – hasn’t that been a transformative, defining part of the last six months – and Teddy wearing a piece of everything he’s eaten today. I need my hair cutting. I always need my hair cutting. We’re a mess, but it’s a good mess.

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Ted, you still wake up first. Will you always? It feels like it. Six am, on the lucky days. We have an unspoken rule that the parent you’re shouting for is the one who has to get up for you. You seem to be favouring Daddy this month (yessss). You are way past two-and-a-half, and it still hasn’t occurred to you to try climbing out of your cot. (Much more cautious than your brother, who climbed high and early and often.) You are getting taller, suddenly. Long fingers, long feet. Still the blue eyes, the half-ton of white-blonde hair. You are quite heart-stoppingly beautiful, altogether. We don’t really know how it happened.

You are also, alas, the twoiest two-year-old that ever lived. Once you had full sentences and strong opinions in your arsenal, we were sunk. You are constantly nattering, shouting, protesting, singing. Singing! That’s a new one for us. You pick up songs from nowhere and sing them to yourself – accurately and in full – in the bath. Your current favourites are Hey Jude (by ‘zer Beatles’), Life on Mars (by ‘Starman’) and the Frozen soundtrack (while you provide an audio commentary to explain what would be happening on screen right now, if we could see it).

You also love: your stuffed dog and cat, your rainbow wellies, books, the ‘little wed boike’ you inherited from Henry this year, Thomas the Tank Engine, grapes and yoghurt, and all the beleaguered pets belonging to our neighbours. You hate: having to get in the pushchair, having to get into your car seat, getting out of the bath, sending Henry into school and not being able to follow, having to do anything you weren’t going to do anyway. You are the best and most exhausting of daytime companions, the teller of terrible jokes, the giver of spontaneous hugs. ‘I baaaaaack!’ you shout, as you run into a room you left thirty seconds ago. We three introverts couldn’t do without you for a moment.

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Henry, my love: isn’t being four fantastic? It feels like a crossroads of an age: we get occasional flashes of toddlerhood, when you struggle with taking turns or decide you don’t like chicken again today; then sometimes I look at you and can see ahead, to the quiet, capable and fascinating boy you’re going to be. So soon, so soon. You are so much calmer, more able to articulate your ideas and feelings. You do a heck of a lot of both, being you: interested in everything, and also hyper-aware of how you and others feel. It’s a funny old (sometimes exhausting) mix. All this emotion makes you a worrier who tends towards melodrama (‘my TEARS are BURNING MY FACE!’ you screeched at me last week). I’m hoping you’ll feel more at ease with time, and that you know you always have a safe place here with me.

You started school in September and you took to it immediately, much to our relief. You like to learn, as I said, and once you had a small circle of friends to call your own, you flew. Writing, reading, solving little counting problems – all new, and you seem to thrive on it. We walk home with you peppering me with facts and questions from your scooter. This morning you asked me to locate and explain all of your major organs, and the kidneys were your favourite. I suspect because they work with wee, and toilet jokes are king. All this is total joy.

Other things you love: dinosaurs, sausage and mash, your scooter, your books, your dinosaur trainers, your red Oxford hoodie (worn so often you’ve broken the zip), and our giant box of Duplo. You eat well and you’d sleep for much longer if it weren’t for Teddy bouncing on your head. You’re growing out of all your trousers simultaneously, again.

So there we are. I wonder, often, what you’ll remember when you’re older, now you’re starting to remember. From my vantage point I can see it all, of course, including the hard and terrible days. I know that I am often tired and bedraggled, that I’m not very patient, and that I make dinner too late (does that ring a bell? Like, 6pm at the earliest?).

But we’ve been walking home through the gorse this week. All out, and all blazing yellow. We made up a rhyme between us to remember its name, ages ago, and you always do. You tell me jokes and I laugh because the telling of them is funny even if the joke isn’t (it isn’t, sorry). We take off our wellies and come into the warm and I put the kettle on. I hope you’ll remember that feeling, the same one I get when the kettle starts to boil: I love this, and you – so much I can’t really articulate it, after all this – and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Let’s stay here as long as we can.

With much love,

Your mother.

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This Is Where We Are: a letter to my sons on Mother’s Day (4)

Having read about it here, I wanted to write about how I mother my babies day-to-day, every Mother’s Day. Here’s the fourth. A bit late this year!

Dear Future Versions of Henry and Teddy,

This has been my fourth Mothering Sunday, and you are three-and-a-half and twenty months, respectively. It’s the end of the day, and I’ve just walked out of your room feeling overwhelmingly grateful that you both go to sleep at night without fuss. I have three stains on my shirt and two on my trousers. I am cramming chocolate in my mouth, eardrums ringing from the unaccustomed silence, so tired I feel like a sack of sand. This is how our days end right now. But you both sleep well, and my giddy aunt, I’m grateful.

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Teddy, you’re the first thing we hear in the morning, usually around 6am. ‘MUMMAAAAAY!’ you bellow. ‘OUT. OOOOOOUT.’ One of us comes in to get you, and you’re standing ready in your cot, all that incredible white-blonde hair standing on end (so much of it we could stuff cushions, if we wanted. The haircut bills are killing us).

Somehow in the last year you became a person: lost all your chub, started taking up three-quarters of the bath, grew a little backbone of steel alongside your natural sweetness that still surprises us. You want what you want. First you try charm – and you have piles of it, all huge blue eyes and endless cheeks – then volume. Your lungs, bear. If you want to be an opera singer when you grow up, you’ll make a fortune.

Your talking goes a bit like this: ‘[gibberish], Tedder, BOOTS’. Or ‘[gibberish], Tedder, DRINK’. Saving the important information to the end, to make sure we get it. You love: your bedtime doggy, books, strawberry yoghurt, raisins, Sarah & Duck, Lightning McQueen (‘AAAAA-keen!’), and shuffling along with your tiny balance bike. You hate: a variety of foods on rotation, being made to nap when you don’t want to, being shut out of any room I’m in, and having to sit in the pushchair. Here’s a secret I probably won’t admit later: ‘sweetie’ was maybe your third or fourth word. High on the list. You are obsessed. We are kind of obsessed with you, in turn. It’s hard not to be. You’re an utter, utter delight.

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Henry, I catch myself looking at you these days feeling bemused and proud and sad all at once, because you are shooting into little-boyhood at a rate of knots. Long legs, thin face, wide eyes. You’re my little companion in the afternoons: joking on the way back from nursery, laughing when Teddy does something silly, cajoling me into playing games when I should be doing the hoovering. You talk in complex sentences and heartfelt ideas, to the point that whenever you’re struggling with something three-ish and I’m frustrated, I have to remind myself that you are, after all, only three. You are shy and find social situations intimidating, and you’re also prone to emotional explosion. We’re working on ways to make both things easier for you. While I’d rather step in and save you hurt, I’m learning to let you find your way through.

You love dinosaurs, animal documentaries, fish fingers and chips, milkshake, your bike, and your books. You’re so much better at eating than you were, but need some mild persuasion to get started. You go to nursery five mornings a week, and you’re thriving there. ‘I watched a video about a chameleon’, you told me today. ‘It changes colour and it has a sticky tongue to GRAB flies on leaves, just like THAT’. Then you asked me to list every other insect the chameleon eats, and I chickened out after about ten.

Anyway. I think a lot about you both, as I hope you can see. I worry about being too shouty and too severe, too tired and too switched-off. And I do get used up, sometimes. More than I’d like.

But boys, lovely boys, you’ll read this when you’re too big to crawl onto my lap on the kitchen floor like you did today, both of you jostling for space on my knees.

And I want you to know: I would not give a single minute of this, of you, away. Not to anyone. Not for anything at all.

With much love,

Your mother.

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Previous editions of This Is Where We Are: here (1), here (2), and here (3).

This Is Where We Are: A letter to my children on Mother’s Day (3)

Dear Future Versions of Henry and Edward,

Today is my third Mothering Sunday, and you are two-and-a-half and nine months old, respectively. We are tucked up in bed again, this time because you have hand, foot and mouth virus. Before I had children I thought HFM, if I thought about it at all, was a disease for cows. Motherhood is not so much a learning curve as a learning ski jump, with no skis attached.

You first, Teds? You don’t often get to go first.

Henry and I call you ‘bear’ at home, and it suits you. You are a golden-haired, roly-poly, beaming little thing, and you remind me more of a bear cub than a baby. Your eyes are an untroubled, unclouded blue. Honestly, Teddy, I could go a hundred miles and not find another person as sweetly lovely as you. You are the sort of boy who sits in a two-inch bath clenching his fists and squealing, because nothing has ever been as good as this bath, ever. I can put you on the bed with a piece of paper, and twenty minutes later you’ll get a bit bored so I’ll need to mix it up a bit and show you an interestingly coloured sock. You’re that kind of lovely. You’re the sort of lovely that smiles so wide there’s not room on your face for the whole of it, because that’s the kind of smile you think everyone deserves.

You love cherry tomatoes (what?!), apple puree, your purple spider, bouncing on your chubby feet, being in water, anyone who will look at you twice, and your brother, who is the brightest thing in any room you’re in. You hate…well, actually, I can’t think of anything. Except maybe being ignored for too long, at which point you bellow so loudly the glass shatters in the photo frames. You eat well; you sleep well; you throw up like it’s an Olympic sport. When I pick you up and you huff contentedly into my hair, I squash my face against yours and look sideways. All I can see is cheeks.

Two babies has been an adjustment I can only think of in natural disaster metaphors: a tsunami, a tidal wave, an earthquake. But it hasn’t been a disaster at all, and that’s because of you. Do you know how rare it is to find someone who evokes in you utter, uncomplicated joy? That’s you, my darling. So bright I can’t look at you straight. You have the sort of light that people are drawn to, and I’m only grateful it landed on me first.

***

Henry, you quicksilver boy: you are skinny, sandy-haired and full of burning energy. Your eyes are blue with the most extraordinary rings of greeny-yellow: they remind me of those fire-veined pebbles you find on beaches, still wet from the sea. If I told you this you would fix me with that look you get, eyebrows raised, mouth quirked up on one side: that, good madam, is ridiculous. You love a good joke, and I’m often your best one.

You love books, sausage pie, the twenty-seven ‘waysing cars’ you have stashed everywhere, Finding Nemo, sprinting, sitting in patches of sunshine in your bath towel, and Daddy. You hate salad, being made to take off your towel and get dressed, sitting in the Tesco trolley, and being reminded that I am in charge. You are rapid-fire chatter, ingenuity, single-mindedness, throat-gurgling laughs. When I push you high on the swings, you close your eyes and tip your head back to the open skies. You invite me to dance during the closing credits of any film we watch, and I would never dream of turning you down. You are clever as heck. Let’s say that now while you’re too young to get it. Oh gosh, you really are.

We have a more complicated bond these days: you want things and push back when you can’t have them; I lose my temper over your stubbornness more often than I should. We are parenting now in earnest, and often I feel a terrible tearing mix of frustration and fear and pride and love. I suppose that’s how you become less of me and more of you, and there’s something wonderful in that. I love you fiercely for your wholeness and integrity. Regardless of who’s watching, you are always most perfectly yourself. I have this sense of you as a poised arrow: fearless, determined, ready on the string. I can’t fathom where that headlong rush forward will take you, but I can guess. So high, my love, so high I can only watch you: so blazingly, beautifully high.

With love and some hair-pulling (on all sides),

Your mother.

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This Is Where We Are: A letter to my son on Mother’s Day (2)

Having read about it here, I wanted to write about how I mother my babies day-to-day, every Mother’s Day. The first was here. Here goes the second. 

Dear Future Version of Henry,

Today is my second Mothering Sunday, and you are eighteen months old. We are sat side-by-side in the big bed, you tucked under my arm and watching your third episode of ‘Sarah and Duck’. You’ve got a dribbly cold, which is the reason we’re at home on a Sunday morning, and also the only reason you’re happy to be tucked anywhere. I’m making the most of it. Usually you’ve got too much to do.

Oh, I am in love with you, little boisterous boy. You sprint through a world of vivid colour where every last thing is so interesting it’s worth climbing a bookcase for. You should exhaust me completely – our energy levels are not, at the moment, on a par – and sometimes you do. Mostly I marvel at how keenly you feel everything: you’re always astonished or powerfully curious or hilariously excited or heartbreakingly sad. I mean, I never considered how interesting a cake fork was, before you insisted on inspecting all twelve of them in the cutlery drawer. You do not believe in sitting still, not for a second. You sleep like a champ, but only because you’ve knocked yourself out all day wrestling with chairs and sofas and me.

After much trial and error, we’ve found a routine that works for us both at the moment. Daddy fetches you from your cot in the morning, and you lie between us for an hour, hiding under the covers and tweaking our noses, until we’re ready to get up. You take long morning naps while I work, then I fetch you lunch and the rest of the afternoon is ours. You love books, red peppers, your pull-along doggy, the fluffy side of your monkey blanket, other people’s breakfasts, jumping from high places, and Daddy, always Daddy. You would give up ten strawberry yoghurts to have that man chase you around the kitchen. You hate having your teeth brushed, being made to eat when you don’t want to (often), broccoli under any circumstances, and being told ‘no’. We are working on the time-out thing, at the moment. Thus far, not an astoundingly successful experiment. Neither do any of my warning faces have any effect whatsoever. I’ll keep trying.

I feel a great deal more pressure now you not only need to be fed and clean and rested, but also stimulated and taught: given good habits, trained out of bad ones, exposed to people and principles that will open your eyes and make you everything you could be. It’s a lot to do in an afternoon, and I am no great paragon of any of it myself. But somehow, despite all that, I feel more secure now in mothering you than I ever have before. This has been my favourite age so far. You are good company. I can see so much of what you are, and it gives me hope. I want you to keep forging new paths. I want you to be graceful, and grateful, and kind. I want you to read the whole of Roald Dahl’s back catalogue, but that’s probably a goal for another year.

I can’t tell you how much being your mother has changed me for the better. You have my heart and soul and everything in between. I hope you can feel it. I finally begin to understand that the glory of motherhood is this: no matter how far you move away from me, some part of you, for me, will always be that little boy lying between us and kicking his legs in the bed, babbling secrets into the half-darkness. I’ll have that forever. What a gift, my dearest boy. What an inexpressible gift.

With love,

Your mother.

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Dear Future Version of Henry, my hair doesn’t always look like an insane person’s wig. Promise.

This Is Where We Are: A letter to my son on Mother’s Day (1)

Having read about it here, I wanted to write about how I mother my babies day-to-day, every Mother’s Day. Here goes the first.

Dear Future Version of Henry,

Today is my first Mothering Sunday, and tomorrow you will be seven months old. I am sat in a puddle of quiet, feeding you before your nap. You’re not much interested in feeding these days apart from as a comforting book-end to sleep. The knowledge that this connection between us is winding to a close is breaking my heart just a little. You are so big now. You are so completely yourself. You’re hardly my creation at all.

It has taken us this long to cobble together something like a routine, but we’re getting there. Neither of us are great at sticking to a routine – I am too indecisive and you are too energetic – but it does us both good. You nap twice in the day if we’re lucky, and most of the night. You will eat sweet potato till it comes out of your ears (or nose, more often), but choke extravagantly on anything more solid. You do everything extravagantly: lunging at things you want to put in your mouth, burying your face in my neck in a fit of excitement, bouncing like a grasshopper in my lap. You are always in the throes of some passion or other. You are never, never still. I think you’re going to give me a run for my money as soon as you can actually run.

You love singing, Sir Prance-a-Lot, your door bouncer, books that are solid enough to get in your mouth, labels, my hair and Daddy. You hate pasta, getting dressed, and doing anything for longer than five minutes.

In some ways I struggled with the transition to full-time mothering, needing more validation and more structure than you were able to give me, but I’ve grown into my life as you’ve grown into yours. I’ve been surprised at how natural it all is. I know every inch of you. I can sense what you need without really having to try. You want Daddy when you want to be happy, and me when you want to be sad. I know I won’t always be able to fix your problems so easily, but oh, I wish I could.

I have so many hopes for you. I want you to be independent and confident and curious. If I could have you be anything, I would have you be kind. I worry about you constantly. I suppose it will always be like that. But I love who you are and who I’ve become since you arrived. I only have you to thank for that.

With love,

Your mother.

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!

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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When a dinosaur comes to a party, it wears its best hat

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Birthday fortnight is over. Well, not really – H’s birthday is still to come next month, though because he’s blown out a glittery ‘5’ candle, he’s convinced he already is. And I say: fair enough. You can be five for a few sneaky weeks. Five is great.

It seemed like a good idea to move H’s party forward to before the end of term, to catch his friends before they went on holiday. He’d asked for a party, after all – unusual for this beloved people-wary child – and since we weren’t sure how many years he’d want one, we wanted to make this one good. Until we realised that we’d scheduled two consecutive party weekends for ourselves, which is the sort of way madness resides.

He chose a dinosaur theme. He wants to be a palaeontologist – he can pronounce this better than I can spell it – and most days I have a scheduled bare-feet run-in with a tiny rubber ceratosaurus and some muffled howling. So I went and drowned myself in Pinterest for a few days, spent a few more days whimpering at the extravaganzas on Pinterest, then chose a few decoration and game ideas I thought I might be able to do. I even made a spider diagram. This was getting SERIOUS.

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A word to the wise: even the simplest home-grown party is going to cost you some money. Party bags, my guys. Party bags. I know for a fact that when H comes home with a party bag full of small plastic bits, he is thrilled to his core while I’m only waiting a couple of days before I can quietly slide it all into the bin. It seems silly to spend money on them. But buy anything twenty times, let alone five or six things, and you’ll be weeping soft tears at the checkout regardless. In the end I was lucky, and found most of what I needed in pound shops and sales. You just have to suck it up.  I got these little paper bags from Party Pieces in red and green, and they were great: sturdy, and not so big that you felt the pressure to over-fill them.

So here we go. We’d hired our local village hall – inexpensive, roomy and with a good stock of child-sized tables and chairs – and arrived there with decorations to set up. I loved these balloon dinosaurs I found on the ole internet, and they really were easy enough to do: I wasn’t sure that sellotape would hold the arms and legs on, but it did. I hole-punched their heads in strategic places, and Tim strung them up in the air with sewing thread. Marvellous.

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I also spent a full hour of my adult life making tiny party hats for our larger dinosaurs. I did kiiind of feel like something had gone a bit wrong at this point – OR WAS IT VERY RIGHT – but hey. We got two helium balloons to tie onto their tiny claws, and they sat as centrepieces for the tables looking like they were terribly glad it was H’s birthday.

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I was lucky enough to find this set of dinosaur tableware – cups, napkins, and lovely straws – on sale a couple of days before. Why do kids get all the best party gear?! We’ve got some straws left over, and every now and again I use one so that my drink can feel ferocious.

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We played four games: a pin-the-horn-on-the-triceratops, a dinosaur egg-and-spoon race, a pass the parcel and a version of musical statues where they danced like dinosaurs and froze into fossils. It all sounded a bit cheeseball on paper, but with seventeen four- and five-year-olds leaping around, it was seriously adorable. Then we finished with a T-Rex pinata – a terrifying, crumpled beast we found on Amazon that was made, apparently and unfortunately, from strengthened steel. No matter. They had a whale of a time beating the heck out of it.

H's new photo face: look like someone's died. Think it'll catch on?

H’s new photo face: look like someone’s died. Think it’ll catch on?

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Making the cake was my favourite part. H has dedicated tastes when it comes to cake, and every year requests a chocolate cake as though he’s never eaten one before. So I used our old reliable standard, the Cake Hunter’s Ultimate Chocolate Cake, and put one of our behatted dinosaurs on top, holding a Happy Birthday sign. It cheered me up for days, honestly. Who knew that festive dinosaurs were such a tonic.

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By the time we got to the party, I’d been thinking about it for several weeks, and was starting to wonder if it was going to be more trouble than it was worth. But his face: surrounded by friends, feeling like the cool kid. I will never forget it. The next morning he woke up and said ‘I wish I could have slept at my party and had breakfast at my party and never left!’ When you’ve sat gluing spots onto party hats for toy dinosaurs and wondered how on earth you ended up here, those are the parts that remind you. Here you are, and here you should be. Pom-poms and all.

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It isn’t much, but it’s all we’ve got

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I am running again. Three times a week I squeeze into Lycra, make sure I have music and a podcast on my phone, and set off. It’s been a long time since I’ve been out, and at first it hurt abominably. My body has got into some poor habits. I barely managed to keep running for the one-minute-long intervals.

Three weeks later, I’m running for three-minute intervals and my times are improving. It doesn’t feel easier – the one time I wore Tim’s heart rate monitor, I spent the entire duration in the Whoa, Death Approaches zone. But, is it possible? For me, of all people. Slowly and steadily, I think I am getting better.

***

Henry is learning to read. He has high-frequency words up all over the house, knows quite a few on sight and can spell out the rest. It’s still laborious work. He gets impatient with things he can’t master immediately (um, I wonder where he gets that from?). This morning we sat in the car before school, and his blue-green eyes roamed over the pictures for clues before settling to decipher the incomprehensible words. I watched him and tried to think back to a time when reading wasn’t as subconscious and effortless as breathing.

He got ‘they’. He got ‘said’. He got ‘Kipper’ and ‘glasses’. Despite progressing in what feels like terribly slow increments, I am amazed at how far he’s come. It’s a tiny miracle, learning to read. He’s working hard, and he’s getting better.

***
The world this morning felt very bleak. In my lifetime I have never known this country in the grip of such a vicious, cruel, divisive strain of politics. We have taken our cues from the party leaders, and become increasingly cutthroat in the way we talk to each other over Brexit. I make instant, unflattering judgements about the people voting on the opposite side to me. The discourse is angry and intolerant both on and offline. What has it done to us, this referendum we never really needed or asked for? Yesterday, a dedicated and compassionate politician, a mother of two young children, was stabbed and shot in the street. Here. Here.

There is one tiny spark of hope I can see in all this, one speck of potential in the wave of revulsion and horror that has followed Jo Cox’s murder. The prevailing mood seems to be that this is unimaginably wrong; this isn’t how we should be. We have gone too far. No one (that I have read) is saying with a sorrowful shake of the head that these things happen, that they can’t be prevented. They can be and they should be. We are more than this. We can do better.

If that’s the only place I can rest my hope for now, then here I stand. The general, optimistic truth that with persistence, people get better. If just one person at a time is willing to put in the work to be kind, to embrace diversity and civility and compassion, to call out intolerance where they see it, then we all get better by degrees.

I will put in the work. I will teach my children to put in the work. We are human, and humans can be better.

It is such a very small hope. It feels so inadequate for the tragedy of yesterday. But it’s all I have for the moment.

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