A science-y kind of birthday

Just a quick one about Henry’s birthday, before August is properly over and all my posts turn into meditations on apple crumble.

I didn’t organise a party this year, because we thought we’d be moving house in the middle of it. Then we weren’t moving this month after all (and do not even talk to me about that) but by then it was too late to coordinate everyone’s schedules. So instead of one medium-sized family celebration he had… three small celebrations, one after the other. I think he came out of it rather well.

When I asked Hen what he wanted for his birthday, he said he wanted a chocolate cake, and to see his friends. So we held a Favourite Dessert party the night before, with all his best little people, to tick them both off. For the birthday cake, I made The Cake Hunter‘s Ultimate Chocolate Cake that morning. It is an INSANELY good, easy recipe, and I will never need another chocolate cake in my life. The cake actually tastes of chocolate – this is rare, I find – and even though I’m not much of an icing fan, there’s something fudgy and incredible about the frosting. I doubled the frosting quantities, as I wanted to frost all the way around the outside (my cakes tend to need hiding), and threw on gold and silver stars at the end. It turned out pretty well.

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We put up the bunting from Teddy’s party (I will be doing this until one of them is old enough to mind) and bought napkins, pots and dessert flags from the supermarket, which has seriously impressed me this summer with its party gear. In the middle of all this flour-tossing and sugar-inhaling we had a disaster: Teddy tripped over and smashed both his lips against a colander he’d taken for personal use. Oh, it bled like the River Styx, dear readers. I was about two soaked flannels away from taking him to A&E, rambling on the phone to NHS Direct with one hand, wiping nameless gunk out of his mouth with the other. In the end it dried up all of a sudden, and he seemed totally fine. So we all changed our clothes, cleaned everything up, and ate some desserts.

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The day after was Henry’s actual birthday. First, a few presents from friends and admirers to open over breakfast.

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Then we did as birthday celebrators do, and went to London. If our great capital consisted solely of a Tube network, and all you did was ride round and round till you were dizzy, he’d still think it was the best day of his life.

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As it was, we also had Shake Shack for lunch, along with a very serious conversation about whether Shake Shack or Five Guys do the better burger. Tim and I come down on opposite sides of this divide, like poor Littlefoot and his grandparents from The Land Before Time, and I’m not sure we will ever bridge the gap. We put a lit candle in his burger, because if you can’t have a burger cake when you’re three, when can you, eh?

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PS, I love Covent Garden. There was a chap dressed up in full costume and paint as the Mad Hatter, drinking tea from vintage crockery, all SUP GUYS THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL FOR A TUESDAY.

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We’ve been to the Natural History Museum (‘dinosaur you-see-um’) a few times now, so we thought we’d try the Science Museum this time. He loved it. A word to the wise for parents of toddlers: you need to hit The Garden in the basement (the bit for under-sixes), the cars and planes on the ground floor, and then the Launchpad on the fifth floor (with all the hands-on experiments), and that’s all. Everything else is beyond them, and will only make your feet tired. We discovered this so you don’t have to.

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Know who else was hanging out in the Launchpad that Tuesday? STEPHEN HAWKING. ACTUAL STEPHEN HAWKING. It’s seriously impolite to stare at famous people, I know, but HELLO. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Tim run so fast.

Happy belated birthday, Henny-Pen. Sorry I often call you ‘Hen’ in public and in front of people who don’t know your name. It makes you sound like a chicken. I know, I know. You can carry it off.

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This School-Mum-in-Training needs an instruction manual and some Valium

I had a huge panic attack today, when I kept seeing ‘First day of school!’ updates on Twitter.

Does not compute, my brain said, as I looked over and over again at the date on my computer screen.

it’s still August no wait is it September after all have I missed the start of September and lost a week somewhere oh crap

No, brain, it is definitely still August and you are in possession of all of your faculties. Some schools in Scotland go back before September, apparently. But it did make me realise how much I am secretly panicking about the start of Henry’s new term.

Because I am not ready for the pressures of being a School Mum. In my head, School Mums stock up on school uniform over the summer holidays, and they always know exactly what to buy. They monitor homework and stick up flashcards. They chat in the playground. They have noticeboards, probably, and stick things like term dates and school trips on them. They are much older and more impressive and more together than me, sat here at 11pm with regurgitated soup in my hair (YES REALLY).

This is not really school. He is barely three, and school is not a thing he does. Except because he has a summer birthday, and he’s going to a nursery attached to a primary school that also requires a uniform, it kind of feels like it is. I am worried about him being sad or feeling behind or getting laughed at because he’s a whole year younger than some of them. But I am also worried about messing things up myself, and making things worse for him that way.

I went to buy grey trousers earlier this week, feeling like I was playing at being School Mum and would be uncovered as a pretender in the middle of Sainsbury’s. They’re the smallest size possible, and they’re still huge on him.

what if he becomes a clown-trouser outcast because I didn’t trawl all the shops for something that looked better

This is the sort of thing I am thinking about late at night. The possibility of an invisible trouser test that I have already failed on his behalf. Do you know the silliest part of this? He doesn’t care at all, and he’s going to love nursery so much he won’t want to come home. This is all tangled up with him getting older too fast, with a sense of keening loss for his babyhood that overtakes me at unexpected moments, with the nap he doesn’t want and the smell on the top of his head he lost a long time ago.

This isn’t really about nursery at all. I still do not know what I will do when the flashcards come out.

what if his teacher doesn’t love him how can she love him like I do are teachers even allowed to love their kids anyway

Help. I only have four days left, and the trousers still aren’t right.

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A love letter to our favourite camping holiday

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I have decided some things about camping holidays. I have decided it’s alright to need a daily shower and a hairdryer, even when you’re in a field. You are you, right? You are approaching thirty, and you are good at lots of things, and roughing it really doesn’t have to be one of them.

I have decided that it’s a good idea to get there before dark. If you arrive at 9.30pm in a gale, and your toddlers wake up simultaneously in a pitch-black, cold car and are distressed, and you run back from fiddling with tent poles and forget the car windows are now rolled up, and plough smack into the window with your nose, well – you only have yourself to blame.

And I have decided this: even if you’re not a camper (I am not), and even if it rains (it did), camping in Dorset with little boys is FUN. I will go further: it is magical.

We’ve been busy and stressed this summer. So we planned this little weekend holiday as a love letter to family, and Dorset, and the National Trust. Our much-beloved NT membership runs out at the end of August, and we’ve decided not to renew it till our house bills are paid, so we made as many free trips to historic sites as we could squeeze in. We went to Downshay Farm, where we went a couple of years ago: a campsite on a hill overlooking Corfe Castle and the old Swanage railway. The steam train clattered past three times an hour, and it never got less exciting for this boy.

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I really did almost break my nose on the car window the first night. Oh my giddy aunt, it hurt. Lying groaning and streaming in wet grass, I was afraid I’d actually broken it, and tried to comfort myself with the thought that Dumbledore managed to carry it off quite well. You will say that Dumbledore didn’t break his by running into his own car. You would be right.

The first day we did Corfe Castle. I can’t tell you why I love this castle so much, but when we drive in and see it, craggy and chalky on the hill, I always take a breath. They had a little medieval village there, and with a thousand nooks and crannies to climb through and jump off, both the boys were in heaven.

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Tim’s brother and his family joined us for a night and a day that evening. Hot chocolate and running in wellies are both better with cousins, we can attest.

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The next day we went to the beach, and the Studland beach area down here is our favourite. Having done both, we prefer Knoll Beach to Shell Bay, but they’re both the kind of white-sand, clear-water, heather-on-the-dunes kind of places that look like they belong in a postcard.  There’s also a nudist beach between them, and one day we’ll be brave enough. JUST KIDDING, THIS IS ENGLAND AND IT’S STILL COLD.

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That evening we took the steam train back to the castle for the Purbeck Film Festival. I was worried about tackling the old train with a double pushchair, but the drivers couldn’t have been more helpful, and Henry and Teddy were beside themselves. We ate fish and chips while we waited for the sun to set behind the hill, then watched The Lego Movie projected against one of the old castle walls. We laughed a lot, even when it got cold. It was wonderful.

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Sunday was our last full day, so we took the chain ferry over to Sandbanks, then a little yellow boat to Brownsea Island. This is also managed by the National Trust, and was a real find: a 1.5 mile-long nature reserve covered in woodland and heather, with amazing views over Poole Harbour. We took a long walk through the forest, pine needles underfoot, soaking up the quiet. Then Hen threw his sandwich to one of the geese and I almost got trampled in a bird stampede, which killed the tranquillity somewhat. Imagine opening your eyes to see the underside of a goose above your head. Now scream.

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(Just a little hint: if you ever go to Brownsea, park on the Studland Bay side in the NT car park, and take the chain ferry on foot. It’s much cheaper, and it will save you spending 45 minutes trying to park on the Sandbanks end like we did. Also, the yellow ferry to Brownsea Island is free until you’re six. Result!)

I don’t think we would’ve left if we hadn’t been rained off site early the next morning. The boys loved everything from the sleeping bags to the marshmallows. We have come back with to-do lists as long as our arms. But somehow, with four days of castles and steam trains at our backs, and in this company, I feel like it could be a walk in the park.

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I eat my feelings, and maybe you do too

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I am the sort of person who thinks a lot about food. You might be able to tell. Most of my jokes are about biscuits, aren’t they? I maintain forever and always that a good biscuit joke sets most people at ease and, an additional benefit, encourages them to think more about biscuits.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether my relationship to food is as healthy as it could be. My goodness, food and I are complex, intertwined, weirdly co-dependent creatures. Here are a few things that are true for me (are any of them true for you too?):

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I am northern. My cooking tends to be on the heavy, meat-and-potatoes side of things. I like meat and potatoes best when it’s in a pie. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON PIE.

I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but I use chocolate ice cream in a way that resembles all of these things.

I like good food, whole food, expensive food…and down-and-dirty food, greasy food, delivered-to-your-door-in-a-damp-paper-bag food. I eat unhealthily often, and gleefully, but with a sad sense of grossness afterwards.

I tried counting calories once, and it bored the freaking pants off me. I would never, ever consider giving up dairy, wheat or meat unless I were actually dying. I mean, CHEESE.

I come from a family where our genes run small and skinny. I have a vastly skewed sense of ‘normal’ size and weight as a result. I place far, far too much emphasis on how much I weigh, rather than how I feel. If you ever asked me my weight, I could tell you and the number would be accurate to within 48 hours.

I would rather spend money eating out at a restaurant than buying almost anything else.

I don’t enjoy being pregnant, and I think maybe one of the reasons is that my body shape is out of my own control.

I often go days or weeks between fizzy drinks, but I have to close my eyes in intense appreciation after the first gulp of cold Coke. Every time.

I use food as reward and emotional salve: the times I’m eating for other reasons – exhaustion, boredom, stress, sadness – far outnumber the times I’m eating because I’m hungry. And by the way I talk about it (‘will some fruit snacks make you feel better?’), I think I encourage my children to do the same.

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Doesn’t that make me sound seriously unbalanced? I’m not, I promise. But this is hard: food is energy and health and a delight in its own right, a bringer-together of families and friends, delicious in its earthiness and physicality. You should love it, we say, but not the bad parts and not too much and not in a weird way. There has to be a line you can walk between ‘I like to eat’ and ‘I am unhealthily dependent on liking to eat, and use it to propel myself emotionally through the day’. I want to find that line. I think it would do me some good.

So I’ve been trying to make some changes around here – not so much in what we’re eating, but in how we eat it. These are not refined theories at all, and I’m really just feeling my way to some better habits. What do you think?

one,

I’m trying to be a little more aware of why I’m opening the  kitchen cupboard, and organising the continual grazing into structured meals and snack times. Ben & Jerry’s after the boys go to bed and before I start work? Reasonable. Ben & Jerry’s at 9.30am because drying my hair took less time than expected? Unreasonable.

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two,

I’m trying to eliminate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eating (adults talking about ‘naughty’ food is a cringey bug-bear of mine), and consider instead what my body might need to take in, and how much it needs before it’s full. I can appreciate the iron in our beef lasagne and the vitamins in my salad…while also accepting that sometimes a whacking great burger and fries is exactly what I need, because it tastes nice and I enjoy it.

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three,

I’m trying to make our daily family meals more of an event, particularly dinner time. Flowers, place mats, fancy napkins and serving bowls, little side dishes to round out the main course…we usually saved these for guests, but why should we? I am a big believer in forging our family links around a dinner table. This is where the boys learn to talk about their day and listen to someone else’s. They need patience and social graces to make it through a meal. And I’ve noticed that when I make it feel a little more fancy, Henry is more excited to be there, and more inclined to raise his game.

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four,

I’m trying not to make quite so many jokes about biscuits. KIDDING, AS IF I WOULD EVER.

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I ate Ben & Jerry’s while writing this, and I can’t decide whether this is ironic or whether ice cream and blogging is a perfectly reasonable combination. But here’s to food in its proper place: on our plates, in our bellies, making us happy but not, somehow, needing to. I’ll clink our cheeseburgers together to that.

Breathing space

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I have told the boy listening in the dark that I love him, and closed his door. Tonight I think he’ll stay in there. A click of the door, then, and quiet in front and behind.

I grab the bag of dirty nappies that represent my day’s work and take it downstairs, out of the door, up the steps, across the little car park and over to the bin. I don’t put shoes on. I swing the nappies into the bin and then turn back, a few steps away, and stop. I want to stand for a minute and feel the gravelly asphalt under my bare feet and the sky over my head. The sun is setting behind clouds, the light cool. I breathe in. Out. Feel the pull of my bladder, as usual, and wonder how long I’ve needed to pee.

I look at our house, standing there peacefully with shuttered blinds, as though it’s always this quiet and composed. Half an hour ago, Henry screamed so loud over having his teeth brushed that I worried the neighbours might think we were branding him with an iron. No sign of that now. Just the little gabled entryway, the skylights open to the heavens, the blackout blind keeping two boys in sleep.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here. I am aching with anxiety about it all, but, looking at it now, I am suddenly aware of how hard it will be to leave. This house, this life. I cannot imagine bringing this to an end.

I walk back across the car park to the front door, and think about what Hilary Mantel wrote once.

‘There are no endings.

If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings.

Here is one.’

The week that was…hot

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I am supposed to be doing – haha – SO many things right now, but it’s been a good while since I checked in here. Sometimes my days and nights fill up so much I have to put blogging on the back burner. I miss it when it’s not there.

Some catch-up, then? Here are some inconsequential snippets from our week.

We just got back from a dinner date, where we wandered around looking into restaurant windows for a while before going to Five Guys like we always do. Tim managed three full cups of drink from the special flavours machine before our food even arrived. We decided to pretend we were on a first date, and talked about which character we were most like in Harry Potter (Oliver Wood and Hermione, obvs), and what our favourite films and music were. I confessed my undying love for Inception and Tim decided that whatever type of music Kings of Convenience make, he likes it (Google says they do Indie Folk, so now you know). Also, when you sit up on the high chairs by the balcony, you do actually feel like the Queen of Five Guys.

‘BRING ME MY MANIFOLD FLAVOURS OF DRINK, MAGIC MACHINE.’

‘I WISH FOR AS MANY FRIES AS THE SANDS OF THE SEA.’

‘PLEASE PUT ALL THE FOODS OF EARTH INTO THIS BURGER BUN.’

And they did.

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We are about to head into camp season – Tim is gone for the full week (!) with the teenage boys, though I’m only doing a ten-mile overnight hike with the girls, over a day and a bit. I have started to break it down, and ten miles + carrying a bed roll + sleeping on the floor in the woods without a tent + what the cheff is a bed roll have started to make intimidating sums in my head. It’s alright, guys. I’ve totally got this [am terrified].

this is not a bed.

this is not a bed.

Tim has genuinely got this, because he’s the sort of chap who looks casually hot in a canoe.

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(From last year.) What the.

Henry had a nursery induction this week, where the following exchange occurred:

H’s new teacher: ‘So Henry, what’s your favourite thing to do at home?’
Hen: (top of voice, hands in air) ‘SCREEN TIIIIME!’
Me: (*ALL THE SHAME*) ‘we do, ah, do other things.’

Apart from this, he had a lovely time, and we are crossing our everything that we can move before September so he can go. Between you and me, my dears, I have so much anxiety about our unmoving house move that it makes me want to curl up into a little foetal ball every time I think about it. If you’d like to throw any of your good vibes in our direction and/or politely hustle our solicitors with eyebrows and bribes, consider this my blessing to go ahead.

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This week’s morning adbentures included hot walks/bike rides, train journeys to Goring for weir-watching and ice cream by the river, many playgrounds, the library and a cousins’ trip to West Green House Gardens. The weather has been in the thirties, which sounds fabulous until I remind you that the British do not really understand or see the need for air-conditioning. On the other hand, this has also meant a continual excuse for ice cream, and we try always to take this and run with it.

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Teddy has fallen in deep and profound love with our pop-up version of ‘Dear Zoo’. He’s not allowed to look at it by himself, because he gets too excited and rips off the flaps. I put it in different hiding places, he finds it and takes it off to secret corners to chuckle over; rinse, repeat.

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DIS MY FAVOURITE.

I got a small pile of books from the library that turned out to be all thrillers and Books of Tense and Obscure Emotion, so got out Sadie Jones’ The Unexpected Guests again on a whim. It’s as delightful as I remember. Everything about it is perfect and lovely, and I wish I’d written it so I could tell everyone it was mine.

Instead I wrote this post, and a thing about toddler tantrums and Sirius Black for TalkMum, which is here if you fancy it. It’s no Unexpected Guests, but it was fun.

Oh gosh, 1am. Over and out, you guys. Over and out.

Flying the flag for date night

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Real spouse talk: we find date nights hard these days.

Didn’t everyone say we would, and didn’t we think, all naively, that we’d find a way to work around it? I am in awe of couples who manage to get out once a week or even once a month. Whether you pay someone to come round (sometimes more expensive than we can afford, and difficult to do on weeknights) or just ask a friend (do they have kids already? What might the boys do to their house?), it’s bristling with awkwardness.

More real spouse talk: our relationship deteriorates, in measurable and significant ways, when we don’t have time alone.

And we do not want a relationship of pleasantries and routine. No, we signed up for hand-holding and intimate conversations and intimate everything else. I am here to make a stand and say that friendship, even best-friendship, is not good enough. Even with small children. Even with work and tiredness. I am here for heart-hurting love, and not a single thing less will do.

So it’s a good job, all things considered, that Timothy is the type to book tickets to BBC recordings on a whim, and take us off to London for the evening. All of us, because my brother- and sister-in-law were lovely enough to entertain the boys for the evening while we skipped off into the capital. They live just south of the river Thames, work in animation and theatrical makeup, and are the coolest and nicest people I know.

We were late, of course, so the first half of the date was characterised by sprinting: to the Tube station, onto the Tube, through a sandwich (awkward Tube eating is awkward), and then onto the theatre, where the lady told us they were already full. Great. So we took a long walk down through Bloomsbury to Covent Garden, and got a frozen custard from Shake Shack. Mine came with toffee sauce, chocolate pieces and a kind of malt powder that was like crushed Malteasers plus Horlicks plus crack. I ate it with blueberry lemonade at my elbow, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

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Pre-Raphelites woz 'ere. *shriek*

Pre-Raphaelites woz ‘ere. *shriek*

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Then – oh, my heart – we hired Boris bikes, and freewheeled over the river, Big Ben and the London Eye gleaming on the water, back to pick up the boys. I haven’t been on a bike since university, and went the whole way chanting ‘we’re not going to die we’re not going to die’. Three miles on a bike through London, while the sun sets? My date-o-meter just spontaneously combusted. We came back to chocolate fondue and some Peppa Pig talk, and it was all so perfect it hurt.

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On my flag of personal absolutes is painted ‘DATE NIGHT’. I believe in date night, however we wrangle it. If it’s on a Boris bike, so much the better.

Share with me your collected wisdom, o internet browsers: how do you make date night work?