Category Archives: Parenting

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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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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September. July.

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September. July.

It’s done. It’s all done. There I am, waiting at the school gate for the last time in his first year, next to women I have come to love. And here he comes in a queue of friends, crumpled book bag slung over his shoulder, shirt filthy and untucked, skinny legs tanned in the shorts he insisted on wearing every day in summer term.

We have had anxieties aplenty since September – weeks where he cried every morning at the school gate and raged every evening at home, where I worried about him getting dressed for PE and whether he had anyone to play with. Mostly he has grown. Always a fact-hoarder, he came home every day fizzing with them – ‘Mummy, did you know that cabbages have heads?’ ‘Mummy, did you know that a butterfly would drink your blood because there’s so much sugar in it?’ He is ploughing through reading books and counting to one hundred. He has done Sports Day, costume days, assemblies, school trips on coaches, and has sung his little heart out as a pirate in an end-of-term play.

On the way home from the performance, he asked me – wonder in his voice – whether I knew that he was quite good at singing, actually? His teachers have done that for him, this boy who daren’t draw attention to himself in a crowd: they’ve told him he can raise his voice.

I wonder if every year will be like this, whether I will be as grateful and as awed by his teachers as I have been so far, whether he will continue to make leaps that are beyond anything I have envisioned for him. His first year at school hasn’t been about me at all, but I’ve got something from it all the same: the understanding that he is far more capable than my fears have allowed me to believe; the dawning realisation, breathtaking and lovely, that he has higher, and further, and further still to go.

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A letter for three (for Teddy)

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Dear Teddy,

Today is your birthday, and you are three. You have just gone to sleep in fuzzy dinosaur pyjamas, so thoroughly squashed in by soft toys that you look like a pharaoh buried with treasure. You haven’t the heart to banish any of them to the toy box, so we come in later to dig you out. How you’ve escaped suffocation before now is, honestly, a mystery.

You’ve been the twoiest of two-year-olds, so it’s been strange watching Three steal over you, bit by bit. You’ve grown out of your rainbow wellies and nappies. You are pulling words from the air, spinning them into sentences that make you sound like a person. You make your toys talk to each other, acting out stories with dinosaurs and fire engines. You have – sorry – atrocious taste in television. You like to reminisce about things we did six months ago, and check whether I remember them too. What a peculiar and lovely thing, to have a memory for the first time, and only to remember the good things. It’s very like you. You love music, and when the song changes on the radio you pipe up from the back ‘hey, I like this one!’ Every time. That’s very like you too.

I can’t write about you without superlatives, Ted: you are the most joyous, most frustrating little thing. All fury and determination and happiness. Wild white-blonde hair, big eyes, a wide, easy smile. You talk and shout and screech and sing, so loudly I cringe for our neighbours. Some days we bash heads from morning till night, and I collapse at the end of it, exhausted. You are energetic, bursting with confidence that life is good and that people are glad to see you. You still burst into rooms shouting ‘I baaaaack!’, even if you’ve only been gone for thirty seconds. When I chat with passers-by on our way home, you grab Henry’s hand and interrupt ‘Um, excuse me, my name is Teddy and this is my brother, Henry’. The other day I looked up at the park to find that you were engaging a ten-year-old in conversation, introducing him to your brother, persuading him to push you on the swings. And I wasn’t surprised.

There’s nursery on the horizon in September. Uniforms, carpet time, new friends and new skills. So much change, so close, and you’ve no idea. I’m not afraid for you in the slightest. Making the best of new things is rather your strong point.

We can’t imagine what we did without you. Everything about us is better with you in it. You don’t let me sing your song to you very often anymore, but it turns out it was well chosen, after all.

You dream-maker,

you heart-breaker.

Wherever you’re going, we’re going your way.

Here’s to more of all of it (except, maybe, the tantrums and the Paw Patrol?). Happy birthday, little bear.

Much love,

your mother.

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‘Stop talking with your mouth. Smile with your mouth’ (and more things I said during Father’s Day photos)

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Ah, June. Where skies are clear (lol) and evenings are lazy (wut) and summer feels like it’s really here (OH STOP). And I will be found somewhere indoors or out, flinging sweets at two small boys and trying to make them smile simultaneously for a photo. Who was it who liked to believe six impossible things before breakfast? In June I do that too, and all of them are versions of ‘I’m sure this Father’s Day photo will be done in one take’.

Oh, self, no. No, no, no [kindly shake of head].

This year I saw a brilliant idea on Pinterest, where you cut out a message on thick card, get your kids to hold it up in the sun and take a photo of the shadow (plus their adorable feet). An idea which did not involve them looking and smiling simultaneously. SIGN ME UP. Of course, I forgot that we live in England, truly the damp sock in the holey welly boot of Europe. It rained solidly all week, and we had to take advantage of a ten-minute interval of sunshine, twenty minutes past bedtime.

After a bit of this (classic ‘Teddeeeeee’ face from Hen here)

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…we got this.

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Glory be.

(This is what the card looks like, by the way, if you ever want to do something like this. I used a cheap craft knife to cut out the letters, and spent an embarrassingly long time working out that it needed to be upside down for the photo to work.)

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However, because I couldn’t count on getting any sunshine at all, we needed an alternative. So the day before we’d gone off to the woods with signs, to have enriching conversations like this.

‘Alright, smile and hold up your sign! Hen. HEN. Stop talking with your mouth. Smile with your mouth.’

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‘Ted, darling, hold up your sign. Up. Up near your face.’

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‘No, not behind your face -‘

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‘Ok, that’ll do, that’ll – Hen, nice smile now, please, a nice -‘

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‘No, I don’t want to hear willy jokes. No willy jokes, PLEASE, no -‘

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‘Defo wasn’t that funny.’

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‘Ted, could you show me your sign, darling? Not so hard – oh, yes, broken, yes. Hang on -‘

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‘Alright, one more time with the sign, eh?’ Stay there, though. Guys! GUYS. STAY THERE.’

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Siiiiiigh. Got there in the end.

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Now comes the part where I wait for that modelling gig to roll on happily into our laps.

[waits]

[waits]

[waits]

Or maybe not.

Angry mummy: everything’s not lost

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This is the third post I’ve written about trying not to be a short-fuse parent. Here are numbers one and two. It’s, um, an ongoing series. 

You haven’t lost if you start to laugh halfway through the telling-off. (‘Lost’? Setting boundaries isn’t a wrestling match between you and your toddler, self.) This is what I say to myself, particularly after T has grinned his way through a reprimand, like he’s the gleeful and deliberate loser of a stare-out competition. I have only seen him be serious once, after I caught him drawing on every inch of bedroom wall he could reach with an orange crayon.

I went full-on pantomime villain for that, but you can’t bring out the panto every time.

This is an Angry Mummy post about catastrophic thinking, and how I apply it to lots of areas in life – I am nothing if not an equal opportunities catastrophist – but most especially to parenting. Catastrophic thinking is the habit that makes me obsess over imaginary road accidents and undiscovered tumours, when Tim is driving home late. It’s the tendency to jump immediately to the worst-case scenario, no matter how irrational, and (this is the crucial bit) it starts to affect how you behave afterwards. So in the imaginary-road-accident scenario, I am worrying instead of sleeping. I can’t get the sleep back, even when he gets home safe.

When it comes to parenting, it goes something like this: ‘oh no, I’ve come over all Wicked Witch of the West in Tesco. I’ve ruined this afternoon for them now. I might’s well carry on being snappy’. Like once I’ve raised my voice, or said something with a harsher edge than planned, I’ve used up my parenting credit for the day and no amount of apologising will bring it back. I am Wile E. Coyote, plummeting inevitably and forever off Good Mother Cliff, and once I’m off, I’m off.

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Like all catastrophic thinking, this is a load of rubbish. Bad moments only have to be a moment. Hello, have I ever met my children? You can offer them a moderately-sized piece of cheese and they’ll get over any trauma in a second. They scrap and accidentally wang each other with blocks and not-so-accidentally trip each other up on the stairs, and three minutes later they’re sat in the bath, pretending to be twin shopkeepers in an ice cream parlour and offering each other cups of bubbly water (urgh). They don’t hold grudges. They think in moments, and I can too.

This is what I’m trying to remember. If I can get back my equilibrium – after, say, five minutes, some deep breaths and some medicinal Cadbury’s Whole Nut – and then I can come back and patch things up. If I’m trying to teach them that their sincere apologies mean something, then I have to believe that mine mean something too. Be jolly, and show them that I love them. Do some affection play (I liked the idea of this very much, even if ‘affection play’ sounds weird in a way I can’t work out). Then the love will act as an emotional counterweight to the witchiness.

Love enough, and that will be their prevailing memory.

Love enough, and they’ll understand how superficial and temporary the witch-in-Tesco thing is.

You know the thing about Wile E. Coyote? No matter how big the cloud of dust at his landing, he springs up and sprints his way back to the top of the cliff. You think the Road Runner is the winner in that story – ever cheerful, escaping traps with no more effort than a swerve and a blithe honk-honk. He’s not. It’s Wile E. Coyote, failing hard but refusing to be beaten, trying new theories and inventions with enthusiasm, falling off cliffs and under anvils and always coming back, and back, and back again for more.

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We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to tell you this: it’s going to get better

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If you are really struggling with tiny ones right now, please know this.

I know you spend all your time wearing your children’s snot and developing weird, Stockholm Syndrome crushes on Andy from CBeebies. I know that going to the supermarket feels like pushing a ticking bomb that will explode the first time you refuse to wheel it down the toy aisle. I know you think about your ‘old self’ with wistful melancholy, the one that met her deadlines and went out for uninterrupted dinners where she only worried about her own table manners, and it feels like watching a lost, beloved friend you can see across a chasm but will never meet again.

I know you can only see as far as naptime, and that it feels like you’ll be waiting for naptime for the rest of your damn life.

I just wanted to be another person to tell you the thing you need to hear.

It’s going to get better.

Today I took both of mine on a train, to a museum, to lunch and then to a playground before coming home. By myself, with only a reasonably-sized handbag and no pushchair. And it went fine.

They bounced around the museum, laughing and asking questions. They ate what I bought them for lunch without throwing any of it around. They walked around town, got on and off trains and in and out of toilets without meltdown or disaster.

At the playground they played with each other, and with another boy who was there. I sat down. I read sixteen pages of Little Women. SIXTEEN.

Now we are back at home watching Wall-E, where my only role is to hum along to that gorgeously operatic score, and answer H’s ten thousand questions. (‘How did the people make so much rubbish? Why are there dust storms?’ *tries to explain ecological responsiblity and climate change to a four-year-old*).

Days like this aren’t guaranteed but they are getting more frequent. Yesterday, hemmed in by rain, they worked on jigsaws and played in forts, rushing in only to tell me that ‘a group of baby octopuses are singing outside our front door!’ Then (obviously) they made huge fusses about eating what I’d made for dinner and screeched their way horribly through getting pyjamas on. I mean, it’s not plain sailing. As they get older we come across new hiccups (the bickering, THE BICKERING). But more and more now I check the clock and realise that they’ve been playing peaceably without wanting anything from me for half an hour, and even six months ago that was totally unheard of.

They need me less, now. Our interactions are fun, and funny. They are good company. They walk further. They play more. I get more sleep. It’s not easy, but it’s easier, and it’s getting better all the time.

They will not be this age forever. There might be a chasm between you and your old self, but your new self is making it to higher ground inch by inch. And look at the view from up here, you baby-making, toddler-corralling, warrior-woman self. You made this. You created this gorgeously multicoloured life you lead. Just look at the spectacular view, and know that you’re capable and kind and clever, and that it’s getting better all the time.

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Selfie game is getting stronger too, obviously.

Miss Havisham Mondays

*extreme Long Lost Enemy Returns In Dickens Novel voice*

well well well, if it ain’t our old Monday, come back to ‘aunt us!

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This was taken yesterday, on a Sunday that included a three-hour nap, haircuts, Aladdin (ALADDIN!), and fat, new-bread sandwiches with hot chocolate. If Sunday were a character in a Dickens novel, it would be the delicately beautiful heiress who marries the hero but dies before she can get out a full sentence.

Today, well. Shopping. Cleaning. Gardening centre. Fish-pie-which-we-call-seaside-pie-because-it-sounds-less-gag-reflexy. I bought a climbing rose! I’m very excited! This is adulthood, right?

And this. I would like to tell you that this is not why I had children. It’s totally not why I had children.

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