Category Archives: Parenting

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.

I can’t write anything about potty-training you haven’t heard before

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I mean, let’s be real. I am teaching a small human to direct his waste into a pot instead of in his own clothing. Isn’t it weird that this is a skill everyone you know had to learn? And somehow we need to pass it on to our children even though by now we’ve totally internalised it and don’t actually know how we do it? Unfortunately it isn’t the stuff of transcendent storytelling.

Here’s a poem I wrote about it instead.

 

The Pants Are Full And They Need To Come Off

 

It’s like defusing a crap-bomb

with held breath and shaky hands.

It’s like a magic trick

where you whip the tablecloth away

and leave the glasses standing.

Except there’s poo under your fingernails

and no one applauds.

 

(If tips about potty-training are what you’re after, I have only four to offer:

  1. I can’t speak for your situation, etc etc, but basically everyone I know potty-trained their first-born early and hated it, then potty-trained their second-born much later and cried with relief about how much easier it was. So it has been here. I know nappies get tiresome and gross as Two wears on, but the only relevant question is: would you rather clear up faeces from a nappy or from your carpet? If you wait, they’ll get it quicker.
  2. Portable potties with throw-away bags. It fits in your car boot, your supermarket trolley, your pushchair, your nappy bag. You no longer have the fear of public urination with nowhere to run. LIFE CHANGER (I got mine here).
  3. From a friend (advice received gratefully after I wrote the poem above): give yourself a gift, and buy many pairs of cheap, unlovely pants and keep nail scissors in your handbag. So when they poop their pants (in my limited experience, number twos take much longer to get the hang of), you can just cut the pants off them and throw the whole thing away. In a grand act of self-care, I decided that I am not washing faeces out of pants on a regular basis ever again, until I’m eighty or so and they’re my pants.
  4. From me: pull-ups and even pants make my kids feel like they’ve got a nappy on. Naked is the way to go, for a good three days. Put towels on everything you care about, whack up the heating, give them lots of drinks, and alternate between books and CBeebies while they practice.

Good luck, Human Waste Warriors. You got this.)

Towel; nakedness, CBeebies. Present and correct.

Towel; nakedness, CBeebies. Present and correct.

It’s alright, don’t worry: I’m just going through a phase

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I’m here!

(This is me breaking the log-jam that is two weeks without writing a word, by writing anything. Here’s the anything.)

Everyone tells you that children go through phases, and from my vast sample size of two, I can tell you that it’s true. I mean, I don’t know how useful it is to know that. Sometimes repeating ‘it’s a phase’ on loop to myself (refereeing toy squabble no. 374, maintaining death grip on Dairy Milk) has been immensely comforting. Other times I want to say ‘yes, it’s probably a phase, but that has no bearing on the intense crapness of this phase, since we’re living our lives in the middle of it’. You know the phases I mean.

Funny how we never think of the delightful parts – so many, so many – as ‘just a phase’, though they’re as brief as the negative parts in the long run. T is fast approaching three, and the thought that he will not be mispronouncing ‘grumpy pants’ as ‘scrumpy pants’ for very much longer is something I am dealing with…not so well.

I have also found that motherhood goes through phases too. That time when you have a newborn, every sense blunted by lack of sleep and every feeling heightened by hormones and love, as sharp and vivid as bright colour on canvas.

The phase where your first child finds out they can want things. Oh, man. And you eagerly open up your metaphorical book of parenting strategies, and they screw up the book, and you don’t realise that they are still too young to keep a thought in their heads for seven consecutive seconds, so OF COURSE STRATEGY IS BEYOND THEM, JUST DISTRACT THEM UNTIL YOU LOSE YOUR VOICE.

The phase where you’re wedded to routine, because it anchors you both in a sea of hours from sunrise to sunset. The phase where you prefer to take things as they come. The phase where you’re killing it with the housework and the extra-curricular activities and the washed and ready school uniform. The phase where you’re barely holding your crap together, your former competence so much sand trickling through fingers.

That one where you realise your second child is different to your first, so you’re going to have to use a different book, or write your own.

The phase where you are able to say ‘it’s alright. This is only a phase. He’s not finished. He’s not broken. He has further to go than this’. And mean it.

Mother phases are different to child phases though, because unlike them I seem to revisit mine over and over. One minute T is at a stage I remember from his brother, so I’m able to ease our way through it without worrying. The next minute they’re doing something new, and I feel like I don’t know anything. This is to say, if you’re feeling out of your depth, don’t worry – there are better days ahead. And if you think you’ve got everything sorted forever and ever, well, LOL, this is a grace period, and grace only lasts precisely as long as you absolutely need it.

H has really struggled in school lately, and I have fretted myself silly at home after dropping him off. I couldn’t say ‘this is only a phase’ and mean it – not here, not about this beloved vulnerable boy. I have worried and worried for weeks, and it colours everything else I do.

Now he’s doing better, and I’ve got past some big deadlines, so I’m feeling quite zen about everything. Like I can work hard and without guilt, and even, like, look with benevolence on that awful Transformers cartoon they’re obsessed with, even though my eyeballs melt in protest every time I watch it. I can see the boys and appreciate them for what they are right now, not just what they will be. I can feel lucky. I do feel lucky.

This is my favourite phase. But I wouldn’t get rid of the worry phases either. They feel like the hard, hands-dirty, bloody-minded work that motherhood is made of.

Anyway, I blame this onrush of good feeling for me rashly deciding to potty-train T this week. I was going to wait till after his birthday, but saw a packet of REALLY snazzy Thomas pants in Tesco yesterday morning and just was overcome with optimism. Am I zen enough to avoid eating all of his bribery sweets when he’s not looking? Jury’s out.

Photos from Grey’s Court this weekend, which felt like just the right spot for some appreciation. 

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Marriage and the Magic Question: Who’s Doing the Work?

 

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I sent the text at 6.30, when (according to his schedule) he should’ve been an hour into his ninety-minute journey home.

‘Hey, where are you?’

I hate sending that text – the studied casualness of it, the fact that I’m too tired even to put a smiley face on the end. Wherever he is, he is not here, and we both know that unless the answer comes back as ‘Five minutes away, and bearing a giant pizza with your face on it’, it will not be good news.

When I’m really cheesed off, I miss out the ‘Hey’. It sounds worse, somehow. AND I MEAN IT TO.

After sending the text it occurs to me to check Find My Friends, so I do. He’s still in London. I sigh out a sigh that empties my entire body of breath, and head upstairs to find pyjamas for the boys. Between tubes, trains and taxis, he won’t be home till almost 9pm. I will make a huge effort to remember that he’s had a hard day too. Some days (the 9pm days, when he walks in looking like stepped-on toast) I succeed. Some days (the 7pm-and-I-missed-bedtime-by-five-minutes days) I don’t.

Looking over the landscape of an eight-year marriage – the lumps and bumps and glorious vistas – nothing has stoked our mutual resentment more often than this, this question that only became important once we had children: who’s doing the work? Secretly, I suspect, we both think we’re doing the heavy lifting. Tim earns practically all our money, so is pretty much responsible for keeping four humans fed, housed and comfortable. It’s a high-pressured job that involves early starts, late returns and travelling away for days at a time. He has targets to meet, people to impress, an inbox full of emails to respond to. He can never quite keep up, however long he works. How exhausting.

Then me. While he earns the raw materials, I’m project-managing our whole lives into something happy and functioning. I manage the meals, the schedules, the homework, the outings, the finding of exactly the right pair of dinosaur pyjamas when literally none of the other five pairs of available pyjamas will do. I am always on call. When I want so much as a haircut I have to scrabble around for cover. My coworkers are irrational, demanding and sometimes downright abusive. I do not get paid one whit for any of it. How exhausting.

I’d rather our roles weren’t so thoroughly marked out, and so would he, but they are. Busy office jobs mean long hours out of the house; I’ve neglected my freelancing career enough lately (mostly through necessity, though this is something that hurts all on its own) that I struggle to justify the time it takes away from the boys. So there we are, despite our efforts decidedly not breaking down any stereotypes: the man works, the woman tends the children. We spend weekends recovering from breathless week-days, and at church.

Some days I watch him sail out of the door, on his way to deal with proper adults and get properly remunerated, and it feels like he’s escaping something, and I boil with the injustice of it. Some days I dance around a sunlit forest with a two-year-old hunting for Gruffalos, or watch H’s face light up when he sees me waiting after school, or put T down for a nap and settle to some writing under a duvet, and I know I’ll never be as lucky as this again in my life.

It depends on the day. I expect it depends on the day for Tim, too, whether his work feels like inescapable pressure or blissful, uninterrupted quiet.

Neither of us has really experienced the other’s life (my years of full-time work preceded our very-full-time children so I’ve never done both; the one time I’ve been away without them for a week, he had to work and the boys stayed with various relatives). Maybe one day it would be good for us to try. For now I think we’re where we’re supposed to be, as long as we keep reaching outside of our spheres to help and relieve each other.

We just have to remember (consciously, out loud, and over and over again) that work is work is work. Work, no matter what we’re wearing or which part of the brain we use. Work that keeps our lives, our family and ourselves intact. It’s all work, and it all matters, and we’re doing it all together.

Except for the boys, who are basically freeloading at this point. The rotters.

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Let’s kick our inner smug mums to the kerb this summer

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Some rambly first-draft thoughts I have been mulling over. Let me know what you think. 

Let’s talk about Utah. Let’s talk about Utah and mothers being real.

Not that the two are connected, particularly – or perhaps they are, but I’m not someone qualified to talk about it. I mean that, while we spent a week in Utah, I had a couple of moments where I met people who only really know me, and our kids, from this blog. I absolutely love it when that happens, seriously – I hug it to myself for weeks afterwards – but we were on holiday, we were so far from routine our routine was hitchhiking its way to another state, and the boys were not always on their best behaviour, nor was I always the best version of myself when being with them. I wondered then and I wonder generally: when people see me out and yelling, full-voiced, at my two-year-old to come back (he has a sacred personal rule that he does not come back), does it make the heartfelt and happy-go-lucky stuff I write here seem false?

I’m sure no one we met out there actually thought that. But it did make me think.

Sure, I talk a lot about mothers being real. It’s important that we be real, here on the internet, and that we talk about the bad days. ‘Me too’ is a gift, in this bewildering, relentless and often lonely journey into motherhood. I want to hear ‘me too’ myself, and I want to give the gift of ‘me too’ to others. The antithesis of ‘me too’ is any version of ‘I don’t have this problem because I do things SO RIGHT’, and you know how I feel about that.

But do I really give other mothers enough emotional space to be…less? When I see someone yelling at their child or pulling them away by the arm with a face like a gathering storm – do I honestly make room to remember that they adore that child, and that they’ve just this second been pushed beyond their limits? Do I remember that HELLO, THIS WILL BE ME IN FIVE MINUTES?

Do I allow them to simultaneously be a good mother and have a bad day?

I have this little idea that we can throw smug-mummery (smummery?) in the bin. Starting with the smug-mummery you get from other people, because that’s easier: let anyone who talks to you with a subtext of ‘do it more like me’ slide right off your back as you power on, loving your babies in exactly your own way. A random someone seeing your vulnerable moments will not be around long enough to see your strengths in abundance, so what do they know? Those children were made for you. You were made for them. You’re doing it right.

But also – oh, much harder – let’s kick out the smug mum in ourselves. You know, deep down I feel that my parenting philosophies are the best ones, objectively and forever (whether or not I succeed). Maybe we all do, underneath. But every minute of being a mother has only taught me that that’s not true. When H was a great sleeper and a terrible eater I thought I was excellent at bedtimes and awful at weaning. Then T came along, and I realised that it was only ever H that was good at bedtimes, not me. It wasn’t that I was right or wrong, it was that we found something that was good for them, with lots of trial and error. There’s something freeing in that, right? There’s a measure of grace in admitting to yourself that you’re just a parenting work-in-progress. I change strategies all the time; I fall short of them all the time. My only useful measure of success is whether those boys are happy, and well, and feel loved – though that’s not the only one I use.

But it should be. I want to do better at following my own parenting path without embarrassment, and letting other people mark out theirs. Just a little thing, but I want to be more ‘I get it’ and ‘it’ll pass’ and ‘me too’. Openly supportive and silently supportive. And if I do it and you do it and the person next to you does it too, we could start a little something that kicks all that smug-mummery to the kerb.

I present to you: DON'T PLAY WITH KNIVES two meltdowns a soup burn a refusal to sit on one's bottom a swiftly accelerated bedtime And sometimes dinner goes like that.

One of my philosophies: family dinnertime is important. And I present to you:
‘DON’T PLAY WITH KNIVES’
two meltdowns
a soup burn
a refusal to sit on one’s bottom
a swiftly accelerated bedtime
Because sometimes philosophies suck, and dinner goes like that.

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