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.

Oregon pie

I have spent much of today folding an Everest of clean clothes into drawers and playing Judge Judy – wisely, gracefully, then with increasingly snarkiness – in the boys’ endless toy arguments. After a mid-afternoon meal masquerading as lunch, I got a respite. T in bed for a nap, H and Tim watching that terrible Ice Age film with the dinosaurs for the millionth time. No need for me. I took the hint and scarpered upstairs with a book and a bar of chocolate. So now I have finished both (I get a terrible itch in the last quarter of a book, and can’t focus on anything till I’ve finished it), and am at peace with the world, and this is a good time to tell you about Oregon. Then I will make sausage pie, with fat sausages, apples, sage and crags of puff pastry. This has been a good Saturday after all.

The morning after the Chin Disaster, 2016, we packed up the hotel room, jammed all our stuff into a rental car, and set off through SF traffic. Tim driving, me shrieking gently whenever we seemed to be going too close to a traffic barrier. A pattern that would be repeated often over the next few days. The boys fell asleep just before we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, so (thinking that H at least would be peeved to miss it) we woke them both up on the other side. Look how delighted they were.

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The drive to Oregon was astonishing. Our first introduction to the mind-boggling space in the States, something so utterly foreign to small-island people used to being boxed in by hedgerows. We would be driving on a road, and I would look left and right and see hills just visible on the horizon on either side, and nothing – nothing – but farmland and the odd rare building in between. Imagine living in a house like that, with miles of emptiness around you. It makes me shiver. Do you not come out of your front door in the wide afternoons and get flattened by the sky?

There are mountains in northern California. We didn’t know. Mountains, and forests of pine trees, and tiny hidden lakes with mist thick on the surface of the water. ‘Watch Out for the Stag’ signs every few miles (we never saw one on the roads). A white-topped dormant volcano named Mount Shasta. The roads swirl up and down and between the hills like trails of fudge on ice cream. It’s a weird, untracked world. Once, we stopped at a rickety old gas station so I could use the loo – and I use the word ‘rickety’ advisedly, as the wooden boards on the deck buckled under my feet on the way to the door. I went in to the little shop and cafe, and found a woman behind a counter, chatting to a big man at a table. I asked the way to the bathroom and she nodded towards a corner door. I went in, and found not only the blessed toilet, but a bath, in which lay a fully dressed mannequin with a brown bob and an insouciant expression. The head had been turned so she watched you while you peed. I hope I screamed quietly.

When I came out, having spent the entirety of my bladder-emptying in a nervous staring contest with Ms Bathtub, the chap at the table belly-laughed. ‘Good one, eh?’ he chuckled.

‘Yeah’, I smiled, trying to look appreciative and unmurderable. ‘Yeah, good one’. And then I ran-walked to the door, and the next mountain road. An hour later we were in Ashland.

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My friend – one of my favourite people in the whole world – works at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival based in Ashland, and lives there most of the year. Their house is halfway up a mountain, all windows and views and extremely beautiful.

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Since Ashland is a town whose economy is built almost entirely on the drama festival, it keeps an eye on the sort of people who’d come somewhere for a week in order to see two plays a day. Fancy restaurants, little cafes, quirky shops, gorgeously designed parks. A big university, and (of course) the big theatre. And lots of mountains. It was lovely.

We spent the first day wandering a trail near the house – ask the boys what we did in Oregon and they’ll reply immediately ‘WE SAW A SNAKE’ –

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– and meeting my friend after she finished work for a sneaky tour of the indoor and outdoor theatres, and the rehearsal rooms for the actors. On the outdoor stage, the boys ran immediately to the back row of seats and sat down. ‘Are you going to play something for us, then?’ H yelled. Like a true Elizabethan.

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A personal challenge.

On the second day, we spent some time meeting my friend’s marvellous parents, who let the boys charge around in a big red wagon and embodied every last one of my When I Am Old dreams, then went to find the playground at the big park. Then we found a cafe that did both lunch and ice cream, and where the waitress didn’t blink when we ordered ‘the PB and J – ooh, but actually he doesn’t really like peanut butter, so could we just have…a J?’ for Teddy. That night, we tucked the boys into their matching beds and ran off down to the theatre to see Twelfth Night. Which was wonderful. Charming, hilarious Viola; sympathetic and weirdly dignified Malvolio. It’s been so long since I went to the theatre I felt like an escapee from a previous carefree life.

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The next day we left on the Long Drive. More about that tomorrow. It was a very long drive, and I have sausage pie to make, and Oregon to miss.

About this Dear Diary situation…and San Francisco

I don’t often use this blog as a diary anymore. I had a big no-one-is-interested-except-you-and-your-mum kind of crisis about it a while ago, and since then I’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible. Sometimes, holiday photo posts on other blogs, especially when they’re impossibly curated and lovely and I’m looking at them sat in holey pyjamas and covered in other people’s nose effluent, make me a bit ragey. Out of respect for your rage and your nose effluent situation, I tend to shy away from posting overly about prettified activities, on the grounds that the subtext might come across as Look At Our Glorious Selves, Peasants.

There are some things in our day-to-day that I do record. I hope the boys will read what I write about the minutia of our daily lives and their milestones, when they’re too old to remember it or to jostle over wiping their noses on my shirt. And I want to write about every single holiday we ever take with my family. They will never be able to swing by their American auntie’s house after school for a chat and a biscuit, anything over a few thousand miles being a basically unswingable distance. So these holidays are now and will be what holds their relationship together. Big, messy, lively, loud holiday relationship glue. I want them to know that we were making the effort to do this since before they could remember.

So I’m not attempting to turn the next few posts into Seven Cool Things You Can Do In San Francisco, If You Want. Bear with me. This is for us (and if MANY holiday photos aren’t your thing right now, as they sometimes aren’t mine, you may cheerfully mute me with a guiltless heart; I love you; you look miles better than you think in those pyjamas). Ironically we didn’t even see my family till the week after this, but I can’t do the whole holiday in one post or we’d be here till Michaelmas.

SAN FRANCISCO THOUGH.

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BAM, in with the photos immediately. No waiting.

Does anyone really call it ‘Frisco’ in actual fact? Because it seems to hover on the line between Dorky and Too Cool For Me To Attempt, as so many things do, like for example playsuits.

Once we arrived, and struggling with three suitcases, two car seats, one pushchair, four carry-on bags and two small children hopped up unbearably on free aeroplane pop, we took a cab through the city to our hotel. The sky was blue, and we weren’t wearing coats, which made the pastel-coloured wooden houses perched on hills even more exciting. We didn’t do much that first evening except sleep, except for Tim, who ran off his jetlag with a half-marathon around the city (WHAT KIND OF METAL IS HE MADE OF). The next morning we attended an hour of church – our first sweaty experience with pushing a pushchair up those hills, argh – and then came back afterwards to change and catch the bus.

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A wonderful thing about the under-fives. You think it’s public transport: seedy and a bit stressful. They think it’s magic. We stayed on the bus all the way to Golden Gate Park, a long and unpleasantly-scented journey if you’re an adult rubbing your face in someone’s armpit, but a lurchy rollercoaster of joy to a toddler. When we got off they were already buzzing. So we went to the California Academy of Sciences.

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Which was ace! A bit like the Natural History Museum in London, but with live animals as well as stuffed ones. We’d been lured there with the promise of a T-Rex skeleton in the foyer, but there was also a rainforest dome, a pretty extensive aquarium, and an albino alligator lounging all casually in the back.

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I know it’s standard Instagram practice to say things like ‘We found Nemo!’ when you visit aquariums. But they had actual Nemo and Dory fish IN THE SAME TANK, and we lost it a bit.

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Then we popped across the road to the de Young Museum, which is artsy and a bit beyond (beYoung?) them, but which does have an excellent observatory you can visit for free. It was jaw-dropping.

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Superman.

Superman.

We finished the afternoon at a huge playground, and then headed back for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. We were seated in a booth, separated from an outside table by a sheet of glass. T was sat next to the sheet of glass, and took the opportunity for some jetlag-drunk mime. They were not amused. But the food was excellent.

Next day! Miraculously and beautifully, a good friend of mine from university happened to be visiting her aunt at the same time we were there. So we met up for breakfast at a little cafe called Savor. Classic rookie mistake: forgetting how big American breakfasts are. ‘Of course we want one each!’ we chortled. Then the plates arrived, and the boys could have used one of the pancakes as a Professor Quirrell-style turban. We were all grateful that they didn’t.

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I should’ve put something else in here for scale. Like my head.

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We made it back across the city and then up to the pier by tram – cool in itself – and had a picnic lunch with another dear friend. Attention: SF buses have audible timetables at all of their stops, read by robot men. If you happen to be in a public place where a small child is doing something very annoying – like, I don’t know, pressing the Audible Bus Timetable over and over – then it’s because they could be doing something even more annoying and/or dangerous, and the parents are picking their battles. Signed, the mother of the toddler pressing the Audible Bus Timetable over and over.

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Then came the disaster. Poor T, perched on the end of the pushchair with his hands in his pockets, fell off with a distinct, meaty crunch and split open his chin. Cue blood, an ambulance, a swanky children’s hospital, a long wait, a sedative, a very bad reaction to a sedative, more sedative, and finally five stitches put in while no less than four doctors held him down. When we got back to the hotel nine hours later he was still too dozy to walk and I couldn’t eat anything because I was sick with crying and the smell of his blood in my nose. How does Adam Dalgliesh cope?!

Five minutes before It Happened. Much prettier.

Five minutes before It Happened. Much prettier.

Anyway, my friend was marvellous, finding me a tissue and the right people when all my brain was doing was ‘there is blood. So red. Very blood’, and cheering H up round the aquarium with Tim once we’d gone. And San Francisco, you have FANTASTIC nurses. Sorry for all the kicks to the face. (It’s healed really well, and he’s fine. Despite pulling out one of those hard-won stitches the next morning *face palms till death*)

Thank goodness we’d already booked tickets for a boat cruise, and H got to do this as a cheer-up measure:

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GAH, I love him

I’m only a little bit jealous.

Tomorrow: across that mildly famous bridge and onto Oregon!

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Flying with toddlers: your insanity-proof guide

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We’ve just got back from San Francisco, Oregon and Utah. It was magnificent. Do you know what these boys were most excited about? The flipping aeroplane.

Them, not us, because putting small children in a seat and telling them to stay there for ten hours is Asking For Trouble. Ted can’t stay still for the duration of a medium-sized fart. We’ve done a good few long flights with babies and toddlers now, and I know it’s incredibly intimidating (I nearly ate myself with stress the week before). So I thought I might just share what we’ve found helpful, in case it helps you too.

Toddlers-on-a-plane is a different disaster scenario to babies-on-a-plane (you can check this post for the latter, and send Samuel L. Jackson along to me once you’re done with him). For a long-haul flight with toddlers/preschoolers/H-sized children (what is he?!), here’s our best tips:

give each of them

a small backpack with their own snacks, crayons, and other exciting things. They get their own carry-on, even if they’re still on your lap. I got a small new toy for each of them, from the Pound Shop, and put it in their bags as a surprise. Also new sticker books. Something cheap and exciting that they’d never seen. Don’t forget that –

airports are big, and busy

(obvious, sorry) and toddlers like to run off.  We labelled each backpack with Tim’s name/address on one side, and ‘MY NAME IS ___’ on the other, just in case they got lost. Also, to see them easily at a distance, I dressed them the same, and in the brightest colours they had. Seems a bit silly (and your kids might not be fans of matching) but it did actually help when Heathrow was heaving on the first morning.

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most airlines allow you

to check in a car seat and/or a pushchair. We were lucky: this time we flew with Virgin, and they allow both. Label car seats and pushchair with your name and address too. If your kids are old enough for their own seat they get their own luggage allowance, which means an extra suitcase if you need one. Check the car seat in at the desk with your suitcases and take the pushchair all the way through security to the aeroplane door. Some security desks will ask you to collapse it and put it through the x-ray machine; others will just allow you to wheel it through the metal detector (without your kids in it). But do bring it. Unless you have an angel toddler, there’ll be at least one point where you need them to stay in place.

you will be in

a lot of queues.

I recommend a bag of tiny chocolate buttons for bribery purposes, to be dispensed one at a time.

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but on the plus side

if you have a pushchair or an infant, you do get to board the plane first.

if possible, get

proper child-friendly headphones for each of them. There are tons on Amazon, and we picked up a couple of pairs very cheaply in TK Maxx. Not only does this make it more exciting, they’re likely to stay engaged for longer with the in-flight entertainment (the ones the airline give away are a bit flimsy for heavy-handed toddlers). Also bring a headphone splitter, because…

if you have a tablet

download a selection of programmes onto it and bring it with you. I know there are screens in the back of their seats, but they don’t switch on until you’re well into the air, and there’s SO MUCH hanging around before then. There are no points for screen-free time here. This ain’t a #childhoodunplugged scenario. Put Thomas on for as long as you need it.

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assemble a rough change of clothes

for everyone in separate ziplock bags, and bring them in your carry-on. Nappy/sick explosions in a confined space with only baby wipes to mop up are DEEPLY unfunny. We escaped this time, but last time H got us good.

there are changing tables in all the aeroplane toilets

(they fold down above the loo) but make sure both adults have a couple of nappies and a pack of wipes each, since you’ll be at different ends of the row and it’s easier if both of you are prepared. Also, as queues for aeroplane loos tend to build up after meals and last forever, if you have a nappy-free child with a small bladder (*cough* H *cough*), keep an eye on the time and take them just before the meal comes out.

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if you’re on a night flight particularly,

it’s nice to bring familiar items to help them relax. T brought his cat (called Cat, obviously) and I stuffed blankets for each of them into the bottom of the pushchair (and grabbed them when we collapsed the pushchair just before we got on the plane).

finally, don’t panic if

one of your children tips an entire can of Coke into your shoes. The flight attendants have napkins. You have wipes for your shoes and grossly sticky feet. Told you that change of socks would come in handy.

I WONDER WHICH CHILD IT WAS.

I WONDER WHICH CHILD IT WAS.

Notes from the Trenches: 8

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Do you know what? My Instagram lies.

Well, not totally, not properly…the same way Facebook isn’t properly evading corporation tax and I didn’t entirely eat an jumbo-bag of Mini Eggs whilst gawping at Tom Hiddlestone on the TV last night. It’s just that my Instagram feed shows our best bits, and when it includes our worst bits it’s just the picturesque ones with a nice filter. That’s what Instagram does, and it’s good at it.

If it’s behind-the-scenes madness you’re after – the blood, the tears, the endless, endless bodily waste – you need my daily ranting text messages to Tim. Ever wondered if your normal was actually normal? Read on, and don’t mind me weeping.

 

30 September

In the five minutes it took to hang up some wet clothes, Teddy has a) got a chair and climbed onto it, b) emptied an entire packet of Ritz crackers onto the hob, and c) crumbled some cheese into the water bottle, I mean WHAT.
I’m actually quite impressed at how much cheese he managed to get into that bottle!
I KNOW.

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1 October

YOU KNOW THAT WALLPAPER

IT’S ON SALE AGAIN.

IMAGINE THIS ON THE FAR WALL.

JUST IMAGINE.

I’m now imagining you shouting ‘JUST IMAGINE’ at me…

You love it when I forcibly demand that you imagine things

 

10 October

I cannot tell Twitter this because I am deeply ashamed; I can only tell you. I just absentmindedly tried to scroll this book with my finger. Now I need to go CHOP ALL MY FINGERS OFF.

 

12 October

Made tomato soup and a crumpet for T’s lunch. Immediately he pours his glass of water into the soup, making it inedible. And refuses the crumpet, even once I put jam on it.

And so, naptime.

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28 October

[Getting Cursed Child tickets]

OMGOSH two minutes till it opens! I don’t know how you do eBay all the time – I am freaking out

Aaaaargh

50 seconds so poised so ready

Ok there’s a random queue and I’m number 6902. Wut.

I am going to stare at it until the time passes.

I don’t know what on earth you get to do with a £100 ticket. Like, lick Harry Potter’s face?

 

29 October

Literally thirty seconds after we’ve struggled into our seats at the cinema, having persuaded Teddy to climb the stairs and come sit down when he cannot tear his eyes away from the screen and my hands are full so I can’t grab him, but we get there eventually and get settled with popcorn trays on laps…

‘I need a wee.’

OF COURSE YOU DO. OF. COURSE. YOU. DO.

 

5 November

PS, Ted just bit his tongue, and wanted me to fix it in the usual way: a rub and a kiss. I did the rub reluctantly but I have to draw the line at kissing his tongue.

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19 November

There is no fury like that of a mother who ALMOST got a nap until the blasted postman rang the doorbell twice. Awake, angry, tired toddler. No sleep for anyone. OUTER DARKNESS. OUTER DARKNESS FOR THIS MAN.

 

4 December

Ted is singing Happy Birthday to his jumper. Festive.

***

The ‘we need to stop at Sainsbury’s quickly before lunch’ plan went terribly wrong. He’s sparko, I’m sat in the car park starving to death. WHAT NOW.

Resist the temptation to Drive-Thru!

HOW DID YOU KNOW I WAS RESISTING THAT TEMPTATION WITH ALL OF MY CELLS SIMULTANEOUSLY

I AM SO HUNGRY AND SOMEONE WOULD POST CHIPS THROUGH MY WINDOW IF I ASKED

***

I bought Ted a fish biscuit from Sainsbury’s bakery. Home now, and he’s just eaten the icing eye…and is now freaking out because the fish is blind.

This is a morally conflicted situation.

Update: He has overcome his scruples.

 

29 December

When ur about to captain the Victory to defeat Napoleon and ur getting so pumped

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13 January

H: T hit me!

Me: T, did you hit H?

T: Thomas is a…a big bad naughty engine

Me: Is he? What’s that got to do with you hitting H?

T: Thomas hit H in the head.

Quick thinker slash diabolical genius.

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15 January

H: Who are we going to visit?

Me: A nice old lady called Ma.

H: Ma? Isn’t that a planet where all the aliens live?

Me: What? Oh. No, that’s Mars.

H: Oh right.

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11 February

That moment when you realise your 2YO freakishly knows all the words to Life on Mars.

‘Take a look at the –’

‘Laaaw mayn waitin’ dela wong guy’

 

15 February

[Just after my gum operation]

Twice yesterday T said ‘I smell your mouth’. And not like it was a good thing. 

 

7 March

So I changed T’s disgusting diarrhoea nappy while you were there, right?

Ten minutes after you left:

‘Mummy! I did a poo in the bath and it’s weally nasty!’

Ten minutes after that:

‘Mummy! I sat down on the toilet to do a poo and there’s already some in my pants and now it’s on my finger!’

Just as we were about to leave: another dirty nappy from T.

Monday, I rename thee: faeces day. May all who sail in her have joy.

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8 March

‘I ate my bowg’

‘Your what?’

‘I ate my – I ate my snotty’

‘Oh, don’t do that – that’s disgusting’.

*emphatic suddenly* ‘NO. THAT’S THE RULE.’

 

9 March

I made a fatal error with that cat poo, by the way.

Cleaned the carpet, then got out the hoover, but wasn’t wearing my glasses.

Hoovered over a ‘leaf’ that turned out to be the original turd.

The ur-turd.

And spread it all over the carpet again *horror face*

 

10 March

What a GREAT NIGHT this has been.

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Yes, I was sleeping between them, and T’s feet pretty much reach H’s shoulder in this photo, and it went super well, thanks for HA HA HA.

(Previous Notes from the Trenches are here: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. It’s so weird how, even under the umbrella of Small Children, your life still changes completely all the time. Wonder where we’ll be in another six months? More vomiting, probably.)

How to bake with a toddler without losing it,* in eight easy steps

*totally losing it

STEP ONE: 

look at how freakishly red and shiny your apples are, come over a bit Snow White, decide that today is the day you will bake an apple cake.

‘Do you want to make a cake with me?’

‘Oh, YESTH. I wanna mix it.’

The drums of doom have already begun in your head.

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STEP TWO: 

‘Aprons! Put this on.’

‘I don’ want this on.’

‘It’s your apron, darling, you need it to keep your clothes nice and clean.’

‘I DON’ WANT THIS ON.’

Get it on him eventually by allowing him to dip his finger in the sugar you have already spilled. A good start.

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STEP THREE:

The Dorset apple cake you have chosen is a glorious chuck-everything-in-the-mixer-and-press-go recipe, so you get chucking while the two-year-old busies himself trying to stick his whisk into the moving parts and giving you tiny heart-attacks as you lunge to save his fingers each time.

He distracts you so much you accidentally add twice as much of one ingredient, so have to add twice as much of the other ingredients too, and now you have more cake than a human family can possibly eat without dying, thanks two-year-old.

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STEP FOUR: 

‘I need ter mix it now.’

‘Ok, cool.’

It doesn’t need mixing anymore, especially not ineptly with a whisk, flicking bits of batter hither and yon. He is cute enough that you let it slide.

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STEP FIVE: 

You have thought ahead and cored, peeled and sliced three apples (your least favourite task) before you got the toddler involved. You present him with a bowl of sliced apples and he lets out a tiny scream.

‘I eat the apples. Mummy. My turn.’

‘We’re going to put them on the -‘

‘I WANT THE APPLES.’

You didn’t even know he liked apples, but you let him eat them while you pour cake batter into the tin. You probably have too much anyway. He eats so many his poos are off the pH scale for three days.

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STEP SIX:

In order to get him off the remaining apples, you give him the beater to lick. Shut up. Our grandparents were wrong and it’s totally alright to lick the beater.

No one gets salmonella, because you LIVE IN THE UK AND THE RED LION SIGN MEANS THEY’RE FINE AND SALMONELLA IS MORE OR LESS NOT A THING HERE, SAY SCIENTISTS.

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STEP SEVEN:

Cinnamon through a sieve. He sneezes worryingly near the cake mix. You decide it is naptime.

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STEP EIGHT:

The smell of baking apples wafts seductively through your house. The toddler is asleep. You clean up the mess, and put the kettle on. Just when you’re about to wake him up for the school run, you find a browning apple slice stuck to your left bottom cheek.

Then there is cake, and you and your apple-bottomed, flour-covered, frizzy-haired self are very glad indeed.

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PS: eat this cake warm from the oven, eat it with a dollop of cold custard, eat it with a sense of gladness at being alive.

Recipe here. Step-by-step from the first time I made it here.

Since we’re talking and all – #Timetotalk

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I am having a jolly kind of morning, all things considered. True, I am very bored of this perma-sore throat that has been pinging between us since January. But I had good news from my dentist today, we are squirrelled underneath a duvet watching Cars and eating hot cinnamon roll cake, and we’re going on an exciting holiday quite soon. It’s rather lovely.

So it’s probably a good time for me to post this. I have been sitting on it, not wanting to leave it here while I’ve had concrete things to stress about, because I’d be tempted to write it off as venting. And it isn’t venting: it’s more exposing than that. Imagining sending this out to the internet has literally made me full-body cringe since I wrote it.

Turns out I am happy to admit that motherhood is hard but maybe not the vulnerabilities I carry by myself. But why should we be ashamed of our vulnerabilities? They make us available to each other.

Over the last few months, this is what happens to me at night.

I worry that my children will be taken away from me in a horrific freak accident.

I worry that one of them will get a terminal disease and that I will have to let them go before me.

I worry that Tim will get cancer.

I worry that he will leave me one day.

I worry that I will get cancer, that I already have it, that some brushed-aside little anomaly is an unheeded sign of things to come.

I worry about the people I might have been a jerk to without realising it.

I worry about the times I have been a jerk deliberately.

I worry that I spend too much money and earn almost none of it.

I worry that my faith might crack open like a shell one day and I will roll out of it, alone and abandoned.

I worry about the most vulnerable in my society, and how much they are being damaged and made desperate by our current policies.

I worry about what it does to our children, growing up financially secure and insulated from these real situations. 

I worry that my lifetime might be the one where the NHS, staffed by passionate and devoted people and in my opinion our finest and most selfless institution, is dismantled entirely.

I worry that I have a serious character flaw that everyone knows about but me.

I worry that I will never write anything that is published, that is meaningful, that will mean I can call myself a writer without a half-shrug of embarrassment.

I worry that I am not raising my children right, that I am less than they deserve.

(I am worried that posting this is going to lose me half an audience.)

I don’t know what to tell you: most of the time I’m fine. I’m fine, I’m fulfilled and happy, everything is fine.

But I drive home from meetings late at night and I can’t stop worrying. I’ve never had something I couldn’t switch off, before. I worry about that too. I don’t know what to do about it, but if talking about it helps someone else feel less alone, then it’s worth saying.

I hope it’s been worth saying. Take good care, friends.

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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Harry Potter and my teenaged life

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‘No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever. So whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’

J.K. Rowling

What makes a story?

I am thirteen, and stuck on youth camp for the first time. I hate everything from the endless dreary rain to the mandatory team-building to the foot-smelling canvas tents. My aunt, knowing me perhaps better than I realise, has sent me away with a new book. It’s a paperback I’ve never seen before, unremarkable, with a young, brown-bearded man on the back wearing an outlandish outfit.

One evening when I am especially homesick, I sit in the tent (breathing shallowly) and open it. ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of Number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much‘. And I am gone, from all of it: the tent, the smell, the damp pants. Gone until I’ve finished it, when I peel myself reluctantly out of that world and back into mine. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am fourteen, and on holiday on the Scottish border. I am walking through Berwick-Upon-Tweed when I see it in a bookshop window, purple and silver: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I want it immediately, but my parents are not given to buying expensive hardback books on a whim. They tell me I must wait for the paperback. The longing for it, for the continuation of the story I know is in there, makes me sick. I have lived and breathed in books for as long as I can remember, but it’s the first time I’ve wanted a book enough for it to hurt.

Not the last, though. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am sixteen, and the film of Philosopher’s Stone is about to be released. My friends and I are dizzily obsessed with it, marinating in it: devouring every trailer and press photo, making complex Potter jokes, speaking mostly in quotes. The fourth book is out by now, and it’s big enough for the midnight openings, for me to buy the hardback immediately and read it in one gulp, expense be damned.

I know these characters like family. I sit in my classes, frizzy-haired, hyper-competent and horribly uncool, and console myself with Hermione Granger. She is not cool at all. She is unfashionable and earnest, fierce and grounded, unable to drop her point long after she should’ve done, driven by book-love and doing the right thing and absolute loyalty. I might never be that wonderful, but I love her. So I lift up my head and answer another question. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am eighteen, and have my pre-ordered copy of Order of the Phoenix in my hands. There’s a sense of gathering darkness in these books now: the cheery end-of-term feasts that close the early books are long gone, and any of these beloved characters might be in for the chop. At the end of Phoenix, of course, someone is.

I am eighteen, and by now I know real heartbreak, real betrayal, real end-of-the-world, can’t-get-out-of-bed despair. And so I get it, forcefully and finally. I lie in bed and I cry tears for Sirius Black that are also for me. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am twenty-two, and Deathly Hallows is finally here. Potter-mania is at fever-pitch, and I feel like one of the sage elder members of a giant, excitable family. I pick up my copy at midnight and stay up all night and all the next day reading it. It’s a war book, Hallows, and it’s as grim and hopeless as a war book should be. Characters are killed off left and right, with horrible suddenness, until I am numb from it. The eleven-year-olds I met in a canvas tent have been written into desperate, brave, traumatised seventeen-year-olds fighting an almost-impossible battle. There’s heroism and love, self-sacrifice and secrets.

I pull myself out of the final pages, as I’ve done all those times before, and feel like I’ve been battered with a stick. And also that this is it, the end, and I can’t bear to lose them. That most of all. That’s a story.

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***

A story is when I am twenty-six, and hugely, unbearably pregnant with our first child. And we waddle to the cinema for the last Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part 2. I am swirling with feelings about impending motherhood, so close now – will I be adequate, will we be alright, what kind of childhood will I give this unknown baby in my belly – and watching the final struggles of these characters I’ve loved since I was a child myself is an emotional counterweight that feels right. I am not ready to say goodbye to them or to the person I’ve been all this time. But it’s about to happen, all the same.

The camera pulls back from Harry, Ron and Hermione standing on a broken bridge, holding hands, sunlight on their bloodied faces. I shift heavily in my seat, put a hand on the boy kicking my ribs and think ‘I will read this to you, one day‘.

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He’s not old enough yet, but I will.

That’s a story, isn’t it? What a story. It hasn’t left me since.

Five books…to help your kids love words

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I’m trying hard to be casually enthusiastic about numbers with H at the moment. I am naturally a words person, and numbers both bore and frighten me. Which isn’t so bad for me, because my days of mental maths tests are over. But I do not want to pass it on to them, and my coverage of Things You Need To Know tends to be a tad one-sided without me realising it. I am always up for a discussion of Magic E or cat poems, but keep forgetting that at some point he’ll need to be able to count to twenty without missing out fifteen. My bad, my bad.

Still. Just because you’re talking happily about numbers, doesn’t mean you can’t stealthily push your words agenda in other ways. Like, for example, picture books. There are some books, even for quite young children, that are so giddy, so nerdily joyful about wordsmithery, that I feel like it can’t help but sink in.

More importantly, I think if your child is finding reading a chore, these word-obsessed little stories might help put some of the fun back into it.

These are five of the best. MWA HA HA.

This Is My Book, by Mick Inkpen

This is my bookBefore anyone could stop him, the Snapdragon bit off the K, and part of the B of Book. 

“This is my Poo!”

It was a very naughty thing to do.

This was one of the first books – years ago – that we got from the library and loved so much we bought our own. It’s an imaginative riff on storytelling, in terms a two-year-old can understand: the Snapdragon keeps eating the letters on the page, and it’s up to the Bookmouse to find a new, scary word to stop him. It’s clever and it’s funny, and it’s delicious to read out loud. Even better than Kipper, Inkpen.

 

Oi, Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

oi frog‘What about a chair?’ said the frog.

‘I wouldn’t mind sitting on a chair.’

Hares sit on chairs‘, said the cat.

This gloriously colourful, caustically funny little story sees a cat educating a frog about all the things he can’t sit on. No, he can’t sit on a mat, because only cats sit on mats. Only foxes sit on boxes. Only pumas sit on satsumas. You get the idea – and so will your small people, as they’ll take in the rhyming patterns and start guessing as you go along. The illustrations are fantastic and there’s a great twist at the end. Can’t recommend this one enough.

 

Grill Pan Eddy, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

grill pan eddyWe fetched a trap with a snare – Snap! Snap!

Which we baited with brown bready. 

But he tripped the latch with a safety match

Oh, we couldn’t catch Grill Pan Eddy!

Speaking of rhymes! If you like your poems to come with pure joy, this is the book you want. It tells the story of a family trying to get rid of a crafty mouse, in hilarious bouncy rhyme. Like Tadpole’s Promise, another book by this husband-and-wife team, it goes somewhere a little darker than you’d expect, but it’s all the better for that. So much fun to read aloud and clap along to. The boys adore it.

PS, we searched for a copy of this for months a few years ago and ended up with a ex-library copy – but it looks like it’s back in print via Amazon. I don’t usually recommend buying books from Amazon, but in this case go go goooooooo.

 

On Sudden Hill, by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies

on sudden hillSometimes they’re dragon-slayers,

side-by-side house dwellers

and skyscraper dancers. 

But Birt feels strange.

You know, now that I think about it, it’s very rare to find a picture book for young children that is truly, lyrically beautiful. I suppose the urge to simplify and make the story accessible is (rightly) the priority. This book is that rare thing: the illustrations are sensitive and lovely, the story is heartfelt, and the language is gorgeous. ‘One Monday (it’s cramping cold)’: I think of that description every time I come out into a frosty morning. The story – about two best friends who become three, making one feel pushed out – is something real and important for this age group. I think basically everyone should have it on their shelves.

 

The Book With No Pictures, by B. J. Novak

book with no picturesHere is how books work. 

Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. 

No matter what. 

You might have seen the video of the author reading this to a group of children laughing so hard they can’t sit up properly. I can tell you it’s not an act: one of my boys has actually thrown up from laughing at this. Which might not sound like much of a recommendation, but it is. The concept is a clever one: no pictures, just silly words and sentences the grown-up reading the book has to say, even when they don’t want to. Words can be mischievous! Words can create character! Words can make you laugh so much you throw up onto your mother’s jumper! What better lesson is there?

Happy reading, nerds-in-training. Much love.

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