Five books…with jaw-dropping illustrations

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I always think books for preschoolers have an extremely sensible ratio of words to pictures. And the pictures are everything to the under-five crowd. Have a look at their faces the next time you’re reading one with striking, colourful illustrations. Their jaw drops. They can’t resist touching the page with their fingers, like they want to jump inside (confession: I do this too). Lovely artwork can make up for a lacklustre story, but when the words are good and the pictures transporting, the whole thing comes alive.

I make a habit of hunting out books with gorgeous pictures. I can’t help it. They’re a thing of beauty, and I like having beautiful things on our shelves.

Here are five books with jaw-dropping illustrations we love extra-hard:

Lion and Mouse, by Catalina Echeverri

Lion and Mouse

Lion thought he was much better than Mouse in every way. 

And he said so. 

All day. Every day.’

This is a funny, wise story about an impressive Lion who can’t stop going on about himself, until he needs help from his small friend Mouse. But the pictures! The animals are drawn in a quirky, humorous style, with tons of pattern and colour. The back page is the best, trust me. I always say ‘ooohhhh’. I haven’t seen this book out and about much; we brought it back for H from Paris a couple of years ago. The first-time author-illustrator deserves to be better known.

 

The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers

Heart in the Bottle ‘Once there was a girl, much like any other,

whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.’

I couldn’t write a list of illustration books without including one from the mighty Jeffers. His ‘Once there was a boy’ series (How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, Up and Down, The Way Back Home) is probably the best place to start for younger listeners, and those illustrations are out of this world. But The Heart and the Bottle is just stunning. It tells the story of a little girl interested in everything, until she experiences a deep loss and shuts herself away. The way Jeffers draws what’s happening in her head is touching and lovely. I dare you not to cry. Double dare you.

 

London ABC, by Ben Hawkes

London ABC

We love London. Our boys love going there too, so this is a delight. Fantastic for very young readers, it’s the illustrations that make it. You can follow the penguin as he escapes from the Zoo and tours the city, trying his hand at a bit of Shakespeare (G is for Globe!) and waving a flag at the Olympics (S is for Stadium!) as well as hitting the usual tourist spots like B-is-for-Big-Ben and N-is-for-Nelson’s-Column. On each page there are other things beginning with the same letter, and at the end there’s a long list of London landmarks to visit.

 

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark

‘You might be afraid of the dark,

but the dark is not afraid of you.’

If you were a teenage Lemony Snicket fan like I was, the discovery that he’s moved into picture books might make you a bit dizzy with happiness. This is a cracker: poetic, unusual, and totally unlike anything else I’ve seen on preschooler shelves. Lazlo is afraid of the dark, and one night it comes to find him. The illustrations convey dark and light – angular torch light, the particular orange light at sunset – perfectly. Honestly, the boys can’t keep their eyes off it. GET IT. GET IT NOW.

 

Augustus and His Smile, by Catherine Rayner

Augustus and His Smile

‘He swam to the bottom of the deepest oceans

And splished and splashed with shoals of tiny fish.’

This book won Best New Illustrator in the Booktrust Early Years awards, and you can see why: it’s beautiful. Oh, just so beautiful. Augustus the tiger wakes up and has lost his smile, so he goes exploring all over the world to find it again. Seas, jungles, deserts and rainstorms are depicted in vivid colour, and Augustus himself is a whiskery orange marvel. I can’t really do justice to how lovely this is, but you can put it into Google Images and see for yourself.

 

Go forth and read, book-hunters!

Previous ‘Five Books…’ posts are here.

Reasons why none of us are professional models

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If I’ve learned anything in my time as a parent, it is this: you should be prepared to spend literally years smelling faintly of someone else’s urine. ALRIGHT SOMETIMES IT’S YOURS.

No, not that. It’s this: if you want to capture toddlers on camera, particularly if you want them to hold something, most especially if that something needs to be clearly visible, you better be prepared for hair-tearing and bribery and ignominious failure.

The boys are too young – and, let’s face it, too uninterested – to be constructing Fathers’ Day cards of their own. So we do photo cards. This year I had the idea to make them hold up all the letters in ‘Happy Fathers’ Day’ and put them together in a collage. It was a tiny bit ambitious (read: foolishly insane), but I’ve had enough practice failing to make toddlers hold signs and smile simultaneously, and I thought the signs were the easier of the two.

I prepared so carefully this time. I spent days getting Henry excited about pulling funny faces for Daddy’s card, hauled a stool and a tripod out into the woods to minimise escapes, and called in at a shop beforehand for a massive bag of sweets. Sugar bribery will get you anything with this crowd.

Oh, except holding a sign.

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Notice the full mouth? Bribery sweets in abundance.

Eventually T refused to hold anything at all, even for sweeties, so H had to step in for him. He’s pretty sugar glazed by this point too. Dozy look present and correct.

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H was the big surprise, actually. He enjoyed himself thoroughly, and pulled the best faces. OMGOSH, do children actually get to a point where they…understand and follow instructions?! Be still my heart.

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One more reminder of why getting them in a photo together is nigh-on impossible:

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Good try, guys. We got there in the end.

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Dads, etc

Son the First was in our bed the other morning. He has a little routine twice a week: wet the bed, strip off, tiptoe into our room and wriggle in between us where it’s warm. We wake up with bony limbs in our back and I marvel, every time, at how much space he takes up. My baby-no-longer-baby, with legs stretching halfway down the bed.

This particular morning I woke up to Tim and H talking quietly. ‘Do you know’, Tim said, when he saw that I was awake, ‘we’ve now had this boy for longer than we’ve been without him?’

Which is something, isn’t it? Those three years without children have already been eclipsed by the almost-four years we’ve been parents. In future years they’ll seem like a funny little oasis at the very beginning of our lives together. Before we’d ever got poo underneath our fingernails, or knew anything about Peppa Pig, or had the smallest inkling of how much parenthood would hollow us out to make room for so many more feelings.

Tim is a wonderful father. I was going to go at it more lyrically than that, but there’s the truth. He is patient and soothing in the times where I’m scratchy and abrupt. He rolls out of bed at six in the morning to rescue bellowing boys and reads stories in funny voices at night. He’s the one cajoling one more spoonful of dinner into H’s mouth, making endless and exciting train tracks, letting them climb ladders and use screwdrivers and generally feel ten feet tall.

They adore him, openly and completely. He gives them something I can’t. He is the steadying presence bookending their day, the calmer voice dampening their fieriest tantrums. Also the parent most likely to be carrying sweets. They like that about him. They like him a lot.

And do you know what, I do too. He’s never felt more like the other half of me than he does now, as we raise these boys together. One parenting style balancing out the other, and providing where the other falls short. Fatherhood looks really good on him. None of us would get very far without him here.

I shouldn’t need an excuse to say it, but it’s nice to have one. So happy Fathers’ Day, favourite. May you always have a pocketful of sweets for the boys who love you.

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You can’t have one without the other

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Hello world! I’m back in the land of the living after a six-day sick bug, and will be embracing this week with a kiss on the mouth. Six days! I feel like Captain [in] America, waking up after a long sleep with frosticles in my hair.

Only in my case they were greasicles.

My happiest days are the ordinary ones that come after an illness. Yesterday we did nothing special, but everything looked new. I restocked our cupboards, took the boys to the park, scrubbed toilets till they winced, and opened all the windows to let some daylight in. I ate three square meals, and saw none of them again. I even ran (to find a place for H to poo inconspicuously in the park, siiiigh). It felt like the first day in the whole world.

Sick bugs give you pause for thought though, don’t they?

The day before the bug arrived, we were driving back up the hill mid-afternoon. The junior school down the road had just let the kids out, so I slowed right down. As we passed the gates, I spotted a little girl in the front seat of a car, with her mum next to her. She was nine or so, talking about something so exciting she had to stop and do a little dance. All I could see were flailing fists and a long ponytail swishing all and sundry. And her mum, trying hard not to laugh and not succeeding.

We passed them in a second, but there was something so particularly mother-and-daughter about it, it hit me like a lance to the chest. I felt the thwack of it and had to take a breath, stunned. I think there were actually tears in my eyes.

I want a girl‘, I thought. The kind of thought that arrives primal in its strength and heft. ‘I want a girl‘.

Then.

Two days later, delirious with migraine, joint pains, a digestive system trying to turn itself inside outI hung my head in a sick bowl. It had been there for some time. Since I couldn’t read, look at a screen or move, I was taking the time to wholeheartedly regret my existence. Regretting it but good.

And the thought came like a lance to the chest.

This is what pregnancy’s like‘, I remembered. ‘Except it lasts for weeks and weeks. And you can’t tell anyone. And this time you’d have a school run to do’. 

The thought nearly made me heave all over again.

So. Well. You can’t have babies without making them. The NHS doesn’t offer a nine-month voluntary coma either, last time I checked.

Now what?

It just took so. much. effort to get here.

It just took so. much. effort to get here.

A Runners’ Creed, for Those Who Hate it

Runners' Creed

The first thing to be asked is: why run at all, if you hate it?

Well. It’s a sort of least-worst option thing. First, I want to keep rigorously applying chocolate cake to my mouth whenever the urge takes me. Second, it’s free and convenient: it starts outside my front door (or wherever else I might be), and a pair of trainers takes up much less room than a cross-trainer in the living room. In any case, how do you even use a cross-trainer; every time I climb on, one of my legs becomes mysteriously shorter than the other and I fall right off again.

I’ve been running on and off (mostly off) for a few years. I’m not particularly fast, and I’m not one of those joggers bounding like a spring lamb, filled with the joy of the chase. Honestly, I find running any distance h a r d. Not just a bit sweaty and tiring, but more like my-chest-hurts-my-breath-hurts-I’m-going-to-die-goodbye-sweet-world-I’m-going-to-die. I am scarlet-faced. My fringe looks like hair vomit. My lycra bulges in all the places I’d rather it didn’t. The expression on my face says nothing so much as ‘I curse the earth and all the inhabitants therein and wish only for the caress of the grave, and that right soon’.

Still. The chocolate cake thing. And it’s not just chocolate cake: I feel like now I’m on the other side of thirty (HAHA NO BUT REALLY), it’s more important to keep my body in good working order. Treat yo’self right, as well as treat yo’self, you know. So, since October I’ve persisted. I aim for three times a week but usually only make it out twice. I ran our local 5k ParkRun on Saturday for the first time, and survived to tell the tale.

This isn’t going to be one of those ‘I started jogging and now I run jubilant marathons’ stories. Clearly. But not everyone wants to be a marathon runner. If you just want to get started, and feel stupid doing it, I thought these might help you too:

Everything is an achievement

If I get up in the morning and think ‘today I’m going to run four miles without stopping’, I am overwhelmed with fear and chicken out. So I tell myself ‘today I’m going to go for a short run. And after I’ve run a little way, I’ll see how I feel’. By the time I’ve got to the end of the first mile, I usually feel like I can carry on some more. If it’s particularly hard that day, I might promise myself a few seconds’ walk at the end of every half-mile.

Sure, it’s not as good as running the whole way without stopping, but what does ‘good’ mean, anyway? It’s my exercise.

Running three miles with stops is better than running just one and going home.

Running at all is better than no running.

A brisk walk is better than a schlump on the sofa.

You are a hero just for putting on the workout clothes and going out of the door. It’s more than you were doing last month. Feel good about it. If you don’t feel good about it, you won’t keep doing it.

Bed it in

If you love your bed as much as I do, let’s face it: you’re never going to get up at 6am to run. You only make space for things you love or have to do. Likewise, I might go for the occasional jaunt before dinner if Tim gets home early, but realistically I’m never going to get the boys to bed, collapse in exhaustion and think ‘gosh, I fancy ripping my lungs to pieces for the next forty minutes’.

So you have to find a place in your schedule where it’s easy, or natural. Bed it in. I know I have to take H to nursery every morning, so it’s not too much of a step to put workout clothes on two mornings a week. I drop him off and then run with the pushchair from there.

Incidentally, I also find it easier to get out if I just think first about putting on the clothes. And then I do something else. And then, since I’ve already got the clothes on, I might’s well go for a run. It’s a lame psychological trick, but my lame psychology usually falls for it.

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It will get better, but I don’t mean easier. And that’s ok.

I will say it again: I find running h a r d. Really hard. I can’t say it’s become much easier since I started in October. It might be that way for you too.

But (and it’s a big but, not unlike the one I’m trying to tighten up a bit) my endurance has improved, so I can carry on finding it hard for a much longer period. At the beginning I used one of those Couch-to-5k apps, which I can highly recommend, and was only running for intervals of a minute. These days I run for forty+, with a few ten-second stops to cross the road and rescue T’s many escaping trains.

Sometimes you can only see how far you’ve come by looking back at where you started. I might still be slow and saggy, but I’m slow and saggy at SOME LENGTH. That’s worth something. If it’s hard, it means it’s working.
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Endorphins are a thing

I was always baffled by the people who said they came back buzzing with good health and civility towards all men after a run. To some extent, I still am. All I want to do when I come back is drink two pints of juice and never be bothered by anyone again. But I have noticed, especially in the last few months, a soft glow of gratification settling on me as I wobble into the shower. I forget how terrible it was, and feel glad that I’ve done it. (In this respect, it’s a lot like childbirth.)

It might be endorphins, or it might be the natural satisfaction that comes whenever you do something you find difficult. Either way, it makes it easier to get out the next time.

A good place to run laps. They gave me a high five every time I went past.

A good place to run laps. They gave me a high five every time I went past.

Choose your entertainment

Tim is the sort of person who cycles 50 miles in a week, and thinks it was a jolly good lark. He runs listening to nothing but his own breath, so he can monitor his pace. I have endless admiration for him (in many more areas than this), but I know I’ll never be that hardcore. When I run I need 1) distraction from the existential horror of running, and 2) something to force my feet and breath into alignment.

So I’ve experimented: some days I listen to a comedy show for half of it, then switch to music that fits my running speed for the second half, when I’m tired. I find audiobooks and radio shows make the time go quicker, but if I want to actually run quicker, music is better.

Everyone’s different, so experiment with what works for you. My general rule is that if it makes me want to fist pump in the car, it’ll likely work on the road.

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I think I can say I’ll never be consumed with the desire to run a half-marathon. Who knows? I’m aiming for a 10k distance this year, which is so astronomically far from where I started it feels like landing on the moon. But hey, I’m building my own rocket. Twice a week. With stupid hair. I think I’ll get there in the end.

Let’s do this thing.

From Hay Festival, with love and venison

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Greetings from the sick bay! Honestly, small children get bugs so often that it’s a good job we’re not Tudors, because we’d always be hanging up herbs over the door. Since they eat a reasonable amount of fruit and veg and spend a lot of time outdoors, I have to conclude that their immune systems are going through an experimental phase. Trying out every new virus that floats by, in addition to getting a nose piercing that doesn’t suit them and listening to grunge.

Silver linings, though: poor H is no longer throwing up and is at the ‘lying dolefully in bed watching Netflix’ stage of things, which means I’m sat next to him, monitoring his temperature and (CRUCIALLY) not having to move much. In fact I’m reminiscing about the weekend at Hay Festival we just had. Which was, as is tradition, wonderful.

Have you ever been somewhere that feels so much like it was made for you, you never want to leave? I feel that way about Hay-on-Wye. Who decided to build a little town up the slopes of green Welsh hills, all warm stone, pretty cottage doors, and views of the lazy river moving sluggishly through the valley below? Who thought that what this little town really needed was an abundance of book and antique shops, with the occasional ice cream parlour to break up the nerdery? Who decided to hold an arts festival there, and invite all the people you love violently to talk books at you for hours? Who put an old-timey Ferris wheel by the river and lit it up at night? It wasn’t me, but it could have been. I love it so much it’s embarrassing.

This year our fantastic boy-watchers, days off work, finances and lack of foetuses all combined to let us do what we’ve been planning for ages, and camp overnight. We booked a little campsite halfway up the opposite side of the valley, and arrived to find they were waiting for us.

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Even a three-hour car journey is brilliant when you’re pretending to be young and free and unwrinkled, and no one is filling nappies or having a meltdown, and you’re listening to an old radio adaptation of the Narnia books and feeling all these twenty-year-old feelings, and you also can’t move for sugary snacks. TOOTH DECAY, WE OPEN OUR ARMS TO YOU.

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There’s Hay, on the other side. And the only rainstorm we saw the whole two days, which coincidentally happened to be the only half hour in which we were trying to put up a tent. #soggypants

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I do like a town with a mission statement. And a proper appreciation for bunting.

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The festival site is right at the other end of Hay, which handily means you end up walking miles and burning off your sugary snacks. Our first talk this year was David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas author, not comedian). He talked very thoughtfully and beautifully about writing complex plots at your kitchen table, and how joyful the process of writing is: put one phrase against another, a surprise here and a evocative word there, and add in some punctuation and pow, see what you’ve made! ‘Semicolons are like bow-ties’, he said. ‘Lots of them are overwhelming, but just one in the right place makes the whole thing pop’. YES. So now I want him to be my literary uncle, and ply him with cups of tea so we can sit in comfortable jumpers and talk for hours about adjectives. Can someone arrange this please, y/n.

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In between, we stopped in at the food tent (venison burgers or BUST), read newspapers in deck chairs, and literally could not stop ourselves doing this:

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Next came Marcus Brigstocke and Steve Punt talking about climate change – hilarious – and a quick wander into town for ice cream and hot chocolate.

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YES PLEASE *weeps*

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On the way back we found a path by the river, got a tiny bit lost but not too much, and surprised some sheep in a golden-green field, which was smashing.

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By this time it was getting dark, and the lights were all lit. Just the right sort of atmosphere to listen to Neil Gaiman talking affectionately about Terry Pratchett, and to cry a little into your sleeve, and to resolve to reread ‘Mort’ and be a better human as soon as possible.

We walked up the hill in the dark with the Ferris wheel lit up behind us, and a firework display just starting over the river. We rolled up into our airbed knowing that no one but the birds would wake us up the next day. And I remembered, as I always do at Hay Festival time of year, that we are people still, and we can talk about things other than potty-training, and that of all the boys I love with every part of me, I loved the one I married first and best.

Thanks, Hay. See you next year.

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Writing about your children: how much is too much on the internet?

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I’ve been thinking so hard about something lately – and gone round in so many circles – that it’s squashed my head into a new shape. But I finally made my mind up this weekend, and would welcome your thoughtful discussion. So here goes.

For about six months I’ve been seriously analysing the internet footprint I give my kids. Who knows what the internet will look like by the time they’re old enough to use it deliberately, but they’ve got plenty of teenage years to embarrass themselves online, right? That’s the world they’re in now, and we’ll have to talk about internet etiquette and safety as thoroughly as our parents talked to us about seatbelts.

My thinking has been: they deserve to come to the internet with a fresh slate. I’ve always used their real names here on this blog, without thinking much about it. But by using their names, I’ve given them an internet footprint that’s all about them as babies and me as their mother – through the good times and the less good. Not something they’ve chosen, or something they can control.

Am I making sense at all?

I think very carefully about what I write here, particularly about them. I try to be honest about my feelings as a parent, without exposing them in a way they might find painful or embarrassing later on. I want to be a good mother myself, of course (writing helps with that). And I hope that being honest and kind might help another parent who feels like they’re going a little bit insane. If I could do that, just a little bit, it would be wonderful. I hope too that my boys will love reading about how we grew together, but I don’t want them to find that I’ve undermined their dignity or privacy here. They are too important to me for that.

It’s a bit of a tightrope, and I’m always re-evaluating it as I go along.

Essentially my bottom line is: if a really vile kid in middle school googled my boys’ names with an intent to find something they could make fun of, would they find anything?

This has all come to a point this weekend, because that blasted What to Expect article resurfaced somewhere again. Oh, that article. It feels like the parenting mistake I should never have made and will never get rid of. I feel sick and guilty still when I think about it.

I was so nakedly, emotionally vulnerable, because I was used to doing that here, with a small and supportive audience comprised of people who liked me. But those people don’t live on the internet at large, as anyone could’ve told me. It was such a stupid thing to do.

The worst part wasn’t that I admitted to being wearied by toddler tantrums and attracted a lot of vitriol in return – fair enough, I wrote it. It was that I exposed my two-year-old. Who was only being two. Who didn’t even know what I was doing, but was then set upon by a thousand contemptuous adults who’d never met him, or me.

I brought him into that space. I used his name. I will never forgive myself for it, and I’ve never done it again. I hope to goodness he never finds it, or finds it with a bracing sense of humour and a stack of chocolate biscuits.

ANYWAY. I always know when that post is doing the rounds again, because I get a few nice messages of solidarity on Facebook (hi, nice messengers!), and then a few people contact me, out of the blue, to suggest I start spanking my boy to prevent his nascent personality disorder.

It happened again this weekend, and reminded me of the damage I could do.

(By the way, you’d be surprised how many people genuinely believe their children never had an emotional splurge – or had one once, and received A Single Look, and never tried it again. Because their two-year-olds were superhuman, blessed with the ability to control emotions far beyond their maturity level. Possibly they were Vulcans? I will spare you my thoughts on this, because they are NOT KIND. But you hereby have leave to imagine my laughter.)

So.

I think (I hope!) that writing about parenting – the happiness and the head-against-wall days – is something that builds and lifts and contributes. It does that for me, and I hope it does that for you too. So I’m going to carry on. But I’m going to stop using their real names. And I’m going to go back through my posts since they first appeared (urrrgh) and edit their names out there too. Tim tells me that gradually the search engines will catch up, so that by the time the middle-school snot is making them feel like crap in the hallways, he’ll find it a little harder to get here. BULLIES NEVER PROSPER, MIDDLE-SCHOOL SNOT. REMEMBER THIS.

There’s a lot I can’t do much about and this isn’t a perfect solution, but I can start here. Obscuring them just a little bit, so they can make their internet identities afresh when they’re ready.

PS – I’m going to use their initials. To be honest, it looks weird. But not nearly as weird as the various nicknames I tried. If you wouldn’t mind doing the same in the comments, I’d be much obliged t’ye, marsters.

What are your feelings about kids and internet privacy? 

The funny old thing about time

Time passes.

Everyone told me it would, but of course I didn’t believe them. How could I? The space inside a minute with a newborn seems so very long, because you’re awake nearly all the minutes there are. And there are some images from the brand-new days of my babies that I can still see with pin-sharp, painful clarity.

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The particular softness of miniature fingers curling around one of mine. Long, spindly fingers. Papery nails. Knuckles marked precisely with tiny lines. 

The toe-curling agony of latching, the way I would hold my breath and tense every muscle and let out a noise like a cow going into labour.

The look of focussed concentration on two-day-old H’s face as he tried to make both his eyes look the same way, at me. Realising I was the voice and the food and the smell that made everything better for him, and feeling shaken and profoundly moved by it at the same time. 

T wrapped up in a bloody towel on our bedroom floor, T’s black Wolverine hair soft underneath my chin, T quietening himself down to ‘Moon River’, no matter how badly I sang it. The wide-open sense of wonder that possessed me every time I looked at him: I can love you too, you are a person as well, this is all going to be fine.

The ragged sobbing and heavy despair, about five nights in, when I realised that there was no end to this tiredness, no point at which someone would say to me ‘alright, my love, you’ve done well, now you can sleep’. Because I would be woken up every two hours, day and night, for the rest of my natural life, which would not be long. (I had this minor breakdown both times.)

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See? I can close my eyes and be back there with no space in between. The ache and the heaviness, the ravenous midnight hunger, the intense needles of brand-new painful love, like shafts of bright sunlight on my face. The fear. The bottle steriliser. The babies. I can feel them, lighter than a sack of sugar in one arm, as I sprint up the stairs. There’s a sheepskin rug under my feet as I bend over the crib to put my hand on their rising and falling chest.

And then I open my eyes again to find two bright-haired boys, big and solid in Captain America t-shirts, scrapping over toys.

‘You can’t HAVE Ferdinand, he’s MINE and belongs to ME.’

‘Tetty TURN. MUMMY. HERRY TRAIN. TURN.’

For a second I honestly can’t work out how we got from there to here.

***

I’ve been thinking about this today because we went to meet up with a lovely blogging friend and her little boy. The last time we saw them both was two years ago. I brought two-year-old H and no pushchair, and was a little ambitious in anticipating how far he’d walk and how interested he’d be.

He kicked off, obviously. He was two; I had never had a two-year-old before; I had a tendency to expect more of him than he was able to give. It was lovely to see my friend and her gorgeous boy, but it was definitely one of those parenting days you keep locked in a vault. (Then I wrote about it for What to Expect, and made it all immeasurably worse.)

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Today I brought H and T to see them, and all three of the boys are much taller. I have come through two years of toddler-plus-baby, continually multitasking between them both, battle-hardened and -softened simultaneously. I am stricter about some things now (OF COURSE YOU ALWAYS BRING A PUSHCHAIR) and laxer about others (of course you can have another sausage roll!).

H, my heart, walked by the pushchair, asked before he went off somewhere, and sat long-legged and patient on the kerb waiting for the bus.

T ran off as many times as H did at his age, but hey, two-year-olds. They’re good at lots of things, but walking in a straight line isn’t one of them. That’s why you bring a pushchair. We had a wonderful day.

I have a lot of compassion, and some impatience, for the mother I was when I started. I hope I’m compassionate in the future about this version of me, too. Expecting more of an almost-four-year-old than he’s able to give. Still bending over their beds at night to put a hand on their chests and smooth down their hair.

Time passes, and I’m sorry, and I’m grateful. I didn’t believe them when they told me it would, but oh, I do now.

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The manor house that sanity forgot

It's all fun and games until someone starts *trampling* the flowers

It’s all fun and games until someone starts *trampling* the flowers

I think we are probably the National Trust’s biggest fans. I have never in my life turned down the chance to ooh and ahh at some fancy tapestries. It doesn’t matter who lived there; I get a little vicarious thrill when I climb their staircases and imagine their footfalls on the carpet, however long ago.

We’ve been NT members for a few years, and love, love, love it. The boys and I visit our nearest places (Basildon and the Vyne, holla) probably once a fortnight at least. We never go into the houses now they’re old enough to enjoy swinging off priceless furniture and see a ‘do not climb’ notice as a personal affront. But the gardens are always large enough for a good roam around, and there are often secret trails and playgrounds too. If I’m feeling especially flash (or it’s freezing) we might pop into the tea room for hot chocolate and cake.

There are just not many places where I’m sure I can distract, entertain and manage them both by myself for an afternoon without any of us suffering a nervous breakdown. National Trust properties do it all splendidly. And there’s always cake.

Yesterday, with it being a Bank Holiday and a Daddy Holiday and everything, we decided to go a bit further afield. I’m so glad we did. We ended up at Waddesdon Manor, and frankly it was bonkers. You know it’s going to be good when the gates are all swanky with gold leaf, and a shuttle bus takes you from your car through rolling woodland to the main house.

It wasn’t really a house, either: it was a sprawling asymmetrical manor with aspirations of castledom and turrets stuck in places just for the heck of it. The gardens were genuinely, even-by-NT-standards, huge and lovely, with naked statues glamming it up round every corner. Some gardener had decided to make some giant birds out of flowers, and fair play to him. There was an aviary. There was a woodland trail. There was a huge playground built into a hill and covered by trees. It was amazing. We didn’t even get inside the house! I’m already agog about the possible state of the tapestries.

Look at it. Someone just went a bit mad, didn’t they?

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Suddenly my flowers shoved in pots seem a bit casual.

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The bird. Well, why not?

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Here are two boys plotting the best way to get in and ride the bird. *sigh*

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This turret was covered in a big lattice of trained ivy. As you do.

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Pretty flowers.

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Do you think they’d let us move in? Come on, they wouldn’t even notice.

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We ate a picnic next to an expansive carpet of flowers, made friends with the birds in the aviary, ran up and down like savages in the woodland playground, and walked till we were sore. It was fantastic. When can we move in?

UPDATE: someone has just informed me that it’s even better at Christmas; CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE; does Saint Nicholas himself descend from turret fourteen dressed in a golden cape or what.

Our other favourite NT destinations: Basildon Park, the Vyne, West Green House Gardens, Cliveden, Mottisfont, basically any of this dreaminess in Dorset.

 

Belong to where you are

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I have this Anthony Burrill print on the wall of my downstairs loo. Ideally I would sit and ponder on it while I use the facilities, though of course I never use the facilities without a curious onlooker keen to hand me loo roll and compare genitalia.

(‘I just love talking to you’, H said the other day, when I requested some privacy.

‘Could you love talking to me in the times I’m not trying to wee?’ I asked. No go.)

I think about it, though. Belong to where you are.

It’s what we all want, isn’t it? Belonging? We want to sit in a place that fits, and feel like people are glad we sit there. I think I associate a compulsive need to belong with my teenage years, but really it’s never stopped. Back then there was the queen bee corner where the attractive rich kids sat, and the counter-cool staircase where the kids who unironically listened to Linkin Park sat. My own little tribe, the one I found eventually, was intensely saturated in American TV, films, a few totemic fantasy books and some elaborate in-jokes we all obsessed over. I think for a good five years we mostly spoke in quotes.

Being a shy teenager has left me with some sticky leftovers: one, I will never, in my heart of hearts, think I’m cool enough to be interesting; and two, I harbour an embarrassing, subconscious fascination with the queen bee corner. I’m thirty, and somewhere deep down I still want a popular kid to pick me out of the crowd and talk to me because they think I’m special.

It’s only just recently occurred to me that I can be the one who starts the conversation.

I hope I’m not alone in this (please tell me I’m not) but I’m great at thinking of reasons why I can’t belong.

I can’t be a writer because I don’t have a book deal (or ideas to put in a book, to be honest, apart from a detailed examination of nappy rash).

I can’t be a runner because I’m so astoundingly bad at it (seriously. According to Tim’s heart rate monitor, when I run my heart beats right out of the Maximum Exercise Zone and into the You’re Going To Die, Fool, Stop It zone).

I can’t be an attachment parent because, while I agree with the basic philosophies, I don’t enjoy co-sleeping, at ALL, and also breastfeeding was a hellscape of underfed babies and self-loathing.

I can’t be an Instagram queen because I don’t have any white chipboard to arrange my lunch on. My table is made of TODDLER-SCRATCHED GLASS, hello, so the background turns into an interesting fusion of discarded toast crusts and my own knees.

I can’t be a proper blogger because I don’t have ten thousand followers (don’t think I mind this, little band of followers: I love you with all my heart).

I can’t be your friend at the school gates because I’m young and an idiot and this is my first child and I don’t know what I’m doing.

Blah, blah, blah. Scumbag brain. I’m sure you’ve got lots of your own.

But it’s all nonsense, isn’t it? Who says I can’t try hard at something, and belong there even when I fail? We get to create spaces for us to sit. We get to be the ones to pick someone out of a crowd and start a conversation. We don’t need to wait for an invitation. More and more I believe that you’ll never lose out, being a little kinder than people expect.

Yesterday I was walking to nursery, and a girl walked past in exercise gear. She wasn’t your typical exercise-nut shape, and her headphones were probably a bit too big for a jog, and she looked red-faced and out of breath. But you know what? She was killing it. There was triumph in every line of her, and I knew that whatever she was doing, it was a huge step and she was proud of it. I wanted to be her flipping cheerleader, and follow her around just doing the Rocky air punch. It was fantastic. I beamed all the way home.

So I have decided not to be intimidated by anyone at the school gates come September. Some of them will be older and most of them will be fancier (ulp), but there’s no reason why we can’t be friends.

And I’m going to submit some work to some different places, and see where it takes me.

And I saw headphones girl again this morning, as I staggered behind the pushchair in my lycra towards the end of my four miles. We were killing it, and we knew it. We gave each other a giant wave.

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Hey, you know what would be really fabulous? I’ve been shortlisted for a Brilliance in Blogging award in the writer category, and if you have thirty seconds to vote for me, I’d be made up. Voting closes tomorrow night!

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