Flying the flag for date night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pre-Raphelites woz 'ere. *shriek*

Pre-Raphaelites woz ‘ere. *shriek*

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

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

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

Slugs and snails: for Teddy

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You are one today, little boy. And what are little boys made of?

You are made of wrist rolls and chubby feet, big hands and big cheeks. Bounces and cowboy yells on a cot mattress at 6am.

Turbo-charged crawling. Clear blue eyes and wide beaming smiles, showing all six teeth, scrunching up your nose. A mess of corn-blonde dandelion hair falling into your face.

You are shouting and whooping in continual breathless streams. Delighted chucklesome laughter starting somewhere in your belly and spilling out past your cheeks. Unfortunately also that impatient foghorn bellow that takes up all our air space when you want some notice.

You are made of that look of intense concentration as you pick up cheerios with careful fingers from the floor, stuffing them into your mouth with your whole hand.

You are watchfulness, loyalty and deep, unquestioning attachment. You are ticklish between your shoulder blades.

You patch of sunlight on a stormy day; you streak of pure golden-haired grace.

You dream-maker, you heart-breaker -

wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.

(Happy birthday, Edward bear.)

Party for one

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I have decided that first birthday parties are the best of all possible parties. Really, they are.

First, the whole thing is basically a happy celebration of the two of you looking after a baby for a year. He grew some inches, he crawls and he’s eating food: you win everything, parents!

Second, the celebratee has no idea what’s going on, so there’s no pressure: no need to go all out with elaborate themes, bouncy castles or housefuls of sugar-hyped children if you don’t fancy it. You can make it exactly what feels comfortable, however big or small that is.

I have years of badly-made costumes and bouncy castle hire ahead of me, I know. But for now I can get by, oh, very happily indeed, on a nice cake, a small crowd and a bit of bunting. I always end up messing around with the bunting some time after midnight the night before — but then, commemorating a year of baby with a night of no sleep has a certain poetic resonance. I have kept many a midnight watch with you, little bear. Let’s do it once more for the memories, eh? And the bunting.

Speaking of, I got this exceedingly simple idea from the marvellous You Are My Fave. I am drawn like a moth to a flame towards things that can be made using only a pair of scissors. If you are the sort of dunce that is intimidated by buying fabric [raises hand], then here’s a tip: go to Hobbycraft, and look for fat quarters. My mother-in-law, who sews, tells me this is A Thing, and not a joke. It’s actually a little selection of small pieces of fabric. Cut them up into strips, tie them on, and hey presto! I kind of want to leave this up all year.

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So much for bunting. For the cake, I made Nigella’s Autumnal Birthday Cake, from her How to be a Domestic Goddess. The title is not terribly self-explanatory, so let me tell you that it is maple syrup cake, with a meringue frosting. WHAT THE. My baking muscles are very rusty, and I started the thing at 11pm with a headache, but it still turned out alright. Because meringue frosting is the business. It keeps its swirly shape exactly, and sets with this slight crackle on top. I left out the nuts and threw in edible glitter. Teddy was a fan, and so was his face.

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(PS, is this where I throw in extra-casually, as per mummy bloggers, that this was Teddy’s first taste of cake and oh my gosh he loved it? Um, no. It’s not true. I have a feeling that will never be true of any of my children.)

Apart from that, I bought straws, nautical napkins and ice cream pots from the supermarket, strung up some photos, and that was it. The punch was a carton of cranberry juice mixed with a bottle of cloudy lemonade, with frozen raspberries floating on the top.

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We ate cold meat and salad brought by our family, then had birthday cake, chocolate fondue, and jelly and ice cream for dessert.  Note to self: find out how jelly moulds are supposed to work. Because right now you don’t know.

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We ate, opened presents and then went to the park. It was a sunny, gentle afternoon, and Mr Birthday had a great time. I have two more days till I have to really think about him outgrowing his babyhood, but for now this was a lovely way to ease us into it. And costumes can wait for another year.

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Small parks

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We drove back towards town and I told them we’d find a playground. Nursery visits are necessary things, but not much fun for either of them: look at all these children and new toys! Nah, just kidding, let’s go. We’ve been doing it all week, and we’ve still got some to go, and we’re tired.

I told them we’d find a playground, and thought again about certainties. This has been a bruising week, dear friends: the sort of week where I drink too much vanilla Coke and stay up far too late in internet trivialities, because getting my mind to settle in one place for sleep is too ambitious. We are on the springboard of some change. Change I can handle, but I can’t stand not knowing what type of change it will be. I think a lot about being a thirty-year-old woman. I think a lot about being a person of faith and about what that means, about having boys and raising them well. I think about how I can possibly get a legal copy of Life on Mars now the unmentionables at Netflix have taken it away from me (WHY WHY WHY). I would also like to know where we will live, where Henry will go to nursery and roughly what my life will look like in the near future. I keep thinking self-pitying things like ‘that doesn’t seem like too much to ask’, like people don’t spend their whole lives grappling with stuff like this and worse.

I thought again about certainties, because I cannot breathe for grey area, muddy waters, out-of-focus plans. So we drove down a leafy road that might-or-might-not be our new home turf, and I looked for a playground. I don’t know where the playgrounds are around here yet. I couldn’t find one.

Do children crave certainties too, with the same kind of need? Yes, I think so. But smaller ones. Henry’s favourite question at the moment is ‘Mama, what-a we do now?’ I give him a list of our next four actions, but only four. That’s as far ahead as he can make himself see. Teddy’s absolutes are smaller still: the presence of one of his three best people, and a good clear floor.

Some colourful bars flashed in my peripheral vision, and I pulled the car around. We couldn’t see it properly till we’d piled into the pushchair, crossed the road and opened a green gate set into the high hedge. But there it was, a playground. Squeaky clean and deserted, mostly hidden from the street. It was small but brightly coloured and thoughtfully planned. The grass was clean and warm. I let them roam happily around, unworried for once about broken glass or broken bones. And for half an hour we were enclosed and safe in a green space that held, for the moment, everything we needed. I couldn’t see any further than the high hedge, and just now I didn’t want to. The restfulness and relief of it nearly knocked me over.

‘Survey large fields’, someone once told me. ‘Cultivate small ones’. Well, I don’t get out much in fields.

‘Adventure in large playgrounds’, I would say back, nodding all sagely. ‘But keep your heart in small ones’.

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The bottle-thrower in my head

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The other day I was hayfevered up to the max, and found myself in a quandary.

Oh gosh, Thursday, I texted Tim in the morning. If we go out the pollen will kill me, and if we stay in the boys will.

I mean, what is a girl to do?

When I just had Henry, we’d spend some days indoors, and most of the rest between a few familiar places. Now neither of those things are an option. Henry’s old enough to get bored if we go to the same places too often, and bored toddler + demented crawler is the stuff of fearful legend. Especially if we don’t leave the house at all. Great Scott. You know in How to Train Your Dragon, where Hiccup is leafing through the village Dragon Book, and the Night Fury page is ominously empty? That’s what a description of an indoor day would look like in my journal. Just fingernail scratches, and screams.

So – and let’s continue with the movie theme for a minute if we may – you know that scene in films where some unhinged character screeches ‘get out, GET OOOOOOUT!’ And then throws their cigarette/jewellery box/whiskey bottle at the offending guest? That’s what my head does around 10am every day. Breakfast, lovely. Bath, great. Clothes, uh-oh, here comes the whiskey bottle yes here it comes GET OUT GET OUT GET OOOOOOOUT.

I scramble for supplies and we get the heck outta Dodge before another jewellery box crashes around our ears.

Henry calls our morning trips ‘adbentures’. There is nothing that makes you feel more like the Winner of Everything than helping two tiny energetic people have a nice time in an unfamiliar place, and I really kind of love it. But there are two problems, going adbenturing. One, you’re much more likely [read: certain] to get the pushchair stuck or run out of hands when there’s only one of you. And two, I am absolutely awful at predicting the weather.

Here’s the week that was, and the weather-inappropriate things we wore.

Monday: playdate to Mapledurham lock and Purley Park. I dressed the boys in summer clothes, and we froze. Also, cattle grids and pushchairs are unmixy items.

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Tuesday: museum date in Reading Town Hall. Remembering the previous day, we all wore long sleeves. And boiled.

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Wednesday: investigation into the Roman walls at Silchester. I tried to be cautious, and we wore shorts with long sleeves. And boiled, and the path was VERY unsuitable for pushchairs, so I half-carried it for two miles. TEDDY IS NOT LIGHT, FYI.

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Thursday: Caversham park by the river. Ho ho, I thought, looking at the overcast sky. You don’t fool me. Short sleeves and shorts today. And we froze.

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Friday: Rhymetime and library, and it looked like rain. Long sleeves. You know what happened. *wipes sweat from everywhere, shakily stuffs chocolate in mouth*

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Still. New house this summer (we hope we hope) and nursery for Henry after that. I slow down when we’re on the verge of something new, wondering how much I really want it. While we’re here waiting, on the verge, I can’t think of a better thing to do than adbenture, on and on till we get to September and something entirely different.

Museums I have known and sprinted in, by Henry Jeffcoat

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I am a huge believer in kids and museums. Firstly, because I love museums, and if you can’t impose your likes and dislikes on your children while they’re too young to roll their eyes, well, when can you, eh? Secondly, because most of them are free, so I can buy us cake on the way out instead if we’ve got any spare change. And thirdly, because they’re only going to learn appropriate public behaviour if they get a chance to practice. I am as big a fan of soft play as the next rained-indoors mother, but let’s face it: all they learn there is survival of the fittest. It’s like a germy Lord of the Flies.

We do museums in London whenever we get chance – the ‘dinosaur you-seeum’ being our personal favourite, of course – but it’s not quite close enough to go often. But Reading has two jewels in its crown for pre-schoolers, and they’re only a short walk\drive away. The Museum of English Rural Life is a dream come true for transport-obsessed toddlers, and I’ve written about that one here. Today, we went to the other: Reading Museum, in the town hall, a gorgeous old redbrick building near the station.

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Every time we come here, I want to text everyone I know with children afterwards. It’s fantastic. The collection is quite small, and as random as anything: Reading historical artefacts on the ground floor, from the medieval abbey onwards; then a complete, full-sized replica of the Bayeux Tapestry on the first floor (more about this later); then art, stuffed animals and a Victorian schoolroom at the top. The best part, though, is the backpacks. Toddler-sized and colour-coded, you choose one you haven’t used before and take out the treasures inside one by one. Then there’s a question or quest attached to each item. Since Henry’s hobbies include backpack wearing and getting new toys, you can imagine how he feels about it.

Today we started with a brick, and found a wall of magnetic bricks to make patterns (like several redbrick buildings in Reading). We looked at tiny medieval people in glass cases, and listened to some plainsong from the monks.

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Then we had a toy horse – oh, the joy! – and looked over the BayFaux Tapestry to find horses in battle, and horses riding in boats. Can we just take a minute to talk about this? A determined Victorian embroiderer, Elizabeth Wardle, decided that Britain should have its own copy, and engaged her Leek Embroidery Society (yes!) to make an exact copy. It was completed by thirty-five women in just over a year, and they worked from Elizabeth’s memory and from colour photographs at the V&A. This is a brilliantly batty thing to do. Did you need any further proof that the Victorians were happily bonkers? It’s here.

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After that we had a squirrel to find in the stuffed animal room – which also comes with puzzles and colouring pencils – a set of jingle bells leading us to a thumb piano, and finally some binoculars to look at some art on high shelves.

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Henry was so engaged in finding things, rummaging in his bag for the next toy, and zipping up and down in the lift, that he didn’t have time to misbehave. Maybe excitement about Old Stuff will carry through into his adult life, and he’ll enjoy history as much as I do. Or maybe he won’t, and he’s just learning to look and ask questions and be excited about the world around him. I’ll take either option, to be honest, especially if it comes with a backpack.

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He always cries when we leave, and I think this is recommendation enough.

 

‘I do like your belly, but not right now': some things I said during Father’s Day photos

‘If you sit still and smile for daddy’s photographs, you can have some of daddy’s chocolate.

Do you need a shark for photographs? Ok, alright, hold your shark.

No, not in front of your face. I need to see your face, not your shark.’

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‘Teddy, can you sit back? Teddy. Teddy. Sit back, darling. Sit back sit back sit back. No, Henry, don’t you sit forward now. Both of you need to sit back.’

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‘Teds, not the curtains, please. Hen, it’s not funny. You want to sit over on that side? Oh, ok. No, don’t you play with the curtains either. Daddy doesn’t want to see you playing with curtains. I can’t take a photo of you playing with curtains.’

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‘LOOK AT MEEEEEE!’ *dances like an idiot. Henry, unresponsive, slowly puts shark on head*

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Teddy. Sit up. Come on, bear. Don’t sit on your brother, please.’

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‘Put your belly away! Yes, I do like your belly, but not right now. It’s a lovely belly. Put. It. Away. Thank you.’

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‘Teddeeeeee. Stop hitting your brother, please. TEDS. WATCH SOPHIE AND STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER.’

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Winner winner chicken dinner. Sort of. Both boys are looking, and only one boy is slightly out of focus. Pee Ess, guys, this is why we’ve never had family portraits done.

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