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

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

Here’s a poem I wrote about it instead.

 

The Pants Are Full And They Need To Come Off

 

It’s like defusing a crap-bomb

with held breath and shaky hands.

It’s like a magic trick

where you whip the tablecloth away

and leave the glasses standing.

Except there’s poo under your fingernails

and no one applauds.

 

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

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

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

Towel; nakedness, CBeebies. Present and correct.

Towel; nakedness, CBeebies. Present and correct.

The week in stuff

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I have rice pudding. There is a boy asleep in the room next door (wearing pull-ups, so come what farting may, literally). The time is ripe for a Week in Stuff, my friends.

One day I’ll publish H’s best auditions for King of the Melodramas. This, yesterday:

me: Hen, can you get your socks on, please.

H: I can’t, because COMPLETELY I AM NOT LOVED.

me: …

me: get your socks on.

I never worry about getting enough exercise, because I get so much practise eye-rolling with H it’ll take me all the way to the world championships one day.

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This very week we’re in the middle of is potty-training week, which means we’ve done precisely nothing. More about that later, when I can tell how well it’s gone. Last week, though: the weather was astonishingly good, and T and I spent our mornings rambling around outside and our afternoons walking through woods for the school run. The Roman town at Silchester is just round the corner from us, and it’s a gorgeous circular walk on top of the old walls, with a convenient church bench in the middle for a refreshing biscuit. Or seven.

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I taught a workshop on Shakespeare – my beautiful bearded genius – at a convention at the weekend. They were a jolly bunch, and submitted to acting out the St Crispin’s Day speech and drawing on Shakespeare beards in good humour. Especially appropriate, then, to come home and watch the new cycle of The Hollow Crown, which is the BBC’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays. The old series covered Richard II through to Henry V – perhaps it will be enough for me to tell you that Tom Hiddleston plays Henry V, but if not, Ben Whishaw is the most exquisite Richard II, and Sir Pat Stew knocks John of Gaunt’s speeches out. of. the. park, as is his wont. This new series covers Henry VI and Richard III, and the mighty Cumberbatch plays Richard III. Even if Shakespeare’s not your thing, this adaptation is accessible and savage, and Cheekbones Cumberbatch is a Machiavellian nephew-murdering charismatic sociopath, so, you know, get on down (the first episode of the new series is on iPlayer, here; Benedict isn’t in it till this week).

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On the recommendation of a friend, I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air this week, written by a gifted neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with cancer. It’s a philosophical, lyrically written book, very powerful. If you’ve only got one cancer memoir in you (and I wouldn’t blame you if you did) I think Kate Gross’ Late Fragments just has the edge over this one for beauty and honesty, but Kalanithi was a fascinating, complex man and his written ending comes like a gut punch.

I am also – with somewhat less gravity – now horribly addicted to Ann Cleeves’ Shetland books, which were made into a BBC series over the last couple of years. You may have seen it: Douglas Henshall prowling around solving Shetland Island murders, in his grandad’s coat. I want him to come and solve my murders. It’s cool, I can arrange for some. Anyway, the earliest books are a bit clunky (‘Perez was very sensitive. He said something sensitively, because he was very sensitive’ YES OK WE GET IT) but get better as they go, and from the first are atmospheric and totally brilliant. My only issue is that the TV version changed a lot of the details, so when a character died from a stabbing yesterday, when I was expecting her to die of a brain tumour some years hence, I was FURIOUS AND SADDENED BEYOND REASON.

Ooh, look at him. Solving murders. On a headland. In plaid.

Ooh, look at him. Solving murders. On a headland. In plaid.

Ben Folds in the car this week. I came to this important realisation about The Luckiest (almost wrote The Lickiest then, which would’ve been a very different kind of song) on about day three:

Book club yesterday. So I made The Cake. You know how Sherlock Holmes calls Irene Adler The Woman? This is The Cake, and is living proof that you can throw absolutely anything into a bundt tin – indeed, you are almost obliged to throw in the easiest cake mix you can find – and it’ll look ornamental and impressive anyway. I use Betty Crocker’s Devil Food mix for this one, flick melted Nutella all over it when it’s out, and add chopped nuts or strawberries afterwards if I’m feeling terribly fancy. It takes almost no time and zero skill. Truly, The Cake, you are a cake for all of us.

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Last thing. Superheros minus their CGI do really fantastic jumps.

View post on imgur.com

 

Leap, tiny Thor! You’re welcome.

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

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I’m here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

‘Hey, where are you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The week in stuff

 

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I don’t know if I’ll do these regularly or even if I’ll keep the name: I’m just reading/watching/listening to quite a bit at the minute and like talking about it. And I LOVE other people’s weekly round-ups, so here’s mine. 

Nearly the end of April. Yikes. I spent the past week solo parenting while Tim was in Houston getting flooded and eating steak (and oh, alright, doing work as well). The way I work when Tim is away goes a bit like this:

days 1-4 – I am a BOSS PARENT I am the most EFFICIENT ON EARTH this human society cannot HOLD ME AND MY CLEAN KITCHEN SURFACES

day 5 – we all hate each other; I lock myself in the bathroom in order to have forty seconds where no one is asking me to do something

days 6-7 – he’s coming back soon darlings, I’ve got my second wind; do you want ice cream?

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I have a couple of lighted-up memories from solo week: coming back from a meeting with the boys, past their bedtime, and coming across a sunset over a field of rapeseed;

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spending a morning with T hunting for bluebells in Sulham woods, finding them, then worrying about the legal ramifications of having a two-year-old accidentally sit on a protected flower;

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running off for an end-of-week sleepover at Tim’s parents’, and dallying round antique shops, cafes and canals on Saturday morning. I wish you all a mother-in-law trained in full-body massage and generous with her Friday evenings. It’s magic.

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The good thing about having evenings entirely by yourself is that you get to set bedtime at 7pm   p r e c i s e l y and then spend three hours watching back-to-back Alias episodes. Have you ever watched Alias? Early JJ Abrams effort, where a lot of the flaws and strengths of Lost and his film work are already apparent. Jennifer Garner is this beautiful, wig-wearing, muscle-bearing spy, and Victor Garber is her Spy Daddy and also the best character ever. It’s bonkers, and I loved it passionately as a teenager, and I’ve been so enjoying revisiting all the outfits and techno beats. I also recorded a video of myself lip-synching to the intro with chocolate ice cream on my jumper, so there’s that.

SO BEAUTIFUL SO 2000s

SO BEAUTIFUL SO 2000s

One afternoon in our local library – which is tiny and quite limited but still a library (PLEASE DON’T SHUT IT DOWN, COUNCIL) – I was chasing a boy past the non-fiction, and found a miraculous hoard of new books. So I have read Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto (wonderful, hilarious, inspiring) and Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl (I think Dunham has done a mighty and important thing with her career, but I didn’t enjoy this much).

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I also found Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, which (disregarding the slightly off-putting title) is a compendium of famous women’s favourite sad poems. It’s as much an insight into the woman as the poem, so I’ve loved it. And I don’t know if you can read this, but please look it up if you can’t: it’s Jackie Kay’s choice, and I had to put the book down to sob harder. ‘I am a shore rocking you off’. Oh, my goodness.

I was so sad to hear about Victoria Wood passing away suddenly this week. She was a huge part of my childhood and I adored her. I remember my parents’ ancient VHS of An Audience With Victoria Wood, and getting into trouble for singing bits of Let’s Do It out loud. I’ve read a couple of lovely tributes: this one from Lucy Mangan, and this one from Sali Hughes were my favourites. And we watched a retrospective of her career – made when she was still alive, so she’s in it, wonderfully – which is on BBC iPlayer here (you’ll need a British IP address for that one).

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‘SMEAR AN AVOCADO ON ME LOWER PORTIONS!’

I taught a lesson at church yesterday on the refugee crisis and what we can do to help, and remembered the month when Humans of New York went to Greece to interview refugees. I used one of the stories in the lesson, and greatly appreciated revisiting the rest. They’re all here, and classic HONY: touching, vulnerable, very human, and such necessary reading still.

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Last of all. I don’t care what your political leanings are: if you look at these photos of President Obama meeting Prince George in his dressing gown and pyjamas and don’t melt into a puddle of joy and love, you might be dead inside.

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That dressing gown though.

Mo-Town, and other stories

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I have finally – with the help of back-to-back Alias episodes and a pretty indecent amount of Phish Food ice cream – finished sorting out photos from the last week of our trip. So here goes!

We drove from Ashland to Salt Lake over the course of a day. We figured it would be easier to handle a road trip than another flight with the boys – I mean, if you have any conception of how often H needs the loo, this is pretty obvious. But actually, this was one of my favourite days. We stopped at three-hourly intervals for petrol, snacks, ice cream and to stretch our legs, and in between listened to Roald Dahl and Harry Potter, sang very loudly, and saw some magnificent scenery. Somewhere in Nevada we spotted a sign for ‘Deeth Starr Valley’, and thought ‘hey, nice Star Wars tribute; shame they couldn’t spell it’. Turns out Deeth and Starr Valley are two separate places, but next to each other. If they don’t get together for a sci-fi film festival every year this life means NOTHING.

The last part of the journey, before it got dark, ran through the Utah Salt Flats. We hit them just at sunset. Excited to see family and entering the twelfth delicious hour of binging on M&Ms. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling.

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Then Utah! Another place I’d never been but was excited to see. After so many distant horizons it felt very odd to sit in a valley entirely ringed by mountains. The sun rises in the morning behind them, so by the time it peeks over the top and into your living room it’s hot and full, all of a sudden. We were there for my brother’s wedding at the end of the week, so that was the most important thing, of course. But there was plenty to see, too, especially for a 30-something Mormon who’d never been before.

The first weekend was General Conference for our church. Which we normally watch under blankets in our living room, with plenty of M&M’s on hand. Since we were actually there this time, we went to the real thing. It was very surreal.

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Guys, you do not know how much I am praying that some of those mother genes have come this way.

Lots of other lovely buildings around Temple Square, including the eponymous temple.

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We were staying with my brother and sister-in-law – and their cat, Moses, much to the boys’ delight (Moses could not be reached for comment. I think Ted’s demented ‘Where is Moooooseeeey’ rallying cry is still ringing in his ears). We took up so much of their space and ate their food and terrorised poor Moses night and day, and they were the absolute BEST for putting up with us. I kind of want us all to move into a commune now; could this happen; let’s try.

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After the weekend we paid a visit to the Museum of Ancient Life, otherwise known as the BEST dinosaur museum you have been to in your liiiiiiiife. There are more assembled dino skeletons than I have ever seen, including the really cool ones like the supersaurus, taking up an entire hall by itself, and a triceratops, and that gnarly one with the bone crown on its head that it uses to fight with (you know the one). There were mammoth skeletons and sabre-tooth tiger skeletons, huge terrifying prehistoric fish skeletons in abundance, lots of interactive exhibits, and – best of all – a bit at the end where they could dig out a fossil for themselves in a big sand pit. I’ve gone on about it too much now, but we are pretty much breathing dinosaurs in our house at the minute, and the boys were beside themselves.

They both got a dinosaur toy from Grandma at the end. ‘I’m going to call mine Chomp!’ said H.

T wanted to copy (standard) but misheard (also standard).

‘Mummy, listen! Listen! Mine called Jump too’.

We had a free day mid-week, so took a road trip down to Moab and the red rocks. Oh my. We took our lunch down a kid-friendly trail, scrambling through a canyon and dislodging irritated lizards. It was the kind of day where you keep saying ‘look – will you LOOK at that?!’, even though you know it’s getting annoying. I couldn’t stop looking. We could’ve spent a week there. Maybe one day we will.

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On the way back we drove through a dust storm, in a valley like wide, flat bowl. There was a raised railway line just to our right, and all of a sudden a big flock of tumbleweeds came rolling over the top and down past the car. Some of them were as big as armchairs. I like to think those were the alpha mamas of the pack, and they were leading them all off to a better life. Before we went home we spent the evening with some lovely friends, who used to live in our town years ago, before they moved back to the States. They had not only a dog but ROOMS full of toys the boys hadn’t seen, and I feel like between us we nearly died with happiness.

The next day, in between various wedding errands, we hiked up to the big Y on Y Mountain, in Provo. (The story of why there’s a giant letter painted on this mountain is a weird, torrid saga involving forcible head-shavings and heat exhaustion.) We managed to get up there without anyone shaving their head, though we took the pushchair halfway up, and pushing it nearly gave Tim a heart-attack. Good views, though. Excellent views.

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Then a wedding, a wedding. I love a good wedding, and this (we hope!) was our last one. The service was in the morning, at Provo City Center temple – a gorgeous brick structure with turrets and arched windows and stained glass in abundance.

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My brother, we all agree, got astonishingly lucky. We love this girl.

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We had a lunch not long after, including root beer floats for dessert and some speeches and games afterwards.

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Then we finished the day with an evening reception. Waffle bar, photo booth, first dance, tears. A dance party afterwards where we all jostled together and everything felt hilarious. We saw them off with confetti. We said goodbyes that were too brief and too sad. And we left. After all this time, it never doesn’t suck.

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So concluded the trip we christened #Whereismosey2016. We don’t usually take big travelling holidays, and the whole time we kept pinching ourselves that we were lucky enough to do this one. It was so good for the soul. Come back, come back! You were such a good one.

*rips open Phish Food*

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.

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