This Is Where We Are: a letter to my sons on Mother’s Day (5)

Every year on Mother’s Day, I write about how I mother my babies day-to-day. I think they might like to know how the little things felt, as well as the big ones. Here goes the fifth (late again – will this become part of the tradition? Yes).

Dear Future Versions of Henry and Teddy,

This has been my fifth Mothering Sunday, and you are four-and-a-half and two-and-three-quarters, respectively. And we look like this.

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In previous years we’ve taken Mother’s Day photos in natural light, somewhere outdoors, possibly with matching outfits. We ran out of time for that, this year, but I’m glad. When I look back at this phase in our lives, this is how it will feel. We are dishevelled and muddy from walking home through fields. I wear those trousers every day despite the giant hole in one knee, which I got from kneeling on asphalt wrestling Teddy into pushchairs. Henry in school uniform – hasn’t that been a transformative, defining part of the last six months – and Teddy wearing a piece of everything he’s eaten today. I need my hair cutting. I always need my hair cutting. We’re a mess, but it’s a good mess.

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Ted, you still wake up first. Will you always? It feels like it. Six am, on the lucky days. We have an unspoken rule that the parent you’re shouting for is the one who has to get up for you. You seem to be favouring Daddy this month (yessss). You are way past two-and-a-half, and it still hasn’t occurred to you to try climbing out of your cot. (Much more cautious than your brother, who climbed high and early and often.) You are getting taller, suddenly. Long fingers, long feet. Still the blue eyes, the half-ton of white-blonde hair. You are quite heart-stoppingly beautiful, altogether. We don’t really know how it happened.

You are also, alas, the twoiest two-year-old that ever lived. Once you had full sentences and strong opinions in your arsenal, we were sunk. You are constantly nattering, shouting, protesting, singing. Singing! That’s a new one for us. You pick up songs from nowhere and sing them to yourself – accurately and in full – in the bath. Your current favourites are Hey Jude (by ‘zer Beatles’), Life on Mars (by ‘Starman’) and the Frozen soundtrack (while you provide an audio commentary to explain what would be happening on screen right now, if we could see it).

You also love: your stuffed dog and cat, your rainbow wellies, books, the ‘little wed boike’ you inherited from Henry this year, Thomas the Tank Engine, grapes and yoghurt, and all the beleaguered pets belonging to our neighbours. You hate: having to get in the pushchair, having to get into your car seat, getting out of the bath, sending Henry into school and not being able to follow, having to do anything you weren’t going to do anyway. You are the best and most exhausting of daytime companions, the teller of terrible jokes, the giver of spontaneous hugs. ‘I baaaaaack!’ you shout, as you run into a room you left thirty seconds ago. We three introverts couldn’t do without you for a moment.

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Henry, my love: isn’t being four fantastic? It feels like a crossroads of an age: we get occasional flashes of toddlerhood, when you struggle with taking turns or decide you don’t like chicken again today; then sometimes I look at you and can see ahead, to the quiet, capable and fascinating boy you’re going to be. So soon, so soon. You are so much calmer, more able to articulate your ideas and feelings. You do a heck of a lot of both, being you: interested in everything, and also hyper-aware of how you and others feel. It’s a funny old (sometimes exhausting) mix. All this emotion makes you a worrier who tends towards melodrama (‘my TEARS are BURNING MY FACE!’ you screeched at me last week). I’m hoping you’ll feel more at ease with time, and that you know you always have a safe place here with me.

You started school in September and you took to it immediately, much to our relief. You like to learn, as I said, and once you had a small circle of friends to call your own, you flew. Writing, reading, solving little counting problems – all new, and you seem to thrive on it. We walk home with you peppering me with facts and questions from your scooter. This morning you asked me to locate and explain all of your major organs, and the kidneys were your favourite. I suspect because they work with wee, and toilet jokes are king. All this is total joy.

Other things you love: dinosaurs, sausage and mash, your scooter, your books, your dinosaur trainers, your red Oxford hoodie (worn so often you’ve broken the zip), and our giant box of Duplo. You eat well and you’d sleep for much longer if it weren’t for Teddy bouncing on your head. You’re growing out of all your trousers simultaneously, again.

So there we are. I wonder, often, what you’ll remember when you’re older, now you’re starting to remember. From my vantage point I can see it all, of course, including the hard and terrible days. I know that I am often tired and bedraggled, that I’m not very patient, and that I make dinner too late (does that ring a bell? Like, 6pm at the earliest?).

But we’ve been walking home through the gorse this week. All out, and all blazing yellow. We made up a rhyme between us to remember its name, ages ago, and you always do. You tell me jokes and I laugh because the telling of them is funny even if the joke isn’t (it isn’t, sorry). We take off our wellies and come into the warm and I put the kettle on. I hope you’ll remember that feeling, the same one I get when the kettle starts to boil: I love this, and you – so much I can’t really articulate it, after all this – and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.

Let’s stay here as long as we can.

With much love,

Your mother.

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Harry Potter and my teenaged life

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

J.K. Rowling

What makes a story?

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

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

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***

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

Not the last, though. That’s a story.

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***

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

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

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***

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

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

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***

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

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

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***

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

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

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He’s not old enough yet, but I will.

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

Five books…to help your kids love words

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

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

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

These are five of the best. MWA HA HA.

This Is My Book, by Mick Inkpen

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

“This is my Poo!”

It was a very naughty thing to do.

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

 

Oi, Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

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

‘I wouldn’t mind sitting on a chair.’

Hares sit on chairs‘, said the cat.

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

 

Grill Pan Eddy, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

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

Which we baited with brown bready. 

But he tripped the latch with a safety match

Oh, we couldn’t catch Grill Pan Eddy!

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

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

 

On Sudden Hill, by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies

on sudden hillSometimes they’re dragon-slayers,

side-by-side house dwellers

and skyscraper dancers. 

But Birt feels strange.

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

 

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

book with no picturesHere is how books work. 

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

No matter what. 

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

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

Anyone who says their two-year-old wasn’t a tiny insane tyrant is lying

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That day he did well, until he didn’t. Story of a toddler’s life.

Dear toddler parent hanging on by skin of teeth:

Anyone who says their two-year-old wasn’t a tiny insane tyrant is lying.

Let me say that again.

ANYONE WHO SAYS THEIR TWO-YEAR-OLD WASN’T A TINY INSANE TYRANT IS LYING.

Alright, toddler parent, just let me put you on hold while I talk to whoever’s now offended.

Yes, I mean it, and yes I mean you as well, yes, you. Come at me, bro. If you tell me, either in person or from the safe distance of the internet, that your blessed toddler only needed one look from you after one tantrum and they never tried it again, or they never ran off because of your awesome discipline routines, or any variant of ‘when my kids were little’ – sit back down. SIT ALL THE WAY BACK DOWN. Shall I tell you what’s happened here?

  • Unless you nurtured a child prodigy (I am willing to allow this variant in rare cases), you had a two-year-old like any other.
  • Two-year-olds spend a lot of time wanting what they can’t have, and wrestling with giant emotional reactions they don’t have the bandwidth to process appropriately. This has been studied. It is normal. It is true.
  • This leads to: screaming meltdowns in public and private, lots of ‘I don’t WANT to’, long days of struggling over every. little. thing, much exhaustion on all sides. You might have had a toddler who did one of those things more than the other, but all of them will have been present and correct.
  • You dealt with this in the best way you could. I’m sure you’re a nice, normal person, so probably this was: you set limits that were often ignored, you wheedled and cajoled and comforted and warned and picked them up like a parcel, legs flailing, and shouted when you really lost your rag, and tried again the next day.

THEN (this is the important part):

  • Your two-year-old got older, more able to cope with emotions and respond to parenting strategies. And as the years went on, and because two-year-olds are also delightful and hilarious and wonderful beyond belief,
  • You forgot the bad bits.

I wouldn’t mind, but this idea of ‘my toddler was an angel because of how super disciplined I was’ – the sort of thing that comes in well-meaning or less-well-meaning droves when you mention your children online – does serious damage to those of us still in those two-year-old trenches. Do you think it’s easy, trying to cajole your child off the floor of a supermarket because you’ve refused to let them get inside the ice cream freezer, cringing and embarrassed by the volume of their yells and the certain knowledge that someone watching thinks you’re a failure?

The only thing that would be worse is if some random stranger who didn’t know you at all, didn’t know how hard you worked or how much you worried about being a good, kind, fair, decent parent, told you that yes, your worst fear is true: this is your fault. If you were better, your two-year-old wouldn’t act like this. Because mine didn’t. Not ever. I only had to give them a look.

I know how awful this feels, because it’s happened to me, and because I get messages all the time from mothers battered by public judgement and unrealistic expectations. It makes me furious.

Toddler parent, you still there?

Listen. Two-year-olds are gonna two. Sooner or later they’re going to want something you can’t give them in a public place, and all your careful distraction techniques won’t work this time, and they will scream and someone will sniff and you will feel like scraping yourself out of the carpet. It might even happen rather a lot (*hand raised*).

It is not your fault. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You can’t give your children emotional maturity beyond their years by force of will. If you’re trying hard, setting boundaries and struggling for a routine that suits you both, well – everything else will pass. I promise. Enjoy the wonderful bits, buy in chocolate digestives for the terrible bits, and don’t let anyone, ever, tell you that your child would be better if you were.

And one more thing for the internet warriors.

Next time you’re tempted to write a ‘back in my day’ response to a mother struggling with things you’ve let go: maybe just write ‘hang on, it’ll be ok’ instead. Just that.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?

 

My Fringe Does Not Look Like Other People’s Fringes

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middle-right taken this morning, for context

Because I went for a half-fringe first and my hair got confused

Because I have naturally fluffy hair (I will not dignify it with the classification ‘wavy’ or ‘curly’, because it is neither) and cutting fluff into shorter fluff above one’s face is not, objectively, a good idea

Because I wrestle it into submission using scalding-hot air every morning and people/fringes just can’t be kept in chains

Because I forgot to offer the correct blood sacrifice that first time at the hairdressers

Because walking in a light breeze makes it rise up and then up again, parting down the middle and floating proudly down the sides of my head like the waves parting before a noble ship at sea. And I spend a lot of time in, at minimum, light breezes

Because my eyebrows are so luxuriantly untamed they keep giving the fringe static shocks, so now they just avoid each other out of awkwardness

Because I refused to hand over my first-born to the witch who asked, so she wouldn’t teach me about fringe-lore

Because I wake up every morning looking like my forehead vomited in the night

Because I went on holiday just after having it done for the first time and it was absolutely perfect every day, and after this I displeased the gods on Mount Olympus

Because aliens

Because I have a cow-lick. At the front. Did I mention that?

My walls, my rules (+ art print GIVEAWAY!)

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You will never find me on a home improvement blog. I have no colour sense, and no idea how to ‘style’ corners (whatever that means). But you will have to prise my wall art out of my cold, dead fingers.

Everything on our walls is meaningful to us, and it makes even our sad old magnolia paint – of which there is rather a lot – feel cosier. Our living room doesn’t ever get much light thanks to the row of oak trees just outside, so we’ve filled the room with soft greys, old wooden furniture, far too many blankets, and a jewel-coloured Van Gogh. When I saw that Van Gogh in the flesh, in a museum in Paris, on one of the best trips we’ve ever taken together, I cried. I think about that every time I see it.

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Then there’s the couple of old maps reminding us of places we’ve been and would like to go; a fantastic Sherlock portrait that induces a pleasant Benedict Cumberbatch meditation every time I sneak over to turn up the thermostat; a David Hockney I carried back from the Tate Modern for our downstairs loo (The Splash: something that often, regrettably, happens in there); the mother-and-baby painting that used to sit in our dining room when I was a child and reminds me now of all the mothers who’ve made me; and of course the ‘Courage, dear heart’ print hanging over our bed. I need to read that one about twelve times a day.

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None of it’s particularly styled. But it all means something, and I love that. It makes me feel at home.

SO. Imagine how delighted I was when my sister-in-law Bryony Dick got in touch to say she’d hand-lettered a quote from this very blog. Something…I wrote…up there…on a wall…*hyperventilating*. You can find Bryony’s Etsy shop here – including a limited run of this hand-lettered print – but I have one RIGHT HERE to give away to one of you lovely lot! All you have to do is enter below, using your Facebook account or your email. I hope it might make you feel like all of your days have the potential for something marvellous.

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(Bryony also has a Zazzle shop, in which my absolute favourite has to be the Wives of Henry VIII badges. What a PERFECT OPENING to explain to a hapless stranger why Anne of Cleves is my all-time fave.)

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Seven little things that have made my life better in 2016

 

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I’ve been spending my nights mostly not asleep this week. I’ve had a couple of imagine-all-the-horrible-ways-you-could-lose-your-children sessions (MOTHERHOOD, THE BEST) and then last night, somewhat more prosaically, I spent hours seized up with fear about not having put the bin out.

I dunno what’s causing it. It’s new to me. Brains are great, sometimes.

Anyway, today – having woken up too early, too tired, too cross over nothing – I have been practising self-care. I went for a run this morning, though I hate it as much as I ever did, because even I know that endorphins are a thing. Then a hot shower. Then clothes as close to pyjamas as I could wangle. Then I put on makeup carefully and with both hands while T watched Cars. Then Heinz tomato soup and a buttered crumpet. Then I took the damn nap.

This evening I feel a little more like myself, thanks to all those little things. So in that spirit, I thought of seven other little things that have been making my life better so far this year, and wrote them down. None of them are putting the bin out on time, though I managed that too, eventually.

 

1. A laundry basket with two compartments, no, seriously:

We saw this little beauty in TK Maxx on a day in which we were decidedly not in the market for items larger than our youngest child – we’d come on the train; we were about to head off for a cheeky Nando’s – but we couldn’t say no to this. A laundry bin with two compartments is essentially self-sorting, and you don’t even need a robot. Do you know how much time I save not tossing urine-sodden underpants and ancient sweaty lycra into white and dark piles? I could eat a bacon sandwich in that time. And I have.

***

2. Not weighing myself anymore:

At certain times in my life this pestilential thing has been necessary – when I had weight to lose, for example, and needed to track it. Other than that, though: why. Ever. Why. I have spent so many years tailoring my feelings to that unfeeling box on the ground. Weight fluctuates daily for many reasons: how much water you’ve drunk; what kind of exercise you do; the details of your loo expeditions; if your hormones are up, down or have run off to sea. Your body changes as you do, because you are mysterious and expansive and full of hidden depths. If you’re making effort to treat it well, why bother sticking it on a scale like a slab of meat? I have decided to end the tyranny of the weight box, and I LOVE it.

***

3. Housework + audiobooks:

Imagine being in the bottom half of a giant egg-timer, like Jasmine at the end of Aladdin, only instead of sand tumbling ceaselessly onto your head, it’s toys. And dirty plates. And biscuit crumbs. That’s basically what it’s like keeping house with small children. Now imagine if you did all your washing up with Stephen Fry sat on the counter, talking to you about Harry Potter. Much better, eh? I never do any housework without an audiobook. The HP cycle is my old reliable, though it’s a bit disconcerting when I go straight from the end of Book 7 to the beginning of Book 1, and shriek HARRY YOU ARE MARKED FOR SLAUGHTER STOP WORRYING ABOUT HOMEWORK in the middle of the laundry. I have a couple of my favourite novels on audio too; and the BBC Radio app, especially the drama section, especially during Agatha Christie season (!!!), is a cave of wonders.

***

4. A proper weekly planner app:

Do you know how long I have been searching for a week-to-view planner app? My whole life. I just want to know whether to schedule something for Monday or Thursday without having to flick through seven screens. It’s not like it’s the holy grail. Finally, this month I found one. It’s called Weekly Planner, helpfully, so perhaps I just wasn’t looking hard enough. Guys. My productivity has been OFF THE CHARTS. I also use a thumbs up emoji to tick stuff off, so it’s like a Roman Emperor decided to let me live because of my unstoppable efficiency, ten times a day.

***

5. A store-cupboard, thirty-minute crumble recipe:

Sometimes you need crumble and custard very much indeed, but you don’t have crumble topping, or enough apples, or the time and leisure to take the skin off your knuckles coring them. This is a problem I have frequently, and never more so than in January. Recently I hit on the idea of tinned fruit crumble, because it takes no time at all to cook and you can keep in the ingredients for emergencies. You can have it on the table half an hour after your initial hankering if you have a food mixer, I kid ye not. Here you go:

  • put one tin each of peaches, pears and mangoes into a dish
  • whizz up 150g flour, 50g sugar and 100g cold butter in a food mixer/processor (or your hands are fine; it just takes a bit longer)
  • put crumble mixture over fruit in dish
  • bake for 20 mins in a hot oven (220 ish)

I hope you always use twice as much custard as crumble, because this is the route to happiness.

***

6. The 10pm alarm clock:

Let me say for the sake of honesty that I am awful at this one, but when I do it I feel so much better. I am a terrible, terrible fiddler in the evenings, and can spend literally hours soaking in the experience of looking at Twitter without being jumped on. But late nights make me feel gross in the morning, and not taking the time to wind down properly also takes its toll. So I have a recurring 10pm alarm, with the idea that when it goes off, I stop whatever I’m doing and go upstairs. I can have my own bedtime routine for half an hour, and then go to sleep at a decent time, properly switched off. It’s a blooming miracle.

***

7. Trying to get better at things:

You know what always makes me feel more satisfied, more hopeful? No, not Netflix (YES NETFLIX). Making progress. Some kind of progress, in something. Much of the labour I perform is manual, repetitive, quickly undone, and though I know it’s not, it can feel pointless and stagnating. I need to feel like I’m making progress. Last year I tried hard to read more and to let the boys see me reading – both for my own enjoyment/sanity, and so I could show them that reading is a thing I do for pleasure. This year I want to carry on with that, and I’ve started baking new things more regularly, and trying to practice the piano a little more. By which I mean, a little more than the none I was doing before. It’s totally doable.

***

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What are your little sanity-savers so far this year?

 

Two time-stoppers

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(i)

I am walking to school. Pushing the pushchair with two hefty toddlers in it, wellies mud-streaked, balancing H’s scooter over the top with a spare finger, sweaty enough to make me feel like this is exercise. It’s one of my favourite things to do. The light is grey as steel, but the woods look good in anything.

I look up, and there’s a kite balancing on the topmost branch of the nearest tree. A kite, or a hawk? I never know. I wish I did. We see them quite often, wheeling far overhead, but I’ve never seen one perched before. This one sways gently on its spindly seat. So much bigger than I expected. A muscled, burly chest, layered with feathers. I’m overwhelmed by how solid it is, how heavy and powerful it looks, how its stillness communicates itself as terrifying, ferocious observation. I wouldn’t like to be a sparrow in the field below and feel that glare on my back.

I stop the pushchair and point up. ‘Look, can you see the bird?’ I want them to see it too, and I don’t want to move before it does. Then I don’t have to: it lets out a pure, cold, bird-of-prey cry, the kind I’ve heard on documentaries but never in front of me, never slicing through the air on top of my head, and peels off. Wings open smoothly as it falls and then it’s not falling anymore, but flying. It must have seen a sparrow.

I let out my breath, and push on.

 

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(ii)

I have heaved all three of our shopping bags in from the car, and closed all the doors. It’s our doing-things day, the one where I wheedle T around two supermarkets and clean up the house after the weekend. I love restocking our empty fridge and cupboards, cramming the shelves with a week of fresh food. Planning and making our meals answers one of my deepest, most basic needs as a mother: I can feed them good things, I can keep them well, I can keep them loved. I think about this every Monday, stuffing onions into the fridge drawer.

‘Put music on?’ T asks.

‘Of course’, I say. ‘What would you like?’

I don’t really expect him to answer, but he screws up tiny nose and does: ‘Um…Starman’.

We’ve been hitting the Bowie back catalogue hard since he passed away. I suppose you pore over someone’s genius more when you know there’s no more to come. The boys are old enough to recognise them this time around. They love them, though they’re not as fierce about Life on Mars as I am.

I crank up the volume and the slightly discordant guitar riff jangles through the kitchen, then Bowie comes in for the first verse, that hard, spare voice lingering over the repeated ‘oh-oh-ohs’. T starts to dance, all shoulders and lunges. I join in, swirling my coat around us like a cloak. He grabs my hand and I spin us both round in lazy circles on the kitchen floor, waiting for the moment where the chorus kicks in with a rush and an octave leap.

I know this is something I’ll remember years later: this minute, this chubby hand and leaping toddler and soft late-morning light and Bowie loud in the air. I can feel it solidifying into memory in front of me, like our edges are turning sepia before we’re quite done with them. Possibly I’ll never listen to Starman again without being transported right back here. Swishing coat. Hand in the air. T’s laughter. And here comes the chorus: Star-maaaaaan, waiting in the sky.

He laughs. I laugh. I get out bread, grapes, cheese, and make us some lunch.

To three or not to three?

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That is the question.

I do not know whether I will post this, or keep it up for long. It feels a bit personal, and also a bit obnoxious. But whenever I can’t bring myself to write a lifeless piece for the sake of writing one, I ask myself: what are you thinking about most right now? Write about that.

What am I thinking about most right now? Whether we need any more children.

Or do I mean ‘want’? That’s the issue, isn’t it? Do we want more? Do we need more? The answers might not be the same. The fact that the answer to the question ‘Can we have more?’ is almost certainly ‘yes’ puts us in a position of impossible privilege from the start. Even having this conversation fills me with guilt. It is more trivial, heartbreakingly so, than lots of other conversations women are forced to have about family planning.

What this is really about is the fear of missed opportunity, of making a decision that I might regret and cannot be reversed. That’s not the case with many choices in life, I think. You can retrain in the field you always wanted, change jobs, move house, end toxic relationships and find new ones. The possibility is there, even if it takes time and emotional resources. But you can’t get much past forty-five and decide you wanted more children after all, because the ole uterus has already shut up shop. Is there a comparable point-of-no-return decision for men? I’m not sure there is.

What a needle-sharp pressure that is for women. Tick-tock, goes the clock. Do you want children? Are you in a position to have them? Would you rather not? Either way, judgement. Either way, the clock ticks.

I had always envisioned having a big family. I’m from a tight-knit foursome and Tim is one of five. As it turns out, imagining possible future children is not the same as growing and birthing them. That stuff is hard. Having two children close together, though it was a deliberate choice, is hard too. We are only juuuuust getting to a stage where the boys play together, and one of them can be trusted most of the time not to do things that endanger his life. Most of the time. If that doesn’t seem like much of a gain, trust me: it’s huge.

In lots of ways this is a lovely phase. They still think I’m the coolest, but I’m not running between them like a rabid monkey so often. They have personalities, tiny obsessions, speech. Watching them learn things and interact with each other is out-and-out delight. My very favourite part of the day is when we roll in from school, I make them a drink and a snack, and we sit at the table and talk. It’s the sort of enjoyment I could not have imagined back in the days of newborn+toddler, where they never left me for a moment and where I would cry from exhaustion that felt like it could never be fixed.

They’re still hard work (they are four and two, after all). But we’re climbing out of chaos for the first time in some years, and part of me is not over-anxious to leap back in there. Google ‘three kids are the most stressful’ and you’ll get pages of articles including sentences like ‘Some days I really wonder if I’ve lost my mind’, and ‘everything was turned upside down’ and ‘I do not feel like I have it all together’. A proper confidence boost.

Then there’s the fact that I have my body to myself now. No sickness, no womb occupation, no saggy sore postpartum body, no weeping over the pain and stress and failure of breastfeeding: I am only myself now, with kids. I am enjoying that too.

And yet. And yet. And yet times one million.

And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re a person down. And yet, the dynamics of a big family feel the most natural to me – I can’t fathom what my life would be like minus two brothers, for example. And yet, looking at babies is starting to make me hurt. And yet I imagine myself, one day, realising that I did want more, need more, could have had more, and I left it too late out of fear.

What I want, deep down, is for the good stuff never to change. I can’t bear to think of the small happinesses of today moving on when the boys do. But of course they will, whether or not I want them to. So I suppose the direction we go is up to us.

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Just take the damn nap

My littlest goes to sleep with a fluffy cat and dog, one under each arm. And his Own Thomas train (I still don’t know which one this is), and a rubber killer whale, and usually a giant plastic crane, which he talks to for forty minutes before dropping off.

I don’t need such elaborate sleeping rituals. Over the last few weeks, whenever I’ve been home and free during his naptime, I’ve just crawled under a duvet and got my head down. All the way down. Sometimes with my boots still on. Always with a sense of righteous glee.

I haven’t had opportunity for daytime naps since T arrived and H stopped taking them. It’s been a long dry spell. And I used to avoid them out of guilt, mostly because I kept comparing my day to Tim’s. He doesn’t get a brief kip after his lunch (or does he? I used to schedule a sleep on the library desk at college. Set an alarm and everything). He’s not hiding in the kitchen with a sneaky brownie because his toddler won’t stop asking him to press the same two buttons over and over. He’s working hard, earning money. Cycling ludicrous distances. Generally acting like Superman, or at least a decent grown-up.

At some point I realised that was a bagful o’ nonsense. My day is hard. Do you know how much naked charisma I need to get two small children through a brief supermarket trip without either of them wandering off or breaking down? More than I’ve naturally got, I can tell you. It takes intense effort; every last cell of me focussed on distraction techniques, danger signs and Mary Poppins voices.

Yesterday afternoon, after I’d picked up H from school, taken them both to Sainsbury’s with T wailing in the back, got them out of the car and into the trolley, bought precisely two items, strapped them both back in the car, opened their bananas, driven all the way back home, got them back out of the car again, emptied the car of our assembled rubbish including discarded banana pieces, shooed them back in the house and taken off shoes and coats, I tried to set the dishwasher going and it broke. I attempted to google the error code, praying it wasn’t something expensive. Meanwhile, H was having an intense personal meltdown, because the brownie I’d started to make wasn’t for him.

My every minute is like that. Every single minute, except for that MAYBE hour and a half where T naps after lunch. Yours is too, I bet, or something similar. Honestly, why would you not get extra sleep if you possibly could? Your kid could stop napping ANY DAY NOW.

In September mine will be in nursery for five half-days a week, and though I think I’ll be getting more done when the day’s bisected by four school runs instead of two, HA HA HA is how that’s going to turn out.

In ten years’ time I’ll be back in an office, probably, watching some guy across the way eat his cheese and pickle sandwich and dribble bits onto his keyboard, and I’ll pretend to be enjoying a rice cake and dump seven sugars in my cheap hot chocolate and wish to high heaven that I could put my head down for ten lousy minutes.

Will you regret, even for a second, taking those daytime naps while you had them? I will not regret it for a second.

Not a second.

If there’s a brief, shining interlude in your life where you’re alone enough to lie down under a duvet with your boots on, luxuriate in your excellent fortune and take it. TAKE IT.

Just take the damn nap.

Just so not sorry

Just so not sorry

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