Virused, outside

Some truths all little boys know in their bones. You can be blistered and crusty but the park still loves you. The best way to get over an achingly dull case of hand, foot and mouth is to get out in a gale and shout a lot. And it still counts as quarantine so long as there’s no one else there.

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We’ve been spending a lot of time in Goring and Streatley, lately. Not on purpose (inhabitants of Goring, you can rest easy in your beds). A couple of weeks ago the boys and I hopped on a train for a couple of stops, came off at Goring, admired the weir with a very tight grip on everyone’s wrist, and stopped in a cafe for hot chocolate. Last week Tim and I got an unexpected afternoon off when Tim’s mum popped in for a few hours, so we went back intending a country walk. It pelted it down five minutes into our opening swing competition, so we ran back to the same cafe and ate pastries instead.

Today – windy, bright, hotter than it’s been for months – we went back to the park with blistered boys hoping it would be deserted. It was. Isn’t it better to be quarantined here than at home feeling gross in front of an iPad? We think so.

PS, let me apologise in advance for the ludicrous number of photos in this post. The light was good, and crusty or no, I couldn’t narrow it down.

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Ted’s hair. My goodness. He’s like a newly hatched chicken, but twice as ridiculous.

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‘Boys, we’re going to go for a walk now. On the proviso that you DO NOT LICK ANYTHING’.

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Before we realised quite how hot it was going to be (i.e., very).

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How many ‘Henry runs with determination’ photos do I have? They are numbered as the sands of the sea.

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Spiderweb!

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(Hand, foot and mouth: you know where you can shove it.)

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A little thank you note

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I don’t often feel like a blogger. In my head that seems to be someone who makes a lot of money from it (I don’t), or has a huge audience (I don’t) or is brave enough to go to conferences and such (I’m not), or chases round the city after their beaming toddler looking totally and impossibly glam (HAHA).

Someone better at life than me, in other words. This is me:

1. I often write here instead of doing the housework, which means there is now dust gathering on the vacuum cleaner and piles of laundry on the floor.

2. On days where the boys don’t nap, I automatically buy in two pints of chocolate ice cream as a reward for getting to 8pm.

3. The best thing that happened to me today was finding out that a whole pot of Brussels pate is only 500 calories, because that means I could technically eat it all on toast and call it a meal.

4. Yesterday evening I talked to Tim for about an hour about the pros and cons of buying a new raincoat, because the one I want is stripy so it seems like a frivolous purchase.

‘What if it’s the wrong kind of stripy?’ I fretted, finger over the ‘Buy Now’ button. He rolled his eyes so hard I thought they might pop out.

Anyway, all of this is to say: I was shortlisted as a finalist in the MAD Blog Awards 2014, in the Best Baby Blog category! And I am ecstatic, and genuinely astonished. This little corner of the internet is a tiny fish in a huge parenting bloggers’ pond, and all the other fish are lovely people with beautiful blogs and massive followings. I keep pinching myself that I get to hang out here, even for a little while. You made it happen! Thank you so much for voting, if you did.

And thank you as well for reading what I write when I’m ignoring the laundry. Blogging has put me in touch with so many wonderful people, helped me work out my own thinking and open up to new ideas. I love being here. I hope you love it too. And I hope everything is alright with you.

(I bought the raincoat. Steady on, crazy party weasel.)

If you’d like to vote for me in the final round, I will love you forever. Click on the link below, and find us under Best Baby Blog!

And if you’re new here, you can read some of my favourite posts in the list to the right. 

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Outnumbered

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We were driving out to the woods on Saturday evening, and Tim switched on the radio. Cyndi Lauper came on, because this is Heart Radio, and they like their Saturday nights to start with a cheese board.

Tim whipped up the volume, and I yelled out of the window, picturing myself in sleeves as big as my head.

Whoooa GIRLS just wanna have fu-un

Whoooa GIRLS just wanna haaaaave fuuuuun!

Then I yelled, equally loudly, ‘I AM NEVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO DANCE TO THIS IN OUR HOUSE’.

Because, of course, I have boys.

Sometimes I think the girl-ache will eat me alive. Genetically speaking, we’re likely to have boys until we decide to stop having anyone. I have lingered in frilly-dress aisles and directed mournful glances at baby headbands and flowered vests. My well-thumbed, twenty-year-old copies of The Little White Horse and A Little Princess sit hopefully on my shelf, but are likely to be ignored in favour of Artemis Fowl and Lemony Snicket (just to be clear, I know boys can love A Little Princess too, and I think Lemony Snicket is a wordy genius. But, you know, statistics). And there are things that a mother can only have with a daughter. The vulnerability and prickly magnificence of being a woman is something that is precious to me. I would like to share it with someone who has my heart.

We arrived at the woods and wandered in. The sun was going down, with the kind of light that clarifies. Henry was poking in a muddy puddle with a stick, flat cap pulled down low over his eyes. He passed me another stick without looking at me. ‘This one yours, Mummy’, he said.

I settled down to poking. It’s underrated, I think.

As the sun set, I took over Teddy’s back carrier so Henry could sit on Tim’s shoulders. The darkness came in behind and around us while Henry listened for owls, and I listened to Teds sigh and coo behind my head. He is so beautiful, this one, that some days all I can do is squeeze him.

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’, I said to Henry. ‘What’s the next line?’ He looked at me and raised his eyebrows.

Oh yes, that was it. I raised my voice and my arms, because in the dark, with your wordy boy who understands you completely, and your tiny boy who adores you too much to care, you can do that sort of thing.

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep -

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep’.

I looked over and he’d raised his skinny arms too. Teddy huffed again behind my head. I felt like I was made for this.

‘I heard an owl’, Henry said.

‘Me too’, I said.

We went home.

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Behind the sign

We’re walking back to the car in gentle sunshine, and I let go of your hand so you can swish through the leaf mould and fallen blossom at the edge of the path. You cannot resist a pile like this, I have discovered. It makes me think of concealed dog mess, but it makes you think of rustly sounds and secrets. This is what it is to grow up. I like turning the clock back with you, even if I don’t step in there myself.

‘Mummy, where are me?’

I turn around and you’re stock-still, pole-straight behind the street sign. ‘Where are me?’ is the call of our household at the minute. You will hide anywhere that will hold you, and many places that won’t. Your crinkled grammar makes me laugh every time.

I haven’t replied yet, so you ask again. ‘Hey mummy, where are me?’

I can see all of you except your head. You can never quite believe how big you are. My view of you is better, but no more complete. I can picture your face, grinning into the rusted back of the sign, waiting. You’ll stay there till I come.

It’s not the hiding you love, you see. It’s the being found.

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If you have a child and a blog, I have just the project for you

The other day, I wondered casually why there are no photos of me and both boys together.

This is why.

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(The hair-blinding. The escaping trousers. The determined ninja foot. Let’s get this cracker on the wall, sharpish.)

I’m going to need a better effort for our Mother’s Day photo this year, so watch this space. Ug.

In other news: if you’ve been hanging out here for a while, you may have noticed one of my dearest Mother’s Day traditions is writing a letter to my children about how it feels to be their mother. I hope they’ll want to read these in years to come – but they also mean a lot to me, as a record of where they are, where I am, where we are together.

This year I thought it might be nice to read other people’s, so I’m going to turn it into a linky. Which is, if you don’t know (I didn’t for ages) – a blog post with a form at the bottom for you to enter a post of your own. It appears as a little thumbnail at the bottom of my post, so anyone can find your blog from mine.

It can be funny, heartfelt, sad, exasperated – anything, as long as it’s true. I value women’s raw experience, here in this community. I don’t take it lightly, and I’d love to gather some together here. Perhaps we can make a day that can be upsetting or guilt-making for some more uplifting. The linky form will be open for a week, starting on UK Mother’s Day (30th March), so don’t worry if you don’t have time on the day itself. But I’d love you to join in! (I’m also frightened that it will sit alone and unbothered for the whole seven days, so if you’re undecided, well – here’s my best pretty-please face.)

It’s called This Is Where We Are: A Letter to my Children on Mother’s Day. My previous letters (here and here) are now called this too, because you can do this on the internet, and that is why blogs are better than journals for indecisive people.

I do love you, dear readers! I mean, I don’t want to get all weird or anything. It’s just, I suppose, that I’m very glad you’re here.

Fist-bumps from the woman with three kinds of snot in my hair today.

Rachel.

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Theatrecraft

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Stratford-Upon-Avon is essentially a Shakespeare theme park town. I say this not to be disparaging, but to insist that you go. There are not enough Shakespeare-themed items in this world, and I would like to caress more of them with my cheek, please. And who can blame the local authorities for wanting to make the most of their most famous inhabitant? I would. We don’t know much about Shakespeare, but we know he was born and buried in Stratford-Upon-Avon, damnit! Tim and I spent two days there last week, and I loved every minute of it with a holy and flaming love.

Firstly, we were there to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, on successive days. Do you know how much I love Hilary Mantel? Surely you do. I was on pins for these plays, worried that they might not live up to my sky-high expectations, but they were VERY good indeed. The Swan Theatre is small, wooden, creaky and atmospheric (possibly not creaky – that might’ve just been the atmosphere). Ben Miles made a witty and razor-sharp Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker was volatile and vulnerable by turns as Henry VIII, and there wasn’t a weak link in the cast as a whole. We were leaning precariously against a metal pole for most of the six hours – standing tickets only, alas – and I didn’t even notice.

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I loved the RSC theatre, too. They’ve done a revamp of the building since I was last here, and on Thursday afternoon we went on a backstage tour. This was fabulously exciting – wig rooms, costume change notices on walls, and lots of fascinating behind-the-scenes information. Our tour guide was brilliant. I tell you what: being part of a repertory company is hard. Only do it if you have a passion for words and wigs.

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We sat in the vast, echoey theatre while the stagehands hammered together a new set: a wooden throne stood empty and portentous on the stage, ready for Henry IV to fill it this week. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, he’ll say, so I’m not sure he’ll want to sit there long. (This was the point I decided to stop being so melodramatic.)

On one of the afternoons, just after Wolf Hall had finished, we saw a sweaty Nathaniel Parker come back into the bar while we hunted for my missing scarf. We were lame (and/or considerate) and didn’t say anything to him, and I hope my burning look was enough to communicate YOU WERE A LIFE-CHANGING HENRY, DEAR SIR, AND I THANK YOU FOR IT.

Also, a dressing-up box.

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In between all this larking about in the theatre, we ate a lot and wandered around the town, spending the night in a country house hotel fifteen minutes away. We popped out for chocolate ice cream at 9pm and read, uninterrupted. This is what passes for rock and roll living for us these days, but do you know what? It was rock and roll. It was just wonderful. 

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Go. Enjoy. Try the beef pie at Garrick’s Inn – it’s enormous.

Oh, and just so you know, eleven years pass extraordinarily quickly. But not quickly enough for me to get a new coat, apparently.

Bloggington

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On learning to love the mud

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Boys love mud. I’ve had to learn to love it, too. Last Sunday we went for a walk around Lardon Chase and The Holies, just outside Streatley, and even on a sunny day we slipped and slid. We left the pushchairs behind, put Teds in the back carrier and Henry in wellies.

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You notice a lot more when you’re going one-eighth of a normal walking speed. The feeling of crunchy bark on the trees, the pattern of sunshine and shade on the ground, the exact sucky-squelch of the churned-up soil. Sticks become swords and molehills launching pads. He tends to be more interested in where we are than where we’re going, and I try not to yell for him too often. Wandering by yourself in a sunlit wood is one of those childhood experiences that needs to be lived so you can remember it later, and the mud on the seat of your trousers is your triumphant souvenir.

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Five ways to tell you’re in baby burnout…and what to do about it

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Sometimes Fridays are the best times to hold up your hands and say ‘dear readers, I confess: I have been an idiot’. We have just come back from a break in Stratford-Upon-Avon – two lovely days of back-to-back theatre and eating that I will be blogging about tomorrow – and now I can say for certain: I was deep in baby burnout, and should have done something about it sooner. 

Paging all parents of small children: life is not supposed to be, does not have to be, sheer self-sacrificing nuttiness. It’s not supposed to be grim or miserable, and you’re not supposed to lose all sense of yourself. If that’s true for you – as it has been, lately, for me – then the pressure of looking after small people is beginning to get to you. And that’s alright, because you’re not superhuman, and your resources are finite. Watch yourself for the signs of baby burnout and you can make a diagnosis quicker than Web MD, prescribe yourself something appropriate, and get back to enjoying your children.

(PS, this also applies, of course, to burnout in general. There are more things than eight-month-olds that wear a body out…though not many that produce as much projectile vomit.)

Here, then, are the top five signs of baby burnout I keep a weather eye on:

‘I can’t move. No, honestly’

Tiredness is par for the course with littles. Exhaustion, too, some days. But in the past month I’ve felt something different: being thoroughly and physically drained of energy much of the time. It didn’t matter how many lie-ins Tim arranged for me to have. Mid-morning I would get shaky and weak, as though I hadn’t had a large breakfast, and then mid-afternoon it would come back. My consumption of sugary and fatty food has sky-rocketed as a result, which has reinforced the feeling of grossness, and on and on we went into a place of sadness and doughnuts. Blah. You too, perhaps? Onto the next thing, then.

‘he’s doing it because he hates me’

I’ve become aware, lately, of this irrational conviction that anything annoying Henry does is done deliberately because he knows I don’t like it. ‘WHY is he being pointlessly destructive when he knows it gets me cross?’ I would rage to myself. ‘He’s not getting dressed on purpose. He means something by it’. Um, no, crazy lady, he doesn’t. Or rather, the only thing he means by it is HELLO MOTHER, I’M TWO AND I HAVE NO SOCIAL CUES. If you’re assigning Richard III motives to your toddler’s random mess, then tick this box and move on to the next point.

‘I can’t be me right now’

I always know I need to make a change when I can’t read. An inability to pursue your normal hobbies or interests, in however limited a fashion, is a big burnout sign. For weeks I’ve started and restarted the same books and got no further than the second page. Even when the boys were quiet, or asleep. Even when they were out. And I struggled to get through a film, or to read the news, and the outings I’ve planned – usually the highlight of our days – have been distinctly lacking in inspiration. I will say to myself what I’ve always said on this blog: you use all of yourself to mother with, including your own passions and enthusiasms. If you can no longer find them, tick this box and carry on.

‘ouch’

This is a slightly weird one, but I’ve found it’s true for me: I become clumsy when I’ve used up all my resources. My spatial awareness fizzles to nothing. So I bang myself more on furniture, end up with bruises on my arms and legs and little cuts on my hands from cooking. If you’re wearing more than one plaster at the moment (I’m wearing two, both patterned with monkeys because I could only find Henry’s box), then maybe this applies to you too.

And finally -

‘will you get out of my emotional space, please’

Oh, the thing about small children – lovely and awful in equal measure – is that they’re never out of your head. From the minute they’re awake, you revolve over them constantly.

Is it breakfast time? Is he ok in the bath? Will he get his clothes on today? Oh dear, must be time for his nap. Has he eaten enough today? What needs to happen to get both of them into the car? How much can I carry down the stairs at once? Should I have spent more time reading to him? What’s he crying for now? Can I fix it? 

When they’re asleep, I’m trying to cram in as much as possible and listening, listening for the first wake-up cry. When they’re awake, even if they’re not sat on me physically, they’re sat in my emotional space. This is normal, but over the past month, it started to feel like I was being slowly suffocated.

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I had all of these boxes ticked with angry red marker. And if that’s the case, well, I need to get on and do something about it. I am the captain of my soul, etc. Here are a few things that help me get back on an even keel. Perhaps they might work for you too:

one, take a mini-break from your little loves. I know this can be difficult – if you have babies breastfeeding on demand, for example – but if at all possible, this is the best remedy. A full day is good, overnight is better. A couple of days is better still. You make enough space in your head to miss and appreciate them, and reset your perspective for when they come back.

two, get a babysitter and take a book or magazine to a coffee shop for an hour. It takes you right out of your own head, plus you get to eat a muffin without having it slobbered on first. Or go to the cinema (if you need to, you can choose a shorter film so you can get back to feed). Getting engrossed in someone else’s story means you can happily return to your own once it’s done.

three, if you really can’t leave them at all, wait till their naptime, go to another room, put music on as loud as you can get away with, and lie down on the floor with your eyes closed. Try to think about nothing but the music and your own breathing. Which leads me on to -

four, before they wake up or during naptime, try some meditation. You might feel stupid if it’s your first time, but it helps. I rather liked this little primer cartoon for beginners.

five, this one’s difficult, but it’s one of the best quick fixes I’ve found: find a patch of sun, and sit in it with your eyes closed. Warmth and light do miraculous things to your mind and body. Try and sit in it when no one is going to sit on you.

Here is a Fridayish thought for your Friday – you will be a better parent, a better person, when you are in proper balance yourself. And you can be. But here’s the thing, this piece of grace I try to bear in mind on my worst days: your babies aren’t wondering when you’ll get your act together. All they see is you, bracketing their days with love, putting order into their universe. In their eyes, you could boost them up to the stars if you wanted.

In a way, of course, you will.

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You guys! MAD Blog Award nominations close today at midnight! If you like what I do here, I’d be ever so grateful if you’d nominate us by clicking below. Perhaps Best Writer or Best Baby Blog? Thank you!

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My children are more than a high school movie

Buffy, season 1. Where miniskirts ruled the world.

Buffy, season 1. Where miniskirts ruled the world, and the vice-presidents were sass and eye shadow.

I thought the other day that Henry and Teds had the potential to be superstars in the high school movie genre. If there’s a higher pinnacle of ambition for your children, I’d like to hear about it. And why? They’d be dead easy to cast.

Henry, loveable nerd.

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Long, stringy frame in a button-down shirt and jersey. Slightly highly-strung, with a headful of obscure details gleaned from the books he reads obsessively. He likes to perch. He prefers to explain things in twenty words when two-and-a-half would do.

Teddy, easy-going slacker.

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Blonde-haired, blue eyed, wrestler’s physique. When he blows, he really blows – but most of the time you’ll find him eating large meals, laughing at someone else’s jokes, accidentally standing on people, keeping his heart of gold resolutely on display.

I’ve spent a lot of time, since the boys were born, making note of their characters. I love their differences: Henry has always been fierce and funny, Teddy sweet and observant. It’s amazing how much personality babies cram into their tiny bodies, isn’t it? They come out bellowing with it.

And it’s fine to notice, because I believe we don’t make or mould our babies, but discover them, and help them to discover themselves: gently amplifying their strengths, taking compassionate stock of their weaknesses. Who knows them better than me, after all? I’ve hovered over their cribs, supervised their mealtimes, gathered them up into my lap after a fall. We go way back to the clammy-soft skin and desperate heaving of tiny ribs as they were passed to me for the first time: bawling, enraged, blazing with life. Everything I know about them is logged away, and I am desperately organising it into some magnificent mental database that will tell me exactly what to do at all times.

The problem is that no sooner do I triumphantly find and label a characteristic, they change it. It gets me into trouble. ‘Oh, Henry is great with people’, I say. ‘He’s not shy’. Except sometimes he is. He’ll stick his head under the sofa rather than look directly at someone new – if he hasn’t seen them before, or for a while, or if he feels like it. So basically, he’s shy except when he’s not, and he’s brave except when he’s not, and Teddy is quiet except when he’s shouting his head off, which is, hello, a lot of the time.

My instinct is to pin them down, and theirs is to reinvent. They are shy and loud and headstrong and watchful and fearless and terrified and thoughtfully kind and thoughtlessly mean. What do I know about them? Only what’s true in this minute.

One more thing. I come from a family where we knew, and often talked about, what our defining quality was. Four siblings, respectively The Brains, The Sporting Genius, The Funny One and The Looker. We mostly decided this for ourselves, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pinpointing what you’re good at. But over time it became set in stone. The fear of being Not Clever Enough is still the ugly root of a lot of my anxieties.

I don’t want that for them. There’s a lot of good to be done in this world, and I’d like them to get on with it without worrying about whether they’re allowed. I am breathless with possibility for them. Their horizon is just about anything they can imagine for themselves, and I am ready – and hoping – to be surprised.

In short, dear boys: sometimes you’re the nerd, and sometimes you’re the vampire slayer. But most of the time – brilliantly, heartbreakingly, and all at once – you’re every marvellous thing in between.

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Six

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I remember that time you told me
you said
‘love is touching souls’.
surely you’ve touched mine
’cause
part of you pours out of me
in these lines
from time to time

Joni Mitchell

Looking at this blog, you’d think Timothy was a supporting player. I don’t talk about him directly, much. He wouldn’t like it. But today is our anniversary, and as I look around our brilliant, beautiful, messy life to find him at the immovable centre of it all, I wonder how on earth I was lucky enough to land just exactly where I should be. Love is touching souls, and surely, oh, surely he’s touched mine. It comes out in everything I do.

Happy anniversary, Mr Jeffcoat.

I told the story of how we ended up together last year, here. I am even more covered in banana now than I was when I wrote it.

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