Superpowers, for dads

SAM_6267

The boys in my house wore matching ties today, all three of them. Halfway through the morning rush Henry got upset that his tie wouldn’t lie flat like Timothy’s. From the bathroom I watched Tim take him on his lap and convince him how fine his tie was, how smart, and most importantly, how incredibly flat: it falls down just like a waterfall, Henry. It’s perfect.

Later Henry was practising lunges while I put on my make up, and stopped to admire his tie. He was beaming all over his face, glowing with it. ‘This tie is so smart, Mummy. It like a waterfall’.

I have noticed that this is what happens between Daddy and these boys. He gives them a better way to see things, and they believe him. I’ve watched him convince Teddy that playing a made-up game is more fun than being hungry and cross. He can make our old playground exciting, over and over again, while I faint with boredom on the bench. He’s made Henry terribly severe about road safety without saying anything at all, just by showing him how it’s done. Woe betide you if you cross without pressing the button for the green man. That’s not how Daddy does it.  

If it’s sappy metaphors you’re after, try this: if I order their universe around them, then it’s Timothy who lights up their sky. Timothy, too, who straps on their wings and pushes them off the cliff. He tells them they can fly, and then they do.

It is something special to watch the person you married love the babies you made. One day I’ll look at my grown-up boys, and realise he’s helped them see a better way to be a man. And they will believe him, I hope, because damn. He knows what he’s talking about.

I never want to not feel this. Happy Father’s Day, my love.

SAM_6202

What’s the magic (sibling) number?

SAM_6010

I’m back! And I’m catching up as quickly as possible, which is to say, not very quickly at all, despite my many multicoloured to-do lists.

In some ways it’s been a rough landing. Toddler-plus-newborn felt pretty damn hair-raising, but toddler-plus-determined-climbing-biter is black belt martial arts. ‘I’d forgotten how much of my day is fending off chaos with karate-chopping hands’, I meant to text to Tim, but didn’t, because I didn’t get a minute to sit down. (I said it to him while wrestling pyjamas onto Teddy during the three minutes he was home, instead.)

And yet, and yet. The way these two interact at the moment is a joyous thing. They communicate somewhere outside speech, in a dialect of face-patting, cheerio-stealing, laughing and crawling up and down stairs, shoulders bumping together. Every day they get more like brothers. ‘Two boyths in the bath!’ Henry crows in the mornings. ‘Two boyths doin’ crawling! Two boyths in the washing machine!’

I ran in quick for that one. No harm done.

I had a really good week away. Today I sorted out my photos from my brother’s wedding, and it was the photo at the top that made me realise why: sibling time is easy time. Your jokes are always funny, your dance moves are always appreciated; your oldest self comes back out to play and you remember why you liked her.

It was this photo too that convinced me I’m not yet done with babies. We would be lost without our boys, Sarah and I. They have spent a lifetime infuriating us, teasing us, accepting us – we’d be infinitely poorer without all that. Four was a great number: we could divide into pairs if we wanted, but altogether we were like the kids putting our rings together to call up Captain Planet: varied and multi-faceted and unstoppable. No one gets you like your siblings, and the more you have, the sweeter it is.

And my own boys - who knows who might be waiting to join their conspiratorial gang of two? I’m game to find out.*

Processed with VSCOcam with hb1 preset

*not yet, though.

What’s your ideal number of siblings? What made you decide to stop or carry on? Has your experience with your own family made you want the same, or sent you screaming in the opposite direction? It’s different for everyone, so spill the beans below.

Cotton wool: on letting climbing kids climb and falling kids fall

 

?????????????????????????????????????

So much about my mothering life is different than I imagined. I thought today that I am both stricter and more easy-going than I thought I would be, as I put away the boys’ clothes at lightning speed. Lightning because Teddy was upstairs, by himself, and his crawling is now turbo-charged. Lightning because we no longer have stair-gates anywhere. And because he hasn’t yet fallen down the stairs, and there’s a first time for everything, and the first time will be soon.

Here’s where I’m less strict than I imagined: I thought I’d wrap them in cotton wool, and I don’t.

‘He will fall off that log in a minute’, I think, watching Henry from my perch on the bench. ‘I should get him down’.

I don’t move. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he loses his footing and whacks his knee on his way down. He is outraged, and comes to show me. I administer the proper medicine (magic blow, kiss to injured area) and he goes off again. Henry’s legs have been a crossword puzzle of bruises since he could walk, just about.

I used to feel guilty about it. It used to feel like laziness. Perhaps you’re reading this, horrified. Let me offer some reassurances: I don’t let them anywhere near broken glass, I am as paranoid as it’s possible to be about road safety, I don’t take my eyes off them in water. But after meeting the imp on Henry’s shoulder, telling him to climb and jump and sprint, you’ll love it, I had to scrub off my sensitivity. It was either that or go insane. All Henry did, when he first learned to move, was climb higher than he should and fall off sooner than I wanted. The first few times, I sobbed along with him. After that, it stopped being such a big deal.

I read an article once about a playground in Wales deliberately constructed to be mildly dangerous – hills, piles of tyres, places to start little fires. The author talks about studies done a generation ago, where children found secret places to play and lived independent, imaginative lives away from their parents. Once print and electronic media made everyone hyper-aware of public danger, no one allowed their own children the same freedoms. The same authors went back to children now and tried to conduct the same studies, but found it was impossible. They were never left alone long enough to find places of their own.

I think the world now is not the world then, in many ways, and it pays to be vigilant. But one sentence in that article hit me so hard I can recite it: ‘In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are being watched‘.

And do I want to raise boys who never grapple with their own uncertainties or construct their own stories? Who wants a childhood without stories? I’ve got plenty from mine. I think it’s part of their development to know that falling happens, and sometimes bikes spin downhill faster than you can control.

So I let them scramble over trees and structures too big for them at the park. Teddy buzzes around on hands and knees, dangling himself over the edges of our bed and sofa. He sat on the grass today stuffing handfuls in his mouth, and I thought about googling ‘are daisies toxic?’ but decided against it. He’s just learned to climb stairs, and I’m trying hard to let him.

And I still sometimes feel guilty. But in my evolving, imperfect and – alright – a tad lazy Theory of Parenthood, I think a grazed knee goes a long way.

??????????????????????????????????????

The genie in the sandpit: why I want my kids to read

Photo 21-12-2013 05 49 03 pm

‘What a gift to give, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued…Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?’

Philip Pullman

I texted Tim around mid-afternoon.

‘Costco was good’, I wrote. ‘Got a new drying rack, pancake mix, baby food.

Also the complete works of Roald Dahl. Sorry.’

He didn’t reply. He expects that sort of thing when I go to Costco.

There are certain things I am determined to pass onto my boys: table manners, compassion, an inability to listen to Dean Friedman without breaking into interpretive dance. But oh, hobby gods, ye hander-outers of personality traits: please give them books. Even if I have to clobber them once a day with the complete works of Roald Dahl (it’s heavy), I want them to love to read.

Most of my early memories come from reading. I remember my mum and aunties laughing at me because I’d started saying ‘oh golly’ and eating condensed milk out of the tin with a spoon – I was reading too much Famous Five. I got myself to sleep for about seven years by making up new Prince Caspian stories on the Dawn Treader every night. Once, the end-of-lunchtime bell rang and shocked me out of Drina Ballerina. I’d been reading about how she’d twisted her ankle and wasn’t sure if she could dance anymore. I got up and limped all the way to the door before I remembered that her ankle hurt, not mine. I still do that now – when I read and read for a while, I have to go around touching things to make sure they’re solid. I’ve been sat in another reality so long that I feel like a ghost in my own house.

There’s a book for every mood and movement you can imagine. My comfort food author is Agatha Christie: when your certainties are uncertain and your decisions are unmade, it’s the best thing in the world to get stuck into a detective novel. No matter the variations or enjoyable tensions along the way, the reader knows one thing, sure as the sunrise: sooner or later, there will come a point at which Poirot will exclaim to himself ‘Ah! What an imbecile I have been!’ And then everyone will be summoned and everything will be explained, and someone in that room is GOING DOWN. A perfect ending. Every time. If only life were the same.

It would be impossible to tell you just how much reading books has done for me. When I was younger I imagined a genie in every sandpit, a door to a secret garden behind every curtain of ivy. It made everything exciting and mysterious. Words were exciting too – the obsession I’ve got with how to communicate so that the person reading it feels something emotional, how to put exactly the right words in the right order to make something beautiful – that came from reading books. It decided my university subject and my career path. It has made me.

And so I want my boys to open their eyes to worlds beyond their own. They will find characters in books that make them want to be better people. They will read books that give them glimpses of what it’s like to live in different countries, extreme poverty or a war zone. They will lose themselves, and find themselves, and find themselves changing. They will always, always know the difference between there, they’re and their. A boy could get an awfully long way with a skill set like that.

Photo 03-04-2014 05 46 34 pm

I first wrote this post for Ceri’s Ginger Warrior blog, which you should definitely check out. But in tribute to Shakespeare’s birthday (and with her permission), I’m posting it here. Happy reading, all!

Outnumbered

SAM_4125

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.

SAM_4104

 

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.

SAM_3620

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.

SAM_3500

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.

SAM_3757 - Copy

To my sons: if I catch you treating a girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps

My friend Megan Conley was in a library the other week, and overheard a horrific conversation between a couple on a first date. Well. We’ve all had our share of cringe-worthy first dates, of course (unless you’re me, in which case you’ve had your share of no dates at all). But this one, oh, this one got under my skin.

Meg wrote a beautiful response for the girl she wanted to take aside, which I hope you’ll read. But I am raising boys. With Meg’s kind permission, I’ve written this for them. 

My dear, lovely boys,

I don’t know when you’ll be reading this. Perhaps you already keep to your room most of the time and roll your eyes when you talk to me, because I’m the most uncool person you know. (Just as an aside, right now you think I’m the best thing since chips and ketchup, so there. (Extra aside: am I better at being an adult, now? I hope so.))

I’m willing to bet, though, that you’re already interested in girls. And that’s good. Because girls are what I want to talk to you about. You hear a lot about dating at the moment, I’m sure. A lot of it is good, sound advice. We’ll have talked about all this already, in person, so I don’t need to say anything here.

Here’s what I do want to say: if I catch you treating that girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps.

I am so tired of all this girl-as-a-princess talk. Do you know what princesses do, in stories? They are kidnapped. They sit in towers guarded by fire-breathing dragons. They are the prizes in competitions of strength and manliness. They are the victims of spell-casters twirling their moustaches, and lie in enchanted sleep or as sad little swans on the river until they are rescued. And rescued they have to be, almost always, by the handsome prince on his white horse.

Oh, that prince. He is dashing. He is determined. He chops down the forest of thorns and defeats the evil witch even when all hope is lost. He works out the problem to be solved and doesn’t stop searching and trying and thinking until the princess has been found and there’s a happily ever after. Oh, I know there are princesses who think for themselves. There are exceptions to every rule. But for every Mulan there is an Aurora, and for every Belle with her library book there’s a Cinderella waiting for the ball, in fact twelve Cinderellas, a hundred Cinderellas – a princess at the top of every tower you can think of, and all of them waiting for you.

My dear boys, this is utter, utter pigswill. The girls you meet are not sitting in suspended animation, waiting for your manly shoulder to cry on, your voice to explain everything and make it alright. The girl you fall in love with has opinions, loves, passions, tragedies, strengths and weaknesses all of her own. She was born an endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creature, and has spent her life thus far remembering and discovering who she is. She has spent her life in a world where too many stories told her that she had to stay put and look pretty, that all her value lay in what a man thought of her, wanted from her, was willing to do for her. I hope she is fighting against it. I hope she has come out spitting.

It’s not much fun for you either, this handsome prince lark. Of course it’s nice to be needed, but the pressure to always be the strong one, always chopping down that damned forest to get to her, can be suffocating. At best, you feel an added pressure to always be in control of yourself, to never show weakness or emotion, and to carry the weight of you both even when you’re sinking. At worst, you begin to assume that only you know the answers to the questions that bother you both. You make the decisions, you tell her what to think, you explain things, endlessly. It’s disrespectful to both of you, that sort of thing. It leads nowhere good.

This is what I want you to say, when you find a girl that makes you feel like the best version of yourself: to hell with the stories. Do you hear me? To hell with them. Neither of you have to be anything you’re not. Both of you are endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creatures, and you’ll spend a lifetime learning each others’ strengths and bolstering your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll be on the horse, and sometimes you’ll be in the tower. Sometimes you’ll be back-to-back, chopping down the thorns with a sword in each hand. Let her be, in all her wonderful imperfection. Let yourself be, too. It’s alright. Together you’ll leap every obstacle and storm every castle and make something so fine we’ll hardly be able to look at it straight.

Oh, I love you to your bones, my darling boys. So will she. Be worthy of it. Or I really will break your kneecaps.

Your mother.

169565_10100304792091369_62414576_o

How to be ten feet tall: a note on Father’s Day

SAM_8176

One day last month Tim worked from home. It was one of those days where Henry was still gallivanting downstairs in his vest and socks at 10am, yelling something or other about diggers.

‘Henry’, I heard Tim say, ‘want to come help me work?’

Everything went quiet. I looked over the balcony to check he wasn’t balancing on anything taller than himself. But he was sat next to Daddy on the armchair, sharing a blanket, looking at Tim’s server configurations with intense concentration. I wanted to cry at the look on his face: pride, and self-importance, and glee beyond reckoning. Even the hair on the top of his head was standing up in excitement (or lack of brushing, I forget which).

He wears the same expression when he sails off on the back of Tim’s bike, or fiddles with screwdrivers while they put up a shelf, or sits on his knee to steer the car. He hears Tim’s key in the door and his everything lights up like a beacon. They go back, these two, to dark hours of brand-new nights, when going to sleep on Daddy’s chest was the best thing a tiny boy could imagine. You can get Henry to repeat pretty much anything these days, but ask him who he loves and he’ll give it to you straight.

‘Hey, can you say: I love Mummy?’

‘Luss Daddy’.

‘No! I love Mummy’.

‘Luss Daddy‘.

(I tried bribery. He won’t be moved.)

It slays me. Because Timothy completes me too, so I understand. I watch him fill up parts of this boy I can’t touch, and it’s a particular sort of happiness I never anticipated.

I might be the one Henry comes to for kisses and quiet. But at heart he is a voyager, and his co-pilot of choice is Daddy. Bros for life, with their matching feet and hairlines. It feels like that’s how it should be. I’m so glad I get to see it.

Happy Father’s Day, favourite.

???????????????????????????????

Boys in boxes

Before I had a baby I thought I was a girl’s girl. Here are some things I do not like: climbing trees, wearing trainers, kicking balls, throwing or catching balls, having to hit balls with a bat and missing, pretty much anything to do with balls, let’s leave it at that. And so when I thought about having babies, I imagined myself with a girl’s girl: covered in glitter glue, playing dolls’ houses, brushing hair, watching Cinderella.

Then I had a boy. He happens to be the most boyish boy you can imagine. No one would look at that face and think otherwise. It’s always covered in biro, for a start. And I can’t get enough of it. His bustly fearlessness, and the way he sprints everywhere with his arms in the air, and the gap-toothed beam that takes over his whole face, and the fact that no puddle goes unsplashed, no pile of mud unstirred, no high and sharp-cornered piece of furniture unclimbed-upon. His first word – apart from ‘Daddy’ – was ‘car’. He likes dogs and lions and electronics. He wears chunky jumpers like no one I’ve ever seen. It slays me. And somehow, it wasn’t an adjustment at all.

He’s a boy’s boy, my boy, but now I know he didn’t need to be. I watched him today, running around and doing dangerous things with his cousin, and thought about how we box up our expectations for our children, and hand it to them over a lifetime. But I might have a girl who hates Cinderella. Or a boy who loves to bake. Or has any one of a hundred surprising dreams and loves, none of which may be in my plans for him.

But it’s ok. What I’m realising, the further I get into this mothering lark, is that babies come as their own selves, and it’s only my job to teach them how to use it well. My loves, you must be compassionate, do right and try hard, but the rest is yours. I can’t stop myself constructing boxes for you, but I’ll make them whatever shape you come in.

Oh, but you must get a decent education, or there is a SMACKDOWN COMING. (Some things are non-negotiable.)

Photo 07-12-2012 11 19 52 AM Photo 07-12-2012 05 25 57 PM Photo 07-12-2012 05 49 26 PM Photo 07-12-2012 05 50 15 PM

P to the S: I’ll be doing the Year in Instagram round-up on Monday. If you want to do it but haven’t yet, do it quick! And for those who’ve done it: I LOVED it. Thanks for being as blurry-photo-obsessed as I am! (Though I have to say, your photos were a good bit better than mine.)