Tag Archives: children

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.


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.


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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My body is amazing

That’s what I’ve been making Henry repeat over and over around the house lately. You can do that with two-year-olds. Mostly I do it for my own amusement, but this time I mean it.

‘Your body is…?’ I prompt, helpfully.

‘Amaaaaazing!’ he chips in. With jazz hands.

He runs, he jumps, he stands on one leg and thinks it’s hilarious, he draws around his hands and counts on his fingers. Today he wanted to look at belly buttons, so we did: his a proper button outie, mine a stretchy, pockmarked valley, a casualty of birth. He put his head down on my stomach to listen to the food squelching inside, and pummelled the skin like bread dough, which is what it most resembles. I worked hard, hard, harder not to say anything negative about my squashiness. I told him about the boys that had lived in there, and everything my belly has done. I told him it was amazing.

I make a huge fuss of the good food he eats, tracing the vitamins and energy from his stomach, down his arms to the tips of his fingers and soles of his feet. At night we talk about the little men in his head, switching off his eyes and making his limbs heavy, so that they can help him grow and repair while he sleeps. (I hope to get more scientific on this one as we go along.)

He’ll get a different message eventually, but for now, this is the one I want ringing in his ears.

His body is amazing. Jazz hands.


I think I took that phrase from Hollie McNish’s poem ‘Wow’, which I cannot, cannot recommend you hear enough. (I tried hard to find a transcript, but couldn’t – here’s a performance of it.) 

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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.)

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In praise of the paper-and-ink

There’s a place you can go where everything smells of unicorns and chocolate sprinkles. Stuff Disneyland. Just take me to Waterstone’s.

(I am putting the apostrophe back in, because COME ON, WATERSTONE’S.)

The Waterstone’s at home was a house of wonders. The books sat in the old Wool Exchange building in Bradford, and I breathed in the paper-and-ink under huge vaulted ceilings, wanting to take everything home with me. Instead I wandered through all the aisles, brushing the covers with the tips of my fingers, sitting on tucked-away sofas reading first chapters I dreamed about later. It was intoxicating.

If we’re shopping now, I save the bookshop till last, the way any sensible person saves the Yorkshire pudding till last on roast dinner days. If I have anything to do with it, my kids will want to savour it too. I want them to sit at the little table in the children’s section, rummage through shelves, run (clean) fingers over the pictures and find new things to love.

We might not be that lucky, of course. Bookshops are a rare breed, these days, and they’re getting rarer. Waterstone’s is the only one in my town, and it’s probably the only one in yours. Who’d bother to get out of the house and spend £8.99 on a book, when Amazon will deliver it to you in your pyjamas for £3.50?

Well, I would. And I think you should too. Think of it like buying free-range eggs: it’s more expensive and sometimes more hassle – especially if the eggs come with chicken poop still on them – but you do it for the hens, and because it’s the right thing to do. Online booksellers are cheap and convenient, but they’re not real. There’s no physical presence, no smell. You can’t come across something accidentally that becomes the best thing you ever read. If there comes a point where I can’t walk into a bookshop and get knocked over by the worlds waiting for me underneath the covers – because Amazon’s shut them all down – well. I will run away to live outside Shakespeare and Company, and I’ll be taking all the free-range hens with me. Because if we can’t sustain a shop full of books on the high street, not even one, then we don’t deserve nice things.

So buy bookshop. Do it for the hens. Do it for your cherub-faced children, who still have a lifetime to be amazed by words. Do it for everything lovely in the world. Do it for me, and I’ll bake you a cake and give you 10p. You can’t turn down an offer like that.

(You may find it hard to believe, but no one at all paid me to write this. Though, if you’re interested, Waterstone’s? Put the apostrophe back in, and let’s talk.)


Filed under the culture desk


I had a teacher when I was nine years old, and I don’t remember her name. I do remember, with the unembarrassed cruelty of a nine-year-old, that she had long, stringy dark hair and a moustache on her top lip. She was new to the school, young-ish and timid. We weren’t an easy class. I also remember that I was her favourite, or at least I felt that way.

I wasn’t an easy nine-year-old, either. Too clever by half, fond of hearing my own voice and even fonder of hearing it answer a question right, with an arsenal of long words I liked to use but didn’t always understand. This teacher made a huge fuss of me, though. She crowed over my answers, had admiring conversations about my work with the teaching assistant, asked me where I wanted to sit before she rearranged the class tables, and generally made me feel like I was the most important person in the room, with the possible exception of God.

I loved it. I luxuriated in the attention. I was going to be a world-famous novelist, a journalist, the eradicator of cancer, British Prime Minister by the time I was twenty-five. Clearly I deserved a bit of special treatment. It was the best year of primary school I ever had.

Do you know what else I remember, though? Underneath, I despised her. Even I could sense that she was going over the top, that I didn’t really deserve to be made such a fuss of. I suspected the real reason for my celebrity was some weakness in her, though I didn’t know what that was. And though I liked her and felt sorry for her, I despised her for it.

Ever since then, I’ve thought that kids want to work a little for their praise.

I can’t think about that teacher now without a pang – I hurt for her and her insecurity and my casual dismissal of her efforts, the way even her name has slid out of my head – but I think about her often these days. I think that what we praise our children for teaches them what we value, and becomes what they value in themselves. And how many times a day do I tell Henry he’s a clever boy?

Too many. Too many, when cleverness isn’t nearly as important as trying hard, or being kind, or being brave enough to try something new. When cleverness isn’t really what I’m praising him for at all.

He will be able to tell if I mean what I say. So I think I’d better start saying what I actually mean.


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On building a body

Here is the most profound thing I ever read on a blog:

Your body houses a spirit. The spirit changes constantly with intelligence and progression. Your body will change with your spirit, constantly. … You might feel a need to restore your body to a certain age where you think your body belongs–even though you would never will your spirit backwards to that same place.

(Read the whole thing, here. I think you’ll like it.)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, recently, because of my high-waisted skirt.

Oh, it’s a beautiful skirt. It was the outfit I wore to our wedding dinner, once all the white satin got too heavy to swish around in. I was dazed with exhaustion and tingly with happiness and keyed up with anticipation (ahem), but I really loved that skirt.

I wore it a lot once we were married, and carried on wearing it until breathing in it became a problem. Now it doesn’t fit. When I cleared out my wardrobe of too-small clothes, I kept it. It represents my old body to me – when it had settled into adulthood, when I’d come to terms with how it looked and started to embrace it, when I didn’t understand, yet, how much it could still change itself and me.

Once I get back into that skirt, I keep thinking, I’ll be back to how I was.

Here’s the thing, though: my ribs are wider. They stretched out when I grew a baby, obligingly, and haven’t gone back. So I don’t think I’ll ever zip that skirt up to the top again. Body and spirit, I am not who I was back then. Carrying and birthing and feeding this boy has marked me to the bones, that’s the truth of it, and it feels like a truth I should welcome. Our bodies have carried us through momentous things, whatever those things have been. Of course I am different. Everything is different. It should be.

I don’t want to go back. So I need a new skirt.



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Today I was going to blog about things to do when you’re baby-free and a Tudor nerd and in the vicinity of Hever Castle (I was like a child in a sweet shop, if every sweet was in the shape of Henry VIII’s HEAD). Then I was reminded that it’s World Autism Awareness Day, and I read this, by a friend. And all of my other thoughts stopped.

READ IT. Then make other people read it, because if I said I thought it was astonishing, that wouldn’t nearly cover it.

I’ll blather about Hever Castle this evening :-)

Originally posted on Things My Children Said:

Today is World Autism Awareness Day. And there is much talk of lighting things blue, which will hopefully explain the photo at the bottom.

I don’t do stats, I don’t do science, I don’t do copious research. I’m an English graduate. I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on in Thomas’s head. I am happy for other people to tell me that. But I’ll do what I’m told and what works, if it helps me relate to him and him relate to the world. There will be plenty in the news today, much of it poorly-researched, and the blogs will be full, but it would be remiss of me not to weigh in with the stuff that’s been going through my head over the past few weeks.

What’s it like living with a child who is autistic? It’s like this…

It’s knowing that you can’t treat him the same…

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