Tag Archives: Motherhood

When motherhood means impersonating furniture

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Our heating chugs into life at 5.30am. The whole house groans and shifts, boiling water trickling into radiators and pushing out hisses of warm air. Getting ready for us all to wake up with our alarms an hour later, even though in this darkest winter month the sun won’t rise until nearly eight o’ clock.

About twice a week the noise wakes Teddy up. He’s a light sleeper anyway, not like his dead-to-the-world brother who topples off the toilet regularly when we wake him up to pee. As soon as he’s awake he yells for one of us in a croaky voice, and I get up sharpish to rescue him, since a Teddy unattended is one that will soon rouse half the street.

We pad back to the big bed, through the dark and the new warmth, and I lie him between us, As soon as I’ve settled myself he wriggles over determinedly and wedges himself into my side. It’s a bizarre thing that a boy who needs strapping down during the day (if you want him within sight) only wants enclosure at night. He sleeps best in his cot, jammed up against the bars. When he’s not in his cot, he likes to pretend I’m one. I don’t usually sleep well with fierce little elbows under my ribs and a hoarse, admonitory ‘Mummeeee, I need a cuggle‘, floating out of the dark every time I move away. So I don’t sleep much during that last hour, as you wouldn’t if you were pretending to be a cot. But it feels like hibernating in endless cosy blankets with a tiny, fluffy, indignant animal, and if this is what it is to be a cot then I never want to move anywhere at all.

***

At half-past three we roll in from school, cold and wet. We’ve never done full school days in winter before, and this stormy November has severely cramped our style. No walks and no outings: just school, a snack, and then – since H is too frazzled for homework and too damp and exhausted to play – we put on a film. Old-school Disney, new-school Pixar, Harry Potter with the proviso that we stick to ones that are almost age-appropriate.

I have been in two-year-old mode all day, and switching abruptly back to four-year-old interaction is jarring and wonderful. I can’t eat chocolate sneakily and pretend it’s grapes, but we can have proper conversation. So he tells me about his day while I turn on the radiators and hunt for the remote and the rain batters the inky windows in bursts. Then as I find it and sit down, he curls right against me like a cat. The music starts up, T hops to his feet (he can’t sit still under a blanket for a million pounds) and we’re off.

At some point I extract myself to put in some more washing. H immediately whimpers after me ‘Mummy! My neck hurts when you’re not here!’ Meaning, of course, that he’s using me as an armchair and now I’ve left his head to fend for itself. It’s not all that comfortable being an armchair – I’m twisted round the wrong way and I’ve needed the loo for about half an hour – but today I leave the washing where it is and come back. The radiators hum gently with hot air. It’s dark and blustery outside, and my four-year-old only wants to sit with me, and if this is what it is to be an armchair then I don’t want to move anywhere at all.

Besides, I don’t know how much longer they’ll want me as part of their furniture. Not long, probably. Not very much longer at all.

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Leaf-fall, and other things

We are on the last leg of a long walk (for you), and I am carrying the bike you have just started to ride and the hat you refuse to wear. It’s just starting to turn cold, just the tiniest of chills in the air. Your hands are always red hot, your feet as well, and you probably don’t need a hat at all with the fire you generate for yourself.

In sight of the house, and you are flagging, which for you means wandering off to squeeze through fences and hide behind trees, anything to postpone the moment I will suggest carrying you. I am pretending that we are steam engines to keep you moving. Your jumper is mustard and your duffel coat is stained with greenish moss and you are, as ever, the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life. Your nose is starting to run and you’re rubbing it across your cheeks in that disgusting way two-year-olds do. You are cold, then. We need to get home.

Then the wind roars and swirls over us, and shakes another batch of dry leaves off the oak trees high above our heads. Thousands of them are pulled free of their last tethers, caught up in gusts and eddies as though for a final hurrah. They swirl in formation, mesmerisingly, like migrating birds, and then fall to earth. We’re caught in it like snow. You look up, and up.

‘The leabs! The leabs are falling down!’ you exclaim. Mouth open in wonder. You can’t stop looking. You still can’t say your V’s.

It’s been a bit of a hard week, where I have wrestled with knotty adult things I will not tell you about, now or later. Or maybe I will, much later, when you find you have wrestling of your own to do. Watching you stand, open-mouthed, in swirling leaf-flakes doesn’t solve anything for me, in the way that beautiful things don’t ever negate hard things but stand side by side with them, light and shadow together and complete in themselves. But for a minute I watch you watching the leaf-fall, and think about how unbearably lovely the look on your face is, and rest. I’m glad of a rest, and glad it comes with you.

‘Do you want some lunch?’ I ask you once the wind has dropped.

‘Yep’, you say, adding after a moment of consideration, ‘a Teddy lunch. Not a train lunch’.

I’d forgotten we were steam trains. I make a wheeshing sound, and not a good one.

‘Thass a elephant noise’, you say, reprovingly.

‘Oh yes. Sorry.’

I shift your bike under my other arm, and we go home.

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To the brand-new mother of two: embrace the chaos. Feel excellent about your pyjamas. This is all going to be fine.

To the brand-new mother of two,

Hello! Are you up and about today? Does your head feel like it’s above water?

It’s ok if not. It’s ok if not.

Listen, you probably don’t know which end is up at the minute. You are used to being one half of a double act with your first and adored child – your eldest, you’ll need to say now, and that’s what he’ll always be, and it will start to shape him from now on, this being the eldest – and suddenly there are twice as many children clamouring for your attention. It’s probably making you dizzy.

They need entirely different things.
They need them simultaneously.
They need them all the blooming time.
And there’s only one of you.

If it feels like you’re running from one to the other, patting out need-fires, that’s because you are, my love. Babies, toddlers and even preschoolers don’t have a pause button. You are it for them, and they don’t know how to wait for you, and they certainly don’t know how to take turns.

But isn’t it something, knowing you can love this much, that it wasn’t just a one-off with your eldest? Isn’t it a wild discovery, that two people can put the same genetic material together to make two babies, and those babies are entirely different from each other? I expected mine to be carbon copies of each other and they didn’t even feel like copies of me. They were fiery with their own life. Bursting with it. From the moment they left me to breathe their own air. It only ever felt like I’d set them loose on a path they were always going to take.

Some reality: it will be several months before you feel vaguely in control, and several more months before you can go anywhere near a routine. Chaos is part of your circumstances and is no reflection on you, so just go with it. Don’t feel bad about pyjama days. Feel good, feel excellent about keeping everyone fed and safe and (mostly) happy. Don’t forget to include yourself in the happiness equation. Assess yourself honestly, every day. If you really don’t feel right then ask for help.

Some advice (if you want it?): spend time with other adults during the day if you can. It doesn’t need to be a playgroup (I always hated playgroups) – it can just be a friend. If your partner works full time then, lovely as they undoubtedly are, they can’t understand what it’s like to interact with tiny irrational tyrants every day, never seeing another person with a fully developed and logical brain. They can’t understand it because they’ve never done it, don’t know the particular madness that creeps in when adults don’t interact with other adults. Please seek out conversation, sympathy. Come to my house. I will buy in biscuits and tell you you’re doing a wonderful job.

Some hope: every day they will both get a little more independent. They will understand and interact more, make you laugh more. The three of you will be like a little gang, conspiratorial, fond of each other’s company. Your going-out bag will get smaller. They will start to play with each other. They will forget there was ever a time they didn’t have each other. Watching the siblingness of them will add a new level of delight and send you back to your own siblings in appreciation.

And your new baby, your second, this stranger to you. You love him already, but wait till you see the first shoots of his personality pushing out. It will consume you all over again. Do you know how I feel about my second boy? I don’t have the words for it. He is such a bracing, blazing force of life, of nature. I can’t believe there was ever a time we lived without him. It feels like the world is infinitely brighter and more hopeful with him in it. It will be like that for you too.

Oh, is it feeding time again already? Of course it is.

Here, put Cbeebies back on for the toddler (don’t worry about it rotting his brain; it’s definitely not rotting his brain).

Here’s a biscuit. I’ll make you a cup of tea.

It might not help (because I’m just a person on the internet), but if it helps, I promise you: this is all going to be fine.

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Dear boy: you can be unpretty here

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Some clichés about life with children just turn out to be true. It’s almost disappointing how predictable you are. That hilarious obsession with your first child’s milestones, followed by a wry detached affection for the progression of your second? Tick that box. The fact that you will get fat on leftover pizza crusts if you’re not careful, and one day catch yourself eating a chocolate chip cookie crumb straight from your toddler’s thigh? Yes, sorry. For that one I’m sorry to myself most of all.

Here’s our latest living-the-cliché moment: that four-year-olds spend their first weeks in September behaving impeccably at school, and like screechy rage demons at home.

‘I know he’s tired, and unsettled, and going through a huge transition’, I said to Tim the other night, wearily. ‘I know that. He has good reason. It will pass. But I’m still bearing the brunt of his meltdowns, and it’s awful’.

It really is. What I didn’t expect is that H starting school has been hard for me too. Is that a stupid thing to say? That’s how it feels. Quite apart from the new stresses of buying and labelling uniform, making sense of a bewildering forest of forms, incorporating an extra six miles of school run into the day, remembering to order school dinners and send in his PE kit, and trying to make a good impression with new people while soaked to the skin in a cycle helmet, I miss him. He’s gone most of the day, and when he comes back he spends a lot of it flinging himself into the deep end over taking his shoes off. We circle warily around each other, bumping against our respective pressure points until I snap, or else sit down on the floor, sigh out all my breath and say ‘shall we have another break for a hug?’.

He always does come in for a hug, regardless of how angry he is. I think that’s something.

What it has reminded me is that I am the safe place for all his crap. At school he is politely making sense of new people and routines: self-conscious, on edge, trying to fit in and impress. Then he comes home and hurls all his less-pretty parts at me. It’s the most backhanded of compliments, but compliment it is.

Because I am his constant, the backdrop to his universe. The messy labour of his day-to-day is mostly mine; I am his normality, for better and worse. When I’m reminding him to stop answering back, buttoning up his pyjamas while he tries to jump out of reach, or holding on to the kind-but-firm tone by the very skin of my teeth during his fourth time-out, it can just feel like work, bloody and unedifying. I sometimes wish he’d stand on ceremony for me too, just a little.

But he needs somewhere he can be unpretty. A place he can throw out his worst parts and have them gathered kindly in. Someone who has his back, in public and private. Hard as it is, I think I can do that. I think that has to be me. There’s something sacred in it, after all, being someone’s first line of defence. Even though in the moment it feels like being skinned alive by scream.

Come on then, you exhausted little rager. Let me have it. Here’s your punching bag. Here’s the bucket for your assorted crap. Here stands your safe place, letting you know when your behaviour’s out of line, loving you and your messy parts even through gritted teeth, making yet more lasagne you’re too tired to eat.

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Inappropriate places I have peed in: a four-year-old’s guide to raising mum’s blood pressure

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No, you cannot wee on a national monument DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT WEEING ON A NATIONAL MONUMENT PLEASE.

Every mother has their weak spot. Something about living with and caring for small children that makes them certifiable, out of all proportion to the offence.

This is mine: pee. The waft of gently warmed underwear dribble. The need to find and queue for and visit public toilets, everywhere, every flipping day. I would burn every public toilet in a fire, if I could, and cackle and dance while I did it. Put me behind a trolley outside a toilet door, flicking attention between my groceries, and T, rioting in the trolley seat, and H, jiggling frantically with the classic four-year-old distress signal (‘I nee-ee-ee-d a wee-ee-ee-ee!’), and that red ‘Occupied’ square on the door lock, REFUSING TO MOVE because the person inside is having the slowest poo ever, and, well. I could happily flay something. And then you have to go in, and everything is disgusting, and all of it is within toddler reach, and it’s like it was designed to be a special kind of hell.

We do that several times a week. Oh gosh, I am getting furious just thinking about it.

In the wild it’s fine, of course. H is brilliant at just getting on with it. Off he pops into the ferns, often without telling me, and I just get the hand sanitiser ready for his return. But you can’t be in the wild all the time. And indoors, H’s bladder is a ninja. It has a finely tuned, impeccable sense of when would be the least helpful time to explode, and dances around until precisely that moment.

Dear reader, imagine yourself in the following real-life scenarios, and then imagine ‘I nee-ee-ee-d a wee-ee-ee-ee!’ spiraling up into the air like a bomb siren during the Blitz. Or imagine it’s not wee, but worse. SO MUCH WORSE. Are you panic-breathing yet?

  • (the classic): in the supermarket, when we have put just too many items in the trolley to abandon the endeavour for a loo break, but still have too many things on the list for him to cross his legs till we’re done.
  • at the park. Once he announces it I have about thirty seconds to hoist T under my arm like a parcel, grab H’s hand, locate the nearest dog waste bin to position ourselves behind and sprint there. It’s like an episode of Challenge Anneka, with more weeping.
  • just pulling into a space in the overcrowded, very stressful hospital car park. There are only eight minutes to go till my appointment and I still don’t know how to get there, let alone where the loos are.
  • while stuck up a tree. He has just this second climbed a little too high for me to get him without climbing up myself.
  • halfway home from nursery (EVERY DAY. We watered that bush EVERY DAY).
  • waiting for Daddy in the car at the airport. We can’t leave the car because T has chicken pox. I find a penguin he’s made at nursery from plastic bottles and felt, and dispense with the felt.
  • while driving to the garage to pick up the car. The garage will close in ten minutes. We are in stop-start traffic.
  • thirty-four seconds after we have already stopped very dangerously and suddenly on the motorway hard shoulder, because T reached forward and opened his door.
  • three separate times in the shower block of our camping ground, when I’m trying to get both boys through the shower myself. T is afraid of showers, and is making it known. The toilets are in a separate cubicle. Everything is hell.

Can we just go back to nappies?

Hello to all that (on first days at school)

September 15

This is it. Don’t get scared now.

I was going to write about sending H off to school as though it were an ending. In lots of ways, it is to me. Our longest, toughest (? maybe?) shift together is done. No more nappies, night feeds, rhyme times at the library. No more chopping grapes in half to better wheedle them into his mouth, or convincing him into the shopping trolley seat. No more making the universe he lives in, and bashing my brains out over getting it right. Did I only have him to myself for four years? It seems longer than that, and shorter. It seems like everything we’ve known so far is changing, because it is.

But as we sit over celebratory Happy Meals and chocolate milkshakes – because after all, you have a first ever day at school only once – it feels much more like a beginning.

Hello exercise books and HB pencils, magic E and book bags. Hello to PE on the apparatus, recorder lessons, and scarecrow tag in the playground.

Hello to libraries, and more books, more stories and more worlds to discover than you ever thought existed.

Hello to the Romans and the Tudors and the blasted Industrial Revolution.

Hello to beloved and crappy teachers, and beloved and crappy friends. To make ups and break ups. To being tested and passing, or failing, and learning things about yourself in the failure.

A beginning then, and a hopeful, thrilling one at that. I can’t keep him to myself when he has all this waiting in the wings.

The sun is out, Hen. September’s calling. You’ll feel that golden, autumnal pull towards change all your life, probably.

Go out there and get it.

On parenting a mini-me: why similarity is so much harder than difference

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These are some first draft thoughts I think about a lot. Would be interested in hearing yours. 

You know, I thought this would be much easier than it is. I thought that having a child who was very like me would make parenting a breeze. When I imagined the slammed doors and hurtful arguments of the future (still mostly in the future, thank goodness), I pictured an angry teenager whose depths and fathoms I didn’t fully understand, so couldn’t empathise with.

It’s not like that at all.

H and I are cut from the same cloth. When we do the personality tests in my parenting books (more on those later) we come out with the same numbers. We’re not carbon copies of each other, of course, because no two people are. He is only four, and has years of change ahead of him. But when I look at him and see stubbornness, social awkwardness, fear and words and quickness and bossiness and insecurity coupled with an absolute belief in his own authority, I recognise those things in myself. My four-year-old self as well as my grown-up self. The best of me and the worst. Which makes it all rather difficult.

This is what I think it does: it makes parenting a loaded process. It becomes a matter of bias. I’m not seeing his strengths and faults just as they are, in him: they come with a lifetime of feelings already attached. When I find strengths in him that I recognise, I am overly invested in encouraging him in that direction. And that’s not too bad, but when it comes to the weaknesses we share – when I know how much bother they’ve caused me over the years, when I see things in him I would rather not even see in myself – I am desperate for him to cut them loose. I want him to do better than I did. I want this so badly that I am more likely to lose my temper, less likely to be understanding.

Isn’t that strange? Where I should be the most understanding – because these are things I still struggle with myself – I am the most impatient. Because it’s so much harder to be detached about them. Because they mean something to me, outside and apart from what they mean to him.

I am often parenting from a place of fear and anxiety, in other words, not just love.

It’s been interesting to start covering some of the same ground with T, who is a different creature entirely. His energy is all outward and active, his emotions simpler and louder. I find it so much easier to comprehend him, and to be detached about his bad days. His tantrums are exhausting, but they’re not emotional (for me).  They don’t hold the key to a character flaw that will ruin him. They’re just tantrums. He’s two, and they’ll pass.

I’ve never been able to be so blasé with H. Ever. Partly because he’ll always be my learning curve, bless him; that’s the curse of the eldest child. Whatever phase he’s in, it’s the first time I’ve seen it. But partly because I invest every last thing he does with meaning. Which doesn’t tend to be good for either of us.

I would be worried about this pattern (ok, I DO worry), except that patterns can be rewoven, and noticing them is the first step to doing it (right? Right?!).

I think he deserves to make his own mistakes – that aren’t a type of mine, whatever I might think, but his very own. I can’t swoop in and protect him from every difficulty, no matter how much I want to. He needs to grow in his own space, as himself, without the weight of my expectation and anxiety.

I’m going to try harder to let him be himself. If we end up being able to bond over a cheery fondness for semicolons, that’s a good result but not essential. And for T, well: I’m going to buy some earplugs, probably. And hug them both more. And apologise more. And tell them I love them until they get sick of hearing it.

I don’t think it will ever stop being a work-in-progress.

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Laughs

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This morning Tim left for his week helping at boys’ camp. I’ve been pretty tired lately – due to my absolutely tragic inability to stop faffing and get to bed – so a week of solo parenting these tiny feral creatures wasn’t really lighting me up.

But we spent half the morning making jokes about earwax in front of the mirror.

And then I decided we should celebrate getting to the halfway point of the summer break, so we ran off to the cinema, for the first time in T’s life (only the third time for H, and definitely the first time with only one parent wrangler on hand).

We saw Inside Out. The boys had little trays of popcorn and Oreos on their laps. T sagged a bit in the middle, but melting a small chocolate bar onto his hands and then licking it off got us to the end.

We only had to visit the toilet once. I sobbed like an idiot basically from the first scene. It was glorious.

‘Bye, TB!’ Teddy called as we tottered back down the stairs during the closing credits.

‘It’s not a TV, it’s a cinema!’ I told him.

‘Bye cimmerma!’ he said over his shoulder instead.

Out in the light we realised we were all coated in Teddy’s chocolate.

Then we went to the McDonalds drive-thru, because cinema + McDonalds was the ultimate, coveted double whammy when I was a kid.

They both fell asleep on the way home.

My library fine was pretty small, after all.

‘Come on Eileen’ came on the radio at one point, and it’s the most perfect happy-making song. Like the Eighties rose up in denim dungarees and enfolded you in soft shoulder pads of joy.

I started to read a book in the car on our driveway, and then chucked it aside in favour of a nap myself.

H came in voluntarily to apologise for a meltdown he had after dinner.

T tucked himself into his own ‘dubey’ when he finally decided to sleep.

Tomorrow we’re off on a couple of adventure days with Mimi.

It feels good, making things special for them. Appreciating the moments your strategies and routines pay off, for once. I like being the treat-dispenser, and the earwax joke-maker, and the one who knows exactly how many pants to pack for a trip away.

I like these kids.

Motherhood is so much more than your milk

Hey, you.

You there, with the tiny baby. You there, slogging on in a dream-haze between feed and sleep and feed. You, mama, with this terrifying new position as Centre of the Universe for the baby you made.

You there, crying tears of bone-deep exhaustion into your five-day-old pyjamas.

You warrior woman. You lovely thing. Look at you.

We’re in the middle of World Breastfeeding Week, something I’m sure you haven’t missed in all your 3am zombie-scrolling on Twitter. Breastfeeding is something that tends to arouse strong emotions in all of us, and especially in you.

Maybe it came easily and joyously to you, and you’re a passionate advocate for a woman’s right to feed her baby.

Maybe you fought for it tooth and nail, latch by latch, and you’re proud of how far you’ve come.

Maybe you’re trying everything, asking everyone, and it’s still not really working, and your baby isn’t gaining weight, and every visit to the children’s clinic turns your stomach into a hard knot of guilt and fear.

Maybe it never worked, and your baby’s been drinking formula from the start, and you still find yourself assembling the bottles at baby group with an apologetic air.

There is nothing more personal than feeding the baby you made with the body you have. No wonder we take breastfeeding personally. We just can’t not.

Well.

I am here to tell you, 3am zombie-woman, that your worth as a mother is not defined by the milk you make. Your motherhood is in a thousand things. It’s the kisses you squeeze onto chubby cheeks, the way you leap up automatically when you hear a particular I’m very hurt cry, the way they quiet themselves on your chest while you soothe them. It’s the floating turds you scoop out of the bath trying not to throw up, and the sick stains on your shoulders, and the way you heave yourself out of bed for the seventeenth time in a single night. And yes, it’s the gathering up of your baby to your breast as he swallows and swallows in rhythm. Or the scoop-tap-scoop-tap of the formula cup into the bottle you just sterilised yet again, before you plop the teat into your baby’s grateful mouth.

Do you know who doesn’t give a damn whether you make milk or not? Your baby. It’s you they want, just you. Most of being a good mother is making sure you are both healthy and happy, yes, both of you together, and you get to decide exactly how that happens.

If breastfeeding works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Spoiler alert: I can’t tell which of my son’s friends were breastfed or bottle-fed. I haven’t really thought seriously about breastfeeding in a while. My motherhood is now in a thousand different things: toilet trips, time-outs, tantrums, responding to the eight-thousandth ‘MUMMY WATCH THIS’ with a smile in my voice and on my face. I think back to the panic-stricken mother I was, sobbing in cupboards about my inadequate milk supply, and I want to gather her up in a fierce hug and tell her that none of that matters a jot.

I promise you, magnificent pyjamaed thing, that one day soon your motherhood won’t be measured in feeds.

But you know it never was, right? It never was.

Things I want to remember about mornings

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I found this post (and this one) this morning, and they both seem like someone else’s life, as usual. Time for another installment. 

Dear self,

Here are some things you should never forget (even when your eye bags are capacious enough to keep things in):

that the whole street knows when Son 2 has woken up, because he shouts for you louder than a brass band

that Son 1 is curled into your back (all elbows and knees) if he’s been wet in the night, and covering his ears in his own bed if he’s been dry

that they are still putting away adult-sized portions of banana porridge each, while a nation’s oat-farmers tremble

that Son 2 often goes back to the table for a quick punt after getting dressed, to clear up any leftovers

that they both choose a train to set carefully on the bathroom radiator so they’ve got an audience

that their Thomas bubble bath smells like watermelons

that they spend bath time chucking water at each other, making poo jokes and laughing hysterically

that you let the bathtime poo jokes go, because you say ‘no more poo and wee talk, please’ at least 70 000 times a day, and frankly there’s a limit

that Son 1 insists on getting out first, and Son 2 refuses to get out at all because he’s ‘fwimmin, Mummy’

that Son 1 dresses himself for the promise of a sticker, in between claims that he’s ‘feeling a bit delicate this morning’

that Son 2 raises holy hell if you so much as approach him with socks, because he just wants to jump around naked forever

that with all of these shenanigans you have approximately thirteen minutes to get yourself ready

and you spend eleven of them in the shower with the heat whacked up to max

and every morning you stare at the shower tiles, wondering whether you’ve got this

and honestly, some mornings you haven’t

but more often than not, you have.

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