Tag Archives: Parenting

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

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

Dear Future Versions of Henry and Teddy,

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

March 2016 (800x600)

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

Photo 19-12-2015, 2 53 25 pm (817x1024)

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

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

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

Photo 19-12-2015, 1 47 36 pm (800x639)

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s stay here as long as we can.

With much love,

Your mother.

Photo 07-03-2016, 7 17 20 pm (800x640)

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

Photo 23-12-2015, 2 41 30 pm (800x800)

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

Dear toddler parent hanging on by skin of teeth:

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

Let me say that again.

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

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

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

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

THEN (this is the important part):

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

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

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

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

Toddler parent, you still there?

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

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

And one more thing for the internet warriors.

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

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?

 

Just take the damn nap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a second.

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

Just take the damn nap.

Just so not sorry

Just so not sorry

What it’s like

Maybe there’s something about having a houseful of people in their twenties, long before they start thinking about kids, that makes you concentrate on all the things you can’t do now you have children.

(Like staying in bed beyond 7am. Like popping out to the cinema spontaneously. Like, I don’t know, eating a meal and only having to think about your own table manners.)

Anyway, I can’t help doing that occasionally. But I find it useful to remind myself what motherhood is, as well as what it’s not.

For me, this month, it’s

having your two-year-old burst into a room full of people and search every face, anxiety all over him, until he finds yours, and his whole self relaxes.

sitting outside their room reading while they watch a Thomas film, and having them come out to check on you, one and then the other, every thirty seconds.

listening to your four-year-old read a book, his stubby forefinger pointing to the words as he makes the sounds, and feeling like a proper adult parent, doing this Real Parenty Thing, and also that you might die with pride and also that it’s almost time for Enid Blyton, surely.

carrying your too-heavy toddler through the crowds at Buckingham Palace, explaining when he asks that yes, the Queen is probably inside, and she’s probably eating some toast. He looks pleased with this answer. He tells his auntie. Suddenly he gasps, pats both hands solicitously on your cheeks and says ‘Mummy! You’re so cold! Where’s your coat?’

holding your four-year-old’s hand during a long muddy walk, and talking about dinosaurs. He tells you the difference between two dinosaurs you’ve never heard of (one has four claws, the other has two). You have no idea how he knows this. You envision a future, oh, very soon now, where his entire interior life will be joys, interests and complexities that have very little to do with you. The thought makes you feel excited, and a little bereft. Which makes you feel like an idiot but, after all (you reason), becoming less important to someone is hard to do, no matter who it is.

walking to school, one of them in the pushchair, the other scooting next to you, and a grey squirrel runs up the nearest telegraph pole in a flash of fur. For once you all see it, and all at the same time. You watch it up the pole, along the cable. It makes a leap sideways, three feet to the nearby tree. Tiny feet splayed against grey sky. All three of you – two-year-old, four-year-old, thirty-year-old mother – let out a delighted ‘oh!’ as it jumps.

Photo 28-12-2015, 2 28 53 pm (800x799)

When motherhood means impersonating furniture

Photo 27-11-2015, 1 28 24 p.m. (800x800)

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.

Photo 17-11-2015, 3 54 01 p.m. (800x800)

Five messages to give your tiny introvert

SAM_3207 (820x1024)

When was the last time you read an article extolling the writer’s love for fuzzy socks and a good book over a loud party? About two-and-a-half minutes ago, right? They’re everywhere. Susan Cain’s Quiet seems to have kicked off the season of the introvert. It feels like it’s suddenly quite hip to sit for a while in a toilet cubicle because no one can see you in there.

These are my people. They are also, I think, the people of my eldest boy.

He might not always be this way. That’s fine too. I try to be cautious about applying labels with glue that won’t rub off. But for now I’m working with the hypothesis that an introvert is raising a probable introvert, and it can be tricky for both of us. It’s not easy being a parent of small, sticky children when alone time is important to you. My toilet cubicle moments now come with an audience. At the end of the day, when I’m tired and frazzled, I almost always have someone literally clinging to my coattails.

Have you noticed, though, that being a small child and an introvert is equally difficult? We encourage and reward people-person behaviour almost from birth:

‘Oh, he’s such a smiler! Always chatting away to complete strangers.’

‘Say hello to [this relation you’ve never met], darling. Now give her a hug. Now give her a kiss.’

‘Why don’t you go and play with the other children? Go on, ask them if you can play.’

If you have a child who refuses to play the game, who doesn’t want to talk about himself unless he knows you very well, who finds large groups overwhelming, whoever might be in them: we read that as being shy, or difficult, or not having good manners.

I interpreted it that way too. Me! When actually, if someone made me do the things I make H do in the name of good child-behaviour, I’d be stressed and furious. The day I realised this (*ping* <–that was my lightbulb moment) I knew I had to get over the why-isn’t-he-performing-for-strangers thing and start parenting with an introvert’s head on.

A DISCLAIMER: I am very obviously not an authority in parenting (a whole four years in, steady on). But I am a flipping expert at being an introvert. My badge is in the shape of an unoccupied toilet cubicle and I wear it proudly. And I know it’s easy to make an introverted child feel out of place and wrong, when all they are is wired differently, because I’ve accidentally done it myself.

So from that perspective, here are five messages I think a tiny introvert needs to hear loud and clear.

You will need alone time, so ask for it

Introverts recharge in their own company. How often are small children left alone, particularly when they have a sibling? Little introverts find this confusing, I think: sometimes they need to be clingy and sometimes they want to be by themselves. They anticipate a birthday party gleefully for weeks and then, half an hour in, they’re completely overwhelmed by their friends. I’ve tried to let H know that it’s alright to need alone time. When he asks for it, I make sure we accommodate him.

You can show all of your emotions to me

I can’t think of a better way to push an introvert further in than to let them know, subconsciously or overtly, that you don’t want to see their anger, frustration, jealousy or sadness. They may want to process these feelings independently, especially as they get older, but they do need to know that they always have a safe place with you. The rule in our house is that all your feelings are ok…but it’s not ok to express them with disrespect or fists.

Take your time

Here’s the thing: being an introverted child doesn’t get you a free pass out of good manners, just like being an introverted adult isn’t an excuse for being rude. But it takes them more time to adjust to social situations, so be their ally and give them the time. Let them sit with you for a while before answering questions. Let them know that they can smile instead of saying anything, if that’s easier. Don’t apologise for their quietness in front of them and other adults, in that smiling, passive-aggressive way that communicates to them that they’ve done something wrong.

Be kind, be kind, be kind

They might never be the life and soul of the party. They need to know – because they won’t hear it from many places – that this is alright. There’s more than one way to make your presence felt. There at the edge of the group they will find others. They can be kind, and notice people that don’t usually get noticed. They can make all the difference. What a valuable thing that is.

You are enough: to me, to you and to everyone

Like it or not, schools, work environments and social situations reward people who think on their feet and speak up loudly. Your tiny introvert will get the message from a thousand places: you are too quiet, too slow, too awkward, too boring. Make sure they never, ever get that from you.

There’s nothing wrong with them. To you, they are perfect. Inside a toilet cubicle or out, they are enough. They are enough. Whisper it in their ear. Shout it to the tree-tops if you have to. They are enough.

Photo 23-10-2015 11 34 44 am (768x1024)

How not to be a big fat parenting loser

Photo 02-11-2015 12 25 46 pm (819x1024)

I think about this all the time.

Usually after 7pm.

While standing in a kitchen that looks like King Henry VIII has been on a carbs rampage.

Has today been a success? How do I know when I’ve done alright? Do I get a gold star today, or what?

If you replace ‘gold star’ with ‘piece of cake’ then you’ll understand my anxiety on this score.

Seriously, though. One of the things I mourn the most, in my chaotic child-filled life, is the lack of regular performance reviews. I just want someone to sit me down once a month and tell me where I’m succeeding and where I can improve. I want my tiny children to act as no tiny children do, and say ‘we have a lovely life, mother mine, and what I most appreciate about you is this’. I am an editor to my bones, and I just want someone to put a giant tick next to my name in red pen.

When I was pregnant with T, I spent a horrible, wintery first trimester being a bit of a mess. H was barely eighteen months. It was dark, and it rained a lot, and we spent a lot of time indoors. And I was so sick. So miserably unable to do any of the things that are the fist-bumps-to-self of life, the things that usually communicate to myself that I’m doing a good job. It was a real black hole.

It was an effort to get out of bed, to hold a conversation, to go through the motions of a normal day. It hurt the muscles of my face to smile. I’d never experienced anything like it before, and it was terrifying.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this, really, except that I remembered then, more than ever before, that having children often takes away parts of you that you think are essential – it’s usually the flashy, superficial, performance-related parts of you – and you have to learn to feel right and good and whole without them. One of the things I did, once I realised that this wasn’t just rain and sickness but something more insidious, was to write a list of positive things about myself (Tim had to help) and stick them on my mirror. They had nothing to do with goals, achievements or status, just things that could be true whatever I was doing. I read them out like a robot every morning. Gradually, eventually, by tiny degrees, they started to feel true again.

(I am not saying that lists on your mirror are a cure for depression. They are not, and I was lucky: mine was temporary, tied up with first trimester sickness, and some part of me sensed it. I just dug in and hung on till it lifted, and having positive thoughts around was like a catechism I could repeat till it got better. Lots of people suffer more permanently and completely, and if that’s you: please take and do whatever you need to feel better. You deserve good things, and good care.)

Anyway. I’ve never been anywhere close to that since then, thankfully, but the same question bothers me on a smaller scale. Was today alright? How do I know when I’m succeeding?

Here’s a list of things that make me feel like we’ve had a gold star day:

  • when I’ve been sufficiently busy
  • when I’ve made dinner from scratch
  • when I’ve vacuumed before Tim gets home
  • when we’ve been outside, particularly if the boys have walked a decent distance (what does that even mean?)
  • when I’ve answered my backed-up emails
  • when the TV has been on for less than two hours
  • when I walked or cycled to school instead of getting in the car
  • when I’ve talked about something on social media that is NOT about children
  • when the boys are wearing attractive outfits
  • when my hair doesn’t look like a fuzzball wig
  • when I’ve written something I’m proud of
  • when T has eaten some lunch, particularly if it’s outside the holy trinity of strawberry yoghurt, grapes and raisins
  • when a photo has got twenty likes on Instagram
  • when H shows signs of wanting to read or build things without my input
  • when I’ve had a conversation with another adult person in the playground that did not make me want to curl up and die with embarrassment
  • when H says something hilariously precocious, particularly if it’s about Harry Potter (like that has anything to do with me?!).

They’re like little hurdles I set myself, little imaginary tick boxes for the universe. Bit ludicrous, aren’t they? But I don’t think they’re wrong, necessarily. Or, um, not all of them. A large part of my job is caring for children, after all, and when they are engaged in a variety of activities and eating things containing vitamins, well, that’s very good indeed. And if dressing carefully and putting makeup on makes me feel more together, more competent, then I am all for that too.

But I don’t think the reverse of any of these makes the day a failure. I will say that again so I believe it more: I don’t think the reverse of any of these makes the day a failure. That’s what I sometimes have trouble getting my head around.

Yesterday was the last day of H’s half-term holiday – which I have loved, because we’ve been busy (tick) and it’s been cold enough to wear coordinating jumpers (tick). We waited a few hours for the fog to lift, and it didn’t, so we went out into the woods anyway. I didn’t bring a pushchair so we’d go at their pace, rather than mine, which meant I spent quite a bit of it cajoling them out of streams and back to the car park. We got a bit muddy and made up some rude pirate names and stopped halfway for leftover Halloween sweets and I told them scary witch stories that had terrible flat endings (I tend to run out of ideas as we go along). Then we came home, they ate supernoodles and nothing else (!), T had a nap and H watched two Toy Story films back-to-back.

It was a mixed day. It was a great day. We all found things in it that made us happy. And I think that’s it, that’s where the gold star lives after all: perhaps that’s the only category we really need.

Photo 02-11-2015 11 50 12 am (800x800)

Photo 02-11-2015 11 13 45 am (819x1024)

What are your (silly or serious) categories for having a successful day? You know you can let go of all of them as long as you’re all still alive, right? Yeah, let’s repeat that together and maybe it’ll sink in. 

Dear boy: you can be unpretty here

Photo 14-09-2015 8 16 36 am (800x800)

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.

Photo 15-09-2015 3 40 12 pm (800x638)

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

11821764_963358007017875_815936537_n

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.

Photo 15-08-2015 10 02 57 am

Angry mummy: hills to die on

SAM_1878 (800x640)

This is the second post I’ve written about trying not to be a short-fuse parent. The first one is here. Let’s face it, there will probably be more. 

We will be glad about the two-year age gap between our boys when they’re older and the best of friends. This is what I weep into my pillow at night. ONLY JK.

Actually, from Peak Insanity of newborn and two-year-old, it’s getting lots better. H can now be trusted to run little errands without calamity. There are spells when they amuse each other and where they play together without someone screeching. I never thought we’d get here, and it’s a testimony to me of the triumph of Grimly Hanging On and Using Chocolate Biscuits As Emotional Salve.

But. But but but. The age gap does mean that they’re now covering all the stress bases between them. If you want someone to be mindlessly destructive, you’ve got T, and H is there for the explosive emotional breakdowns. T will scream the house down when you brush his teeth, but H is ready to bring out the threenager boundary-pushing. I mean, just in case you were missing anything from the last two years, they like to keep it all fresh.

So it’s possible, if you wanted, to spend every minute of the day telling them off. And oh, how achingly dull that is. We are scratchy and irritable on a day where my sentences beginning ‘will you STOP-‘ outnumber all the others put together. Emotionally it’s exhausting too: maintaining that level of irritation uses an awful lot of energy that could be used for better things.

I’ve said before that my inner parent is all Sergeant Major: I am always trying to train myself to be less strict. But someone on this blog once made a comment I think about a lot (thanks! This is why you’re all so brilliant). She said: ‘choose your hills to die on. You can’t pick up on everything, so choose what’s really important to you and go from there’.

I think this is pretty wise. It’s not a case of starting to let things go, but of reacting to things on a scale, from a mild ‘hey, don’t, that’s gross!’ to the intense, theatrical ‘I do not want to see you do that again’. And is there anything I’m getting cross at that I could laugh at instead? I think there probably is.

So I had a good think, and here are my hills to die on, the things I absolutely cannot shift from under any circumstances:

1. Bedtime is bedtime. I don’t mind what they do in their room once we’ve gone – that’s often when they have the best interaction with each other, in fact – but once the light is off, they’re done for the day. The only thing standing precariously between us and insanity is a decent night’s sleep.

2. Kindness to peers. I think you’ll never lose out being a little kinder than people expect. It’s a way of acknowledging everyone’s innate worth and drawing in people left on the margins. I am never happier than when I see spontaneous kindness in my boys, and never more horrified than when they do the opposite.

3. Respect to adults. In the last few months we’ve had to introduce the new idea that there are things you might hear said in the playground, but these are not things you can say to your mother; also, that people can be hurt by the words you use. And I guess this was something we all had to learn for the first time at some point. It’s FUN.

4. Manners. I know ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ don’t seem like huge deal-breakers, but I think they help teach them something deeper: respect, appreciation, remorse…a recognition of other people’s dignity.

I also came up with a list of things that are way higher up on my hills than they should be, and need taking down a notch (or seven):

1. Not being bothered to go to the toilet on time. Urrrrrrgh. I look forward with hope and gladness to a time when I don’t have close and personal dealings with faeces. But H is a last-minute toilet-goer; there it is; he needs reminders but I don’t need to be furious about it.

2. Brotherly scraps. I intervene when they’re hitting, or T is at a disadvantage because of his size, or one of them is at absolute meltdown point. But I’m trying to remind myself that, you know, brothers gon’ brother. And they’re learning, by very small degrees, how not to provoke people to wrestling point. Useful life skills.

3. Stupid voices. This is a weird personal idiosyncrasy, but if you can TALK with REAL WORDS then USE REAL WORDS THAT’S WHY WORDS EXIST TO HELP YOU COMMUNICATE WITH PRECISION. I really need to tamp this irritation down, because I remember using silly voices well into teenage years, and my sister spent a good year in her childhood inexplicably pretending to be a dog. This is what kids do.

4. Not leaping to do what I ask the first time I ask it. This is a sign of how inexperienced I am as a parent. I asked my mother recently, ‘So…when we were kids, did we, um, just ignore you lots of times until you got stressed about it?’ And she laughed and laughed and laughed. Apparently kids do this too. They shouldn’t, and they need reminding, but I’m going to push myself into an early grave getting cross about it.

The great thing about parenting is that we’re all so individual, such a unique mixture of personality and environment and how we ourselves were parented, that your hills and non-hills will be different from mine. But I think I’ll be happier when I’m not slogging up to the summit for every little thing.

So, tell me: what are your absolute must-haves, and what things do you get annoyed about that need to come down a bit?

%d bloggers like this: