Tag Archives: Parenting

What Mary Poppins taught me about parenting

You know in Hitch, when Will Smith tells Kevin James to meditate on the image of an iceberg? When Henry does that no no no no screech no no thing – usually accompanied by an arched back and a drop to the floor, and almost always in public, because he’s no fool – I meditate on the image of Mary Poppins.

I want that kind-but-brisk tone in her voice. Her children know exactly where they stand and love her for it. She’s always in charge, but she’s not averse to sliding down the bannisters. She believes in feeding birds (urgh) but also in noticing the old lady who looks after them. And she looks extremely snazzy in a straw hat.

All of which is to say that Mary Poppins gets a lot of things right. Including that, sometimes, a good kite is a bit like flying yourself. And getting to fly it with your dad, whether or not he’s just been fired from his bank job and waltzed home in a broken bowler hat, is the most exciting thing ever. Our tiny kite was a freebie from Tim’s conference the other week, and the flying ground was the scrubby bit of grass outside our flat on the way home from church, but I have still been bellowing ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ up and down stairs since Sunday. Little moments like that feel like the stuff childhood is made of. I don’t know whether Hen will remember it, but I will.

Also, one should never confuse efficiency with a liver complaint. Children with wet feet must learn to take their medicine. And there’s a whole world at your feet, but sometimes only the birds, the stars, and the chimney sweeps get to see it. Look a little higher, and you can, too.






The way we work

Digger is always crashing our photos, these days.

Henry is experiencing some serious mama-love this month. Phases like that come and go: his heart beats for Daddy, as a rule, but every now and again he just wants to sit by me.

I do love it, while it lasts. But it has made me think – more than I was already – about the spaces we fill in our family, Timothy and I. What does Henry see us doing? What do I want him to see?

I mean something like this.

We had a day, a few months ago, where Henry wouldn’t take his morning nap. I went down to get him, eventually, and said ‘No sleep for you today, hmm? Want to come upstairs and help me work?’

And Henry said, ‘Daddy!’, and ran off towards the gate to look at the front door. Because I said ‘work’, and that’s what Daddy does.

I also mean something like this.

Since mama is the flavour of March, at the moment he wants things done the way I do them. One morning he’ll only get dressed if I come and help him. One lunchtime he only wants soup if I feed it to him. It’s not normal for him, so I don’t expect it’ll last long. But what if it did? The more it happens, the more my way of doing things becomes the correct way. And Tim starts deferring to me about what Henry needs and when. He doesn’t need to. It does a boy good to be looked at from a different angle.

We both matter, and suddenly it’s important to me that our sons see us collaborating. In everything. Timothy will win most of the bread for some years to come. I want him to love his work and excel in it. But I want the same for my work – paid and unpaid – because work is mine as much as it is his. And I will spend more time than Timothy changing nappies, wiping noses and singing songs about rabbits for the next little while. I will love that too, and try hard. But these boys are a product of both of us, which means that his opinion is as valid, and parenting is as much his as it is mine. I’m lucky, very lucky indeed, that Timothy never even considered leaving the nappies and vacuuming to me. He sees something that needs doing, and does it. But I want to make that obvious to the babies who watch us.

I think I believe in personal strengths more than I believe in spheres. My boys will grow up to be men, and I want men who understand that marriage is a partnership, not a pigeonhole. My girls, if we have them, will grow up to be women, and I want women who understand that they can think, and excel, and achieve any damn thing they want.

Oh, it’s all kind of a work in progress. Perhaps it always will be. But we are better together, we are more together than the sum of our parts, and that’s how I want it to stay.

Ten tips for winning over your fussy eater: toddler edition

Oh, my friends, here we are again.

These days, cajoling food into Henry’s mouth has just become part of our family landscape. When we were in London on Friday, he took an unexpected liking to the tiny bowl of pasta we’d ordered for him, and ate almost all of it. He hates pasta. He also hates eating in public (too much else to look at). We were so delightedly gobsmacked that we couldn’t stop talking about it, and took ten thousand photos. Three days later, I’m still greeting Timothy at the door with ‘Dude. I can’t BELIEVE Henry ate that pasta’.

A sweet victory. Also a short-lived one. From where I’m sitting, I can see at least seven peas and a potato he hoped he could hide without me seeing.

I had an arsenal of mealtime strategies I used when he was a just-weaned baby. Now he’s a toddler, the game has changed a little, like this. Did I tell you he’s learned to say ‘no’? Yeah, there’s that.

1. Pick your moment; prepare the ground

For Henry, eating is still a matter of temperament. Sometimes he feels like it; sometimes he doesn’t. After much trial and error, I’ve learned the signs: he doesn’t want to eat when he’s just woken up, or very tired, or in the middle of something. He needs to be pre-warned. So I start explaining that it’s time to eat about twenty minutes before he ends up in the high chair. And then I explain that I’m making his sandwich. And then I explain that he can have a yoghurt afterwards if he eats the sandwich. If he doesn’t have a fair crack at the sandwich, he doesn’t get the yoghurt. It means I’m rabbiting on through most of lunch, but it manages his expectations, whether or not he’s practising selective hearing at the time.

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2. Think continental

Life is not normally neat and organised for us. But the rub is this: he definitely eats better when we’re at home and when we can take as long as we like over meals. Often I’ll put something down on the tray with him screeching indignation, and then fifteen minutes later, if I leave him to his own devices and don’t look bothered either way, he’ll start eating it. So whenever it’s possible, I think continental: long, lazy meals in a relaxed atmosphere. Cheese is optional (he doesn’t like it. Is he my child?!).

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3. Serve in courses, with the good stuff first

This was the one, transformative idea I took from the Bringing Up Bebe book. When is he hungriest? Right at the beginning. When is he most likely to eat the fruit and veg you need him to eat and he, apparently, needs to throw against the wall? Right at the beginning. I serve all his meals like this: I bring him vegetables right at the start (a mug of peas, a few red peppers, some oranges or grapes), and leave him there picking at them for ten minutes while I make the rest. If he eats nothing else, at least he’s had the good stuff. If he doesn’t eat even that, at least you tried.

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4. Force the first taste, then back off

This one still in force from last time. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s screamed to high heaven when I’ve come at him with a spoon, only to change his mind once he tasted it. Most days I have to pin him down to get the spoon near him. Then I leave him to decide whether he likes it. The house rule is still that he has to try everything once.

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5. DIY rules

Sometimes I think he’s throwing a fit over the food, when actually he just wants to use the spoon himself. This involves a certain amount of sacrifice on the part of his outfit and the nearby wall. If it means he eats more, I don’t mind. I can’t speak for the wall.

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6. If at first he hates its guts…

…keep on pushing it. Apparently a child needs to eat a food twelve times before they genuinely dislike it. I don’t force it into his mouth if he seems completely disgusted, but I do serve it again the next week. I’d like to say I’ve had some success stories with this method: the truth is that his dislikes are so random I can’t keep track of them. I live in hope, though. There was one time he ate raw tomato.

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7. Treat in treat-sized quantities

Now he’s past his immediate babyhood, I don’t believe in refusing him cake, chocolate or other dessert-type loveliness, or the occasional fast-food outing, or nice drink. This is where joy can be found, after all. If we’re eating it, it’s not really fair to say he can’t have it because it’s unhealthy. And I think that children who are never allowed treats at home tend to gorge until they’re sick in other places. But make them treats, not staple foods (ARE YOU LISTENING, SELF).

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8. Snack not, lest ye be disappointed

Another still-truism. His appetite is tiny (apart from that one time in London, with the pasta, etc etc). This is an especially hard principle to stick to now I’m pregnant and snacking ALL THE FREAKING TIME, but the fact remains: when he eats between meals, he doesn’t eat meals. I do a lot of secret eating these days.

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9. Big it up

I hope that one of the things we can bequeath to Henry eventually is an enthusiasm for food. Until that appears, I try to look and sound majorly excited about everything I serve him. Sometimes, just asking him for some and letting him feed you is enough to convince him that it’s worth trying. Sometimes. And other times, you just feel like an idiot, cheering for celery. But here’s the thing…

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10. Don’t panic

Can we be very serious for a moment? It’s ok. It’s really ok. You’re not a bad parent. Some kids don’t like to eat, and anything you can get into him is a triumph, some days. If you’re genuinely worried about his energy levels or bowel movements, see your doctor or health visitor. But I have never (ha!) in my life (haha!) worried about Henry’s energy levels (oh, stop!). There are days when he refuses everything and screams the house down and I find the nearest pillow and cry. But as long as he’s drinking plenty and eating some, I try not to worry. You shouldn’t either. It’ll all be fine.

From today. The tear on his face is real, in case you thought I had it all figured out.

From today. The tear on his face is real, in case you thought I had it all figured out.

(Ten tips for winning over your fussy eater: baby edition is here. I suspect we’ll be seeing each other again when I post the edition for five-year-olds, but let’s pretend I’ll be posting ‘Ten meals to cook for your sophisticated little gourmet’, instead.)

Two halves

This morning, while Henry was in the bath, we played Bodies.

Where are Mummy’s eyes? And where are Henry’s eyes? What about Henry’s feet? And where are Mummy’s feet? 

He gets mixed up a lot. Is this my nose or his? His knee or my knee? Often, he points to me when he means himself. I suppose, entangled as we always are, it’s hard to tell the difference. He’s not much for cuddling – too much to do – but we live our days in a web of contact: between every activity, he runs back to grin in my face, and pats me to check I’m still solid. He doesn’t see any reason why he can’t do all of the things I do, or why I shouldn’t be carrying him while I do them. We are the same, after all. He strokes his own face while I put on my make up in the mornings, and fiddles busily at the worktop in the kitchen while I clean. I carry him home in my arms when he’s run out of puff. When he’s tired, he starts pinching my sleeve between his fingers, like I’m the comfort blanket. I suppose I was, once.

But this is an odd phase, because most days now he’s infuriated by my closeness. He doesn’t want to open his mouth for every spoon I point at him, or follow always where my hand pulls. He has his own tumbleweed path to find, and often I’m in the way. This business of wanting, of having wants and making them happen, is a heady experience. Before now he hardly realised that it was possible to go left when I said right. He can’t get enough of it. There’s a reason I’m reading three toddler tantrum books this month. For the first time, our ties are beginning to chafe.

It makes me smile – when I’m not banging my head against the wall – because this independence that he wants and doesn’t want will grow until it takes him right out of my door, to his own loves and adventures. I will send him out to be his own person and make decisions he can be proud of. He’ll visit me on Sunday afternoons and tell me about his job, his girlfriend and his electricity bills. He’ll have to find goodness and resolve for himself, and there is so much to find. I hope he will make something really fine.

But oh, please, not yet. Give me time. Give me a few years of comfort-blanket rocking and chubby arms around my neck. Give me a few more years where he gets confused whose nose is whose, where we sit quiet together so I can hear his heartbeat and he can hear mine. We go back a long way, me and this boy, to the very beginnings. Just for now, I want to keep carrying him home.


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.)

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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.)

The reset button

‘There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle’.

Albert Einstein

There are thoughts that I hope all parents have, and don’t admit to. The ones you swallow immediately and never, never let out of your mouth. I am all for full disclosure here. This is a circle of trust.


Here’s another: This house can rot for all I care. I’m not cleaning it.

And another: it would be SO MUCH EASIER to do this if I didn’t have a baby.

Hey, it’s alright. You’re not Satan. All it means is that you’re a human person, hanging out with another human person whom you love with a white-hot intensity but who hasn’t yet developed logic or table manners or conversation. And things are different now, but every now and again you forget. I sat at my table and thought that last one yesterday. We take Henry to lots of places, but I just wanted to go see Skyfall, and the Shakespeare exhibit, and a show for Timothy’s birthday next week, without wrangling around for a babysitter, spending money reserved for nappies and worrying about leaving my boy. I want to go away for our anniversary in March, but I don’t think timings will be on our side this time. I thought all that and stewed in my crossness, and then was engulfed in so much guilt I wanted to cry.

Change has a way of really thumping you in the face sometimes, doesn’t it? Even the best change you ever made. We just have a hankering for old routines we can’t shake off.

This evening I found my reset button. We ate homemade pizza and badly made cake pops (not my strong point). Henry ran around entertaining himself, coming back for the odd read-through of A Baby’s First Christmas – he’s feeling festive already, apparently. Then he got tired. Tim went to make his bottle, and Henry sat at the top of the stairs, hands in his lap, and cried. I knew without looking that he was waiting for me to ride on up and rescue him.

I didn’t hesitate. I ran. Because he was waiting for me. Because I can fix his problems. Because one day, I’ll wish I still could.

I couldn’t give that up for all the Skyfalls in China. If they’re showing Skyfall in China. Which, who knows. Maybe I could go see it there.

Funeral blues for dummies

Stop all the clocks!

Cut off the telephone.

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.

Silence the piano and with muffled drum

Throw away the dummies, because it’s not doing either of us any good these days, honestly.

(With sincere apologies to Auden. I owe you one, ole saggy-face.)

I will sing the song of dummy worship any old day of the week. Some people are sniffy about dummies; I am not. When he was little it was simple comfort. Through colic and can’t-sleep, through the many tribulations of being smaller than your average bread loaf, there was always hey you, I am sad. Sucking makes me feel better. Problem solved.

Now there are wants as well as needs, and both are more complicated. He doesn’t often cry because he’s sad, he cries because he wants me to look at him, because he can’t do everything he wants, because he prefers the view from up in my arms, because he likes the sound it makes. There are ten million things he might need to communicate and at the minute he only has crying and a monkey noise in his arsenal. Sometimes I need to take notice and sometimes I need to deliberately not take notice (and I hate treading that line , by the way: I am always puzzling over it. I wish he came with a sign over his head telling me which one to choose).

Either way, the dummy doesn’t fix it. It only stops the noise.

Also – dummy teeth? No. He’s going to have enough problems in that quarter as it is. You can ask my orthodontist (or don’t, because she scared me).

So this week I took the plunge – or, half a plunge – and put the dummies in a box in his room. They stay in his cot, and come out for naps and bedtime. It doesn’t sound like much, but ohhh, long car journeys. The daily parade of banged heads. The witching hour between 5 and 6pm. Dear heavens, Tesco. I am suffering.

There will, of course, be some occasions where it won’t be appropriate for him to sing out his feelings – church, for a start – and as I want him to get used to sitting quietly I think the noise plug will still be useful there. But not on an ordinary day. Not on an ordinary day, self. (I said that last bit louder to be more convincing.)

We’re going to do a couple of months of this while I gather up my nerves, and then I need to think about banishing them at night, too. Since he has never in his two-legged life gone to sleep without milk and a dummy, I have rather an ominous feeling. I’ll be dropping flowers and some ear plugs round to our neighbours, for a start.

The good news is that, through lack of use, the dummy has turned into baby crack. Not a peep out of him at bedtime all week. I’ll be meditating on that the next time we’re down the cheese aisle.

Short notes from the thick of it: 2

Dear friends,

Here is a secret:

It would be a lie if I said

that I don’t, sometimes,

think about upturning the bowl onto his head

and going for a nap.

Please don’t tell anyone.


My Living Room Looks Like a Tomato Soup Jackson Pollock.



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.

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 🙂

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