Tag Archives: Writing

Writing about your children: how much is too much on the internet?

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I’ve been thinking so hard about something lately – and gone round in so many circles – that it’s squashed my head into a new shape. But I finally made my mind up this weekend, and would welcome your thoughtful discussion. So here goes.

For about six months I’ve been seriously analysing the internet footprint I give my kids. Who knows what the internet will look like by the time they’re old enough to use it deliberately, but they’ve got plenty of teenage years to embarrass themselves online, right? That’s the world they’re in now, and we’ll have to talk about internet etiquette and safety as thoroughly as our parents talked to us about seatbelts.

My thinking has been: they deserve to come to the internet with a fresh slate. I’ve always used their real names here on this blog, without thinking much about it. But by using their names, I’ve given them an internet footprint that’s all about them as babies and me as their mother – through the good times and the less good. Not something they’ve chosen, or something they can control.

Am I making sense at all?

I think very carefully about what I write here, particularly about them. I try to be honest about my feelings as a parent, without exposing them in a way they might find painful or embarrassing later on. I want to be a good mother myself, of course (writing helps with that). And I hope that being honest and kind might help another parent who feels like they’re going a little bit insane. If I could do that, just a little bit, it would be wonderful. I hope too that my boys will love reading about how we grew together, but I don’t want them to find that I’ve undermined their dignity or privacy here. They are too important to me for that.

It’s a bit of a tightrope, and I’m always re-evaluating it as I go along.

Essentially my bottom line is: if a really vile kid in middle school googled my boys’ names with an intent to find something they could make fun of, would they find anything?

This has all come to a point this weekend, because that blasted What to Expect article resurfaced somewhere again. Oh, that article. It feels like the parenting mistake I should never have made and will never get rid of. I feel sick and guilty still when I think about it.

I was so nakedly, emotionally vulnerable, because I was used to doing that here, with a small and supportive audience comprised of people who liked me. But those people don’t live on the internet at large, as anyone could’ve told me. It was such a stupid thing to do.

The worst part wasn’t that I admitted to being wearied by toddler tantrums and attracted a lot of vitriol in return – fair enough, I wrote it. It was that I exposed my two-year-old. Who was only being two. Who didn’t even know what I was doing, but was then set upon by a thousand contemptuous adults who’d never met him, or me.

I brought him into that space. I used his name. I will never forgive myself for it, and I’ve never done it again. I hope to goodness he never finds it, or finds it with a bracing sense of humour and a stack of chocolate biscuits.

ANYWAY. I always know when that post is doing the rounds again, because I get a few nice messages of solidarity on Facebook (hi, nice messengers!), and then a few people contact me, out of the blue, to suggest I start spanking my boy to prevent his nascent personality disorder.

It happened again this weekend, and reminded me of the damage I could do.

(By the way, you’d be surprised how many people genuinely believe their children never had an emotional splurge – or had one once, and received A Single Look, and never tried it again. Because their two-year-olds were superhuman, blessed with the ability to control emotions far beyond their maturity level. Possibly they were Vulcans? I will spare you my thoughts on this, because they are NOT KIND. But you hereby have leave to imagine my laughter.)

So.

I think (I hope!) that writing about parenting – the happiness and the head-against-wall days – is something that builds and lifts and contributes. It does that for me, and I hope it does that for you too. So I’m going to carry on. But I’m going to stop using their real names. And I’m going to go back through my posts since they first appeared (urrrgh) and edit their names out there too. Tim tells me that gradually the search engines will catch up, so that by the time the middle-school snot is making them feel like crap in the hallways, he’ll find it a little harder to get here. BULLIES NEVER PROSPER, MIDDLE-SCHOOL SNOT. REMEMBER THIS.

There’s a lot I can’t do much about and this isn’t a perfect solution, but I can start here. Obscuring them just a little bit, so they can make their internet identities afresh when they’re ready.

PS – I’m going to use their initials. To be honest, it looks weird. But not nearly as weird as the various nicknames I tried. If you wouldn’t mind doing the same in the comments, I’d be much obliged t’ye, marsters.

What are your feelings about kids and internet privacy? 

If I were Katniss Everdeen, my day would sound like this

This week I reread The Hunger Games trilogy. In two-and-a-half days. And here’s an interesting discovery: you can’t swallow fourteen hundred pages that fast without starting to feel like you’re the heroine in a book written by Suzanne Collins. Which makes you all present tense, short sentences, heavy on the drama, heavy on the eyebrows (my new fringe isn’t helping with this much. I find fringes terribly dramatic, somehow). Bless Ms Collins: she also ends every chapter with a cliffhanger in which at least one person, somewhere, is shouting ‘nooooooooooooo!’

Fourteen hundred pages. That’s a lot of cliffhangers.

My days are easily that dramatic, since you ask.

The

           Baby Games

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Chapter 1

It’s dark when I wake up. I glower across the room at the clock, as my fingers stretch automatically over the faded coverlet to replace Edward’s dummy. I can hear a rhythmic banging on the stairs.

Burglars, I think. They’ve come for us at last.

The door creaks open, creakily. I realise I am yawning, and bite my tongue. I must not show weakness, not here. There’s a figure in the doorway, and now I’m sure I know who it is.

‘Porridge time?’ it enquires, in a plaintive voice I know only too well.

It’s not burglars. It’s not even the postman.

It’s Henry.

Chapter 2

Panic. That’s what I feel as I hurtle down the stairs three at a time. Teds is wailing, and it’s a cry that means only one thing.

I enter the room and choke on the fog of nappy fumes that fills the air. I get down low on my hands and knees, searching for the source of the explosion. I know I’ll only get one chance to defuse it. Perhaps it’s already too late.

After what feels like a lifetime I find Teddy’s foot, and yank open his babygro with one hand. The smell is bad, but it in no way prepares me for what is waiting underneath. The stickily evil swamp. The orange and brown stains flooding up his back. Worst of all, the twitching that tells me another bomb is on its way.

I have just enough time to cover my face before the baby bowel explodes, and I am thrown backwards into the air.

Chapter 3

CRASHHH! I whip around, hands full of the sausages I’ve been skinning at the stove, to find Henry covered in broken remnants of Christmas ornament.

‘I smashed it’, he says, blue eyes bright underneath his mop of gold hair. He looks so like his father. I soften.

‘Let me sing you a song’, I say. I don’t sing very often, but it feels like the right moment. I begin, my voice low and persuasive.

Small potatoes, on the moon

Small potatoes, in the sea

Small potatoes, take a bath

Small potatoes, sing with me

Potatoes, oh, potatoes

Small potatoes

As I finish the song we sit still, tears of emotion making my throat ache. Then I realise that I can no longer hear the goats calling to each other outside the window. Guess it’s true, the goats really do fall silent when I sing.

Henry is silent too. Then he smiles, and smashes another Christmas ornament onto his own head.

Chapter 4

He’s here. Finally, he’s here. I run from the bathroom, where I’ve been foraging for old nappies, and cannon into him. Straight into the warmth of his arms. His face is amused as he looks down at me.

‘Why are you carrying a plastic Furby?’

I don’t want to tell him, but I have to. I avoid his eyes and mutter ‘it’s a Happy Meal toy. We went to McDonald’s today’.

Immediately his face darkens with sorrow, and I wish I hadn’t said anything. ‘Didn’t you get me a Festive Pie?’

I hang my head. ‘They’d run out’.

In the night, I dream of lost pies and skinned sausages. I wake up screaming, breathless with horror. He eases me back into sleep and as I float off into oblivion, I hear him say ‘there’ll be more pies tomorrow’.

And I know he’s telling me the truth.

The End

‘The Baby Games is awesome’ – Stephenie Meyer

‘A gripping dystopian thriller that had me hooked till the final pages’ – The New York Times

STAY TUNED FOR NEXT YEAR’S EXPLOSIVE SEQUEL: 

CATCHING GASTROENTERITIS.

I went to India, and found some words

Hey, come back here with me a minute. All the way back here, to October 2008. A strange world, before One Direction, Sherlock and the iPhone 3GS. I’ve been married six months, a milestone twice over. First, thanks to Timothy’s two years in South Africa, we’ve only just now spent as much time together in the same country as we’ve been together apart. This is a fact that makes us sound weirder than we really are (I hope). And second, I’ve just been sent to India for a month, and I am frightened to death about it. This is a fact that makes me sound lamer than I really…oh no wait, never mind.

It’s an opportunity I can’t turn down, so I don’t. My mouth falls open when I get there, and doesn’t close for weeks. I’m sat in a huge 4×4, gaping out of the window at two parents and three, yes count them three small children all on the same motorbike. The motorbike-for-five is swerving hypnotisingly close to us – I can see the breeze ruffling the tiniest boy’s hair – and I notice I’m gripping my seatbelt so that my hands have turned into claws. I think, Tim would never believe this. I should write it down.

When I get to my hotel room I leave the unpacked suitcase where it is, and open a fresh Word document. Something about a clean piece of paper and a pen makes me freeze – I can never find the right word first time, and I’m obsessed with finding exactly the right word – but I look at the empty white screen with a keyboard under my hands to fill it, and it feels like there are stories in my fingers and a world here for my making. I haven’t written anything for fun since high school, unless you count The Ballad of the Tiny Ironing Board. I’ve forgotten what it does to my insides.

I write long, indignant, amazed, colourful essays from Chennai the whole time I’m there. Somewhere during that time it dawns on me that this will not be something I can easily stop. When I get home, I start a blog.

Snapshots

I reread my Indian travelogue last night. It’s pretty painful in places – I had yet to realise that it’s possible to be funny without being grumpy and sarcastic, though I suppose anything you write in your early twenties comes with a side-order of hideous embarrassment – but I haven’t edited it. All the time since I haven’t been able to stop looking for stories. They might be tin-pot little stories that never go anywhere except here, and I might be hideously embarrassed by them in years to come, but they feel like worlds for my making. And I found them first in a fresh Word document, a hotel room in Chennai, a tiny boy on a motorbike about to bang on my window.

This is what I believe so fiercely I could shake a fist at it: find what you love. Do what you love. Start something that does things to your insides. You have worlds to make and stories to tell, and I for one would love to see them.

Three things:

what have you always wanted to do? Do tell me, and leave your blog address below if you have one.

I’m on cupcake mascara today, talking about why I started blogging. I suppose this is the long version.

And my India diaries start here. Have a look, and we can laugh at how grumpy and pretentious I am together.

How to blog the real you, whether or not ‘blog’ is a verb

‘Yes, self’, I said, ‘you may write a blog post this evening, on the strict condition that you are done by 10pm. Because, and stop me if you are already aware of this, you are tired enough to be an actual menace to society’.

Cue stream-of-consciousness (it’s 9.51).

Yesterday I led a couple of workshops on blogging for teenagers. I’m not always on solid ground with teenagers, which I think is mostly because I’m extremely uncool and hyper-aware of it, so I get all awkward. But these were great. They laughed obligingly at my baby-poop stories, joined in my lame-o personality quiz, and we all had an inappropriate giggle at an innuendo I accidentally wrote on one of my slides. Totally not the time or the place, and frankly what you deserve when you put together a slideshow at 1am. But they laughed instead of letting me flounder in an awkward silence, so we were all winners.

Preparing this made me think a lot about blogging. How you can write your life the way you want it to be, or the way it actually is. When I was a teenager I was caught always between the bravado I pushed in front of people and the insecurity that seethed underneath. Blogging can be a lot like that – too shiny-perfect on one hand, too woe-is-me misery memoir on the other. Sometimes I think that turning into an adult means learning how to occupy the middle space between bravado and insecurity: taking long, square, compassionate looks at your vulnerable places, allowing them house-room alongside your strengths, and holding them out so others can understand you better.

The blog I want (and don’t always manage) sits in that middle space, too. Good days and bad. Leaving equal room for the vibrant and vulnerable. If we start from the assumption that we’re all vulnerable somewhere, then maybe there’s space on the internet for us to sit alongside each other, swing our legs, pass around some cheesecake, and be ourselves.

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Reformation, after a fashion

With a giant Roman warthog. I don’t really have a reason.

I have been feeling a little bit of a mess this week, and it started with a freckle.

No, it started because I am waiting for work to appear (hey, anyone want to pay me to write?) and without it end up feeling like I’m on enforced vacation: dithery, and lazy, and undirected. Then I got a new freckle on my nose that was large and dark enough to look like I’d spilled dinner on myself, and one thing led to another until I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking everything I’d ever written had been a hack-job.

I seem to be in a running-errands-buying-crib-sheets-trying-to-bend-over phase this month. The sort of phase where I’m sat in the evening eating a bagful, a giant BAGFUL of crushed ice because it’s all I want, and eating it till I feel sick. Did you even know you can eat crushed ice till it makes you sick? Was that something I needed to discover for the rest of us?

At slow times like this, I realise that there are ideas about myself that I hold on to, that are precious to me, and that it hurts to be without them. Like, for example, I Am A Person Who Thinks and Writes. It is embarrassing to say it, but I feel vulnerable without it. I feel less of a person.

Then I realise that perhaps there are times when I’m stripped of those things so that I can work out how to be myself without them. They don’t have to define me, after all; or not all the time. I am about to go back to a point where the definition of a productive day is getting dressed and making sure everyone is fed. And sometimes not even getting dressed. It was hard, last time, accepting that simplicity. It was difficult to feel valuable when my own markers of value were all beyond me. I had to find other ways of being complete. I think it’s time to practice it again.

Yesterday I folded laundry and watched a documentary about William Tyndale. Now, there was a man in the grip of an idea that wrung his life out, but burned on far beyond him. He was the first man to translate the Bible in English, and he spent most of his life in exile before being betrayed and executed. He is one of my heroes, and the other players in that grand saga of the English Reformation are endlessly fascinating to me: More, Cromwell and Wolsey, and that great hulking King bearing down over all of them.

‘Henry’, I kept saying, ‘Henry, this is wonderful‘. It was wonderful. I was elbow-deep in knickers, getting excited about the Reformation, and it felt like being myself.

Today we skipped out to Oxford for the afternoon – we last ate Chinese food and took stupid photos in the Ashmolean Museum when I was expecting Henry, and we promised ourselves we’d pass on the tradition once he was old enough. We made faces at the Greek and Roman statues, then went upstairs to see the paintings. There was a single, luminous portrait by Edward Burne-Jones that made me catch my breath. ‘Oh, look’, I said, ‘it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s just beautiful’.

‘BOAT!’ said Henry. I think he was looking at the painting next door. But that one was beautiful too. I was hand-in-hand with my sticky toddler, getting ready to head off the squealy protest that was coming when he had to go back into the pushchair and feeling too huge to be allowed out, frankly; yet there were Pre-Raphaelites on the walls, and I could see that they were lovely.

I am still me, regardless. There are all sorts of ways of feeling complete.

Mary Burne-Jones

Mary Burne-Jones. Isn’t she a beauty? 

Photo courtesy Martin Beek, here

What I would like to know is: what ideas about yourself are most important to you? Do they do you good? And what do you do when you don’t have them for a while?

The year of magical thinking

I looked this morning at my 2011 retrospective. So much happened that year – big, tumultuous, never-the-same-again life events – that I could hardly fit it all in one post. But 2012 hasn’t been the same: mostly just the growing of a boy, and our normal lives, and a lot of thinking and writing. As it stands, one of our most intense moments has been just now, when Timothy bet me a bottle of Coke that I couldn’t keep nine marmite-coated Twiglets in my mouth simultaneously (I WON, SUCKAS).

In some ways it’s been quieter. In a lot of ways it’s been louder. I have loved it.

Indulge me, then. This year we:

ate our Shrove Tuesday pancakes with fire-engine lipstick;

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celebrated six months of boy;

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fell in love with New York sidewalks and Florida sand;

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paid homage to the original Henricus Rex and his adventure playground;

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wished Shakespeare a happy birthday;

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watched as Henry crawled, and then walked, then broke all of our things;

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completely lost our heads at the Hay Festival;

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captained a narrowboat down an Oxfordshire canal;

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met Jasper Fforde, and showered him with raisins;

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totally fell in love with the Olympics;

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held a first birthday party;

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camped the heck out of Dorset, and loved every minute;

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gaped at Winchester Cathedral;

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and introduced Henry to Sprucey the two-headed Christmas tree.

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In between, I wrote about big things and small: resolutions, and the problem of chipping a Facebook-shaped hole out of my heart. Anniversaries and wedding wistfulness. Finding things holy, and facing outwards. Choosing my work. I formulated the drawbridge theory, the Sunday night breath, and the blog-browser’s call to arms. I wrote about the terrifying rubbishness of making adult friends.  I wrestled with babies and body image (more than once), and wrote sincere love letters to food. I communed with my inner polar bear mother, cleaned off my parenting slate, found my reset button, and took my boy out of the box I’d made for him. I got very, very cross about bookshops. I realised that writing things down was the best possible way of clearing my head, and I worked out where I stood on all sorts of things. I was comfortable with my opinions, and felt like I became more of myself.

And then, of course, there was much cake and even more stories to read.

(I did some actual work too, in case you were wondering.)

Appropriately, in a year that started with a celebration in the cheese aisle, we’re finishing it off with a cheese-themed New Year’s Eve party. I hope to be kissed at midnight and consume an entire slab of Wensleydale. And if that’s the case then, 2013, you have my full attention.

A plate of worm spaghetti

I met a boy when I was young, called Charlie. He was shy like I was, and he had a huge, ridiculous family like I did, and neither of us had much money. We just hit it off.

And then one day – and I remember this quite distinctly – he found a golden ticket in a chocolate bar, and inherited a chocolate factory, and rode a glass elevator into space, and that was the end of that.

I spent a childhood in books, enough for three childhoods. I imagined a genie in every sandpit, a door to a secret garden behind every curtain of ivy. It made everything exciting and mysterious. Words were exciting too – the obsession I developed with how to communicate so that the person reading it feels something emotional, how to put exactly the right words in the right order to make something beautiful – that came from reading books.

And no one, not anyone, did it better for me than Mr Dahl.

There are two Roald Dahls in my head. One is the boy in his autobiographies, which I read until they were ragged. I remember the boy who put a dead mouse in a loathsome old lady’s jar of sweets and spent summers floating in Norwegian fjords, the teenager bombing around the countryside on a secret motorcycle, the young RAF pilot shot down in the desert. The other is the voice behind Matilda and Danny and Charlie and James, who put bright and indelible images in my head: a plate of worm spaghetti, a peach soaring up in the air tied to five hundred seagulls, a conference room full of witches taking off their wigs (‘you may rrrrrremove your gloves!’), a little starving boy sniffing the air outside a chocolate factory.

His children are children, and terrible things could happen to them: they are neglected by cruel parents, often lonely, sometimes bereaved, and in at least one case turned into a mouse for the rest of his life. But they fight back. They discover inner worlds of enormous strength. In Roald Dahl’s world, there was always a chance – no, a certainty – that someone mysterious would come around the corner and marvellous things would begin to happen.

There are some things every child needs to know, and Roald Dahl knew all of them. Sometimes life can go terribly wrong. A bar of chocolate is the most wonderful thing on the planet. Risk anything for a little adventure. Some grown-ups really are out to get you. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You don’t have to be anything except kind and decent. And always, always, keep going: there are marvellous things just about to happen.

For this, and so much more, I thank you, Mr Dahl. Happy birthday. Hope the worm spaghetti in heaven is just to your liking.

Photo: CORBIS

This is September calling. It’s time to change your life.

You guys, September is in the air. Can you smell it? It smells like freshly sharpened pencils (tm Tom Hanks).

A whiff of September is irresistible to me. Eau de New Start. I buy stationery I don’t need and embark upon life-improving projects. It’s the sort of month where I start feeling like I might want a new lampshade, because what COULDN’T you accomplish with a fancy lampshade in your living room? The Cakery Bakery project was a product of September. It’s a good month for beginning things you’ve always wanted to begin, and that is the truth of it.

Today, poorly Henry and I have been holed up in the house with rain spattering the windows. I have cleaned and thought, stopped cleaning out of boredom, restarted and thought some more. Here’s what I want from myself in the last leg of this year:

Write well. Work hard at it. Write about things that matter.

I just don’t know anything better for understanding myself and my surroundings than working it out in words. I love this little blog – it’s become something essential to me, unexpectedly – and I want to make it a place worth visiting.

Make definite, uncrossable, computerless spaces in our day.

Did you know, Henry knows how to switch on an iPhone? He can’t talk, but he can swipe. The phone signal down in Dorset was awful, and I was surprised (but not really) by how clearly I can think, how many more things I notice, when cut off from a screen. I would like to resurrect our computer-free zones and the iPhone spirit prison, and maybe September will help them stick.

Read. Poetry and all. 

A bit of literary criticism does me a heck of a lot of good, even if it’s just by myself.

Really, truly listen.

To both my boys. To the people I’ve asked how they are without stopping for an answer. For the things that are said and the things that aren’t said.

Vacuum at least once a week. Do laundry more often than that.

What?

In addition, we are planning a month of diet detox and I just feel like life would be more sparkly with at least two more notebooks and a set of coloured pens. Paperchase, you and I have a date with destiny. Let’s get this month ON A ROLL.

Happy (belated) birthday Shakespeare, you beautiful bearded genius

(it was yesterday.)

No one did more for this language or this literature than this chap. Whether you’re not budging an inch, not sleeping a wink, finding method in your madness, protesting too much, giving your kingdom for a horse, wondering what’s in a name or having greatness thrust upon you, you owe Shakespeare for doing it first. He put life on the stage in all its glories and tragedies, and will always and forever be my homeboy for doing it. Poor Timothy has sat through more of Shakespeare’s plays than any computer scientist should have to in this lifetime. (Oh, he loves it.)

Did I tell you I touched a Folio once? I think it was a Fourth. I’m coming over all wobbly just remembering it.

In order to commemorate this most Shakespearean of days, I suggest you:

– watch Hamlet for grandeur, Othello for sobs or Much Ado About Nothing (the Kenneth Branagh version) for big laughs.

– declaim Sonnet 29 to your chosen loved one (reproduced below for your convenience).

– embrace your nearest copy of the Arden Complete Works (at a bookshop, if necessary; or you can come and use mine).

– grow a small pointed beard and buy a second-best bed.

Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Thanks for everything, Shakespeare. I am staggered by what the written word can do, and found it first with you.

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