Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Fake Break

toddler train trip

Before it was wrong, children often toiled alongside their parents. For their parents. Now we work for them. Like tiny benign overlords they preside over us. Arguably it’s better this way. But sometimes, when my toddler rides me like a mule after 12 hours of one-to-one fun, only marginally so.

The rhythm of modern parenting is so different from the tune our kids would have danced to a few generations ago. The expectations we have of ourselves now are frankly exhausting. If you saw the blur in my eyes and the stoop in my back, you would immediately guess I’ve been up since 5.30 a.m., moving quickly – in a sort of trotting hunch – after a small child.

(I’m doing it solo. What can I say? My osteopath offered me an elaborate toddler-carrying harness. It looked heavier than my daughter, and more complicated.)

Turns out the immediate and pressing demands of early parenthood don’t allow for as many breaks as I’d hoped. Where once things happened in a linear way, one after another, now several activities must be undertaken consecutively, in a mad reactive rush. Actually, I almost forgot how to have a break.

So you must do maintenance. Take little ‘fake breaks’ each day/week/month that prop you up and make you happy. These are breaks you can take when you really can’t take one, which make you a fully functioning human and mother. A human mother.

These are my five:

A book
I stay up too late because I need time to myself. I do all sorts of things (streaming something rubbish online, normally) in the belief that I am relaxing. Unintentionally, though, I stopped reading books. I’d race urgently to the finish line of newspaper articles but thought I didn’t have time to walk the long way round a novel. Misguided fool, a good book is the single best way to refresh your head. Fifteen minutes at the end of each day – that’s all you need.

A Mini Break
To stay in a hotel alone with a toddler is not a straightforward thing. Evenings will most likely be spent hiding in the 'en suite' or reading by the light of the minibar. But in desperate times this is what I now occasionally do.

A night in an oddly decorated room, behind a narrow door at the end of a long, bland corridor is surprisingly salutary. Think of it as respite care. For 24 hours my daughter and I swim and roam around the hotel like animals, eating food not cooked by me. She can wear pyjamas and swimsuits all day, if she likes. It doesn’t matter. And I get looked after too.

A Train Trip
It’s very difficult to get lost when you live by the sea, as we do. You have a vast geographical point of reference at the bottom of every hill. This is both comforting and cloying, depending on your mood. Sometimes I take a train trip with my daughter so we can get a bit lost together. Not a long one (that would be madly counterproductive), just a short ride to see different things: horses, cows and sheep as we whizz past. We ‘read’ magazines (well, she does – I mainly pick up the free toys from the floor) and eat crap food. The point isn’t really where we end up (normally London, to be honest) – it’s the journey.

The Radio
The TV is now my daughter’s domain, but the radio, the radio is mine. A hinterland on long days constricted by rain, which makes Megablocks, jigsaws and ‘tea parties’ more fun for much longer. With Radio 4 on in the background, we can go for hours.

Give in. Really, it’s been a revelation. The more extraneous stuff I try to get done when I’m spending time alone with my little girl, the less okay our day is. Forget sheepishly meddling with your phone or covertly interfering with your laptop – red rag to a bull. The contentment and (relative) calm that come over us when I let everything else go is a holiday. Surrender is where it's at.

Monday, 25 March 2013

A moment missed


When my daughter was four months old I decided it would be the thing to sell up and shift our new and amorphous life together two-hundred miles south. I should note that it was just the two of us – had been from the start. So the reality of the idea was something of an undertaking.

Off my face on hormones, I rode trains up and down the country with my baby, and roughshod over our golden chance to do nothing together. As she slept, I hunched over boxes. As she lay across my body, feeding, I soothed my bleeping phone with my fingers – ‘PROPERTY ALERT!’ it wailed insistently.

Our house was sold. I cried with relief that there would be no more viewings to dementedly tidy for, no more awkwardly kicking the breast pump under the sofa or hiding a damp nappy under the cat. And relief that soon my girl and I would relax again. Then our purchase fell through. We got back on the trains.

Oh yes, it was exciting at the start. A happy plan fuelled by a kind of nesting instinct gone wild. But, woah, the effort it took in the end. For months I was rheumy eyed and batshit crazy from exhaustion, with the jumpy fast-twitch reflexes of an overwrought racehorse.

We're here now, though, by the sea. Have been since my daughter was nine months old. And we love it. But the thing is, I missed her. She never left my side, in fact she barely left my arms, but while I poured over surveys, smiled weakly at estate agents and went quietly loopy from overload, I missed her.

In my odd postnatal explosion of activity, I forgot to pay attention. What I should have been doing was quietly watching, because something ephemeral and wonderful was happening in front of me; my daughter was being five, six, seven, eight months old for the first and last time. And I still miss it now.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Booked up

Girl Reading - Picasso

There is, I hear, a thing called ‘extreme reading’. From what I can tell, this involves being photographed wielding a book in an odd – preferably uncomfortable – location. Frankly I can think of no better way to put me off my flow, but kids seem to like it.

It’s World Book Day on Thursday, and I was thinking about what it is that stirs children to read. I mean properly to soak up a book rather than simply to ‘bark at print’ like small dalek hounds.

Oscar Wilde said: “It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” Oh, in that single line, what light he shines on the role played by reading for pleasure in shaping who we become. And, oof, the parental responsibility that that kind of implies.

The books young children read when they don’t have to, and even when they do, must be the books they actually love. Not the ones we think they ought to. In our household, these are the top ten choices of a soon to be two-year-old called Elodie.

Arthur’s Dreamboat by Polly Dunbar
An unbelievably lovely book set in the hazy area between a child’s (Arthur’s) imagination and reality. My daughter and I are essentially Arthur’s groupies: we have seen the puppet show based on the book twice (http://www.longnosepuppets.com/blog) and play the CD of the show almost daily. But the book, the book is what we look at night after night, always noticing something new to talk about.

Bunny Bunny Catkin by Cathy MacLennan
A joyous description of Spring bursting into life, which demands to be chanted aloud. In the beautiful illustrations and bouncing rhythm there are echoes of the author’s Zimbabwean childhood. Cute but in a brilliant way. And surreal too: ‘kitten trees’?

Monkey and Me by Emily Gravett
A girl and her toy monkey bound through this exuberant book, which uses simple repetition and fabulous illustrations to carry you along with them. An excellent romp.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
We’ve been reading this wonderfully soporific tale several times a week since my daughter was six months old. It is a simple and rhythmic goodnight to all the things inside a ‘great green room’. Somehow comforting and magical at the same time.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems
This one puts your child in charge, giving her a chance to yell ‘NO!’ Proper good fun to be had trying to stop a pigeon from taking a bus for a joyride, from an Emmy Award-winning writer and animator for Sesame Street. (So you know it’s got to be good.)

Maisy Goes to Nursery by Lucy Cousins
We read this ALL the time. Every Maisy book goes down well but this one, which helped my daughter when she started nursery, is the favourite. Simple, sweet and reassuring.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
This caterpillar is a monster industry and needs no introduction from me.

Elephant Wellyphant by Nick Sharratt
A bonkers parade of fruit Jellyphants, rude Smelliphants, not on your Nelliphants and others, with tabs and flaps to manhandle. You get the picture. It’s great fun.

Penguin by Polly Dunbar
Penguin doesn’t speak. Ben tries everything, but Penguin says NOTHING. A charming and funny book about a boy and a penguin, guest-starring a lion who is bitten on the nose. Beautifully illustrated.

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Apparently this one is controversial, but as far as my daughter is concerned it’s just a terrific, imaginative and funny read. The controversy comes from the fact that the little boy ‘Mickey’ is fully naked in some of the illustrations. But, really, so what? I will concede that this book is odd, though – much odder than I remember finding it when I was a child. An intriguing non-scary choice for children who might be too young for Sendak’s great classic, Where the Wild Things Are.

Happy World Book Day. And Happy birthday darling Elodie!

Monday, 28 January 2013

Mama said

Help ransom note

During a brief stint teaching, my shoes were captured and held to ransom by students.

I don’t remember the detail of their demands, just that I was handed menaces, printed across a photo of my missing footwear, by a good-natured 17-year-old called Simon.

The shoes weren’t taken by force, you understand; that wasn’t necessary. I’d removed them to pad around in comfort. (It was that sort of course). My first mistake. Cotton socks do not confer authority. I tell you this not for catharsis but to demonstrate that good discipline is perhaps not my thing.

In general, the same flimsy approach to maintaining authority is applied at home. My daughter has no idea who is The Don, and nor have I. But don’t go thinking this is because I’m some kind of laid-back parent. I’m not. I’m just baffled much of the time.

I can’t be the only one who has decided on a strategy for dealing with a properly dementing aspect of toddler behaviour, before changing tack the moment a mother with a more impressive sense of certainty raises an eyebrow in my approximate direction. This, I believe, is known as being ‘inconsistent’.

And it’s not helped by the unstoppable behemoth that is the parenting-advice industry, which stomps over intuition and rides roughshod across instinct. In fact, the glut of expert voices competing to tell us how to raise our children has created a generation of madly self-conscious and bemused parents.

There’s just so much of it. Instructions, warnings, commandments, congratulations-your-child-is-42. And if you don’t read it yourself, someone who has will start murmuring about sleep training or attachment parenting or some damned study or other anyway. And you will think: “Shit, no wonder I’m knackered – I haven’t been doing sleep training. What is sleep training?”

A need has been created. Next thing, you’re hooked.

But the more we seek this stuff out, the further away we become from what we instinctively know to be right for our own children and ourselves. I don’t mean we have all the answers, just that we’ve reached a point at which there are more answers than questions, and that just makes the whole business feel much too complicated.

For all I know there is some kind of Delphic oracle of parenting out there. Or else there isn’t. Either way, I’m putting my clunky guides to child rearing out of reach. It’s more enjoyable that way.

Right, I’m off to Google the best way to fire a dummy (pacifier) into outer space.


My shoes were eventually returned unharmed. The students continued with their terrifying campaign of fun.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Late so soon

Einstein Relativity Time

The faster one travels, the slower time moves. We know this from Einstein’s theory of relativity. So if something is moving incredibly slowly – a toddler putting on her coat, say – time must surely zoom along apace. 

Finally an answer to the vexing question of why it is that a person in sole charge of a young child cannot leave the house before noon. IT'S PHYSICS.

No, really. I theorized the hell out of it while watching my daughter complete a jigsaw puzzle. She worked carefully. It was a slow process. So slow I was forced to lash myself to the table to keep from diving in, wailing: “Seriously, it only has FOUR pieces.” Time, on the other hand, although seeming to stand still, rushed past so quickly that lunchtime was suddenly upon us. And I had achieved NOTHING. (Apart from further developing Einstein’s seminal work, of course. Oh hello Nobel Prize.)*

It occurs to me at this point that one of the most difficult things about the early years of parenthood is what a desperate dawdle the whole business can be. When I say dawdle, I don’t mean that life is not busy, just that it manages to be busy very, very slowly. Of course, I’m temperamentally completely unsuited to this new pace. I really must adjust.

But there is something about the natural tendency of a toddler to faff that can be maddening when hurrying. Worse still for my poor old baby, though, who must endure a mother who palpably vibrates with restless energy as we go through our daily getting-ready-to-go-out routine.**

I won’t bore you with the detail (perhaps you have a similar routine yourself) but it does involve: last minute changes of footwear, coat refusal, the exuberant upturning of toy baskets, spontaneous games of ‘shopping’, urgent requests for plaaaaaaaaaydooooooh and, as we finally close the front door behind us, a nappy (diaper) that can only be described as a dirty protest. At which point the whole saga starts again ad infinitum.

The truth is a deadline (even a self-imposed one) is no friend of the toddler. Without a deadline life with the very young takes on its own much looser shape. Without a deadline there is MUCH more laughing. Without a deadline you get a non-vibrating woman and a delighted toddler. And this of course is a very good thing.

*Oh yes, and raising my daughter too.

** Yes, a vibrating mother. Is that not a normal thing?

Next time: string theory for infants.


I took the title of this post from a poem by Theodor Geisel, AKA Dr Seuss. Here it is:

How did it get so late so soon?

How did it get so late so soon?
It's night before it's afternoon.

December is here before it's June.

My goodness how the time has flewn.

How did it get so late so soon?

And another thing

A version of this post originally appeared as a guest blog for Netmums

Thursday, 3 January 2013

There's a party in utero

ultrasound party scan

I’ve been reading about ultrasound parties. I wish I could tell you they involve early 90s reggae sound systems, or something, but they don’t. No, they involve inviting a crowd over for drinks, snacks and the scanning of a foetus in utero.

Is that not a weird thing? Isn’t an ultrasound scan something you turn up for with slightly sweaty palms and a stomach knot tied from frayed cords of anxiety, excitement and morning sickness? Or maybe I just felt like that because I wasn’t at a party?

Well anyway, everyone’s doing it, apparently;* hosting events where the special guest is a foetus, and an ultrasonographer is master of ceremonies. It’s great. You lie down in front of your guests and have K-Y Jelly smeared over your belly. A probe glides across your skin, searching for a heartbeat while the ultrasonographer – presumably with a mouthful of pretzels, or something – hunts around for signs of congenital abnormality.

Because isn’t that what ultrasound scans are for? Sorry to be a downer but, isn’t it?

There are so many reasons to be a little freaked out by this ‘trend’. Yes, our increasingly voracious appetite for attention-as-validation and extreme over-sharing is distasteful. (And throwing a party to scrutinise with friends the insides of our own bodies is surely extreme.) But it is the growing commercialisation of childbirth that is really troubling.

I happily paid for a printed image from each of my scans. And I treasure those blurred grey mementos of a special time. If I had been offered other kinds of souvenir I might have bought those too.

Perhaps I would have drawn the line at a nine-centimetre 3D resin model of my dear foetus for £800 (or half price for just her face)**. But I might not have. My brain was addled by baby love and a powerful urge to hold on to every stage of pregnancy. (Apart from the swelling, the nausea, the neurosis, the acid reflux... Oh, who am I kidding?)

You see, that’s what concerns me. If you had packaged up all the good bits of pregnancy, all the exciting, amazing and transient bits, and offered them to me in a tangible form that I could hold on to forever, you really could have cleaned up. I would probably have bought the lot.

The emotions and expectations involved in pregnancy and childbirth mean there is opportunity for easy money to be made. And just because you can make money, doesn’t mean you should. Damn, if I were less reticent and more of a party girl maybe I would have had a bloody ultrasound bash too. (I wouldn’t.)

*By everyone, I mean a few.
** Yes, this is an actual thing.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Grinch is dead

Christmas turkey

The Grinch is dead. He died nearly two years ago now. My daughter finished him off, you see.

When he was around, Christmas was a desultory old business. Like a room without a TV ­– I mean fireplace – there was just no focus, nothing to really draw the eye. In truth, my family and I essentially spent the day staring at a turkey*. We would shamble around, draped in tinsel and fairy lights, with not a child in sight. Where’s the dignity in that?

Then my daughter was born. And the Grinch was toast.

Since his demise, Christmas has become properly exciting again. Like it was during my childhood, when my parents would fill stockings knitted by Granny, and cheerfully prepare a feast for lunch.**

Now we no longer stare at a large stuffed bird for kicks; we look at my daughter instead. I won’t list the many reasons that this is an improvement, but she does say, “Ho Ho Ho” in her small squeaky voice, and seriously, show me a turkey that can do that. No, a dead one.

What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m excited about Christmas again, and it’s because of my daughter. She will have the same stocking at the end of her bed that I did. The one knitted by her Great Granny, who she never met. She will find a tangerine at the bottom of it, just as I did. Which will secretly disappoint her a tiny bit, just as it did me. It’s tradition.

So perhaps my rediscovered festive cheer is not only down to a dead Grinch. Perhaps motherhood has made me the kind of sentimental fart that bores the pants off everyone around the Christmas table. And every family needs one of those. That’s tradition too.

Happy Christmas!

* Yes, yes, we could have stared at the Christmas tree but we REALLY like to eat. We’re very greedy.
** My teenage door-slamming sessions and hours spent smoking from my bedroom window don’t fit the narrative and will therefore not be recorded here.

Something more important

While I was writing this post I learned – via Shelter’s Christmas Campaign – that 75,000 children in Britain will be homeless this Christmas. That’s more than two children in every primary school.
My daughter and I are lucky. Reading through the above, with the Shelter campaign in mind, I see just how lucky.
Please visit the Shelter website to find out more http://shltr.org.uk/336