2/5 This much I know.

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So, parenting.

I don’t know, I’m sure some people manage it, but in my experience it is impossible to have a baby, and then not let said baby take well and truly over your life. Pregnancy, birth, feeding and raising tiny humans has utterly dominated my every waking moment for the past 4 years and has made up the fabric of my day, every day. Which has been both wonderful and totally bonkers, inspiring and, well, intense.

Right now though, I feel like some of the fog is lifting. I can sustain my attention for more than 60 seconds on topics other than cloth nappies and the best strategy for getting your toddler into their car seat without giving yourself an aneurysm. I am beginning to prioritise myself more, and my need to get fit and use my brain in different ways, rather than always feeling at the bottom of the pecking order. There is, oh my God imagine, space in my life for more than just babies. A dog! Why will no one let me get a dog?

Part of the reason for saying farewell to this blog is that the impetus to write incessantly about parenting has waned. But while I am still here, not quite clear of those all encompassing toddler years, I thought I would write down the most important stuff that I have learned. The pearls that I want to pass on, to other people still very much beneath the mist, trying to figure it out, with only 4 hours sleep and a strong coffee to their name.

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The very most important thing I know: We all fuck up. Like, you can read all of the Janet Lansbury you like, rehearse all the right things to say in the midst of an epic toddler tantrum, be the most zen and empathetic earth mother to your three year old who has very specific cup preferences, but at some point, you will lose your shit. Not in a ‘I’m strategically raising my voice to get you to listen’ way, but in a ‘Dude, I am exhausted, my patience is in the gutter, you are pushing me to my goddamn limits and I am just yelling because I am full blown ANGRY with this TOTAL LACK OF COOPERATION YOU ARE TAKING THE PISS MY GOD!’. This is not a thing that any parent is planning on, and shit, when it happens on the way into Sainsburys with a thousand judgey old people staring at you, know that it will be one of the low moments of your life. But guys, we are human, and while I LOVE positive parenting sites like Janet’s, I think we need to be honest that sometimes a situation will just push a button and we will yell and it will be ugly. It’s okay, our children will not be emotionally broken as a result of this, and it absolutely does not undo all the other good stuff that we do. On behalf of mothers everywhere, I am officially cutting us some slack.

Parenting though, it’s a judgey game. Actually I think it begins way before we are even parents and we are in a restaurant and there is a family on the table next to us. Ipads are on, pasta is being thrown and the parents are just benignly drinking wine and pretending not to notice the breadsticks that are being crushed and then liberally sprinkled about the floor. And we sit there and we think, ‘That will never be me, I will never be that parent, I will do so much better than that’. It carries on when we have had our baby, and you see an eighteen month old in the pushchair chowing down on a packet of Quavers and you act all aghast, because suspiciously cheese flavoured reconstituted corn shall NEVER pass the lips of YOUR preshus angel. And then again when you’ve got a toddler and you see those big kids dominating the bouncy castle, bumping yours right out of the way and onto their faces, while their parents drink beer and literally could not give less of a shit, and you vow to never let your children be such obnoxious little brats that leap all over babies without a care in the world. We all judge, of course we do. Judgement is useful! When you are thrust into the oblivion, I think it is good to look around at what others are doing and syphon off the things that you like, and want to emulate, and the paths that you swear you’ll never go down. This is all a healthy way to work out the parent we want to be. But also, shit happens. The afore mentioned shit in the last paragraph for example. And it helps precisely no one if you are there, looking on, at parents having a hard time or wilfully ignoring their children, because they’ve had ENOUGH that day, and passing judgey judgement. I am trying my best to remember that, and to not be a dick.

So if we have ascertained that we are all going to have bad times, and that we will refrain from being too harsh on others who are having bad times, what about the rest? Repeat after me: there is no right way. I know amazing parents who put a ton of effort into their interactions with their children, set up wonderful Montessori style activities, and are mindful of everything they do. I also know amazing parents who work full time and drop their kids of at child care every day and let them watch a ton of TV in the evenings because they are all freaking tired. I have written a lot about the guilt that suddenly descends when you have kids and makes you feel like whatever you’re doing? Not good enough. NOT. GOOD. ENOUGH. But the conclusion that I have drawn is that if it is working out for you and you’re family? Probably good enough. I am definitely the geekiest parent on the block and if there is stuff in our family that is bothering me (my kid has started waking up in the night again, my kid hasn’t eaten any vegetables in a month, my kid has an all consuming obsession with sharks at the expense of any human interaction, let’s say, just as an example), then you can bet I will be up all night scouring the internet for ways to improve the situation. But I do try and separate out the stuff that bothers me, because it bothers me, and the stuff that is driven by what I think I should be doing, because a Mormon lady in New York is doing it.

A word on parenting blogs: There are some amazing women out there who write inspirationally and honestly about their time with children (shout outs to Renegade Mothering, Parenting Illustrated with Crappy Pictures and Recipe Rifle for keeping it so real). For the most part though, once a blog has paid sponsorship, they have to maintain their brand, and their brand is usually them, being a completely perfect parent. Of course they are dealing with the same crap as the rest of us, OF COURSE THEY ARE, but they are photographing and writing about fun trips to the pumpkin patch, or how they just weaved their own yurt out of felt. Which is cool, I love those blogs! I love felt yurts! But the phrase ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, has never been so apt.

Here are some other things I know:

Never tell the mother of a new born to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’, ‘savour every moment’ or that is all ‘goes so fast’. It does go so fast but a day when you’re up at 5am and your partner is away and it’s raining and the internet has broken also lasts a thousand years, so that kind of makes up for it.

Instead, take the mother of a newborn food: cake, coffee and meals she can reheat. Literally the only gifts worth giving.

This too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass. They will stop doing that annoying thing that they do eventually. Sure, they’ll start doing some other annoying thing instead, but a change is as good as a rest right?

And seriously, if I was to pass on one piece of actual advice to the parent of small children it would be this: Ignore them sometimes. I am cultivating a style of parenting I like to call ‘conscious neglect’ (admittedly i might need to work on my branding), because honestly, it’s okay for kids to fend for themselves for a good chunk of the day. I think a lot about my Grandma, who raised three children in the North of England during the 1950s. She had a job and did all of the domestic chores without even a goddamn vacuum cleaner or washing machine, while her husband worked away a lot. Seriously, how was this even possible? Well she sure as shit wasn’t putting together colour match wheels and busy bags and making toast that looked like a little bear (although that bear toast? OMG). And yet she was still an amazing mother. So I think about her when I tell my kids that they have to entertain themselves for a while so I can cook, or get dinner ready or mess around on my iphone and feel thankful that I don’t have a mangle and that it’s no longer an expectation that I scrub my front steps every day. They’ll be okay on their own for a while, and it makes me appreciate the times when I sit down to do something nice with them all the more.

I’m sure I’m forgetting things. How to do a one handed nappy change on the parcel shelf of your car for a start, but that’s okay, you’ll figure it out. I need to go and do some other stuff: Plant some cabbages, swoon over yellow kitchen tiles, read a BOOK, Snap Chat a friend, secretly buy a dog. Stuff that still exists, waiting for you, when you emerge from the fog.

Aquarium.

This morning my husband had to drive his Mum back to London and offered to take #2 with him so that I could hang out with the Mancub for the day. It’s always a treat to have a bit of one on one time with my biggest, and I had it in my head that we would do whatever he wanted with the day, while free from the schedules of preschool and his little brother. It would be nice to follow his lead and see what came of the time.

As soon as I asked him what he fancied, he instantly replied, ‘The Aquarium!’. Not what I expected, but I happened to have a 50% off voucher, plus it was a rainy Saturday, so feeling awfully spontaneous, we headed straight off on the bus.

So often we are out with others, be it the rest of our family or friends and, quite rightly, we have to find compromise and go at the pace of the group. It is nice, on occasion, to not have to nudge the Mancub along, or have him keep up a pace that is either too fast or too slow for his liking. Today the day was entirely his. We rushed through the initial tanks of tropical fish and straight to the rock pool area, where he happily stayed for half an hour, talking to the expert, leaning in and touching the starfish and shore crabs and operating the mini camera. I instinctively went to move him along several times, but he was clearly completely engrossed, so I bit my tongue and let him stay. We whizzed through several other sections too, pausing briefly to take in octopus and jelly fish, before getting to a digital exhibition on prehistoric marine reptiles. ‘Prehistoric is my favourite word!’, he declared, and that’s where we spent the remainder of our outing. It was an absolute pleasure throughout.

As we were in town we popped to the library and took out some books on sharks and fish, then headed home via a pizza restaurant, where he proved that he is still my favourite lunch date, because no one else I know scoops up and eats garlic butter using cucumber as a makeshift spoon, but really more people should.

Back home he spend the rest of the day playing PREHISTORIC MARINE REPTILES! using some of his dinosaur toys and told me that mudskippers are really his favourite fish.

I can’t remember a day where parenting felt so carefree and relaxing. A nice reminder that slowing down and letting them take the lead, avoiding that instinct to always hurry on, often pays off in the end.

Learning at home: Reading.

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This week, at just shy of three and a half, the Mancub learned to jump with two feet, and read. One of those things was just on the cusp of worryingly late, the other? Well allow me at least a second to Mom brag: the boy can read. Words. Short words admittedly (cat, dog, pot, win), but he sees them, sounds them out, and then tells me what they say. To say that he is excited by this development is something of an understatement. He laughed hysterically for a minute after he read his first word before shouting, ‘Write another!’. And another. And another.

At this point I believe I’m supposed to insert some sort of platitude along the lines of, ‘It’s incredible! Unbelievable! I don’t know where it came from!’, which would be something of a misnomer. I do know where it came from, because I taught him to read. So obviously I knew it was coming and it doesn’t really surprise me, but nevertheless, I’m pretty blown away by it. I’m only human, just like he is only three.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to share a few of the strategies I have used here, because they are things you can do with a child of any age, providing they find them fun and engaging and providing they are ready. Feel free to take a few of them away, or just ignore them and write me off as a terrible show off. If you’re new to this blog or don’t come here often I should also probably point out that I am a primary school teacher by trade, hence my ability to ramble on about this topic for far too many words.

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I don’t think there are many things that we are obligated to do as parents. Feeding and clothing our children is a good start. A few toys are essential I suppose. Love, warmth, affection, but certainly nothing as complicated as the thousands of parenting books on the market would suggest.

Reading for me, like clothes and food, is a non negotiable. Stories, comics and magazines. Poetry, nursery rhymes and information books. All children love being read to, and if they are read to frequently, all children will, eventually, want to learn to read for themselves. It might be when they are two, it might be when they are seven, but I fundamentally believe that children have an innate desire to learn that needs little encouragement.

What we, as parents, carers and teachers have the power to do, is to put out that flame of desire in an instant if we push them too soon, or make reading a chore. Learning anything, whether it’s riding a bike or reading a book should always come from a child’s willingness and ability to do so. I’m absolutely not advocating here that we sit down all kids at age 3 and teach them phonics (that that is happening in nurseries across the country makes my heart sink), just that we to read to them, as early and as often as possible, then the rest will naturally follow.

But, my kid showed an interest. He had that desire, and he has a good grasp of words and letters, so I did some things with him that moved his reading forward to the point he is at now, where he can decode short words himself and make a good guess at many others based on their context and initial letter. Here are a few of the things we’ve been doing over the past year.

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Strategies for Reading With Children.

As I have said, for me the single most important thing a parent can do with regards to their child’s education is to read to them. I had a bedtime story every night until I was around ten years old, and I still remember the feeling of sadness when I realised I was too old to have one any more. No child would ever want to read unless they have an incentive to do so. Reading them stories that they love provides that incentive, as well as about a million other benefits.

Alongside this you can begin to introduce your child to the phonetic alphabet. There is no harm in teaching letter names (A, B, C etc), but it is more beneficial in terms of learning to read to teach the phonetic sounds (A is a hard a, like at the start of Apple, B is buh, C is cuh, E is eh like at the start of Elephant etc). I bought a few simple alphabet books and used these as a starting point, (I would trace the letter with his finger and sing ‘Buh is for ball, Buh-Buh-Ball or whatever was on that page). We also played with magnetic letters (Can you find me puh for parrot?), letter jigsaws and stampers. We wrote letters on pebbles and we traced them in the sand. (Side note: our ridiculously complex language means that all letters can represent many different sounds, so it’s best to go with the most common. However the Mancub’s name ends in a y, which in his name makes an ‘ee’ sound like at the end of monkey, so I taught him right away that Y makes a ‘yuh’ sound at the start of words, but an ‘ee’ sound at the end. He doesn’t seem to find this too confusing, but usually refers to Y as ‘ee’. You might want to do this if your child also has a phonetically complex name such as Phillip or Cedric).

As your child begins to learn some of their letters and sounds you can introduce games like I Spy. The Mancub always finds this easier if instead of spotting things around the room that we can actually see, we play on a theme, (I spy with my little eye, an animal that begins with duh… Duck / a dinosaur that begins with sss… Stegosaurus / someone who begins with mmm… Mama). Sometimes I would collect a bunch of objects on a tray and we would play I spy with them, and you could also use those ‘find it’ books. The point of all this I spying is to focus on the initial sounds of words, as a segue into being able to spell and read them. As a way of encouraging them to think about it from the opposite perspective you could ask your child, I’m writing a card to Grandma, what letter does Grandma begin with? If they’re old enough they could write or use a stamper to print the first letter for you. You could also do this when your writing shopping list (what letter do I need at the start of bananas?), or you could write a story together (they tell you a story, you write it down, but ask them for help with some words).

If your child is enjoying books, they know most of their letters and can pick out the initial sound of familiar words, you might like to start helping them to segment words (break words up into their individual sounds), and blend them (put them back together again). This sounds complicated, but is basically what we’re doing all the time when we read and spell unfamiliar words. We sound them out, we turn those sounds into a word. A nice way to do this is play a game based on your child’s interests. The Mancub loves Octonauts, so I ask him, ‘Which Octonaut am I? D-a-sh-ee’, and he is able to put those sounds together to say, ‘Dashi’. We have done lots of this sort of thing on different themes, and he likes having a go at sounding out words for me to guess too.

Finally, once you put those skills together, you have the building blocks of reading. In time your child will go from having the component parts, to being able to look at a word and sound it out ‘c-a-t’, and know that it makes the word cat. It’s magic really, and it does just seem to happen over night. Of course not all children take this route to learning to read, but it is the one most commonly taught in schools now.

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This is the beginning of a long journey. The Mancub doesn’t yet know that sometimes two letters go together to make a sound like sh or ch. He finds it hard to read words longer than three letters, because it’s still too challenging to hold onto all of those letters in his head and blend them. And then there’s words like ‘the’ and ‘was’ and ‘he’, that can’t be sounded out and just need to be learned by heart.

But he’s on the road and he’s so excited to get going that it’s infectious.

I hope you’ve found some of these little activities of interest or of use. Ultimately I think my only advice is to be led by your child, to use their interests and enjoyment as a starting point and to do little bits here as they want to, (we play these games for no more than a few minutes at a time, and by no means each day).

If you’re child is anything like mine, the laughter that follows the first time they read the word ‘bum’ out loud will be worth it.

Kids on a plane.

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^^Photos from my husband’s Instagram.

Much like writing your birth story and (over)sharing in excruciating detail how you wash your nappies, a post about flying with your kids for the first time is a rite of passage for any bonafide parenting blogger. I think the apprehension beforehand is such that afterwards you feel the need to declare to the Internet, ‘I did it! I survived! I did not hurl them out of the aeroplane window!’

And we did! We survived! We flew to Portugal and back without major incident and luckily for us (although not so lucky for the rest of the passengers), a delightful stag do totally stole our thunder as the people you’d most like to stab in the neck with a cocktail stick, and drowned out the noise of a squirmy baby and then some with their gripping accounts of exactly how much alcohol they had consumed in the last three hours. Gotta love the Brits abroad #proud.

My main concern before we went was packing enough stuff to keep both boys mildly entertained for the duration of the flight. I shouldn’t have worried (about that at least). The perpetual bookworm that is the Mancub already spends hours sitting on the sofa looking at books and absorbing magazines, so why I thought that three hours confined to a chair would be an issue for him I don’t know. He read his copy of Disney Princess Magazine from cover to cover on both flights (what an absolute festival of sexism that is by the way, but that’s a whole other post), and barely even noticed the aeroplane taking off.

At the other end of the ‘keeping yourself entertained’ spectrum was fifteen month old #2. Fifteen months is surely the WORST age to take a baby on a plane and I swear you couldn’t pay me to take him on a long haul flight right now. He is that heady mix of wanting to be constantly on the move, but with no ability to stay focused on any one thing for more than 3 seconds, so he worked through our selection of toys, books and stickers before we were even on the runway. We also flew out at his bedtime, but getting him to sleep with the afore mentioned stag party so close by was impossible. In fact, the only thing that kept him remotely occupied was a steady stream of snacks, from biscuits to fruit leather to sandwiches, so by the end he was not only exhausted, but also entirely wired on sugar, an excellent combination to be sure. In short: if you’re flying with a toddler, fill all your available luggage space with food.

However, having focused on the potential for disaster in the air, I totally overlooked getting us through the airport, forgetting that we’d be there for nearly as long as our flight. Having arranged to borrow a pushchair at our destination, I naively thought that we would be okay with two kids and one sling between them. Hahaha!

#2 is content to be in the Ergo, as long as I am moving at a steady pace. If I stand still for more than 15 seconds (ie. to queue for security, queue to get into the gate, queue for an interminably long time to get onto the plane), he wriggles and squirms to get down before beginning a never ending campaign of whining until at last you relent and just let him run around desks and security checkpoints, pulling things off conveyor belts, because you’re embarrassment at being seemingly unable to control your toddler is preferable to the whiningOHMYGODSTOPWHINING!!!

The Mancub on the other hand was more than happy to walk through the airport. Totally happy to cruise along at a rate of approximately a mile a day, taking in every screen, every item for sale in every shop, every vehicle spotted out of a window. Our gate was a twenty minute walk away at a normal pace, so we were faced with the choice of either dragging him along the polished floors by his sleeve, carrying him the entire way, or nearly missing our flight because we indulged his desire to spend ten minutes carefully observing the patterns on a chair. Obviously we went with the latter, because we are ridiculous.

Unlike Gatwick, who don’t give you anything for free, Faro airport have banks of pushchairs available to borrow, which caused my husband to almost cry with joy coming home. #2 is always content to be wheeled around, and having him in a pushchair meant I could pop The Mancub in the Ergo if we needed to get anywhere quicker than at snail’s pace. Never again will I travel without that option.

Others things to note: Easyjet’s inflight baby changing facilities are appalling. Very glad that I took a fold up change pad. // €5 for a small tub of Pringles and a bottle of water. Gravely regretted packing a million snacks for the boys, but none for us. // Ears. #2 has been pretty miserable since his flying experiences due to a heavy cold plus cabin pressure, which apparently equals all sorts of pain. Our health visitor assured me this is normal, although unpleasant, but I certainly wished I had packed a sugar free lolly for him to suck and some Calpol for the following day.

In between times there was also the small matter of HOLIDAY! Three glorious days of sunshine sandwiched into this miserable British winter and thanks to my parents’ impeccable babysitting service, we managed to eat out, without the kids, for all three nights. This alone was worth the flights. The Mancub loved scurrying around on the beach collecting hermit crabs and sea anemones and hurling himself into every available body of water, usually fully clothed because HOLIDAY! SUNSHINE! FREEDOM!

I should probably have dedicated a thousand words to that instead, but there’s something about flying with kids that you need to get out of your system afterwards. So there it is.

Letting go.

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The Mancub has started preschool.

He goes three mornings a week from 9am until midday, term time only, fully subsidised.

He cries every morning.

He cries, my heart breaks a little and I wonder: Is this the right way to prepare our children for the world? To bit by bit break them into the fact that after years of being there to console their every cry, to hold their hand through every difficult experience, that from now on, we’re just going to shove them into a room and walk away stoically, and tell them to be brave and that it’s what they have to do.

I wonder: If I do this will he gradually embrace the group activities that have always made him so anxious? Will he slowly move away from his key worker and the safety of the book corner, where he sits, unsure of where he fits into all of these children confidently running around, playing with Duplo, crashing cars into each other, dressing up as nurses, taking each other’s temperatures and doling out imaginary medicine.

I wonder: If I don’t do this will school be an unmitigated nightmare? Will he inevitably be that child that clings to me at the school gates, older now, but still so attached. The other parents will look and think, ‘Wow, she must have really spoiled him’ and I’ll think, ‘Wow, I probably did’.

For the first few weeks he sobbed, brutally, every morning. He cried on and off throughout his time there, sometimes distracted, but always returning to tears. Not eating the snack at the free flow snack table, not helping himself to water from the water station. And then I’d arrive to collect him and instead of running to me and dissolving into my arms like I so wanted him to, he would just be so, so angry. It was as if all of the energy it had taken him to just keep it together came flooding out in a ball of rage, so he cried all the way home as well, and after so much bloody crying he was incapable of doing anything other than watching episodes of Octonauts on repeat, which really contributed to my confidence that I was doing the right thing.

He’s been going for four weeks now. There are still tears each morning, but drop offs are swift and I have gained the strength to just take him in, kiss him, and let his key worker do the rest. I always call ten minutes later and by then he’s fine, playing happily with the animals or the dinosaurs or a fishing game. He stays happy now, the whole time he’s there. Some days he comes home with pictures he’s made and tells me about the snack he ate and who he sat next to. He sits in a circle for story time, he enjoyed watching the others play with the giant parachute, he is no longer terrified when everyone sings the good morning song.

And when I come to collect him he runs out with his back pack on, smiling. It no longer requires all of his energy just to keep it together, so he now has a little left over at the end of a session for me. He chatters animatedly on the way home, asks where we’re going that afternoon.

I no longer feel as if I’m breaking him.

Which is nice.

Sick day.

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There have been tears around here of late. The Mancub is beginning the process of settling into new preschool and it has been… rocky. I will summon the energy to write about that soon I promise, I just need to bury my head in the sand a little longer.

Of course along with a new school comes new germs and inevitable sickness. So, both emotionally and physically drained, we spent the bulk of the weekend indoors, sheltered from the elements, trying not to lose our tiny minds.

And of course just when my inclinations were telling me just to snuggle under a blanket on the sofa and hibernate, what my children needed was some attention. And some fun. So when I saw this activity on the ever inspiring How We Montessori, I finally found a use for one of my husband’s old photography backdrops.

This is one of those ideal activities to do with children: It is inherently enjoyable, large scale, almost mischievous to be drawing on something so big. And yet, so many learning opportunities present themselves – art, science, literacy skills, all organically melded into one. It could easily be extended for older children (in fact I used to do a variation on this with my year fours when we were studying the skeleton), but is also fun for older babies who like to suck on crayons and turn themselves into tiny goths too.

I didn’t have high hopes for the weekend I’ll be honest. But sometimes it pays to raise your parenting game. Just a little.

Science and Nature.

(Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my job).

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First off, it has been very affirming to get some feedback from folks who have appreciated my honesty of late, so thank you if you have liked, commented or sent a message following my myriad emotional outpourings. I am grateful to know that I am not talking into the abyss.

And while I am absolutely an advocate for sharing the less than stellar times (aka the reality of life as a stay at home parent), it has also always been my mission to share the good as well. Not the sanitised, Pinterest friendly version, but the ‘here’s how I not only survive, but enjoy my time at home with my kids’. Because at the end of the day, I do choose to do this, so it has to work for not just our children, but for me and my mental health as well.

This year has had its many ups and downs as I have tried to figure that out. The first few months were absolutely lived in survival mode. We get through the day, we keep everyone alive, we try not to lose our patience (okay, perhaps that one was just me). But lately I have found a nice groove again, and have had not just moments, but entire days, that have been just that, enjoyable.

So here are some things that I did to get me there.

1. Find a rhythm. One of the hardest things about having a newborn (apart from feeling as if your eyes are constantly full of sand and you’re surviving on microwaved cups of instant coffee) is the lack of routine. The first time around I just kind of went with it, wore the baby in the sling a lot and went about my business. The second time, because I was also trying to create a sense of order for my two year old, it was hard to know when were the best times to go to the park, or to get an activity out, so we ended up staying in a lot and I found it very frustrating. At around six to eight months, we had a breakthrough as #2 consolidated his naps into a chunky morning sleep, and a short afternoon one. This meant that we could stay in during the morning and I would have time while both kids were awake to do chores (often with the baby in one arm or on the floor right next to me), then once the baby was napping i would focus on the toddler / get some baby unfriendly stuff out (paint, baking, books that you don’t want eaten), and then after lunch we’d all go out somewhere. This has remained the loose ‘rhythm’ of our day ever since, and it not only keeps me sane, but allows me to plan to meet friends in advance, as well as getting everything done that I need to at home. I’m not saying this same routine would work for everyone, but I think it helps immeasurably, especially if you’re finding life at home overwhelming, to have predictability, guaranteed time out of the house every day and sense that you are able to get shit done you know?

2. Do what you like. This probably sounds ridiculous, but it took me a really long time to figure out that I don’t like going to toddler groups. Actually, save for my own and those of my friends, I don’t really like hanging out with small children much at all, probably because I’m a monster it feels too much like work. But despite this, for the longest time, I kept dragging myself along to them, because that’s what stay at home Mum’s of toddlers do right? They go to toddler groups. But you know what? Fuck that shit. One of the only perks of being at home is that you are your own boss (the tiny dictators not withstanding), and you get to do what you like. I like, it transpires, taking my kids swimming. I really, really love it, so we do that as much as we can. I like meeting my other Mum friends and drinking coffee and talking about important issues (my hot new dentist), while ignoring our children (in order to foster independent play, obviously), and occasionally chucking them some fruit to keep them happy. So I do that too. I also like going to the farm and reading books at the children’s library and going to some really good outdoor playgrounds (even better when it’s kind of drizzly, so there are minimum other children there). I do not go to toddler groups. This has significantly improved my life.

3. Ignore the advice. I say this with the best will in the world, because I know people mean well, but the advice that you will receive most frequently when you have a baby is, in no particular order, to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps!’, ‘just leave the housework!’, ‘don’t worry about achieving anything!’. Which, yes, that’s a lovely sentiment, and I thank you for not judging my dirty floors, but, OH MY GOD I’M GOING NUTS ALREADY, IF MY HOUSE IS A SHIT TIP I WILL ONLY FEEL WORSE! (or something less OCD sounding).
I was talking to my friend who is a teacher a week or so back and I asked her if she is able to do any less than we used to do when we worked together, and were working long hours and taking on more and more extra roles. ‘No’, she said, ‘Because I’ve realised that I can’t do a bad job, I can’t let myself get away with just doing the bare minimum’, and I was like, woah, lightbulb, yes, that is me (thank you Anna, for the epiphany). I cannot just sit still and do nothing. Especially if the house is a mess, or there is a meal to be prepared for later, or I can be reorganising a freaking sock drawer (I kid you not, I did this today). Yes, I would probably be more relaxed if I did, but I do not do ‘the bare minimum’. And rather than fighting this, it has helped enormously to acknowledge that if my house is clean and in reasonable order, and I’ve spent some quality time with my children, and ‘have achieved something’, that I actually feel better. Tireder, but better.

4. Your presence is enough. That said, this excellent article by Janet Lansbury, made me realise that actually, sitting and doing nothing is sometimes incredibly valuable for your children. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to spending time with the Mancub while his baby brother naps.
I used to feel as if I should make this real quality time, which for me meant to get a special activity out that we wouldn’t be able to do with the baby around. I would suggest painting, or sticking, or going outside, baking. Which are all valid things to do with your preschooler, but were very much led and instigated by me, because we had this fixed slot of time in which to ‘do something fun!’ and if I didn’t do that, I would feel as if I was slacking, or somehow letting him down.
But of course, this wasn’t about him, it was about me, and my afore mentioned desire to never sit still for a single second. And actually, he wasn’t always that into it. So instead, when the baby was asleep, I began just going and sitting next to him, whatever he was doing. Often he would be listening to CDs at his table in the lounge, so I would go and sit quietly on the sofa and wait for him to take the lead. Within minutes he would come over and every day the outcome would be different. Sometimes he would want to do some imaginary play based on his CD, or his current interest, so I would be handed an oar and asked to go somewhere with him on his boat, or I would become an animal stealing fruit from his basket. Sometimes he would bring me a book to read, or one of his sticker albums to go through with him. Sometimes we would just cuddle up for a bit. Nothing, and yet everything. What a game changer. Now I make sure that the first thing I do is just sit with him, and see where that takes us.

There we are, some really obvious truths that it took me months to uncover: that days are better when you have a sense of order, when you do the things you love, when you put your all into them, but leave a little room for flexibility and the imagination of a small child.

Not every day is good. Not every day is full of smiles. But earlier in the year I got to a point where I felt like I was coping again, and it feels good to finally be going beyond that.

Play.

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Small children really like kitchen utensils.

I had actually forgotten this, how ordinary things can make such engaging toys. Way better than y’know, actual toys. So there has been lots more of this: pans and wooden spoons, big bowls of dry pasta, washing up bowls full of water and shells, a bag of ribbons.

I remember learning this exact same lesson with the Mancub: you cannot fight separation anxiety. You cannot run away from it or stay out of the house or just plonk them on your hip and cart them around with you. Sometimes, you need to just sit and engage and be with them, giving them your full attention. It took me a while to remember, but it makes all the difference. Just sitting, watching them playing animatedly with a whisk.

He has also started saying his first two proper words: dat (that, or more pertinently ‘what’s that?’ as he points to something), and deh (there, when he has found something that I have asked him to look for) and has learned his first sign (‘all gone’). He seems to wake up from a nap and can do something new at the moment, such is the rate of progress at this age. It’s alarming, but so much fun. It makes the just sitting and watching all the more exciting.

Sigh, no more.

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A few weeks ago I was in a rut. I wasn’t sure I could keep doing this whole Stay At Home Mum thing because guys, here’s the thing: being at home, full time, with two small children, is really, really hard. Maybe I should change the name of my blog to areallyhardandsometimeskindofsuckyworld.com. I’m pretty sure the domain isn’t taken yet.

So in light of this revelation, I kept wondering if maybe it was time for me to go back to work. Would going back to work be easier? A break? Maybe?

The rather inconvenient truth though, is that even if I did get a job, I would still have to get up at 5.30am to feed the baby. I would still have to run around getting myself and everybody else ready fed and dressed for the day and into childcare or whatever. And then, crucially, after 3 hours of chaos, I’D HAVE TO GO TO WORK. FOR THE WHOLE DAY. And then! Ugh, I’d have to come home and make dinner and do the bedtime routine and tidy up and do laundry and cleaning and Oh My God working Moms how do you do it?

Oh, and here’s the real kicker, I would do all that, but after I’d paid for childcare for my two children, I would make basically nothing. Like, maybe a few pounds each month. HAHAHAHAHAH! I repeat: even if I wanted to add work into the heady mix of my day, I couldn’t even afford to work. I couldn’t. Afford. To. Work. Suck on that you ladies who ‘don’t need feminism’.

What I concluded from all this introspection was that, no, I did not need to go back to work. I needed a holiday. I needed a few days, without my children and their continuing insistence that I listen to them and cook for them and do the voices of an octopus or a manta ray and put them to bed and wash their clothes. I just needed a few days off you know? I believe in the real world it’s called ‘annual leave’. Imagine.

Now, I don’t believe in God, but if I did believe in God I’d be so angry with God right now because God, when I said a few days off without my children I did not mean AT THE HOSPITAL, you hear me? But the (fictional) Lord works in mysterious ways and that is exactly what I got. A couple of Saturdays ago I drove myself to the hospital with some abdominal pain and ended up staying there for four days and left minus some bits of my reproductive system. I didn’t even get to eat for three of those days and spend roughly six hours in pain that I described as ‘the equivalent of crowning’. I crowned for six hours. Yeah.

Anyway, they finally worked out what was wrong (stuff had basically tangled itself up and died inside of me. I saw photos, it looked like dead flowers), administered large amounts of intravenous morphine and then cut me open and took out the bad bits. I was better within a few days and there are no listing affects aside from wonky scar right next to my stretch marks, which I guess means that my dreams of being a bikini model will never be realised.

The weird thing was that because it was so unexpected I left both of my children with their Grandma and barely gave it a second thought. I assumed I’d be back within hours. When my husband came to visit me half way through the first day I tentatively advised him to buy some formula ‘just in case’, but at that point I was more concerned that I felt like I’d been stabbed, so y’know, priorities.

Over the course of my four day hospital stay I tried to pump once, but nothing came. I’m only feeding twice a day now and I had been severely dehydrated when my drip was left empty for a long stretch of the afternoon (and I was nil by mouth), so I figured that my body would just not want to put any energy into making milk. I just tried not to think about it and focused on getting better, safe in the knowledge that my baby was at home, being looked after by his Dad and doting grandparents, eating plenty of food and taking sips of formula here and there. He was doing fine.

Then I came home.

I tried to pump once more, but still nothing came and the reality that I would never breastfeed again hit me like a truck. This was not my plan, I was supposed to feed him until his birthday, this was not supposed to happen.

And also, just, the saddest feeling in the world.

My baby.

It was on the second day that I was home, and a full five days since his last feed, that I was taking a shower and felt some engorgment. I don’t have a super high supply, have never leaked and rarely get engorged, so this was a surprise. Was there milk there?

I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to try and feed #2, but he was in bed for the night, so I just had to rein it in and try not to get too excited. I knew that it was highly unlikely he would even latch after five days and two attempts at pumping had yielded nothing, so the odds were well and truly piled up against me.

The next morning my husband brought him up for a cuddle. I was still pretty immobile at this point, but I sat him next to me on the bed and stroked his soft little cheeks. After a while my husband had to pop downstairs to get something and I just seized my chance. What’s the worst that could happen? I curled him up in my arms and just tried.

The photo above was taken by my husband when he came back up. Can you see how tired and emotional and just so quietly, serenely happy I am? He had a full feed. He’s had a full feed twice a day, every day since. I don’t know how that works, but it worked.

***

So that was my holiday. My annual leave without the kids. Lying writhing around in agony for two days, then unable to walk for two more. Worrying about what was happening at home, worrying about my husband, worrying about my stupid boobs and my not so tiny baby eating formula in mashed banana like a champ.

A far as holidays go, I’ve gotta tell you, it sucked. But somehow it was just what I needed. My days aren’t so bad, they’re not so hard most of the time. We lie in bed together in the mornings with nowhere in particular to get to, we get dressed when we feel like it and we spend our days at the park and at the farm and in the garden and playing dinosaurs. It’s relentless. And I wish there was a magic fairy who would clean my highchair for me (maybe God, because he owes me one you know?), but it’s okay. I am okay.

And I get to feed him and hold him like a baby. For a little bit longer at least.

He Can.

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This boy. Suddenly I blinked and he’s not a toddler any more, not really. He’s a little kid.

I don’t know whether it’s that he wears underpants these days instead of nappies, or that you can hold a fully fledged conversation with him, or that I can count on one hand the tantrums that he’s had in the last few months. But he just seems… older somehow.

And because he’s no longer a toddler, I decided it was time he started pulling his weight a bit and fending for himself a little more.

This, it turns out, does not come naturally to me. I like the idea of him doing more for himself, but the reality of sitting back and letting him do it, slowly, imperfectly, is much harder than anticipated. Pulling up his own trousers inevitably results in wonky trousers and bunched up pants, plus it takes about five times as long than if I just did it for him, but I’m trying, to let him try (sometimes at least, when we’re not in a rush).

And I’m trying, to find things that he can do and jobs that he can call his own. He can make his own breakfast and peel his own fruit. He can clear his plate and cutlery away after every meal. He can get undressed at the end of every day and put his clothes in the laundry basket. He can tidy away playdough and paint activities and wipe up spills. He makes choices about the clothes he wears and gets himself in and out of his carseat.

These are little things, but they are done daily and (as of yet) without defiance and give him a sense of achievement. He did it on his own.

It took a little longer, but he did it on his own.