The (London) Marathon of having children

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I ran the London Marathon in April 2007, a decade ago. As a non-runner all my life, my decision to run – in a marathon of all things – was taken after two incidents. The first occurred on Marathon day in, I believe, 2005. Having had a standard boozy Saturday night in a forgettable South West London venue (I have forgotten where), culminating no doubt in sambuca shots and a chicken kebab at around 3am (again, I forget the particulars), I slept for the morning and emerged, blinking, unsteady and shaking at around 1pm to forage for provisions and coffee. A woman coming down the street towards me was also unsteady and shaking, but she had a shiny gold medal around her neck. 1pm and she had run 40k and all I had achieved was to sleep off a raging hangover.

The second incident was when I went to watch my brother run the London Marathon in 2006. Quite simply, anything he could do, I wanted to prove that I could do, despite the fact that at the time I could barely run for the bus. It was a tough year: by summer 2006 I could do 5k, followed by 10k in the Autumn and then a half marathon in January 2007. I ran to work with my flat mate, from Battersea Power Station to St Paul’s, past MI6 and Westminster, arriving in the office exhausted by 9am. It was going ok: the half marathon, my friend Kate and I completed in 2 hours 10.

Then there came the excuses. Nerve damage in my ankle, busy at work etc etc. The day itself, 22 April 2007 was over 30 degrees, which was tough after the cold temperatures that we were used to in training. But, I finished. It wasn’t a stellar performance, in fact my brother ran it again but I didn’t see him for dust and he had to wait at the finish line for 1 hour and 47 minutes for me to stagger over. Anyway, the great Haile Gebrselassie didn’t complete the course that year and I did, which is a small but important victory that I cling to when I recollect my short-lived running career. I couldn’t ascend or descend stairs without a handrail for a week.

I haven’t done it again, have barely run since. When I saw the runners come in yesterday (this time on the TV), I wasn’t gripped by middle-age existential angst that I wasn’t doing enough in my life. In fact, by the end of Sunday, I felt that there were certain similarities with running a marathon and looking after three sub-five year old children, such as:

– Rising early on a Sunday morning: the 18m old and 3 year old were in our bed at 5.30 a.m. climbing over my head and demanding milk until I could bear the reek of their wet nappies in my face no longer.

– Eating the same breakfast: porridge, of course, this time demanded by a 3 year old who then refused to eat it as it was too hot (even when it wasn’t) and lobbed most of it around the kitchen.

– The amount of exercise done / calories burnt: laps of the garden chasing a football, running along the pavement after my daughter on her bike, trampoline bouncing and dealing with the subsequent injuries, hosepipe wars, two loads of washing, at least an hour spent on my hands and knees picking up thrown food, play doh and toys.

– The toilet issue: not the Paula Radcliffe dilemma but the potty-in-training 3 year old’s – how to fish a steaming turd from his pants and deposit it down the loo without dropping it on the floor / on the baby’s head and then trying to prevent him running around with pride exclaiming ‘I’ve done a poo poo in my pants.’

– The grim determination needed to make it: this time, to make it to 7 pm and wine o’clock.

– Emotion at the end of the day: this time not tears of joy of reaching the finishing line, but tears brought on by my four year old saying out of the blue: “Mummy, you’re really old, so you’re going to die.”

All that relentless toil on marathon day, and unlike a decade ago, no crowds cheering us on, no medal to proudly display for a finisher’s photo in St James Park. Yup, having collapsed on the sofa last night ten years on, I not only felt as if I had run a marathon, but that I would rather have run a marathon. Maybe next year.

Just Hannah Jane

Why can’t we call a woman, a woman?

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Searching for a name at an early age…

There is a problem with the word ‘woman’. I am in my late thirties and, although I am racking my brains, I can’t actually recall being referred to as a woman. Ten years ago I would be called a girl, and now it is usually lady. Just today, a woman said to their child who was standing in my way, “move out of the way for the lady.”

I find myself doing the same. I feel awkward in referring to my peers as women, even though it is difficult to decide on a suitable alternative, when ‘girls’ is surely too babyish and ‘ladies’ sounds like a toilet or a day at Ascot. We were in a restaurant recently and I wanted my daughter to ask for her own juice. The waitress stood there expectantly, and I said, “tell the nice lady what you want.” Nice lady? At the last minute, saying ‘woman’ sounded all wrong, ‘waitress’ too menial and using the name on her badge too familiar. ‘Lady’ seemed to be the most polite term, but what is wrong with ‘woman’?

The French have a neat solution, calling their women ‘Mademoiselle’ – an elegant and graceful word (has anyone not grinned inside after being referred to as Mademoiselle?) – until they are married or noticeably over the age of thirty, and then ‘Madame’ – which has gravitas and dignity – thereafter. But in English, ‘Miss’ is outdated and ‘Mrs’ too much like ‘her indoors.’

Even the French word for woman – une femme – is not half as loaded as its English counterpart. ‘Woman’ sounds like a statement of gender: a police report, medical description (‘a 39 year old woman presenting with the following symptoms…’) or Carrie from Sex and the City affirming ‘I. AM. A. WO-MAN.’

It is natural to write the word ‘woman,’ but can you say it?

If there are problems with ‘woman,’ far worse is the lack of suitable names for a woman’s ‘bits.’ ‘Vagina’ is medical, cringe-inducing and unpopular, ‘fanny’ is old-fashioned and associated with Enid Blyton, not to mention it is what North Americans call their bottom (a bum-bag is a ‘fanny-pack’ in the US). Then there are the babyish names: ‘Foo-foo,’ ‘Woo-woo,’ and the unparalleled ‘Rudy Judy,’ that may work for the three-year old girl but not one ten years older. And it is rarely acceptable just to point or to pull a face and say “down there.”

A quick Google search on the issue highlights a webpage boasting ‘238 words for a vagina.’ 238, really? Surely that is more than the eskimos have for snow. But we don’t build our houses out of vaginas and nor do we melt them to make water. So why are we so obsessed with naming them? The answer may be that most of the 238 names were thought up by men. The vagina list includes names associated with semi-aquatic rodents, shellfish and Mexican food which conjure up fairly disgusting imagery and I doubt were invented by women to describe their own body parts: ‘beaver,’ ‘clam’ or ‘taco’ anyone? But I could be wrong.

In a desperate bid to to come up with an inoffensive moniker that wouldn’t cause undue embarrassment if our little ones shouted it across Sainsbury’s (which of course they do, all the time), we turn to euphemisms. My husband (only when absolutely necessary) will refer vaguely to our daughter’s ‘bits and pieces,’ which could equally be used to describe the contents of a toolbox. When a friend’s daughter asked recently where babies come out, she told her that they come out of your ‘front-bottom’. “I didn’t know what else to call it”, she whispered. And nor do any of us.

No doubt due to my hesitation to refer to her vagina at all, my four-year old daughter has christened hers, her ‘bo bo’. “Boys have willies and girls have bo-bos,” is what she tells me when taking a bath with her brothers. My failure has led to my child being forced to invent names for her body parts. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.

Is this a big social problem? Well, no, not really, but it is irritating, particularly since the difference for men in all this, is that there are fewer negative connotations. A ‘willy’ is so harmless that it is acceptable as a first name for a boy (I doubt there are many girl babies born these days with the name ‘Fanny’) and slang names for penis tend to denote strength and power (‘manhood,’ oh purleeease) or harmless comedy (‘mini [insert man’s name here]’). Admittedly, ‘dick’ has become a bit ridiculous and is now interchangeable with ‘idiot’ but it is not half as bad as ‘gaping axe wound.’ Why can’t vaginas have a non-sexual name as inoffensive and universally used as ‘willy’? One that doesn’t make you blush and cross your legs when you hear it?

Equally, we can refer to a man as a ‘man’ or a ‘guy’ without hesitating and worrying that we are saying the wrong thing. Women need to have a ‘guy’ equivalent: there are many alternatives to the word ‘woman,’ but most of them you wouldn’t want to be called. Perhaps ‘woman’ is the best option after all.

So, I have made a pact with myself to use the word ‘woman’ more regularly, rather than ‘girl’ or ‘lady,’ in the hope that I get used to it and no-one is mortally offended when I call them a woman. They certainly shouldn’t be. We will see. As to the vagina issue, I will let my young daughter lead the way: for our family, ‘bo-bo’ it is.

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Keep the Weetabix flying

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Singing, rather than talking, circa 1982

You wait years for your children to start speaking, imagining all the wonderful conversations you’ll have when they can finally communicate in words and not just point and say ‘ba!’ How you will have intelligent discussions over the breakfast table, rather than spending the time dodging flying Weetabix and wiping the jam off your jeans. How your children will be well-versed in classics, politics and morality and that this education will start when they are pre-schoolers listening attentively to your every word. They will be able to hold forth on any topic. They will be able to think for themselves.

The reality can be very different. What really happens when your children start to speak is that they then decide to shout very loudly at each other and at you. Rather than all copying the oldest, the four and two year olds mimic the one year old and they all chant in unison bashing their spoons on the breakfast table: “Ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma” as I fly around pouring juice into beakers and milk into bowls. They don’t want to discuss Brexit.

Here are some things that they do, however, like to do with their new found words:

i. Give their opinions (endlessly): 

From giving them the wrong coloured breakfast bowl (“red one, red one”), the wrong towel (“blue one, blue one”), the wrong pants (“I don’t want it Gruffalo pants”), the wrong coloured Zoggs swim toy (“purple one, purple one”), to the wrong type of toothpaste (“I want big girl toothpaste” – from my son), I fear I will never get this right. However, I can start to make things easier for myself, not by remembering the correct variations of crockery, swimwear and toiletries, which alters daily, but by ceasing to court their opinion at all. This avoids conversations such as the one below, which my two year old son and I have regularly:

“How about pasta for lunch today?”
“I don’t want it pasta”
“Peppa shapes?”
“I don’t want it peppa shapes.”
“Ham sandwich?”
“I don’t want it ham samich.”
“Pizza?”
“I don’t want it pitsa.”
*sigh*

ii. Repeating words and phrases: 

They have learnt a new word – wonderful! Their brains are like sponges, soaking up their surroundings. They even invent their own phrases and speak in nonsense sentences – all great for their developing imagination, surely. Then the four year old starts talking about bogeys all the time and magics up sentences such as this:

“I’m going to the bogey shop. I’m going to put my bogey in the bogey basket and go to the bogey shop” (collapses on the floor in hysterical laughter)

And the two year old thinks up a favourite nickname, in his case ‘smackybum’ which he calls everyone from his sports teacher to his grandfather.

“You’re cheeky,” says Grandad.
“I’m not cheeky, smacky bum.”

iii. Describing (mainly bodily functions):

Then they start to be able to describe the world around them and begin to use adjectives. A real leap forward in terms of their conversational prowess, you might think. For example, the other day my toddler was digging around in his nose, found a particularly disgusting bogey and then handed it to me saying,

“That’s a sticky one”.
“Thanks,” I say, suppressing the urge to wipe it on his tracksuit.

When I go to the loo, he follows me in, stands right next to me and then peers down behind my back into the toilet bowl,

“Doing a poo?”
“Er, no”
“Just wee wee?”
“Er, yes.”

He proceeds to pull half the paper from the roll and starts to polish my bare left buttock.

Yesterday morning, yes at breakfast again, a large raspberry sound ripples through the air, reverberating the radiators, loud enough to mask the music on the radio for at least three seconds. We all look at the two year old.

“From. My. Bum.” he announces proudly as my daughter collapses into fits of giggles and the one year old joins in, so as not to be left out, even though he doesn’t really understand.

iv. Criticising your parenting:

In my experience,this happens at around age four. Phrases that my four year old daughter has said to me in the last few weeks include:

“You’re not my best friend.”
“When I talk to Daddy, Daddy talks to me, but when I talk to you, you don’t talk to me.”
“You’re always talking to me. Stop talking to me.”
“Just don’t look at me.”
“Mummy, you’re always on your iPad” (when I’m looking up a recipe in an attempt to make them something other than pasta for tea.)

And, my particular favourite:
Mummy, you make everyone sad”.

Just when you think all is lost, the older children start to call each other “my darling” for at least twenty minutes before hitting each other again and my daughter says “Mummy, please may I have a napkin please Mummy” (as her Granny has taught her that young ladies use napkins).

At breakfast time, the Weetabix is still flying across the table but on the whole, they are eating their cereal and toast. No one is talking. It is bliss. I have given up on discussing classics, politics and morality. Surely Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote that “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”?

I make a vow never to try to talk during breakfast again.

(This post was featured as Blog of the Day on Mumsnet)

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To sleep, perchance to dream 

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I wrote the piece below a year ago when I had a new baby, a 22 month old and a 3 year old. It is a reminder that the stages of childhood are just that: a stage. Everything passes. This is both good and bad.

It is 5 a.m., I am in bed and a toddler is crawling on my head. In my bed are:

A) the toddler, my 22 month old son,
B) the baby, my 3 month old son who is not technically in our bed (of course not because I have read all the guidance on co-sleeping with multiple children etc, although yes he sometimes is when A is not there), but is surgically attached by way of a ‘bed nest’ locked to our bed,
C) A’s over-sized stuffed toy penguin which goes everywhere with him, named Pi-Ping,
D) A’s milk bottle, mostly spilt on our sheets which are now wet and sticky for all the wrong reasons,
E) a musical sheep with which I aim to build a virtual white noise wall between A and B,
F) miscellaneous dummies; and
G) an owl night light to aid breastfeeding since B and me can’t see in the dark and it’s pitch black outside since it is February and very gloomy.

Oh I nearly forgot, there is also:

H), my husband, a few feet away at the far side of the bed, legs and arms dangling over the edge, fighting for a share of the duvet with me and the rest of the zoo and at the ready to hit snooze on the radio in one hour’s time when the alarm goes off and all four humans will wake for another day (but not the animals, this isn’t a Disney film you know).

Disney, why am I even thinking about Disney? The beat of the musical sheep’s battery heart judders and stops and all I can hear is the breathing of the three male humans in the bed, becoming steady and slow. It is time to get some sleep but the soundtrack to Disney’s Tangled, which my three year old daughter loves, goes round my head. Flynn Ryder, the selfish anti-hero who gets to marry the lost princess, dancing on the bar at the Snuggly Duckling,

“I have dreams like you, no really,
Just much less touchy feely
They mainly happen somewhere warm and sunny
On an island that I own
Tanned and rested and alone
Surrounded by enormous piles of money.”

Oh what a dream. Tanned and rested and alone; is there a greater bliss? Why am I even thinking about this? There’s less than half an hour of precious sleep time to be had.

A shifts in his sleep, rolling so that he is horizontal across the bed, his head in H’s ribs, the soles of his feet pressing against my jugular. I rest my head against C and start to drift off just as the clock display flips from 5.59 to 6.00 and the alarm goes on. “Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.” A sits up, puts his face against mine and demands milk, B starts to cry. It is like Groundhog Day all over again and again.

That evening, I decide it’s time for A to sleep in his cot, to go to sleep on his own and to stay there. All night.

All the armaments are in place: items C, D, E and F, black-out blinds (not at all necessary in winter but I daren’t not use them); warm blanket under and on top of him; portable oil radiator set to medium; comforting orange night light which also plays soothing Mozart.

His breathing settles, grows steady and deeper. The eyelids start to droop and close, then ratchet open again, but soon begin to fall. I’ve told him that Pi-Ping is tired, that Mummy is going to have her tea now (when can I stop referring to myself in the third person? And will I even be able to now it’s a habit and an annoying one at that?), and that his siblings are asleep too.

I start to move, not daring to stand up, so I’m crawling on all fours, not quite commando-style but not far off either. The squeaking floor board under the blue carpet is my undoing, dammit. Suddenly he is bolt upright, like the handle of a garden rake whacking in the face the owner of an accidental foot on its prongs. He opens his mouth and wails. The orange light doesn’t give enough glow to see his face in detail, but I know I could see his tonsils if it did.

We start again. It’s now 8.25 p.m. In my head I’m unwriting my to-do list for the evening: mentally eliminating what it’s going to be possible for me to do before I get too tired and have to collapse into the zoo-bed. Eventually he settles but I wait at least twenty minutes before I dare to even open the door and crawl out into the corridor. Success! I’m only going to go downstairs, bung some sausages in the oven and check my emails but it feels liberating: this is what functioning adults do.

Reading this reminds me of how quickly things change. If I hadn’t written it down at the time, I wouldn’t have remembered (and clearly my brain was mashed). Last night, one year later, the same little boy climbed into bed, I read him a story and he fell asleep within 30 seconds and woke up 12 hours later (this was a good night). He still has items C, D and F but we all have vices, right?  So, just when you think that you can’t carry on with this level of sleep deprivation, the toddler begins to sleep. And then he stops eating or wanting to sit in his buggy and refuses to do anything except watch Paw Patrol. There is always something to deal with, but it’s never what you expect it to be. I guess that keeps things interesting.

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Beware of the bear: motherhood’s changing perspective of fear

img_0606My toddler woke up and after a half-hearted rendition of Wheels on the Bus, I managed to get him to stay in his bed and go back to sleep. It’s the dead of night and I’m now wide awake, considering the possibility that if we ever move to or holiday in North America, the children might be attacked by a bear. The scenario could play out thus: we are all going on a drive and my husband stops the car to take a leak behind a tree, when out of nowhere a great big grisly bounds towards the car gnashing its gnarly teeth. What would I do? Gnash my own gnarly teeth at it? Aim the Dettol antibacterial spray in its eyes? Play the Peppa Pig soundtrack on full volume until it collapsed on the forest floor paws over its ears, defeated? I probably wouldn’t even have phone reception to call a ranger, but the only one who springs to mind is Yogi Bear’s adversary, Ranger Smith. Why am I even thinking about this? The gruesome bear attack scene from The Revenant is clearly still with me.

There was a time when I would have laughed in the face of the bear. On a driving holiday through California circa 2011 with my boyfriend (soon to become fiancé on a beach just off Highway 1), we stopped at Yosemite. ‘Beware of the bear’, said the signs. Ha! Bring on the bear, I thought. Once we left the glorious park I was a disappointed not to have spied a grisly. We saw some deer, but it’s not really the same. Likewise canoeing through the crocodile-infested rivers of southern Venezuela in a dugout boat, I was searching eagerly for the crocs. In a floating raft somewhere in Southern Africa I enjoyed the steady gaze of the watching hippos from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees (it wasn’t the Limpopo but you get the drift). Clearly had I been confronted by a potentially deadly wild animal, I would have been terrified, as any sheltered middle-class English girl would be. But also I think I would have been more than a little bit thrilled.

Now I’m here in blissful suburbia, perfectly safe and warm in the middle of the night, having cold sweats about bears I will most probably never see. What has changed? Yes, I’m older but in my mind there’s only one difference: the C word. Children. I am now a mother which means that I will never again – or at least until they are old enough to get their own mortgage (and maybe not even then) – view motor vehicles, open windows, open water, and any implement with a sharp point as anything other than a object of danger to be avoided. But I’m mostly talking about irrational fears here. We all know that there are plenty of accidents and illnesses that can and do happen to children of all ages, which are too terrible to even contemplate here, but there are also things that if I stopped and thought about it, probably aren’t going to occur. When my baby was very tiny, I used to be anxious about being so tired that I would put him in the washing machine with all the clothes by mistake. My stomach would churn with the washing machine drum as I imagined the horror of realising my terrible error. Could it really happen? It would be a bit like putting a baby in a handbag and a manuscript in a perambulator. In reality, I don’t know how tired I would have to be to make that mistake.

There’s a wider point here, in that if I’m cosseting my children (and I think I’m not the only one?), is it because of truly rational concerns, or am I shielding them from my own improbable fears? They are already scared about the Gruffalo in the cupboard without me following them around like a shadow lest they escape from the house and attempt to hitchhike to the airport or (more likely) unscrew the battery compartment of the remote control. I’m not suggesting that I let my four year old scoot alone to school and play solo in the woods, but perhaps I need to mindful of imparting my own fears onto her and her brothers as they grow older.

To have a child is to sign up for a lifetime of worry; it is a pure and primal parental instinct. Like the mother bear in The Revenant, we take offensive and defensive action to keep our offspring safe at all costs. We’re all animals, after all. And if my over-active imagination burdens me with irrational night-frights, it’s not such a high price to pay. Once the dawn and three demanding children have helped me to regain my sense of perspective, we will watch Jungle Book under a blanket on the sofa and I will pretend that bears are all like huggable Baloo.

(This post was featured on the front page of Mumsnet)

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Ryder Cup blues

img_0352It amazes me that my husband has watched the Ryder Cup on TV every night this week and the tournament only started today. Apparently the build up is really important.

In truth, the Ryder Cup is probably the most interesting tournament there is for a golf layperson like myself and we all know that there are a lot to choose from. After all, there are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and continuous coverage of golf tournaments on Sky Sports. I am not completely disinterested – I have some awareness that I must have acquired by osmosis: I know my foursomes from my fourballs; I know the names of the four majors; I know that Rory McIlroy won $10 million for playing a game of golf last weekend. I even went to huddle under an umbrella in 2011 at the final day of the Open on the Kent coast, hanging like a dog after being a bridesmaid in Dorset the day before. Now that’s commitment to the cause.

So what’s the beef with golf? Firstly, it’s the time commitment, whether you’re watching it or playing it. Golf clubs are only positioned at least an hour’s drive from where you live, preferably somewhere windswept on the coast (why?); if you factor in the drive, the 18 holes, the time spent at the 19th hole afterwards, it’s a good day out. For him. For me, it’s a bit dull: he has the car and I have three young children to entertain at home or in the immediate vicinity.

It wasn’t always thus. Pre-children, we both enjoyed our Saturdays pursuing our own hobbies, although mine tended to focus on shopping or lunching with friends. More fool me: these pursuits are the first to fall by the wayside when children enter the picture. I expect I should have taken up a ‘proper’ hobby, such as, I don’t know, learning how to iron maybe, that would have set me in good stead for future domestic duties. Still, I mustn’t grumble. My husband plays very little now and I (occasionally, after having had a glass of wine) encourage him to go to play more than he does; I like the fact he is passionate about a sport he is good at it and it is something he has done since he was 11 years old.

So the real beef, the real pink-in-the-middle chateaubriand for two, is about the golf clubs. Why are they still bastions of male tradition and exclusivity, with outdated rules and unnecessary conventions? When my mother-in-law came to pick up her young son from the club, she was turned away for wearing leggings. Yes this was nearly 30 years ago but unlike most of the rest of society, I’m not sure that things have changed much. When I went to the club many moons ago, I put on three-quarter length trousers, a pastel coloured polo shirt and a baseball cap. How ridiculous! One of my husband’s clubs (yes, there are two), only allowed women to become members last year and the handful of women I know of who play, took up the sport so that they can join in with their husbands and sons. But the clubs themselves are not exactly family-friendly and yes, I guess that this is the point. They are little pockets of old school Englishness, closeting away acres of glorious woodland and green spaces for the privileged few to enjoy. I don’t see them inviting me and the rugrats down to throw food around the jackets-only restaurant or for a romp on the putting green. Why no kid-friendly cafe? Why no windowless soft-play with a million brightly coloured plastic balls? No wonder the men flock there on a Saturday morning: the blissful peace and quiet is pure escapism.

But for this weekend only, I’ll join my husband on the sofa in front of the dedicated Ryder Cup channel, and cheer on Team Europe in their matching sunglasses. You never know, we may not be eligible to be on the team once we leave the EU: finally, I have found an upside to Brexit. (Joke, honey)

Apologies to the 1996 Epsom team whose photo I have made unauthorised use of. It’s a goody though.

The best things about having 3 children under 5 (yes, really)

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Disclaimer: not all of these children are siblings and we may not have all been under 5, but to me this photo is the perfect reason to have 3 young children

It would have been much more straightforward to compose a piece on the subject of the worst things about having 3 children under 5 years old: including for example the nightly waking-up relay; sobbing infants clinging to various parts of my body; Peppa Pig on repeat; going anywhere or doing anything being a logistical nightmare; the constant battle to keep them amused; Weetabix stuck between my toes after every breakfast.

But that seemed unnecessarily negative. As much as I can find myself wishing away great swaths of time, the other part of me knows that one day in the not too distant future, I will hark back to this period as a happy time of innocence, (relative) harmony and sleep-deprived simplicity.

So here are my top 8 great things about having 3 under 5 (I was aiming for 10 but I got stuck – any suggestions welcome…)

  1. Finally, I’m funny!: When I do my distracting-them-at-tea-time totally crap juggling routine with two satsumas, they laugh hysterically and nearly fall off their chairs with amusement. Clearly, this one has a shelf life.
  2. Their friendship: They are close enough in age to enjoy playing with (or fighting over) the same toys and my oldest says that her little brothers are her best friends (I know this won’t last forever). She can even interpret my toddler’s words when I can’t (“Eye sore Ugg?” /“No, Mummy, he saw a slug” /“Aaaah”)
  3. Every day is a new day: Even if one of them (or me) has been grouchy or emotional the day before, they don’t remember. Or if they do remember, they don’t mind. Their little brains neither judge nor bear a grudge. And when they wake up each morning they are refreshed, happy and full of bounce. I hope one day that will rub off on me.
  4. The physical work out: I am so used to carrying a child in each arm (usually whilst avoiding the lego bricks on the stairs) that I am sure I could now hold my own in an arm wrestle, which I never used to be able to do. I imagine that I am Jeff Goldblum from ‘The Fly’ snapping the wrist of my opponent due to my brute force.
  5. Assistance with menial tasks: I can say ‘who wants to help water the garden?’ and they say ‘me, me, ME’ and run outside with their small plastic watering cans while I issue directions from the lounger. They even have a mini broom and dustpan and brush, and when I say ‘whoever sweeps all the food from the floor first can help me sort the washing’, they sweep and brush with even more determination.
  6. The welcome home: When I return home after an absence, long or short (usually short), they run or crawl with delight to the front door and nearly knock me over.
  7. The excuses: I can get away with being a bit rubbish on most fronts and it doesn’t usually seem to matter. Late for an appointment? I’ve got 3 children under 5! Forget a birthday? I’ve got 3 children under 5! Sainsbury’s delivery man waiting on the doorstep? Not volunteered for anything at school? Absent from the office Christmas party? Ditto, ditto, ditto.
  8. The smallness of their world: Their lives revolve around our little family and they copy what they see with their own miniature versions of adulthood: they push buggies, shove dolls under their jumpers and strut around in our shoes saying ‘hello, I’m too busy’ into plastic phones. If they have a problem they come straight to me, and I can usually fix it. And when they want comfort they can fit on my lap, sometimes all three of them together.

When I started writing this piece a while ago it was called ‘the best things about having 3 children under 4’ – but without me having had much to do with it, they got older. Maybe that is the best and the worst thing.

This Mum's Life
Mummuddlingthrough

Advice I would give to my daughter on her first day of school (if she were old enough to understand)

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7 September 1982

You’ve got the uniform (which is a bit big admittedly; I have to hunt for you beneath the green cardigan and sunhat), the smart new shoes (comfy but not too snug a fit that we won’t try to make them last the whole year), the water bottle (does everything have to be Smiggle these days?), the PE kit and the book bag (will you really be reading real books soon?).

So what else can I give you?

Well, the answer is probably, ‘not much’. I can’t come with you into the classroom: the chairs are too flimsy for me to sit on and green gingham just isn’t my style. There are a few things I’d like to say to you though, some of them based on my own experiences of early school life many moons ago, which you can read at a later date (when you can actually read):

  • I know you think that school is going to be like a fun playdate which you do on one day and then go to the park the next. I’ve tried to break it to you that school is somewhere you will go most weekdays for a long time. In truth, you started learning the moment you were born and I hope you’ll go on learning for the whole of your life, so if you decide you’re going to enjoy it then that’s half the battle.
  • Don’t be too shy to answer questions. If you think you know the answer to something, just give it a go. Being wrong isn’t a bad thing and it’s good practice to learn how to be wrong.
  • Likewise, if you need to go to the loo, please don’t wait until it’s too late to ask your teacher otherwise you’ll be wearing spare clothes for the rest of the day. Hopefully it won’t be the brown 80’s style dungarees that I had to wear.
  • Appreciate your teachers: they work hard and their day doesn’t finish at 3.10pm. You’re lucky in that I hope most teachers that you encounter will actually like teaching and like children. This wasn’t always the case in the history of the English schooling system.
  • Best not to take all your clothes off when you’re in the classroom and run around shouting ‘I love my bum bum, I love my bum bum’ like you do at home.
  • On that note, never stop loving your bum bum; it’s just that silent appreciation may be the way to go.
  • When you’re older, if we try to palm you off with your aunt’s 30 year old hockey stick which isn’t even regulation size any more, like my parents did to me, don’t stand for it. We may say that we are trying to build your character but actually we are just being a bit tight.
  • Love the friends you make: you never know, they may be your friends when you’re as old as me. I am still friends with a number of my primary school classmates; two or three of them I would count as my closest friends even now.
  • Try to be friends with boys as well as girls; they may not like playing with dolls as much as you do but it’s good practice for later life.
  • That said, not everyone is going to be your friend. You know how your little brothers annoy you, just as my little brother annoyed me? Well, other people in life will probably annoy you too, but don’t try to strangle them or pinch their faces. Just be nice, and I hope you’ll find that most people are nice to you as well.
  • If your drama teacher asks you to be a weasel in the school production of Toad of Toad Hall, just say politely but firmly, that you think you’d be better as a rabbit.
  • Remember last week when we put you on a climbing wall for the first time and you climbed right to the top without looking down? At first, I wanted to grab hold of your ankle so that you wouldn’t go any higher but in the end I let you go and I watched until it hurt my neck to keep looking at you. I think that starting school will be a bit like the climbing wall. So keep going, don’t look back and try to give me a little wave from the top if you remember. And whatever Pink Floyd might say, to me you’ll never be just another brick in the wall.image
  • Finally, don’t worry. The likelihood is that you’re not going to remember this day. Your father and I, however, will never forget it.

When is a holiday not a holiday?

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In France circa 1987. We were a bit older (and therefore ‘easier’) than my children at this point…

It’s summer holiday time: that must mean lazy days sipping cocktails by the pool, long lunches followed by indulgent siestas and G&Ts in the early evening sunshine. Erm, no. One of the hardest adjustments to having children is accepting the reality that the annual holiday has changed unrecognisably. In fact, it’s no longer a holiday; it’s like being at home, but worse: the children are even more excitable than usual, they rise at dawn, demand ice cream for breakfast, run around in pants like Mowgli, go feral and pee in the flowerbeds, don’t let you nod off on the lounger even for a second in case they fall in the pool /slip and hit their head /run off and get lost or abducted. And try putting sun cream on hot, sticky, sand-covered and writhing octopi-offspring.

And that’s not even the worst part. Nope, much more hair-pullingly stressful and, at times, excruciatingly embarrassing, is the actual preparation for and journey to your place of paradise.*

1.       Going away pre-children

a)      A month before you set off you cut down on chocolate and take up running. It doesn’t do much but you feel better about wearing a bikini (not realising that your 20-something body is pert and toned compared with what is to come. Yup, that’s the best it’s gonna get).

b)      You organise a haircut, mani/pedi, wax and spray tan for a few days before you head off.

c)       You plan your day and evening outfits well in advance, with co-ordinating shoes, bags, flowing scarves and jewellery. You have three different bikinis, sarongs and a large sunhat.

d)      Your suitcase is full of heels, toiletries and make up. In your small handbag there is a Kindle stocked up with great summer reads.

e)      The night before you leave you read the Lonely Planet and make a iPod playlist especially for your interesting and far-flung destination.

f)       At the airport, you wheel a well-behaved suitcase behind you, head for the bar and hope that there aren’t any young children seated near you on the plane.

g)      During the flight you have a glass of wine and watch the latest feature film.

h)      You return two weeks later, tanned, well-rested and probably quite hungover.

 2.       Going away post-children (3 young ones, to be precise)

a)      A month before you set off you make a six-page spreadsheet of things to buy, to take and to do, which you keep adding to at 2 in the morning when you awake in a panic. You still forget your phone charger.

b)      You clip your toenails one evening when you’re sitting on the loo.

c)       You make a last-minute internet purchase of a “flattering one-piece swimsuit”. There’s no such thing as ‘bikini-ready’ any more.

d)      Last season’s maxi dress for evenings lies crumpled in your suitcase beneath bottles of ready-made formula, plastic musical toys and inflatables. Your enormous hand luggage holdall contains snacks, tissues, nappies, wooden cars, dummies, Frozen stickers, Lemaze crunchy toys and board books.

e)      You do 7 loads of washing the day before departure and in the evening you sit weeping beside piles of unironed laundry. Your holiday playlist consists of the Frozen soundtrack and 8 Julia Donaldson audio books. There are 32 episodes of Peppa Pig on the iPad as they love Peppa.

f)       After a noisy ride in the too-small airport taxi, at the airport there are long queues for your budget airline and the children keep running away, so you push a buggy with one hand and pull a toddler along the polished floor by the ankle with the other. There is no time for the coffee and pastry you’d been hoping for so you all eat Garibaldis.

g)      On the flight you have a kicking toddler on your lap. He wants to lie on the floor and your only potty-trained child needs the loo but the ‘seatbelts’ sign is displayed for most of the bumpy flight. They won’t share the iPad. They now hate Peppa. The baby is crying and sicking up the milk that you gave to placate him. The person sitting next to you who was initially friendly sits stony-faced with spilt squash in her lap and crumbs from your children’s Organix snacks hand-printed on her shoulder.

h)      You return home two weeks later, exhausted and sunburnt (through lack of time/motivation to apply suncream to yourself), with squashed raisins, crushed mini cheddars and broken smarties in your handbag. The children cry all the way back. There are no more healthy snacks so the children, including the baby, eat pain au chocolate. You’re covered in snot and sick but you’ve run out of wipes and don’t have a change of clothes. If you did you wouldn’t bother changing as you don’t care anymore. You’re probably quite hungover.

*obviously it’s all worth it, they’re wonderful really, blah di blah.