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

The Cartoon Conundrum

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We have 74 episodes of Paw Patrol on our planner; the children have viewed them countless times. “Would you like ‘Pups in a Fix’? ‘Pups save the Basketball Game’?” “Had that one. Had that one,” they say. Whenever I find an episode on Nick Jr that we haven’t seen before, I punch the air with excitement. ‘Pups save Friendship Day’ and it’s double-length too. What a bonus.

In quiet moments I find myself deliberating the ideology behind the cartoon. There’s a disappointing lack of back story. What’s going on with Ryder? With his high-pitched voice he is clearly pre-pubescent, so where are his parents? His friends? Does he not go to school? How is he so well-adjusted? And what about the Paw Patrol business – is it state-funded? Do Ryder and the pups get remunerated, or do they just get board and lodging? I unload the dishwasher in the morning and realise I’m humming the theme tune.

There is a kind of consistency with the format of cartoons which is strangely comforting. Ryder and his team in new episodes look exactly the same as in the previous ones. Ryder has no facial hair yet, no wobble in his voice; Rubble hasn’t developed arthritis in his hind paws; Marshall still shows little sign of brain damage from all his tumbles. The characters start afresh in every episode, just as every toddler starts the day anew having forgotten that his sister hit him over the head with a saucepan the day before. One day my children will tire of Paw Patrol, just as they tired of Peppa Pig, and move on to Spiderman or whatever the next stage is and the pups and the pigs will entertain future generations of pre-schoolers.

Young children of the 1980s watched Cities of Gold, Scooby Doo and Scrappy, Super Ted, Bananaman and Dungeons and Dragons. There would be one episode of a particular cartoon (depending on the day) and then we had to turn off before Grange Hill came on with its more ‘mature’ scenes. We weren’t able to watch all 36 episodes of Super Ted over lunchtime while our mothers were doing the 80s equivalent of admin on their iPads (i.e. peeling potatoes or washing nappies in the twin-tub).

I found an old episode of Dungeons and Dragons on Youtube and played it to my daughter to see if she would be interested. Have cartoons changed so much that my children would find them outdated? I was surprised: firstly at the fact that the ‘baddies,’ including a five-headed dragon, are quite scary – to a four year old. Secondly, that it was a US show. I remembered a lot about the cartoon, but hadn’t picked up on the American accents. Even the Canadian Paw Patrol has English-accented pups for its UK audience. Thirdly, at how familiar the characters still were: Sheila, the girl with red hair and the invisibility cloak who we all wanted to be, Uni the little unicorn, and Dungeon Master, who talked in riddles but who the children trusted.

And that it is the beauty of cartoons; the characters don’t age. Not only can they transport you back to the time when you sat on the orange-patterned rug by the fire and stared up at the square box with the fuzzy picture, but nothing pops up on your Facebook feed with the words “You won’t believe what Dungeon Master looks like NOW” before you have to click through 20 links to see a photo of him ten stone overweight and going to the shops in his dressing gown. They remain on screen as they did in our memories. As John Nash in A Beautiful Mind realises of the girl in his imagination: she does not age so she is not real.

My daughter sat and watched Dungeons and Dragons but didn’t ask to watch a second episode. Perhaps these old-fashioned cartoons should have a Beauty and the Beast-style makeover, complete with CGI and celebrity protagonists. Would that make them more appealing to the sophisticated cartoon-viewers of our children’s generation, or do I just want to relive my childhood?

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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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Happy Hangovers! The Downside of Having Young Children During the Festive Season

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The festive season is a cruel mistress: she seduces us with the lure of parties, mingling with friends old and new and the promise of a night of fun that we can’t refuse – go on, you deserve it, she silently urges us. We think ‘no, no, what about our responsibilities?’ and then we our resolve weakens, we succumb, we forget who we are, don’t even care who we are anymore. The evening flashes by in a swirl of laughter, confidences, flashing lights, cocktails and dancing. We feel invigorated, exhilarated and invincible. Thank you kind mistress for mulled wine, tinsel and Noddy Holder.

But fast forward six hours and her merciless hand has lifted off the top of our skulls and poured a double amaretto directly onto our brains. The liquor has soaked into the mechanism and interfered with the wiring. The alarm is beeping, the sun’s rays are coming through the curtains, a baby is wailing from the other room and a toddler is bashing you over the head with a Tommee Tippee bottle. We raise our heads from the pillow, amaretto still sloshing around our skull, Sauvignon Blanc stinging our eyes and the best we can manage is a throaty ‘meh?’

There is only one thing worse than a difficult day with the children and that is a difficult day with the children and a hangover. Long gone are the days when our hangovers were fed, watered and indulged. Ten years ago, even six years ago, I would hide a weekday hangover behind a computer screen or by resting my head against the toilet roll holder for forty winks in the loos (classy). A hangover never saw a weekend before noon, and then spent most of the day buried beneath a blanket, a takeaway and the newspapers on the sofa. I staggered to the shops for provisions early one Sunday afternoon in April and saw a woman staggering towards me. It could have been me, I thought, until I noticed that she was in running gear and had a London Marathon medal around her neck. I briefly wondered whether I should be doing something better with my mornings, but the hangover coaxed me back to the couch before I had time for regrets and self-recrimination.

Nowadays, I feel as if I have done the equivalent of the London Marathon by midday. Young children are utterly dependent and devoid of pity. Worse, they are like tiny parents, punishing their adult children for dancing on tables at midnight. The baby awakes at 6 o’clock and I fumble around in the dark for milk, before my two year old climbs into bed, manoeuvres his wee-soaked nappy into my face and demands to watch Paw Patrol. Eleven episodes later, I stumble around in a panic, trying to put a nappy on my four year old and school shoes on the baby, while they fling bits of marmite toast and raisin wheats around the kitchen and my hot tea slowly cools untouched on the side. I am wearing sunglasses indoors even though it is 8.30 a.m. on a December morning.

So what is the solution? Stay at home and be tucked up in bed by 9 o’clock so that we are always ready for the next day? Go out but only have one drink and leave when the party is just getting going? Everything in moderation, as they say, but isn’t this a bit, well, boring? If we are hopeless at refusing that last glass of white wine, the only option is to grin and bear the hangovers and try to remember, when we am sitting in a heap and the children are swinging from our hair like mini-Mowglis in the jungle, that we are now in fact doing something better with our mornings.

‘Tis the season to be jolly (fa la la la la…)

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On the town age 18: could life have been better twenty years ago?

Hurray for Christmas party season; the time of year when I imagine myself to be the picture of sophistication in sparkling earrings, perfectly coiffed hair, immaculate make up and a flattering festive dress. Except nowadays the challenge is simply to get out the house without blobs of cheese in my hair and snot on my trousers.

Rewind ten years (twenty is too long ago for my baby-addled brain to recall) and the picture was very different. Here’s what I remember about (rose-tinted) pre-children party preparations compared to the current challenges of exiting the building in the evenings without three children clinging to my ankles.

Getting ready for a night out aged 28

5.30 pm – choose uplifting mood music; try on 14 different outfits with a variety of shoes, scarves and jewellery.

6 pm – relax in decadent bubble bath with a wide array of posh smellies; use deep conditioner; face mask; pumice stone and complete a thorough shave of all the necessary areas. Rise from the bath wrinkled, hair-free and smelling like the perfume counter at Debenhams.

6.50 pm – brush teeth, pluck brows, slather body in expensive scented moisturiser, then crack open a chilled bottle of Sauv Blanc.

7 pm – apply make-up carefully using serum, primer, concealer, foundation, powder, blusher, intricate eye make-up and lipstick.

7.30 pm dry and style hair whilst dancing to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

8 pm – after 17 texts and calls to finalise the sartorial decisions, finally leave the house in chosen party dress and glamorous fake-fur jacket, 4 inch heels, a cloud of Coco Chanel and a sequined evening bag bursting with make-up for mid-evening reapplications, folding flat shoes, cash, bank card, keys, phone.

Simple, huh?

Getting ready for a night out aged 38

5.30 pm – feed whining, snotty children beans on toast and Petits Filous, then get baby yogurt hands in your hair when on all fours wiping the kitchen floor with a paper towel.

6 pm – relaxing bath-time (for the 3 children): do laps of the landing as you chase the hyperactive toddler who is screaming ‘no bath, no, no NO, don’t want it BATH’; dunk three of them in the bath and pour a jug of water over their heads and stick a toothbrush in their mouths; stop the older two drowning the baby and poking him in the eye with the toothbrush handle; get weed on by the baby as he sits on your lap in a towel; retrieve pyjamas and nappies after the toddler throws them over the bannister and finally wrestle them into their night-clothes after a bribe of ten episodes of Peppa.

6.50 pm – stick on Peppa Pig and while they are momentarily distracted brush their hair, wipe their noses, apply Vicks to coughing chests and crack open a carton of blue-top milk.

7 pm – during the quiet TV time: stop the oldest two from kicking each other; ask your daughter not to pull down her pyjama bottoms and pretend to do a poo on her brother; pick up all the puzzles and toys that the baby has pulled from the cupboards and dodge the plastic balls that the toddler is chucking around the room.

7.15 pm – drag them up to bed with the lure of stories, dummies, extra milk and cuddly toys. Read the Gruffalo, the Gruffalo’s Child, What the Ladybird Heard and Room on the Broom.

7.30 pm – explain to the crying four year old that you’re only going out for your tea and the babysitter is LOVELY; placate crying toddler with third bottle of warm milk and change crying baby’s 4th pooey nappy of the day.

7.50 pm – dig out a pair of moderately clean jeans and a crumpled sparkly top (which you wear over a thermal vest).

7.55 pm – wash pits with old flannel; clump mascara onto eyelashes; dry shampoo hair; change pants; locate some old earrings; run toothbrush over front teeth and in your haste spray Coco Chanel in your eyes.

8 pm – offer babysitter a glass of Sauv Blanc and run from the house as if from a crime scene in a pair of comfy boots, with some tissues, an old lipgloss, keys and bankcard shoved in the pockets of your winter coat. Text babysitter from the taxi to check that everything is ok.

Ah, life in my late thirties. Wouldn’t change it for a moment (ha!).

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Not waving, but washing

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We have a magic washing bin in our house. Every time I empty it, I open the lid again and it’s full. Full of tinned spaghetti-stained t-shirts, milk-soaked cot sheets, muddy mini-jeans, dribbled-on dribble bibs, and socks. Tons of socks. With pro-creating comes mounds of washing. One follows the other. It would appear to be the natural order of life. Then there’s my clothes: clean every morning but peeled from my body at the end of the day covered in a variety of saliva, snot, baby sick, wee, poo and milk. If it emits from a bodily orifice, I wear it, not quite with pride.

With a household of five, there’s at least five washes a week: a dark one; a light one; a bedlinen one; a wool one and probably another dark one for good measure. Get it wrong at your peril: a woollen jumper in a hot wash or a tissue in a pocket can ruin the whole morning. Some people find doing the washing satisfying in some way: the sorting into colours, the array of products to tackle every stain; the clean detergent smell when the clothes are hung to dry; the folding; the putting away. I find it tedious and never-ending. I am drowning in washing.

So I spoke to my mother. She says that I have it easy. When she was a mother of young children in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she spent every morning standing at the twin tub washing terry cloth nappies. I didn’t really understand what this meant so she explained the process. First she disposed of the paper liner (i.e. the part that held most of the excrement) and disinfected the nappies in a bucket. The twin tub, now a mythical beast, was a rectangular appliance about a metre long by half a metre wide. My mother would fix its pipe to the sink tap and fill up the drum with hot water. She then added a pile of nappies with detergent and the agitator in the drum would swish the nappies around, before she lifted them out with tongs, rinsed them in the sink and spun them in the next section of the drum. Then they were hung out in the garden or on a clothes horse. Only the nappies were done separately; when she was washing clothes, she would use the same water, putting the whites in first, then the coloureds and, finally, jeans. I’ve no idea what I was doing during this whole process, but I assume this is why my mother’s generation put their babies in their prams in the garden for the morning.

But then she had it easy, compared to my grandmother. In the ‘50s, she had a square Parnall washing machine and an electric wringer. She had to feed each item of clothing through the wringer and then back again. Her mother, my great grandmother, had an old copper boiler (i.e. a large pot) in her kitchen. It had a gas ring underneath which heated the water for the clothes. The clothes went into the boiler and my great grandmother poshed them up and down with a wooden dolly. She didn’t have a spinner, or a wringer. My mother remembers squeezing out sheets in the yard; one person at one end, another at the other. She had a flat iron too, that she heated on the gas stove and then spat on to see if it was hot enough.

By this point I am thinking of my Hotpoint washing machine and tumble dryer with an emotion similar to fondness. I often put on a ‘goodnight cycle’ when I go to bed and in the morning the dirty washing is clean. I cannot imagine a copper boiler, a wooden dolly. I also have a sense of guilt: at least they reused their nappies. I don’t want to calculate the volume of landfill that I have contributed to, by putting three children in disposables. I imagine the ground filling with pyramids of nappies containing cold excrement, like Ferrero Rocher on a platter at the Ambassador’s drinks party. I don’t know anyone who uses cloth nappies and I wonder why they are not more popular when we try to be ‘green’ in other aspects of our lives. We recycle our cardboard, compost our food and worry about waste, but we draw the line about recycling the nappies. I guess we want to maintain the simplicity of our lives; we don’t want to return to the hardships of our mothers and, let’s face it, we’re still squeamish about shit.

It is also because I am aware of the one constant in my generational scenario: it is still me, the mother, that does the washing or the majority of it at least. My four-year old daughter likes to fold the clothes; my two-year old son kicks the neatly formed piles like leaves in a park. I will try to teach them both to help with housework but I wonder what position my daughter will be in in thirty-odd years time. I hope that her generation will be eco-minded enough to use cloth nappies but perhaps by then there will be a magic robot-pixie to complement the magic washing bin, who sorts, washes, dries, folds and puts away the clothes.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

 

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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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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.

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Ways in which perhaps we should be turning into our mothers

There are clearly ways in which I should be turning into my mother, but for some reason I am not. So following my previous post, for fairness and completeness, I wanted to acknowledge the ways in which I should be more like her. I know this list doesn’t apply to lots of my peers, who are much less domestically hopeless than I am.

Here are a handful of them (although I am sure the list is non-exhaustive – just in case you’re reading, Mum):

  1. By running a tight ship

Thrifty housekeeping, by which I mean housewifely tricks such as meal planning, budgeting and making leftover food into tasty meals for the following day. How many times do I keep cold mashed potato in the fridge intending to make bubble and squeak but never get round to it? (In fact I don’t think I know how to make bubble and squeak.) Or a chicken carcass which could be turned into stock or a healthy broth? My mother grew up in 50’s Yorkshire when “ee by gum, times were tough,” as we used to say to annoy her. But now I’m older and a little wiser, I know that life was much more about the hard graft than I will ever know and I admire her for not abandoning her economising principles in a throw-away society.

  1. By knowing how to ‘make do and mend’

When my mother was younger, socks were darned, leather patches were sewn on jumper elbows , cardigans were knitted by hand and embroidery was a common pastime of a woman in her prime. Most of my clothes as a child were made from Clothkits patterns. Most of my daughter’s clothes are from H&M, Next and Boden. The haberdashery department at John Lewis is a fascinating new world: a treasure trove of thimbles, bobbins, press studs, satin ribbons and coloured threads.  Am I part of a lost generation of terrible-at-textiles women, or is it just me? I know it’s not just me because some of my friends’ mothers mend the holes in their sons-in-law’s trousers and knit their grandchildren cozy hooded jumpers, while their daughters are doing the online weekly shop and buying birthday presents from Amazon. I’m not advocating a return to the 1950’s England of village fetes, jam-making and the WI (although that pre-EU dystopia may soon be repeating on us like Great Auntie Mabel’s homemade elderflower wine), it’d just be useful to know how to sew on a button with dexterity.

  1. By being more house-proud

My ‘down-time’ – i.e. when the baby is having his morning nap – tends to consist of doing what I term ‘essential iPad admin’ (including the shopping referred to in 2 above, as well as emailing with a bit of social networking thrown in). I have already been reprimanded by my mother for this. By midday she would have already washed 20 terry cloth nappies in the twin-tub, peeled 11 spuds, polished the brass, plumped the cushions, mopped the floor and lined the shoes up for cleaning. My daughter’s school shoes are lucky to get the once over with a baby-wipe twice a term and a good friend who bought us a silver salt-shaker for a wedding present complained that it looked like pewter a few months later.

  1. By attempting my own Bake-Off

When I bought my first flat, I used to keep empty butter packets in the fridge like my mother did when we were growing up, but I didn’t really know what they were for (something to do with making cakes?). I gave up after a while, since I had to throw them away unused every month or so. Plenty of my peers can bake really well, so this isn’t necessarily a generational thing. My baking tins sit pristine at the back of the cupboard and when I attempted to make chocolate crispy cakes for my daughter to take to school for her birthday, I put cold syrup into warm melted chocolate and the mixture turned irreparably solid. Fortunately my mum was there to make a new batch.

   5.   By being green-fingered

My mother was gardening the day before she gave birth to me. I imagine her having her first twinge while kneeling by a flowerbed with a trowel in her hand. I didn’t have a garden that I was responsible for until I was in my mid-thirties and it took me a while to realise how utterly time-consuming it is to tend a garden so that it looks passably good and you don’t have to apologise to guests if they trip over a molehill on the unmowed lawn. Strimming, trimming, planting, plucking, pruning, deadheading, digging, raking, hoeing, sowing, shovelling, tending, watering, weeding: seriously, who has time for all of this? Fortunately, the garden is full up with a climbing frame, trampoline and assorted plastic toys so there’s not much room for nice flowers. My favourite plants are our pale pink Camelia which flowers in early April for my son’s birthday and a Rhododendron whose vibrant dark pink flowers blossom for our daughter’s birthday in late May. And that’s about as much as I know.