The perfect age

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a baby person. By which I mean, I’m not one of those mummies who absolutely adores the newborn and tiny baby phase. I never revelled in that intimate milky haze. I love my children fiercely, and I would have killed for them the moment they arrived in my arms. But their babyhood was also an extended period of low-level panic: total responsibility for a tiny, vulnerable, helpless human being, who I struggled to understand and who couldn’t tell me what they really needed. It was two years of guesswork and feeling like I was getting it wrong, both times.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

I regret, looking back, that I didn’t relax a bit, go with the flow and enjoy them more. It’s a cliche because it’s so true: they really aren’t babies for long, and it’s a very precious time. But we are are who we are, and some of us are brilliant with babies, and some of us are not. I was bloody good at giving birth, I have to say, but doing a good job of an actual miniature human being? Not so much. For me, it was a total headfuck. I wish it had not been so, but there we are. The moment DS was born, I knew we were done, our family was complete, and I have never had even a twinge of broody desire (luckily, since my ovaries were almost certainly nuked by the chemo two years ago) to have another baby.

Now, though, is a different pot of crustaceans altogether. I had an inkling, when DD started school nearly three years ago (OMG, where has that gone?!) that I was entering a phase of motherhood that I would be a darn sight better at. That would come more naturally to me. That I could really enjoy. Before having children, I always imagined myself with primary school-age kiddies. And lo: I have discovered that I really love being a school mom. Happily, I had two summer babies so this bit came round relatively quickly. DD is coming to the end of Year 2 and DS is about to finish reception, they are about to be seven and five, and I would bottle them, right now.

They are delightful, and I want this summer to go on for ever. I always want to watch them bouncing on their trampoline and inventing silly new jumps that reduce them to a heap of hiccupy hysterics. I want them to always be as funny and sweet and cuddly and delicious and adorable as they are right now. They don’t seem to have been particularly scarred by having a rubbish mummy early in their lives: they are disarmingly affectionate – it’s like they are teaching me new ways of loving and being loved and accepting love, every day. Every day, they break down my barriers and melt my cautious heart. Their kisses and cuddles are offered and demanded and given so freely. They are fearless with their love, still, and it is a total joy and privilege to be with them, most of the time. They are well-mannered, rarely horrifyingly naughty, and our minor spats are usually because they are so in the moment with what they are doing, they’ve tuned me out. Which is fair enough, really: pirates don’t need to put sensible shoes on.

I am pretty much the opposite of a ‘helicopter parent’ – I’m more of a stealth bomber, hovering out of sight in case of extreme crisis, and I encourage them to be independent and to make their own fun. And occasionally I hear a bored whine, and it is then that I know the magic is about to happen: in the space where they are a bit bored, their most exciting and imaginative new games and activities flourish, quite without my interference. They play beautifully together, and are completely in love with each other: DD is still unselfconscious enough to enjoy playing with her little brother almost more than anyone else, although he is starting to wind her up on occasion, being his father’s son. I avoid getting involved in their disagreements as far as possible (unless there is blood, obviously) not just because I can’t be arsed/am doing laundry/have a rather tricky level of Candy Crush to conquer, but because they are quite capable of resolving their differences, compromising and negotiating. In fact, I reckon they sign the peace treaty (ie agree on a movie or a game or who’s gonna wear the Cat in the Hat outfit) a lot quicker when I’m not doing a Ban Ki-moon act.

Every day, I take joy in the little acts of care for them. I take satisfaction from washing, ironing and putting out their uniform every night. I make their packed lunches with love (all those cute little Tupperware boxes!). I love making their beds in the morning, opening their curtains and letting the day into their room. I love doing the school run. They are so happy at our wonderful school, and doing so well. I love the little facts they come home with every night, and their excited bulletins about the next day. We are lucky that our homework burden is light, so after school they are free to ride their bikes and just be children. Apart from non-negotiable swimming lessons on a Monday after school, we don’t have any other scheduled activities at the moment. They are happy enough, stimulated enough, and tired enough as it is. Yesterday, we had no playdates planned, so we just hung out in the garden, the three of us, eating lollies, reading Grazia (me) and playing some sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Despicable Me mash-up (the smalls), whose rules I didn’t quite understand.

And the next stage is letting them teach me not only about love, but also about play. They are old enough, now, to play a rudimentary game of cricket, football or catch in the garden. They are old enough to write the clues for a treasure hunt. They are old enough to go for long adventures in the woods. They are old enough to make quite complex structures out of Lego or clay. They are old enough to try magic tricks and card games. I’ve never really enjoyed stuff like role play (no sniggering at the back), and puzzles, but the stuff they are into now is, well, more interesting. Take Harry Potter, who features large in our lives at the moment. IMG_2418They are mesmerised by the first three movies. I’m reading the first book to them at bedtime and they are properly enthralled. I think, to be honest, that that was the moment being a parent first made complete, joyful sense to me: when I started reading them books I love and saw the wonder in their faces. (Doing Hagrid’s West Country accent is no problem, as a Salisbury girl, but my Professor McGonagall is appalling). DH took great joy in whittling them a real wooden wand so they could properly be Harry and Hermione. They both saved up for a toy owl, so they have their own Hedwigs. I spent hours following a YouTube tutorial to make them Golden Snitches. DS is mooting a trip to Harry Potter Studios for his fifth birthday.

They want me to join in their play more than I do, and are surprised and delighted when I stop the chores and muck in. DD’s face when I actually got on the trampoline the other day and showed her how to do a pike was a picture – she lit up, which was worth the alarm caused to my pelvic floor. I plan to say yes to their games a lot more, this summer. Yes to water fights! Yes to races! Yes to hide and seek! IMG_2454

Because much as baby days were over quickly, this golden bit of my darlings’ childhood is rushing past. And this time I really do mind. I am already having conversations with friends about what age our girls will be when we allow them into town alone and let them have a mobile phone (the consensus seems to be between 11 and 12. That’s potentially only four years until the Letting Go starts…) It’s not going to be long before we have teenage strops and sulks and they don’t want anything to do with each other or us (but still desperately NEED us to get them, and love them unconditionally – I anticipate another challenging period of communication equal to having a newborn!).

In the meantime, for the first time in my almost-seven years as a mother, I kind of feel like I am doing a good enough job. I don’t always get it right. For every day that I’m calm, cheerful and easy to be around, there’s another day when I’m preoccupied, knackered and impatient. I really appreciate the silence in my home office while they are at school, and I rejoice, some days, when it’s time for the bath taps to go on and mummy’s little helper is chilling in the fridge. But I also rejoice on Saturday nights in, when they are allowed to stay up to watch trashy talent show telly with us, and we get through bags of tortilla chips and houmous together and discuss which mentor or judge we’d like. When we were in Rome for DH’s 40th at Easter, after the first two days we were missing the kiddies terribly and planning our next trip to the Eternal City with them in tow, and a bigger icecream budget. They are wonderful little humans, and great company. And, pelvic floor notwithstanding, I will be doing the Bottom Jump on the trampoline with them in a matter of hours. Lucky old me.

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Who wants to play?

It’s not often that a feature in a women’s magazine makes me go YES!, let alone weekly fashion glossy Grazia. I love the very good journalism in it, and have a subscription, but as a nearly-38-year old mum of two smalls who has greeted her Kew and Boden Years with relief, I am winging it a bit as far as being the mag’s target audience goes. This afternoon, however, I not only said YES!, aloud, but also snorted tea up my nostril in a manner about as far from cool, stylish and insouciant as it’s possible to be.

The cause of this double outburst was a feature by the rather brilliant Caitlin Moran (she of the newspaper columns and the billion Twitter followers) debunking some of the myths of motherhood, for those women who haven’t got children yet and may or may not be longing for them. In particular, the sheer mindnumbing boredom of many aspects of the very early years. I quote: ‘Asked now, I can’t really remember what stupid stuff they were into – I can only remember them repeatedly trying to post tiny bits of Lego into the VHS player which, to be honest, now strikes me as fun, but I do remember it being long and tedious. Not once did those babies run into the room shouting, “F**k work, dude! Let’s go and see the Pet Shop Boys! In PARIS!’

This resonated with me, all the way down my nasal passages. (Not only because I heart the Pet Shop Boys and they are roughly 50% of the reason I just spent a stupid amount on Viagogo on tickets to see Take That at Wembley supported by PSB. I cunningly positioned them as a Father’s Day pressie, since I am taking DH and my sis along). It rang a big bell because not five hours previously, I had been lamenting to my Health Creation Mentor, Kit, that I think I’ve forgotten how to play. Because otherwise why would I find playing with my beautiful, funny, clever, edible children so damn boring?

‘I need to get in touch with my inner child again!’ I thought, and then, as usual when I have one of my Big Ideas, I ordered the relevant book off Amazon to be sent forthwith to my Kindle (in this case Playful Parenting by someone with a middle initial, which probably means it will be a bit American and ghastly). Yup, I thought I needed a book to learn how to play again. Which was a big fat clue staring me in the face because truly, when I was an actual child, I would also much rather have had my head in a book than the sort of things I feel I should be doing with DD and DS. You know, sitting down playing educational board games, going to the park, craft sessions, ball games, playing farms with toy animals, jigsaws, all that ‘quality time’ stuff. I didn’t like playing much as a kid, so why would I want to do it now?

Which got me thinking about the things I did like doing when I was Mini Pinchy, and which might translate into me spending more authentic fun time with the nippers than if I was playing Snakes and Ladders like some Stepford Mummy with a glazed smile while secretly thinking about food preparation/laundry/hospital appointments/blogging/taking a hot Latin lover (I’m joking, darling, obvs. I have HALF a TIT.)

Ergo. Reading. I read to the kids a lot. They like looking at books and talking about books. The house is full of books. DD is doing terribly well with learning to read. So this one has a big tick next to it. Ooh, that’s a good start. Next up, drawing. DD is addicted to drawing. She is rarely more than five minutes from whipping up a masterpiece. I used to love drawing, and painting, but haven’t done much of either lately. Perhaps I could indulge in some Caran D’Ache pencils and join DD with the doodling, or even dust off the paints. She would be enchanted, and I would have another little creative outlet. Sounds like a plan.

DS has absolutely no interest in drawing, or art generally, but he is just as creative than DD in other ways, role playing with various character toys, for example (last night his shoe was a space ship for Fireman Sam. Fair enough.) And he is very, very happy to watch an entire Toy Story movie, fully immersed, and likes it best if he is doing it with my arm around him. Next time, rather than fretting about the to-do list, perhaps I could just sit and watch with him, and talk about it together.

The kids like the park, but are not fussed about swings. I liked parks a bit when I was little, but actually the thing I was interested in was climbing, whether on a climbing frame or scrambling up a tree. And me and my sis spent most of our childhood weekends in the woods building camps, which I loved, and which the kiddies are probably old enough to start enjoying too, now. Perhaps we could find some cool woods to hang out in at the weekends, with logs and trees to climb on and hide under. We’ve recently discovered the arboretum at Wisley and I actually felt the same sense of adventure as my four- and two year old, exploring under the trees and collecting pine cones to make a ‘display’ at home.

Wisley fun

 

Plus, I do like Lego, and I’m not averse to Barbie and her acres of pink plastic tat. I like playing tea parties, especially with real tea and biscuits out of tiny cups and plates. I like cutting up magazines and doing collages and scrap books. I like making paper aeroplanes. I like paddling. I like lying on my back on the grass and spotting shapes in the clouds. I like baking.

So perhaps it’s not a case of being ‘not good enough’ (again) at doing what I think I should be doing with the kiddies. Perhaps it’s a case of spending time doing more of what I genuinely love doing, and taking them along for the ride. Showing them the magic of the stuff that floated my boat when I was young, and getting a slice of the wonder myself. Of seeing what we have in common as fellow human beings. If I let them, they might even introduce me to stuff I never knew I liked doing. I doubt that I’m ever going to love playing vets as much as reading Grazia with a cuppa, to be honest, but let’s give it a go. Bring on the games!

 

Unconditional parenting

Last night I started reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. It’s been sat by my bed unopened for two years, since I was pregnant with DS and DD looked like she was about to embark on the ‘terrible twos’, and I ordered a rash of parenting books to join the ranks of baby books on my shelf.

So why open it now? We’ve been having some mysterious clinginess ishoos at nursery, where she’s been quite happy since she was seven months old but now keeps bursting into tears. I’ve been worried about the nursery thing, which makes me feel even more guilty than I do anyway about working two and a half days from home.

My mum’s advice was to do the same as she did with me when I was hysterical every morning before school when I first started: bribe her. Apparently a child behavioural specialist in the late 70s advised my mum to tell me that if I didn’t cry at school I would get a treat on the way home. She says it worked immediately. For some reason, this didn’t sit comfortably with me: I don’t like the idea of negating DD’s emotions, or asking her to pretend she is fine when she isn’t (I’ve obviously been doing this since I was four and it hasn’t necessarily been a good thing!). But I tried it last week and lo and behold, the promise of going for coffee and cake anywhere she wanted on Friday morning if she had ‘no silly tears’ (trying to make it clear that real hurt and upset tears were fine, it was the tears for no apparent reason that we were trying to stop) worked. She had a ‘happy day’ at nursery and we had a lovely time with babycinos on Friday morning.

But yesterday the bribe didn’t work and she had a bit of a ‘sensitive’ day, as her lovely male key worker put it. And I thought: there has to be a better way than this. I’ve never been a fan of reward charts (apart from stickers to mark potty training progress) and naughty steps, although like every other mum I know, I praise and reward good behaviour and threaten the withdrawal of treats for bad behaviour. It’s the only way I know.

So I opened Unconditional Parenting. One stone cold bath later, and I have a whole new way of thinking about parenting. The premise is that responding to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour with rewards and punishments may work for short-term control of our children, but if we think about the adults we want them to become (eg happy, thoughtful, inquisitive, independent, creative, fulfilled, loving etc), these techniques may actually do harm in the long term. Unconditional parenting, says Kohn, is about working with children, not doing stuff to them. It’s about recognising their feelings (that they may be unable to articulate other than in tantrums, hysterics or naughtiness), and letting them know that we really do love them, always, just how they are, just for being themselves, not because they have been ‘good’.

Is it possible that children see withdrawal of treats or punishments, however minor this seems to us, as a withdrawal of their parents’ love? To me it seems unconditional parenting isn’t just about making it clear that we love our children unconditionally, no matter what their behaviour, but that we respect them as individuals with their own personality and feelings, rather than as nuisances to try and get under our control.

I haven’t got to the bit of the book where Kohn talks about how to practically handle tricky situations differently, so I haven’t actually got any new tools at my disposal yet. But even the first few chapters of the book struck a chord with me and made me think that maybe there is another way of handling my kiddies. I’m still a bit resistant to the idea that it’s not all about getting them to do what they are told, I must admit, but I’m keeping an open mind.

Jordan, Princess, and the false eyelashes…

I was on Radio 2 yesterday, taking part in a discussion with Fern Britton (who’s standing in for Jeremy Vine this week) about whether Katie Price should have made up her two year old daughter Princess in full glamour-girl slap and false eyelashes. I’m on the show’s roster of listeners who usually have an opinion about something, and they put me up against The Apprentice’s Katie Hopkins, who was arguing that it was all a bit of fun at home and little girls had dressed up with mummy for generations.

While this is true, I argued that in my opinion, there is a line between experimenting at being like mummy, dressing up, playing with makeup and wanting to be a princess (as my three and a half year old DD does, a lot) and being made up by your mum to look like a Page Three girl while you’re still in nappies. My first thought when I saw the pic was that little Princess looked like one of those American Pageant mini beauty queens. It made me feel a bit queasy, and although I wouldn’t use the word ‘disgusting’ as Princess’s dad Peter Andre did, I do think it’s a really peculiar thing to do. Little girls are so gorgeous anyway, with their soft peachy skin and general deliciousness, why on earth would you want to swamp them with full make-up? Plus, since her aunty posted the pic on Facebook, it stopped being ‘just a bit of fun at home’.

Jordan's little princess...

I worry less about the media’s paedophile/sexualisation of children angle on this than about the self-esteem of little girls, to be honest. It’s going to be tough enough as my DD grows to boost her self-esteem and self-confidence, her appreciation of her body as strong and healthy, her worth as a human being and the value of achievement, and showing her positive role models, when she is already faced with millions of images of tiny, tanned, surgically altered and enhanced WAGs, actresses, singers and wannabes. I want my DD to know she is valuable and precious and loved just the way she is, inside and out. She doesn’t need make-up, pushed-up boobs, size zero clothing and St Tropez to be beautiful or lovable and successful.

I’m not particularly interested in Katie Price and the codependent relationship she has with the tabloids (and I’m as far from a Daily Mail reader as you can get, despite Katie Hopkins’ accusation). I also find it hard to criticise anyone’s parenting – we’re all just trying to be good enough mothers with the tools we have at our disposal. But children have such a ridiculously short babyhood and childhood, I just think that we should let them – and encourage them to be – children for as long as possible. Yes, dressing up, playing at being mummy and wanting to be a princess are completely normal for little girls, but there’s fun, and there’s creating a slightly odd mini-me.

You can listen again to the show until Tuesday 2 March – let me know what you think!

Pushing my buttons…

I hate to say this about my beautiful, funny, bright three year old daughter, but (whisper it) sometimes I find her enormously irritating. Sometimes I even find the Gingerbread Man (14 months today!) really annoying too. Just because they are being small people and doing small people things and making small people noise and mess and fuss.

I feel bad about this. Before DS was born, I was endlessly patient with DD. She could do no wrong, and actually, she was such a ‘good’ girl anyway, it was pretty easy. Then DS comes along with all his noise and reflux and not sleeping and being A Boy generally, and my head, eyes and arms need to be in two places at once, dealing with two different people who are utterly dependent on me but in completely different ways, at the same time. Having a second child, for me, was the exact situation that the expression ‘head f**k’ was invented for.

So now, much more frequently than I would like, I am shouty, impatient mummy. DD calls me a snappy crocodile. At bedtime last night, after a random, one-year-after-potty-training

A mummy, yesterday

A mummy, yesterday

pants pissing incident at her best friend’s house (who then did the same – it’s a conspiracy!) she told me ‘I love you, mummy, but I didn’t like you today’. Well, fair enough my darling, because frankly, I really don’t like myself when I get in a mummy rage. She asks to see my face sometimes, to judge what mood I am in, because things can swing from absolutely fine and fun to not so nice in milliseconds.

DH says she just knows how to push my buttons. I hope to God she hasn’t inherited his perverse, winding up sense of humour and this is just her Being A Threenager. I am growing terrified that I am somehow damaging her by not being lovely all the time. I am starting to dread her being an actual teenager because if I can’t manage a pre-schooler with patience, humour, love and respect, then how on earth am I going to deal with a 13 year old girl? And goodness only knows what sort of tantrums DS is going to start pulling soon, given the range his tiny toddling self gets into when he loses his current fixation object, an empty bubble pot and wand (Bah-boo! BAH-BOO!).

In an effort to chillax, I keep picking affirmation cards from Louise L Hay’s wonderful Power Thought Card deck. Today it is ‘I am flexible and flowing’. We’ll see if keeping that in mind helps me with overtired nippers towards bathtime tonight…