Category Archives: Family life

Poncetastic nirvana: taking four under-5s to Tate Britain

It is the summer holidays, as you will probably have noticed by the hordes of noisy children and fed up adults crowding your local attraction. Being the natural tiger mother that I am, I decided to take a day off from wall to wall Wii and schlep the kids up to town for a bit of cultural appreciation. I met up with my cousin in law and together we shepherded four children under 5 round an art gallery.

Like many things in life, the thought of this made my knees sweat with anxiety. But once we were out there, doing, it was fantastic. The kids genuinely enjoyed looking at and talking about the art. Admittedly there was a false start before lunchtime that was remedied with vast amounts of picnic food. Never try and engage a hungry child in higher things. Once the crisps had been demolished and one of our number had wee’d in the bushes, we decamped to Victoria Tower Gardens to let off some steam. The idea that a lovely children’s playground might exist within sight of the Houses of Parliament boggles my mind, but there it is (unicorn just out of shot):

Musical jumping

There is a sandpit, a water pump, a couple of swings, a musical jumping thing and some natural clambering equipment. The playground design displays a refreshingly laidback attitude to health and safety, with a slide that goes like grease off a spoon and a roundabout like the revolving ‘dancefloor’ at the Foundry:

Baby Bones about to spin herself off the plate

Aside from the lovely playground, Victoria Tower Gardens also has a monument to the abolition of slavery (you can see it in the first photo, the multicoloured cupola type thing) and a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. Seriously, this is my kind of park. Everyone should go there, although perhaps not all at the same time.

One of two statues of goats at the edge of the playground

The Palace of Westminster and the monument to abolition, as viewed from the sandpit

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Once the children had worn themselves out and sustained a suitable number of minor injuries, it was time to return to Tate Britain for a second stab at culture. This time was much more successful. The two biggest small people loved looking for specific items in paintings (‘find a man with red socks! find a lady holding a squirrel!’) and soon started suggesting their own, although I didn’t spot anyone battling Bowser. The two smaller smalls enjoyed making lots of noise, trying to touch the exhibits and twanging the string barriers that Tate staff have thoughtfully put out at toddler height to stop people touching the exhibits.

Tate Britain has been rehung since I last visited, a shameful amount of time ago. The galleries run in chronological order so now you can wander through art history and follow the flow of development. The Henry Moores were an instant hit with everyone, interestingly, although my son ultimately preferred the Chapman Brothers’ fast food carvings because “the sculptures that weren’t funny were really good, but the ones that were funny and had lots of crazy beards were funny AND good”. As I stood in front of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, shivering at the power it still retains to unnerve, I asked my son to tell me what he thought of it. He considered, and then said “That one in the middle looks like a bird with four legs and a bum that looks like its face.”

I don’t pretend to have any understanding of art, art history or artistic techniques. But I do believe art is for everyone and it’s a rare person who makes it through life without experiencing some moment where the soul is shaken by a created object in their path. The thought of taking four under-5s to an art gallery made my knees sweat largely because I feared other adults’ reactions, the tuts and sneers and hostility that we might expect for herding a band of feral creatures through the sanctum. It pleases me more than I can say to have been wrong about this. Fellow gallery-goers of today, you were wonderful: tolerant, patient, smiley, all the things that help a child to feel the gallery is their place too. And the Tate staff are fab. We will be back again.

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Making memories that will last a lifetime (or at least until they can afford therapy)

It started with a wish. A wish to celebrate my precious first born finishing nursery and getting ready for big school. I’ll take him out for the day, I thought, and make some magical memories to show how proud I am of the kind, funny child he has become. I spotted a half price online ticket deal to Groombridge Place, and when I realised that under-3s go free I factored Baby Bones into the equation too. It will be wonderful, I thought. Even though thunderstorms are forecast, we will have an amazing time. We’ll marvel at nature and turn over leaves and dash through rain showers and I’ll even get someone to take a picture of the three of us so that I am in a bloody family photo for once.

Today was that day. Here is what actually happened: PFB son started moaning halfway through the hour long drive to get there, and carried on for most of the trip (are we there yet? It’s taking aaaaaages. I’m just hot and thirsty and I want to get there. Why are you telling me off? I was just…ufff. I want to go home!) PMS me defaulted instantly to pissed off. The peacocks on the lawn, the hawks flying to command and the beautiful ornate gardens were mere backdrops to our hissed disagreements and the occasional ringing sound of a cast iron bollocking. No thunderstorm, but a sticky heat that bore down on us all like a fat man in a bad suit. Toddler daughter was cheerful, but her adamant refusal to rest little legs in the pushchair grew a bit tiresome after the fourth or fifth mile of walking. The high point of excitement for PFB was getting to use his new lunchbox. Which was, admittedly, gratifying, but we could have done that at home and saved eight quid.

Is it me? I wondered, head in hands, as I tried to explain for the sixth time that no, I couldn’t play Swashbuckle while trailing a snail’s-pace toddler around a two storey wooden climbing frame. Am I doing it all wrong? Where is the magic I so hoped to create? As someone whose own lovely, magic-making mum carked it long ago, my first worry is always ‘how do I know if I’m getting it right?’ How do you know if the memories they’re making are the kind you want to hang onto?

I welled up a little hearing my son make friends with another small boy and tell him all about our family, my sentimental heart clutching at how quickly he is growing up. But then I passed a couple of stony-faced South African mums barking ‘all you’ve done from the minute we got here is complain’ in the direction of their sullen offspring and was reminded that actually, kids of all ages are a pain in arse quite a lot of the time, and that’s ok. Hell, it’s normal. Being bollocked for arselike behaviour is also normal. How else does one learn not to be an arse?

And then we caught the boat back to the cafe and I received a lovely compliment from the boatman about my tattoo (‘it looks like someone’s taken a watercolour brush to you!’ Thanks, lovely and peerless Hannah Aitchison). I drove us home in a kind of cold beer tractor beam, propelled only by the throbbing image of refrigerated ale. I shooed two hot, dirty children into the knackered arms of Mr Bones, who had only just finished cleaning the paint off himself after a long day’s decorating. And PFB son, the moaning wonder, ran straight in to say ‘hey dad, I had a GREAT time today! I saw lots of animals, I climbed on a pirate ship, and we went on a boat! And I used my lunchbox and had my own lunch!’

I guess they make their own memories.

The unbearable shiteness of being (a grown up)

There are many times in life that I give thanks for being over my irresponsible teens and twenties. Being in charge of my time (minus the inevitable child-centred interruptions), being able to drive myself places, not having to explain why I’m wearing that – all peachy. Sometimes, though, I just want someone, a proper grown up, to come along and tell me what to do.

My boy cat is 13. He has always been loud, active, boisterous, annoying, greedy and fun. He was a pretty magnificent looking animal in his prime, if I do say so myself:

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Over the last six months or so, he has developed pancreatitis as well as possible kidney dysfunction. He’s been back and forth to the vet, is on special food, has lots of medications that he has been mostly willing to take if I crush them up in some tasty meat or fish. His back legs have wasted away somewhat and are quite weak, sometimes to the point where he can’t even bounce himself up onto the toilet lid or our bed. He is gaunt, with a big head, and his fur looks greasy.

This week he had to spend two nights in kitty hospital being rehydrated as, due to a flare-up of pancreatitis, he had stopped eating or drinking. Came home on Tuesday with another bagful of medicine. Once at home he ate a little, drank a little, mostly refused the food with medicine in it. He was sick on Thursday morning, despite the medication that is meant to suppress the sickness.

But mostly I get the feeling that he has just given up. He’s been getting in bed with me every night (like, literally under the covers with his head on the pillow), hiding the rest of the time. He’s listless. He doesn’t seem to be washing. And he keeps giving me a look:

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How do I know what the right thing to do is? When I got the cats in my feckless youth, I just assumed that they would either be killed in accidents before their time or end up so undeniably ill that there would be no other choice but to PTS, like all my childhood cats. I don’t know if it’s kinder to keep forcing treatment and medication on the old boy just to prolong a tedious existence or if he’ll pick up to the point where he starts to enjoy life again.

It has also cost us a fortune. He’s insured and this is an ongoing condition so we’ll get some of the money back (eventually), but this week’s stay in hospital cost me nearly £500 that we don’t have spare right now. I can’t afford for him to go back in again, we simply don’t have the cash. I feel like a shit having to consider the financial burden alongside everything else, but it’s an unignorable part of the overall cost. If I knew that that £500 would result in him returning to a reasonable state of springy-pawed health I wouldn’t be thinking about it at all, but so far that has not been the case.

For comparison, we also have his sister who is as lively, glossy, hungry and curious as ever she was.

Meanwhile my son has become unusually attentive to boycat and insists on stroking him gently, giving him food, encouraging him to come inside ‘so he can be comfy’. Son is 4.5 and has accompanied us on most of our veterinary trips. I’m sure he’s old enough to read between the carefully phrased lines about next steps.

Never mind. I’m sure any minute now a kind grown up will be along to provide me an answer…

A comparitive study of tiredness

Recently I’ve been experimenting with the 5:2 diet. Although it hasn’t really got past 6:1 with me, because fast days seem to result in a two day hangover of headache and fatigue. On the fast day itself, though, I’ve felt terrific: clear headed and full of energy, instead of thick headed and full of food.

So on Saturday night I did something pretty rock and roll. It was out there, I know, but…I decided to stay up late for no reason. I got home from babysitting for a friend at around midnight and had to make a cheesecake before I went to bed. This makes me sound like one of those mummy bloggers with shiny hair and well organised storage who put up artfully composed photos of home made jam. I am not one of those people. In case you need evidence, here’s a shot of my front room right now:

my front room

But the cake had to get made, so I cracked open a beer and got on with it. The house was quiet, my thoughts were my own, the beer was good. I was enjoying myself.

So when the cake was done at 1am, I thought ‘why not sit down with another beer and do some stuff?’ Reasons not to do this included the fact that it was my turn to get up with Loki the queen of 5am starts, and the busy day with friends that the cake was for. But I just couldn’t resist the chance to be alone in my own head for a bit longer.

So I accepted the fact that I would not sleep much and probably feel like shit all Sunday, and I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours reading blogs, writing emails etc. Went to bed at 3am, madam was up at 4.30am.

NOW, to the point. Once the initial hibernation feeling had worn off, about 3 lightning speed cups of tea into the day, I felt alright. Better than alright – I felt good. It was fun to hang out with a chatty, bumbling companion, physically I felt no pain and there was a pleasant floating feeling in my head. It was a bit like being on E, except that it didn’t cost me £5 and there was much less likelihood of interrupting a conversation with someone in order to vom on their shoes.

Not only that, this feeling stayed all day. We went to our friends’ house and had a fabulous time, loads of food, conversation, laughing and minimal need to parent. The kids immersed themselves in an imaginary guinea pig world for about four hours while we sat in the kitchen and spraffed. AND THEN we all went to another friend’s house for a child’s birthday party and while a gang of feral preschoolers ran between our feet we hung out in a kitchen, drank out of plastic cups and kind of sort of partied. It was some perfect Sunday fun.

There have been a lot of times since having kids that I have been so desperately, painfully tired that I felt everything was impossible. Sustained sleep deprivation is of course used as a form of torture and anyone who’s dealt with a small face in the night could tell you why, if they weren’t so bloody knackered that they couldn’t form a sentence. What seems to have made the difference this time was that I chose to stay up that late rather than having it inflicted upon me, and I used that time to satisfy myself (steady now). I’ve always been a night owl, creatively speaking, and it looks like that hasn’t changed. Staying up till 3am isn’t really a sustainable solution to the pram in the hall conundrum though. I got in bed at 9pm last night and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

It is also undoubtedly true that I wouldn’t have felt so great on Sunday if we had spent the day vacuuming the car or going to Ikea. Maintaining your own social life when you have kids is important. So thanks Hannah and Rich, Leo and Kat, Estelle and Pete, lovely awesome friends. You make driving round the North Circular worthwhile!

Parenting the toddlergeist

My 20 month old daughter wants a big girl bed. I know this because a couple of nights ago, following several nights of unusual bedtime hysterics, she ran into the bedroom she and Boy Bones share and demanded to get up on his bed. Once on the bed she wriggled under his duvet, sat up against his pillows and beamed at me.

So we cuddled together just like I do when reading the boy’s bedtime stories and when we’d finished she lay down and got comfy on his pillows. Thinking she might want some company, as he often does, I laid down next to her. This triggered a flood of angry noises and emphatic pushing of me away from her. No, she did not want me in the big bed. She wanted herself, alone, in a big bed. She gave me a meaningful look, one which said ‘I hope we understand each other.’

Some months ago, as he was getting ready for bed, my son complained as I cleared away the tiles from a game we’d been playing: “But they’re my lots of eggs, mum!” I asked what they were going to hatch into. “Ten baby Girl Bones!” he yelled with glee. A grinding shudder ran down my left arm, the extra achy one, the arm whose shoulder grinds a bit whenever I pick up my one baby Girl Bones. Ten of her…what would life be like? She is an elemental force, a mischievous imp, a toddlergeist. She is the reason my boots are full of blueberries and there is play food down our toilet. If I were to rename the kids based on what they’re like, she would definitely be Loki.

She is the most direct and unwavering personality I’ve ever known. Even my pregnancy with her was direct. With my son, I had no clue. It took five days of lateness for me to half-arsedly mumble something about doing a test and then a further five minutes of slack-jawed shock to absorb the second line. With her, five days before my period was even due I was smelling the ghost of food long after it had decamped to the outside bin. After two consecutive nights of dreaming about going downstairs to take a positive pregnancy test, I got the message, went downstairs and took a positive pregnancy test. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the words I AM HERE stencilled across my uterus at the twelve week scan.

Before I had children, I thought that people who said babies come with their own personalities were probably on drugs. I mean, a baby is a sack of needs with a mouth, isn’t it? But both of my spawn have made me eat that half formed opinion many a time, and Girl Bones’ blunt and direct ability to communicate is just another illustration of my own stupidity on that score. From her refusal to sleep anywhere but next to me in our bed (until the day she decided she preferred her cot, at which point she refused to sleep anywhere else), to her early mastery of the point-and-meaningful-look combo, to her love of the tactical facepalm during particularly expressive tantrums, she’s a girl with a lot to say and small tolerance for repetition, hesitation or deviation. She knows what she wants and she wants you to act upon it now, while she’s busy growing up enough to do it herself.

Despite the fact that this makes parenting her bloody hard work, I do hope she carries these attributes along into adult life. Because the thing that makes the shouting, the bossiness, the stubbornness okay, more than okay, is the spark in her eye that says life is so fucking wonderful. Life to her is a wonderful game, a game that she can win. I want her to feel like that every day of her life. When she crosses paths with haters and abusers and ignorami and loudmouths and tailgaters and twats, I want her to look them in the eye, laugh her head off and carry on winning. Which is why, when I’m listening to her cackle with joy as I chase her down the street for the twentieth time, I’m laughing too.

First steps into sexism

You know, this kind of thing really pisses me off. Daughter is now walking, so we went along to Clarks to get her some shoes. I like Clarks products and I generally find their staff competent and helpful. But while browsing the racks of first shoes for boys (uniformly blue/brown, dinosaur motif) and girls (uniformly pink/purple, flower motif), what do I see but this:

In case it isn’t clear, the text under the boys’ shoes says ‘For every wobbly step’ while that under the girls’ shoes says ‘For every gorgeous outfit’.

That’s right, girls. Your shoes aren’t for walking. Silly girls!
I read those two apparently innocuous sentences, and then I looked at my one year old daughter toddling proudly around the shop floor, trying to climb on the seats, investigating other people’s buggies and generally being her forthright self, and I thought how dare you? Anyone who has watched a baby master the art of bipedal movement knows how amazing it is to see the focus and determination shine out of such an apparently soft and helpless thing. How dare you, marketing drones of Clarks, suggest that my daughter’s shoes are not to form part of the celebration of movement, when she has dragged, rolled, stumbled, crawled, bumped and cruised her way to independence?

And then I just felt depressed, because if this is the message that pertains to her at 1yo, how much more sexist shite is she going to have to wade through in her life?

Craven that I am, I still bought the shoes. They fit well and keep her soles safe and are mostly not pink. But I’ll be writing to head office about their marketing strategy, and I will be looking around for a decent supplier of children’s boots. After all, when wading through shite, cute maryjanes just don’t cut it.

Kindness

This fantastic post by Alissa Marquess on 100 Ways To Be Kind To Your Child really struck a chord with me. Parenting chez Bones has felt like a hard slog of late; between the house move, the sleepless baby and the 3 year old being 3, Mr Bones and I are worn down to tiny nubs, and it shows in our tone of voice. Well, not so much him, as he gets to interact with adults five days a week. But I have been too often guilty of snapping, sighing and occasional hag-like shrieking.

So it was cheering to read this list and feel validation hit my knotty soul like a hot bath full of vodka. I try to do this stuff every day, because kindness is so obviously important when dealing with small people. I don’t always succeed; it is so easy to be unkind to those smaller and more vulnerable, so tempting to offload. I snap at my son because my daughter’s crying has driven me demented, or cuddle my daughter with hard, resentful arms when she wakes for the nth time at crap o’clock. Later on, I stew into miserable sleep, prepping myself for another day of being uptight.

A lot of the things on this list add up to giving more of yourself – your time, your emotional space. No wonder it feels so hard sometimes, when the invasion of small children into your headspace is already so complete and overwhelming. Even when they’re away, asleep or mysteriously quiet, their needs and wellbeing and opaque, unknowable futures weigh on your mind, leaving much less opportunity to think your own thoughts.

So making the effort to be kind, especially when you just wish there was someone to be kind to you, feels like a crucial skill to hone. It’s like a mental workout: finding a smile the fifteenth time your toddler tells you their made-up joke is hard work, likewise singing a song to try and distract your screaming baby at naptime. Like lifting weights, these things come easier with practice. My kids have forced kindness from me at moments when I didn’t think there was any left to give, and their happiness has bounced a little of that kindness back to me.
So in the spirit of being lighthearted I nominate this for my number 100: buying Weetabix because they love it, even though cleaning the stuff off babies, toddlers, clothes, table, chairs and floors is one of my least favourite jobs ever.