Live a little

Come and sit by me, I want a chat.

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I feel two-dimensional, often, as the mother of two toddlers.

And I need a better way of categorising them than that, for a start. ‘Two toddlers’ is too brief to convey the sweat and tears and bruises and seesawing emotions. It says nothing about the early mornings, disturbed nights, battleground mealtimes, or constant anticipating and managing of their shifting moods.

It doesn’t talk about how they’re both toddlers, but at different stages with entirely different needs, and yet all of those needs are relentless and all the time, every minute that they’re awake.

It doesn’t get across the joy of it, either – the absolute heart-hurting beauty of their expansion and questioning and love. What a privilege it is to watch. How often I fall short of the trust they place in me, because they have to, because I make everything they know.

It consumes me. I never wanted to be consumed.

Over the summer I started getting twitchy about how much time Tim was spending on his bike. We have always encouraged each other to pursue our own interests: the ones that we fell in love with in the first place, that make us well-rounded people. But I was irritated by his ‘time off’ not because he wasn’t allowed it, but because I couldn’t think of anything I could do for myself in turn. I asked myself what my hobbies were, and came up with a buzzing blank. All of my thinking, writing, talking: all of it, about these boys.

Let me say that I know this time is short, and I will miss it when it’s gone.

Let me say that I believe creating and moulding this family will be the most important thing I will ever do.

Let me say that, despite all that, because of all that, I need to show them that I am their mother with my whole person. There are depths beyond the business of their immediate care. There are places I find joy that no one else can touch. They need to see it. If I do not start by showing them that women are three-dimensional, complex and interesting, how will they believe it of the women they will meet later?

I was revolving this around late one night, yearning for something I couldn’t put into words. What is it? I thought. What is it I want?

The answer came, eventually.

I want a richer life.

***

I’ve had that in my head as summer has deepened into autumn. A richer life. Not a different one, and not a busier one, but one with better things in it. More little things that make me happy. More balance. More connections. More attention to my spirit. If the canvas of my day felt like mostly pastel watercolour, I wanted oils. Have you ever seen a Van Gogh close up? The brush strokes are tiny, but every one of them is richly coloured and meaningfully placed. It’s one of the reasons I love him so much.

Um, I’m getting carried away.

I think it’s worth a shot, though, so I’ve been trying hard to put little dots of richness into my everyday. Here are some of the ideas I’ve been trying out:

– spending more time outdoors, in nature

– expressing appreciation to friends

– starting a book club

– choosing our family activities more carefully, so we’re outside/interacting/seeing new things/performing service

– exercising a couple of times a week (WHAT, I KNOW)

– using the fancy pottery and napkins at dinner

– having flowers on the table

– making my phone harder to reach from bed

– buying the good ice cream

– resurrecting old interests in art, history, music, theatre, and making dates to enjoy them

Not all of them at once. I’m not looking to be more stressed, just better balanced. I am in here somewhere, and so are you. So I am choosing little things, richly coloured, meaningfully placed. To help me feel like I can stand out on the canvas. Life in oils.

I think I’m starting to feel better.

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So tell me, because I need solidarity: have you ever caught yourself being COMPLETELY wrapped up in what you do for your kids? And what weird and wonderful interests do you have (or once have) that make you yourself? I can name the wigs in any episode of Alias you care to mention, and could tell you some things about the Tudor court that would make your hair curl.

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This is your house now: a tour for the person about to buy my house

I’ve had this post in my head for months, and months. The thought of writing it kept making me cry at inconvenient points. Now we finally have a fixed move date (in, um, two days), it’s probably time to let it out. 

Come on in. This is your house now.

Here are some stairs. You’d better get used to that, because there are a lot of them. I don’t want to know how many times I’ve staggered up and down with furniture and work bags, then later car seats, endless bags of groceries, and boys, always boys. The very first time we came here to stay, straight out of the taxi from a South African honeymoon, we found a basket of food and wedding presents just here. We carried it upstairs and sat on a brand-new bed to open them, and laughed a lot.

Once we manhandled our old oven down the steps, just the two of us. Don’t ever do that.

We don’t have a cat (people always ask). The boys like to use the cat flap for poking their heads through. I wouldn’t recommend this either.

***

Come in here, to the living room. The kitchen is small, but we’ve attempted all sorts. Mostly pies and things involving potatoes. Do you like pies? This oven does.

I brought my first baby home to this room, and I set the car seat on the floor just there and thought how alien it looked, and how nothing would be the same again, for my whole life. There was a before and an after, and the point in the middle was marked by that car seat on the floor. I was so sore, and so frightened. Then we sat on the sofa just here, battered and bruised together, and I smelled his head, uncurled his tiny fingers, and knew he belonged here just as we did. It worked out alright.

Henry walked for the first time from that sofa to that chair. He’s climbed up here and fallen off. And here. And here. And (lots of times) here. Right here is where he said ‘car keys’, which was the phrase that set loose all the others. Teddy worked out how to propel himself backwards here. And here he went forwards. And here (see those dents on the floor?) he went turbo-charged.

If you lie on the sofa and the weather’s just right, you can look straight up through the skylight like it’s a window into space.

Come and look out of the bay window. It’s nice. Be warned though, the neighbour will be able to see you dancing from their window.

This is a good floor for dancing.

***

This room started off as a study, became a nursery, then Sarah’s room, then back into a nursery for two boys instead of one. I thought a lot (too much) about putting that green on the walls, but now it reminds me of industrious train-building afternoons, early bed-head mornings, and quiet nights with soft breathing and soft warm bodies. I like a room with history, and this one has the most.

I like to sit here on the sheepskin, against the radiator, and write.

***

Upstairs again, and this is our room. I think of love and lazy mornings and that magnificent balcony. Sitting on the edge of the bed for a 4am feed, everything still, breathless with ache and wonder.

Teddy arrived just here. Yes, here. There’s a reason the carpet is new, and it isn’t that we liked the pile.

I’ve saved the best till last. Look, here’s where the sun floods through the skylight onto the floor. I’ve sat here to dry off, to cry, to read, to shut my eyes and let the sunshine bleed through my skin and light me up from the inside out. Sometimes I’ve sat here feeling broken into pieces. But I promise you, sometimes I’ve felt like every wonderful thing I ever dreamed of has flown through this window and landed on my lap.

We’ve been so happy here the walls must hum with it. It feels like I’m leaving my heart behind. It feels like I’m ripping myself in half.

Stand here, and let the warmth come up through your feet. This is your house now.

Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams. Oh my dear, they have been multi-coloured, diamond-sharded, breath-taking things.

I’ll let myself out.

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This School-Mum-in-Training needs an instruction manual and some Valium

I had a huge panic attack today, when I kept seeing ‘First day of school!’ updates on Twitter.

Does not compute, my brain said, as I looked over and over again at the date on my computer screen.

it’s still August no wait is it September after all have I missed the start of September and lost a week somewhere oh crap

No, brain, it is definitely still August and you are in possession of all of your faculties. Some schools in Scotland go back before September, apparently. But it did make me realise how much I am secretly panicking about the start of Henry’s new term.

Because I am not ready for the pressures of being a School Mum. In my head, School Mums stock up on school uniform over the summer holidays, and they always know exactly what to buy. They monitor homework and stick up flashcards. They chat in the playground. They have noticeboards, probably, and stick things like term dates and school trips on them. They are much older and more impressive and more together than me, sat here at 11pm with regurgitated soup in my hair (YES REALLY).

This is not really school. He is barely three, and school is not a thing he does. Except because he has a summer birthday, and he’s going to a nursery attached to a primary school that also requires a uniform, it kind of feels like it is. I am worried about him being sad or feeling behind or getting laughed at because he’s a whole year younger than some of them. But I am also worried about messing things up myself, and making things worse for him that way.

I went to buy grey trousers earlier this week, feeling like I was playing at being School Mum and would be uncovered as a pretender in the middle of Sainsbury’s. They’re the smallest size possible, and they’re still huge on him.

what if he becomes a clown-trouser outcast because I didn’t trawl all the shops for something that looked better

This is the sort of thing I am thinking about late at night. The possibility of an invisible trouser test that I have already failed on his behalf. Do you know the silliest part of this? He doesn’t care at all, and he’s going to love nursery so much he won’t want to come home. This is all tangled up with him getting older too fast, with a sense of keening loss for his babyhood that overtakes me at unexpected moments, with the nap he doesn’t want and the smell on the top of his head he lost a long time ago.

This isn’t really about nursery at all. I still do not know what I will do when the flashcards come out.

what if his teacher doesn’t love him how can she love him like I do are teachers even allowed to love their kids anyway

Help. I only have four days left, and the trousers still aren’t right.

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Breathing space

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I have told the boy listening in the dark that I love him, and closed his door. Tonight I think he’ll stay in there. A click of the door, then, and quiet in front and behind.

I grab the bag of dirty nappies that represent my day’s work and take it downstairs, out of the door, up the steps, across the little car park and over to the bin. I don’t put shoes on. I swing the nappies into the bin and then turn back, a few steps away, and stop. I want to stand for a minute and feel the gravelly asphalt under my bare feet and the sky over my head. The sun is setting behind clouds, the light cool. I breathe in. Out. Feel the pull of my bladder, as usual, and wonder how long I’ve needed to pee.

I look at our house, standing there peacefully with shuttered blinds, as though it’s always this quiet and composed. Half an hour ago, Henry screamed so loud over having his teeth brushed that I worried the neighbours might think we were branding him with an iron. No sign of that now. Just the little gabled entryway, the skylights open to the heavens, the blackout blind keeping two boys in sleep.

I don’t know how much longer we’ll be here. I am aching with anxiety about it all, but, looking at it now, I am suddenly aware of how hard it will be to leave. This house, this life. I cannot imagine bringing this to an end.

I walk back across the car park to the front door, and think about what Hilary Mantel wrote once.

‘There are no endings.

If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings.

Here is one.’

Notes from the trenches: 5

I love reading these ‘Twenty-Six Text Messages You Must See Before You Die’ listicles. And one of the reasons I love them is that they’re proof that people actually send normal text messages to their friends and significant others. They organise social events and discuss dinner. They flirt. They do not, as a general rule, give an hourly account of the bodily waste they’ve come up against lately.

You know whose text messages do? Mine. Poor Tim. AND POOR ME, READERS. POOR ME.

(Just kidding. I laughed my little head off reading this evidence of my strange, frantic, toddler-driven life, and I think I’ll laugh more once this phase is done.)

10 April

Wee in library toilet! *thumbs up*
Poo in library pants! *thumbs down*

It’s like Gladiator, but with faeces.

30 April

So Hen found your Reece’s lip balm and has been sneakily licking it all morning. I’ve been saying ‘DON’T lick daddy’s lip balm!’ a lot.

Just now I asked him what he was doing, and he said what sounded like ‘I licking daddy’s bum’. Let’s hope that one doesn’t go public.

9 May

I forrealz just cooked a tea towel along with my chips.

14 May

Me: ‘I need to get ready, Henry. You’ll have to wait till Daddy gets home to ask him.’
[Henry presses the iPad button for Siri.]
Henry: ‘HELLO. HELLO. I NEED TO SPEAK TO TIMOTHY.’

15 May

From the bedroom, quite distinctly: ‘oh, CWAP’. Whoops.

13 June

Talking to Hen about senses.
‘What do we use for listening?’
‘Headphones.’
‘No, ears. Ears are for listening. What’s your nose for?’
‘Teddy pressing.’
‘Smelling, actually. What do we use for looking?’
‘The iPad.’
‘Your eyes. What are your feet for?’
‘Shoes and socks.’

New concepts 🙂

17 June

Even in a fictional Game of Thrones universe generated by a computer algorithm, I am not cool.
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21 June

Just poked my head around the door and saw Henry dragging Teds down the stairs by the foot. So I dropped my phone on our hard floor and ran.
Downside: poor phone. It’s ok, but it was lucky.
Upside: definitive proof that I love my children more than my phone.

23 June

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I’m now letting him eat from my Muller Corner using his hands. Hashtag desperation.

26 June

From nowhere, today: ‘Hey mama, bees don’t have willies’ –?!

30 June

Forgot to tell you Teds pulled the ladder down on top of himself this morning – and it was by the stairs, so he fell backwards DOWN THE STAIRS with the ladder on top of him. Heart attack city.

Yikes. Is he ok?

Amazingly, yes. Hard as nails, this boy.

2 July

Just banged my head on the corner of the car boot so hard I am literally strapping the boys in with tears streaming down my face.

Why can’t I just be a suffragette and have Mary Poppins be brilliant with my children?

5 July

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This guy woke up at 5.45am: bought 20 more mins with a bottle, and 20 more with him trashing our room.

He’s just got to Only Sitting On Your Face Will Please Me stage.

16 July

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‘Do a wee, ball! Time for you to do a wee!’

[puts on deep voice for ball] ‘No wees coming, thank you.’

17 July

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He made it to the top. *horror face*

– He is his brother’s brother.

19 July (6pm, FYI)

I’m coming home! Via Tesco.

– How soon is too soon to put Teddy to bed? He seems like he’s nearing the end of his tether.

-You are a wonder woman.

– In case you didn’t know.

23 July

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Found an empty bottle, pulled down your shirt, got himself settled.

24 July

‘Whass Teddy doin’?’
‘I don’t know, what is he doing?’
‘I sink he’s pretending to be a sea cow.’

30 July

‘Where on earth did that water come from?’ I said, watching Teddy splash in a puddle on the floor. ‘Seriously, there are no bottles nearby…and it’s not sick…’

Wee. He’d made a splash-pad out of his own wee.

From now on I will only be accepting emails addressed to ‘Rachel The Virgin Jeffcoat, Mother of Winter’, in case you were wondering why yours keep bouncing.

(You can see previous Notes from the Trenches here, here, here and here – and the quote formatting with this blog style is pretty gross, but I don’t have time to fix it now, so let’s all just agree to not mind.)

On losing Two, and trying not to be sad about it

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Second birthday. The cheeks have it.

He is on the verge of being three. Hanging onto Two by his fingertips. You can see Three coming in those long skinny legs, the bony bottom in little underpants. Three is in his self-awareness, the jokes with a random punchline, the sentences with multiple clauses. There are Threeish days he wants books with more words than pictures, and days he wants me to pull stories out of my head. I can smell it on the days he sleeps till 7.30 instead of 6am, and doesn’t want a nap because it’s obvious he doesn’t need one.

You’d think this would be good news. It is, it really is. Two has been a marvellous, multicoloured fire-storm. I have sensed for a long time that he and I are very similar, and I’ve butted heads with Two so often we have bruises. I can see the seeds of logic in Three. There’s the unremarkable everyday use of the toilet coming (!!!), and the point at which he can get himself a seventh glass of water. I can see, very VERY distantly on the horizon, a day in which he can put on his own socks.

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But oh, there is sweetness here I am not ready to give up. Two, with his chubby cheeks and flannel Thomas pyjamas. The process of watching him pull words from the air, awestruck with the discovery that things have names, and mispronounce them hilariously. Not ever again in his life will he forget how to say ‘porridge’. He won’t ever need my hand again to go down the stairs. That was Two’s thing, and Two has almost gone.

Three goes to nursery in September. We’re still waiting for the confirmation letter to arrive, but it should come any day. He’ll be someone else’s for five mornings a week, and he is so excited to go. Me, I’ve spent these sunny weeks holding onto Two with both hands: picnics, day trips, library books, lots of mornings jumping off walls and poking things with sticks, as much time as I can wangle with him wedged on my lap. For these last few golden weeks he is all mine, all day, and this life I make for him is the only one he knows. It was never going to last, and it shouldn’t, either. But I will close my eyes and breathe in Two for every minute I still have him.

Three is coming, lovely boy, and just wait till you see what you’ll find there.

Three is coming.

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Small parks

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We drove back towards town and I told them we’d find a playground. Nursery visits are necessary things, but not much fun for either of them: look at all these children and new toys! Nah, just kidding, let’s go. We’ve been doing it all week, and we’ve still got some to go, and we’re tired.

I told them we’d find a playground, and thought again about certainties. This has been a bruising week, dear friends: the sort of week where I drink too much vanilla Coke and stay up far too late in internet trivialities, because getting my mind to settle in one place for sleep is too ambitious. We are on the springboard of some change. Change I can handle, but I can’t stand not knowing what type of change it will be. I think a lot about being a thirty-year-old woman. I think a lot about being a person of faith and about what that means, about having boys and raising them well. I think about how I can possibly get a legal copy of Life on Mars now the unmentionables at Netflix have taken it away from me (WHY WHY WHY). I would also like to know where we will live, where Henry will go to nursery and roughly what my life will look like in the near future. I keep thinking self-pitying things like ‘that doesn’t seem like too much to ask’, like people don’t spend their whole lives grappling with stuff like this and worse.

I thought again about certainties, because I cannot breathe for grey area, muddy waters, out-of-focus plans. So we drove down a leafy road that might-or-might-not be our new home turf, and I looked for a playground. I don’t know where the playgrounds are around here yet. I couldn’t find one.

Do children crave certainties too, with the same kind of need? Yes, I think so. But smaller ones. Henry’s favourite question at the moment is ‘Mama, what-a we do now?’ I give him a list of our next four actions, but only four. That’s as far ahead as he can make himself see. Teddy’s absolutes are smaller still: the presence of one of his three best people, and a good clear floor.

Some colourful bars flashed in my peripheral vision, and I pulled the car around. We couldn’t see it properly till we’d piled into the pushchair, crossed the road and opened a green gate set into the high hedge. But there it was, a playground. Squeaky clean and deserted, mostly hidden from the street. It was small but brightly coloured and thoughtfully planned. The grass was clean and warm. I let them roam happily around, unworried for once about broken glass or broken bones. And for half an hour we were enclosed and safe in a green space that held, for the moment, everything we needed. I couldn’t see any further than the high hedge, and just now I didn’t want to. The restfulness and relief of it nearly knocked me over.

‘Survey large fields’, someone once told me. ‘Cultivate small ones’. Well, I don’t get out much in fields.

‘Adventure in large playgrounds’, I would say back, nodding all sagely. ‘But keep your heart in small ones’.

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