The bottle-thrower in my head


The other day I was hayfevered up to the max, and found myself in a quandary.

Oh gosh, Thursday, I texted Tim in the morning. If we go out the pollen will kill me, and if we stay in the boys will.

I mean, what is a girl to do?

When I just had Henry, we’d spend some days indoors, and most of the rest between a few familiar places. Now neither of those things are an option. Henry’s old enough to get bored if we go to the same places too often, and bored toddler + demented crawler is the stuff of fearful legend. Especially if we don’t leave the house at all. Great Scott. You know in How to Train Your Dragon, where Hiccup is leafing through the village Dragon Book, and the Night Fury page is ominously empty? That’s what a description of an indoor day would look like in my journal. Just fingernail scratches, and screams.

So – and let’s continue with the movie theme for a minute if we may – you know that scene in films where some unhinged character screeches ‘get out, GET OOOOOOUT!’ And then throws their cigarette/jewellery box/whiskey bottle at the offending guest? That’s what my head does around 10am every day. Breakfast, lovely. Bath, great. Clothes, uh-oh, here comes the whiskey bottle yes here it comes GET OUT GET OUT GET OOOOOOOUT.

I scramble for supplies and we get the heck outta Dodge before another jewellery box crashes around our ears.

Henry calls our morning trips ‘adbentures’. There is nothing that makes you feel more like the Winner of Everything than helping two tiny energetic people have a nice time in an unfamiliar place, and I really kind of love it. But there are two problems, going adbenturing. One, you’re much more likely [read: certain] to get the pushchair stuck or run out of hands when there’s only one of you. And two, I am absolutely awful at predicting the weather.

Here’s the week that was, and the weather-inappropriate things we wore.

Monday: playdate to Mapledurham lock and Purley Park. I dressed the boys in summer clothes, and we froze. Also, cattle grids and pushchairs are unmixy items.

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Tuesday: museum date in Reading Town Hall. Remembering the previous day, we all wore long sleeves. And boiled.


Wednesday: investigation into the Roman walls at Silchester. I tried to be cautious, and we wore shorts with long sleeves. And boiled, and the path was VERY unsuitable for pushchairs, so I half-carried it for two miles. TEDDY IS NOT LIGHT, FYI.


Thursday: Caversham park by the river. Ho ho, I thought, looking at the overcast sky. You don’t fool me. Short sleeves and shorts today. And we froze.


Friday: Rhymetime and library, and it looked like rain. Long sleeves. You know what happened. *wipes sweat from everywhere, shakily stuffs chocolate in mouth*

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Still. New house this summer (we hope we hope) and nursery for Henry after that. I slow down when we’re on the verge of something new, wondering how much I really want it. While we’re here waiting, on the verge, I can’t think of a better thing to do than adbenture, on and on till we get to September and something entirely different.


Cotton wool: on letting climbing kids climb and falling kids fall



So much about my mothering life is different than I imagined. I thought today that I am both stricter and more easy-going than I thought I would be, as I put away the boys’ clothes at lightning speed. Lightning because Teddy was upstairs, by himself, and his crawling is now turbo-charged. Lightning because we no longer have stair-gates anywhere. And because he hasn’t yet fallen down the stairs, and there’s a first time for everything, and the first time will be soon.

Here’s where I’m less strict than I imagined: I thought I’d wrap them in cotton wool, and I don’t.

‘He will fall off that log in a minute’, I think, watching Henry from my perch on the bench. ‘I should get him down’.

I don’t move. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later he loses his footing and whacks his knee on his way down. He is outraged, and comes to show me. I administer the proper medicine (magic blow, kiss to injured area) and he goes off again. Henry’s legs have been a crossword puzzle of bruises since he could walk, just about.

I used to feel guilty about it. It used to feel like laziness. Perhaps you’re reading this, horrified. Let me offer some reassurances: I don’t let them anywhere near broken glass, I am as paranoid as it’s possible to be about road safety, I don’t take my eyes off them in water. But after meeting the imp on Henry’s shoulder, telling him to climb and jump and sprint, you’ll love it, I had to scrub off my sensitivity. It was either that or go insane. All Henry did, when he first learned to move, was climb higher than he should and fall off sooner than I wanted. The first few times, I sobbed along with him. After that, it stopped being such a big deal.

I read an article once about a playground in Wales deliberately constructed to be mildly dangerous – hills, piles of tyres, places to start little fires. The author talks about studies done a generation ago, where children found secret places to play and lived independent, imaginative lives away from their parents. Once print and electronic media made everyone hyper-aware of public danger, no one allowed their own children the same freedoms. The same authors went back to children now and tried to conduct the same studies, but found it was impossible. They were never left alone long enough to find places of their own.

I think the world now is not the world then, in many ways, and it pays to be vigilant. But one sentence in that article hit me so hard I can recite it: ‘In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are being watched‘.

And do I want to raise boys who never grapple with their own uncertainties or construct their own stories? Who wants a childhood without stories? I’ve got plenty from mine. I think it’s part of their development to know that falling happens, and sometimes bikes spin downhill faster than you can control.

So I let them scramble over trees and structures too big for them at the park. Teddy buzzes around on hands and knees, dangling himself over the edges of our bed and sofa. He sat on the grass today stuffing handfuls in his mouth, and I thought about googling ‘are daisies toxic?’ but decided against it. He’s just learned to climb stairs, and I’m trying hard to let him.

And I still sometimes feel guilty. But in my evolving, imperfect and – alright – a tad lazy Theory of Parenthood, I think a grazed knee goes a long way.


My children are more than a high school movie

Buffy, season 1. Where miniskirts ruled the world.

Buffy, season 1. Where miniskirts ruled the world, and the vice-presidents were sass and eye shadow.

I thought the other day that Henry and Teds had the potential to be superstars in the high school movie genre. If there’s a higher pinnacle of ambition for your children, I’d like to hear about it. And why? They’d be dead easy to cast.

Henry, loveable nerd.


Long, stringy frame in a button-down shirt and jersey. Slightly highly-strung, with a headful of obscure details gleaned from the books he reads obsessively. He likes to perch. He prefers to explain things in twenty words when two-and-a-half would do.

Teddy, easy-going slacker.


Blonde-haired, blue eyed, wrestler’s physique. When he blows, he really blows – but most of the time you’ll find him eating large meals, laughing at someone else’s jokes, accidentally standing on people, keeping his heart of gold resolutely on display.

I’ve spent a lot of time, since the boys were born, making note of their characters. I love their differences: Henry has always been fierce and funny, Teddy sweet and observant. It’s amazing how much personality babies cram into their tiny bodies, isn’t it? They come out bellowing with it.

And it’s fine to notice, because I believe we don’t make or mould our babies, but discover them, and help them to discover themselves: gently amplifying their strengths, taking compassionate stock of their weaknesses. Who knows them better than me, after all? I’ve hovered over their cribs, supervised their mealtimes, gathered them up into my lap after a fall. We go way back to the clammy-soft skin and desperate heaving of tiny ribs as they were passed to me for the first time: bawling, enraged, blazing with life. Everything I know about them is logged away, and I am desperately organising it into some magnificent mental database that will tell me exactly what to do at all times.

The problem is that no sooner do I triumphantly find and label a characteristic, they change it. It gets me into trouble. ‘Oh, Henry is great with people’, I say. ‘He’s not shy’. Except sometimes he is. He’ll stick his head under the sofa rather than look directly at someone new – if he hasn’t seen them before, or for a while, or if he feels like it. So basically, he’s shy except when he’s not, and he’s brave except when he’s not, and Teddy is quiet except when he’s shouting his head off, which is, hello, a lot of the time.

My instinct is to pin them down, and theirs is to reinvent. They are shy and loud and headstrong and watchful and fearless and terrified and thoughtfully kind and thoughtlessly mean. What do I know about them? Only what’s true in this minute.

One more thing. I come from a family where we knew, and often talked about, what our defining quality was. Four siblings, respectively The Brains, The Sporting Genius, The Funny One and The Looker. We mostly decided this for ourselves, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pinpointing what you’re good at. But over time it became set in stone. The fear of being Not Clever Enough is still the ugly root of a lot of my anxieties.

I don’t want that for them. There’s a lot of good to be done in this world, and I’d like them to get on with it without worrying about whether they’re allowed. I am breathless with possibility for them. Their horizon is just about anything they can imagine for themselves, and I am ready – and hoping – to be surprised.

In short, dear boys: sometimes you’re the nerd, and sometimes you’re the vampire slayer. But most of the time – brilliantly, heartbreakingly, and all at once – you’re every marvellous thing in between.

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The five Supernanny principles that have changed my freaking life

Hello hello, from toddler city!

[Population: 1.

Average height: short.

Average noise level: loud.

Preferred transport method: steam train.]

There’s always something going on here, eh? At the moment, for us, bedtime has gone completely haywire. And, just between us, Tim and I are a bit clueless at bedtime. We’ve never had to be good, you see: Henry has always slept. Until now. Suddenly he won’t stay in bed when we put him down, and we’ve been a bit wishy-washy in putting him back, letting him up for a drink, letting him up ‘for five minutes but no longer’, going back in to sleep beside him, etc. We’ve been away, he’s been sick, and before that, there was Edward, so for six months there’s been one disruption after another. Once the jetlag had faded this month, we decided to get him into better habits. I do not want a five year old wibbling about at 11pm in my bed. Or even a two-year-old. Sleep is too precious, and toddlers are full of sharp edges that end up all in my face.

My dear friend gave me Jo Frost’s first Supernanny book this week. I know Supernanny is a bit 2004, and not all of her methods are for everyone. But it was one of those glorious moments where I read something again after a long while, and suddenly it made so much sense. I recognised more about the inner workings of my toddler in the opening chapter than I have while reading twelve other parenting books. I had to face up to the fact that, while he was loved extravagantly and doing well in all sorts of areas, he was also playing me like a fiddle in others. I’ve been trying out various things all week. Reader, THEY WORK. THEY FLIPPING WORK.

Here are five Supernanny principles I intend to write her a tear-stained letter about:

one: The Voice

‘Henry, please don’t do that. Henry. HENRY, NOOOOOO.’

This is the soundtrack to many of my days. I feel like I spend all day harping on at him from somewhere above his head, while he blithely ignores me. I hate the squawking tone I end up with, almost more than the shouting when I’ve really lost my rag.

Supernanny has two things to say about this: first, some toddler chaos is inevitable. They don’t understand the value of things, they have no sense of danger, and they love to explore. And second, when he does something you don’t want him to do, use The Voice. Go over to him, bend down to his level and make him look at you in the eye. Then say something like ‘[biting your brother’s fingers] is unacceptable behaviour. It’s very wrong. Please don’t do it again’. But the trick is your tone: not shouting at all, but lower, and more stern than your usual.

It turns out that Henry was pretending he couldn’t hear me a lot – making him look me in the eye makes a huge difference even before I say anything. But The Voice is a miracle worker: he really seems to feel reprimanded, without needing a raised voice. It also seems to calm him down when he’s heading for a meltdown.

two:  The Advance Notice

Ms Frost compares parenting a toddler to behaving like a Speaking Clock: they have no sense of time, future or past, so when a new activity is coming up, they need verbal countdowns. I wouldn’t like it if I were in the middle of something and abruptly made to switch to something else, so why would they?

I realised that half of Henry’s resistance comes at points in the day when I’ve asked him to do something different, and he doesn’t want to. He used to regularly throw fits about getting in the bath: he loves it once he’s in there, but hates stopping what he’s doing. I’ve been giving out five- and two-minute warnings all week (‘Henry, in five minutes it’ll be time to get in the car. We’re going to get in the car in two minutes, ok?’). Ta-da: most of the time, he’s mentally prepared for the new activity and goes along without fuss.

three: The Helper

I’d been trying this anyway, but after finding this chore chart for three-year-olds, decided to be a little more ambitious in what I let him do. He had a go at drying the dishes while standing on top of the recycling bin, last night. It made him feel about ten feet tall, and I didn’t get the usual ‘Mummy, I cuddle Edward very hard’, while trying to cook.

(Please look at the rest of those organisational downloads if you get time, because they’re amazing.)

four: The Routine

Another lightbulb moment: in the chaos of getting back from our holiday, getting over jetlag, catching up with work and now getting the house ready to sell, I’ve been hideously lazy about going outside. But the problem with indoor days is that it’s much harder to sustain a routine. Supernanny says that without routine, toddlers feel all at sea. If they don’t know when to expect things, then they feel like any behaviour is acceptable.

We’ve tried a new routine this week: housework over breakfast, outings in the mornings, then lunch, then a nap (while I work), then toys, then screen time, then dinner. He seems to love the predictability, and it has the handy side effect of limiting his access to the iPad to a single, one-hour window.

five: The Follow-Through

Reading this book made me realise how often I ask him to do something, then let it go when he refuses. I thought I was choosing my battles, and not sweating the small stuff. But to him it looks like backing down, and it tells him that I’m not really in charge. Feeling like they’re in charge for toddlers is like Facebook for adults: they think they love it, and can’t stop themselves from using it, but actually it makes them feel weird, sad, and a bit sick.

I’ve tried really hard, this week, to follow through on absolutely everything I ask him to do. If I say he needs to wear a hat in the park because it’s cold, well, then we can’t get out of the car unless he’s put his hat on (and he has to put it on himself, not wait for me to force it on so he can rip it off). And if he doesn’t put it on, we go home. This asks for a lot of commitment – putting the pushchair up and down twice was particularly outrageous, since I hate it – but it’s worth it. Because here’s something I knew, and had forgotten: if I insist, all the way to the bitter end if necessary, he will do it. And no one gets cold ears.

You are probably shaking your head and thinking ‘um, yes. Obviously’. It was all obvious, and I was sort-of doing it already. But I wasn’t doing it all, every time, and every time is crucial to this little breed. Every time means this is the way things are, and my decisions are final. I dare say we’ll need to adapt again as they both get older, but for now, our days run smoother. We are all happier. And I get to enjoy him for what he is.

If you see me with a Supernanny tattoo at any point, try not to look like it’s weird.


The wonderful Museum of English Rural Life this morning, where he was well-behaved and delightful. IN YOUR FACE, WHAT TO EXPECT READERS.


What do you think about Supernanny? Any of her tricks worked for you and yours? Have you ever put a child to bed 67 times in one evening? We have, now. 

On mothers, the Internet and the sea



Something funny happened to me this week. I wrote an article for What to Expect and it mutated into a monster. I wrote about toddlers – in particular my lovely, hilarious, maddening boy. I wrote about his eyes and his chatter, and a bad day he had once that was set off by a series of poor choices I made. And I wrote about how hard it is to watch toddlers flail their way into independence, and how this messy, necessary process ends in days when we just don’t like each other very much.

So far, so normal, eh? Amateur toddler psychology is the bread-and-chocolate-spread of this girl’s days – just look around here. I didn’t think it was remarkable. But then it all exploded: there are now hundreds upon hundreds of people saying horrific things about the two of us. It’s kind of breathtakingly vicious and I don’t really want to quote it or for you to read it, so please don’t. So many of these people are women and fellow mothers, and somehow I feel grosser about that than anything.

I’m not writing this for reassurance, as you’ve been kind enough to send a lot my way already (and thank you so much). I know posting anything on the internet comes with a risk of negative attention. But I’m not sure people who write comments like this ever stop to think about how it makes someone feel, so here’s my best shot at it. I feel like I’ve been making friends with this friendly Internet dog for years, oh, pat pat pat, aren’t you wonderful company, and suddenly it has bitten my hand off. And now it has rabies, and now all my skin’s going to fall off before I die, hey, thanks, Internet Dog. I feel bruised, and sick, and so, so embarrassed. I’ve spent far too much of the past 48 hours plotting all of the things I would say if I weren’t now avoiding that comment thread for the rest of eternity, such as – there is so much I left out of those 800 words. And do they remember what it was actually like, parenting their first toddler and terrified of getting it wrong? And I want to tell them about my boy – how he tried to get out of eating his lunch today by quoting Green Eggs and Ham, how he says ‘please may I have’ and ‘thank you very much’ and ‘oh mummy, you so pretty’. How every negative minute with him is twelve-times overwhelmed by his brilliance, and how I will never, ever forgive myself for taking him into a public arena to be stripped down and howled at by five hundred anonymous faces. I just wanted to be honest, but it was naive.

You know. Dramatic stuff like that.

This morning I seriously wondered whether writing about realistic parenting is a good or helpful thing to do. I tread a fine line, here, talking about my children while respecting their future feelings and without soft-blurring the picture. Perhaps it would be better, after all, to only talk about the good days. But then I came over a bit Braveheart, and put on a bad Scottish accent and hunted around for some blue face paint.

Because, NO. Heck. No. Aren’t we all in this together? Isn’t it a wondrous and frustrating thing, parenting a child? There are moments that soar like stars and moments that seethe with insecurity, and pretending it’s just one or the other isn’t helpful to anyone. When I wrote this article I pictured a mother who, like me, worries that one tantrum will make her child a horrible person forever. And who, like me, falls so short of the Mary Poppins marker she sets herself that sometimes she thinks it might be better to pack it all in and go to sea. I wanted to tell that mother: you’re normal. You’re doing your best.  It’s ok to feel how you feel, whatever that feeling is. Look, here am I, shambling along beside you and feeling the same way. The sea hasn’t got anything on the vistas we survey here. I wanted her to feel less alone, so she could stand up, fix her make up and sally on out to try again.

I will be honest here, and I will be kind. And if you will too, we can tell each other funny, horrific stories with snot in our hair. Then stand up, with our best Braveheart faces, and go and get this crap done.

Normal service resumes tomorrow.

Find your place

And so it was that the pig found his place in the world of the farm.
And he was happy,
even in his dreams.

I am formulating a grand theory about toddlerhood. Are you ready? It is this: more than anything in the world, they need to know their place.

I don’t say it in a Victorian master-to-servant way, stamping my toddler down while twirling my diabolical moustache. What I mean is that knowing how you stand – in relation to other people and by yourself – can mean an awful lot. Henry is a child to his parents (he is loved, he will be taken care of, our decisions are final); he is an older brother (he has a friend, he has an ally, Teddy will follow where he leads); he is himself (some things in the house are his, he has his own strengths, we appreciate him as an individual).

I think I’ve expressed that rather badly, and it definitely won’t fit on a business card. I’ll try to refine it before I patent it, don’t worry.

I’ve been working on the last one particularly, lately. I noticed that I was grouping them together more – talking about ‘the boys’, and giving them both a joint, diluted version of my attention. And oh, my dears, being two with a tiny sibling is hard. It can be crappy to share your mother, especially with a kid that can’t even sit up yet. He needs to feel that there are times I only look at him. (Teddy will too, before too long. Best to start now.)

So I started with the songs. Teds has been rocked to sleep to the tuneless strains of ‘Moon River’ since he was tiny. I remembered that when I would pace with baby Henry in the dark, I would grope for song scraps to sing to him, and out would come, effortlessly, this:

if I had words
to make a day for you
I’d give you a morning
golden and true
I would make this day
last for all time
then give you a night
deep in moonshine

Which, as any self-respecting child of the eighties knows, is the song Farmer Hoggett sings to the pig in ‘Babe’. (If you happen to be born in the seventies instead, you may know it as a weird reggae-beat duet by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley. Farmer Hoggett sings it better, as indeed ‘Babe’ does most things better, and that is the end of it.)

We resurrected it. It suits him, somehow. After their baths I rock Teddy to sleep with ‘Moon River’ (it almost never takes more than one verse. Boy likes to splash, and it’s hard work) while Henry waits in his towel. That’s Edward’s song. If Henry interrupts I tell him, gently, that this is Edward’s time. Then it’s his turn. I take him on my lap and he sings it with me while I rock him. It’s the first song he’s learned all the words to, and if I told you that his ‘gowden and TWOO’ line didn’t just about kill me every time, well, I would be telling you a lie.

Last week I found a £3 copy of ‘Babe’ at the supermarket. The look on his face – transported with absolute wonder – when Farmer Hoggett starts to sing was something to see.

‘Thass Herry’s song!’ he whispered, eyes wide. I squeezed him, and gave my moustache a victory twirl.

Now we’ve watched ‘Babe’ three times in the space of twelve hours, which is a bit much. Even for a child of the eighties.

And so it was that the pig found his place in the world of the farm.
And he was happy,
even in his dreams.


Postscript: I’ve also now moved his storytime to just before bed, when Teddy is asleep. It settles him better than… hmm, I’d like to say that it settles him better than any combination of dummy-and-bottle ever did, but the dummy-and-bottle combo was like baby crack [AND I MISS IT]. So, no. But aside from those things, it settles him extremely well.

I am your quiet place, you are my wild

For posterity.

Here is Henry.

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He is two-and-a-bit, and watching a ten-minute YouTube video comprised entirely of trains whizzing through platforms at high speed (who makes these?!).


‘So big and so fast!’

[personal favourite] ‘Oh goodness, that’s a big train!’

The talking is incessant. He parrots everything, and knows it’s a trick we find hilarious. I see a lot of myself in him, which is strange: wordy, impatient, wanting validation. Sometimes it’s my voice that comes out of his mouth. That’s strange too, finding out the things you say most often.

‘Steadyyyyy! Steady Henry!’ (This is something he says when he’s doing something dangerous. When you have a boy like Henry, you need a good stock of synonyms for ‘careful!’)

‘You haf a nice sleep, Mummy? Henry haf a nice sleep.’


‘Thass disguthtin.’

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He still eats an adult-sized portion of banana porridge (‘nana possiss’) every morning, and so I don’t worry too much about how much he eats the rest of the time. Though in fact he’s a lot better at mealtimes than he was. He loves toast so much that he has no concept of bread, and thinks every loaf is just toast-in-waiting. He eats ketchup with a spoon.

He is under the impression that he runs this joint. We clash a lot. I am trying to ride easily over the tantrums, lightfooted, bearing in mind that after two comes three, four and five. Some minutes I succeed. Some minutes I call him all sorts of names in my head so that none of them come out of my mouth. When he’s cross, he flounces over to the freezer and sweeps off the magnetic letters to the floor. Then he turns slowly around to look at me, eyebrows all ‘YES. THAT’.

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I have to say no so often that I try to say yes whenever I can. This is why he’s sat next to me wearing his dinosaur backpack. Which he wore all night, in bed. The other night he wore his coat with the hood up. Toddlers are weird.

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Every evening we run through the list of large animals that are not waiting in the dark at the bottom of our stairs.

‘Mummy, no tigers?’ ‘No tigers’.

‘No sharks?’ ‘No sharks’.

‘No bears?’ ‘No bears’.

‘No dragons?’ ‘Definitely not’.

The other night he put his head on one side, and said ‘I luff yooooou!’ in a sing-song voice. First time ever. This wild boy, all sweetness for a second. I will never get tired of that.

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