The Highs and Lows of Escape

imageI got back yesterday from a really bloody brilliant weekend. My cousin got married and it was a much anticipated, wonderful weekend of celebrations. I got to stay in a hotel room on my own, spend time with my lovely extended family and have bucket loads of fun-filled, drink-filled, child-free frolics.

As I left the kids at home with my husband early on Saturday to get a train to the Kent coast, I felt such a sense of liberation. It has been a pretty tough few weeks for one reason or another and I have been desperately craving some time out. I’ve been excited about this weekend for months and I was out the door with a spring in my step and without a backward glance.

I’m sure most parents of small kids, particularly the ones who do the brunt of the childcare, recognise that absolute – at times desperate – need for some time away from their offspring. I crave my rare escapes, to be able to let my hair down and remember that I am more than Mummy, wife, worker. That there is, somewhere in there, buried deep down under piles of small clothes and nappies, a bit of a party animal who still loves to behave like a kid and dance like a crazy thing whilst bellowing along to 80s anthems.

Besides, weddings with small kids totally suck. I’ve done my fair share and they are always a trial: at one particularly memorable one I ate my cold dinner sitting on a curb in a car pack while my devil child finally slept in the car, having been driven around for half an hour during the main course. Fun.

Seeing other people’s kids at the wedding on Saturday made me feel like I was floating serenely past little mines of trouble that had absolutely no power to rock my own personal little boat of joy. Every time one of them kicked off or dribbled on their parent’s posh wedding outfits I wanted to do a little freedom dance, so great was my sense of relief that they weren’t mine to watch over, shhhhh and wipe. All I had to do was get another drink from the bar and enjoy myself. It was heaven.

I got chatting over dinner to some parents with younger kids and, as you do, I ended up having a kid-related conversation. They were really lovely people and I enjoyed talking about my babies with them. I find I can get much more doe-eyed over my kids when they are not actually in the same county.

I also enjoyed the “Wow! I’d never have guessed you had three kids” line, which I had a few times over the weekend. I’m not claiming this is anything to do with looking good after three kids but it is massively to do with feeling relaxed and appearing to be entirely trouble-free. To be mistaken as footloose and child-free when you are usually up to your eyeballs in pesky little nippers is quite a boost. It is almost like a badge of honour, that you can still pass as a member of normal society, just like you used to before you were zombified by exhaustion.

On Sunday morning, I woke rather early after very little sleep and with a stonking and well deserved hangover. And I have to admit I had a few moments of seriously missing the morning cuddle I always have from my warm, cosy Baby T first thing in the morning. He needs a good 20 minutes on my lap, still in his sleeping bag, before he is ready to face the day, which suits me just fine as we are both half asleep and he is at his least wiggly and most cuddly at that time of day. So yes, I definitely missed that moment as I sat on my bed drinking tea. But I was allowed to drink it whilst still hot, and without being nagged, so I got over it pretty quickly.

But, before I’d even packed my bags to check out of the hotel I had a serious sinking feeling. I do totally adore my kids but I had a deep sadness about heading back that afternoon. Back to the homework, back to sorting out three little piles of clothes for Monday morning, back to the chaos of Sunday night bath time. As with anything long anticipated, I was gutted it was over but it was more than that. It was that I had deeply loved being able to reconnect with the me I can be when I don’t have kids in tow. I was able to spend time with my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law – so many wonderful people that mean the world to me but who I usually see in isolation or with kids hanging off me. It was just such enormous fun to be all together and free.

There were seaside windmills on the tables at the wedding and I grabbed three for the kids on the way out the door, knowing how much they would adore them.  On the way home, I was looking forward to giving them their windmills and to having that lovely cuddle of being missed and reunited. But I was also thinking how much nicer it would have been if I could have stayed another day. Not at the wedding necessarily, but anywhere. Anywhere else.

As I said, I adore my kids. As the cliché goes, they are my world. I just sometime wish they were more like 90% of my world, with a bit left for me. You see, I also adore the rare escape. I just so enjoy being me again. I miss me.

I’m reliably told that having small kids is brief phase, and that things will improve as they get older. But, just 20 minutes after getting home, when they are already nagging and things have entirely slipped back to how they were before I went, I find myself wondering just how soon things will be easier. How soon the kids will be old enough for home life to be a bit less hectic. How soon we can leave them behind more often (or perhaps crave it less). When will we be free to have more solo time each and more relationship time, something we both know we need?

It was a fantastic weekend but, as always, I’m more knackered than before I went away. Well, when you have to go crazy and fit as much as you can into just a few short hours, sleep is not high on the list. And I’ve definitely landed with a bump, as I’ve returned to Baby T deciding that, just shy of two years old, naps are no longer for him. Fun and games ahead in that score, with an exhausted little boy and a very grumpy me.

So, I’m planning. I love a plan. Without plans for fun things in the diary, I get down. Better come up with another weekend away plan soon, to keep my spirits up. And I might see if I can make it two nights next time…..

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The Crazy Count Down to Summer

imageNow that H is coming to the end of his third year at school, I think I have just about got the measure of the ebbs and flows of the yearly school cycle. Some half terms are pretty laid back affairs, with perhaps just the odd school trip or mufti day to worry about. Others are totally crazy and so crammed full of events and requests that they make your head spin.

There are two absolutely mental periods which I think all parents of young kids learn to brace themselves for: one is just before Christmas and we are smack in the middle of the other one – the most manic of them all – the run up to the end of the summer term.

There are four weeks left until school breaks up and in that time we have two sports days, a ballet show, a nursery graduation, two school settling in days, a school disco, an open morning, two lots of parents drinks, ‘hobbies day’ at school and the PTA summer festival. Add to that the usual clubs, parties, a couple of weddings, various work meetings and a family weekend away. It is hardly any wonder my head is spinning just trying to keep on top of it all.

My calendar looks like a mad woman has been set loose on it. My best mate mocks me but I am still very much a ‘write it on the wall’ kind of person. I love my tech but somehow I still need my calendar to be old school and scribbled on. It is slowly dawning on me though that I either need to go digital or I need a much bigger calendar. Hell, I may even need a bigger wall.

When I pause to look at the whirlwind that is the coming month, my heart sinks when I realise that none of this really involves my youngest, Baby T (other than being dragged from one thing to the next or dumped on our childminder for the odd hour). This is a crazy half term full of events for two busy kids, not three. Give him a year or so and my baby boy’s diary will also start filling up rapidly.  And then where the hell will I be? My head is already completely overloaded. I don’t fancy my chances of keeping up with all three of them.

imageI understand why so much has to be crammed into the last few weeks of term, but June into July becomes so hectic as a result. I know I am a born worrier but I actually lose sleep over it, knowing how much there is to organise and sort out, knowing what deadlines we should be meeting and what I have failed to get done the previous day.

And I know I’m not the only one this crazy busy time is taking it’s toll on either. After a particularly busy week, my poor little H is totally wiped out. He actually fell asleep on the sofa yesterday, something I can’t remember him doing since he was about three. Surely a seven year old shouldn’t have bags under his eyes, should he?

imageThe middle one is going the other way. M’s hyperactivity is exhausting to watch. She is so beyond excited about school starting that we are counting the sleeps until September already. The settling in sessions she has coming up are the highlight of her year – she is going to be soooo disappointed when she realises she has to leave after just half an hour. She wants to wear her uniform to the taster sessions. I really don’t want to be that parent so I’m working on talking her out of that one.  I have allowed her to wear a hand-me-down school skirt over her clothes on occasions though, although I think it stokes the obsession, rather than alleviating it.

And as with all highs, M’s are accompanied by many frustrated lows. Strops and tantrums are on the rise from my girl, who needs so much more than she is getting at home and at her outgrown nursery. She is four going on 14 and proving somewhat challenging these days.

imageAnd T? Where does my little lad fit into all this? Anywhere he can, bless him. He is pulled from pillar to post or dumped on someone while I rush about with the older two. For the most part, he endures being treated as a parcel with a smile and good grace, although he too reaches saturation point and loses his shit from time to time. I can’t blame him for that.

But T and I are on a countdown of our own, although he doesn’t know it yet. When September comes round, T will be my only preschooler and we will get to have six hours to ourselves three days a week. We will have all the time in the world to do his favourite things: read Clip Clop, play cars, watch Hey Duggee and have multiple Mummy Cuddles. All without annoying older siblings getting in the way. I’m hopeful that more one-to-one time will help to bring his language on beyond the grunting and pointing stage. It will also be a chance to enjoy my final toddler and learn more about him as he grows.

But that is a very long way off.  Before that, we have a whole summer to negotiate. I have a feeling M’s school obsession is going to make this one feel a good deal longer than usual, although I comfort myself that it can’t be worse than the summer two years ago, with all three of them aged five and under, when T was a newborn.

But before we can even begin the summer, we still have that long and daunting list of events to tick off. I think we may have to spend the first week of the summer holidays in our PJs, to recuperate.

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Losing One’s Shit

imageI’m not proud of it but I totally lost my shit with one of the kids on Friday. I mean screaming banshee style. It is thankfully a very rare thing but the red mist descended and I had an epic meltdown.

I think most of us probably lose it from time to time but the trials and stresses of parenting definitely amplify the explosive potential. The drip, drip, drip of the moaning, the exhaustion, the sheer fucking relentlessness of the bickering – it is a recipe for the bomb to go off.

I think I’m usually a pretty patient parent. I can take a lot of crap from my three little monsters before even coming close to really losing my shit. In fact, I can count on one hand (or maybe two or three hands) the number of times I’ve seriously gone into one and directed rage towards the kids. But, given a perfect mix of dire circumstances, I don’t just blow the fuse, I vaporise the fucker. I scream until my throat hurts. I go red in the face. It’s not pretty.

I then, invariably, apologise to the kid who got screamed at and feel guilty for about a week. Everyone’s a loser.

I’m not going to defend my actions – I don’t think there is ever really an excuse for screaming at the top of your voice in the face of a small person – but I will at least go some way towards explaining what helped to create this perfect storm.

Well, it has been a pretty shitty couple of weeks. There has been a deeply sad event which has really hit me and thrown me into a bit of an emotional downward spiral. That came on top of illness, a rough period with the kids being particularly challenging and a week of solo parenting, with my husband off in the U.S.

My darling daughter decided that this particularly tricky time would be a good opportunity to challenge me at every step and push every boundary she came into contact with. My usually well behaved M has become a demon child. The only thing I can put it down to is the fact that she is desperate for school to start and in need of more stimulation than I can offer at home.

Whatever is behind it, she has been seriously pushing my buttons recently, attempting to get a reaction.  Well, on Friday she bloody well got one.

The day started OK. I took my two preschoolers for a pleasant trip to the park with a friend and her three year old girl. Sunshine, happy kids (well, T was moaning about food and trying to escape the playground most of the time but apart from that it was all good). The girls went nuts going round and round on a mini roundabout thing, laughing their heads off and getting so dizzy they fell over.

When the food pestering increased beyond bearing, we headed off to a lovely local tea room. It is one I’d vowed not to visit again actually, after far too many Baby T tantrums there, but it was sunny and the garden was open so we thought we’d risk it. How much harm could we possibly do in the garden?

Well, we had only just settled down when my friend’s little girl spontaneously projectile vomited all over M. And I mean all over. It was totally without warning and sparked, we now think, by a few too many whizzes round the roundabout for a kid who gets travel sick.

M started screaming. Not just crying but really screaming. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame her for being upset. If someone had thrown up all over me and my favourite t-shirt, I might have had a bit of a sob myself. But she really lost it. The t-shirt came off. Half a packet of wipes and litres of antibacterial gel were used. Then me, M and T beat a very swift retreat from the crowded tea room garden, receiving disgusted looks as we went and leaving my poor mate to clean up the devastation.

Once outside, I put M’s far too warm coat on her, to save her having to walk home half naked, and we began the 15 minute trudge home, baby screaming in pushchair, M screaming by my side. T shut his trap as soon as he realised he wasn’t getting out anytime soon but M was just getting going. She yelled the entire way home, screaming “Sick! T-shirt! Need a bath! Siiiiiiiiickk!”

Yes, it was grim. Yes, I felt very sorry for her. But dragging a screaming child all the way home in muggy heat whilst pushing a buggy one-handed, after an already epically bad week, gave me a very big push towards the edge.

When we got home, you might think she would stop, but no, she ramped it up a gear. She took all her clothes off, scattering them all over the hallway, and ran upstairs. I was still getting T out of the buggy when I heard an ear-piercing “MUMMY! BATH! NOW!”

I sat T in front of Hey Duggee, ran the bath and dumped the screamer in. I’m not exactly sure whether she started screaming yet louder at this point or whether I simply reached scream capacity but no amount of asking, telling and begging her to calm down was working and the whole shit losing thing happened. I’ve no idea what I yelled but it was something along the lines of “SHUT UP! YOU ARE DRIVING ME INSANE! I CAN’T TAKE IT ANY MORE! SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!  SHUTTHEFUCKUP!!”

Very grown up, intelligent and reasonable, I’m sure you will agree.

A good deal of cushion punching and very deep breathing later, and calm had returned. M was wrapped in a towel looking rather like a rabbit in the headlights but at least she was silent. We had a long cuddle and I apologised. I’m hoping I’ve not caused any more lasting emotional damage than the projectile vomit incident had already caused.

I feel terrible for screaming at her but I couldn’t help it. She had just been at me all week. She knows how to needle you to the point of madness and, combined with all the other bloody hard things I’d faced that week, I honestly could no more have prevented that emotional outburst than I could have predicted my morning ending in an extreme vomit incident.

I think there is just only so much crap one can take in life before something has to give. Usually, it is possible to take preventative measures – have a cuppa, take a few deep breaths, even throw some plastic plates around the kitchen (a personal favourite). But if you can’t do any of that, when you spew covered child is going ballistic, when the shit flies at you faster than you can duck it, you risk seriously losing your shit.

Thankfully, the worst my kids will ever have to face from me is a red-faced screaming lunatic now and then, one who then feels extreme guilt and cuddles them so hard they can hardly breath. I just wish the kids could see when they are pushing me beyond what I can reasonably be expected to stand, that they could back off and give me a time out before gearing up for the next round.

I look forward to their realisation that Mummy is just a puny human, trying to struggle through the daily grind, and that maybe she could do with a slightly easier ride, when times are tough. We could all do without the fireworks. And I could definitely do without the mother’s guilt.

I think she forgave me. Just as I forgave her. My dear little M Monster.

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Like Mother, Like Son

imageAs my last toddler approaches the terrible twos, I am increasingly fascinated by who he is becoming. I’ve always loved watching how kids develop at this age and, with T, some of the discoveries are unexpected. What is really grabbing my attention this time round is what I am realising about myself, as my baby boy grows. And it isn’t all great.

When my eldest arrived, everyone immediately declared him to look exactly like his Dad. After carrying someone for nine months and giving birth, it is kinda annoying to be told your offspring is entirely unlike you. I got my own back when M arrived and she was a spitting image of me. Both the older two have pretty much followed type with their characters too, with H being very close to his Dad’s temperament and M being very similar to me.

Baby T, it seems, has decided to break that pattern – something I am only just beginning to realise. He looks so similar to his big brother that I might struggle to tell them apart from certain photos taken at the same age, but there the similarity ends. T is not very like his brother in character so far. He is a life-lover, full of confidence, delightfully happy most of the time – not things you could ever have said about a nearly two year old H, who was rather neurotic and easily stressed.

All his lovely qualities aside, T is also very intense and passionate. He doesn’t just like something, he obsesses about it. I noted this quality in him some months ago (see The Birth of Obsession), but things have developed apace. I know toddlers are known for being rather single minded but T is taking it to new levels.

We have read the same book at bedtime every night for about six weeks. If it isn’t Clip Clop, he doesn’t want to know. This was quite cute at first but it is getting a tad repetitive, to say the least. I could recite it with my eyes closed.

He is completely obsessed with toothbrushes. Anyone’s will do. He has smeared toothpaste on the carpets, flooded the bathroom and had many a scream up, all in the name of brushing his teeth endlessly.

He is totally taken with a kids programme on TV called Hey Duggee. It is really the only thing he wants to watch and nothing else will do. He’ll point at the tele saying “Duggee” or woofing and sobbing until I relent and turn it on.

imageMy other two had favourites – M took her toy bear literally everywhere with her for about 18 months as a toddler – but there is something steely about T’s obsessions. They are extremely intense but relatively short lived: a pattern that feels painfully familiar. Duggee, cars, toothbrushes and Clip Clop are all he has head space for right now, but not so long ago it was Thomas the Tank and In the Night Garden. He devours his latest love to the exclusion of all other things, and the look in his eye when he is engaged with it is so serious and intense that he doesn’t really seem to be enjoying it as much as living within it, as if it has swallowed him whole.

Seeing how different T is to his Dad, his doppelgänger brother and his easy going sister has really made me look at this intensity and think about where the hell it comes from. The alarming truth is dawning: T is holding up a rather scary mirror to me.

I’m coming to realise that I am basically the same as my near two year old baby boy. I obsess. I devour. I become so keen on something that I am no longer enjoying it, I am temporarily addicted to to. It eats me up. It fills my head and it becomes all I want to think about. It can be utterly exhausting and I often wish I could be more casual in my appreciation of life. But I never really learnt how to do that and, seeing it in my youngest, I am suddenly, painfully aware of what it has always meant in myself.

When I come across a singer that I love, I don’t want to just play their songs a few times, I have to hear them on a loop, read about what the lyrics mean, watch old interviews on YouTube. I watch a film I love and I want to see it again immediately. In my pre-kid days, I once watched the same film three times in one day.

But it passes. The obsession recedes, normal life resumes. I enjoy the relative peace of not being in the jaws of my latest obsession, until the next thing comes along.

It is a very high and low existence and, as I look at T repeating history, I feel rather sorry for him, because I know what it is to be an obsessive personality. Don’t get me wrong: I would rather be the way T and I are than apathetic. Passion, even obsessive passion, can be a wonderful, creative and exciting thing. But it is also exhausting and it doesn’t get any better with age. Ok, so maybe I handle it a bit better than a 22 month old – at least I hope I do most of the time – but I still feel it with the same intensity.

That said, I have to admit that part of me is enjoying seeing my youngest develop and devour his obsessions. I am secretly pleased that there is going to be at least one more in the family who gets it, who knows what I mean when I say I love something so much that I can’t bear it. That thing might be a different thing next week but I know that Baby T and I are both going eat that thing up each and every time, until it eats us up.

Welcome to the highs and lows of obsession, Baby T. You’re gonna love it and hate it in equal measure.

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Washed Out and Going Under Again

There are few things more dreaded in day-to-day parenting than illness. I don’t mean the kids being ill, although Lord knows that can be bad enough. No, I mean when you are ill yourself. There is no escaping the kids. You can’t take a sick day. It is pretty shitty, all told.

Extended shitty times invariably lead to things bottoming out for me for a while (see Getting Through the Day). This is probably the greatest of my many parenting failings: a tendency to gravitate to the dark side from time to time. Regardless of how perfect things may be in reality, something acts as a trigger and I temporarily sink. The trigger this time appears to be something as mundane as physical illness, coupled with the kids being particularly challenging and argumentative over a disappointing half term.

I’ve got some sort of nondescript bug which has totally turned me off food and really wiped me out. I don’t feel hungry, and I don’t crave the taste of anything: food and I have definitely fallen out. This is very unusual as I have a bad habit of treating food as a reward, to help me get through the challenges of the day. I deserve the cake because I’ve had to deal with several toddler meltdowns today; I am owed an extra portion of pasta because I’ve had to endure bickering for three solid hours this afternoon. And I won’t even get started on alcohol as reward here but, suffice to say, it features heavily.

This is how I face the day. Judge me if you will, but whatever works, right?

So, I usually do a vague version the 5:2 diet, eating very little on my two work days and stuffing myself stupid when I am surrounded by kids on the other days of the week.  OK, so I don’t lose a lot of weight on it but it keeps things on a level and allows me to turn to food and drink for much needed solace when drowning in kids.

But this week I’ve not wanted to eat at all, forcing myself to swallow a few leftovers from the kids’ meals. I’ve always vaguely thought that it would be nice to be one of those people who smugly say they treat food as fuel. I take it back entirely. Remove the joy of food from daily life and it can be pretty miserable. Especially when your life is stupidly hectic and mindnumbingly, relentlessly repetitive, as life with small kids can be.

So, there we have it. Remove a small but significant reward system from life at a tricky time, add feeling pretty grim and totally out of energy into the mix and Bang! The trigger has been pulled. I’ve sunk. Days are to be endured, as I count down to bedtime. Mixing with the smiley inhabitants of toddler music group or facing the school playground is just that little bit harder. I don’t even want to look at people some days. Forcing a smile feels like the biggest effort that could be asked of me.

Can I just hide under the sofa until the world looks brighter, please? Could I just opt out of the whole childcare thing for a few days? Could I shut the bedroom door, put my headphones on high and pretend there is no-one in the house except me?

Escapism becomes the main priority. I resent being pulled away from it. Watching film clips on YouTube of exciting fake lives and gorgeous people, when I really should be doing the online food shopping. Listening to favourite sad tunes on a loop when there is a mountain of washing waiting on the bed for me to put it away.

For the sake of the adored small people in my life, I wish I wasn’t prone to these lows. I’d love to be always happy, bright and supportive, home-making play dough and baking cookies with them. But when I sink I can’t force that any more than I can force the smile to the well meaning Mums at toddler group.

I know that this post is far too honest for my own good, that I now have to face people who have read it who will give me ‘the look’, wondering whether to give me a hug or call a social worker. Personally, I’d avoid the hugs right now, unless you fancy a week without food too.

But I’m going to post this anyway, despite all that, and bugger the consequences. Because maybe it would help if we were all a little more honest about the crappy times and admit that the smiles are fake sometimes.  It might make the bad times a little less lonely, a little more quickly dispelled. It might make it feel a bit more acceptable to be down just because you are, without feeling the need to apologise for it, when you have so much good in your life.

The kids are in bed now and the fact that I have been able to type this makes me realise I’m on the way back up. The circle of light at the top of the hole is getting a tiny bit bigger. It is almost a relief, but not quite. Not yet. You see, the bottom of the hole is actually quite a comforting and familiar place to be.  The path back out, especially when surrounded by demanding little voices, is far more challenging than the way in. Going uphill always is.

But uphill we must go.

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