Brave Faces

Today was a big day. I have had preschool children in my life for 9 and a half years. That is almost a quarter of my time in this earth. Today was the last day. On Monday, my baby starts school.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this. Part of me – a pretty big part, I have to admit – is utterly delighted. It’s a moment that, in dark times past, I’ve dreamt of as a shining beacon of hope. There were times when it felt impossibly far away, when I was buried alive in small, smelly, noisy babies. Work was my only respite.

But, the closer I’ve got to the light at the end of the tunnel, the easier live has become. Preschool with a handful of babies and toddlers is a whole different ball game to having one happy, easygoing 3-year old padding through the week with you: more of a tiny, fun companion than a trial. The last year of being home with my little T has been a pleasure for both of us. Sure, I’ve still had next to no time to myself or to get things done, but he has been fun to hang out with and we pleased ourselves from 9 til 3 on our days together.

Today was our last day of preschool chillin’. We popped to soft play with his best mate, who is also, thankfully, joining him in his class on Monday. We had lunch out then headed back to his mate’s house for a cuppa and to play trains before the school run. A great last day, to round off a brilliant year.

After the long summer, Monday is nearly here. The school uniform is ready, the new shoes are waiting to be filled with little feet. The home visit from his new teacher was very successful, with T chatting away confidently. Much as I was worried at the beginning of the summer that my only-just-4-year old (who loves to be babied) wouldn’t be ready, this week has made me think he just might be. He is counting the sleeps and excited to be joining his big brother and sister at school. It is just as it should be.

So, I’m getting what I’ve dreamed of, and my baby boy is growing in confidence every day and excited about his new challenge.

But….

Monday will be the end of an era. A quarter of my life, my entire parenting experience, has involved having at least one little one at home. What does parenting look like on the other side of that? Does it feel like a hole has opened up somewhere, like something has gone missing? There will be many times when I don’t have a small voice to listen out for, when I can sit and have a cup of tea in an empty house. Will that feel liberating or like something has dropped out of my world? Will I feel like I’m less needed? Just less, somehow?

The shockwaves of the end of the preschool era are really only just beginning to hit me. I always thought I’d bounce out of the playground on that first Monday morning with a skip in my step. But as I’m typing this I’m welling up thinking about it. How can something you have been waiting for for so long also be something that brings a lump to your throat and tears to your eyes?

I don’t crave babies. I never have, if I’m honest. Give me a 3 or 4-year old over a baby any day. I don’t want to go back to any past stage. Why would I when this one is so wonderful and relatively easy? But could I just freeze this moment in time for a short while, please?

Next year, my little brood will turn 10, 7 and 5. When did time start going so fast? They are growing so tall so quickly. Facebook keeps reminding me how they looked 1, 2, 3 years ago and it is beginning to get alarming. A ‘9 years ago today’ post popped up this morning with my now lanky eldest dressed as a baby bear. 9 years!? How is that possible when I remember that moment like it was yesterday?

Our summer holiday in Norfolk this year was amazing. It was so chilled and full of fun. And yes, actually relaxing for my husband and I. I can safely say that it is first family holiday since having children that we adults have come back feeling like we actually had a holiday, rather than just same shit, different location. It was incredible and it will only get better as T gets bigger and more able. No, I definitely don’t want to go back.

The only way is up. And up means the next big thing, which is school. I will have all 3 kids in one school for 2 whole years before H moves up, which will be amazing. This is the sweet spot. We have 3 kids who are now low maintenance and still love family fun as they haven’t hit teenage grumps yet. This is the bit I always meant when I wanted a big family. We need to lap this stuff up.

But….

If I’m loving the Now, why do I feel such a sense of impending loss?

For the last decade of my life I have defined myself as ‘Mummy’. It was a change so hard to face at the beginning, leaving my carefree life behind, that I almost lost myself in it at times. I’m reaching a stage when I can begin to reclaim some of who I was and, whilst that is exciting, it is also terrifying. Does that person even exist any more? How do I get back there? Or has that ship sailed? Do I have to start again and reinvent myself in a life where there will be small pockets of air in which I can begin to be Me again?

When I’m welling up, is it worry about my confident little lad that is getting to me, or is it a fear of being left as an empty shell? My life has been so crammed full of small people for so long. What’s left when you take them away, if only for a few hours a day? Is there anything left of Me to reclaim?

But I know in the light of day that these nighttime worries are all far too dramatic. I’ve always been there underneath it all and I’ve been slowly emerging and remembering who I am for some years, as the drudgery of babies falls away. I finally have a chance to lap up that childfree time that I’ve craved for so long. I am not who I was before this journey began. But that’s OK. I am something new and I’m looking forward to getting to know what that is.

Monday is going to be a big day for both me an T. Change can be a scary thing.  But I know it’s what we both need, and I think we are both ready for it. It is time to learn and grow and change. Time to come out from hiding behind Mummy. For both of us.

It’s a whole new world, kid. Brave faces on. Here we go.

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The Unbearable Dullness of Parenting

OK, so that is a really negative title and I need to explain myself before I start moaning. So here goes…..

I utterly adore my kids. Raising them is by far the most rewarding experience of my life. They are amazing little people and I wouldn’t be without them for anything in the world. In fact, they are my world. None of this should prevent me from saying the following:

It is a fact that parenting is unutterably boring at times. At many, many times, repeating off into the past and into the future as far as the eye can see – like standing between two mirrors of excruciating mundanity and seeing the same expression of mind-numbing boredom repeated on my face for years and years.

Lets go back to where the boredom really hits you. Right back to the beginning. As a pregnant first time Mum, you have a lot of worries. Ludicrously, many of them centre around getting the baby out. Yeah, like that is the biggest issue you are going to face in the next 30 years (let’s not kid ourselves we stop parenting when they hit 18). You also worry about how you will cope, lack of sleep, change in lifestyle – all very worthy things to worry about. But I bet boredom isn’t in the top three concerns for many of us. It should be.

When you go from being an independent, working woman with a great job, a husband you truly share domestic duties with and the ability to go out wherever and whenever you want with nothing but your keys and wallet in hand, then the change to being tied to a mini person 24/7 is very painful indeed. The physical stuff is what preoccupies you at first but after a very short time it is the mental stuff. At least it was with me. Being stuck at home with a baby who gives very little back (other than endless screaming in the case of my first mini monster) is soul destroying. The constant feeding, the lack of sleep all takes it’s toll but the loneliness is not something I was remotely prepared for.

I needed adult company so badly, to alleviate the boredom. I did all the baby groups to find friends but mostly it was a painful experience on far too little sleep. I did make some great friends and we helped each other through, and my Mum came over every week too, but even they could only plug so much of the yawning void that was my day, from hideous o’clock to collapsing into to bed as soon as the baby was down. My necessarily early bedtimes meant I couldn’t even get much adult contact from my husband. He came home, we stuffed down food as we got the baby to bed and then I passed out.

After just a few months in my new life I found myself going out of my way to engage the woman at Co-op in mundane conversation, just to have another adult to talk to. Bleak times.

I don’t think anything prepares you for that feeling of isolation, of being one-to-one with your baby, feeling lost and inadequate and, above all, alone. And feeling terrible guilt for being bored by this little miracle that you have produced. Being scared to say it is boring because that means you have somehow failed to ‘get’ it. That to admit the boredom in the face of smiling peers who appear on the surface to be loving every moment, makes you an absolute failure.

Things improved dramatically after that first year but I had to wait until the onset of school to really feel I’d arrived and shaken off the lonely. The playground brings more friends than you can shake a stick at and I have met some absolute gems. We are all in the same boat and, at 4-5 years in, no one is pretending any more. We all know how ball-achingly dull it can be and we help each other through that, mostly with a shared love of wine. I don’t feel alone in it any more, which is a wonderful thing. Far more wonderful than I could have imagined before kids.

But your kids getting older certainly doesn’t make much of looking after them any less dull. Providing them with food has always been one of my lest favourite things. From the early days of mush and messy teatimes that lasted a lifetime, to today with my 9, 6 and 3 year olds, who collectively will eat just one meal that they all like without variations. It drive me insane.

I am not a natural in the kitchen but I’ve tried all the homemade, slaved over meals which invariably end up in the bin. After 9 years of struggle, I have come up with a formula that I can live with. Basically, spend as little time and effort on a vaguely healthy meal as is humanly possible, so you don’t want to cry when they turn their noses up and say “That’s disgusting!” 2 out of 3 in this house are beyond fussy and I’ve found that sticking to what we know and not making anything that I’ve sweated over makes for happier kids and happier me. That said, cooking the same 6 meals over and over and over again makes me want to violently throw plastic bowls around the kitchen (something I am a tad prone to doing – it is more socially acceptable than screaming in your kids’ tiny faces). Turns out even plastic can smash if you throw it hard enough. Who knew?

On the rare mornings that I get a lie in and listen to the noise of breakfast preparation downstairs I am unbearably happy and grateful, just for being let off that daily task of the breakfast production line and dishwasher empty. At that moment, it feels like the greatest gift my husband could bestow. How sad is that?

Bizarrely, my preschooler eats everything I’ve ever offered him apart from olives and smoked salmon. I have treated him exactly the same as the other two, he just isn’t a dick about food. This has the benefit at least of letting me off the guilt of having created terrible eaters. I didn’t create them. They just are.

I think most of the boredom these days stems from the endless repetition of the daily slog: meals, packed lunches, washing, the school run. It never ends. It is never ‘done’. It is hard to find any sense of accomplishment on a hamster wheel.

And one of the most boring things of all is the sound of my own voice.   “Could you do your teeth? Put your pants on. Stop climbing on the sofa. Can you please just be nice to each other for five minutes? Put your shoes on. Have you been to the loo?” Shut up woman!! No wonder they ignore you, you never stop saying the same old crap all day long!

Getting three kids up and out of the house for the morning school run  sometimes seems like a microcosm of all the mundanity rolled into one. I provide food, clean, and tell the middle one to get dressed about 10 times before she is even close. There are so many repeated tasks to do and things to remember that it would make you weep if you wrote them all down. It takes so long to get out the door that I get started on it a full 10 minutes before we are actually supposed to leave. And all to the unending soundtrack of my voice on repeat. I look forward to them all being at school in September just so that I can shut the fuck up for an hour after drop off, to make up for the constant morning nagging.

But it is good to remember that it isn’t really my kids that I find boring. They have their moments and there are times I’d kill for them to be off playing nicely without climbing all over me, asking complicated questions that make my tired brain hurt or upsetting each other. But they are generally pretty ace. It is all the shit I have to do for them and the process of getting them from place to place that is really boring. And yes, I know that is all part of parenting. But it – like the loneliness – is a part we don’t talk about much. And by pretending we love every moment, we are doing ourselves and each other a disservice. Honestly talking about the good and the bad is always the way forward.

It is OK to find this shit boring. It is boring. It is also OK to alleviate that boredom by having long What’s App chats and large glasses of wine. It doesn’t mean we love our kids any less if we have a moan about the fact we find it really, really boring having to extricate their pants from their inside-out trousers when we do the washing.

The Most Magical of Numbers

img_1741I bloody adore having a 3-year old. Yep, I really do. And the stupid thing is that, third time round, I’ve only just realised how great 3 can be.

Through the toughest of times with three kids all pretty close in age, I dreamed of the day when my youngest would turn 3. It was my target, my light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I felt that, if I could just make it that far, it would all slot into place. What I didn’t know was just how well it would work. It seems that 3 really is the magic number I had dreamed of. I’m delighted to have been proved right for once.

You see, having a 3-year old when you also have a small baby latched on to you or kicking off is far from fun. In fact it royally sucks. 3-year old kids and babies are, unfortunately, two of the most incompatible things there are. With a first child, you can immerse yourself in their needs. Your world can revolve around their schedule and, whilst that can drag you down at times, the moment you have more than one you realise what an utter godsend that single focus was. Introduce another baby – and then another if you are stupid like me – and you are playing a whole different game, one where meeting the needs of one often means doing so at the expense of another. More than one kid to focus on basically means that things will never be the same again.

img_1752Your baby has to grow up fast when they are no longer the youngest. They have to share you and you are horribly torn between them and the newcomer. It can be a stressful and upsetting time for everyone involved. Getting you and however many kids are you trolling about with through the day is a major achievement in itself. There is certainly no time to smell the roses. Besides which, you are usually too bloody knackered to even notice there are any roses. Which basically means you miss a lot of the loveliness a 3-year old has to offer. It is an utterly adorable age it transpires, but I was never capable of seeing it before, so buried was I in baby.

Having a 3-year old without a baby in your arms is a wholely different experience. It is lighter, both physically (no massive bags of nappies and baby stuff) and mentally (no utter exhaustion and living on an emotional knife edge). My little boy is my sole focus for much of the time now and it is just wonderful. He is such a strong character, a funny, clever and unique little man who I actively enjoy hanging out with. He has his moments of course, as all 3-year olds do, but he is well beyond the entirely unreasonable phase of the terrible twos and can be coaxed out of most strops. Rare is the blind rage meltdown.

Friends with bigger age gaps or just one child have often said how much they like this age but I could never see it. It was such hard work with the first two and my memories of it are a blur of stress and sleep deprivation. But now I finally get it. And they were right. 3 can be really wonderful.

img_1751Having this particular 3-year old is especially good. No terrible threes here. T is an utterly gorgeous bundle of blonde fluff and cuddly round edges. He is sassy and pushes the boundaries but he does it with a cheeky smile. And, as I am no longer torn in twenty directions at the same time, I am far more patient with him. It is such a privilege to be able to spend this time with him without another kid coming up behind, draining my energy and my patience.  I can see him clearly for what he is, not just what he needs from me. And we can suit ourselves, without an annoying, bawling hanger-on dictating to us.

It also feels much more physically close this time round. Cuddles can be on demand, not awkwardly over a feeding baby’s head or on hold until I can put the baby down without it screaming blue murder. T is a naturally demonstrative lad and he is lucky enough to have cuddles on tap. One of the many advantages of being the baby of the family.

img_1737Another advantage is how very loved he is by his older siblings. They are protective, kind and utterly indulgent of him most of the time. They bicker but both the older ones are mostly very accommodating of his funny ways. He has been raised in the mob and nurtured by gentle siblings. Being third, with a second child buffer zone, he has never been exposed to that full-on jealously when a previously only child meets their first sibling. M was in the middle and has always had to share everything so she was nothing but kindness to her baby brother from day one. He honestly doesn’t know how lucky he is to have never known any different. And it makes him a happy, self-assured young man, surrounded by love and far more patient and confident parents than H and M had in their threenage years.

Enjoying this last year of a preschooler makes me deeply happy. And optimistic for the future of our little family unit too. I’ve not yet reached a milestone when I have wished myself back a phase. I don’t
want to do the baby bit again. I don’t want to do toddlers or teething, the heart-in-your-mouth clumsiness of first steps or the tantrums of the twos. Things are easier now, at long last, more balanced and less stressful as we are stepping away for the deeply physically draining stage into something new. Something exciting. Challenging, sure, in different ways. But moving forwards and changing in a great way.

Don’t quote me on this as I may well find I want these days back after T starts school next year and I’m left with a T-shaped hole in my days. But I don’t think I will. At least not for long. I am all about looking forward right now, not back. The future looks good and so does the present.

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And talking of looking forward, I have a feeling this may be our best Christmas yet as a fivesome. T gets it this year and is very excited. He isn’t quite there as he still wants to open more than one advent calendar window per day and is convinced Christmas is tomorrow pretty much every evening. But he gets the concept now. And he loves it. He gazes in wonder at crappy Christmas trees in the supermarket and loudly shouts “Mummy! A Christmas doughnut!” whenever he spots a wreath. The pretty basic lights in town fill him with utter joy.

This will also be the first Christmas since we finally got some sleep. I have very happy memories of previous years but all through a cloud of exhaustion. It’s gonna be just joyous having a few festive drinks knowing that we won’t be up at the crack of dawn or several times during the night. Bring that the hell on.

I’m feeling pretty full of love for my festive little brood right now. I’m really enjoying all three of them and their crazy Christmas hype as it builds. And I think so much of that is down to not having a baby any more. The fog has lifted and behind it are three little beaming faces, all still believers, their eyes wide in wonder. If that’s not what it should all be about then I don’t know what is.

Yes, 3 kids aged 3 and up is as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. Who needs babies when you have all that?

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Favourites

imageMy kids adore both their parents. Of course they do. But, if I am being totally honest, and if push came to shove, I know they’d pick me. At least the younger two would. It has levelled out now with the eldest, who was a Mummy’s boy too but is now pretty even-handed with his affections.

Being the favourite can be wonderful. I’ve never had a kid who prefers Daddy over me and I’m pretty glad as I think I’d be more than a little offended if, having slaved away with the little brats all day, they only had eyes for their old man. It can be utterly bewitching when they are little and they cuddle you in a way that makes you feel like you are their entire world. Not a lot compares to that, to be honest.

But there are downsides. And they are plentiful. My middle one, M, took it to extremes when she was a toddler, to the extent that you would be forgiven for thinking she actually hated her Dad for the best part of her first two years. She used to cry when he came into the room and shy away from him when he talked to her. She would scream “No Daddy!” if he dared to attempt to pick her up or give her a hug. Not only was that pretty miserable for my husband but it was also grim for me as she wouldn’t let him do anything for her at all.

imageThose days are far behind us now that she is five but she still very obviously shows preferential treatment for me. She adores her Dad and laughs and plays with him but she is very demonstrative and those cuddles and “I love yous” are mostly directed at me. If prompted, she throws Daddy and bone, saying “Of course, I love Daddy too”, usually whilst sitting on my lap with her arms wrapped around my neck. The three year old is also all about Mummy and I literally cannot sit down without the two of them attaching themselves to me.

Being treated as the favourite by two out of three makes me feel a weird mixture of things. I feel sorry and guilty about my poor husband being second best. He adores his kids and works so hard for them that it seems horribly unfair. But, at the same time, I am also grateful that it isn’t the other way round, that I’m not the one being shunted into second place. I revel in being their number one. Part of me laps it up and I cling onto it, in case it suddenly disappears and I am left bereft.

But I also feel beaten down by it and jealous of my husband’s relative freedom. All that adoration, being the preference for everything – from cuddles in front of the tele to getting them the million things a day they want – is downright draining. They ask me all their endless questions. They will walk past their Father to ask me what he is doing rather than direct the question at him. I am their font of all things and I’m decidedly not up to the job of idol. My husband can sit on the sofa and read a paper. I am mobbed the moment I attempt to do the same.

Noone likes to think about the possibility that their kids love one parent more than another. And it may well be that mine don’t really, not deep down, that they just need their Mum more that this young age.

Favouritism in a family is a topic that society doesn’t like to dwell on. As parents, we know we are supposed to say that we do not have a favourite child but I know a few parents who clearly do, even if they don’t admit as much. I guess we’d all like to hope that the same rule applies to how kids see their parents, holding them in equal esteem.  Although, in reality, we know that not everyone cherishes both parents evenly as adults, so why should they do so as kids?

imageIf my little two follow their big brother, they will begin to be less obsessed with me and more fair in the way their share the love around when they get a bit older. Time will tell. The way they mob me tends to mean H gets left out a bit, which I also worry about. He is happy to be with either parent, which means he ends up with Daddy more often than not, as the other two cling onto me. The last thing I want is for him to feel left out, to think he is not as loved.

Whilst the kids may have a favourite parent, I decidedly do not have a favourite kid, which I am still little surprised by. I didn’t really believe it was possible to love them all equally until I experienced it. H was a little harder to love when he first arrived as he was a horrendous baby. I adored him despite it but, when pregnant with my second, I was worried I would love her more, because she was not such a pain in the arse. And also because she was a much wanted girl. Along she came and she was easier than her brother but I found, to my surprise, that I didn’t love her more. I adored them both equally, despite my fears.

And then again, when number three was on his way, I feared I might just be out of love, that there wasn’t enough left in the pot for another one. But it didn’t work out that way. The capacity to love is endless, it seems, and I adore all three of them, equally but in different ways. No favourites here.

That said, I do like to amuse myself with Daily Favourites, a little game I play in my head every evening. It depends on how well they each behave as to who gets the title. I don’t share the winner with them, I hasten to add. Daily Favourites is for my amusement only. It is just so satisfying to relieve the frustrations of the day by deciding who the winner is and, more importantly, who is the loser. There is something so taboo about having a favourite kid that it cheers me up, in a sort of rebellious way, to use the label of favourite so flippantly.

Today’s favourite was H. He was no trouble at all and did minimum moaning. T was the overall loser but it was a close run thing with his big sister.  Somehow, demoting the little terrors from the favourite spot, if only in my head, is deeply satisfying. And the fact that it is officially not allowed, makes it even more enjoyable.

If you have more than one kid, I suggest you try it. Having a temporary favourite is quite liberating: a cheeky side-stepping of the no favourites rule. Daily Favourites is a great game and wonderful stress relief. Kid been an arsehole all day? Call them the loser in your head and you immediately feel much better. Give it a go.

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Big: for the Crazy and the Brave

Big is beautiful, right? Well, with three kids in the mix, we are a ‘big’ family, by most standards. And it may be beautiful but it is also many other things – some wonderful, some not to much.

Standard perception of family size is that one kid is small, two is normal and three plus is big. That is just how people see it. As one of four kids myself, three doesn’t seem so huge but it is certainly a hefty step up from two and no mistake.

I began to realise when pregnant with my third that I was doing something considered to be somewhat out of the ordinary. I lost count of the number of times friends and even total strangers looked at me with my huge bump and two small kids in tow and became wide-eyed in amazement that I had actually chosen to have three. I’ve been asked numerous times if it was a mistake. Once reassured that no, it was very much deliberate, they look baffled and call me either “brave” or “crazy”, depending on how polite they are being. It is always “brave” or “crazy”. Those are the standard labels for Mums of three, it seems.

imageThis mixture of bewilderment and pity continued once baby three arrived and I am still regularly told how nuts I must be to have chosen to have a big family. Yes, it is hard work but I am utterly delighted by my little brood and wouldn’t change my set up for all the tea in China (and I drink a lot of tea). I don’t go around telling people how damn conventional they are for having two kids, do I? But the world has always liked to loudly voice its opinions on other people’s choices and I’m used to being considered to be a bit loopy for mine. I don’t think it ever occurs to people that their throw away “you must be crazy” is just one of several I’ve heard this week. And all for having one small, extra person in your house.

Not that I mind really. And they might have a point. There are few logical reasons for making the jump from two to three and I’m certainly not playing down the challenges I face. It is a whirlwind: I had no idea how much one extra person would turn our world upside down. That leap from ‘normal’ to big is vast and I feel like I am permanently on fast-forward these days.

Having number three means more of so many things, both good and bad, but it means far, far less of one crucial thing: time. The loss of free time seems disproportionate. One more person takes you from pretty busy to utterly frantic. The juggle of dividing my time between each child, husband, work, housework and everything between has become insanely difficult. The first thing to go is, of course, time for myself. And with that goes a good chunk of my ability to keep things together. Cue far more regular ups and downs and Mummy’s head exploding.

I was asked not long ago by a woman trying for her third what I thought was the bigger jump: from one to two or from two to three? I think I may have spat my tea out laughing. Do the maths, girl. What do you think?

imageWhat we have more of these days is pretty much everything apart from time. Oh, and money of course. We have five different tubes of toothpaste in the bathroom, for various ages and tooth concerns. We consume about 20 pints of milk a week. We buy industrial sized packets of fish fingers. I dread to think how many thousands of pounds we have spent over the last 7.5 years of continuous nappy use.

We also have more noise. Again, the increase seems disproportionate, but I think this is because third kids are notoriously loud. Let’s face it, they kinda have to be. I took T to his two-year check with the Health Visitor this week and she said “My goodness, I can see communication isn’t an issue” before we’d even made it through the door of her office. He literally never shuts up, he just gets louder and louder depending on how many other noises he is competing with.

We have more fighting, yelling and whining too. Peace is in very short supply. But we also have more giggles, more wonderful cuddles and more happy mayhem, which I just love. Peace and quiet is overrated.

But just this week, as I was attempting to manage the three of them in a café after school, a woman looked at me with pity in her eyes and said “Are they all yours? You are brave.” And it got me thinking. Maybe I am. And maybe I’m a bit crazy too. But maybe that is OK, or even a good thing.

imageSo, if the world thinks of us parents of three as crazy and brave anyway, I suggest we own it. There are worse things to be and I think a mixture of bravery and craziness is actually pretty helpful when raising kids. I think everyone should be a bit brave and a bit crazy from time to time, so maybe we are setting a good example, one that says you should go for what you want in life, even if it seems a bit mad and is going to be so hard that there are times when you can do nothing but cry, when you think you will never get through it.

And the more kids I’ve had, the braver I have become, more confident in my own decisions. I think some of that extra courage has rubbed off. Looking back, I was a typical first-time Mum all those years ago, anxious about my every move. My first-born is nervous and lacking in confidence even now and I wonder if I’d been more self-assured whether he might have picked some of that up and taken it on. By comparison, my second has confidence by the bucket-load. Perhaps she watched my confident air with her and adopted it as her own.

And as for the third, well, he is a lion, small only in stature. He gives as good as he gets and almost nothing scares him (apart from hand dryers – that really is the only thing I’ve found to phase him). This little dot squares up and takes me on when I tell him off in a way the other two never had the balls to do. He is a force to be reckoned with, both brave and crazy in equal measure. It could be a total coincidence of course, that my younger kids are more confident, but I somehow doubt it.

I have some amazing friends who are Mums of three. I value them so very much because they entirely get it. They get me. They know the challenges of a big family and can help me to find a way through. And we can look back together on our two-child lives and laugh at how busy we thought we were. They are all a bit brave and a bit crazy too, and I adore them for it. They are my kindred spirits. I am proud to number myself amongst them.

So, the next time someone looks at me and my brood and says how crazy and brave they think I am, I hope I will take a moment of that all too precious time to smile and say “Thank you”.

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Changing Times

imageThe clocks have gone back. This used to mean an extra hour in bed. It was a small but gratefully received consolation for the start of the long winter darkness. Now it just means small body clocks being screwed up and hideous o’clock becoming even more hideous o’clock.

Baby T appears to be aware of some sort of clock related shenanigans but has got it somewhat arse-about-face. For the last fortnight he has been waking up earlier each day. This is far from good news, given the hour we just gained. He had a few weeks of waking at 6:30am, or even a heavenly 7am once or twice. But that is a distant memory now, sadly. It has been creeping earlier and earlier and this morning was just after 5am. Although that is actually 4am now, of course. Horrible beyond measure.

Sleep and lack thereof is something I just don’t think you ever get used to. I’m 7.5 years into my parenting journey and yes, it is obviously a lot better now than it was with tiny babies, but it still sucks to be woken painfully early day after day. It is also cumulative exhaustion that hurts now. The relentlessness of being yanked from sleep every day for years on end wears away at you.

imageI think my husband and I have sort of sheen of perma-tiredness written all over our faces. The skin around our eyes screams exhaustion. I am certain we have aged disproportionately in the last seven years. Sleep deprivation will do that to you, it seems.

I saw a friend last night with just two months to go to the birth of her first baby. I found myself being jealous of her, so fresh and at the beginning of that amazing journey. When you are pregnant, especially for the first time, your body becomes something incredibly special, something beyond what it has ever been before. You are a goddess, creator of life, cherished and treated with great care. Once the baby arrives and your body goes through the trauma of birth, it falls rapidly from being so revered and becomes a general punchbag, physically abused by your baby, mentally abused by you for all it’s sudden failings and sags. Never again will it reach such a pinnacle. It’s finest moment is passed and with that comes a sort of loss.

I am 38. Not old by many standards, but my body has been through the mill a bit and I am dog tired. That tiredness eats away at me. Even after a good sleep I can’t seem to shake it. It is more than tiredness. It is like a cloak with lead weights sewn into the hem. I’m not sure I’m even talking about sleep any more. I think there may be more to it than that. I feel life weary and much older than my years.

Each morning we are wrenched out of dream state by the ear-piercing screams of our youngest. Why he cannot simply wake and play in his room or even get up to come and find us is beyond me. No, it has to be deafening screams and crying big fat tears of abandonment. Every morning begins this way.

Then, some time later, he falls asleep pretty much anywhere he can: on my bed, on the rug, even on cold tiles once. Because he is utterly shattered. Because, much as he denies it at the crack of dawn, he needs more sleep. I know how he feels. But by the time he is kipping down somewhere cosy, the day has begun and there are two others to get breakfast for and prepare for the day ahead. Tired mornings lead to challenging days as he does nothing but moan, dictating the tone of the day and singlehandedly ruining our family time.

As with all these things, this too shall pass. I know that, of course, although it is hard to remember it at 4am. And it is my own stupid fault for having three kids, prolonging the sleep deprivation phase to fill the best part of a decade.

When you are a parent with kids that don’t sleep beautifully from 6 weeks old, as some angel kids seem to do, it is hard to imagine having a sleeper. The law of averages would suggest I’d get at least one good’un but no, they have all been pretty rubbish when it comes to sleep. I am so jealous of people whose kids love bed. So different is it from our experience that I almost think they must be making it up. Your two year old sleeps from 6pm until 8am with a two hour nap every day you say? Oh do shut up. You are obviously making it up to make me feel worse.

Tonight we will be enduring a later bedtime, through moans and tears of exhaustion – probably from me and T. I’m not sure how late we will be able to push it though. He is utterly shattered, obviously, and his bedtime body clock is very finely tuned to kick in bang on 7pm.

I need to get better at going to bed early again. But I resent losing out on my precious kid-free time by going to bed at 9pm. It is the only time of the day that I am not in demand, not being got at and climbed over. So I drag it out, going to bed far later than I know I should. It is my small act of rebellion which hurts me in the morning but feels empowering at the time.

The sun was shining this morning. Winter sun has a beauty about it that summer in all it’s glory cannot rival. And my lovely husband let me go back to bed when the scream alarm clock went off. So despite the clock change, this morning was good. So why don’t I feel rested? I wonder if I’m capable of feeling rested any more. I have adopted the habit of exhaustion.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that loss of sleep may be the peg I am hanging a deeper feeling of loss on. I have lost something of myself, something more precious than sleep but something illusive, without name. It was lost a long time ago but I’ve only just noticed it is missing because my goals have changed with the time. For the first time in many years, my goal is not another baby. So what is it? I have become little more than my relentless day job: a Mum of three, manically running from place to place, worn out and worn down. There is nothing new coming, just more of the same.

I may not be able to shake the perpetual tiredness until I find something else to be too, something to fire me again, to make me something more than I have become. It may be time to try to find a way to break the exhaustion habit.

I think it is time for a change.

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Toddler Groups: A Survivor’s Story

imageI’ve not been to a toddler group for about three years. Last time I went, I pretty much swore off them, having had my fill. However, last Wednesday’s rain was set in, T was in a very busy mood and I was feeling too skint to blow £20 on a morning chaining tea at soft play. So, against my better judgement, I decided to revisit a group held in a local church, just to give T a morning out. After all, we are home alone together, now that M has started school, and I felt a bit under pressure to entertain the lively little lad.

Like most such toddler groups, this one was run by well meaning Christian ladies whose own kids are much older and who want to provide a service to local Mums, with a less than subtle undercurrent of converting them to see the light, where possible. Pleasant as they were and much as T enjoyed bombing about playing with manky old toys, I was very quickly reminded why I stopped going.

The fact that these groups are so inextricably linked to churches creates an automatic issue for me. I’m not religious and don’t want to bring my kids up in a religious way. At one group I attended I was faced with a full on conversion attempt by the pushy vicar telling me I was bound for hell. Needless to say, we didn’t go back to that one. Everything is about God at these groups. The story and song time is religious, even the colouring pictures are holy scenes. But, much as that puts me off, it isn’t the real problem I have with them. The big issue for me is that they are such apparently happy, friendly places but I found that they can be anything but for the people who are really in need of a bit of compassion.

I am sure lots of Mums have very positive experiences of toddler groups. I didn’t. I’ve been to many in my time, some better than others, but the one that sticks in my memory was a group I used to go to with a small, angry baby H. I was a brand new Mum, going through an extremely painful and traumatic transition from breezy freedom to being at the mercy of a tiny rage monster. I had some lovely new Mum friends but I also had many seemingly endless days to fill with a miserable baby in tow.

So, I signed up to lots of groups, hoping to keep the baby happy and inject some adult conversation into my day, above and beyond trying to engage the Sainsbury’s cashier in a chat, out of sheer desperation to speak to a grown up. These were not my happiest days, I’ll freely admit.

Some baby and toddler activities were brilliant. Anything involving music was a winner. But the standard toddler groups were awkward and ultimately disappointing. They were full of cliques of local Mums who had known each other for years and basically had very little time for interlopers like me, recently out of London and with no network. I don’t think they meant to be mean, but they had their friends and weren’t really interested in meeting anyone else.

I’m not a shy person and am usually happy to kick start conversations but I felt like a fish out of water. I was at a pretty low ebb and not really able to rally and keep trying to make friends: being shattered, lonely and miserable, reaching out to unfriendly women who shut you out, was pretty demoralising. So, I sat and drank tea each week, trying to look busy and not like the sad, lonely one with no mates. Dire as it was, it was still better than the alternative of sitting at home with the baby.

To give them their due, the ladies running this particular group were lovely. It is possible they spotted a Mum-on-the-Edge and took pity, chatting to me and offering well meaning advice, tea and cake, without mentioning God once (other than shoving the odd church flyer at me).

imageH and I always snuck out before the religious songs at the end. It was all bad enough to endure, without having to sit through baby indoctrination too.

That first toddler group feels like another lifetime now. I look back on that anxious, sad and stressed Mum with great sympathy but almost as if she is another person. Seven years of parenting and three kids later, I feel like I have changed beyond measure. I am too busy to have time to fill, I am confident in my own parenting abilities and I have a wonderful network of friends. But I still have room for more and I would never be one of those cliquey Mums who cut people out.

At last Wednesday’s toddler group, T and I rocked up noisily to pay our 50p entry fee. We were a very different duo to that angry baby and desperate Mum of the early days. T is a happy lad in a way that H never was and I was only there for the stewed tea and to give my lad something to do for a couple of hours.

Apart from that, it was all painfully familiar. Mums in cliques, friendly organisers giving me concerned looks as I sat on my own with my boy. The difference was just in my outlook. T had no interest in doing any of the organised activities and I had no interest in chatting to the other Mums. Instead of sitting there longing for someone to befriend me, I was pretty keen to avoid the banal chat. Not one of the other Mums approached me as a new face to say hello to anyway. The me of today was delighted but I was very aware of how the new Mum me would have felt to be so ignored.

T had an absolute riot. He would be delighted to go back next week. I don’t think we will though. I think I’d rather pay for soft play. It was interesting to go back in time and revisit how I felt and remind myself how things have changed for me. But I don’t need it. In fact, I think I may actually need to never go again. Who wants to be made to feel like the outsider, whilst simultaneously having their kids being told that God wants to use them? Not I.

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It all feels rather one-sided to me and not worth the paltry 50p entry fee. I’m glad I went back though, if only to be reminded how things were, that I hadn’t imagined how miserable it could be. It also showed me how far I’ve come and that I survived it.

It felt good leave and go out into the rain, happy in the knowledge that the toddler group thing really isn’t for me.