Monday, 30 May 2011

Getting giggy

I don't know much about music and realise I'm fairly herd-ish. Given I was born in 1977, and I don't like change, I'm a relatively predictable blend of Britpop, Dad rock, occasional drunken punk, mellow acoustics, '60s classics and songs from films I've stolen as my own. Mr Thatwoman is a born muso. Our colour coded CDs include a shelf, a mini rainbow, of thatwoman's music where he's hidden the small playlist which I turn to again and again.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably admit that this music apartheid is mostly because when properly pissed I like 'Magic FM' and show tunes. I like gigs though, and this weekend we went to the Roundhouse in Camden to see Belle & Sebastian.

This felt like a tiny betrayal. We last saw the band at Spider-boy's first festival where he wore love beads and a straw hat and earnestly asked his father the name of every song and whether the next one would be Can you feel it? or The Land of Make Believe (his two favourites). Alas those covers never came. It made an impression, though, and he still asks his daddy to put 'boy with a strap' on the iPod.

But we embraced the freedom and started the evening outside the venue, Mr Thatwoman searching out lager by the single, me resisting the urge to run home immediately, wipe off my make up and resume breastfeeding. A man came up to me. He was young, and studenty, and despite still being of my generation brought out a maternal sense in me. He was asking fans to share their thoughts on the band. Flattered though I was that he took pity on the girl who looked like she didn't often attack the evening unencumbered by a changing bag, I declined, knowing I'd never be able to remember the names of the songs and would end up, on some vlog, humming something bouncy about graveyards or funny little frogs in some excruciating version of Name That Tune. No matter though, because they did play my favourite song, which is about coffee tasting of washing up.

As the laser lights swirled Stuart Murdoch and co admitted to being in nostalgic mood. On our first date-ish night out since Newborn's arrival, who were we to argue with letting go for a night? We shared the sentiment (hence the cheeky can on the venue steps when we were predictably early). At the risk of a dreadful 'teen spirit' gag, certainly the whiff of just gone youth was in the air amongst the now mostly 30 something fan base.

We drank pints of beer, held hands and I spent half of every song sneaking cheeky peeks of my husband, in profile, singing along like the handsomest boy in the 6th form. The ticket buyer was a friend of mine from Uni. We agreed we should have spent more time dancing at gigs in those hallowed halls, and less time drinking red wine and playing scrabble.

SPD, it turns out, has its uses. I found my spiritual home on the edge of the throng jiggling from the waist up and half jumping using only my knees. The Mum's pogo, I like to think. I suspect I looked a bit of an embarrassment. I'm thinking of asking London Underground's 'Baby On Board' badge suppliers to make a sequel pin for Mums post birth which says 'Doesn't Get Out Much'. But oh I had fun.

Modern gigging is ace. If you can't see the stage there's always a fan three rows ahead with their i-Phone out and you get to see the lead singers in digital close up. The floor is less sticky and the ceiling doesn't drip. And we were lucky, when we did get a buzz on the blackberry from our babysitter it was her happy status update about the rediscovered joy of a 6 month old snuggling on your chest.

Even though the singer's seen the back of 40, the air has a youthful retrospective glow as if the whole gig was gagging to be instagrammed. The real cool kids still distance themselves from the throng of course, standing on balconies and in VIP bars. We saw you, the Camden coolsters, sipping spirits in the sky while us groundlings squealed along to a recorder solo. But as with fancy dress parties, so with live music I reckon - it may retain a certain credibility to stand in the corners looking stylish, but everyone enjoys the person who actually dressed up as The Exorcist, including Victorian nightie and plasma vomit. Long live the playful nerds and all who sail with her, shouting out the lyrics and putting two hands up because we're so excited.

And then it ended. A short sweet encore, time for one of our number to baggsy the playlist and lights up. We ended with a cheeky final beer at home with Spider-boy's left over coconut cake and a babysitter who was relatively unscathed. We were no longer feeling sinister, but still humming along.

I resisted writing this as I am suspicious of talking about music. And also suspicious of fun. As we lay in bed I said Mr Thatwoman should have spoken to the lad, the skinny student interviewing fans outside. 'Nah' he said, despite my protestations that he knows what the songs are called and has liked the band, like, forever, 'It's too easy to sound like a dick when you talk about music'. Night night.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Woah - we're half way there...

I give too much away about my Dad-rock tendencies in that post title. It almost prompts me to reveal one of my great regrets: that according to fansite sources, Springsteen had planned to play Glory Days at Hyde Park with Bon Jovi but the council pulled the plug on such a noisy late encore. How I wish it had materialised.

But I digress. And must confess the title of this post should be a pun on 'brand' and 'new woman'. Newborn has hit his half year. Hooray for him. Happy Half-Birthday my clever gorgeous lad. Four teeth, a bad temper, a winning smile, you have everything. His fat belly quivers with love and laughter, even though he has another temperature, and he still looks to check I am there even as he learns to be absorbed by other things (TV, his brother, toys). We all feel the love, but we've noticed he survives the day despite his snivels because he has a new woman in his life. Sophie, as in 'Sophie the Giraffe'. Do you know Sophie? We know Sophie.

Her real name is 'Sophie La Girafe' and she's a teething toy manufactured in France. She's been on sale, and in the mouths of babes since 1961. Newborn's, obviously, is newer than that.

I wish I was cool enough to avoid consumerist tendencies, but I'm not and shamefacedly attribute huge importance to 'things'. Do you know Sophie the Giraffe? (I know, it is like asking 'Are you middle class?' 'Do you have a pair of birkies?' 'Do you know your Elephant's Breath from your Pigeon?').

Spider-boy never had a 'Sophie the Giraffe'. I wandered aimlessly around organic toy boutiques and fingered and thumbed Sophies in their lovely retro boxes until he was beyond squeaky toys and I missed the moment. I knew it was nonsense, hankering after a toy as if seeing my son looking like the other babies pushed around my postcode would make us normal. But at the same time added it as a pencil in the margin of my list of things I had done wrong. Both not buying him the toy and then being too caught up in my self-absorbed nonsense and paranoia and self-loathing to allow him to enjoy himself even without it. I got over myself, of course, and caved and bought him a jellycat monkey which I found in a second hand store. It became an immediate fixture in all our lives.

With Newborn I was allowed off the hook. Someone else bough her for him and I felt like we were finally living the dream. Cute baby, check. No (or only a little) PND, check. The Zeitgeist middle-class toy of choice which combines the usefulness and baby appeal of rubber with an element of considered, fashionable cool. Hoo-haah, jackpot.

And how lucky we all are that she came. It is a great love affair. All clumsy toothed kisses, and new discovery. Every time he sees her he pauses and takes a breath -he licks her toes, gazes into her bust pupil eyes, he grabs and fists and hugs and squeals. And when he does that? Bites her and giggles at her and dribbles on her face? Despite an instinct to rage against the harlot who stole my lad's heart, I get something different. I get another gift from him.

It isn't a necessary gift, it is his half-birthday, not mine. In his 26 weeks on the planet his gifts to me have been generous already. He's shown me himself, he's allowed me to work things out around him, he's embraced his 'lot' in life and his family without too much protest, he's shown us his way and reminded us politely of the flaws in ours. He's allowed me to step away from the shame of being thatwoman whilst reminding me which bits of me are all right.

But the greatest gift of all, is this...

When I see him, with his toy, I am pushed outside my shameful world of trying too hard to fulfil the loaded aspirations I have about being a mother. I forget, for a second, who or what Sophie is because I see joy dancing over his dimples and watch a proper love affair in progress, him experienced and taking the lead, her coyly squeaking in response. And once again I enjoy being put in my place. I've been cast aside by Newborn in favour of Sophie, but that's good. His confidence proves she is Newborn's second love affair. His second, after his six months of falling in love with me.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The L word

I don't always shorten my name, but I can tell if I like people when they take it upon themselves. If I do, I feel loved and pleased with the pleasantry, if I don't I feel indignation at the presumption. I'm not always keen on nick-names either, though that is because if they stick I fear I'll use them in the wrong places.

Spider-boy has started calling me 'Lucy'. It is his latest weapon in the war against being seen as naughty older sibling in a world of baby love. I don't like it, although somehow prefer it to being 'mum' (or more realistically 'muuuuuuum') if there is no chance of being mummy any more. But I understand it, and like the way changing someone's name, playing with it, rolling it on your tongue and using it for the first time can say a lot about how you feel about them.

Spider-boy partly knows it will make me listen, and will momentarily level the playingfields. After all, I never call him son. I also detect another trait of mine. He is now forever seeking a repeat of the first virgin reaction I had to his joke, my genuine surprise and indulgence, I suspect my smile and mock outrage too. I understand that quest, I find myself repeating old jokes to friends in a compulsion for a new audience who will laugh in realisation. As satisfying when they do as the air popping crack of a sealed coffee jar stabbed with a spoon.

He'll never find it, that first-ness again, at least with me. So he's branching out. Sharing his new joke with his friends. They too have realised this slicing down of my status brings indulgent eye-brow raising and conspiratorial smiles from other grown ups. It reminds me of that thrill of being in the big girl's room you get when you first address your boss by his or her Christian name. To their face.

Spider-boy's little mate raised the stakes on Monday. He called me 'Lu'. All that familiarity and a potty pun. Hilarious. As I heard that sweet young voice call a new place for me opened up. I was no longer one of the higher ups but a small person, a pseudo tot with out the power of my parental title or even my full name.

You have to applaud their ingenuity.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

It had its moments...

Our holiday is over and we are back in the whirl, and the occasional birdsong floating through the sunny afternoon quiet, of our city home. Spider-boy is back at nursery and Thathusband is back at work.

So follows the post-mortems. And some questions. Are family holidays always strained? Do we remember them as more fun because of all those sun soaked photos which speak volumes whilst silently deleting many cross words and frustrations? Did our parents conceal their own stresses or have we all forgotten in our internal photobox library?

Like a child a mere four months before my Birthday I had been SO excited. I couldn't wait. And now back I'm tired and a bit stressed and somehow I feel like bursting into tears when people ask how it was. I haven't done the maths, in terms of what percentage was the best of times and what the worst. Certainly both were there.

After all it was our trip, tailor made by us encompassing all the things we like - animals (well, statues of lions, everywhere), transport (planes, water taxis, police boats and trains, long, cross country, cross border trains), towers (over Verona and Paris), swimming, cities, sunshine and the holy trinity of pasta, pizza and ice cream. I had my crutch, but new sunglasses and a capsule wardrobe including an outrageous maxi dress. We slimmed down the boys' kit to lots of teeny animals, puzzle books and their nicest clothes. Mr thatwoman had a birthday t-shirt and new book. Good. To. Go.

The whole family, apart from Newborn (who wisely got a virus and stayed out of it) was hopping by the time the taxi came for the airport.

And it was. Good that is. Some of it was beyond amazing. Venice, I sigh just thinking of a town so beautiful that even my poor eye and our ageing digital camera can capture and make the stuff of fairy stories. We got there by train and fiddled around in the station, even on a day trip the detritus we lug around is incredible. Feeling we may have been over ambitious in that shadowy concourse (with its impenetrable ticket stamping and signing system) me and Mr Thatwoman nearly faltered. But as we walked out, bloody hell, the relief and awe. I mean, Venice, it really is, like really, no gimicks, a city afloat.

Verona, and our lovely flat, were darling. The swimming pool sparkled, as inviting as a blocky blue Hockney. So we made waves. Spider-boy learning what 'out of your depth' means, and, little by little, how to tame a pool stroke by stroke until 'Daddy, look, I done a LENGTH'. There was ice cream and salami and cake (yup, cake) for breakfast. All hail the Euro enthusiasm for chocolate spread and pastry to welcome the day. Messy, sticky, delicious.

In the sun, as our hair dried out and we bussed around, being statues and drinking 'boy wine' (Sprite, from a grown up glass), our sons cemented every moment of play they've had before. They might be tiny but it seemed some magical development took place and they became mates, allies, enemies (of us). They started to share jokes and giggle without us. They took their siestas together each day when we were walking, waking spontaneously, together, as they heard us try to get a kip too. The big one playing with the little one, coaxing, sharing his toys, offering breadsticks.

On the first night Spider-boy secretly climbed into our bed and we woke up like modern Monkees, all four tucked up. By the end of the week as we arrived in France at midnight they were Brit Pop superstars, lying on the superking bed in their pants, the older one demanding apple juice on room service and the younger one sneaking a suck on a nobbly baguette end from the mini-bar.

And Paris, as Spring turns to Summer. Our townie lads, used to underground systems and pavement invasions took it in their stride. They scoured those streets for bargainous euro keyrings and tamed that tower and her expensive merchandise. Newborn didn't even need to wake up until after we'd found someone to snap us all, together, most of us looking at the lens.

These memories are all so idyllic. And they are completely true. So it seems churlish to mention the plague of a sick baby, or the frustration and fumbling and fury and sadness of being all crutched up and on pain killers. Or to wonder if I can forgive myself for being so upset and crotchety when I felt left behind on foreign pavements, or the mindnumbing headfucking madness of barely any sleep for the whole six days. Which is not to mention the shitting in S Marco Square (not me, or thathusband).

I look back through our snaps. And see some picture perfect happy, happy boys. Two tired but smiling parents proud of their lads and only sometimes straining under the weight of trying to make everything fun enough whilst working out if we have enough Calpol, where the nearest toilet is and if we have the correct change in cents. I realise my complacency knows no bounds, for these images are true reflections of real happy hours.

Which makes me wonder, am I eternally ungrateful for what I have? Or just briefly unable to process happiness properly. Have I lost my perspective? Will I always see things through a filter of worry and frustration?

For the moment I've decided that I possibly built it up too much, and that a lot can be blamed the unfortunate combination of sickness and lameness for Newborn and I, not least as SPD sends me wobbling very close to depression. (I read this morning there is often a link between the two, so I'm not alone at least in finding myself on metaphorical quicksand both when I try to unsuccessfully lift my feet to a safe height and when I try to think positive).

If I'm honest things were also marred by my slightly glib refusal to let either spoil the 'fun'. After all, I know I was reasoning to myself, depression is a thief of fun, as is illness, why should both bugger things up for us again?

And that 'fun' is the nub with really exciting things. With one off exciting events, as ever since the first Birthday party you can remember, is the looming irony that pressure to have fun really does hamper the fun part.

Our first holiday then. It had its moments.

Monday, 16 May 2011

On your marks: The human race

I've always been competitive. It is called the human race, after all. But blow me, can parenting be tough on the defensive. Draw your short swords. Pull on your helmet and sandals. It is all about combat round here. The better he can speak the more Spider-boy fights with us - wrestling with meanings and definitions, attacking boundaries, looking for inadequacies and finding energy to challenge everything.

This is exhausting, but with it comes a curious parallel development. The more able he is to draw swords, the bigger we begin to loom for him as God-like CREATORS OF ALL TRUTHS. We, the parents, are suddenly lifted up, the founts of all knowledge. We're the best (or closest?) person to ask stuff, sure, but we've also become these pillars of certainty which contain his crazily changing world of knowledge. When we falter, without an answer, the whole world can come tumbling down and yet such relish can be taken when we nearly fall in battle.

Specifically, right now, we are in the land of the whys. It is a strange, sassy land, frequently lampooned and joked about. But even those aware of the stage, can't be properly prepared for it or the prospect of being marooned here for some time.

One problem is, that for all my vanity, sometimes I don't know the answer. (Blogger The Mule is on the same page as me when it comes to being far more comfortable answering questions about books and arty stuff than science and facts.)

Mostly though there is a subtle balance to knowing how far to allow the whys to escalate before you are in really quite sticky water indeed.

The trickier the question, the more complex the dance of telling the truth: how do you answer without prompting further increasingly impossible to sate probing? how do you avoid scorn or infuriation or derision if the 'right' answer doesn't satisfy? and how do you navigate both these problems without totally extinguishing their flames of interest or giving complex or upsetting adult information.

I have very little advice for other sailors about to pull into this crazy port - apart from beware of getting over complex, that gets you nowhere. And even as a parent who doggedly tries to tell the direct truth, this often barely satisfies.

Somehow though, it is worth knowing that this isn't a land without any charm. For one, it brings the philosophical and rhetorical so beautifully to life. 'Why did I hurt myself?' asks my tear streaked lamb after stumbling on the paving. 'Why am I scared of dogs?' he begs, unaware only he can know the full answer. 'Why don't we know all the people?' he wonders struck by the size of the world. 'Why don't people who don't know us like us?' he ponders appalled by his possible insignificance in the face of the human race in all its size and complexity.

It also forms (another) useful lesson in shaving the shit and froth off being an overthinking adult. Take questions about the Romans prompted by our trip to Italy:

'Why did they make mens (sic) fight lions?' asks Spider-boy as he skips and climbs all over Verona's enormous stadium.

'Well...' I venture (glaring at Thathusband for introducing the subject at all). ''There was no TV in those days, no cinema, people went out to arenas, theatres, like this, to watch 'games'. And the games included fights, sometimes between people (men called gladiators) and sometimes between those men and animals. Sometimes the men were being punished for doing bad things, and they had to fight lions too'.

He ignores this as nonsense, indulging me in the way I indulge him when he has an attack of verbosity which isn't quite to the point. He looks expectant and benevolent, like an experienced Deputy Head asking infants about Jesus and getting answers about Power Rangers.

'But why?' he repeats.

A hundred forgotten RE lessons, and the name 'Daniel' come up for air but retreat and drown again in my addled memory.

'Well things were different then. And the men were being tested or punished - like told off, but um, worse. And it was, well, exciting to see them fighting with the animals'. I've cracked it, I imagine. 'It was exciting' I repeat, 'the men wanted see the gladiators and prisoners fight the lions because it was exciting!'

Another glare, and then he mimics the look, that look, the 'stop messing around now or there will be consequences' look. 'But WHY?' he thunders. We're on the brink of Armageddon.

I take a breath and allow my mind to go blank. I think about the question. I hope the Colosseum here won't tumble if I let succinct instinct take over.

'They made the mens fight lions because...' (deep breaths). 'They wanted to see who would win'.

He smiles and scampers back up towards the top of the outer edge without looking back at me, crutch in hand, relieved in the blistering sun. He's briefly sated with this grisly idea, I can tell, but he's also looking round for the next conundrum. He squeezes something tight in his pocket. I think back to the negotiations on leaving the flat this morning and remember. It is a teeny plastic model lion. I have no idea who is winning.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Blackboard Jungle

I often think that what I love most about children is their brutality. A searingly honest take on life, unsullied by any social expectations. My little sisters used to cry and protest when our mother sang them (tuneless but enthusiastic) lullabies. Last weekend I saw my best friend's glorious meringues dismissed as 'disgusting' by her first-born. A friend says his son tells him to stop 'that noise' when he whistles. Sharper than a serpent's tooth, a child's ingratitude. We all have stories, which is why Lear's lament rings true.

But how bewilderingly brilliant his compliments?

We're going through a major animal phase in thathouse. I've drawn him a picture on his chalkboard. The demands are endless and what started as some trees with a snake and a little Baloo and Mowgli dancing in the corner is now an epic chalky jungle.

He wants to know why I like Mowgli better than Tarzan, and I find it hard to articulate without sounding gooey. My strong feelings for that man cub is not to do with the cartoon's now iconic status, its classic take on '60s music. Or even its charmed and charming combination of baritones and basses and knowing humour (as compared to the literal translation of Phil Collins in the otherwise exciting enough Tarzan adaptation).

For me, Mowgli is better than Tarzan because it is clear in every single frame of Disney's The Jungle Book that whomever drew Mowgli did so after first knowing a little boy and loving him very much indeed. The curve of Mowgli's back, his springing step, his luminous long limbs, the flash of emotions betrayed by the start of a laugh in his eyes and that boyish nose. The details take my breath away as they draw me in because they feel so really and truly imbued with 'loving-a-little-boy-ness'. I never do them justice in my copies, but I love that the inspiration is there all the same.

Anyhow I'm no Disney artist and I'm slightly embarrassed by my scraggy chalking menagerie, and their abstract scribbly look. I'd love it to echo Quentin Blake, or at least my Grandpa, but sadly it does neither, quite. Initially, Spider-boy joins in with suggestions for what could be improved. The snake could curl round the vines more symmetrically. There should be bigger ears on the elephant marching away through the brush. The tiger needs more stripes, and there isn't a monkey. And really, actually Mummy, the picture needs a crocodile, but he would need a river.

I sigh, and almost whine a bit. My Mummy Goddess is deflated and sagging. She's going to fly around the room whistling if it is revealed that I'm really (no, really) not very good at drawing crocodiles. And this would be a shame, as all the caveats above can't hide my new-found enthusiasm for chalk (and the leeway all that smudginess and scraping gives a struggling scribbler). Then something momentous happens. My chatterbox three-year-old takes a beat. Just a short one. He monitors the mood and says:

'I think you are good at drawing. I think you're a brilliant draw-er'.

I don't correct the punctuation, I'm too busy melting. As the final bits of me seep into a puddle, he adds, with all a child's simple gratitude: 'We need another snake though'.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Strawberry Sunday: Bite me!

Newborn goes gaga for his first taste of fruit as we celebrate Mr Thatwoman's 34th birthday with friends, Eton Mess and 34 (count 'em) kisses a piece from Spider-boy.

Birthdays bring out the best in Spider-boy. He spends the day asking what it was like when Mr Thatwoman was 'only 33' and getting frustrated that his own Birthday is not for two more months. He's sated, at least, by the chocolate raisins and book of facts about animals, especially predators like sharks, he 'gave' his dad. He's mainly interested in what they eat, of course and crucially whether they eat each other. Eating your own kind is something of a preoccupation, hence his shark love as he's heard when they get excited they start nipping each other.

He'd better watch out though, with his talk of biting. The plan to wait to wean his brother until we returned from our travels (and Newborn was a full 26 weeks, rather than 24) went awry as he launched himself at all our plates this week. Go him, ignoring protocol and seeking his own true baby-led weaning path, thrusting anything vaguely the right size in his mouth by the fistful whenever he could grab it. And look out Italy, here he comes. He's much improved and rolling, shuffling and sitting and is prepared to just lower his face into a plate of food if no-one gives him anything to hold.

And beware, too, of his gnashers. Current tooth count is two (going by how many you can clearly see) and three if you take into account how it feels when he bites you.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Little Suckers

I was told a few years ago by someone who knew about babies (my NCT teacher perhaps?) that newborn babies have a perfect sense of smell because they've been grown in a bag of saline for so many months. I have happily repeated that fact many times, adding that I assume newborns must love the smell of their own shit, as they are so happy to lie in it even when eating.

Anyone from a large family will also know being a sibling means you can smell blood, from miles away, and eagerly pile in on one of your number if necessary.

I continue to find it eerie though, my sons and their heightened senses and superior hooters. They can smell out fear, like dogs. A chocolate button from miles away. And they have both, from the day of birth, been able to differentiate between food cooking and hot food on a plate - the first an aggravation, the second a definite call to arms and occasion for a massive and immediate feed.

They also have an uncanny ability to sniffle out important days and times of stress like piglets after truffles. We are due to go on holiday so, so soon and they bloody well know it. It isn't the piles of packing which alert them, they ignore anything on the landing which isn't obviously not theirs or likely to taste of chocolate or get me or Mr thatwoman fired if they break it. It is the hope from me and my husband that things will be uncomplicated, the whiff of fingers crossed which sets them twitchy. Their usual response? To get ill.

We've had two terrible 'first' Christmases plagued with illness, hospital stays and out of hour doctor visits. And many a week or, damn us, long weekend away spent trawling hills and dales for late night chemists.

Now I'm a sympathetic parent, and a painfully wussy bleeding-heart. And all the usual caveats about how safe and well I want them and ill I love them just the same apply. But God Almighty they pick their moments. Newborn is now on medications, so many potions and puffers that our GP has written a letter in case we get stopped by our budget airline at check-in.

He is fairly hearty and still mostly smiley with it. Has his usual all or nothing disposition which is either cheerily content or screaming with fury: no middle ground; no compromise; no prisoners. And mostly, thankfully for us, he remains the former beaming away as long as no-one approaches him with a tissue or inhaler mask.

I can't really complain as they get it from me. I too get colds the second I sort out my 'out of office'. As our road trip tips this side of the horizon my pelvis has collapsed. Again. Not as spectacularly as in pregnancy but enough to warrant crutches, or when I have the kids alone, one crutch and a buggy to steady my gait. It is all a bit Return To Oz though, if truth be told, and my hand-luggage is rattling with painkillers.

If you'd told me in my initial mega excitement over our family holiday, I confess I would have been very upset. Certainly if something similar had happened when Spider-boy was little I would have cried and snapped for days. I've certainly been a little glum in passing, and not terribly Zen about the fabled 'packing light' or the prospect of wearing bloody Crocs, with NO NAIL POLISH (I can't reach down) on my glamorous family away break in Italy.

It isn't all bad though. Newborn is improving as he loves the pink stuff and tolerates all but his nose drops with only minimal and quickly sated fury. My little 5 month old junkie, cradling the syringe of medicine sugar, experimenting with a pincer grip as he grabs and sucks furiously, screaming at any fool who tries to move it. He gets this from me too: my mum tells me on my notes in the post-natal ward a midwife wrote 'good little sucker'.

Crucially though, he's on the mend. Fit for travel and still charming my socks off. And me? I have a fold up walking cane and my NHS crutches (if Ryanair allows them). I have Spider-boy who calls those crutches my crunches, which is good for puns if nothing else. And I have Mr Thatwoman who is prepared to carry the loads I can't or pay for cabs. I'm not a cup half-fuller by any means, but after hearing a proper blood-freezing horror story this week, about the unthinkable death of a small child, I am at least chastened enough to be stoical. I type this as I once again rejoice that I am this woman, with only snotty holiday snaps to really worry about. For all else there's ibuprofen (or Calpol).

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Lost & Found in Kew - Plants, People, Possibilities

I found Spider-boy at the weekend. I found him, on Saturday, in a shop in Kew Gardens. The wonderful, intoxicating Kew Gardens. He was playing with a giraffe toy and looking at a display of plastic animals with the uncomplicated concentration of a small child perfectly and properly absorbed in a game of his own making

I found him about 20 minutes after we lost him. Not briefly mislaid, but horror movie, Ian McEwan-opening-chapter, makes-you-think-with-shivers-of-appeals-on-telly-and-faces-on-milk-bottles (yes I'm that old) lost.

I was the last person to see him and it was all my fault. I saw him, you see, I saw him walk into an interactive pod type plaything. He didn't even look back. And then I turned back to my husband who'd rushed into the play area with me. We'd both been wrong-footed by Spider-boy's sudden shift from fiddling with his final sandwich to discarded lunchbox and dash towards the indoor area. We were, if I'm honest, a bit stressed and shambolic.

It was hot, you know, and a bit grumpy although it was one of those days which was supposed to be glorious and perfect. Grandparents up in town; cheekily, unseasonably, unreasonably warm sunny weather. We'd taken an educational but beautiful day trip, managed to avoid wet trousers with a cheeky wee during the train change at Gospel Oak but still made our connection. We were on fire. Newborn had slept, for once, for longer than usual. Spider-boy was being pretty understanding, for once, about the slight chaos of visits. There was something interesting enough for everyone to look at. We'd forgotten a picnic but found a cafe. Spider-boy had eaten fruit and sandwiches, crusts and all. We were teetering on the brink of that damnable valley of the complacent...

Everything was supposed to be right, the sort of thing we'd all enjoy, talk about at bedtime and afterwards when we relaxed into a lazy tea of takeaway and beer. More fool the vain blogger seduced by her own obsessions with memory and pictures and instant nostalgia. And damn her thrice for playing on words. 'No!' I wanted to scream at the Gods as a chill came over me: 'I DO NOT want to be that woman'.

You see, back at the creepy crawlies indoor playground Spider-boy was well and truly gone. I'd seen him in a throng of kids, turned my head slightly to have a momentarily fraught, kind of hissy exchange with my husband about whether his shoes should be on or off, and where the changing bag was, and how annoying it is to have to rush off from lunch without a plan of what we're going to do. And as my head moved back? Bang. He was gone.

I've lost him twice before. In the library and in Marks&Sparks. Both contained spaces with obvious doors. And both instances lasted only a few minutes. I wasn't concentrating as hard as I should have been either time, but it was a trick of the light lapse, caused by being on my own and multi-tasking, not a full-on family fail. Today I'd been distracted not by something substantial if trivial, like turning and searching for a coat (the library) or picking up a shoe (M&S), but with the haze of a million preoccupied, UN-laid-back-mummy-that-I'd-like to be thoughts.

I couldn't explain what I was doing when I found a member of staff. After my last glimpse of him, I'd just been sort of generally distracted and all knotted up about what my family were thinking, whether everyone was having a good time, how the day was going, when the baby had last been fed (and why I had forgotten when it was probably only minutes ago) and how annoying it is when family life gets just too frantic, to get a grip on what was going on.

And worse, I felt a sort of existential silent hysteria. Fuck, I thought, headlines ringing in my ears. How will I explain how I lost something so precious? Surely I can't have lost everything because I was fussing and worrying and being totally self-absorbed.

I spied the toilets. No luck. The playground's nooks and crannies and tunnels full of millipedes. The outdoor playground. The chocolate decorating class (which we weren't booked in to but I was momentarily thanking Jesus for as I was sure that was where he'd be). Mr Thatwoman and I recovered and recovered each other's steps, my tall father stood look out, my mother held Newborn.

People either run from you or to you when you look panicked. Blessed are those who intervene and help: you know if you are one of them. An angel of an American tourist and her daughters started methodically comb the corners of the shrubbery, reassuring but scarily urgent when I said he'd gone. The chocolate egg-painting lady gave me a microphone, and I pathetically called out his name. It felt like there were hundreds of three year old boys in brown trousers (and t-shirts with animals on) but none of them was ours.

After ten minutes or so, even those with steely nerves get a bit shocked I think, and I confess at 15 minutes I had burst into tears. Time hurtles and stands still and the creep of every mother's nightmare clich├ęs thump in your head. This can't be happening, you think. But deep breath, start again: brown trousers, standing on the hill, looking my way, a sensible boy, he knows his name - the thoughts swim, but nothing is solid as you still can't see him.

We are lucky, of course. A few minutes after I thought my head might fry with fear, I did the deep breath thing again and thought about the half hour before lunch. When we'd first seen the playground and we'd walked past the shop, my mother and I talking proudly about how, arguments over walking on the flowerbeds notwithstanding, Spider-boy was a very good lad, and ever-so-good about not pestering and demanding treats.

I thought of the baskets of tasteful knitted toys, and the box of less tasteful plastic grabby tiger heads. It felt like the last moment of inspiration I would ever have and I ran for it. And there he was: playing jungle, hidden from the tills because he wasn't as tall as the table display, quietly creating his own ark.

He had walked behind the interactive ball of dung (or something large and brown and full of squealing kids) and back out through an emergency exit. He was hidden in plain sight as he's too short to be seen behind a normal height railing and had strolled away, happy I knew where he was and forgetting I couldn't read his mind.

And it teaches me...? Not much, actually. Only that it is by the grace of someone, or something, that any of us tread the path of this woman, with her found boy, and not that woman, that unthinkable woman, who never found hers. And that strangers and friends and most most most people really are terribly kind. And that I really must teach him his address and our names (I have checked this with him every evening since; he knows who he belongs to and his nearest bus station).

I say 'not much' because I'm sure though I'll endeavour always to be more careful and vigilant than ever, he and his brother will at points dip out of my eye-line and practicality tells me this is something I can't necessarily avoid. In our (hopefully) long life together I imagine there will be many moments out of view where they will be at the mercy of everyone and everything else.

And though I have perhaps too blithely noted this, letting them roam out of sight is the goal of parenting, and though the seam to be mined from metaphors of losing and finding is all too temptingly filled with material for a parent blogger, I was right back at Christmas when I described our role as watchwoman. More watching, less thinking about it. For that's what we are for all time.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Absolutely Fabulous

Parenting is a lot about storytelling. Already there are family stories kicking around our house. They are a messy, good-natured, gleeful mix of ours and other people's; assorted anecdote scraps ready to be sewn into one brilliant mismatched quilt of funny things toddlers/grandmas/parents/teachers et al have said and done. The beauty of babies, the naivete of parents, the wisdom of the tiny.

Spider-boy, like many children, is only interested in the stories that take place after his birth, seeing anything previous as insignificant sound and fury. He looked at me incredulous this weekend when I pointed out a road we used to live on before he was born. His look said: 'Firstly, you've told me that before, and secondly? Like I give a shit'.

He's curious about some 'pre-' aspects though, as his disdain for the past is confounded by a suspicion on his part that he has always been present. My little Forest Gump, he sees the world so clearly through the prism of him that he finds it hard to believe he wasn't witness to all key moments in history. Mainly he wants to know where he was when I was in Grandma's tummy and his father was in Nanny's. Metaphors about glints in our eyes don't cut the mustard (partly as I think he can only guess 'glint' means something like 'splinter' and gets worried about our sight). I try a new tack this week on the way back from nursery. 'You were in two seeds', I say, 'Daddy had one bit of you and I had the other and we looked after them very carefully.'

I feel a faker but the strangeness of this information mercifully shuts him up, and in any case he's distracted by the man behind us on the pavement whose openly guffawing at my parental idiocy.

Luckily Spider-boy can now create his own narratives to explain history and anomalies - from why elephant has a trunk to how his brother has been naughty to him all day. He talks about his work and fake reads his bedtime stories. He has a book of facts about nocturnal animals and now mimics me and his father as he reveals his own set of crazy revelations. He's all ghoulish fascination with the violence of nature and flattering imitation of our voices when he spices up the page about leopards.

'Did you know leopards eat small animals?' he says. 'They eat porcupines too' he remembers, prompted by the picture. He pauses to think. 'Sometimes though' he adds, nodding to assuage any doubts, 'leopards eat other leopards, tigers and sharks and also... buses!' He holds the book tight and dares us to contradict him.

But he's mostly interested in endless nursery tale re-runs, from Grimm to CBeebies via Uncle Walt. I love these 'again again' days as he tries to ensnare us all in a world of giants and witches and wolf stews and lost boys and magic beans. On Sunday at a barbecue we replayed Jack & The Beanstalk, The Three Little Pigs, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Hansel & Gretel, Tarzan and The Jungle Story (sic).

There are variations on the theme depending on access to dramatis personae but key lines must not be omitted. Jack's Mum must state he'll 'surely break his neck' as he climbs the beanstalk, the piggies' chins must be hairy, the wolf stew must have carrots and God help us all of we forget Mowgli's songs.

Despite his verbal bravura though Spider-boy keeps his options open and covers his back, just in case these aged fables hold any immediate truth. He must be Gretel, for example. Not for any gender bending reason which would appeal to the wannabe literary critic of my youth, but because 'the witch wants to eat Hansel'. Similarly he prefers to be any bit part over Jack, magic beans having more allure than ground down bones apparently. This said his poor brother, and mother, are usually relegated to the worst part of all.

No-one sane wants to be Station Officer Steel, or the second monkey on the left behind King Louis. And pity the fool who takes up a gleefully proffered part in Tinga Tinga - they almost always entails being Just-So-ed in graphic fashion. But despite the dangers I take any part I'm given as I love watching his imagination centre stage.

Today we play the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Spider-boy, unusually, is the troll. There is much game negotiation over who has more meat on them. We end the game with Spider-boy splashing in the sofa river and Daddy Goat victorious. But only for a short while. 'There's another goat, a Mummy goat coming' says the troll in an alluring and conspiratorial whisper. I step up to the part I'm born to play, though suspicious after a Mummy-goring moment only last week. 'What happens next?' I ask, after saying I want some munchy grass. 'The troll eats you all up' he confirms and piles in for a feast.

Though I'm usually being put in my place, I think I like it best of all when he takes the role of soothsayer and storyteller. I like how he mimics my own use of stories from the past to explain the present and his uncomplicated confidence in the benefits of teaching those around him their lessons. He might not know what all the words mean (since Christmas he's adored Jack & The Beanstalk, but last week casually asked me what 'grind your bones' meant) but at this point in time vocabulary is no limit for him. He can spin a tale and ensure we grasp the fundamentals hiding in the fabulous whether he understands all the words or not.