Thursday, 30 April 2015

Food II: The Truth

Having written about how I was absolutely, definitely, never, oh-no-not-me going to worry about what LittleBear eats, I decided to reassure myself. Note: that's "reassure". Which is definitely not the same as worrying, or fretting, or obsessing. Completely different.

In the catalogue of things that I'm good at, writing lists comes right up there, just after worrying. So I wrote a list. A list of all the things that LittleBear eats. And once I wrote the list I realised that LittleBear really does eat quite a lot of things. OK, so I've listed "butter" as one of his foodstuffs, and I have separately categorized a variety of cakes and biscuits that are hoovered up, but on the other hand I haven't listed all the things he eats at nursery, which would certainly add some variety. And if anyone asks LittleBear what his favourite food is, he will say "butter", so I could hardly leave it out could I?

Meanwhile I also committed the cardinal sin, and read another article about feeding your children. And I really, really, really shouldn't have done. I was actually genuinely tempted to write and tell the author to get off her sanctimonious bloody high-horse and stop telling people how easy it is to get children to be adventurous with food.

You know what? I eat pretty much anything. LittleBear sees me eating it. LittleBear loves helping to cook. He loves digging his hands into a bowl of raw pork mince and squishing it up with egg and milk and breadcumbs and spices and then rolling little balls to cook as frikadellers. But he won't eat them. He loves smearing butter onto a raw chicken for roasting. But he won't eat it. He loves adding the flour to the meat juices from a roast and stirring to make gravy. But he won't eat it. He loves chopping and mixing and pouring and weighing and beating. But if what he ends up with in any way transgresses the mysterious rules by which he determines what he will or won't accept, then he won't eat it. We eat together as a family. We do everything "right" and it doesn't make a blind bit of difference.

So bully for you, you smug smarty-pants chef, with your marvellous food and your fabulous children who eat Sichuan oxtail stew and beetroot pilaf, but before you start telling the rest of us how easy and wonderful it is to cook all these things, and how much my child will love it, why don't you ponder whether perhaps you just got lucky? And that just maybe it isn't as simple as "cook and eat with your children and they'll eat everything". Do you honestly think the rest of us are too damn stupid to have thought of trying that?

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Emotional manipulation

Many years ago, my boss expressed the opinion that you have to become very devious when you're a parent to find ever more cunning ways to outwit your children. I thought at the time he had a rather unpleasant and cynical attitude to his rather delightful small children.

Now I have a child and I realise how right he was.

After LittleBear's less-than-stellar initial introduction to sleeping in a BigBoyBed and not wearing a nappy to bed, BigBear and I introduced a sticker chart (or two) for staying in bed and for keeping his pull-ups dry. A week later and there are seven stars on each chart, no climbing out of bed in the night, and a week of dry nights. He even went to bed and stayed there when we left him with GrannyBear for the afternoon and evening (Woohoo!) LittleBear will do almost anything for a sticker. Except eat chicken. We even offered him two stickers if he'd try some roast chicken and it still didn't work. Hmmm, turns out even LittleBear has limits. Never mind. Given a choice between him staying in bed when put there or eating chicken, I'll choose bed any day.

If a sticker won't work, there's always the option of appealing to his sense of competition. LittleBear is perhaps the most insanely competitive person I have ever known. And I know me. Everything he does or says or thinks must be faster, higher, bigger, fiercer, taller or generally better than anyone else. He has recently invented the "Mantet Chompet Shark", which is bigger than a Blue Whale, fiercer than a Killer Whale, scaried than an Alligator and faster than a Cheetah. And he's the only person who's ever seen one.

If we have two identical sticks, LittleBear's is longer.

If we have two identical "hopsett knives" (an ice-cube tray. No, I don't know either) then his is sharper.

If we have two identical chocolates, his is larger.

If we have two identical cuddly seals, his swims faster.

You get the idea.

So, in the morning, I could have five minutes of LittleBear throwing himself on the floor and screaming that he doesn't want to get dressed and he doesn't like me and doesn't want to live here and he will never, ever, ever be allowed to read a story in bed ever, ever, ever again because I'm mean to him. Or I could ask him who he thinks can get dressed faster, him or Daddy. OK, so Daddy has to then put up with the gloating from LittleBear as he dances around gleefully telling his Daddy "I'm faster than you!" but I figure that's a small price for BigBear to pay.

In the evening, I could have five (or more) minutes of LittleBear throwing himself on the floor and screaming that he doesn't want to have a bath and he doesn't like me etc etc, or we could race to the bathroom to run the bath, race upstairs to close his curtains, race downstairs to get to the toothbrush first, and I can live with losing those races if it means I can get him clean.

I may be storing up trouble here, as one of these days LittleBear is going to have to accept not being the fastest or best at something, but just for now, if it means I can get him washed, dressed, fed, tooth-brushed, in the car, or wherever I need him to be by challenging him to a competition, I'll take what I can get.

Now I just have to start working on what my next cunning plan will be to get my own way... you have to start early to outwit these little blighters...

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The voice that won't be silenced

I have a voice. A persistent voice. A voice that talks and talks and talks. No, it's not LittleBear, though I think he might be running this voice a close second. In fact, I think I might know where he gets it from.

This voice is my inner monologue. And it never shuts up. It's not a malicious voice, or an intrusive voice, or a voice that I dislike. Not much anyway. I mean, it's me. It's the sound of myself. It's my constant companion, it's my friend, my ally, my confidante, my harshest critic, my list-writer, my blogger, my planner, my thinker. I don't know how to think other than in words. Even if I'm solving a maths problem in my head, there's a constant string of words accompanying me... that's 1, then 4, 45, 42 is 6, 3, 36, don't forget the 1 and 6, 36 is 5, only 1, ignore that, 1, 6, 5, 165. That was me dividing 1156 by 7.

My inner monologue doesn't simply observe the world around me, it explains what I'm doing or thinking or feeling to some unknown "other", almost as though I'm practising what I'll say if there were a real person there. Sometimes I fill in the blanks of what the "other" will say. Sometimes the "other" is a manifestation of a real person in my life. And then I can descend into arguments, tears and angst with other people. Entirely imaged arguments can reduce me to tears.

My voice makes little asides during films. It ambles off and writes a shopping list while I'm supposed to be listening to a lecture. It meanders along writing blog posts in my head while I'm driving. It plans how to convert a chapel into a house while listening to Bach's St Matthew Passion (I know, I'm a philistine). Everything I think I vocalise internally. I think therefore I talk. Constantly talk. Endlessly talk. If I'm on my own I let my voice out for a bit of exercise rather than keeping it confined in my head. Sometimes I let my voice out when I'm not on my own. Yesterday even the man trying to sell copies of "The Watchtower" avoided me in the street, so there are benefits to being the crazy lady who walks along muttering to herself.

My voice allowed me to drive for twenty minutes with my car stereo set to track-repeat without noticing because I was so engrossed in my own internal world. I admit that I do like "Judy and the Dream of Horses" (Belle & Sebastian for those of you not into mid-nineties Scottish indie pop) but not enough to listen to it solidly for twenty minutes.

My voice allows me to plan what I'm going to cook for dinner over the next week and suddenly realise I have absolutely no idea what my boss has just been talking about, though I'm sure I ought to be trying harder to pay attention to partition coefficients.

Sometimes my voice allows me to have conversations with people that I become convinced actually happened and I'm bemused when they subsequently have no idea what I'm talking about.

It's at night that my voice is most likely to become a problem. Unless you think not listening to your boss is a problem, in which it's a problem most days too. At night though, untrammeled by reality, common sense, rational influence or BigBear, my voice can talk me into endless trouble. Monday night was one such night...

I made a mistake. I admit it. I put LittleBear to bed in his pants and pyjamas and not a nappy. He'd been dry at night for about six months, but in a nappy anyway as he was still in a cot. Without the ability to get out of his cage cot it seemed peculiarly unkind to rob him of his only safe way to wee. A few weeks ago he launched into this "going for a wee is boring and I don't want to" routine in the mornings and would stand (occasionally even get as far as the bathroom) and defiantly wee in his nappy rather than use the loo. So, once we took the side off his cot and converted it into a "big boy bed" I took his nappy away too.


Turns out he's reverted to wee-ing in the night as well, not just in the morning. Curse those nappies for not having a data plotter on them so I knew when he'd used them.

I discovered this not-actually-dry-at-night-any-more feature at 2am on Monday when LittleBear appeared beside my bed to inform me his pyjamas were wet. As was the sheet, the mattress, the duvet cover, and the duvet. It's a miracle the pillow wasn't wet. And the cuddly penguins had a lucky escape. I got him clean and dry and warm and cosy in bed and returned to my own bed. I then lay awake for TWO AND A HALF HOURS while my brain chattered away to me.

I shouldn't have put him in pants, he isn't ready. What if I've ruined it all now? He hates getting wet, now he'll be traumatised and we'll never get him dry at night. My poor little boy. Why was I so stupid? Does he need a wee in the middle of the night every night? Don't tell me he's like BigBear and I'm going to have two of them getting up every night for a wee. I don't want to be woken up every night. Not again. This is the beginning of sleep-deprivation insanity again. What will I do? There's no point me sleeping in the spare room as LittleBear only ever wants Mummy at night so it's all going to fall on me. I don't want to be woken up every night...

It's awfully dark in the bathroom in the night. How will LittleBear see to go to the loo when he can't reach the light switch? BigBear hates the light, so I can't just leave the light on in there all night. Can I get a night light? Is there such a thing as a bathroom nightlight? Maybe I should Google that. If only I had my phone here, I could look it up under the covers and BigBear wouldn't be disturbed... No... I can't be bothered to go downstairs. I'll make my own plan. We don't have a shaver socket, and there are no sockets on the landing, so where could I plug a light in? Aha! There are mains sockets in the airing cupbaord. Should I fit a shaver socket? How would I get the wiring out to it? Would it be OK to run surface wiring? I don't really want to chisel a hole in the plaster to fit a socket. I hate sockets that aren't properly recessed, you can always tell they were an afterthought and not installed properly. What about a light on the outside of the airing cupboard door? That might work. No. The wiring would get in the way. How about a light above the mirror? It's right next to the airing cupboard and I could do some pretty discrete surface wiring. Could it be flat twin core? Or would it need to be earthed? I'd better check the wiring regulations for bathrooms.

And on and on and on and on. I planned ever more elaborate means of making sure there was enough light for LittleBear to find his way in the bathroom. I planned different strategies for getting him back into nappies, and yet persuading him to not use the damn things. I wondered and worried and fretted and thought about how much damage I'd done. And I did it all in one long internal monologue. My brain doesn't even have to pause to draw breath. My brain also repeats itself. A lot. In fact it seems to have a sort of half-arsed edit function, where I get most of the way through a sentence and then go back to the beginning to correct it for style and grammar. Yes, I edit my own thoughts for poor use of English. Can I please give myself a break?

As the two hour mark passed, I tried to meditate my way back to serenity. I tried a technique that's worked for me before:

Breathe in. Breathe out. 1.
Breathe in. Breathe out. 2.
Breathe in. Breathe out. 10.

The aim is to not let your thoughts wonder. To not let yourself lose count. To focus only on breathing and counting. To try to get to 10.

I couldn't get past 4 without realising my mind had started talking again and I'd forgotten what number came next. Shut Up PhysicsBear! For once in your life, just SHUT UP! Usually my one sure-fire way of silencing my voice is to read. The words of what I'm reading take over completely. I don't read them out loud in my head, but my voice simply can't compete with the cascade of words streaming into my mind, tumbling over each other, desperate to be lapped up. Maybe that's why I enjoy reading so much? I can finally get some peace and quiet in here. I don't think BigBear would thank me for turning on the light and reading at 4am. Besides, I'd finished my book just before bed time, so what would I read anyway?

At 6:30 LittleBear re-appeared with more wet pyjamas, bed etc. Oh bugger.

On Tuesday night LittleBear had an exciting new treat. Pull-ups! Look at this LittleBear! They're like pants, so you can pull them up and take them down yourself, but if you have a little accident it won't matter! To my enormous relief, LittleBear thought this was an amazing idea. What he thought was even more amazing was the sticker chart on which he would get a star every night he didn't wee in his pull-ups. So amazing that in the first half hour after being put to bed he'd got up three times for a just-in-case wee to make sure he didn't wee in his pull-ups. BigBear and I hastily invented a new chart, where there'd be a star in the morning if he'd stayed in bed once put there. Making it up as we go along? Us? Hell yes.

LittleBear slept for 11 hours, and got two stars in the morning and is inordinately proud of himself for not weeing in his pull-ups. Phew. Let's hope the novelty and excitement of not weeing lasts.

And the bathroom night-light? I went to the hardware shop and bought a battery-powered LED light with PIR sensor. It creates a gentle glow in the bathroom whenever someone moves in there. It's fantastic. And there's no wiring.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

General Elections for Dummies

"Mummy, what's government?"

"Oooh, that's a very good question. The government are the people in charge of the whole country. They make the laws, and they decide how much we all have to pay to use schools and hospitals and so on."

<desperately suppressing any desire to express rabid strong political opinions about the current omnishambles>

And since there's about to be a General Election, what could be a better idea than to attempt to explain to a three and a half year old the principles of the First Past The Post voting method in a constitutional monarchy. I know, you're all thinking that was a brilliant idea aren't you? I mean, what could possibly go wrong with this conversation? And with BigBear in on the conversation too, we're bound to make it clear, lucid and helpful aren't we? Even we couldn't make our child cry at the idea of an election. Could we?

BB: There's going to be a very special day in a few weeks time LittleBear. It's called an election

LB: What's that Daddy?

BB: It's when we all get to choose who we'd like to be in the government. All the grown ups in the country get to do something called voting

LB: What's voting?

PB: Well, everyone goes to special buildings and gets a piece of paper, and we all put a cross on our piece of paper, next to the name of the person we want to be in the government. Then when everyone has put their crosses on the pieces of paper, all the crosses are counted and whoever has the most crosses gets to be in government and be in charge.

LB: <bottom lip quivering, tears beginning to fall> I don't want you to do that Mummy!

PB: <feeling alarmed that the idea of voting is so distressing> What's wrong sweetheart?

LB: Who will look after me if you go away?

PB: <not quite grasping the problem> It only takes a couple of minutes to vote LittleBear, you can even come with me if you want to.

LB: But when you go to the government, who will look after me? <more tears falling now>

PB: <light dawning> Oh! No, no, no, I won't be going to be in the government, there's a list of names of people who want to be in the government and you just choose one of those to vote for. My name isn't on the list.

LittleBear cheers up a bit at this news. Then we take the, perhaps foolish, step of launching into a description of the party system, and First Past the Post....

PB: Each name on the list is from a different group. There's a red group and a blue group and a yellow group and a green group and a purple group and a white group here. There's one person from each group to choose from.

I have decided to avoid using the term "party". For LittleBear a party involves cake, balloons, presents and pass-the-parcel. While I am sure there isn't a politician in the land who wouldn't play pass-the-parcel and eat jelly to secure a handful more votes, LittleBear is not enfranchised and I don't really want to muddy the already murky waters any further. A lost cause at this point, but I have to try for some kind of clarity.

LB: Are we in the purple group?

<For the non-UK residents, purple are UKIP, who I would describe as a bigotted, racist, narrow-minded bunch of complete arseholes. If I were being generous>

PB: NO! We are definitely not in the purple group.

LB: Who tells you which group you're in?

BB: Nobody does. Everybody gets to choose which group they vote for, and you don't have to tell anyone who you voted for and nobody gets to tell you who to vote for. It's a bit like choosing your underpants in the morning.

It's a bit like choosing your underpants in the morning

It's possible this is the best description yet of a secret ballot. You don't have to tell anyone your choice, and nobody gets to tell you what to choose. It works particularly well for LittleBear as one of his current games is to not let me know the colour of his underpants. I have to "not notice" if I take him to the bathroom. He gets to tell me random colours through the day, at each of which I have to react with wonder and amazement, to which he has to respond "only teasing!" until finally we reach bath time when I can be truly amazed at the actual colour of his underpants. My life is just filled with excitement these days isn't it?

LB: And then what?

A pertinent question from my budding political analyst. What does happen then? We dodge the thorny issue of hung parliaments and coalitions, despite the fact that this is indubitably the direction the country is heading. 

BB: Then, in each town, they count up all the votes and see who got the most. One person from each town gets to go and be in government. Whichever group has the most people in the government is in charge. 

Towns? Constituencies? It's all the same when you're three and a half and think Russia is the same size as Rochdale.

LB: What group are we? 

BB: We're not actually in a group, but we get to choose a person from a group when we vote.

LB: But what group are we in. Here.

Light dawns. LittleBear actually wants to know the party of our local MP.

PB: We're in the blue group at the moment, because more people here voted for the blue person than for any other person.

LB: And who's in charge?

PB: The blue group are in charge.

Come on, I told you I'm not going into the issues of forming a coalition. LittleBear's friendships appear to be very fluid still, with today's "friend" merely being the person he happens to have played with most recently. I'm not going to expect him to grasp forming 5-year strategic political alliances. Not until he's at least 4 anyway.

...the following day...

LB: Can I vote for the green group?

PB: <slightly wrong-footed as we were just talking about sharks> Erm, well, no, you have to be 18 before you can vote.

LB: Can you vote?

PB: Yes I can.

LB: But you're not 18.

Good point, well made.

PB: Ah, no, you just have to be more than 18. I'm 40 aren't I?

LB: Is that more than 18?

PB: Yes, quite a lot more than 18 <quickly chants through all numbers from 18 to 40>

LB: Can you vote when you're 43?

PB: Yes, that's more than 18 as well.

LittleBear then proceeds to enquire about a great many ages, all of them above the age of 18. This could go on for a long time....

LB: <with an unexpected change of direction> What do the green group do?

PB: Well, erm, they think the most important thing is to look after the world properly, all the plants and animals and oceans and everything.

LB: Why?

PB: Because that's a good idea. Isn't it?

That went better than I might have imagined.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Defying expectations

What a terrible, terrible night.

I was tearfully exhausted last night. I gazed at my friend's photographs on Facebook of their trip around the south-west USA and wondered where my life had gone wrong. Am I ever again going to have the chance to travel like that? What am I talking about? I never had the guts, chutzpah, confidence, spirit, you name it, to travel like that. I used to get anxious going to a new town in my own country, let alone my trips to other countries. I always wanted to be the person who went on a holiday like that. I never was then, and now that LittleBear is here, it feels as though I never will be. Ever. I'm not going to suddenly magic up the assurance that would let me go exploring with just BigBear and LittleBear. I cannot imagine how much more I would worry if I had my LittleBear to protect, feed, and love while travelling than I already worried without him.

Anyway, it was in that mood of existential despair at the state I and my life are in that I decided I really needed an early night, so it was 9:30 when I stuck my head into LittleBear's room to see how he was. A smell met me as I opened the door. Not a good smell. I crept in, trying to work out if it was the lingering aroma of a sweaty small boy who was sick a few hours ago and didn't want a bath, or a rather fresher arrival. Then I put my hand in the pool of sick. Ah. That would be it then. My poor baby was fast asleep, having clearly managed to lean over enough to be sick mostly over the edge of the bed and onto the carpet. Not completely mind you, so the duvet, sheet, mattress, pillow and carpet had all caught flak.

So we had to wake out poor little boy up and try and get him and his surroundings cleaned up. BigBear stepped into the breach awesomely. I dragged LittleBear onto my lap and just gently held and rocked him while BigBear did... well... basically everything else. Then LittleBear was sick on my arm and into the washing up bowl we had ready. He was whimpering and shaking poor little soul, but still managing to be so brave and strong. I'm pretty certain I cry more than he does when I'm sick.

So... sleeping arrangements needed changing. If LittleBear could be sick in his bed and we didn't hear it over the monitor, he couldn't be left alone for the rest of the night. BigBear was banished to the spare room, LittleBear's mattress was dragged into our room, and I stroked his sad sweaty head while his heavy lids drifted down. The rest of the night then passed in approximately two hour cycles of LittleBear desperately retching with nothing left in his stomach, then begging for water while I tried to persuade him to just have a little at a time so as not to be sick again straight away. By 6am he was awake for the rest of the day, wan, drawn, thin, tired and pathetic.

Somewhat to my surprise therefore, the rest of the day was actual quite good. LittleBear was subdued, but not sick again. I broke many of my self-imposed parenting rules and allowed him to watch quite a lot of television. Two episodes of David Attenborough's Blue Planet and two episodes of Chris Packham's The Wonder of Animals. Unusual viewing choices for a three-year old perhaps, but he really does love wildlife documentaries, with current favourite themes being sharks, whales, crocodiles and snakes. And they were spread out through the day (says she, desperately trying to justify nearly three hours of television for a toddler who had no screen time allowed before the age of two...)

But... we also played with lots of Lego, mostly to make a house for his sharks, who apparently needed upstairs doors and windows as well as a flight of stairs. Talented sharks these ones. And we played with Play-doh, making sharks, killer whales and seals, naturally. And we did some painting. Painting crocodiles. Or perhaps alligators. And we did lots of reading, especially about sharks and whales. And dolphins.

And LittleBear ate about 5 slices of toast all told, and a rich tea biscuit and two "emergency" biscuits, spread over something like 7 mini-meals, and I didn't see any of them again. (They're called emergency biscuits because when I get one with a cup of coffee, I tend to put it in my handbag, and when LittleBear asked why I said it was "for emergencies". Come on, you know the ones - there are many occasions when what you really need is a biscuit and wish you had a handy, individually wrapped biscuit about your person. Don't you? It's not just me is it?)

So a day that I was dreading even before LittleBear was sick, and went into with next-to-no-sleep, turned out to be actually OK really. In fact, quite lovely in many ways. LittleBear was lovely, not at all whingy, fun to play with, spectacularly imaginative and better at listening than he usually is. Sod going on a road trip round the US, there are many blessings to my life as it is now, and if I can get this far, then I will find it in myself to explore the world. Just not today.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The ebb and flow of empathy

I've been running on empty for the last few weeks. First BigBear went to San Francisco, so I had a week of LittleBear-wrangling on my own. Just as BigBear flew home, me and LittleBear both succumbed to one of the endless coughs/colds that circulate at nursery. It knocked me out for about two weeks. Then I was more-or-less-well for maybe as much as a week before the next nursery-lurgy hit. Two weeks later and I'm more-or-less-well again, but Absolutely Exhausted. I've been getting a good, solid 8 hours sleep a night for the last 4 or 5 nights, and it's not enough. I'm tired. I'm yawning. I'm crabby. And I have almost no patience.

LittleBear has been trying that non-existent patience to the limit. Not in any spectacular way, just by being three. Just by having an endless supply of questions:

   - is a harbour porpoise longer than a narwhal's tusk?
   - is a fox fiercer than a seal?
   - could a T.Rex eat an orca?
   - why don't I like chicken?
   - where does my poo go?

And on top of the endless questions, there's the endlessly repetitive games, many of which seem to involve muggins providing the voices for half a dozen toys, for the entertainment of LittleBear. And on top of the endless questions, and the repetitive games, there are the sobbing meltdowns. And on top of the endless questions, and the repetitive games, and the sobbing meltdowns are the tantrums when LittleBear is asked to do anything that doesn't happen to be exactly what he was already doing.

I confess he was beginning to receive short shrift from me and I was working on getting him to understand that "Wait" more or less translates to "I've heard what you've said, I'm going to do what you've asked, but I'm busy now, and I will only come when I've finished the thing that I'm doing, so please don't ask again". Wasn't working too well, but it was better than shouting "Just shut up for once!" maybe with the odd profanity thrown in, which was what I was tempted to say.

After three days at work, I was actually dreading four days at home with LittleBear, trying not to be cross, trying to live in the moment, trying to live in his moment when what I really wanted to do was either cry or sleep or both.

Then on the drive home from nursery this evening, my little sweaty-headed moppet fell asleep, which is almost unheard of. And glancing back at him I remembered how small and vulnerable he is. And when we got home and I opened his door to get him out of the car, a pitiful little face looked up at me, looked panicked and was sick.

And all my aggravation and weariness and frustration melted away in a desperate need to cherish and protect my baby. To make it all better. To cuddle away the ills.

There was no dinner tonight, no playtime, not even bathtime. LittleBear just snuggled onto my lap on the bathroom floor, bottom lip trembling, white as a sheet except for the heavy purple shadows beneath his eyes and said he just wanted to go to bed. He wept gently and told me "I don't like being sick".

So, I got his teeth clean, some calpol into him, his pyjamas on and moved his mattress and bedding out of his cot and onto the floor, with a basin and a bottle of water beside it in case he was sick in the night. We read Winnie-the-Pooh and my little snuggler tucked himself up as small as possible on my lap and I rested my cheek on top of his still slightly sweaty head. My baby. Always my baby, no matter how old he grows.

With my LittleBear tucked up in bed, I sat beside him and assured him I'd stay as long as he wanted. "Stay with me all night Mummy. Daddy stayed all night last time I was sick." (No, he didn't, but he did do a sterling job of clearing you up when you were sick in the night and staying till you went back to sleep.) After a little while however... "You can go now Mummy!" said with just a little bit too much brightness and enthusiasm...

I retreated downstairs and sorted out the remaining bits of vomit-soaked car seat and disgusting clothes, feeling sad and worried about my baby.

45 minutes later, I've been summoned back upstairs three times. Well, the first wasn't a summons, more some rather ominous thumping noises, "I was just banging my water bottle on the side of the cot Mummy".

Second time:
LB: I haven't had any water for a while Mummy, I'm going to have some more now.
PB: That's fine, you don't have to tell me
LB: But you didn't know
PB: I know, but I don't have to know, it's OK.
LB: OK Mummy

Third time:
The battery in the monitor died and I didn't notice but finally hear frantic yelling from upstairs. Aaaghhh! Maybe LittleBear's been sick again. Sprint upstairs feeling like the world's worst mother.

LB: I love you Mummy
PB: Oh. Thank you. I love you too sweetheart, but you didn't need to call me upstairs to tell me. It's sleepy time now.
LB: But you didn't answer first time I called.

True, but...

And now, when it's twenty minutes later than massively-exhausted-and-ill-child is usually asleep, and he's still awake and playing with his water bottle, and giggling and generally making sure he's an over-tired scrap tomorrow as well, my empathy is already waning. I'm teetering on Muttering Darkly To Myself.

Easy come, easy go. I think I'll be rescheduling tomorrow's vaccinations though.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Helping the hurting

I read an article the other day about what not to say to someone who is depressed. And it just made me really quite cross. Not because the suggestions were wrong or because they weren't making a valid point, but because they were so negative. What not to say. What you could say that's wrong. What you could say that's unhelpful, unkind, unproductive. I'm sure there are people out there who do say all those things. There are indubitably people who have no experience of mental illness, their own or other people's, and so are oblivious to what it can be like. And there are people who are simply insensitive or tactless.

But wouldn't it be so much better to try suggesting ways of talking to someone suffering from depression in a way that is supportive and helpful? Maybe even point out that people with depression are also, well, just people.  If we want to get rid of the stigma attached to mental illness, how about we stop defining ourselves as us and them? We are all, in our own unique and splendid ways, flawed human beings. I can't help but feel that history has shown us time and again that dividing people into tribes, whether by colour, race, religion, sexuality or health has never really panned out well as a strategy. And just like so many other divisive catergories, it's not as though anyone chooses any degree of mental ill health.  And it is a matter of degree. We all have problems, it's just only some of those problems have labels.

People aren't all the same. Depressed people aren't all the same.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I scored at only a moderate level of anxiety on the standardised tests, but I have a lovely friend who struggles at a much deeper level and to a much greater extent than I do. I had post-natal depression,  from which I recovered, because post-natal depression's like that, you can recover. But I have another lovely friend who has been pursued by the black dog for many years, and for whom the goal is to manage the depression, not to be "cured". Through my own experience I've had a chance to ask what does help, rather than just be hectored about what doesn't. And isn't that really a better approach to life? "How can I help?" is a much better question than "How can I not screw up?"

Go on, give it a go, don't just aspire to not being an arse, aim for the dizzy heights of being a compassionate human being.

Just as every person is different, every person's experience of depression is different. I'm not a mental health expert - I can hardly manage my own, let alone tell anyone else what to do - so I can't claim to give a one-size-fits-all guide to helping someone with depression. I can tell you some things that mattered for me though*:
  • Reach out. I might tell you there's nothing you can do to help, but the fact that you've offered means the world.
  • Keep reaching out. Just because I said I didn't need anything last time you asked, doesn't mean it's still true. And the fact that you've offered means the world.
  • Listen. That's all, I just want someone to listen without judgment.
  • Listen again. I know I said the same thing last time, but I still just need someone to listen without judgement. 
Which reminds me, it's time to phone my friend and see how he is.
* I've written these in the present tense and in the first person, because it was getting too clunky trying to write "a person with depression" instead of "I" or write about how it felt a couple of years ago. I am fortunate enough not to be suffering from depression now, so please don't panic and think you have to check that I'm OK!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Making the call

I did it. I picked up the phone and made the call to the decorator. There was no one there. Worse than that, there was an answerphone. Aaghhhh! I'm never ready with a message, so there's only one option. Hang up. Yes, I'm one of those people you all really hate - the one who hangs up without leaving a message. What do you expect? You put me on the spot, expecting lucid comments, coherence, intelligibility, relevance. Madness, sheer madness. I'm more or less psyched up and ready to talk to a human being, and then suddenly wrong-footed by a machine.

Right, get myself ready for a message. Filter out the salient details that need to be given. Name, number and a brief summary of who I'm trying to contact and why.

Phone again. Aagghhhh! Someone has answered and it's not the decorator. (I know this because I know he is called Jonty, and this is definitely a woman's voice). Damn it. And now, she's wanting to know if she can take a message. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.  All thoughts of a message have fled for the hills. Instead I ask when Jonty will be available. After 5:30. OK, I can phone back, I tell her. What? What have I just done? Why has my mouth betrayed me like this? I had a chance to funk the phoning and get him to phone me and now here I am committed to another phone call. Idiot! And there's a chance I'll still phone at the wrong time. How soon after 5:30? How late is acceptable? When will he be having his dinner? Do they have children to put to bed? Why, why, why, why, why didn't I leave a message and let him call me?

Right, LittleBear is settled in front of his dinner, so he might to stop talking for a few minutes. It's 5:45, I can try phoning again. This time I get him. I manage to be more-or-less coherent, and he agrees to borrow the key from our local friend and go round to have a look later in the week. He'll call me back. Yay! I did it! Yay! First step overcome.

A week passes.... no word from the decorator... when is it OK for me to phone back? ... how long do I wait? I just hassling him if I call? More fret-driven days pass and finally I call back. The answerphone! Aaaghhh! OK, manage a message this time. After all, asking a machine why he hasn't got back to me yet is easier than asking him in person. Less confrontational. Phew! Got off lightly this time.

He calls me back, he's going round at the end of this week now - he didn't get a chance last week.

The end of the week comes, and I hear the phone ring while I'm putting LittleBear to bed. I foolishly assume GrannyBear, who is downstairs, will answer it. I forget that our phone is rather strangely located - lurking on a bookshelf behind the television, and GrannyBear doesn't manage to find it before it stops ringing. I come down, and find there's a message from Jonty. Damn it! I missed the call. I try phoning back, but there's already no-one there, so I leave the standard "just replying to you message" message.

All weekend I hear nothing. And the next week. Oh no. What was he phoning for? To say the place is an abomination and he won't touch it with a bargepole? Why else would he not be replying? He's avoiding me. Did I say something really, really stupid in my message and my brain has just blanked it out? It's Easter. Maybe he's on holiday? How long do I wait? Is it OK to leave another message? What shall I do? Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.

8:30 on Saturday morning a week later and Jonty phones. Phew. He'd lost my number. Idiot me. I should have phoned again. Anyway, it's all fine. We sort out some details and I finally think to ask if he has an email address. Turns out he doesn't but his wife does, so I send a long email with all the things we'd discussed and every possible means of contacting me. This is more like it. The written word, where I can stop and think about what I'm saying, edit it, review it, add extra information that I'd forgotten when I started. I relax into the warm bath that is emailing.

But... three days later and there's still no reply to the email.... when is it OK to start worrying? Can I send a follow-up email? No, he needed to contact a builder for the plasterboarding, so I need to give them a chance to sort out when they can work together. How long do I wait? What if the email went into a spam folder? Should I phone to check he got it? Is that weird? How weird?

And that was one phone interaction that I needed to undertake. It took hours of worrying, picking up the phone and putting it down again, writing notes and lists to myself, carrying a notebook around in my bag just in case I felt strong enough to phone from work (of course I didn't). It's a miracle anything ever gets done in my life. It might explain why I went for DIY as a decorating technique for so many years. I didn't particularly enjoy it, but it was cheaper and less stressful than trying to interact with any tradesmen.

Next up: getting my hair cut. I'm on a roll now, so I phone and get an appointment for Thursday morning. I can take the day off work, have my hair cut, go shoe shopping for the wedding I'm going to, have a nice lunch, all without LittleBear. Lovely. And then I check with my boss, and no, it's not lovely. I can't have the day off, there's a new deadline and it's Thursday. So now I have to phone and cancel the hair cut. Which is about 4 times worse than phoning to make an appointment in the first place. And I can't just put it off indefinitely - I have to phone before Thursday. I'm almost in tears at the thought of it. Tomorrow. I'll phone tomorrow.

Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb: phone the shed builders. First call - phone engaged. Second call - answerphone. Nope. You're not getting me that way. Third call - someone answers. Aaaghhhh! She says "Good afternoon" and then I start randomly blethering. I wasn't really expecting someone to answer so I manage something along the lines of "Oh, erm, yes, what? Oh, you're there. Hello? Good morning, oops, no, it's afternoon isn't it? Yes, ah, I was thinking about a shed." Well done, PhysicsBear, making a sound impression there.

My life could be so much easier if it weren't for the fact that it's me leading it.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Failing to take my own advice

It turns out that writing things down doesn't make them true. Nor does publishing them for the world to read. In fact, it turns out that I'm pretty useless at listening to my own marvellous pearls of wisdom. I hope you lot are doing better at paying attention to the things I have to say than I am.

First up, food. I was really quite convincing on the subject of not worrying too much about what your child is eating. So how is that twice in the last fortnight I've had to inform LittleBear that I'm going upstairs while he eats as I'm sick of his fuss about his dinner? Why did BigBear have to stand behind my chair rubbing my shoulders at lunchtime today as I glared, clench-toothed and steely-eyed into the garden to avoid making eye-contact with LittleBear? Why does it make me so bloody cross that he's refusing to eat sausages? Sausages! Well, this time it was sausages, but it's also fish-fingers, and beans, and avocado, and red pepper, and tomatoes, and pears, and pain-au-chocolat, and strawberry yoghurt... need I go on? You're getting the idea aren't you?

Basically he's now rejecting what feels like about 50% of his previously-favourite foods. In truth it's more like 10% of his previously-favourite foods, but it feels worse, because they were my fall-back, dependable, at-least-he-eats-something-normal foods. The ones that you could rely on feeding him at someone else's house, or if we (God forbid) actually managed to go out somewhere with him. I feel somewhat abashed trying to explain to Friends And Relations that what LittleBear would really like for dinner is pasta with cauliflower, cabbage and peas. No, no sauce thank you. No, just boiled veg on pasta, with butter. It's no wonder I end up taking a bag full of BearFood to GrandmaBear and GrandadBear's house. Normal people don't stock their houses with the food that LittleBear wants to eat. And at the current rate of progress of things being rejected, who knows how long the remaining favourites will last either.


... I'm irked because I feel embarrassed by the oddity of his food habits.

... I'm irked because now I have to find other things to feed him, or let him subsist on cheese sandwiches. As long as it's cheese that more or less tastes of butter. You don't want any of that crazy "flavour" nonsense.

... I'm irked because I'd promised myself we'd take a break from sausages, let LittleBear forget that he'd gone off them, and come back to them in a few weeks. But he asked for sausages today, so I bought them.

... I'm irked because LittleBear asked for the sausages and then made a fuss about eating them. We turned into MeanBears and wouldn't let him have anything else until he'd eaten his single sausage. He ate half and then declared he was full up.

... I'm irked because I'd promised myself I wouldn't be a food tyrant, that I'd be chilled out and laid back and let LittleBear decide what he'd eat from what was presented to him and not go all Victorian-Nanny on him and insist on cleared plates no matter what repulsive food was on them. And I'm doing exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do, which makes me cross with myself.

... I'm irked because I'm jealous of all those parents I see posting on facebook of their toddler tucking into curry, or salami, or any damn food with a sauce, or a flavour, or any trace of normality to it.

... I'm irked because I really, really, really hate going to the effort of cooking something for someone (anyone) who then refuses to eat it, not because they don't like it, or they're allergic to it, but because they're just being picky. You think I'm being unreasonable don't you? Maybe he really doesn't like sausages now? Well explain why he had two helpings of sausage and mash at nursery this week. Go on, talk your way out of that one. Or how about the fact that he ate all his sausages when he had them with GrandmaBear and GrandadBear? Got an answer now have you? He's just doing it to wind me up. And I fear that he now does it because I rise to it. Another great parenting skill mastered. I'm going to be just awesome at this once LittleBear becomes TeenageBear.

Now that we've removed another tranche of accepted foodstuffs from LittleBear's repertoire, I'm also even more convinced than I was before that he'll never eat anything normal, and I'll end up with one of those children who ends up having a Channel 5 documentary made about them because they only eat food the same colour as their socks. And thus I neatly sidestep one of the three things I learnt about having a baby. There were only three, and already I've forgotten to pay attention to one of them. And it wasn't the one about the washing machine. No, you're bright people, you've spotted it, I'm completely overlooking the fact that this is just a phase. LittleBear isn't really going to survive on cheese sandwiches forever. Maybe for a year or two. Or three. This too shall pass.

And now we all realise that I haven't just forgotten to pay attention to one of my three rules, but another one as well. No, it's still not the one about the washing machine. I should just get on with what's working and ignore other people. Who cares if Tarquin is eating whole roast garlic bulbs, or Moebius simply loves chorizo frittata, or Anastasia's favourite snack is devils on horseback? My LittleBear is growing and thriving and laughing and loving and beautiful and wonderful, and he's doing it all on his own esoteric mix of foods, that may or may not include sausages. It works for him, and that should be enough for me.

And I'm not going to cry about it. Or not much.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Everything I learnt about having a baby

Everyone loves these types of posts right? The ones where fabulous pearls of wisdom are dispensed. The ones where you finally learn those all important secrets about having a baby that open the doors to being a baby-whisperer. Well, you can easily read what I think about that kind of advice. Instead, this is the sum total of everything I actually learnt when I had BabyBear. And some of these aren't even mine.

1. It's just a phase

Whatever it is, it will pass.

Breastfeeding every hour all night? Yup, feels like it's going to last forever, but let's look at the bigger picture. How many ten year olds are waking to breastfeed every hour? That's right, none of them. It will pass.

Refusing to sleep anywhere other than in a moving vehicle or on another human being? Bigger picture. How many ten year olds only sleep in a moving vehicle or being cuddled? None of them.

Spits out every spoonful of loving prepared sweet potato and broccoli puree? Bigger picture. How many ten year olds...? OK, you've got me on that one, I suspect most ten year olds would spit out sweet potato and broccoli puree, but you get the idea. They will eat food.

Potty training? It will pass. Literally. Possibly all over your carpet, but not forever.

Teething? That tooth will come through. And so will the next one. And the next one. And... what do you mean there are twenty of them? I have to do this twenty times? Stop... breathe... twenty is OK... twenty is a finite number... twenty will come to an end.

2. Do what works for you until it stops working

Seriously, as long as you're not straying into the land of neglect or cruel and unusual punishment, do whatever the hell works for you and ignore anyone else*.

Sometimes after a 3am feed I couldn't be bothered to lift my arms far enough to put BabyBear back in his crib, so he just slept in bed with me. He slept, I slept, it worked, so we kept doing it. Then we reached a point where he slept, and I didn't sleep. That didn't work, so we stopped doing it, and I decided I could be bothered to lift my arms enough to get him back in his own bed. (Obviously, being a neurotic mess, I frantically Googled "co-sleeping" to make sure I wasn't Getting It All Wrong, but once I stopped doing that, it was fine.)

When I started weaning BabyBear I devotedly made all sorts of noxious nutritious purees, all of which oozed straight back out of his mouth. It wasn't working. With head in hands one morning, I handed him a sliver of my toast. He ate it. I gave him some pieces of strawberry. He ate them, and reached for more. Never mind this puree nonsense, we'd accidentally invented "baby-led weaning". Now this was working!

When I say "ignore", obviously what I mean is don't let other people tell you you're doing it wrong when whatever you're doing is working for you. If what you're doing is driving you stark, staring mad, then don't ignore anyone. Ask anyone who gives you so much as a friendly glance for advice and then try absolutely all of it until you find the next thing that's going to work for you.

3. Make sure you have a really good washing machine

If you haven't (yet) had a baby, you will find it hard to imagine just how often you will run your washing machine. The day our washing machine stopped working was close to being the most catastrophic day of new-parenthood.

For at least the first six months of BabyBear's life every single item of clothing I wore, every single day, was sicked-up on. OK, so BabyBear was a particularly sicky baby, but every single day, all my clothes were soiled, at least once. Yes, I do mean my underwear as well, including socks. No, I don't know how he managed it. And BabyBear worked his way through multiple sets of clothes every day. BigBear seemed to dodge the brunt of the sick, but then it tended to be a post-feed event, and it was my shoulder BabyBear was perched over immediately post-feed. Not that he limited himself to then, he was capable of spewing semi-digested milk on me at any time of day or night. And I'm going to draw a discreet veil over the events known only as Apoocalypses. Who knew that nappies could fail quite so spectacularly to perform their allotted function?

And now, LittleBear uses his clothes (and mine) as a general place to wipe his hands, face, shoes, sticks he's found in the park, bits of food he's dropped on the floor that need cat fluff removing from them, you name it, it ends up on our clothes. Yesterday morning he wiped his nose on his hand and then his hand on my pyjamas. Not even his own pyjamas. Varmint.

So for the past three and a half years the washing machine has run what feels like constantly. I now find it disconcerting if a day passes when I don't do a load of laundry. Seriously. Get the best washing machine you can.

And that's it. That's the Sum of All My Knowledge. Not much is it?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Tiredness can kill. Take a break

Or so our government tells us. Admittedly, they're telling us so on overhead gantries on the motorway, in an effort to persuade us not to fall asleep at the wheel at 70mph, and instead to stop for an over-priced cup of burnt coffee and a plastic sandwich. They're not actually talking about the sleep-deprivation that only a parent with a sick child can understand. Or a newborn. Thank God I don't have one of those any more. And, according to one of my NCT friends, you can't actually die of sleep deprivation. Yes, she looked it up. It really was that bad.

Anyway, this particular tiredness has led to a firm believe that my son is now dangerously underweight and failing to thrive. He hasn't gained any weight in nearly a year, and has dropped from above the 50th centile in weight to below the 10th. It's all because I'm feeding him wrong. Fortunately, we have an appointment to see the nurse next week for his booster vaccinations, so I can get her to weight him on some decent scales, and talk to her about what if anything I can do. Panic mildly averted.

Let's back up a bit here shall we and find out where the tiredness comes into it, and why on earth I'm worrying about the weight of a fit, active, apparently healthy LittleBear.

Last weekend, you remember, when I was lying awake worrying about training Chinese engineers, I got myself a bit over-tired. Perhaps in part due to that, and in part due to LittleBear spending three days in a nursery, which is essentially the modern equivalent of a plague house, I came down with some nasty cough/cold type thing. And then BigBear caught it too. And then LittleBear. The cough. Oh, the cough.

One evening, I found myself sitting on the bottom step with my fingers in my ears, hysterically muttering "I can't stand it any more, I can't stand it any more, I can't stand it any more" as LittleBear sat in the living room coughing. Every cough made me want to scream "Shut up!! Stop bloody coughing!" Never mind that he couldn't help it, never mind that I was doing the same thing. The thought of being kept awake half the night by <cough>......... <cough cough>............ <cough>............. <cough cough cough> was pushing me over the edge. BigBear came to see if I was OK and was then forced to walk away as I was deranged, unreasonable and bad-tempered. He was in a lose-lose situation.

I think it was the previous night that I'd given up on sleeping in our bed at 2:30am and pulled on extra leggings and a fleece to go and "sleep" on the sofa with the cat on my feet. GrannyBear was in the spare bed, or I'd have gone there. On that occasion, it wasn't LittleBear coughing that had driven me out, it was BigBear. He coughs right next to me and is therefore much louder. And it makes the bed rock like a lifeboat from the Titanic. And he's definitely doing it on purpose. Just to keep me awake. The fact that I'm also coughing is completely irrelevant. My poor disease-ravaged body is convulsing in uncontrollable spasms of wracking coughing. He's coughing to annoy me. What? You want me to be reasonable at 2:30am?

The next night I discovered the magic that is Pholcodine Linctus. £1.20 for a bottle of joy. OK, so I perhaps should be careful about eulogising an opiate too much. Or even using an opiate too much. But it actually stops me coughing*. And it's a mild sedative. So when LittleBear and BigBear were both coughing in the night, I got up, poured Tixylix into LittleBear, Covonia into BigBear and myself back into bed. They both carried on coughing, and I just drifted back to sleep.

* Only use this for a dry cough, as it acts on your nervous system to stop the cough reflex, and if you've got gunk in you lungs you don't want to stop your body coughing it up. If you've just got a dry, tickly cough that's driving you stark, raving mad, it's the bees knees.**

** I'm not a doctor. Don't take any advice from me.

Apparently I snored as I drifted back to sleep, but without independent verification I think that's just a baseless rumour.

Did you know you can hear yourself snore? Me neither, but it turns out you can. Damn! I've given it away! OK, so I was snoring just a little bit. It was a disconcerting effect hearing myself snoring though. One of the things I love when I'm really tired is the sensation of falling asleep. It feels as though my inner self is drifting up and back, away from my body, and my physical body is becoming heavier. Everything appears to be getting smaller and more distant and my thoughts somehow feel fainter. It's a delicious feeling, made more so because it's so fleeting, so ephemeral, and so rare to catch. I don't notice it every time I fall asleep, only when I'm in the perfect state of relaxation and near-sleep. And in that nether-world, where I am neither fully awake, nor fully asleep, I cannot move. I think about moving. I think about reaching over to pick up the book that's just slid to the floor from my unresponsive hands. I think about willing my body to move, and yet the weight of my limbs pins them down.

And there I lay, pinioned to the bed by my own half-sleep, flat on my back, my mouth half-open and I heard the grating rasp of my in-breath and the whistling out-breath. So this is what I sound like when I'm snoring! I thought about rolling on to my side. I thought about closing my mouth. And I thought if it was too irritating BigBear would prod me to roll over, and since he hadn't it must be fine. And then I thought no more. Apparently it wasn't fine, but BigBear isn't as vindictively bad-tempered in the night as I am.

After three nights of stress-induced insomnia, 3 days of exhausting training sessions, blended with a week of coughing, of throbbing sinuses, of pounding headaches and of aching ears, I was more or less at breaking point. And it was then that LittleBear noticed the bathroom scales and wanted to be weighed. So I weighed him. And having done so, I thought I might as well write it down in his Little Red Book***. So, I flick through the pages and find the growth chart and try and plot his weight on it. And this is where the worrying starts. He appears to be the same weight as he was a year ago, and is now falling down the centiles. Aaaghhhhh! My poor baby, what am I doing wrong? How can he be failing to thrive when everything else about him seems to be fine? This explains why he's so much smaller than those other children at toddler group. Two of his little friends are massive compared to him (and Selective Data Recollection Syndrome allows me to ignore the dozens who are the same size). Fortunately I'm so exhausted I don't actually have enough energy at this point for any more substantial worrying, but the thought keeps creeping back in, "what if there's something wrong with my beautiful baby?"

*** Nothing to do with Chairman Mao, but a health record for small people in which growth records, immunisation records etc are maintained.

My cough starts to ease, I sleep a bit more, we have a lovely Easter with GrannyBear staying. LittleBear makes me laugh and smile with his "satiable curtiosity". I adore my LittleBear. I'm feeling better, and decide to have another look at that growth chart. This time, with my brain unscrambled, I plot the data point in the right place. Of course he's gained weight. He's smack on half way between the 50th and 75th centiles. Just like he's always been. He's fine. Just like he's always been.

Tiredness might not kill, but it does mess with my ability to plot a graph. Not quite such a catchy slogan, and definitely less use on a motorway gantry.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

One of those mothers

It turns out I'm one of those mothers. You know the ones. The one whose hair isn't quite brushed. The one with unidentifiable sticky stuff squished into her trousers. The one with a tissue with a half-chewed biscuit shoved in her pocket. The one with a handbag (zip broken), a shopping bag (overflowing), a children's bag (discarded half way to wherever we're going), a muslin (damp), a cuddly toy, a plastic shark and a spare hat dangling about her person, charging down the pavement yelling "Stop LittleBear! Wait for Mummy!" The one who is always late. The one who is impressed with herself for arriving at your house within an hour of the promised time, only to discover I've forgotten LittleBear's water bottle, or his hat, or the present for your child's birthday, or the cake I promised I'd bring. The one who gets to the park on a bitter morning in February to find I've forgotten LittleBear's hat and gloves, but I do have a bottle of sunscreen, because having spent all summer forgetting to take the sunscreen out with me and having to cadge off other, more organised, mothers, I finally remembered to put a small bottle in my bag in September and it's been there ever since.

I am categorically not the mother with the perfect make-up, including immaculate false eyelashes and manicured finger nails. I am not the mother with this season's fashion, or high heels, or elegantly coiffed hair, or a petite handbag. In fact, I'm not sure I have a petite anything, handbag, bottom, appetite...

To be fair, even before I was a mother I didn't really do make-up or nails or other feminine fripperies. I'm too lazy. Why spend time applying a second face, which frankly is a bit of a lost cause on the current face, when I could spend the time reading a book or drinking coffee? Nowadays I'd love to have the time to apply a second face in the morning. But I'd still use it for reading a book or drinking coffee. But it's time that's the killer when you have a LittleBear around.

Take yesterday morning for instance (and to be honest, I wish to God you would, because I certainly didn't want it). BigBear and I both have foul coughs/colds courtesy of LittleBear and the plague house that is a nursery, so we're both a bit short on sleep. Tuesday night we set up a rather endearing call-and-response pattern with our coughing. Until I got fed up sometime approaching midnight and banished BigBear to the spare room. So we both woke on Wednesday morning feeling considerably less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. LittleBear was very bouncy though. Bounce, bounce, bounce into bed with me. Bounce, bounce, bounce on the bed. Bounce, bounce, bounce "Mummy, read the sharks book Mummy!" <long pause from Mummy, with raised eyebrows> "Please Mummy, can you read the shark book please?" Yay! I have a stern look that works! So I croak my way through the shark book, then realise, as usual, that the shark book is longer than I remember and we're already slipping behind the getting-out-of-the-house-on-time schedule, and we haven't even got past step one of getting up.

The book ends.

OK LittleBear, let's go and have a wee and get dressed.

And so begins the first total sobbing meltdown. Apparently going for a wee is boring and he doesn't want to do it. Well, I'm sorry I can't inject entertainment value into all your bodily functions LittleBear, but let's just get on with this. "I'm going to count to three" didn't work. "I'll race you to the bathroom" didn't work. Even the threat of a sad face on the sticker chart didn't work. This was serious. We have a set of rules on a chart - there is a happy side and a sad side. If LittleBear does things that are good and helpful and make BigBear and PhysicsBear happy, he gets a dinosaur sticker. If he does things that make us sad, he gets a sad face. Shouting "No!" when asked to do something? Sad face. Running away when asked to do something? Sad face. Hitting or kicking? Sad face. Making a fuss about going for a wee? Sad face. Not listening to Mummy and Daddy? Sad face. Within a couple of minutes, LittleBear had earned the right to at least 5 sad faces, so with a final warning, he received a sad face. Which prompted an escalation of the sobbing "I don't like getting a sad face". Sigh....

That getting-out-of-the-house-on-time schedule? A vanishing memory. But we must persist.

Wee completed, finally, I get LittleBear into his clothes, with comparatively little fuss and we head downstairs for breakfast. At this point I'm still in my pyjamas, as the system is usually that once LittleBear is dressed he's BigBear's problem responsibility while I shower and dress.

At this point my bears both give me unwelcome pieces of information:

LB: Mummy! The cat's been sick!

BB: I have to be in work early today, I'm catching the 7:40 bus instead of the 8:20.

Ahhhggg! Double Ahhggg! It's already past 7:30, I've lost 40 minutes of BigBear-time, I've got cat sick to deal with, LittleBear to get fed and I'm still in my pyjamas.

Right, pick up the sicked-up furball, cover the patch with kitchen towel and assure myself I'll deal with it later. Chop up melon, make toast, pour milk, tell LittleBear to sit down approximately 73 times.

BigBear makes me a cup of tea. Thank heavens for BigBear. Then he's gone.

LittleBear is at the table, eating. Time for my shower. I'm just heading upstairs when I hear a wail. "Mummy! I've dropped my toast!" OK, shower on hold again, I return to the dining table. The cat is under the table, licking the butter off the toast. Damn it! Toast is supposed to land butter-side down! Why did it have to land the right way up today? Bloody cat. "Sorry, LittleBear, the cat's eating your toast, I'll make you another piece."

Time for another melt-down. A replacement piece is not acceptable. Never mind the fact that he still has one perfectly good piece on his plate, plus a bowl of melon, plus a cup of milk. It was the piece that the cat got that he wanted.

New toast delivered, tears mopped up, and I finally get to have a shower. A quick shower.

As I get out of the shower, a small boy appears in the bathroom to tell me he's finished breakfast. A small boy who appears to have smeared most of the butter from his toast down the front of his shirt. Buttery shirt off... "Mummy! I want to be Naked Baby!" and he starts removing his trousers. Oh please, no, not all the clothes off now... I persuade him to at least keep his trousers on if I promise not to put a new shirt on until it's time to leave the house. Which it basically is already, except I'm not dressed, I haven't had breakfast and there's still cat sick hiding under a paper towel on the sitting room floor.

Somehow, and I no longer remember how, I ate some toast, washed the carpet and drank that blessed cup of tea, most of the time also trying to find my phone, keys, wallet, LittleBear's nursery bag, comforter, coat, shoes, shirt etc.

Meanwhile, and this may become important later, I'd let LittleBear out into the garden to pick a flower for his Magic Chick. He has a little Easter chick in a basket, and if he gives it a flower every day, then in the night it lays a mini chocolate egg. It's something me and BrotherBear did as children, which in retrospect I'm not convinced wasn't a cunning way my mother had of trying to get us to clear the daisies from the lawn... Anyway, feeding the chick is Important and Vital Work, so LittleBear had to go and choose its flower.

Oh shit, we should have already left the house, and the cleaner is coming today so I need to leave it at least vaguely tidy, so I shove everything in the kitchen either into the bin, the washing machine or the dishwasher and I hope I more or less chose the right places.

Right LittleBear, tooth-time!

Noooooooooo! I want to plaaayyyyyyyy! I don't want to go to nursery, it's not fair, I don't like it, I don't like you, nooooooooo!

All said whilst lying on the floor kicking his legs and sobbing. Christ I'm getting tired of this.

This time, racing a shark to the bathroom worked, and we end up with vaguely clean teeth, both of us, and vaguely clean faces. At least, there are no obvious lumps of food on them.

Shirt on (yep, he was still only half dressed). Socks on (why? why do you always take your socks off just before we're trying to go out? WHY?). Shoes on (no, not this time, please not this time, you do not have to climb to the top of the stairs to put your shoes on). Coat on.

I want to say goodbye to Daddy.

Daddy left 45 minutes ago.

Nooooooooo! I wanted to say goodbye!

You did say goodbye. 45 MINUTES AGO.

Finally, an hour and half after he got out of bed I have LittleBear strapped into the car and ready to go.

Half way to the next village I realise I've left the back door open after letting LittleBear into the garden.

Pull over, u-turn in the middle of rush-hour traffic, just dodging the bus, screech back onto the drive, into the house, close and lock the back door, and we're off again. As we tear up the main road across the fens, LittleBear pipes up, "Mummy, why are we driving faster than usual?" Yes folks, I've just been told off for speeding by my three-year old son.

And that is why I'm always late, always scruffy*, always flustered and always about to lose my rag.

* Disclaimer: for as long as I remember, my mother has had a tendency to describe me as looking like The Wreck of the Hesperus, so I may not entirely be able to blame the scruffiness on LittleBear.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

I wasn't expecting that

There we go.


Two full mornings of training five Chinese engineers completed. I say five, but most of the time it was four, as one of them only swanned in half way through the morning each day and then sat at the back looking bored and slightly grumpy. Not really sure what that was all about, other than an excellent technique for disconcerting me. I mean, he was staying in the same hotel as the others, and they got a taxi to come here in the morning, and nobody made any comment at all about his absence or subsequent mysterious arrival. Maybe he's their minder from the Chinese government? Who knows.

I introduced myself, handed round my business cards, and... that was it. I still don't know all their names. There's Una, who's the one who speaks good English, and acts as translator for the tricky questions. And there's Dr Hu, and I have to try very hard not to say "Allons-y!" to him or indeed grin when I say his name. The others I merely know as Delinquent-Arrival-Man, Little-Man and Round-Man.

The lectures I've given have been... different. For a start, there's been a video camera pointed at me the whole time, plus occasional photos taken at random moments, for no obvious reason. They even took a photo of me eating my lunch. I'm beginning to feel a bit like that cute little tamarin in the zoo, being photographed no matter what I do. While I'm lecturing, sometimes my students are tapping away at their phones, or on their laptops. To be fair, I think they're taking notes on their laptops. I'm not so sure it isn't Candy Crush on the phones. I'll talk for a while, with slides up on the projector and then suddenly there'll be an animated interjection in Mandarin (or perhaps it's Cantonese, I can't honestly say I'd know the difference). Una will then gesticulate, write and hector the others, presumably explaining the points I've just been making. The others will, I think, disagree on some issue, and Una will respond. Maybe she's just telling them to stop playing Candy Crush. After a few minutes of excitable exchanges, Una then turns to me with a delightful smile and says "Please carry on". So I do.

Sometimes the stumbling block is a single word:

Una: what is biwt?
PB: built?
Una: yes, biwt
PB Built... erm... made, constructed, formed, machined, put together, assembled... <runs out of off-the-cuff synonyms>
Una: how do you spell?
PB: <writes "built" down>
Una: Ah! biwt!

Now, I'm not being critical at all of their ability to understand English, they're frankly doing a pretty impressive job at following anything across such a massive language barrier. But you can imagine it's hard to describe the technical details of a mass spectrometer when you can easily get stuck on a simple word like "built". I have severe doubts about whether they understood what I was talking about when it's things like the ageing effect of electron bombardment on the secondary electron coefficient of the surface of an ion detector.

Ah, you're thinking, but technical language is what crosses cultural and language barriers. Science is the new lingua franca, you may be thinking. Just because they don't understand some English words, they'll be right at home with electrostatic potentials and poisson distributions, you could contend. Maybe you're not thinking those things, but I was kind of hoping them. However... after two and a half hours of lecture, practical demonstration, diagnostic tests and studying schematics for an ion detector and high-speed, small-signal pre-amplifier, I asked if there were any further questions about what I'd taught them. They asked "what material is the lid of the box made from?". Seriously? You've just been shown how to capture single ions arriving on an oscilloscope and the only thing you ask is what the lid is made from? And they all wrote the answer down in their notebooks. (It was stainless steel by the way. I promise that's completely useless information.)

The next question initially seemed as if it was going to be a bit better. Little-Man produced a draft copy of the user manual and waved it at me and asked if I could show him one of the procedures in it. I looked at it. It was the procedure I had just shown them. So, we did it again, with much nodding and concurring. Exactly the same nodding and concurring as far as I could tell as I had received the first time round. How the hell I'm supposed to know if they've understood is a mystery to me. I keep asking them if they're happy, if they're following it, if there's anything they want to know. What more can I do?

More alarming were the bits of pure science we got hung up on. These people are intending to develop applications for this mass spectrometer, so we were rather naively hoping they'd know a bit about chemistry and masses of molecules. First my colleague and then I got rather bogged down in explaining what an isotope is. Now, with apologies to the non-scientists who may be reading this, but what?! I mean, really, what?! You want to develop mass spectrometry applications and you don't know what an isotope is? You actually think the mass of chlorine is 35.5 Daltons? I promise you, you will never see a peak at 35.5 Da. You'll see a peak at 35 Da and one at 37 Da, and the one at 35 Da will be three times the size of the one at 37 Da. On average the mass of chlorine may be 35.5 Da, but any one atom is either 35 Da or 37 Da. You don't have half a neutron swanning around in a chlorine nucleus. I am still boggled in the mind to find that they didn't understand about isotopes. Isn't that GCSE Chemistry?

Once I'd got into the swing of this method of presenting - talk, interrupt, private discussion, resume - I chilled out completely. For one thing, I became instantly and reassuringly confident that I knew infinitely more than my students about what I was saying. For another thing, I knew they weren't going to spring any subtle and awkward questions on me, as I was going to be lucky if they grasped the basics and never mind the subtlety.

And I developed a Someone Else's Problem Field about that damned video camera. My mind just glances off the fact that they are taking videos back with them to review and study and pore over and learn from and... oh shit, what did I say that they're going to come back and ask me about? Quick, mind, start glancing off that thought again!

And I'm definitely not going to think about the possibility of them using videos of me as training material for other engineers once they get back home.. I think I might be feeling a little queasy now...

Not half as queasy as they're going to get watching the videos though. There was one point where I was demonstrating how to make some measurements on the top of this 1.6m tall instrument. I'm not tall enough to do it without a step, and neither are they. So I stood on the step to put the probes in place, then invited them to take turns stepping up and looking. Seems fair, yes? Would have been a lot easier without Little-Man holding the end of his tripod so he could wave the video camera in the air by my head to film what I was doing, and Round-Man sticking his iPhone in to take photographs of what I was doing. If that video doesn't induce sea-sickness and bewilderment, I don't know what will.

So, somewhat as my rational mind predicted, the training was fine. I didn't say anything stupid, nobody put me on the spot in a way I couldn't handle, I'd prepared all the material in time, I didn't break out in a cold sweat. All good really. Apart from the nagging sense that I've completely and utterly wasted my time and the poor buggers don't really have a clue what on earth I was blethering on about...