Monday, 26 October 2015

Night-time insanity

So once again LittleBear has an annoying, dry cough. It manifests as single, loud, percussive cough, followed by a pause of several minutes, before being repeated. This can continue for up to an hour. Now why, I hear you ask, is this so annoying? It's annoying because it only happens at night. That's right. It starts up at about bath-time and then occurs instead of falling asleep, or ideally in the middle of the night, or perhaps first thing in the morning. And I really do mean first thing. I mean the kind of first thing when it's still bloody dark outside. The kind of first thing where it's just close enough to actual, real, daylight morning that LittleBear does not go back to sleep after waking.

Last night, The Cough (I always think of it capitalised like this) started at 1:15am. This is the kind of time of night that exists solely to remind me why I am not having another child. This is the time of night that I am supposed to have left well behind. Given a choice, I would refuse to acknowledge that this time of night actually exists. Being the devoted mother that I am, I did not stomp into the room saying,

"shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!" 

Which naturally is what I really wanted to do. Instead I informed my LittleBear that he was not ill, did not need to cough and really he should try not to. Yes, really, that did seem like a productive gambit at 1:15am with a not-quite-four-year-old. I've really cracked this mothering lark haven't I? As I watched his little face and body convulse as he tried desperately to do as he was told I realised that I was wrong, I was being an absolutely lousy mother. So I gave him some water, a spoon of Tixylix and a lot of cuddles. None of which stopped him from coughing, but at least I didn't feel like some kind of maternal monster.

LittleBear did (finally) stop coughing and appear to be back at sleep by about 2am. Which wasn't too bad. I, however, was not asleep. Oh no. I was lying awake, with my shoulders tensed up somewhere around my ears. I lay willing my muscles to relax, until I realised that my forehead muscles were so tense I was giving myself a headache. Who even knew that was possible? I genuinely could not work out how to control my forehead muscles to make them not tense.

And once I was really thoroughly tense, awake and crabby, my mind really went to town on whose fault it was that I was lying awake. Because obviously it had to be someone's fault. It couldn't just be one of those things, a passing phase, a minor infection or irritation. No, as with all bad things that ever happen with LittleBear, especially when I think about them in the night, this one is permanent, here to plague me for-absolutely-ever, here to keep me awake at night until I descend into a morass of psychotic sleep-deprivation. And you know who else has a nervous cough? A dry, repetitive cough that bears no relation to any actual physical ailment? BigBear does. And so does GrandmaBear. That's it. It's hereditary. LittleBear has an inherited annoying throat-clearance. And he's going to do it FOREVER. He's going to stop me sleeping from now until he leaves home. It will be a miracle if I survive the next 14 years. And it's all their fault. I've married into a defective family and they're all conspiring to stop me sleeping. (My mind was, at this point, conveniently glossing over the fact, that LittleBear had by now been back asleep for an hour, BigBear was also soundly asleep, and the only thing keeping me awake was my own mind. Not the Bear family's entirely fictitious hereditary cough, but my own deranged mind.)

It's quite surprisingly how utterly absurd this can sound here and now, compared to how real, rage-inducing and tension-making it is in the middle of the night. 

Before I go to bed tonight I think I might have to find my mp3 player and make sure I've got the meditation tracks on it. It's either that or bludgeon BigBear with a cuddly bunny rabbit in the dark of the night. You're right. Bunny rabbit it is.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Vague thoughts on Feminism

Aside from actually being a feminist, in a living, breathing, sticking-up-for-women's-rights kind of way, I can't actually admit to knowing a great deal of feminist theory. I certainly don't know which wave of feminism I'm in, though at least I'm aware there are different waves. I haven't even read The Female Eunuch. I'm not sure that for practical, everyday matters I need to read up on the latest deconstructions of feminist thinking to know how I feel about the inequality I see in my world.

It was only last week that I got into, a, erm, vigorous discussion, on Facebook with someone I don't know about feminism and patriarchy. She honestly and genuinely expressed the opinion that we (here in the UK) don't live in a patriarchal society and that women have won the battles that need winning and should stop complaining. Seriously. In a country where there are more men called "John" leading FTSE100 companies than there are women of any name. In a country where only 25% of the judiciary are female. In a country where women are still less than a third of our elected parliamentary representatives. In a country where it was only this year that we finally abolished male primogeniture for the monarchy. In a country where the gender pay gap still stands at 19.1%**. I'm not claiming there are simple reasons for all these things or indeed simple solutions to them, but while our country is largely governed, judged and led by men, it's pretty much going to be patriarchal. Men are in the positions of power, earning the majority of the money.

There seems to me to exist a persistent, background assumption that men are leaders, men are rulers, men are somehow better at being in charge. And just for today there are two manifestations of that presumed supremacy that are irritating me. They're not big issues. They're the kind of things that the woman I argued with on Facebook would no doubt think aren't worth bothering about. But I can't help but feel that if you address the little things, you can undermine the foundations on which the bigger inequalities are built.

Thing #1: My name
Last weekend it was my birthday, and amongst the loveliness of having a birthday (like being given a cuddly bunny rabbit by my son), there was the pleasure of receiving things in the post that aren't invitations to take out a credit card I don't want, or buy clothes I don't want, or vote for someone I don't want. I received 5 such pieces of happiness-inducing post. Only one of them was actually addressed to me. The others were addressed to Mrs BigBear. I'm not Mrs BigBear, I'm Miss PhysicsBear. I categorically haven't changed my name, and yet my brother, one of my cousins and my in-laws all address me as Mrs BigBear. I've never told them I'm Mrs BigBear, in fact my email address, phone book entry, business cards, bank accounts, Facebook profile and every other single place they might see my name is Miss PhysicsBear.

Now, I understand that not changing my name when I got married is not the norm. It's a bit new-fangled and un-traditional, but it's also my decision. My name. Me. How I define myself. How I ask the world to acknowledge and address me. I may be married to BigBear, and love him dearly, I may be happy that LittleBear is actually Little Mr BigBear in the name department, but I am not a possession, or an adjunct to my husband. I am me. I have a name that I like, why would I change* it? Maybe by addressing me as Mrs BigBear my in-laws are wanting me to be part of their family, and that's lovely. But I can be part of the family without having the same name. After all, LittleBear and I don't share a name and there is no-one in the world who is more a part of my family than my beloved LittleBear.

I do know one man who changed his name when he got married, but let's be honest, most men don't. And if you try asking someone whether they think men should change their names to that of their wives when they get married, you'll get some interesting reactions (go on, it's quite fun, I've done it). So why is the asymmetry not only accepted but assumed? Why is a man's identity, reputation, name, more important than a woman's?

I'm not suggesting that people addressing me as Mrs BigBear are somehow inherently sexist, or deliberately setting out to impose their view of how things should be upon me. Nor am I suggesting that all the millions of women who have changed their name over the years are in some way oppressed and brain-washed. Everyone should be free to make that choice, and to choose to declare their togetherness with a single name if that's what suits them. I'm just pointing out the extraordinary degree to which something so unbalanced, so patriarchal,  is still the norm, still assumed across our society, still so rarely questioned. I'm pointing out that choosing a name to indicate your togetherness doesn't have to mean choosing the man's name; you could merge your names, choose a new name altogether, choose the woman's name. I'm pointing out that those of us who have chosen not to follow the norm have the right to have that choice accepted and acknowledged. I am me. Choosing to be me is not a rejection of my husband, or his family. Just as BigBear keeping his name is not a rejection of me or my family, and no-one in their right minds would ever think it was.

Thing #2: Marriage Certificates
Again, this one seems like a minor niggle, but again I think it represents the ongoing asymmetry in how men and women are recognised, treated and acknowledged. No, it's not as important as stopping FGM, or stamping out honour-killings, or any of a thousand other ways in which women's lives are degraded or even ended. But it is another small brick in a wall that divides men from women for no good reason.

In England, on your marriage certificate, there is a space to fill in the name and occupation of your father. That's it. Not "a parent". Not your mother. Not both parents. The only thing that appears to matter for the record keeping is who your father was. And the most important thing about him is his job. As though the defining feature of your life to this point is the identity of the man who begat you. And his identifying feature is his employment. Another way in which the only person, and only name that matters is that belonging to a man.

I've done more than enough genealogy research into my own family history to know how important and useful it is for future generations to be able to trace parents from public documents like birth and marriage certificates. And it would be so much more useful to have both parents acknowledged. You know, the two people who were instrumental in creating your very being, not just one.

Here endeth my rant. 

* Those who've known me for more than a decade will know that actually I did change my name. Twice. Once when I was young and naive and married TheEx, and once when I was a bit less young and a lot less naive and divorced TheEx. The thing is, when I changed my name the first time, I actually cried when I first signed my new name. I felt bereft and confused, as though I no longer knew who I was. And it was with great relief that I reclaimed my original name again. That experience massively informed my decision to keep my own name. It revealed to me how much my identity is bound up with my name. It made me decide not to just "do what everyone does", but instead to have the confidence and self-assurance to do what is right for me. Not to mention the fact that the tedious process of actually changing my name with every organisation I ever encountered was, well, tedious. And as well as liking my name and wanting to remain "me", I really can't face the paperwork. A bit less feminist, a bit more pragmatist. 

** Edited to add I have got this statistic wrong (as it is so widely mis-reported, I forgive myself) and BrotherBear has kindly pointed out my error. The full-time gender pay gap is 12.8%. Which is fine, obviously.

Monday, 19 October 2015

The source of the question of sauce

Observation 1
LittleBear will not eat food with sauce on it.

Observation 2
LittleBear is inseparable from BestFriend, but is very much the acolyte. Where BestFriend goes, LittleBear will follow. What BestFriend does, LittleBear will do.

Observation 3
BestFriend will not eat food with sauce on it*.

Is it just me that's forming a hypothesis about the origins of LittleBear's sauce-aversion?

*As discovered when meeting BestFriend's mother for this first time at a children's party.

Dancing to the beat of his own drum

We went to another small person's birthday party this weekend. Once again an organised affair in a rented hall. I was, to be frank, dreading it. BigBear elected to come with me to provide moral support to both me and LittleBear (and to give GrannyBear, who was staying with us, a chance for a guilt-free nap).  As it turns out, beyond a few wobbles at the beginning, this party was a different kettle of fish. For a start it wasn't as noisy, even though it was a singing and dancing party. There was no background thrum of compressors maintaining multiple bouncy castles, so the ambient sound was lower. For another thing, it was a small person from LittleBear's nursery, so most of the children were ones he spends three days a week with and is used to playing with without me there. I think that's important. The friends we have in the village we see at best once a week, and then only for a couple of hours, and then only with me also present. So LittleBear expects my company and interaction.

We arrived marginally late, due to a parking crisis that necessitated me evicting BigBear and LittleBear from the car while I drove around WorkTown looking for a parking space on a busy Saturday afternoon. The party was therefore underway, with a gaggle of small children eagerly following the instructions of one of those insanely upbeat women who normally teach aerobics. (How one woman can bounce and smile so consistently for an hour while dancing to the most inane songs is beyond me.) LittleBear does NOT like joining in with something that is already underway, so he settled in on BigBear's lap, tucked his ears into his shoulders and looked like staying that way for the duration, even despite the presence of BestFriend. However... the song came to an end, the music stopped, and scarves were distributed ready for singing along to "Let It Go" from the parentally-damned Frozen. The gist was the children were to sing and dance and when the phrase "let it go" came round, were to bundle their scarf into a ball and throw it in the air.

So... I coaxed LittleBear up to get a scarf, and before I knew it, this was happening...

What you may notice, is that LittleBear has occupied a swathe of floor to himself, away from the other children, who are all gathered in a circle around the ever-bouncy leader and is singing, dancing, leaping, throwing and catching with utter abandon, filled with complete joy, totally absorbed in his own world. If ever a child was dancing to the beat of his own drum, it's my LittleBear.

Watching LittleBear during some of the more structured dances, that involved copying Little Miss Bouncy at the front in undertaking a variety of actions at different points in a song, was a bit like reliving my own inept experiences of every aerobics or dance class I was ever subjected to. A vague look of bewilderment crossed with concentration drifted across his face as he contemplated what to do with each limb, and just as he thought he'd worked out what to do and was starting the movement, the next action rolled along and he was left confused and confounded again. That's my boy. Sometimes I feel very, very sorry for him that he is his mother's son...

And because it may be relevant to a later post, I would also like to share with you the shenanigans that LittleBear and BestFriend got up to.

There was a bubble machine, which all the children enjoyed:

Until LittleBear and BestFriend identified the source of the bubbles, and realised that if you want to catch the bubbles, you need to go to the source:

Efficient, and pragmatic. That's my boy. Maybe it's not so bad to be his mother's son.

I have attempted to disguise any faces other than my LittleBear's in these photographs, as I am unsure of the etiquette of posting pictures of other people, and particularly their children. If anybody feels that I have transgressed or should not post these pictures, please let me know and I will take this post down.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Food (Again)

The subject of this week's rant is Food. Again. Only this time it's not about LittleBear and Food, it's about Other People and Food. It's about the complete and utter tripe that people write about food, about what's good for you and what's not, and why. It's about my irritation with a world that has degenerated into soundbite-education, where complex ideas are washed over and replaced with buzzwords and fads.

Eat organic food because Nature provides the right balance of nutrients! No it doesn't. Nature provides the fly agaric mushroom, the puffer fish, belladonna, arsenic, cyanide and other poisons without number. Nature doesn't give a damn about you or your nutritional requirements. Nature would as soon you were eaten by a bear as have you consume organic fair-trade wholewheat pasta. There are a wide range of perfectly good reasons for eating organic food, like reducing the level of pesticides in our environment, or improving the safety of farm workers, or limiting the quantity of synthetic hormones we're exposed to. Random anthropomorphism of an abstract concept is not a good reason.

Don't eat chemicals, chemicals are bad! Everything's a chemical, get over it. And the fact that it may be synthesised by humans doesn't necessarily make it any better or worse than something naturally occurring. (See arsenic, cyanide etc above) There are plenty of man-made additions to my food that I am more than happy to accept. I quite like using self-raising flour, with added bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartare. I find salt a pretty good additive, and it's not all going to be sea salt. How about vinegar? Where are you going to draw the line between man-made chemicals against naturally occurring? How industrial does the process need to be? Is it OK to ferment my grape juice?

Don't eat anything you can't pronounce! This one really bugs me, as a trite way of trying to condense down some complex ideas about synthetic additives and healthy eating. It bugs me because I happen to be quite capable of pronouncing Pyridoxal 5'-phosphate without batting an eyelid, but am still a little uncertain on the Guardian-approved pronunciation of quinoa. (That first one is vitamin B6 by the way). It bugs me because, as in the vitamin B6 example, there are some really, really good things to have in your diet that just happen to have quite complex names. Even I might stumble a little halfway through (2S)-2-[[4-[(2-amino-4-oxo-1H-pteridin-6-yl) methylamino] benzoyl] amino] pentanedioic acid, but I was more than happy to ingest folic acid supplements throughout my pregnancy.

So, how about this for an idea? How about we start talking like grown-ups? How about we demand higher standards from the media in terms of using real, scientifically-literate language? How about we attempt to wrap our tiny little minds around the possibilities of complexity and nuance and subtlety? How about we consider the possibility of moderation and compromise instead of black and white? Let's stop declaring that because some man-made additives are pretty awful and some merely of dubious nutritional value, it therefore follows that everything mankind has ever synthesised chemically is tantamount to being the work of the devil. And while we're at it, we could even acknowledge that Nature is a pretty dab hand at making really, really, really nasty poisons, so let's not paint her as the heroine of the piece either. Go on, have a go, just for me.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

More things I should let go of

I've recently had an invitation to attend the Women's Rugby Union Varsity Match, to be played at Twickenham. Which is nice.

I should probably provide one or two bits of background here, both on my connection to the event, and on the arcane terminology of Oxford and Cambridge.

The first bit's easy. I played rugby for Cambridge University when I was a student. For the women's team that is.

The next bit is more complicated, if you didn't happen to attend Oxford or Cambridge, in which case you can skip the next paragraph. Go on, nothing to see here.

Oxford and Cambridge both have a system of awarding a "blue" in competitive sports. This honour comes in the form of a "full blue", a "half blue" or "colours". It's very prestigious to receive one, and there are some complex rules relating to them. Only sports in which the university is deemed to be competing at the highest (national) level, with support and participation also occurring across the whole university are deemed worthy of a full blue. If the sport doesn't have such wide representation, or the standard is lower (county level rather than national level) then a half-blue is awarded. If it's really not that great, then you receive "colours". If you play in the second team of a full-blue sport, then you are often eligible for a half-blue, and in the second team of a half-blue sport, then you may receive your colours. With me so far? There's a big "but" though - you only get any of these awards if you compete in the Varsity Match for your sport. And in the case of Oxford and Cambridge, the Varsity Match is the one held between (you've guessed it) Oxford and Cambridge.

While I was at Cambridge, women's rugby was a half-blue sport. That was a fair status I think, as we weren't anywhere near the best university side in the country, and had a complete and utter lack of support from the well-funded, well-provisioned men's club. They wouldn't even let us play on their pitch. Seriously. We were allowed to practice on their training pitch, but I don't think I ever even set foot on their hallowed turf. We had to play all our matches on Sundays as no college would let women use their pitch on a Saturday. We did however have pretty widespread participation across the university, with a Sevens league and a two-day, fast and furious, Sevens tournament between most of the colleges. Some colleges even mustered two teams.

Conversely, while women's rugby at Cambridge was a half-blue sport, at Oxford it was a full-blue sport. To be fair, they did beat us every time we faced them, but it still felt a little unfair. (Note: I will return to this asymmetry later. With venom.)

So, aside from being rather irritated at the way the men's game treated us like second-class citizens, I had one or two other issues with playing a University-level sport. They're not dissimilar to the things I've complained about regarding school sports. We were coached by a man called Ashpit. I have no idea what relation this moniker had to his actual name. Perhaps it was his surname? I never knew. What I did know, almost as soon as I started to play, was that he had favourites. There was a clique who were almost guaranteed a place in the team. They were 'mates' with Ashpit. The kind of 'mates' who laughed and joked and jostled together, and then went silent when someone from the outside came near. And that was the rest of us in the club. (Ashpit did also have some sidekicks, but I can't actually remember their names, they made so little impression on me.)

As I've mentioned before, I'm "quite good" at sport. Not brilliant, not terrible, but definitely above average. I'm quite quick, quite good at catching and quite good at throwing. And by being "quite good" I ended up in the 1st XV squad. I trained with the 1st XV, I was selected for the residential training camp with the 1st XV, and I went to an awful lot of 1st XV matches. And stood on the sidelines in the freezing cold, losing sensation in my feet and never being substituted on. Apparently I lacked match experience. Who'd have thought it? Some of the time I wasn't selected for the match-day squad, and instead played for the 2nd XV, which was considerably more fun, with a better team spirit and greater sense of inclusiveness. But none of the coaching staff ever came to the 2nd XV matches. That's right, they never came to watch us play. So they never saw our strengths or weaknesses. They never found out where we needed more coaching, they never gave any effort to developing the 2nd XV. It was all about the 1st XV. And that meant that, almost without fail every week, a select few were given the chance to play and the rest of us worked and trained and strove and were ignored.

Here's what we used to do:
- Monday - rest day
- Tuesday night - 2 hours general training
- Wednesday lunchtime - 1 hour weight training
- Thursday night - 2 hours general training
- Friday lunchtime - 1 hour fitness training
- Saturday morning - 1 hour pre-match run-throughs and tactics
- Sunday - match day

We gave our time six days a week, we bought our own kit, we paid our subscriptions and travel costs. And just as an example of how much time or care went into "the rest of us" - I was selected to play at fullback, and never given any training or tips on kicking the damn ball. No spot kicking, no drop kicking, no kicking from the hand, nothing. I asked for some help once. I was told I was welcome to stay at the pitch at the end of training and practice on my own. Wow. That's a commitment to developing your players isn't it? But then, there was already a really good fullback, so why bother with me? I actually wish Ashpit, whoever the hell he was, could read this, and know how much goodwill, willingness and enthusiasm he trampled on. Know how many people, like me, might have carried on playing beyond university if it weren't for being so demoralised by the experience. Know how much I loved playing, actually playing, in rugby matches, and how much of a waste of effort and work and passion it is to put someone on the bench and leave them there.

So, back to the Varsity Match...

Having been on the 1st XV squad on and off for most of the year, when the squad for the Varsity Match was posted, I was gutted to find I was not on it. No hope of a half-blue for me. No chance of playing in the defining match of the year. (Though, let's be honest, I'd have stood on the sidelines getting cold, so I'd just have missed a half-blue in a different way). Take a deep breath and mentally prepare for the 2nd XV match. The 2nd XV squad were my compatriots. Friendly, motivated, welcoming. Unlike the 1st XV, I felt part of the 2nd XV when I played, and I knew we could go out there and give it our all.

And then... the day before the match... Oxford pulled out. They confessed that they didn't actually have a 2nd XV. A full-blue sport in Oxford and they couldn't even muster a 2nd XV? And they strung us along all bloody year, arranged the fixture and only then, at the eleventh hour, did they have the guts to admit they didn't have a team. We were beyond angry. Disappointed didn't come close to describing it. We had had the match of the year snatched from us, by the age old enemy, and one who had the gall to award a full-blue against our half-blue when they didn't even have enough players to muster two teams from a whole university. And there went my chance of being awarded my university colours.

En masse, the 2nd XV refused to go to Oxford on the day of the match. We weren't even prepared to go to support the 1st XV. We had been let down, betrayed, and given no support or sympathy from the Chosen Few from our own club, or from our so-called coaching team (you remember them, they're the ones who never came to watch us play).

It's coming up for twenty years now, so it's probably about time I stopped feeling so aggrieved with Ashpit and his helpers; stopped resenting the favoured few who were always on the pitch; stopped being angry with Oxford for letting us down. The fact that the women are not only allowed to play on the men's pitch now, but have been invited to play at Twickenham, the home of rugby, suggests that perhaps at least the attitude to women's rugby has moved on. Maybe I'll go and watch this year. To make up for not watching my club-mates in 1996. Maybe.

I shall end with a snippet from the 2nd XV team song, and the recollection of singing it while marching arm in arm down the road with Piglet and Tigger* to acquire more wine, having tragically run out in our own rooms ...
We never climbed the highest mountain
We never crossed the deepest stream
We are a bunch of drunken animals

* It was Tigger who suggested I join her in playing rugby. So I have her to thank for the highs and the lows of university sport. Despite the above grumble, I remain glad that I played, so I think Tigger deserves some thanks. Thank you Tigger!

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sewing with dinosaurs

Since I'm baring my soul and its deficiencies before you, I feel I have occasionally earned the right to some showing off. So today's post is going to be on the theme of ways in which I waste my time for the entertainment and edification of LittleBear. The astute amongst you, or even those who simply managed to read a few posts without nodding off, will have spotted he has a bit of a thing for dinosaurs. It was only today that he informed me that he doesn't have gastroliths, "not like dinosaurs like brachiosaurus and stegosaurus for instance".

One day, whilst dragging LittleBear around the sewing department of John Lewis (I can't now remember why) we found a sewing kit for making a felt dinosaur. It said aged 3 and upwards, and it was a dinosaur, so we bought it. It was wholly inappropriate and far too advanced for my particular 3 year old (and really, does anyone know a 3 year old who can do blanket stitch?) So I made it.

Dinosaur number one, named "Iggy"

 And, having made it, I vowed never to spend money on a kit again. This was a walk in the park! Two simple outlines, sewn together with no fiddly hemming, some extra bits tacked on the outside and glue-on eyes. I can do this, I thought.

My next effort revealed some of the weaknesses of this plan...

First in-house design, supposedly a stegosaurus

I hadn't really appreciated the need to seriously exaggerate the features to take account of the loss of volume with blanket stitching and the effect of stuffing. So my stegosaurus has a particularly small head and plates, even for a small-headed tiny-brained creature.

After that, however, I think I hit my stride with my therapods:

This one is known as Button T. rex. I think you can see why

LittleBear wanted a big black T. rex, so a big black T. rex he got

In fact, the big black T. rex is made of fleece, which is even more fun to sew with, possessing the same property of not needing hemming. Hooray! He now, however, is variously known as Multi-rex (geddit?) or Jelly-o-saurus. I haven't fathomed why, but that's just the way it is. And yes, in case you were wondering, I do find it hard to keep up with the ever-changing names of LittleBear's dinosaurs, and am frequently subjected to sighs and rolled eyes as Idiot Mother gets it wrong again.

Emboldened by my success, I branched out and tried to design 3D creatures that weren't simply two pieces of identical fabric sewn together. I'm particularly proud of these two...



I took a break from dinosaur making for a few months. Given that (at the last count) LittleBear was the owner of 72 dinosaurs, I think that was a reasonable decision. (In case you're reading Janet, yes, it was only 67 when you saw LittleBear, and yes, that was only a week ago, but the household has acquired another 5 dinosaurs since then...)

And then one day, LittleBear asked for a toy snake. Rather than forking out real money on even more plastic tat, I thought I could probably make a fabric tube with a mouth, so I had a go. This time with "real" material, that required real seams. Curses. At least I have a sewing machine for making a 1 metre long snake...

Apparently this is not just a snake, this is a Titanoboa

And then finally, this weekend, the crowning glory in LittleBear's collection, that allows his twin passions of dinosaurs and vicious marine predators to coincide. Liopleurodon.


Now that I have assembled this catalogue, I realise that there are no big sauropods in it. And I have my heart set on making an ichthyosaur too, so it's clear that my work here is not yet done...

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Panic Room

For reasons that have nothing to do with marital disharmony, and everything to do with dysfunctional sleep habits (of BigBear's), low-level illness (of BigBear) and an impending half-marathon (for BigBear) I slept in the spare bedroom last night. Usually when there's a separation of sleeping habitats, it's BigBear who banishes himself, but since he's the one putting himself through a half marathon, and he's the one who's a bit peaky, and the spare bed is considerably less comfortable than our own bed, I nobly volunteered on this occasion. The funny thing is, it used to be our room, and our bed, until we rearranged the house, walls and all, and decided to move room. So it's utterly familiar and known. But the last few occasions I've slept there have all got terrible memories associated with them.

Back when LittleBear was BabyBear, and doing that baby-thing of wanting feeding at intolerable hours of the night, BigBear regularly slept in the spare room. I figured one of us might as well be vaguely human the next day, and since I was going to have to wake up to feed the mewling, puking infant, it wasn't going to be me. But there were nights I crept in to join BigBear, for reassurance, for another human presence, to make sure I wasn't going mad, for comfort. So basically, when I was feeling at my utter worst and unable to even lie in bed alone without weeping desperately to myself.

And the utter, hands-down, indisputable worst point was when LittleBear was about one and we were tired of him not going to sleep without me sitting beside him with my hand on his body and thought we'd try "Crying It Out". Now, I'm not here to start a debate on the pros and cons of controlled crying, and whether it did or didn't work for you, your sister, your dog-sitter's best friend's aunt or the woman you met in the dentist's waiting room. All I can say is that leaving my son to cry is not something I'm cut out for. We tried it for three evenings, and it bloody nearly broke me. I'd recently come off anti-depressants having emerged from the far side of post-natal depression. After letting my precious, vulnerable, loving little boy cry for three evenings I ended up back on anti-depressants for another year.

And even now three years later I still torture myself with wondering how much lasting damage I did to him. How much his fears and insecurities are because I abandoned him. How much he needs me now, and clings to me now because he remembers the time I left him to cry. I don't even wonder if I've hurt him. I only wonder how much. It hurts me. It hurts me every time I think about it. It hurts me every time I read about controlled crying. It hurts me deeply, viscerally and fundamentally. I have not forgiven myself for not going to him the moment he cried, not enfolding him in my arms and whispering into his soft hair that I love him and always will. Why did I ever think that I could train him not to want me, not to need me, not to expect my unwavering love? Maybe other mothers can do this. Maybe other children accept it. I can't. He didn't.

The first night, BabyBear woke in the night, and we, in our sleep-deprived, desperate state, thought that we should continue the controlled crying. I checked that he was OK, and tucked him back in, following all the "rules", but he didn't go back to sleep. Every time we thought he had, there'd suddenly be a piteous wail again. And I clung to BigBear, in the spare bed, crying myself until finally I couldn't take it any more and I went and retrieved my baby, took him into our bed with me and cuddled him all night. And we both slept.

The three-night experiment collapsed with my nerves, heart and mind and instead I reverted to sitting with my baby as he went to sleep, further and further from the edge of his cot each night, then in the doorway, then outside the door, with just an occasional word of reassurance. It seemed to take a long time, but now it seems a lifetime ago, and just a brief phase in our lives with our LittleBear.

Back to last night...

As I lay in that bed, the associations were too strong, and I was immediately transported back to that night when I left my baby to cry. I could almost hear his wailing. I could feel my heart clenching as I desperately wanted to go to him. The fact that I did go to him didn't change the hurt. Tears welled up in my own eyes again and I couldn't force my mind to escape from reliving not just that night but every mistake I have ever made with me son, every angry word I've regretted, every raised voice that he didn't deserve, every vision of a tear-stained reproachful face. I nearly crept into LittleBear's room as midnight approached, just to hold him and whisper to him that I love him. I nearly crept back into our own bed, to find a warm pair of arms and a sleepy voice to tell me that I haven't failed, that I am not a bad mother, that LittleBear will be OK. But then I remembered that the whole point of me being in that room was to let BigBear sleep, to let his mind and body recover enough that he could punish them again, for fun. So I stayed on my own, sleepless and overcome with all the worst memories from the last four years. I don't think I like that bedroom any more.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Selective anosmia

*** Delicate stomach warning!***
*** DO NOT read this post if you don't like thinking about poo! ***

We all occasionally have selective hearing ("Have you tidied your room yet?"), and I'm fairly certain small children have selective vision ("Mummy! I can't find my Ceratosaurus" bellowed while standing approximately half an arm's length from said bright green monster). I have something new and impressive. I have selective smelling. I can smell a wide and interesting variety of things - food, flowers, wine, sweat, blood, the glorious scent of rain on parched earth, the curious aroma that a perfectly clean vacuum system has. I cannot however any longer smell human excrement. Cowpats? Yep, still catch those. Dog dirt? Bingo. Anything emerging from the back passage of one of my fellow human beings? Nada. LittleBear produces a wide variety of loud and wildly amusing farts, most of which have BigBear leaning back in disgust and reaching for the handle of the window. I, however, can be within inches of his posterior and experience nothing but an entertaining noise. And it's not just LittleBear's output either. I seem largely immune to all human faecal matter (immune in a scenting sense, not in my general levels of revulsion, they remain unaffected).

You might think that this is actually a pretty cool adaptation, and in many ways you'd be right, especially given the continuing necessity to be in charge of bottom-wiping for LittleBear. It's not so great on the occasions when I am left in charge of a small person still using nappies. Because I have no idea when the nappy has been filled. And this is really, really, really not a good thing. Back when LittleBear was Littler and I still had a functioning nose, I (along with every other parent) used the reliable "sniff down the back of the trousers" technique to assess whether a nappy-change was in order. Used judiciously you can judge the distance to insert the nose just right to assess the danger levels and react accordingly. If you can't smell, the only option is a visual inspection. Nobody wants that.

I'd just like us all to pause for a moment and consider the kind of assault my sense of smell must have been subject to that has forced it to forever block that smell from registering in my mind. The overwhelming olfactory apocalypse that was my son's nappies that has caused the pathways connecting that smell to my brain to wave a little white flag and refuse to participate in any further combat.

I never thought I'd write this... but... I wish I could smell farts again...

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Children's parties: the nightmare

Children's parties have the capacity to strike terror into even the most hardened of parents. Even the ones who can take soft play centres without buckling; the ones who can handle three children in a supermarket without resorting to sweet-based bribery; the ones who do not blanche when confronted by a toy-shop with their child in tow.

Children's parties are capable of having all the charm of a minor war-zone, being fought by feral kangaroos on smack. Bouncing, sugar-fuelled, deranged dictators rushing madly hither and yon until they collapse into a sobbing, screaming heap when the sugar wears off. You'd think that would be what I can't stand wouldn't you?

Actually, what I really can't handle is seeing how hard it all is for my poor LittleBear. Despite my desperate desire that LittleBear would grow up imbued with all the confidence and security that his parents lack, it turns out that I don't have the ability to make that happen. On my good days I shrug ruefully in the knowledge that a child's personality is not yours to mould - LittleBear is who he is, and if that person happens to be shy and unsure of himself, then all I can do is try to give him the tools to overcome that. On my bad days, I castigate myself for failing him so badly that he cannot handle social interaction. Where have I gone wrong? How have I managed to have a nearly-four year old who is so withdrawn and scared when confronted by other children?
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
                                                  - Phillip Larkin

We went to a party last weekend. The little boy in question turned four, and we have known him and played with him since he was a babe in arms. Similarly at least half the other small people there. We arrived, and immediately LittleBear retreated into a corner of the rented hall, clutching me and begging me to stay with him. The bouncy castles held no allure. The ride-on cars no appeal. I watched other small children arrive, shed their shoes and run headlong into playing without a backward glance. No need for reassurance, no need for parental support, no need for company. The mothers (and it was largely mothers) were then at liberty to settle down round the periphery, cup of coffee in hand, catching up with each other, guarding the door to prevent escapes and mediating the occasional contretemps. Meanwhile, back in our corner, I snuggled up with my LittleBear, provided a reassuring biscuit (food always makes any environment more comfortable) and eventually persuaded him that the bouncy toys might be quite fun.

LittleBear conceded that he would play. But only with me. He has a highly tuned proximity detector, set to a distance of about 6 feet, and would bounce and run, and jump and play and laugh and roll and fall.... but only as long as I was within his safe zone. And after every exciting undertaking he bounced straight back into my lap and out again, on a piece of imaginary but unbreakable elastic. Every jump and he glanced to me to make sure I was watching, every slide and he grinned at me for approval. Any other child that penetrated his safe zone, no matter how friendly, or how well-known, automatically triggered his tortoise-response. His shoulders climbed upwards and inwards towards his ears, his chin tipped down to his chest, his head tilted to one side and he peered up at me through his beautiful long eye-lashes, silently pleading with me to make these other, noisy, bouncy creatures go away. He stood rooted to the spot until no other child was near him.

I don't know how to bolster his confidence.

I am not the kind of mother who brusquely says "no, I'm not playing with you" and leaves him to it. He wouldn't play. I don't believe in "toughening him up" like that.

I'm not the kind of mother who says "let's go and play away from those nasty, noisy children". They're not nasty, they may be noisy, but they're just a group of normal, excited children who would play with him at the drop of a hat. I don't believe in reinforcing his fear of others.

I'm the kind of mother who gives a reassuring smile, a quick cuddle and says "it's OK lovely boy, they're just playing, you can join in too. I'll be right here if you need me". But it doesn't work. He doesn't join in. He doesn't play with the others. He does need me. I believe in positive encouragement, without abandonment. It's a shame that what I believe seems to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

I love the fact that I am his rock and comfort. I am glad he trusts me so completely. I love playing with my boy. But I desperately wish that he had whatever inner reserves he needs that would allow him to join in the riotous, tumbling, jumbling play with the others. I never did. BigBear never did. And maybe that's it. Maybe it's just nature. Maybe we can't help the way he is, any more than we can change the colour of his eyes. Or maybe we cannot escape transferring our own fears and insecurities through our manner of nurturing and every step of the way we are acting to create a small, scared boy who wants his Mummy more than he wants any other playmate. Either way, it's me. It's my nature, it's my nurture. My poor baby.

And so I spend another party sitting in a bouncy castle, being jumped on by my LittleBear, who is happy in his moment, who is filled with joy and love and excitement. But I cannot move away. I cannot talk to the other mothers. I cannot have a cup of coffee. I cannot leave my son or his joy evaporates and his world collapses.

My precious, timid boy cannot join in, so nor can I.

Or perhaps because I cannot join in I have raised a precious, timid boy who cannot join in.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Palaeontology 101

I'm not saying that LittleBear and I have read a lot of books on dinosaurs or the oceans, but today he enacted a saw shark explaining to a parrot fish what happened 65 million years ago...

"Don't worry, there aren't any dinosaurs now, they all died out in the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. The volcanoes exploded and made an ash cloud that filled the atmosphere, and a big fire ball went round the whole world, and the ash blocked out the sun so the plants couldn't do photosynthesis and the trees and bushes died. And so the herbivores didn't have anything to eat, because there were no plants.  And the carnivores didn't have anything to eat when the herbivores died out. And a really, really big meteorite hit the earth as well and it put lots of dust into the air, that blocked out the sun as well. And the meteorites hit the dinosaurs on the heads and bodies and killed them, and some of the dinosaurs fell into cracks in the ground."

(The bits about being hit by pieces of meteorite and falling into cracks in the ground are definitely interpreted from the rather lurid illustrations that seem to go with descriptions of the kt extinction in children's books)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Me and the Rugby World Cup (Part II)

This post is dedicated to my treacherous school friend, who despite being born in Essex, raised and educated in Surrey and living in Wiltshire, uses her 3 years at university in Cardiff as reason not only to support Wales, but also to support that unspeakable notion Anyone But England*. You know who you are...

Being a scientist, I am (obviously) completely rational and reasonable in my rugby-supporting allegiances. I have a metric for it, which I feel obliged to share with you:


Always England, no matter who they're playing, no matter if I loathe the individual players, they are my national team. And I will go completely stark staring bonkers and yell at the screen when watching them balls things up, as they do with monotonous regularity.

North v South

I will always support a Northern hemisphere side over one from the South. That's my half of the globe.

Six Nations

I will always support a Six Nations side against anyone else. They're my posse.

Home Nations

The home nations come above France and Italy, since we're all kind-of, ish, just about hanging on to being one country. Or at least one vague political entity. For now.

Within the Home Nations, there's a hierarchy: England (naturally), Scotland (I have Scottish ancestry, and they seem to lose a lot, so I feel sorry for them).... and then... well... it used to be Wales, but thanks to aforementioned friend, I shall have to relegate them to below Ireland. I'm even considering putting them below France and Italy. See what you've done? You've demoted your team from third to fourth favourite in my list. You've even risked banishing them entirely from my concept of "home" nation. I'm sure the Welsh will be gutted to know it.

The Underdog

In any match that features two teams who are not in one of my support-able categories, then I support the underdog. So in Namibia v Argentina, it's Namibia all the way. Samoa against the All Blacks? Samoa for the win. The keen rugby fan will have spotted that this does leave me with a bit of a problem when it comes to our antipodean friends, where neither can exactly be described as underdogs. It's hard to want both teams in a match to lose. But that's usually what I want in any confrontation between Wallabies and All Blacks.

South Africa

It's at this point I must confess to South African ancestry, namely my father being South African. Having been born and raised in England, I don't have a burning allegiance to my half-country, but just enough to support them when no other category is fulfilled. Which more or less translates to being happy if they beat Australia or New Zealand. Any other country is either an underdog or a Northern hemisphere team. Sorry Springboks - you didn't grab my heart and loyalty early enough in life. The fact that you weren't allowed to play rugby on the international stage during my formative years probably has something to do with that.

* I am intrigued by the self-loathing my country must possess for this to be a recognisable stereotype. It appears widely across the rest of the Union, for more or less justifiable reasons. It doesn't take a great scholar of twentieth century history to see why the Irish just might not be big fans of the English. Nor does it take a genius to spot that there's a certain amount of Nationalist feeling in Scotland that seems equally rooted in anti-English sentiment as it is in pro-Scottish. Personally I don't think we've abused the Welsh quite as much as we have the Irish and the Scottish, or not historically anyway. Thatcher and her assault on the mining industry did a pretty good job more recently though. It mystifies me what possesses an English person to associate themselves more strongly with the nation of a great-grandparent, or a spouse or a friend than with their own. Has our own sense of nationhood been so abased that it's easier to take pleasure in denigrating ourselves, jeering at our national teams and exulting in our failures than in standing tall and cheering for the men in white, no matter what performance they turn in?