Monday, 28 September 2009

Songs of praise

A new book called Nurtureshock is causing a storm across the Pond by suggesting that our modern, softly, softly, parenting tactics are fundamentally flawed and breeding generations of lazy, spoilt brats. Not having read the book I can't really comment, but reading the reviews I think they have a point or two to make.

It turns out that telling our little darlings that everything they do from a indecipherable scrawl of a drawing to a bashing out a few notes on the piano is 'absolutely brilliant' is doing them no good at all. The aim of such indiscriminate praise is to build self esteem, but high self esteem has no benefits (other than to make a child insufferably arrogant), according to the studies published in this book.

The second string to their theory is one that I have talked about on this blog before, the death of competition in schools in order to make all children feel equal. This is also a non-starter, as it just sails over the heads of the children who are all well aware of who is fastest, cleverest, prettiest and most popular, just as we all were in the harsh days of winners and losers that prevailed when we were educated.

I do think the book has got a point. A little constructive criticism goes a long way, and when I tried out this theory on my son this weekend it worked a treat. He was writing up his homework, letters appearing of every shape and size, and normally I would simply have praised him to the rooftops despite the fact that his 'b' was Lilliputian while his 'r' was gargantuan. This time as well as telling how well he was doing I pointed out that the letters were meant to be the same size and line up. He listened, tried harder and learnt something. A point to the authors of Nurtureshock.

However, before I relegate praising my children to the dustbin of child rearing theories, I would like to question the idea that high self esteem has no value. It may not, as the authors assert, have no impact on their marks or behaviour, but I can tell you from my own experience it makes you feel a lot better about yourself.

My mother was brought up by two clever parents who never saw fit to heap praise upon her for her achievements, now perhaps she is a case in point to prove the theories of Nutureshock, as she remained staunchly convinced of her own abilities. However, it having done her no harm she treated her own child, me, to exactly the same methods with a markedly different outcome.

I don't remember my mother ever fawning over my offerings from school. When I spent weeks making her a top in my sewing class she fell about laughing at the mangled fabric when I handed it over to her. Yes, her reaction was a fair and accurate reflection of the quality of the garment - it was appalling, I am no seamstress, but I was devastated. She was utterly unimpressed by the time and effort I had devoted to making the bloody thing, just because the end result was so rubbish.

The same goes for those daubed paintings I dragged home, they were never pinned on the walls with pride, again she just smiled and sadly patted me on the head saying that, just like her, I couldn't draw. Again true, I am no artist either, but again the truth hurt coming from my mum.

Even the things I am good at don't always hit the spot. I wrote an article once. My husband read it and it moved him to tears, he declared it brilliant as did the editor of the national newspaper in which it appeared. My mother read it and said it was 'Fine'. I suppose I should have recognised this for the high praise that it was, instead once again I was cut to the quick by her subdued reaction.

When I speak to my mother about this, she says I should know her by now, it's just her way, and I do try to take what she says as she means it, rather than how it can sound. From her an 'Alright' or 'Fine', is like someone else jumping for joy and spinning cartwheels of delight, but I think that inside me there will forever be a little child seeking that misplaced maternal pride that would, according to Nurtureshock, have done me so much harm.

Of course my mum does tell me she is proud of me, and as a grown up I know that her manner may not always imply it, but she does think highly of me when it comes to my talents. But as a child I desperately wanted her to think everything I did was wonderful, and because this was not her way I have been left with a sharp awareness of my shortcomings and any pride in my talents has been hard won.

I am sure some of this arises from my own personality. I have enough children to know we are all born with our own character traits no matter how we are brought up, but I do not believe that praising your children won't make them happier in the long run, and won't equip them with the confidence to enjoy life even if they aren't the best at everything.

If you can blast out a song on the karaoke stage, who cares if you sound like a cat being strangled if you are having fun? If you can splash a bit of paint on a canvas and feel a sense of achievement it doesn't have to be good enough to hang in the Tate. What is the benefit of making our children aware of their shortcomings? No amount of constructive criticism could have made me a better singer or artist, but without it I might have been able to get some enjoyment out of these activities instead of just feeling self conscious.

As with all things there has to be a happy medium. It's no good praising your tone deaf child to the rooftops only to see her humiliated on the X Factor as Simon Cowell snarls 'Who was it that told you you could sing?', to which she reples 'My mum', but equally if you make your child feel that they could always do better then you will strip away their self confidence and leave them handicapped in a world where brass neck and faith in your own abilities will get you a long way.

So while I intend to take a little of what the book says on board, and try to encourage effort and striving in favour of just saying everything my kids do is wonderful, in general I do think most of what they do is pretty fantastic and I am not afraid to tell them so. So I am sorry boys, if Nurtureshock is right, then I am going to carry on being a bad mother.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Many happy returns

Today I am 38. Not a big birthday, not a notable age, just edging nearer to 40, but not close enough for it to look really scary yet. But what struck me was how birthdays can so often slip away without you even noticing, yet some seem to summon birthday wishes and treats from such scattered sources that they coalesce to make the day into something truly special.

This year I went out drinking and dancing with my mummy friends, the latest addition to the roster of friends I have racked up so far. The mums who kept my spirits up while I was huge with the twins, who visited me to drink cups of tea and cheer me in those first few miserable weeks of being a new mum to multiples. The mums who pick up my children from school when I am stuck in the rain, who give me a break by arranging a play date, who chat to me as I walk up the hill to school, who babysit for me when I am desperate to leave the house. The mums who keep me sane and let me know I am not alone in the struggle to bring up small children.

Then my darling mum and dad came up to visit. My mum had baked a cake, coffee and walnut, my favourite and what she has cooked for me every year of my life as far back as I can remember. Wobbly red icing wished me a Happy Birthday and wonky candles were swiftly blown out for me by my boys. My dad had designed a card that meant so much to me, far more than anything Hallmark could say. We ate, we drank and despite my advancing years I felt like a special little girl again.

Today, the big day, my boys sang Happy Birthday to me while I lay under my duvet like a decadent queen. My husband brought me breakfast in bed and thoughful presents. A gorgeous bunch of flowers arrived from one of my dearest, oldest friends who I haven't seen since I got married thanks to her rock chick lifestyle out in Nashville. A card full of news arrived from my friend from university, the one who dragged me out of the door to lectures and is probably the reason I actually managed to get a degree, the one who I spent drunken nights declaring was my best friend forever, but perhaps there was a grain of truth in it too. My oldest friend in the world wished me a happy Facebook birthday and despite my being the worst person in the world for keeping in touch still wants be a part of my life decades after we shared secrets as school children.

I was taken out to tea in London, the boys scoffed jewel bright dainty cakes in an elegant hotel lounge and actually behaved quite well. We walked through smart streets back to the car amusing ourselves by trying to spot magical entrances to Harry Potter's Diagon Alley and dreaming up ways to discover the mysteries and secrets hidden behind the smart facades of the wedding cake-pretty houses we walked past.

It's easy to feel drab and isolated as a mum of four small boys. To feel as if you live to serve, but I am grateful to everyone who made my birthday such a happy one by making me realise that there is a lot more to me, past and present, than washing bottles and folding babygros.

Monday, 21 September 2009


The other day my husband, exasperated at my moaning, wailed 'You just don't understand the demands on my time'. I burst into manical cackles, because although I quite accept there are many things in this world I don't understand (quantum physics, the appeal of Danni Minogue and people who forget to eat to name but three) time management is not one of them. He was after all speaking to a woman who manages work, four children, three child carers, two schools and the remnants of a social life.

Today is a case in point. I am working on a tight deadline for a big project, but during my working hours I have had to have a meeting with son number two's teacher as he is having problems with his erstwhile best friend that lead him to wake up at ungodly hours in the morning and wail at the mere mention of school. Then I had to sit through son number one's piano lesson with him as otherwise, instead of learning how to pound out that middle C, he just sits on the stool and sobs for me.

My final task was to witness the pantomime of the lost garage key (our sole means of access to said repository of junk), which had been carefully placed in a very sensible place by son number two, but one which he couldn't quite recall. After much screaming at him to remember what he had done with the precious key, to which he looked at me blankly and said he couldn't remember (men!), my mum (one of my three flavours of childcare) found it in the pushchair, which meant he thundered back up to my study to celebrate his vindication.

I won't even mention the screaming baby with a severe case of nappy rash due to the inordinate number of poos he seems to feel the need to do or the chaotic state of the house that calls to me to tidy it up every time I exit my office, or the million and one other chores from making an appointment with the doctor to sorting out my flaking cuticles that forever get pushed to the bottom of my to do list. Or all the things I need to organise ahead of the big boys birthday party, or the fact that I haven't seen or spoken to any of my friends for weeks because I have not a second to sort out a suitable time and date.

Still as husband would quite rightly point out, if I am quite so near to the end of my frazzled tether perhaps I shouldn't be spending my time blogging about it...

Sunday, 20 September 2009

MAD world

In the FDMTG household we are suffering from a severe case of Mummy Attention Deficit (MAD). It's a little like the altogether more serious ADD, but in this case the attention deficit is from mummy, not child, hence the acronym. If you are worried this might affect your own offspring I have compiled a list of symptoms:

You may find that every time you are not in the same room as your child, plaintive cries of 'Mummy, where are you', start to ring around the house within moments of your disappearance.

If you sit down with your children you will find they crawl onto your lap and refuse to get off unless bribed with copious amounts of chocolate.

If you have help to assist you in looking after your children then you will note that every time a child related chore arises, for example fetching cold drinks, making tea, taking shoes off, supervising piano lessons only you will be allowed to complete it. No matter how hard your nanny/grandma/daddy tries to intervene only mummy will do. Any substitute will be met by bloodcurdling screams and physical resistance.

Should you attempt to shut yourself into your office to make a phone call/do some work/write your blog, you will instantly be interrupted by small people demanding to sit on your lap and 'stay widge you', one of my mini MAD sufferers told me, when asked how long he intended to remain stuck by my side as I attempted to meet a deadline, that he was staying put 'until you are skellington mummy.'

Any attempt to leave the house alone will be nipped in the bud, so no matter how boring your errand you will find your small MAD afflicted children demanding to accompany you. No quick pop to the shops or indulgent pamper at the nail bar, every trip to the outside world must be supervised.

To be fair to my poor, ailing boys I have brought all this trouble on myself by returning to work, albeit part time and from home, which has meant I am no longer at their beck and call all day, every day.

Though I note with interest on strange feature of this disease. If I am upstairs in my office, attempting to appear professional it seems to result in a real upsurge in symptoms, however should I be occupied in the kitchen making their tea or folding their clothes, strangely it goes into instant remission and they can suddenly cope without me for a moment or two. It seems housework is allowed, but work, work is not. A most curious facet to this little know complaint.

The only known cure for MAD is to replace the deficient mother with some kind of reliable entertainment device. I find that I can clear up all the symptoms of this troubling malaise by giving in to the constant demands for computer play or DVD watching. A few seconds in front of their chosen screens and all thoughts of mummy are forgotten in a haze of colourful pixels.

I wonder should I contact the Lancet with my findings?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Jealous guy

I was reading one of those baby development websites. You know the ones designed to make you feel that your baby is destined for life in the remedial set as he has failed to master any of the arts he has the potential to achieve. I laughed out loud as I read that the babies should now be sitting unaided, drinking from cups and whizzing through advanced calculus by now.

Fortunately my first son taught me to take no notice of anything printed on these baby websites. I remember agonising as friend's babies sat up, crawled and walked, while my boy remained steadfastly motionless. At his first birthday party all the other babies where crawling around like crazed beetles, while he sat like a Buddha, fatly serene in the centre of all the action. He didn't crawl until he was 14 months, by which time his contemporaries were up and running around the park, and it took another four months before he took his first step.

We always say that he was thinking about it all too much to actually do it, as once he did walk he didn't have the usual clumsy toddler gait, falling over all the time and wobbling unsteadily about ready to topple at the first obstacle. Not for him the ungainly process of learning to walk, instead he thought it all out and by the time he got up and took his first step he had it nailed and never really looked back.

Now he is as elegant and swift as a gazelle and one of the fastest, most agile boys I have ever met, so it just goes to show that what they do now, bears no relation to what they will achieve later, so yah boo sucks to Babycentre et al.

I seem to have strayed somewhat from my original point though, which was the one point of developmental information that did seem to ring true for the twins. It said that at this age babies suddenly realise that they are individuals in their own right, rather than just an extension of their mummy, or in the twins case of each other.

I was interested to read this as twin two has just started to show the first signs of jealousy around his brother. The other day twin one was crying in his bouncy chair, twin two was playing happily with his feet, absorbed in his favourite game of sock removal. I picked up his crying brother and gave him a cuddle to soothe him, not reaction from twin two who was now contentedly chewing on the removed sock.

Then twin two looks up, his blue eyes cloud as he notices that there are cuddles going on and he is not included. They darken from a bright, slate grey, to a stormy indigo, his mouth opens in a red maw of disapproval, a scream emits and the eyes squeeze out angry tears. The sock is discarded, forgotten as he makes it quite clear that if one twin is getting a snuggle, the other one wants in.

An ungainly few moments of hefting and wriggling later both boys are smiling and settled on my hips. I can see this twin thing is just about to get a bit more tricky, but at least it means there's the possibility that I will end up with biceps to rival Madonnas as they don't half weigh a ton.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

It's a small world

Is it wrong that I found myself feeling mildly excited by the prospect of walking the aisles of our local Tesco? On second thoughts don't answer that. The thing is my world has shrunk to such minuscule proportions since having the twins that any trip out of the house, however mundane and workaday, is a thrill nowadays.

It used to be that I would feel a fizz of anticipation at the idea of a night out with friends, or a mini break to a romantic foreign destination. Now I plan my day around a half hour trip to Boots to mooch around amongst the baby clothes, or if I really want to push the boat out I might visit the nearby shopping centre for a browse amongst the boxes of chicken Kiev and over priced, undersized ladies fashion.

Don't get me wrong, I am not entirely unhappy with this turn of events. I have never been a party girl, or yearned to 'travel', complete with backpack full of rancid clothes and seedy encounters on sandy beaches. In fact I usually found that even when I did go out or away the high point of the event was returning home, planting myself on the sofa and recounting my adventures. They were more fun in the retelling that in the living.

When I was 18 I went to India, which was the de rigeur activity for a gap year back in the 90s. I took a rucksack packed with water purifying kit, clean syringes, antibiotics, Immodium and malaria tablets, my head filled with terrifying tales of dysentery and disaster on the road. The culture shock was terrifying, I had never gone further than a package tour to Italy and here I was in the teeming, boiling, alien mass of humanity that was Delhi. I lay in my filthy flea pit hotel bed, sweating under a rickety fan, shaking with fear and longing for home.

I certainly found myself on that trip, but what I found out about myself is that I am timid and prissy in the face of an alien culture, I didn't gasp in awe at the gleaming white palaces suspended as if by magic in the centre of a glassy lake, at the monkeys scaling ornate Hindu temples or the glowing jewels studded into the tragic marble edifice of the Taj Mahal. No I was too busy being shocked by the people pooing in the street in broad daylight, and then reaching nonchalantly up to stir a pot of curry they were hawking to passersby, or the leprous beggars, their decaying limbs swathed in greying, filthy rags and the skin and bone children with their piteous liquid eyes beseeching you for a rupee whenever you walked the streets.

I was terrified, horrified and desperate to get on the next plane home. When it came to the day of my departure there was some kind of a problem at the airport, I don't recall what, but there was the threat of having to remain another day. I broke down in tears and begged my way onto another plane back to Blighty. I have never returned.

I have met many people who have adored their time travelling, who are full of entrancing tales of magical chance encounters, life expanding experiences, beautiful beaches and sensuous strangers, but I found out at an early age that it really wasn't for me.

Perhaps one day I will return to India, it is after all a beautiful and magnificent country, but this time I'd want to travel in the comfort and style that all the backpackers I met so scorned, but which I secretly envied. For now though I am quite happy to limit my travelling to Tesco with my twins.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Autumn days

As I walked son number one to school there was a definite nip in the air and a scent of autumn in the breeze, while for some this might herald the onset of raging SAD as they mourn the disappearance of summer (such that it was), the crunch of crisp brown leaves underfoot and the tang of bonfire smoke on the air fills me with a tiny thrill of anticipation.

Autumn has always been my favourite time of year, perhaps because it's my birthday in September, so the arrival of the cool weather and darker nights are forever associated with parties, cake and presents. But more than that my perfect day is clear, crisp and chilly, the sky a searing ice blue, the trees shedding their leaves to spend the winter months in stark, majestic beauty, the grass a vivid emerald green, rather than the parched, dry brown of summer. The evenings draw in and windows glow orange and welcoming with lights turned on, the streetlights haloed with mist as the evening chill takes hold.

I love the festivals of winter, bright lights of celebration to raise our spirits in these dark and cold months. Halloween, with its imported pumpkins and trick or treating, and also the birthday of my first ever boy. Children shrieking in the streets and ghouls and goblins knock from door to door in search of sweet treats, jack 'o' lanterns grinning crooked bright grins in dark doorways. Warming suppers of thick soup, crisp baked potatoes with crackling skin splitting to reveal their fluffy contents just begging for an indulgent slick of golden butter. Fireworks glittering in a frosty night sky, exploding into a million jewel bright sparkles on a velvet black background.

The earth rich and wet, dark and fecund, mud squelching underfoot on a rainy day, puddle jumping with the boys, watching as wellies fill with water to their delight, cold feet forgotten in the gratifying spray of water that soaks all around. Searching for conkers in the park, splitting their spikily hostile shells to reveal the satin sheen of their dark brown fruit, a natural gem that takes pride of place amidst the tangle of plastic toys to be found, long forgotten, shrivelled and wizened months later.

The shine of car headlines on a dark road, a city made magical, the mundane masked by darkness leaving a map of fairground lights in its place. Children rushing back to school, uniforms stiff and new, little hands pulling at unfamiliar ties, new friends to make, new lessons to learn. Spring might be the season of rebirth, but autumn to me has always been the season of possiblities.

And of course the real reason that I love autumn so much is because it means next stop Christmas. I know I am meant to come over all grown up and Scrooge like bemoaning commerciality and hard work, but I just love Christmas from hunting for sparkling baubles to filling my house with the warm, spicy fug of boiling puddings. But that I feel merits a whole new post, and unlike the shops I don't want to lay out my festive wares until much nearer to the big day.

PS FDMTG has found fame at last with a mention on LBC's website. Here's to lots of new readers and if you did find me that way, welcome and please make yourself at home in the madhouse.

Friday, 11 September 2009

My day off

Today I am officially 'not working', however as I stood up to my elbows in scalding water, scrubbing out bottles and contemplating the kitchen nightmare that is the inevitable result of family breakfast I began to ponder just what the meaning of work is. After all when I am working I pay someone else to do what I do when I'm not working, so really doesn't this just mean I am on call in one way or another 24/7, 7/7, 365?

A typical 'not working' day pans out as follows:

Get up, dress some configuration of our four children with the help of husband, cajole big boys to brush their teeth (that's on a good day, on a bad day I just say 'Sod it, they're only baby teeth, they'll fall out anyway), feed babies milk, feed babies breakfast, scream at big boys to eat their breakfast as we are as ever, in a hurry. Change son number two's clothes as he has spilt jam/milk/chocolate spread/bodily fluids all down himself. Make packed lunch, force son number one into school shoes and out the door with husband who is working.

Force son number two into school shoes, coat and out of the door whilst simultaneously strapping babies into double buggy to walk him to nursery. Walk home with babies, clear up breakfast chaos and start the first wash of the day. Put babies back to bed for a nap, whether they want one or not, so I can fold washing, do some cooking, sneak in a little clandestine work/blogging, have a shower and get dressed properly.

Get babies up, feed them milk and lunch (hopefully home cooked, see above, but more often than not overpriced organic goo from a pot). Take babies for a walk to pick up son number two. Park number two in front of a DVD to recover from nursery, entertain babies, provide unending drinks and snacks for the TV watcher. Bundle up all three into pushchair, coat, shoes for arduous walk to pick up son number one from school. Spend the journey explaining to son number one just why the babies can't walk so he can go in the pushchair because his legs are tired. It must be exhausting all that Ben 10 watching, poor lamb.

Collect son number one, walk home with not one, but two, sons complaining of aching legs, thirst, hunger and general discontent. Try to avoid the corner shop which seems to stock the world's largest supply of E-number laden sweets and ruinously expensive magazines adorned with flimsy toys which break the instant they are unstuck from the cover resulting in tears of despair all round.

Park son number one in front of his computer to recover from the stresses of school. Try to persuade son number two to play upstairs or outside as he has already mainlined enough TV to cover his weekly quota. Fail abysmally and comfort myself that at least they are both quiet. Amuse the babies by dangling toys in front of them and smiling at them for about a nanosecond before I get bored with that and embark on yet more laundry and tidying.

Feed the babies milk and tea, while fielding the older boys pleas that despite the mountain of biscuits, juice, dried fruit and yoghurts they have consumed since coming home they are now at the brink of starvation and require feeding NOW. Cook big boys tea only for them to refuse to eat most of it on the grounds that it might actually be good for them, and this despite the imminent starvation of just moments ago.

Scrape remains of tea into the bin, tidy up chaos left on the table, floor, chairs and toilet (don't ask) following tea time.

Bath babies and big boys, a wet and perilous affair only leavened by husband's possible early arrival back home to lend a pair of hands. Dry children, easy with babies, a wild chase around the house with big boys. Cram all four into pyjamas, brush teeth for those who have them, read the babies a story and put them to bed. Read the big boys a story to the accompaniment of blood curdling screams which are the only way twin one seems able to lull himself to sleep.

Put son two to bed, for the first time of the night. He will inevitably be up later in search of water/company/reassurance following a scary dream. Son number one trails downstairs to force us to watch children's TV for even longer or pursue an endless conversation about super powers. Sink my first glass of wine, order a takeaway, collapse onto the sofa and hand over the reins to my husband.

Compare this to a working day where I hand over most of the above to someone else who is paid to do it and spend the day on the phone and tapping away at my keyboard and I think that perhaps I should split my week more accurately into days when I am paid, and days when I am not, as this sure doesn't feel like a day off to me.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Boys toys

Autumn is not a good time for the FDMTG bank account as it contains three crucial birthdays for which the perfect present must be purchased. The second two celebrations, son one and two, both in October are relatively easy to shop for. I follow a simple recipe of driving to the nearest Toys for Us (as son two has rechristened it), pick the biggest trolley they have and load it up with as much branded plastic crap as it will hold. It doesn't matter what's inside the monster packaging as long as it's emblazoned with Ben 10, Harry Potter, Transformers (or Scransformers as son two has rechristened them) or Power Rangers.

It hardly matters anyway as within hours of being unwrapped it will be dismembered into tiny parts, scattered around the house and forgotten until some point in the distant future when they start screaming at me that it's their favourite toy ever and why didn't I keep track of its one billion separate parts so they can play with it NOW! Or until one parent or other finds its sharpest component deeply embedded in their bare foot.

The first birthday is the real test though, as it's my husband. If I were to win big on the lottery he would be as easy to buy for as his sons as he is equally happy with shiny new toys, only his don't cost £19.99. Remove the decimal point and you are getting warmer, but even then it would be hard to please him as the only kit that would really make him smile costs in multiple thousands and even if I had that kind of money to burn as a mere girly I'd be sure to buy the wrong model anyway.

A ribbon wrapped Ferrari, the latest, greatest Mac computer, a state of the art home cinema system and an all expenses trip to a Grand Prix, these would be presents he'd be thrilled to unwrap. But anything within my price bracket leaves him cold. So what to buy the man with expensive tastes and a poverty stricken wife?

Any suggestions happily received, but if inspiration does strike I will have to keep it to myself until Friday as he has been know to peruse the pages of this blog from time to time and I don't want to spoil the surprise.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Back to school

Our holiday came to an abrupt end as we drove up to our house a mere 12 hours before we had to get up, dressed and ready for the first day back at school. That's (dis)organisation for you. Still we managed to drag son number one to the school gate on time, dressed in all his finery, including his very first school tie, albeit one attached to a scraggy bit of elastic as is de rigeur nowadays. I am back in at the deep end with meetings back-to-back this afternoon and about a million pointless emails to delete this morning, so naturally I am blogging instead.

My memory is not what it once was, trying to keep track of all the varying to do lists that emanate from my chaotic family has blown what few grey cells I have left into a flustered panic, so instead of writing a coherent post about what did and didn't happen while we were en vacances I decided to simply compile a list of holiday highs and lows.

As a natural pessimist I shall start with the bad points and then cheer myself with the good memories:

1. Attempting to get across a car deck with a double buggy full of twins. Do not attempt this unless you want to take your, and your children's lives, into your hands. What with scraping past expensively shiny cars setting alarms shrilling and watching son number two rush out almost under the wheels of a juggernaut as he attempted to help daddy, I was in need of a stiff drink or two to settle my nerves before we even reached the Continent.

2. French motorway service station food. The British clearly have an undeserved reputation for the worst cuisine in Europe. At least here you can get a reliable McD's (or Old MacDonalds as son two calls the golden arched establishment) or even an M&S sandwich in the better class of garage. In France it's all shrivelled, overcooked meat drowned in claggy sauce, nuggets de poulet that explain the need for a dustpan and brush in a battery chicken farm and frozen chips, chips, chips.

3. Disney a la Francais. I will admit I am not the biggest fan of Mr M Mouse, I find the whole experience tacky and tiring at best, but in Florida it is possible (just about) to be carried away by the magic. The Americans throw themselves into the whole thing with such vigour and of course while it is all fake, that kind of makes sense in the USA. In France however, the surly, chauvinistic nature of the nation rips away any chance to lose yourself in the fantasy. From the girl who refused my twins entry to the baby change area because I couldn't carry them both at the same time, thereby enabling me to leave my pushchair outside, to the Star Wars (or should that be Guerre des Etoiles?) ride voiced by French approximations of C3P0? And let's not mention the food, apart from saying that it made the service station fare appear gourment in comparison.

4. The Davy Crockett Ranch. I know that you are meant to get a wild west feel in this place, but I am not sure that it should be quite as authentic as it turned out to be. The inside of our chalet was as smelly, filthy, broken down and cramped as any travelling wagon that hauled the first pioneers across the plains of America, and the wildlife was plentiful, if more in the rodent form than the buffalo and mustangs that populate the prairies. My rule of thumb is that if you can set rats boldly climbing into the bins in broad daylight there is a pretty serious infestation going on and it's time to hitch up your wagon and move on.

5. Pre-teen sulking and sibling rivalry. OK so I knew that travelling with all four boys at such varying stages of development wasn't going to be easy, but I thought the problems I would be dealing with would be babies screaming and inconvenient nappy changes. As it turned out the babies were angelic, choosing to spend much of the holiday asleep and therefore filed under 'not causing trouble'. If only the same could be said for their big brothers.

Son number one woke up every morning with a pout on his face that would put Posh Spice to shame, he huffed and puffed about the place meeting every request to do something that wasn't on his own personal enjoyment agenda with a sulky Ben 10-inspired 'Oh man'. I though I had a few more years of sweet little boy before this pre-teen monster emerged. Husband and I are praying it's just a phase.

Son number two compounded matters by constantly vying for my attention with his clingy older sibling, which served to annoy his brother even more. At the end of the break he mournfully admitted to his dad that he would prefer to holiday without the babies in future so he would get more attention. Cue serious parental guilt trip.

Now for the good bits:

1. Sunshine. After a variable summer of showers, rain, sun and clouds it was delicious to wake up every morning to the scent of thyme and lavender baking in the already warm sunshine. To drink a glass or two of local rose as the yellow gold rays beat down on my back sending me drowsy with contentment, to have a built in entertainment as all the boys wanted to do was cool down in the pool. It's amazing what a different a sunny day makes when you are used to the clouds and rain of back home.

2. The shine of diamond drops of water catching the Provencal sun as they glittered on my sons' biscuit brown skin. Watching them dive like otters into the pool, and clapping with pride as my eldest son completed his first lap of the pool without armbands. Cheering 'Go on Maxy Clown' as son number two worked up the courage to jump into the deep end of the pool, and laughing as the ensuing spray splashed freezing drops onto his toasty, sunbathing parents. Watching the babies bob in their inflatable rings as their brothers played catch with them in the pool, their baby smiles wide with delight at this brand new sensation.

3. Introducing my boys to the French culinary delights I remembered so well from my own childhood. The sharp, orange bubbles of Orangina, the creamy ooze of perfectly ripe Camembert, the sweetly juicy, rich red tomatoes, a warm, crisply yeilding baugette, a plump green olive shining with herb scented oil, the velvet soft richness of pink liver pate and the exotic, vivid emerald brightness of a sirop de menthe.

4. The time to do nothing. There weren't that many moments of peace and quiet, but those that we did manage to quarry from the hustle and bustle of family life were all the more precious for their rarity. I managed to read a whole book, although it was interrupted regularly to watch aquatic acrobatics by the boys and the pages bear the crinkly dried water stains to prove it, but still I got to lie down, in the sunshine and relax with a book, for a whole 30 minutes or so. Bliss.

5. Spending time with my boys. However frantic, difficult, tiring and infuriating family life can be my perfect way to spend time is with my boys. Thanks to various work related reasons I hadn't seen that much of my sons over their summer break so it was lovely to be able to wallow in unending days of their chatter and company. To catch up with their latest crazes (son number one has caught a serious case of Harry Potter fever after mainlining the DVDs in the car on our epic drive) and join in with their fantastical games. Every night I had to dream up a new super power for each boy and whisper it into his ear before he went to sleep. Son number two was happy with whatever I chose to invent, while son number one had to refine every adaptation to his battery of weaponry.

This summer holiday was always going to be the toughest of the lot with two babies and two big boys with such different needs to entertain and I wasn't wrong. It wasn't the most relaxing or easy of breaks, but on balance I think we all had a great time. Yes the babies were a little ignored, yes the big boys didn't get all the attention they craved and yes we parents didn't get nearly enough R&R, but we got to spend time getting used to being part of our new, big family and that was priceless.

The babies might be almost seven months old - twin one even got his first tooth while we were away - but what with school and work we haven't spent that much time together, learning how to live with each other, so in a way this break was our first real step towards getting used to being a family of six.