Monday, 26 April 2010

Perfect day

Sitting in the sunshine, shaded by an arching dark blue parasol, the sky azure blue, dusted with the occasional smudge of bright white cloud, I mused over what would make my perfect day. A lie in of course, I am a parent after all, followed by a trip into London to see a proper grown up exhibition, a leisurely lunch and a spot of shopping. As I looked around the garden table, littered with the debris of our family lunch, half chewed pitta bread and smears of hummus liberally coating the high chairs, cocktail sausages, chunks of cheddar, ripped hunks of baguette and sticky juice spills, I sighed. This day of leisure was surely just a fantasy.

The next day twin one is sick, he has been awake through the night screaming in pain, and we are all weary and careworn. What to do with a family housebound by the illness of one of its tiniest members? Boy two is spirited away to his grandparents and, as we ponder how to entertain our oldest, I remember my pie in the sky plans for a perfect day out. I shall ask him along. He jumps at the chance and I am to spend the day with my ideal man (no offence to other half, but his hatred of shopping means he falls just short of perfection).

We escape the screaming chaos of lunchtime with the twins, leaving my husband in his pyjamas and in charge. We almost skipped through the park to our nearest Tube station. His little hand is entwined in mine and he beams at the treat of having his beloved mummy all to himself. We chat about this and that, school, friends, our plans for the day. The journey passes in a blur of counting stations and celebrating our good fortune to have escaped alone together.

It is such bliss to only have to cope with one, civilised and independent six-year-old, as opposed to a brood of unruly boys, half of whom cannot walk, eat by themselves or speak in anything other than ear-splitting screams.

The exhibition we'd planned to see, Grace Kelly: Style Icon was sold out, but such was our joy at spending time together, this failed to dampen our spirits. We rush through the baroque halls of the V&A, gasping in awe at the glistening treasures, the sparkling jewellery, the carved icons, the sheer opulence and excess of our ancestors. We found a silver wine bowl that my son could have swum in and a jewel encrusted tiara made from gems as big and colourful as boiled sweets. We marvel at glittering snuff boxes, the intricacy of the carving on a religious scroll and the rich, red glow of the sun shining through ancient stained glass.

He describes the way the diamonds dripping from some long dead aristocrat's necklace throw off light like a crowd on a dark night taking photos, the glints from the precious stones like their myriad flashes against a velvet black background. I am impressed by his eloquence and imagination.

We dash through 20th Century design, the highlights being a chair made from a zebra, it's stiff, black mane running up the backrest and bowl with the billboards of Piccadilly Circus painted inside it. My boy is so enthusiastic, so interested, so stimulating, such fun. Such a glowing beam to light up the dusty moats floating lazily in the ornate halls of the museum.

Lunch is a picnic al fresco beside a gently spurting fountain. We watch a toddler paddle in the pool beneath its sputtering flow. The sun glints on the puddles from a recent downpour. As we share our drinks my boy screws up his nose as the sparkling water fizzes and burns on his tongue. Pigeons flap and beg for our crumbs and tourists rest and consult their maps, searching for the next stop on their tour of our city.

After lunch it's time to shop. My boy is good at shopping, even better than me, which is impressive as I am a black belt in the art of frittering away money. We pick toys for everyone, including me. He persuades me to buy a paperweight in the shape of a huge diamond, we are both transfixed by the icy fire reflected off its contoured edges.

Then it's off on a red double decker bus, sweeping its way to Knightsbridge. I have told him of a shop that is almost as big as the museum, but stuffed with exotic treats to buy, and the biggest toy department he has ever seen. As we climb off outside Harrods, he gasps and says "It looks more like a palace than a shop". Well it's certainly a temple to consumerism and we push open the plate glass doors in happy anticipation.

First stop is the food hall to select glossy dark chocolates that nestle in a crinkling nest of silver paper in their stiff golden box, a present to appease poor daddy who has missed out on our marvellous expedition. Then on to the sweets, my boy twirls around amidst aisles coloured with jars full to the brim with a rainbow of jelly beans and displays bristling with lollipops in an array of flavours that would make Willy Wonka's mouth water. It's so hard to choose but in the end we come away with some sweet delights wrapped in that distinctive green and gold plastic bag.

We swish up in the lift to the fourth floor toy department and my boy can hardly contain himself, tiny helicopters and giant balloons whizz past us as demonstrators tempt him with their wares. He runs from Lego to Ben 10, via a teddy ten times the size of him and a giant stuffed gorilla. In an attempt to keep some check on my finances I gently steer him to the buckets overflowing with pocket money toys, bouncy balls filled with glimmering glitter, spy glasses that allow you to see what's behind you, wriggly toys furry with soft plastic fronds, bubble machines and fake poo.

Eventually we choose a few trinkets that the boys will lose in less time than it takes the cashier to bag them up and head home. The tube is packed, but as soon as two seats are free my boy curls up under my arm and falls asleep, exhausted by our adventure. I watch his eyelids flicker and wonder if he is dreaming of museums filled with jewel bright sweets, toy shop shelves groaning under snuffboxes, a fantastical mix of everything we have seen today.

As I savour the warmth and weight of my sleeping son, I realise that I was right, it really was the most perfect day.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Cry baby

To cry or not to cry? That is the question that vexes most mothers of newborn babies. Should we leave our infants to bawl their heads off in order to teach them to go to sleep by themselves, or should we rush and tend to their every squeak in order to salve their tender souls? Childcare expert, Penelope Leach has gone so far as to say those hard hearted mothers who leave their babes to scream are putting them at risk of brain damage in the future.

Penelope Leach is not a woman for whom I have a soft spot after her preachings put me under immense pressure when I had my first son. Her book, Your Baby and Child, The essential guide for every parent was recommended to me by my NCT teacher. As I was entirely clueless as to the process of caring for a baby I promptly went out and bought it and treated it as my bible, only problem was on every page I discovered I was doing something wrong.

The most memorable misdemeanour I recall was reading that I must smile at my baby at all times, lest he feel unloved. This at a time in my life when the moments tears weren't flowing down my cheeks were few and far between. I was a raging mess of hormones, guilt and suffering from a nasty bout of postnatal depression. I would gurn at the poor boy in a terrifying approximation of a smile, and all because this old witch had told me he would grow up feeling unloved if I didn't.

She is a psychologist whose theories are entirely child-centric and the latest is that you must rush to your baby as soon as he cries or else his poor little brain will be flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, which could cause brain damage in the long run. I stress the word could and that this expert finding is at odds with recent research from Australia's Murdoch Children's Research Institute which suggests that controlled crying has no detrimental effect on babies.

I am no expert, but I do know that controlled crying is the only thing that got me through with my four boys. Each one of them learnt to sleep through the night by being left to wail for a few moments before a parent rushed in to comfort them. At first they wailed a little more, but invariably they went off to sleep within a few moments. But the real point of this is that I couldn't have coped if they hadn't learned how to sleep.

No mother can function on no sleep, and caring for small children is hard graft. If leaving your baby to cry for short bursts enables you to create a sleep pattern that allows you to rest, you will be a better mother at the end of it. Of course I would never say that babies should be left to shriek endlessly, but to rush to comfort a child at every squeak is just setting yourself up for trouble.

I suppose I am falling into the trap of all these so called experts and laying down the law over what is wrong or right when it comes to parenting. Perhaps there are tougher mums who can cope on no sleep and if this is the case then there is no harm to leaping every time your baby squeals. But for most mums creating a sleep routine that allows us to rest makes us better mothers, and the last thing we need is another expert weighing in and making us feel guilty about just trying to get through as best we can.


I don't normally do this, post about blogging. For me my blog is really a little self indulgence that allows me to write about what I want and how I want, with the added bonus of a few readers leaving their very welcome comments. But lately I have begun to feel a little paranoid. It's got worse than those simple times when I would check my Google analytics and feel blue if the little red figures indicated my readership had gone down, and unjustifiably elated if they were green, indicating I had attracted a few more readers to my wifflings. To be honest I don't understand many of the figures thrown up at me there, so this is about as complex as it gets.

I have moments when I think I ought to devote myself to furthering the cause of my blog. I long to be one of those bloggers whose posts attract zillions of comments, but since I rarely find the time to comment on other blogs, I think this is perhaps a little unreasonable of me. Trouble is life and work tend to come between me and devoting myself entirely to my beloved blog, so I suspect it will never be more than a hobby with a few much loved followers, whose comments I absolutely lap up.

However, just recently I launched a modest campaign to boost my number of followers from 49 to 50. This amounted to putting a little box on the blog and begging. You can imagine my thrill when some kind soul took pity on me and decided to follow the blog. Cue streamers, champagne and much (virtual) celebration. I had arrived, I had 50 whole followers (well I assume they are whole, but as some don't even show their faces I could be wrong).

But the other day I returned to beloved blog only to find that one of my followers had deserted. The horror of finding myself back down to 49 was almost too much to bear. What had made this person who had once loved FDMTG so much that they had signed up for regular bulletins to decide that enough was enough and that they wanted out. It's as bad as being unfriended on Facebook.

Was it something I said, something I'd done? A post that went down the wrong way? I suppose I shall never know as now they don't follow me anymore. Given that my blog is more about personal satisifaction than a desire to garner new readers, or at least that's what I like to tell myself, why does it bother me so when one jumps ship?

Perhaps it's because now I am back down to an uneven 49, rather than a neat half hundred. At this level of followers one more or less really counts. No doubt if I was wallowing in followers I wound hardly notice if I slipped from 1,049 to 1,050, but I am way off those dizzy heights.

I shall try not to let the question of the missing follower keep me awake at night, but if you do stray back to my blog, I should like you to know the upset you caused by deciding not to follow me any more.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

City girl

My lovely friend and ace blogger Nappy Valley Girl has inspired this post with her own musings today.

Like me NVG finds herself marooned in the suburbs by circumstance and parenthood, and although we are both still within touching distance of a throbbing metropolis, her New York and me London, we are both consigned to the territory of double garages, 4x4s and Starbucks being the most chi chi coffee establishment in town. Actually I am guessing at what it's like for NVG as I have yet to visit her but this is the picture I get based on her regular bulletins from across the pond.

Of course it wasn't always so. When we first met we were both working for a magazine based on the borders between Soho and Bloomsbury. The office was rickety and far from practical - at the end of our days there you had to climb over a wall of chipboard just to get up the stairs to work- but all that London had to offer was literally on our doorstep. These were the days before marriage and kids wore off our edgy coolness, we lived in flats near town and spent our time out at drunken press parties and jetting off on press trips around the world (though the less said about the content of these trips the better).

We were the archetypal city girls and perhaps what bonded us most was that both of us had grown up as ex-pats, her in the altogether more exotic Hong Kong, me in the surprisingly lively capital of Europe, Brussels. What we had loved about our lives was the fact that they were both in the city, we weren't provincial English girls brought up on ponies and pubs. While I can't speak for her, my teenage years were wasted smoking pretentious white Cartier cigarettes, drinking vodka cocktails and searching out the coolest clothes to go clubbing with my gay best friend.

While my fellow ex-pat Brits loved nothing more than seeking out the cheapest beer in the lowest dives Brussels had to offer, we would perch ourselves on the banquettes of the Imaginaire bar, drink violently green Pisang Ambon and watch the BCBG bon ton of Brussels party the night away. There were no drinking regulations, no closing times and although I had my fair share of over indulgence, there was none of the binge drinking culture that so plagues British cities.

I still recall teenage nights spent clubbing all evening, then leaving in the early hours to go and drink espresso at 5am in the city bars that were still buzzing at that time of the morning. The bars of my youth were nothing like the pubs my Brit contemporaries grew up with. Pubs, it seems to me, are designed to get drunk in. They are also segregated into teenage pubs where the landlord turns a blind eye to underage boozers, old man pubs were sodden lushes prop up the bar and bore for England, country pubs with their blazing log fires and ploughmans lunches, gastropubs and trendy pubs that cater, respectively, for foodies and young professionals bent on getting off with each other. Family pubs are to me a misnomer, I have no desire to entertain my children in a temple to getting bladdered.

Continental bars on the other hand are venerable institutions that are as happy to serve a slice of cake and a shot of ink black coffee to a matron in a sleek fur coat, as to serve a group of young men sweating pitchers of beer or a family group a platter of cheese and a round of soft drinks. Grandmothers rub shoulders with teenagers and no one gets noticeably drunk. It is far more civilised and my return to England and its culture of the youth disappearing off to scabby pubs to get pissed was a bit of a shock to the system.

However, I digress, the real point of my post was how much I loved living in a city. How the buzz of its cosmopolitan culture was my life blood. My bedroom faced onto a busy square and I was lulled to sleep by the clash of deliveries to the restaurants and bars below, the rumble of the night buses on the cobbled streets, the yells of football fans driving around the city to celebrate a home win. Every year the students from the local universities used to parade through the streets throwing eggs and flour at everyone who got in their way, I would hang from my bedroom window to watch their messy progress. There is a famous jazz festival that is held each May across the city and the strains of the bands floated up through my window, but all this bustle and noise was a lullaby and I couldn't fall asleep without its muted cacophony.

When I moved back to England it took my three years to get to London. I hated every moment of those years of excile from the city and made every excuse to travel to the capital. Arriving in town never failed to infuse me with a buzz of excitement. When I used to take the train and boat in pre-Eurostar days, arriving in the arched hallways of Victoria and breathing in that dirty city air would fill me with a thrilling fizz of adrenaline. I would dive into the warm and fuggy embrace of the tube to emerge in Oxford Street or on the Kings Road, Camden Town or the elegance of the Embankment aching to explore and begin my urban adventure.

I still get that frisson now when I leave my leafy suburban home, hop on the tube at our quaintly old-fashioned station, complete with proper waiting rooms and a fireplace, and emerge 40 minutes later in the filthy heart of my city. Before Christmas there was talk of moving away, but after one day exploring festive London, the glinting Christmas lights strung across Regent's Street, the opulent displays in the windows of Fortnum & Mason, the festooned arches of the Burlington Arcade, I knew I couldn't do it.

I couldn't follow all my friends who have fled the capital in search of better schools, bigger houses, cleaner air. Every time I visit I feel like a little part of me is dying. I am a city girl and I need the shriek of sirens, the stench of exhaust fumes, the crush of a myriad of different nationalities, the perfume of a thousand exotic cuisines, the shimmering plate glass shop windows showing off wares I can never afford, the rush of black taxis and towering red buses, the sliver grey slice of the Thames running between banks lined with City law firms and modernist theatres and galleries. The corner shops that never close, run by refugees who speak broken English, a takeaway that is always five minutes away, pavements clogged with a local paper filled with national news, the dirt, the disorder, the sheer life of a world class city is what drives me.

NVG says she sometimes misses having a job at the heart of it all, and while I revel in the luxury of working from home, I know what she means. I was in town yesterday for a meeting and it reminded me of the camerarderie of work, of the fun we had together in the office. I am not sure I would be keen to go back, as I don't miss the sweaty commuting or the hours of busy work, the office politics or the ineffectual managers, but the excuse to go into the city on a regular basis might almost make up for it.

So a heartfelt thank you from one City girl to another, for reminding me just what I love about living in London.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The sun has got his hat on

The air is fragrant with the fresh green scent of mown grass, the trees are blooming with acid bright leaves and the sky is a rich vibrant blue. As I walk through the park the brook glints with diamond flashes of light, ripples on the surface lit like snaking trails of jewels, the surface dappled with the shadows of branches grown heavy with their springtime finery. The careworn, drab garb of winter is cast off in favour of a fecund display of rebirth and growth.

Daisies dot the vivid green grass, little spots of white beauty showing off their widespread petals, daffodils bob their yellow heads, dancing in the breeze on their elegant stems. Beneath the trees indigo violets peek coyly from the deep green undergrowth, while multicoloured patches of crocuses dazzle in the sunlight. Majestic chestnut trees froth with overblown white blossom like a bride dressed up for a spring wedding.

Pristine springtime sees the world washed fresh and bright, the mud patches and bare branches of winter a memory, the dusty burnt brown lawns and heat of the summer a promise of the future.

Before I had children I never much cared for spring, I always loved autumn the best, but all that has changed as after a winter of keeping the boys cooped up inside a stuffy and increasingly oppressive house, it is a joy to greet the first new shoots of spring by flinging the door open and and the children out. This weekend was the first they spent playing in the garden. The twins rolling around in a homemade ball pool, giggling and juggling the plastic spheres, the boys leapt around on the trampoline, sought new stick weapons and harassed innocent insect life with their overenthusiastic curiosity.

We cleared out the chaos that was our garden shed and unearthed a plastic cornucopia of old paddling pools, buckets and spades, beachballs and lonely, single armbands. As fast as I could throw away punctured inflatables and fractured sand toys, the boys rescued them from the black binbag of doom and declared them precious members of their toy family. Despite this assistance we soon amassed a car full of rubbish for the dump, which my husband was dispatched to dispose of.

We are now the proud possessors of a tidy shed and a winnowed stash of summer toys that I am hoping will see a lot more use than they did last year, when the promised barbecue summer turned into a typical British huddle indoors against the rain summer instead.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Boys will be boys

This Easter my four-year-old was taken to a new playgroup in the local church, not I should add through any great religious conviction on our part, but simply because this is where they are held. At the end he was handed a palm crucifix as is traditional at this time of year. I knew nothing of this until he pointed it at me as he climbed out of the car and pretended to shoot me with it. Despite my strong atheist tendencies I was shocked at seeing a cross used in this way and told him so.

He looked back, puzzled and said "But mummy, Jesus was killed by a crucifix". Ah the logic of youth. I could do nothing but burst out laughing as continued to strafe me with his Holy weapon.

This came back to me when I read about the recent study that reveals that boys love of guns, cars and trains is nothing to do with parental conditioning and everything to do with their basic biological urges. Though I feel this hardly needed to be the basis of a scientific study as a few trips to the park with my boys could have told the boffins exactly the same thing.

Even with a slightly girly boy as my eldest, we have still lived through the various little boy crazes from Bob the Builder, through Power Rangers, Ben 10, Star Wars, Dr Who, and I am reliably informed that we have WWF to look forward too. What joy. Every trip to the park is punctuated with stops to pick up a stick to use as a gun or Light Sabre, and it's always amusing watching my boys fight with the local dogs over ownership of the aforementioned sticks.

The sacrilegious four-year-old built up a whole stockpile of stick weapons under our decking and was devastated when I instigated a zero tolerance policy and binned the lot.

Boys are also drawn to any form of gadgetry, from TV remote controls (you know who you are Twin 1) to the XBox, Wii, computers, iPods, iPhones etc etc. If I ever want to quiet all four in one go I just need to let them loose in the living room with free reign to play with whatever technology they can operate.

I can't imagine what it would be like to live in a house with girls who played with dolls and make up, who wanted to pick flowers rather than fight with sticks, who wanted to watch Hannah Montana rather than endless Ben 10 cartoons, who were drawn by the sparkly allure of the Barbie displays, rather than to the plastic heaven that is the Bakugan aisle.

But by now I don't think I would have the skills necessary to bring up a girl, not unless she was happy to fight with sticks, get muddy jumping over streams and wasn't too bothered if her dolls became unwitting pawns in internecine alien warfare.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What's in a name?

Having had four boys to name, complete with middle names as once we'd given the firstborn two names we thought the others might feel hard done by if we only gave them a single christian name, I consider myself somewhat of an expert in the naming game. But twith celebrities gifting their children with monikers like Harlow, Zuma, Shiloh and Knox the days of a simple Tom, Dick or Harry being good enough are long gone.

With boy number one it was simple we just went with tradition and gave him his paternal grandpa's two first names. When it came to boy number two we considered using the maternal grandpa's names, but decided it would be unfair to saddle a defenceless child with the graceless combo of Lenny Brian. Instead we knocked about all the also rans from the first time round.

Initially my husband vetoed every name on the basis that he had been at school with a child with the same name and he was in some way unpleasant. This was somewhat of a problem as my other half went to an all boys school in North London, which seemed to have cornered the market in half decent names. After mentally scanning his old class registers out went at least half of our names.

Then there was the matter of friends, all of who seemed to be spawning boys at the time. My sister took one of our shortlist, his brother nabbed another and our old nanny yet another. In the end we had a shortlist of two, one his favourite, one mine. It was stalemate and my belly was fit to burst with our next child. In the end in the dark watches of the night my husband rolled over and gently told me I could have my top choice. My hero.

I am so glad he caved as the name suits my little boy so well, even if it's also the name of about 75 percent of the other small boys we hear being yelled at in the playground, must be something about the name that makes its bearers particularly cheeky.

With the twins the cupboard was bare as we had used up all the names we liked on our previous two boys, and even more boys had been born to family and friends and nabbed what was left. Fortunately by now our remit was broader as I think my husband's memory of those school boy enemies was fading and I was no longer nearly as fussy, so in the end we could settle on four names for our two boys.

But that wasn't the end of it. When we revealed our choices to the grandmas, both hated our choice for one of the boys. They worked long and hard to disuade us, but you'd think they'd know me better. The more they tried to put me off, the more determined I was that it would remain my name of choice. Even when the babies were born my mother-in-law initially refused to call my son by his name, though as she got to know him her resistance soon wore off.

Then there was the issue of spelling. One baby has a name that can be spelled any number of different ways. We went for the traditional version, but not after much agonising over whether we should go for a more up to date and trendy version of his name.

Perhaps things really were easier back in the days when everyone really was called Tom, Dick or Harry.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Night manoeuvres

I used to pride myself on what excellent sleepers my boys were. All have slept through from a most 12 weeks and all have been good at keeping their heads on the pillow for most of the night, barring illness or other unusual circumstances. But no more, my eldest is now six and a half and convinced that his new bedtime is 10:30pm and that the only place to sleep is in mummy's bed.

We have tried good cop, whereby we gave him a later bedtime than his little brother and allowed him to stay up and watch TV in his PJs until the allotted hour. That didn't work as the extra time out of bed seemed to enliven him ready for an evening filled with the patter of his tiny feet coming down the stairs and hovering by the living room door until my husband picked this up on his bat frequency ears and we either gave in and let him stay for a while or sent him back upstairs only to hear the inevitable sobs emanating from his bedroom moments later.

Then we tried bad cop, sending him to bed strictly on time with lights off and no toys. If he dared to venture downstairs he was sent back to bed with a telling off. Did this work? Did it heck. He would either way up in the early hours or at about 5am and creep upstairs and into our bed, waking us all up and then either was allowed to stay, wriggle and keep us awake, or was sent downstairs in tears.

The problem is that by the end of the day my discipline tether is at it's end. My inclination would probably be to be horrible and just send him to bed and ignore the sobs and let him get on with it. But I do find it so hard to be harsh when I look into his swimming blue eyes as he turns to go upstairs. He also knows how to turn on the charm when he is allowed to stay up late and is the most pleasant companion in those late night snuggles.

So what to do? My husband is sick to death of getting up at night and dealing with the children, we are all exhausted by this constant toing and froing of my oldest son and I know that this lack of sleep will catch up with him and have a detrimental effect. I think I will just have to harden my heart and get tough with him as these night manoeuvres must be nipped in the bud before sleep deprivation drives us all around the twist.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Bon mots

The room is dark, a dim light weakly illuminates the sleeping figure in a bed, his arms flung out beside him, deep in a dreamless sleep. His eyelashes sweep his perfect, smooth cheeks, his lips are rosebud soft and slightly parted to let out the sigh of his sleeping breath. His hair is dark and damp on this warm evening and peeking out from beside his sleeping form I see an edge of lined paper torn from his notebook.

"Look under my pillow" it reads.

The game is afoot, I gently slide his head to one side as I lift the pillow to discover three more scraps of paper, covered with his spidery, childish writing.

"To mummy
I love you even more than I can emajen.
from J"

A simple, sweet sentiment from my precious firstborn.

I peel away the first sheet to reveal a second, like delicious layers of a love-soaked millefeuille. He showers me with his passion filling me up with its sweet moreishness.

To mummy there is not a singel thing that I love more than you.
You are buyootafull
You are funny
I love you.
You blow my heart away. You are the best.
From J".

Has any woman's heart ever melted at such peerless prose? Has any mother been so loved? He dissolves me with his delightfulness. My boy, my precious, my reason. I will write him a note in return, but nothing can match the purity of his sentiment or the effort that he has put in to try to express that indefinable love we feel for one another.

But perhaps even more touching a testament to my kind hearted little boy is the final note I find at the bottom of the pile. Last, but far from least.

"To daddy
I love you
I did not want to leave you out
from J"

My heart swells with pride and adoration, I shall go to sleep with a smile on my face and his notes under my pillow.

Sweet dreams.

Annabel Karmel's feet of clay

My first experience of weaning was coloured by the primary bright pages of Annabel Karmel's bestseller, The complete baby and toddler meal planner. She alone is responsible for me staying up till all hours pureeing butternut squash and sweet potato.

It is her fault I wasted vast sums of money on a mysterious mouli device, which I could only find online from chi chi cookery store Divertimenti. Despite the expense, I used it once and then threw away its many complicated and dysfunctional parts in disgust after spending an age squishing potato through its slits, only to end up with a teaspoonful of goo my son promptly spat across the room.

My fridge was full of individually frozen cubes of veg and my son was inducted into the religion of healthy eating following her plan to the letter. He was stuffed with spinach and broccoli and not allowed a taste of fruit until he was well and truly inducted into the cult of the vegetable. I cooked every meal he ate and carried them around in little plastic pots which had a rebellious desire to spill all over my change bag at inopportune moments. I tried in vain to force the gallons of milk she recommends into my lactose hating boy, and as he grew older I fiddled with his food turning every pizza into a smiley face, every sandwich into a tempting shape.

My god I worked hard for that woman, and how was my toil repaid? Well my son is now six and his favourite food is chicken nuggets and potato Smiles, just like pretty much every other six-year-old I know, whether they were weaned on Wotsits or organic parsnip puree. So forgive me if I am a little disgruntled at all that wasted effort.

But this isn't really my gripe with AK, for while she may have caused me much personal pain, what really gets me is the way that the woman who pioneered the home made movement, who had us all stuck in the kitchen steaming, chopping and pureeing, now seems happy to slap her jolly logo onto any old box and call it healthy.

She has already endured a scandal earlier this year, when it was revealed that her Eat Fussy range of ready meals (I ask you, is that not sacrilege enough?) had more salt and sugar in than most grown up nosh in a box. But that hasn't stopped her selling her name to Disney pushing crisps and snacks (albeit healthy ones) at our kids in Mickey shaped packages. Or from slapping it on the kiddie grub served at Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventure and Thorpe Park.

That's not all, the lady is happy to lend her name to toys, cookery products as well as an ever expanding range of baby and children's cookery books. Given the acres of print she has devoted to weaning babies you would think it was a complex science, not just a process of shoving goo into their mouths until they are old enough to smear it over themselves unaided. All of which culminates in them all opting for burgers, chips, bolognese, pizza or chicken nuggets when given the choice.

Of course none of this would be a problem if what AK was producing was up to the high and admittedly delicious standards of the recipes she peddles, but as well as salt and sugar-gate, I notice that some reviews of her products online are less than glowing. I was looking for a mat to put under my twins' highchairs and was tempted by Annabel's bright red mess mat, until I read the other customer reviews. Both were devotee's of Annabel's books, but panned the mat as little better than a plastic bag, which at £9.99 is unacceptable.

Then I opened my fridge to see the box of teddy bear pizzas I had bought to try out on the twins had expanded to twice it's size. Puffed up like a fish in fear of its life, it looked like a toxic health hazard and I am too afraid to open it for fear of what might spew out. Of course this can happen to anyone, and may be down to poor handling by the supermarket who sold it or any number of other factors, but I'm afraid I saw it as indicative as a guru grown too big for her boots.

No one can blame AK for cashing in, but her penchant for slapping her name on any product that will pay for the priviledge whilst also polishing her halo as a champion of healthy eating for our enfants rather sticks in my craw, as I am sure would the pizza if I were brave enough to unbox it. It's a bit like Gordon Ramsay striding around provicial kitchens sneering at their poor provisions in Kitchen Nightmares, whilst happily microwaving bought in ready meals at his own pubs.

Perhaps I am displaying that horrible British trait of knocking someone for their success, but I do think that if you put yourself up on a pedestal, or your name of a veritable pyramid of ready meal boxes, there's always a threat of someone spotting your feet of clay.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Mummy magnet

There is a strange phenomenon affecting my place of residence. I am not sure if it is linked to the phases of the moon or tidal patterns - probably not as it seems to be somewhat of a constant - but whatever room of the house I am standing in, there seems to be a gravitational pull that brings all my boys into it almost immediately. With the exception of my office which is locked tight against invaders, wherever else I am, soon there will be boys too.

If my husband sneaks away to fiddle with his computer or have a shower, the boys don't seem to feel the same attraction. He is, sometimes at least, left in peace for at least 10 minutes, before one of them asks "Where's daddy?" and beetles off to find him. With me there is no such respite, I can never have a shower without one small person bursting in to ask me to help do up buttons or referee a fight, and that's while two of them are held off by an inability to climb stairs. Although having said that, this weekend I stepped out of the shower to find that intrepid twin one had made it upstairs all by himself - time to fit that final stair gate methinks.

Yesterday evening I was holed up in my office having embarked on a mammoth clear out. I finally tackled the filing cabinet which has been lurking like some malevolent presence behind plastic crates full of its contents ever since we had the loft conversion done over a year ago. The boys had been on a day out with grandma, but as soon as they exploded through the door they dashed upstairs to locate me like rats up a drainpipe. All very sweet until they started undoing all my good work tidying by liberally scattering the contents of my shelves around the floor.

It is definitely some strange quirk of physics that my boys can't seem to help but congregate around the mummy magnet - although I am already getting an inkling that this may be a force that weakens with age, for while the babies will shuffle and crawl across the house to find me, wherever I may be, the older boys are finally beginning to prefer their own company, which I will admit can be a blessed relief.

During the Easter break they have happily amused themselves drawing in the playroom, watching movies together and playing the ubiquitous Lego Star Wars on the Xbox, which has had the upshot of giving their aged Ps a little more time to either run around after the babies or just pursue adult amusements, such as sitting, doing nothing or watching TV that doesn't have a PG rating.

I would like to say that I miss being a mummy magnet, but actually I do sometimes enjoy being free from my little iron filings, just so long as they never stray too far from my gravitational field.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Me, myself and mine

Now as anyone who regularly reads my blog will know, I am very camera shy. But when my husband sent me this pic of me and my boys, I just couldn't resist sharing it as it paints 1,000 words about my life in one snatched snapshot.

The demise of the family holiday

The brittle crunch of sand peppering your picnic sandwiches, a flimsy windbreak flapping in a vain attempt to protect you from the biting salty breeze, the bone chilling icy water providing a welcome numbness to the sharp pebbles digging into your feet as you forlornly paddle at the rocky water's edge.

The slick embrace of a rain soaked tent as you struggle to subdue the canvas by hammering tent pegs into inexplicably rock hard earth, the misery of huddling under an umbrella as you watch the camp fire miserably spit and sizzle in a sudden downpour, the bickering and rows that fill the car on interminable, over-heated journeys punctuated by frequent, unwelcome in traffic jams and overcrowded service stations.

These are just a few of the memories conjured up by casting my mind back to the family holidays of my youth, so perhaps it is no surprise that today it is revealed that this annual trip is one luxury modern parents are willing to forgo.

When I was growing up my parents weren't that well off so a family holiday meant either being sent to Wales with my grandparents to stay with a maiden aunt or else a 1,000 mile car trip to stay with my vegetarian hippy aunt, her lute maker husband and their dysfunctional brood in their artisanal hovel in the South of France. Neither of which filled me with the excitement or anticipation a holiday probably should.

Of course it didn't help that my family really aren't very good at holidays. My mother always used to declare that we should all put ourselves in Holiday Mode as soon as the packing begun. This meant gritting your teeth and grinning through all manner of adversity from being fed inedible horse steaks in a Belgian motorway cafe, to staying in a French budget B&B where the only nighttime entertainment was the sound of my mum pounding to and from the communal loo at the end of the corridor as she threw up said horse steak.

Or there was the time when we drove back from Wales in my dad's old and unreliable van and got caught miles from home with nowhere to sleep other than on the musty chaise lounge that mouldered in the back of the lorry and was the reason for our chosen mode of transport, having been picked up somewhere along the route. That was a memorably sleepless night.

While the journeys, which were always peppered with disagreeable bickering from the front seats over whose fault it was that a wrong turning had been taken or a vital item had been left out of the packing, were particularly unpleasant, they paled in comparison to what awaited us on arrival.

In Wales my aunt's house should long have been condemned as unfit for human habitation, so filled was it with detritus and filth. The kitchen with sticky with grime, her bedroom tangy with urine and her nature vile with bad temper. Even worse, my sole companion, the television, only spoke Welsh. Even now the dulcet tones of that that tongue send me spinning back to the hours I spent sitting on her tacky carpet trying to decipher what on earth was going on at Welsh Play School.

Days were spent on freezing beaches, where my grandmother attempted to teach me to swim by ditching me into the icy water until my head went under and I was forced to scramble upwards or drown. Picnics were rendered inedible by copious amounts of sand being blown into every bite and the only other diversions were scenic drives in my grandfather's beaten up car, taken at his usual snails pace and while the air was rent with my grandmother's tuneless Welsh singing.

You might think that our sojourns to the sunny South of France offered more potential, but that would be without reckoning on the influence of my uncle and aunt, whose dilapidated flat we always stayed in. Said relations seemed to see our arrival as their cue to avail themselves of as much free labour as possible. So, while the parents got happily pissed on all that cheap wine, we children were pressed into endless hours of housework and babysitting for our brattish cousins, who in turned amused themselves by holding down and pissing on the neighbours' children.

I think the peeing salvo was part of a long running battle between auntie and the family upstairs who were devout Muslims and would regularly bleed lambs from their balcony sending the blood dripping past my vegetarian aunt's front window. I guess she had a point in losing patience with them, but I can't help but feel that my aunt and her family deserved everything they got.

On one visit she pressed every visiting guest to help her clear out her filthy home in preparation for a move and then promptly pushed off to go swimming leaving us to do the work, then there was the time when her idle, lute making husband, came in to get me out of bed to do the washing up while he and his wife finished up their wine.

Perhaps they saw the free labour as quid pro quo for free accommodation, but I would happily have forgone these breaks in exchange for being able to stay at home away from them, their children and their inedible food. Dinner chez auntie wasn't the sumptuous French cuisine you might imagine, instead we were treated to such delights as pasta drenched in ketchup or a knife full of jam which had recently played host to my cousin's finger. Nothing wrong with that you might think, but you don't know where that finger had been before it hit the jam pot.

So I can't say that the idea of the demise of family hols fills me with sadness. Of course I love spending two weeks with my four boys, but even then I usually feel as if I need a holiday to recover from it most years.

And the winner was...

(sneaks in stage left, with a flustered, guilty air) I am so sorry to have left everyone on tenterhooks over the Easter break without updating you on who won the Year 1 bonnet competition. I know you will hardly have been able to concentrate on your chocolate eggs. So to put you out of your misery the winner was a little girl with a lovely, very sophisticated bonnet decorated with feathery strips of coloured card.

It was a delight, and while I wouldn't swear she made it all by herself, after once having been caught by her before a parents evening, and been treated to half an hour of conversation as a result it's more than possible. The girl genuinely is an intellectual giant, albeit a garrulous one, so I will not pee on her parade as it's more than possible that this prodigy really did make her wonder hat.

Phew, now you can return to whatever it was you were doing with your curiosity sated.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Easter Bonnetgate

Don't get me started on the ridiculousness of setting a six-and-a-half-year-old boy the task of creating an Easter bonnet. I did mention to the teacher that this was hardly a boy-friendly activity and perhaps they should have been able to fashion their own Easter guns instead. She laughed and agreed: "Yes to take out some of those bunnies". Miss B is definitely a woman after my own heart.

Being a good mummy, on occasion at least, I went out to Hobbycraft and cleaned them out of ribbons, stickers and other Easter ephemera, plonked the goodies and a straw hat in front of my less than impressed son, and left him to do his worst. To be fair he does have some artistic flair, inherited from his father's side of the family, so he did a pretty good job of creating a seasonal bonnet. That he refused to wear it because it makes him look a bit of a berk is neither here nor there.

So off we trot to the last day of school, me juggling the bonnet alongside my usual collection of school run detritus. As my son's straw creation threatened to take off in the icy March winds, other mums had cleverly thought ahead to protect their precious hats. One arrived with hers shrouded in an old shoe box, while others had cocooned theirs in layers of plastic bags.

As the children began to place the bonnets on the teacher's desk I began to realise why. While my son's hat has a distinctly home made feel to it, others were quite clearly the work of artistic prodigies (far be it from me to suggest that perhaps the mummies had had a hand in these fantastical creations).

There was one complex nest affair make of intricately woven strands of raffia, artfully studded with fluffy yellow chicks and spring flowers, another had its wide brim gorgeously flooded with a meadows worth of daffodils. Then there was the gorgeous top hat fashioned from stiff green card decorated with pretty tissue blooms. They were enough to make Philip Treacy proud.

I was on the verge of snatching back my son's creation when I spied a hat that showed even less effort. A red baseball cap with a stuffed chick perched on top. Now here was a mum who had her priorities right. Though even she felt the need to apologise for her lack of effort by explaining that her new dishwasher had been installed the night before, so she'd had no time for millinery. I would have preferred it if she'd sashayed off with an insouciant disregard for her classroom shame.

As the mums fussed and fluttered over their creations, screaming at their children to be careful with them, I watched a little girl arrive with a hat made from blank pieces of paper sellotaped together to form a rough crown. On each paper panel she had drawn a picture, I'm not quite sure what of, but that just made it even more obvious that she had taken the time to draw and colour them in herself.

Later on today there is a competition and the best bonnet will receive a prize. I am hoping that it will go to this little girl or a child like her, and not the pupil whose mum is most handy with the Pritt stick and crepe paper. I hope the teachers reward the creativity of the kids, and not their mums. Even though that little girl's crown was an ugly duckling amongst swans, I think it was the nicest hat I saw because she had made it herself, and not had her project hijacked by an overachieving mummy.