Wednesday, 26 October 2011

All partied out

Belts have had to be tightened of late due to the dramatic fall in income resulting from the general decline in the media industry. I lay the blame for this squarely at the feet (or should that be fingers?) of evil bloggers who write for free, leading commissioning editors to believe that content is no longer something that should be paid for as so many are prepared to give it away.

Well I say if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and not having to dance to the tune of a features desk does have its benefits. The deadlines are more relaxed and I get to write about what I like, not the fluctuating weight of the stars of The Only Way is Essex.

In any case, I digress. I have been attempting in my vague and chronically spendthrift way to introduce some austerity measures of my own. To wit - don't shop EVERY day and downgrade from Waitrose to Tesco wherever possible (which is not often if you live in an area ringed by the invariably knowingly undersold supermarket). However my sterling efforts to snap shut the FDMTG purse have been undermined of a seemingly unending run of birthdays.

They kicked off with my partner in crime Mr FDMTG's birthday on the ill-fated 11 September. He has never felt quite the same about his celebrations since we watched carnage at the World Trade Centre from a hotel room in St Kitts in 2001, so I feel it's important to go all out to cheer him up amidst the mournful memorials that surround the date of his birth. This added up to a round of meals out and presents. Lots of fun, but it hit the domestic budget hard.

Then there was my big one and I celebrated hitting 40 by spending lots of cash on sparkly dress, shoes and jewels (from uber talented Helen White), while other half re-mortgaged the house to pay for a slap up party complete with 80s tunes, embarrassing dancing and vodka jellies.

Next up was little Mr M, who turned six with a grand total of three celebrations. There was tea with the family in our local Italian, then a trip to town for afternoon tea and the theatre to see Horrible Histories. Finally he had a go-karting party with all his friends. After all of which I was too fearful to tot up the total. I simply blush with shame at all this indulgence lavished on a six-year-old.

The final birthday before we enter into the carnival of Christmas (and guess whose turn it is to host the family this year?) is my eldest who turns eight on Halloween. Initially I thought having a small party with just six little boys would be cheaper than our usual bash for the entire class of 30. How wrong can you be? Boy insisted on an assault course style birthday. Not an easy thing to pull off in London, so we ended up booking a secret location in Essex to go quad biking and complete a high wire course at a cost I am too mortified to admit.

Then I thought we had been let off the hook as he requested a quite night out with mummy and daddy on his actual birthday. At last something that might not break the bank. But then he started to notice all the Halloween paraphernalia popping up in the shops and performed a swift U-turn, demanding a spooky after school tea with all his cousins. Sigh.

Bang went my resolution not to shop as I spied a 3 for 2 offer in Waitrose on Halloween decorations, and then there are the costumes, the cake, the food......

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Hi my name is FDMTG and I am a shopaholic

You might not think it to look at us, but Angelina Jolie and I have quite a bit in common and it’s not just our dark good looks. We also have a set of twins each and far too many children – she has six, I have four, but mine are all boys so I think it adds up to the same thing.

Alongside our taste for extreme parenting, we also share a deep and passionate love of shopping as is made clear by the number of times she braves the malls with her children in tow. She clearly is a tough as alter ego Lara Croft as I know from bitter experience just how hard it is to indulge in a spot of retail therapy with children in tow.

Perhaps her secret is that she has the fine art of bribery down to a T. Of course it helps that she is a zillionaire film star, as if I were to give in to the demands of my boys on a shopping trip I would need a million dollar movie contract to cover my costs, and despite my claims of being Jolie’s separated at birth identical twin, Hollywood has yet to beckon. However, if you like Jolie and I can’t bear to be parted from the shops just because you are a mum here are my top tips for a peaceful hour or two of retail therapy:

1. Food – never underestimate the power of a box of raisins (or in particularly trying circumstances a packet of chocolate buttons). They can silence a toddler for a full 15 minutes – just enough time to try on those skinny jeans in River Island before the screeching recommences.

2. Sleep – a well timed nap can buy you hours of silence in which to browse. Just make sure that under no circumstances do you allow your child to sleep in the car on the way to the shops, you need them ready to nod off the moment they are strapped into the buggy.

3. Bribery - This has to be planned in advance or it becomes ruinously expensive. Before you even leave the house dangle the carrot of a trip to the toy shop at the END of the shopping trip. Then you can use the stick of cancelling this treat all the way through to quell wails before they become too ear splitting.

4. Entertainment - Pick your route carefully and you can distract the children with endless free entertainment pitstops. If you have boys, then gadget shops with TVs blaring are always a winner. You can let them drool transfixed in front of the latest 3D, HD screen while you idly browse the latest iPods and pads. Also never forget the value of the Early Learning Centre shops for smaller children. They can play with all the toys left out to tempt you to spend and then be dragged away without you parting with a penny. Finally if you have access to the wonders of Westfield there is a dedicated (if a little small) play area for you to use to exhaust toddlers while you plan your shopping strategy.

5. Bring reinforcements - Many hands make light work of children on a shopping trip. Preferably choose a companion who doesn't have children, but longs for some of her own. That way she will think it is cute when they regurgitate half chewed biscuit down her cashmere coat, be begging to practise nappy changing and think it is fun to stride round and round a shopping centre in a vain attempt to get the little darling off to sleep. But whatever you do don't choose an off duty mum to come along too as she is sure to leave you holding the baby as she relishes her own down time.

But if all else fails simply strap them up tight in their buggy and ignore the screams. This approach is clearly the one favoured by the majority of mums in my own dear Brent Cross as I cannot count the number of times the peace of a lone shopping trip has been shattered by some other mother's child left yelling and whining in its pushchair outside a changing room as she tries on endless outfits.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Saved by Skylanders

Half term. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of parents across the land. We have just got back into the swing of term time. We had at last djusted to the morning chaos of rushed breakfasts, mislaid school ties, forgotten book bags and last minute dashes back to the school gate with the recorder no one reminded us to bring on Wednesday. It might not be fun, but the payback is six and a half hours of peace and quiet until the hoards descend in search of biscuits, the TV remote and our attention (and yes I do mean in that order).

Then along comes half term. That unnecessary week off that puts us all out of kilter once again. Suddenly the boys are hanging around looking lost and aimless without the structure of a school day. All suggestions that they use their time off to play with the myriad of toys stuffed in the cupboards, or practise the musical instruments they claim never to have time to play during the term or indeed tackle that mountain of holiday homework are met with excoriating scorn.

The only solution that is acceptable to my picky pre-teens is a day out that requires a second mortgage to fund it. On Friday we had an inset day (don't get me on to them and the question of why staff training can't take place in school holidays when there are enough of them), so I decided to have a day out with my big boys.

We opted for the Dr Who Experience. It was great fun as we are all huge fans. We got to fly the Tardis, operate a Dalek and speak like a Cyberman - what's not to like? But add on lunch at Pizza Express and a couple of cheap toys and I was £100 lighter by the end of the day. If I carry on like this we could have gone away on holiday for less than it will cost to keep them entertained at home.

However just as I was about to lose the will to live before the holiday had even started, salvation arrived in the form of a big, brown paper parcel. I love a big box appearing on my doorstep at any time, but when it contains the solution to all my half term problems in one (or two) shiny cardboard boxes I am in heaven. For inside said box was a copy of the game my boys have been crazing me to buy them ever since they first saw it advertised. My husband and I have been fuddy duddy confused by their breathless descriptions of something that was a computer game and toys, but now it all became clear.

Skylanders is an ingenious mix of toy figures and a fantasy game. You stick your figure of choice onto the portal, which comes with the game and lights up in lovely pretty colours, its image instantly appears onscreen and you can play as that character with all its attendant skills. Now being an over the hill parent this is as far as I will go in terms of explanation, lest I show off the bottomless pit of my ignorance. But suffice to say that ever since it was loaded up onto the shiny new Wii that came with it I haven't heard a peep from my previously bored stiff children.

Even the twins demand to watch Skylanders when the boys are playing as it has the bright, colourful and slightly psychedelic look of a children's TV show. Though I have had to battle to keep all the figures safe as they are a magnet to sticky two-year-old paws. Despite this slight drawback I think the addition of real life toys to the onscreen games gives it improved longevity. Usually my boys have a way of obsessively playing games to the bitter end and then simply losing interest. This way every time we buy a new character the games develops a new level, and they can go back and play it all again with new powers.

The only problem now is that the boys want to collect ALL of the figures. Luckily we have another birthday and Christmas coming up and I don't think Santa will have any trouble coming up with something to put in our boys stockings.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Out and about

It has been forever and a day (well over a month) since FDMTG has been updated. But don't imagine that this means we haven't been busy. Although to be honest anyone who thinks a mum of four is ever not busy is clearly certifiable.

Not only is it birthday season, with four out of the six members of the FDMTG household celebrating birthdays in September and October, which means we have been up to our eyes in cake, candles and helium balloons, but I have also been representing the brand at various events.

So prepare for the plugging. Firstly I was asked (OK paid) to be a judge on the panel selecting the children to feature in the new Calpol ad. It was a surreal day a few months back when I was locked in an overheated room in a London ad agency watching children jump through hoops for the crazed casting director. Some sensibly refused to play ball, instead burying their heads in their mum's bosom or crying noisy tears of indignation while their hapless parent declared: "He's never normally shy like this", while others were surprisingly cute in the face of such adversity.

Having helped to whittle down the finalist from 24 to six, now the ad has been made with two sweet girls (one of whom was a particular favourite, but I shall keep her identity a secret to save her blushes). So well done to the winners, though as I said to the makers of Calpol on the day, surely there is no need to advertise the pink elixir? No right minded parent should need much persuasion as to its magical qualities. It is one of the few failsafe methods I have found to turn a screaming, crying, snot-coated child into a sleepy little angel I could once again contemplate loving. It's hard to imagine an easier sell.

My second outing was a little less successful, probably because it involved the children. Today I braved the tube with my two-year-old twins without the safety net of a buggy. It's not that I wanted to walk with them, but the alternative of lugging a huge double pushchair up and down stairs whilst also trying to wrangle the twins is nothing short of madness.

Surprisingly the tube journey was relatively pain free despite one change and lots of hard stares from joyless commuters who objected to the twins' breaking into the misery of their journey with their shrieks of glee on entering a tunnel or stopping at a station. But I think all the excitement of the underground wore them out, as by the time they reached our destination - the launch of a new range of In the Night Garden toys at The Rainforest Cafe, they'd had enough.

Not even the charms of Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy was enough to stem their tears when the animatronic rainforest animals kicked off an electronic cacophony of cries. All thoughts of Makka Pakka were banished by their abject terror at the 'scary monkey'. In the end their screams of 'I want to go home' became so ear shattering that I decided to cut my losses and head back to the tube.

Thankfully the boys' joy at seeing the train pull up made me realise that despite the event not living up to its promise, the day out had not been a total failure, not least because they slept for a good three hours one we finally made it back to the safety of our monkey-free house.

They did enjoy the goody bag too. No surprise there though as all my boys are chips off the old block. Just recently as I was discussing possible new careers that might actually earn me some money, as opposed to being a freelance journalist which frankly fails abysmally on that front, my eldest wailed: "You can't stop being a journalist mum, I like going to launches and getting free stuff". He's got my job sussed then.