Monday, 15 September 2014

A man down

The offending limb.
At risk of sounding like a terrible lightweight whinger, I don't cope well when the FDMTG team is down by a man. I know that many mothers manage single handed for all or most of the time, but when you are used to having a right-hand man and suddenly he's not there it leaves you feeling a bit vulnerable.

To be fair we have had a short dose of this before as Mr FDMTG is in hospital having more surgery on a skiing injury acquired earlier this year on a boys only trip. Foolishly I thought he deserved a break and he took me a bit too literally, coming home with a snapped shoulder which resulted in his first big operation. Following this he has had  ongoing niggles and he is now back in hospital having corrective surgery to hopefully put everything right at last.

The result of all of this is that while he tends to his injured arm, I am left alone to tend to our unruly flock. I will admit this was not something I was relishing, particularly so soon after the very long summer holiday.  Getting our boys out to school has always been a challenge, given that they seem to hear 'Hurry up and get dressed' as 'Please play with some Lego on your bedroom floor'.

What with tantrums over toothpaste incorrectly applied to the brush, the provision of unacceptable pants, a dearth of name labels and book bags that seem to come to life at night to play hide and seek, getting out in the morning is the polar opposite to a pit stop in an F1 race - in other words slowness is of the essence.

Don't even get me started on the momentous and ponderous decision it is to choose breakfast. Given that the choices are pretty limited - a few types of cereal or toast and one of three types of juice - you would think this would be a simple selection to make. Oh how wrong you would be. My middle son in particularly treats selecting his breakfast with the same reverence as you might making options on a Michelin starred menu.

He umms and errs over toast versus cereal, Nutella versus honey, porridge versus egg on toast - invariably plumping for the most time-consuming option. You can guarantee that on the morning when you had to leave the house five minutes ago he will opt for slowly home cooked porridge and a cup of hot chocolate. When this choice is abruptly vetoed and a banana is thrust into his had sulks are sure to ensue.

This is perhaps why I feel that extracting our boys on a school morning is at least a two-person job. Now the problem is compounded by two separate school runs, one for the older boys and one for the twins. Luckily we have drafted in a substitute to cover the driving, but it still means we have to be up dressed and fed before the mother-in-law arrives, as it wouldn't do to be found with our pants around our ankles and no food in our bellies.

Happily, despite my misgivings, the boys have stepped up to fill the shoes of our missing member of staff. This morning my two eldest boys woke me up to tell me it was time to get ready for school, AWOL husband having called the eldest's mobile to make sure mummy was up! They then helped their little brothers dress and brush their teeth, after which they made breakfast all round, unloaded and loaded the dishwasher.

I am not sure this was a smart move on their part though as now I know they can do all of this I am not sure I want to go back to my role as general morning dogsbody! Still it is nice to know that when the chips are down my little crew of boys are ready and willing to pick up the pieces.

So while the FDMTG household misses daddy terribly, he can rest easy in the knowledge that his boys rising to the challenge of having a man down.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Twas the night before school starts

And everything was stirring after six and a half weeks of late bedtimes and lax discipline.

I don't know about you, but this summer holiday seems to have been notable mostly for its length. Day after day of my children knocking about expecting to be fed and entertained has certainly taken its toll. There has been much shortness of temper and exasperation during this last week of the holiday. I think we are all ready for school to start again, not least because if I don't get a stretch of more than two minutes without hearing the wailing cry of "Mummmmeeeee", ring out around the house I will not be held responsible for my actions.

The problem, as I see it, is that families are creatures of routine. We can just about hold it together when steered from minute to minute by sheaves of letters from school telling us that Thursday is cello, Tuesday piano, Monday is football and Wednesday is swimming. When I am given simple steps to follow all is well, but when this is thrown to the four winds and it is me who is solely responsible for my children, chaos ensues.

This summer's shenanigans has been compounded by our house move, which has meant that my limited child entertainment skills have been further hampered by living out of cardboard boxes. Every toy or game the children wanted for the first half of the summer holiday was packed away in a box, and for the second half was strewn across the house as part of Operation Unpack.

My boys, I am sure, think I suffer from OCD when it comes to tidiness. I, on the other hand, justify the decibels reached when screaming at them to keep things tidy as the only thing that keeps us from being recruited for the next series of Hoarders: Buried Alive. So you can imagine how much fun it was chez FDMTG when the entire contents of our house was spread haphazardly across the floor of all the wrong rooms as builders picked their way indelicately about dropping dust and nails in their wake.

I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to having a boy free house that I can just tidy, without some helpful little soul deciding to undo my good work by setting up an elaborate game involving random pieces from a board game, some beads, several lego pieces and a toy giraffe, only to become enraged should anyone shift any of these vital items by a millimetre.

I do love my children (a mantra I have had to repeat under my breath with increasing regularity during this summer holiday) I suspect that after so many weeks in their close company, absence will make my heart grow much fonder.

I just want to pass the day without having to endlessly provide food and diplomatic services. It has amazed me how one meal segues seamlessly into the next when you are catering for small boys. It appears as if the moment the last mouthful of toast and cereal has been chewed, there are demands for sandwiches for lunch and the moment those crumbs have been scattered all over my pristine breakfast bar it's tea time - again.

Equally, while my boys love each other (a fact that I have had to remind them of on numerous occasions recently), what they love even more is to fight with one another and the only authority who can rule on any disagreement is the all powerful Mummmeeeee. As if I had any control over the actions of these small bundles of irrational impulses otherwise known as my sons.

So, while they deputy head of the twins' new school bemoaned how fast the summer holiday had flown by, I nodded sympathetically while grimly thinking not nearly fast enough!

Friday, 5 September 2014

The upside of exam stress

The way it used to be when he went to sleep with me. 
The last time I stroked my eldest son to sleep was when he was two. I still recall smoothing the damp golden curls from his forehead, watching his eyelids flutter as he drifted off. Listening to his breathing fall into the regularity of sleep and watching his grip relax on his constant companion, Barnabas the bear. I thought that I would never again experience this, as he grew older and lulled himself to sleep with podcasts and gory tales of zombies and vampires. Indeed nowadays it is not unheard of for him to fall asleep after me.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to discover one of the hidden side effects of exam stress. Tomorrow my boy has to sit four difference entrance exam papers for two selective schools, one of which he is really keen to get into. Test nerves began to bite at the dinner table, he'd had a disastrous session with his tutor when he'd completely messed up a mock paper and the tears pricked at his eyes as he worried that he would let us down.

I hate myself sometimes for putting a 10-year-old through this, particularly as there is no guarantee of success. But on the other hand I feel as if I have to let him have the chance to prove if he can do it or not. Personally I am more than aware that a good education counts for very little, but that doesn't mean I don't want him to get one so he can throw it away if he chooses to.

In an attempt to calm his fears I offered to read him a bedtime story. This was a sacred ritual from the moment we brought him home from the hospital until the day he learnt to read fluently by himself. I treasure my memories of reading Kiss Goodnight Sam to him as an uncomprehending baby while we rocked together in a nursing chair in his lemon yellow nursery. The best bit was always all the kisses I got to bestow on him at the end in my role as mummy bear. I can recite the words to The Gruffalo by heart and Percy the Park Keeper is a family friend.

The bedtime story was never quite the same once more children came along and I tried to read whist feeding another baby or fielding a toddler who was keener on eating the book than listening to what its pages held, so in some ways it holds particularly precious memories of my two years alone with my firstborn.

However I thought the days of reading to my golden son were long over, until tonight when he asked me to read E Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle to him. It was a bit different to the old days as he picked me up on any errors I made, but it was such a delight to snuggle up with him in bed and put on accents for the different characters. A delightfully unexpected step back in time, even if the child in bed beside me no longer fits into the crook of my arm, but is almost as tall as me.

As I read I felt his tension relax just as it used to when he was a tiny toddler resisting his nap. But when the chapter ended I felt his grip on me tighten. "Please mummy stay with me until I go to sleep", he pleaded. How could I say no?

I sat beside him on his bed stroking his back and once again listening to his breathing getting steadier and deeper, watching his eyelids closing and his body relaxing into the slumber that will transport him to his next set of tests.

Yes, I hate putting him through these exams and I abhor seeing him stressed, but I can't complain at the side effect of allowing me one more chance to soothe my beloved son to sleep with a story and a back rub. I just hope that this tells him that no matter what happens tomorrow he could never disappoint me. Just watching him sleep is enough to fill my heart with pride, everything else is a bonus.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Down with league tables

When I was a new parent anxiously seeking a school for my precious firstborn there was nothing in my life that was more important than an Ofsted reports and league tables. I spent weeks poring over the reports for each potential school, instantly scorning any establishment that fell too far down the table or gained less than an Outstanding grade. Obviously nothing but the best would be good enough for my child genius in the making.

We drove all over the surrounding counties viewing houses situated in the elusive catchment areas for  these rarefied establishments. One parent I knew bought a house for over six figures just so she could be down the road from her local Outstanding state school. Even we, who were in a much less lofty financial position, eventually sold our house to secure a place at a top rated school. Other, much more sensible, parents let their own houses and decamped to rental properties to the same end.

Nothing was more important when it came to judging a school than what those all-knowing inspectors from Ofsted had to say about it. If these experts judged a school to be Outstanding then surely it must be?

Well you would like to think so, but bitter experience has taught me that perhaps such slavish following of Ofsted's advice puts parents in a rather less informed position than they might expect. You see, while Ofsted is very concerned about how many children turn up at school on time, about whether homework is marked promptly and whether the school communicates (i.e. sends home endless letters) well, there are certain areas where it appears to be blind.

This I learnt when my own sons' once Outstanding school was brutally downgraded to Needs Improvement last year. I suspect this was in part due to a general feeling from those in power that state schools needed a good slapping, after all those pesky teachers will keep striking, but it also seemed to be due to a distinct lack of interest by the inspectors in anything other than ticking boxes.

Was attendance high? Were targets clearly set and met? What were the standards reached in core subjects and what was the quality of teaching in an individual class? All important questions, but the answers only cover a fraction of what a school actually does every day. You see my sons' primary school didn't nosedive over night, it was still the same school we'd chosen all those years ago but Ofsted simply couldn't see any of it's qualities as it was too busy with its pen hovering to answer formulaic questions.

While no school is perfect, and ours certainly had plenty of flaws that might well mean it deserved to lose it's Outstanding crown, it wasn't and isn't a school limping along in desperate need of assistance. It struggles thanks to a demographic that increasingly has English as a second language, but it also succeeds in areas that were clearly of no interest to Ofsted, but might be crucial to a parent choosing the right school for their child.

This is why I greet the news today that secondary school headmasters are striking back with their own alternative league tables  that will allow parents an insight not only into what exam results a school achieves, but the culture of a school as expressed by the extras it offers. The rich extracurricular banquet from which league tables and Ofsted reports puritanically abstain.

For example at my boys' school there is a gold medal winning string orchestra, which plays like a choir of angels. This orchestra is made up of a rag tag of pupils, mostly playing rented instruments all of whom are coached for nothing by a dedicated and talented parent at 8am before school. Now that really is outstanding, but Ofsted doesn't even know it exists and it wins no points in a league table.

There's are also sports and art, chess and computing clubs, mostly provided for virtually nothing by selfless parents and teachers. There are trips to the theatre and visits from national theatre groups, there are plays and concerts, talent shows and baking competitions. There is a huge and rich culture to which a table of results pays no attention whatsoever.

These are the things that really make a school outstanding to attend. It is impossible to ride high in academic league tables when your pupils are pulled from immigrant communities who are more concerned with actually finding their feet in a new country, than with arriving at school on time. When the language spoken at school is rarely the Queen's English and when many parents don't understand the first thing about the British education system.

But while it might not be able to serve up the top grades parents think a school should be judged on, it is important not to dismiss a school out of hand. Just because only a minority achieve top marks, doesn't mean that it is impossible to do so, it might just mean that for a majority of the children simply understanding the lessons is a achievement alone as they only just learning to speak English.

Equally while education is about learning, it's also about enriching a child's life. That, I believe, is delivered by schools in a myriad of ways from drama to trips, music to sports, pastoral care to community events and even the chance to mix with those children from different cultures and backgrounds who are the very reason a school might not top the league tables. In my opinion these should be far more important when you choose as school than whether it has good attendance figures!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Living out of boxes

The view through our roof
The shambolic FDMTG household decamped some four months ago from our perpetually shrinking North London semi in search of a home that was big enough for us to lose one another. We sold our home in less than 24 hours thanks to a completely crazy London property market, but that has been the only thing about this move that has been fast.

Goodbye swirly mustard carpet
Given said house buying madness in our fine capital, the only house we could find that ticked our boxes of big enough for four boys and affordable without selling both kidneys, was a wreck. It had not been touched since it's late owners had clearly gone to town doing it up in the late 60s. There were swirly carpets and avocado bathroom suite, thick, brown velvet curtains throughout and even a fully kitted out tiled bar with both optics and coloured spotlights.

While I had a soft spot for the bar, the rest was an eyesore itching to be ripped out. Which is exactly what has happened over the past four months. We bought a house with four solid walls and ended up with a shell full of rubble and builders. It was the most expensive three walls I had ever seen.
The bar
Gradually, over the months, our new home began to emerge, with many, many hiccups along the way. They say house renovation is akin to bereavement or divorce in terms of the stress levels involved, but let me tell you the split of my first marriage was like a week in Barbados compared to doing up our home.

There have been tears, hysterics and much screaming and rowing between myself and Mr FDMTG. Most memorable is the humdinger caused by the use of white plastic plug sockets instead of stainless steel ones. That one almost broke us. It's amazing how worked up you can get about the minutia that you will never notice once you are moved in and living there.

Though there were plenty of proper stomach hitting the floor moments of panic. Having stretched ourselves to the limit to both buy and do up our house, imagine our horror when our builder revealed that the extension we had been assured was sound, actually had no foundations and had to be demolished and rebuilt? There were plenty of tense conversations about that as we juggled meagre funds try to meet that rather vast hidden cost.

The most expensive three walls
We worked our way through over 50 paint samples, most of which were tiny variations on the same shade of lilac. In the end our decorator suggested simply painting the whole house from our sample pots and we spent as much on them as you might expect to pay for slapping on a couple of coats of white paint.

I have lost days of my life poring over lighting websites, trying to find the perfect mix of cool, affordable and not-so-fashionable-that-they-will-instantly-date fittings. Only to have the electrician bugger off on holiday for four weeks leaving nothing but bare grey wires hanging from the ceiling.

We have dealt with kitchen fitters who dematerialised, leaving our budget bustingly expensive kitchen a half fitted mess. We have had stand up rows with window companies where they held the key to our bifold doors to ransom as we attempted to get them to finish fitting them properly. We have been presented for bills for tens of thousands of 'extras' by our builder who saved this treat for so near to the end of the job that all our contingency funds had well and truly run dry.

That's not to mention living for months with my four children in the spare rooms of my in-laws house. Admittedly we were incredibly lucky to be able to benefit from free accommodation during our build, or we simply wouldn't have been able to do it. But with the best will in the world a family of six invading my husband's childhood home has not been a barrel of laughs.

We have squished daily life into three rooms, a single fridge and a drawer in the freezer. We have coped, but living out of boxes has lost any appeal that it might once have had. And it's questionable that it ever did appeal.

Whenever the children ask where something is, the rest of the family choruses 'In a box' as that's where all our worldly possessions have languished for the past few months. We have had to buy new clothes, toys, swimming trunks, lunch boxes, uniform, drinking cups all of which we already own, but they are all beyond reach mysterious box whose location remains unknown.

However, the end looks as if it could be nigh. We have a tentative, I-will-believe-it-when-it-happens, moving in plan for this weekend. Of course everything is far from finished, but we have bathrooms, bedrooms and, fingers-crossed, a kitchen, and that is all you need to sustain life. I am just hoping that my dear friend over at From the Valley to the Palais is right and it really is more fun unpacking!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Not a dinner thing

When I was growing up my parents were very open and vocal about most matters. No car journey was complete without a deep philosophical or political debate. As the wheels of their furniture van ate up the miles between deliveries of one shabby chest of drawers and the next ancient wardrobe (they were antique dealers if you were wondering), we would thrash out the Northern Ireland question, the benefits of unionisation and whether capitalism or communism was the better ideology.

Given my ornery nature I was almost guaranteed to take the opposing view, regardless of whether it actually reflected my true opinion. After all what sort of debate is it without any contention? I still recall the memorable Christmas when the Romanian revolution ended with the deposed leader Ceaușescu and his wife being executed by firing squad.

The festive season was peppered with heated rows about whether meting out the death sentence was fair punishment for his cruel regime, or an inhuman response from a people no more civilized than their leader. Now as an English 18-year-old with precious little experience of the world, what did I know about this complex question? But never let it be said that I didn’t keep up the argument at least until the New Year.

You see no global issue is safe from my half-baked views, which is perhaps why I should observe with more care the edict that such issues should not be raised in polite company. They are, as my mother would always warn: ‘Not a dinner thing’. As in they should not be discussed at the dinner table for fear that crockery might begin to fly.

To be fair the topics covered by this rule in our household covered a broad church from the mention of all bodily functions, to any criticism of the standard of cookery right up to geopolitics, but that doesn’t make it any less sound a commandment.

Perhaps in this modern age it should extend from the dinner table to Facebook. For while I readily admit to an addiction to this social networking site, I think it has a purpose to serve and I am not sure that is the dissemination of contentious political views.

I love to see pictures of friend’s holidays, kids and funny videos, but at the moment I feel that navigating my feed is a bit like tip toeing along the Gaza strip, without the bombs and rockets of course. I have friends who take violently opposing views and both pop up with regularity accompanied by supporting videos, news stories and eye-witness testimony, which they believe prove their point  beyond a shadow of doubt.

As with most of the world, I have my own opinions on this subject, but I have learned that it is probably safest in such an emotional conflict to keep them to myself.  Sadly no matter how strongly you hold a view in this case there is sure to be someone who holds the equal and opposite view just as vehemently. It is best left to those actually involved and fully informed to attempt to solve this intractable problem without the injection of cod philosophy from the Facebook community.

Therefore disobey the upgraded 2014 version of my mum’s rule at your peril as I want to reclaim my Facebook feed for funny videos of cats and pictures of ever more ingenious loom band designs.

That said if I have a long journey to fill, you’re all welcome to pile in and we’ll have the Middle East problem solved by Stockport!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


As the mother of four sons how could I resist a film called Boyhood? Richard Linklater's intimate portrayal of 12 years in the life of an average Texas family is compelling viewing for anyone who is in the process of rearing a family. It explores the formative years of a boy called Mason, whilst taking in the lives of those around him including his divorced parents and sister Sam, played by Linklater's own daughter.

As it was filmed over 12 years in real life there are none of the unconvincing prosthetics or awkward jumps between different child and teen actors. Instead the real growing pains of the children involved are captured in all their celluloid glory. It shows the main character's growth from a cute six year old into a disaffected and pretentious teen without pulling any punches. In fact, Ellar Coltraine, who plays Mason, says he cringed as he watched himself literally grow up onscreen.

It is probably this realism that makes the film so compelling. At almost three hours long I was convinced I would be twitching in my seat long before the end, bored by a self indulgent director's inability to edit his own work. Instead I was riveted. Mason's family isn't that similar to mine, there were just two children instead of four, mum and dad were divorced and the family lives a peripatetic life of moves, new partners, siblings and schools, but some things are universal.

I got a not entirely pleasant insight into what young boys get up to when unsupervised. It appears that this revolves around sex and drink, with a few soft drugs thrown in for good measure. This is not particularly comfortable viewing for a mother of pre-teens, but I guess it lets me know what I am in for.

But scene after scene tugged at my heartstrings as I saw my future, or at least a version of it, played out in front of me. I watched as Mason pushed his mother away when she went to give him a goodbye kiss at his new school, as he was embarrassed by her pride in his graduation and most heart wrenching of all the scene where he leaves home for college. His sobbing mother declares it the worst day of her life, and I was crying along with her at just the thought of my boys leaving home.

It is a fascinating film that kept me captivated from beginning to end. But more than that it made me go home and stroke the baby soft skin of my five-year-old twins with a new found appreciation. It highlighted just how fast time goes with children. The parents compare notes at Mason's graduation party, incredulous that their kids had both left high school. I know that sensation well, where you feel as if just a moment ago you were cradling a baby and now you are making applications to secondary school for that same boy.

It is so easy to rush the business of being a parent. When you are under the daily cosh of school runs, washing, cooking, taxiing and nagging to do homework, tests and music practise, it doesn't feel like a magical time to be treasured. Instead you want to get through the day and into bed with a good book. At least I know that's how I feel, but this film did give me reason to pause.

It made me think about how I am missing the best bits, or at least failing to savour them as I spend so much time grumbling about how hard it is to rear small children. It's not that Boyhood sugar coats the early years. They are shown as the familiar chaotically harassed mess of pick ups, drop offs, arguments about school work and a juggling act of earning a living alongside bringing up children. But when viewed in sharp contrast to the adult years that leap upon us so fast, they take on an altogether more precious feel.

So Mr Linklater thank you for making me smile, cry and pass two and a bit hours in the company of your celluloid family, but more importantly for showing me that I should stop from time to time and relish my boys' boyhood, for it is a just a fleeting moment in a lifetime that passes all too quickly.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014


Swearing in front of children is, by and large, frowned upon. Which is why I am so ashamed of my inability to keep my language from turning blue on an embarrassingly regular basis when there are small people in my vicinity.

One early warning sign that perhaps I should project a more clean living image was when my eldest son announced that he couldn't wait to be an adult because then he could "Drink, swear and gamble". How to make a maternal heart swell with pride. I should point out that this was declared after a trip to Las Vegas where he had been endlessly shooed off the gaming floor by zealous security guards keen to retain the casino's gambling and liquor licences.

But even so it is shaming that at his tender age he saw swearing as sign of maturity (let's not get into the drinking and gambling here). I had taught my little boy that swearing was both big and clever. This is surely not the job of a good mother? Then only problem is that I find it hard to work up much of a head of steam about the use of bad language.

Of course I don't like to hear it from the lips of little children, and have made this crystal clear to my boys. They know that swearing is for adults only. I accept this is a deeply hypocritical line to take, but I find it nigh on impossible to keep the odd naughty word from slipping out under duress, so what alternative to do I have? I do try self regulate, and make sure the really strong words are kept under lock and key, but I suspect that my children learned the word shit at about the same time as they picked up mummy and daddy.

Sadly the oldest's nosy eavesdropping means that now even the strong words are popping out of Pandora's box. During a recent stressful house move I felt moved to insult our potential buyers by declaring them them to be "a pair of C**TS" over the phone to my husband. Only to discover my eldest lurking outside the door, grinning gleefully that he had added another profanity to his growing lexicon of curses. Ooops indeed.

He did get the lecture that this is the nuclear weapon of expletives only to be unleashed in the most severe of circumstances by adults well over the age of 18. I think he understood, but such words are sprinkled with the glittering the allure of the illicit. I think using a hardcore swear word is the 2014 equivalent of taking a puff of a cigarette behind the bike sheds for my generation. Possibly naively  I don't think many modern kids would give this a try, but using a naughty word seems to hold the same fascination - or perhaps it's just my eldest who is drawn to the dark side.

In fact my middle boy is the polar opposite and is one step away from introducing a swear box to at least profit from his mum's bad language. Every time I employ the mildest oath he snaps "Mummy" at me in the disapproving tone of a prim maiden aunt. He takes a very dim view of rude words and is forever trying to wrench my language out of the gutter.

I fear that he is fighting a losing battle though. I am part of a hard swearing bloodline where the air in the family home was often turned blue with casual obscenities. My mum's favourite was the inventive phrase "Fxxxing Shaggers", which was employed at the drop of a hat, glass of milk, chest of drawers on her foot and so on. I then worked in magazine offices where every other word began with the letter F and as a freelance I am at liberty to swear at my screen as much as damn well like. I am a lost cause when it comes to dainty language.

I will just have to hope that my boys' teenage rebellion is to become as different from mummy as possible. A bit like Saffron in Ab Fab, they will decide that to be as square as possible is the best way to show their old mum the error of her ways.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Golden rules for a family day out

Happy Families!

It's the summer holiday, so naturally your thoughts will be turning to ways of entertaining the children. For all that is written about how boredom is good for children, the reality is often utterly intolerable forcing the average parent to resort to highly expensive and inconvenient amusements. Hence the decision to do a family day out - be it to a theme park, to a stately home or just to anywhere other than under your feet - there are some simple rules I have discovered through painful trial and error, which should go some way towards making the experience more bearable.

So here are my golden rules for a successful family day out:


I realise this appears to be a rather contradictory rule, but while bored children within the confines of your home are hard to take, imagine that distilled to the inside of car for several hours on a hot day. It doesn't really bear contemplation and at least at home you are in close proximity to drinks, snacks and a toilet.


If you insist on pressing ahead with this harebrained scheme then you do not, whatever you do, leave the house without a proper supply of food. It amazes me how leaving the house appears to create an insatiable hunger in my boys. It's as if as soon as they are out of range of the fridge their stomachs start to panic. Even a short walk is accompanied by whines that they are hungry, no matter how recently they were fed, and who can forget the soporific effect of a breadstick on a testy toddler? I know that  boxes of raisins were the only way to survive a shopping trip when mine were still buggy bound. For a long car journey the rule is pack as many snacks as you can physically fit around you in the footwell of your car, and you will still run out before you get there.


I know the reason that you got them out of the house in the first was to get them away from screens, but if your trip is likely to take more than an hour, then sink your principles and plug them right back in again. We have travelled across Europe in blissful silence all courtesy of the combined forces of an iPad and an in-car DVD system. It really is the only way to travel without dumping at least one child beside the motorway when their bickering becomes too much to take.


When I was a grown up, as opposed to a parent, the idea of a child-friendly destination filled me with dread. What constituted a good day out was perhaps a brief flit around an historical site, a long walk in the gardens and a slap up lunch in a top notch restaurant. Or maybe there would be live music and a bottle of fizz on a stretch of manicured green lawn, or perhaps an indulgent picnic and some open air theatre.  Essentially the key to it was that these activities actively discouraged the participation of small children, what with their requirement to pay attention to something for more than a few seconds without shouting, screaming or getting bored.

Now, when selecting a destination there are only two things that are essential: 1. a cafe serving child friendly food, for which read chips and anything in breadcrumbs and 2. a play area, or preferably two, one indoors and one outdoors, so you are covered for all weather eventualities. Other than that I'm easy.


If I am going out for the day I need a phone, keys, money and a pair of sunglasses. If I am going out for the day with my sons I need the aforementioned trailer load of food, wipes, suncream, bottles of water all round, a change of clothes or two, towels if we are likely to go anywhere near water, toys, aforementioned entertainment devices and yes, more food. It is better than when they were tiny and you had to add a buggy, nappies, milk and several more changes of clothes to that list, but still getting the boys out of the house is like a military exercise and I still always find I have forgot the one crucial thing I really need.


By this I am not referring to the previous point, instead I mean you need to prepare for your return. This is very simple. Make sure that you have a chilled bottle of white resting in the fridge, ready to be cracked open the second your children have been herded into bed. After the first glass or two the post traumatic stress following a family outing starts to fade and blur into a false memory of a lovely day out. This can be the only explanation as to why we are sure to put ourselves through it again next school holiday.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

School's out for summer

It's the end of term and all my sons are in party mood and ready to celebrate six weeks of freedom. No surprise as the last few days at school seem to have involved nothing but watching DVDs and eating cake in the classroom.

Strangely, despite the fact that I will be in sole command of my little troupe of terrors for the next few weeks, I am feeling equally demob happy. While I am sure that I will be a frazzled wreck come the end of summer I am gasping for a few weeks off school.

School can be very wearing, what with the early starts, endless pickups, interminable concerts, picnics, performances, cake sales, fetes and so on that require parental helpers (or at least those mums such as myself who appear to have 'MUG' tattooed on our foreheads). That's not to mention the politics and infighting that is the inevitable result of interacting with other people over something as fraught as the education and welfare of our precious children.

The moaning never ceases and even though I hold my hands up to being one of the worst culprits, I long for a break from it all. I don't want to worry about who will man the popcorn maker, who failed to put the things away properly in the PTA cupboard, who hasn't given their fiver for the teacher's collection, who has resigned from a key position on this or that committee leaving us in our perennial position of 'in the lurch'.

As I walk out of school today I want to shut the door on all of that and have five weeks with my boys. I want them to get up when they like and spend all day playing computer games if that's what they want. I want to explore sunlit fields searching for dragons in the undergrowth, I want to see just how wet and muddy they can get while playing in the local stream. I want them sticky with ice cream and lazy with days spent in the garden in the sunshine. I want to watch movies and not worry if they get to bed too late.

I don't want to nag about homework, or search for PE kits and book bags, I don't want to sign any permissions slips, or remember packed lunches, or make sure music practise is done. I don't want to do load after load of washing to ensure there is clean uniform available every day. I don't want to wake up at 7am to drag myself out of bed to extract my grumpy children from beneath their duvets. I don't want to start the day by screaming at them to remember to brush their teeth and to hurry their way through their breakfast or we will be late.

In short I am sick of the drudgery, the never-ending school runs and the unceasing flow of admin that has to be dealt with to manage the school lives of four children. The forms, the invitations, the applications for clubs, the music lessons, the tutors, the school applications…the list goes on and on.

This is why I think it is so important that we keep our long summer holiday. It's not for the children's sake, it's for all the parents. Of course the children love a break, but it's us mums and dads who need a few weeks away from the school gates. So I say hurrah for the summer holiday (but check back with me in a couple of weeks and see if the boys have managed to dampen my enthusiasm by then).

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Decisions, decisions

There are lots of challenges facing parents. We all have to endure the sleep deprivation, the mess, the noise, the brutal curtailment of our social life, the demotion to a combination of cash machine, short order cook and mini cab driver, but I think that perhaps one of the hardest things about bringing up children is the number of choices you have to make.

When they are babies we agonise everything: from the birth plan - should we go natural or drugged up to the eyeballs? - to feeding. Breast or bottle, organic puree or the shameful convenience of jars? From nappies - Pampers or reusable? - to sleeping - tend to their every whimper or leave them to scream themselves into slumber?

It doesn't get any easier as they grow up either. I still remember agonising over whether or not to go back to work and if I did which nursery would be entrusted with the care of my precious little toddler. My ultimate choice for number one (who, as the test case, has been the cause of the greatest degree of soul searching) was a chi, chi Montessori pre-school that set us back as much as a decade's worth of five star holidays and about which he remembers not a thing.

Don't even get me started on primary school. I will never get back the hours I devoted to poring over Ofsted reports and league tables, the days wasted traipsing around schools being soft soaped by head teachers. I remember we were so desperate to see the school our son ultimately went to, we braved a snow storm to attend the open day only to be greeted by a sign telling us it was closed due to bad weather. Shows our naivety, we subsequently learned that the head closed the school at the faintest whiff of a snowflake.

I don't recall ever taking so much care with decisions I made about my own life and you would think that as a slightly more seasoned parent I  would have realised how little difference most of the choices I make as a mother ultimately make.

If only. Though, in mitigation, I do think that my painful vacillation is partially fuelled by group hysteria. It is not possible to get together with a group of mums with children the same age as yours and not be dragged into a conversation about the pros and cons of the choice of the moment. NCT friends would furiously debate those baby choices over coffee in the park, while now my fellow Year 5 mums cannot meet even for a swift coffee without the topic turning towards secondary school places.

These conversations turn on hearsay and nuggets of information from those who have trodden that path before us. Misinformation spreads like wildfire. Tales from friends of friends who have apparently either discovered the secret formula to get into the school of your choice, or whose poor choices left their child with no option but to attend the local comp, which draws it's feral pupils from the surrounding sink estate.

Such tales imbue every tiny choice you make with a terrifying importance. It's no wonder that it is so hard to make a simple, straightforward decision when every conclusion you think you have reached is sub-consciously second guessed by something we overheard, or read in the paper or has been fed to us via the school gates web of Chinese whispers.

The only glimmer of hope on the horizon is that where once my sons believed I was the fount of all wisdom and my word was law, the eldest has developed a healthy scepticism (or some might say scorn) when it comes to the infallibility of the opinions of adults. So I think the days of me making choices for him are numbered, and I say amen to that.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Report Day

Today is report day for my four sons. Although a B- to the school though as they were meant to come out yesterday, but a mysterious delay held them back for 24 hours. Clearly some of the teachers must try harder to get their homework in on time.

I still recall the sheer terror of report day when I was at school. I would try to cook up any number of reasons why that dreaded sheet of A4 paper wouldn't make it home. Could I claim to be the only pupil the teachers deemed so outstanding as to not need a report? On past form I felt this claim probably wouldn't fly. 

I could lose it, destroy it, shred it or find some other way to blast it out of existence, but even before the days of computerisation there was probably a carbon copy of it it somewhere. Either that or my disgruntled teachers would remember word for word each criticism they had to level against me and would relish the chance to relay the report verbatim to my parents. 

When I started at school I was mystified by the rules and regulations that surrounded education. My home life was a ramshackle affair that ran on mess and chaos, so I really didn't understand why it was wrong to simply get up and go to the toilet when you needed a wee, why you needed to put your hand up and wait to be asked to speak or why you shouldn't rest your feet on the desk in front if that made you more comfortable? Of course when asked 'Would you be behave like this at home?', my innocent reply of 'Yes', was interpreted as insubordination leading to a trip to the headmaster's office. 

The strongest memory I have of my primary school is picking away at the khaki hessian board that was hung outside his office. Endlessly pinning and unpinning the spare drawing pins used to stick up school notices. I can feel it's hairy roughness under my fingers and make out the uniform pattern of the fabric, bumpy and scratchy to the touch. 

It is perhaps no wonder that my school career was blighted by poor reports that complained of my insufficient regard for authority, my failure to fulfil potential, my disruptive nature in class, my stubborn refusal to ever apologise to anyone.... As one form teacher from my secondary school sighed 'Ursula has an answer for everything'. You would think this would be a positive trait in an educational establishment, but I am pretty sure it was not meant as a compliment. 

I just thank my lucky stars that so far my boys have not trodden in my footsteps when it comes to reports. I suspect this is in part due to their altogether more pleasant natures, but also because schools are much kinder, more friendly places than they were in the late 70s. In this brave new multicultural world differences are to be celebrated rather than quashed, which means an odd bod like me would probably have been singled out for extra care and attention rather than relegated to endless hessian gazing. 

So far report day has been an occasion of celebration, last year the eldest managed to net a full brace of A grades and a report so flattering that it brought a tear to my eye. So different from the school reports of his dear old mum. 

I do have an inkling that the plain sailing might not last forever as I see far too much of myself in my youngest boy. He shares my utter rejection of the concept of compromise and insatiable desire to get my own way, a combination that is, I fear, destined to challenge future teachers. As yet he is still at the Playdough and Phonics end of his education, so for now I imagine his educators think these are things he will grow out of. I can hear my husband's hollow laugher in my head as I type these words and he knows better. 

Despite my own mortifying experiences, I can't help feeling a fizz of anticipation on report day for my boys. I can't wait to rip open those envelopes and read all about how much they are liked and appreciated by their teachers. How well they are doing and how much they have achieved. Perhaps if I had ever managed to deliver such a welcome package to my parents report day would not have such a bittersweet flavour. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

All by myself

It is not until you share your home with four young boys that you realise how precious being alone is. Solitude is something I crave in the same way an alcoholic surely yearns for the crystal clear hit of vodka or a smoker aches to draw that first puff of nicotine into their lungs. To be by myself with no demands made on my time is the stuff of dreams. An hour or two without the word 'Mummy' being drilled into my skull with all the persistence and volume as a pneumatic drill, without anyone wanting a drink, a snack or to tell me some interminable fact about Minecraft. This is the drug I crave.

I know working mothers whose main reason for returning to work was to enjoy the peace and adult time afforded by a commute. To sit huddled on a hot, overcrowded train, crammed into close proximity with all manner of human kind, with wildly varying interpretations of the concept of cleanliness was preferable to the unceasing chatter and needs of their young brood.

Oh how I empathise. Forget the smells, the heat, the delays, the fact is onboard London Underground no one will bother you. There is an unwritten rule that no matter how closely you are squeezed into someone's armpit, no matter if their groin continually nudges the pages of your newspaper, you do not speak to one another. What utter bliss.  I wish I could institute such a rule at home.

I would insist on a vow of silence from the moment I pick them up from school to the moment I have finished depositing all their crap back into the hall at home. No voices could vie for my attention to tell me how disappointing my choice of after school snack was, or to demand why had I forgotten to bring a drink, or to insist that I was more than capable of juggling a cello, four school bags and my youngest son's latest cardboard creation, whilst also holding the hands of both my twins. No one could cry, or get upset because I failed to stop the world so I could give them my undivided attention the instant they required it.

I suspect that if I were able to create this regime I would not feel anxiety rising like a hot tide within me the moment I reached their classroom door. It's not that I don't want to hear about their day, it's just I don't want to hear about all four of their days simultaneously, whilst listening to them each ramp up the volume to ensure that I am listening to their story most closely. I don't want to endure another argument about who gets to sit in the front of the car, or debate about how old you should be before you start carrying your own school bag. I don't want to unravel the mysteries of how my eldest son managed to lose his shoes, or to hear about how so and so was mean to the middle boy.

I want silence. I want to switch them all off and transport them in a monastically quiet car until we reach home, at which point they all peel off to amuse themselves leaving me to perhaps have a proper chat with just one son, or to cook their supper in peace once again.

The only way I keep a slippery grip on sanity is to regularly escape family life and revel in relative isolation of a walk or run by myself. In fact a year or so ago I joined a running group in the hope that it would improve my performance. But, while I met some truly lovely people, I discovered that I hated running in company and rather than boosting my running I all but gave up.

It dawned on me that it was not the fitness that running gave me that I loved, but the chance to get away. To cover miles of city streets and green fields all by myself. To slip through mud, sweat through sunshine and discover my little corner of London alone. Friends would ask to run with me, but I will admit that for me that defeated the object. Chatting and company shattered that precious isolation running gave to me.

Since then I have had my ups and downs with running, but despite having lost my marathon fitness, I am still addicted to the seclusion of a good run, even if now it might be more of a waddle and a walk than a swift jog. The main upside of this is that now all my friends are far better runners than me and no longer want to accompany me as I wobble and puff around the streets three times a week. Instead I sometimes invite Messrs Kermode and Mayo to chat to me about films, but other than that it's just me, myself and I and that's the way I like it.

So while a bunch of flowers is always welcome, I never say no to a box of chocolates or a jorum of fizz, the most deliciously decadent gift anyone could bestow upon me is an hour of uninterrupted peace. Not to do the washing, or cook dinner or tidy the house, but to just be me. Not a mother or wife, a worker bee or housekeeper, just to be alone with my thoughts and take the pressure off.

I wonder how many other mothers are shouting snap as they read what comes top of my wish list?

Somewhere over the rainbow

No longer do I seek a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, instead I long for a house free from infinite quantities of multicoloured mini elastic bands. Everywhere I look from inside the washing machine to the hob, from the sofa to in between the sheets and the mattresses of my boys beds there are loom bands.

Not since the Rubix Cube that gripped the country in an obsessional fever back in the 80s has a toy craze appeared so all pervasive. You cannot go out without encountering an industrious child beavering away on their tiny loom to create garish bracelets, rings and even more inventively, hard-to-identify elastic band animals to hang from their clothing.

Mothers at school have discard tennis bracelets, watches or any other type of bangle in favour of hand-crafted loom band jewellery that their children would be mortally offended if they failed to show off on their wrist. Even dads have their hairy arms embellished with pink and white knitted bracelets kindly made by their offspring.

Invented by Cheong Choon Ng who, like many parents before him, identified that most children would far rather play with rubbish than with actual toys, and capitalised on his daughters' fondness for making things out of elastic bands by creating Rainbow Looms. A smart move that has netted him millions, and discovered the secret formula to get children away from screens.

While I am filled with admiration for his ingenuity, I cannot forgive him the plastic detritus that he has spread across the house. I will not forgive him until I stop waking up spitting out elastic bands carelessly discarded in bed, until I stop having to wear woven elastic bands biting into my wrists and until I stop having daughter envy when I see the creations made by my friends' girls compared with the sorry attempts made by my sons!

However to address this final problem I have found a secret weapon as publishers have been relatively quick to cotton on to this trend and I have come across (via a helpful PR) a book called Loom Band It! by Kate Roberts and Tessa Sillars-Powell. This colourful title promises to up my boys skills from simple bracelets to the dizzy heights of elastic band cupcakes, sandals and mobile phone cases.

It's arrival in our house certainly proved popular as it always does when one item arrives in a house with four children, but as usual the most obstreperous twin won out and spirited it off to school where they have recently invested in 3,000 bands plus looms for his reception class. I am expecting big things, not least that the cereal boxes covered in lolly sticks and tissue paper I am handed at school pick up be replaced by a new kitchen knitted entirely from elastic bands. Now for that I really would thank Mr Ng!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Age before cuteness

Mummy blogs rather tend to focus on the early years. Indeed FDMTG was born alongside my twins charting their early years from their first smiles to their first words, examining the contents of nappies in minute detail and sharing the perils of bedtime for four boys. I suspect this trend is due to the comedic potential of small children, twinned with the acres of boredom that stretch between moments of note when your child can neither speak nor walk.

I know that I am as guilty as any mummy blogger of seeking to preserve those precious moments of baby- and toddler-hood. To use my blog to stroke their golden curls, to suck in the fragrance of a warm and milking babe in arms, to capture those ephemeral bubbles as they burst at bath time. I used to believe that there were just a few fleeting golden years of childhood, that were provided to ensure that you could cope with older children once their cuteness was buried under sulky moods and ill judged pre-teen fashion fads.

The image of your dungaree clad toddler smudged with yoghurt would somehow blur the edges of an acned teenager throwing a strop over pocket money, allowing you to retain some degree of maternal love long after the cuteness that first won your heart had worn off.

As usual I was wrong. I find that as my children grow older I grow ever fonder of them. Of course I have not actually hit the teenage years yet, but there are certainly plenty of hormones stewing within my volatile 10-year-old to give me an inkling of what lies in store, but I'm not scared anymore.

Yes his chubby cheeks have slimmed down and he wouldn't appreciate me covering his bottom in kisses any more, but it turns out that the fulfilment derived from having a sarcastic exchange with him, or discussing The Fault in Our Stars with him is far greater than basking in a toothless baby smile.

Yes we fight, he was horrified at my heartlessness when I failed to cry while reading the aforementioned Fault in Our Stars. But then we make up as he almost had to carry me out of the cinema as I sobbed uncontrollably at the celluloid version of the book. We hurt each other occasionally as we share the same mildly cruel sense of humour, but he is the only man to whom I will willingly apologise and he melted my heart by bringing me a bunch of flowers after a particularly contentious exchange.

I have discovered that while a deliciously cute toddler offers a hit of sweetness like a swiftly gobbled chocolate, an articulate and sceptical pre-teen is to be savoured like a fine and complex wine. Sure I can't make him giggle by blowing raspberries on his tummy (though I could still try, he's not that grown up), but I can discuss the relative merits of religion or whether or not it's worth wading through the arcane language to get to the heart of Shakespeare.

So while now I might feel a twinge of nostalgia in the making as I watch my twins run the obstacle race at reception sports day, their little legs pumping under their shorts as they pound to the finish line, their little arms reaching for me when I tell them it's time for mummy to go. Now I am comforted by the thought that this isn't the end of the line when it comes it feeling your heart contract with love for your children, in fact the best is yet to come.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Taming the tiger mum

I have always been far too lazy to be a tiger mother. Forcing my children to devote their spare time to improving their sentence structure, decoding mind-frazzling puzzles and endlessly practising scales, rather than their preferred activities of shooting things on the Xbox and devising ever more ingenious ways to irritate other family members just seemed way too much like hard work. But now the dread spectre of secondary school looms large I begin to wonder if I have perhaps missed a trick.

Even as the most mathematically challenged mother I have worked out that if x= four sons to educate and y= approximately £20,000 school fees per son, per year then parents= too poor. This leaves me with two options. Option one is the true sloth mother choice, simply let my boys brave the local comp and hope for the best, or at least that they survive the experience intact and free from an addiction to any class of drugs.

Now call me a helicopter mother but I have seen the boys that go to our local comp and they scare me. Given that my eldest has strong nerdy tendencies and a marked preference for reading over football, I fear that taking the path of least resistance would see him having his head forced down the toilet by nasty rough boys within his first week. You might think I exaggerate, but this is exactly what happened to the last sweet little boy who was fed to this pride of schoolboy lions by his laissez faire mother.

Moving swiftly on to option two. Selective schools. Well this is where I feel that in failing to roundly punish children every time their thoughts turned from those of academic improvement I have let them down. While I am a firm believer that childhood is a time to do as little as possible, after all adulthood is deeply marred by the requirement to work hard to make ends meet, this philosophy looks a little shaky as I put my children into the ring against the cubs of tiger mothers.

Yesterday my boy auditioned for a music place at a local selective school. The odds are not stacked in his favour as thousands (I exaggerate not) of children vie for 20 places, but he valiantly carried his cello into battle. I even made him wear a shirt in an attempt to curry favour with those music teachers who would decide his fate.

I soon discovered that I am an amateur in these matters as we sat down next to a girl in the full regalia of a gold embroidered sari strumming away on a sitar that was at least twice her size. Clearly a shirt and about the fifth cello in the room were not going to cut the mustard against competition like this.

Perhaps I should have had some inkling of what we were up against during the soloists concert at his primary school. While my boy gave a perfectly creditable performance, with only a few screeching wrong notes to let him down, a fellow pupil gave a virtuoso performance I would pay money to see. The rumour mill at school assures me that this level of excellence is achieved courtesy of some particularly red in tooth and claw tiger mothering.

These are early days in the rounds of tests and exams that will seal his fate. But it's too late to get fierce now and I have to pray that being such a pussycat mother won't end up being tacked onto the roster of parenting errors I have made.