This morning, on the school run I had a moment, a moment of panic and vulnerability. My boys were behaving like the world was ending and I was paranoid about what all the other parents thought of me. It wasn’t the first time.
So why am I writing this? Purely because I feel like there is one or more aspects of parenting that I fail at – daily – and it’s taken me five years to establish that it’s normal. Talking about where/when/how I mess up helps me put it in perspective: it’s really not that bad. If I manage to make someone else smile along the way then that’s a bonus. I’m Natalie and I’m Mummy to three amazing boys – my lovable, little rogues (ages 5, 3 and 0). They are very active and love to be outdoors. Staying still is not an option! Some days I’ve attempted to survive 12 hours simply by entertaining them at home. Big mistake. We need to explore somewhere everyday. Even if it’s raining. Even if it’s somewhere mundane. Even if it’s not for long.
We’ve been chaos free for a little while now. I am pleased to report that today made up for it. We visited the stunning grounds at Exbury. Our trip did not pass without incident.
We had several factors that were working against us: the relentless rain – a disadvantage of having to book ahead, overtired boys – following early mornings and later bedtimes, and the fact that I hadn’t checked the ‘seasonal status’ of our location. The problem with October half term is that more and more places are now going all out for Halloween, with scary decorations etc. This is great for the majority of children (including middle son), but for the few children who get scared easily and struggle with all things spooky, it can be somewhat problematic. There was panic even getting through the entrance (adorned with horror figures). Next, the bitter disappointment for my little steam train enthusiast upon discovering the the engine had now become a ghost train that he wouldn’t go near.
Once we’d established the places to avoid, I was very impressed with Exbury Gardens itself. A beautiful place full of adventures. Ours started in water…obviously.
Baby turned 14 months today and clearly decided this is a good age to do his own exploring, despite his slow little toddle – the type that results in a wobble or fall every time you cross uneven ground. Evidently he hadn’t read the signs explaining that there were 20 miles of pathways here and felt this was a sensible distance for such little legs to tackle. Every time I tried to put him back in the pushchair he would cry in protest! In contrast, middle son wanted to be in/on the pushchair, even eldest son kept plonking himself on the little footrest at the front. Sometimes I wonder how this pushchair has survived so long without buckling! So, after a few hours of exploration, we headed for the play area with the 4 year old in the buggy and the 1 year old trotting along beside – all whilst trying to shield the 6 year old from all things scary near the rock garden.
Youngest son absolutely loved the wooden play zone. I think it had something to do with everything being wet, muddy and slippery. Handfuls of mud and bark chippings also have an appeal. Rain means faster slides. He made several attempts to go down forwards. Luckily mummy was wise enough to anticipate a head on collision with the ground and assisted him adjust to a seated position.
Lunchtime was interesting. Hand washing three pairs of hands with a combination of water poured from drinks bottles, baby wipes and sanitiser would have been more successful if they didn’t find the dirtiest surface within reaching distance to touch immediately afterwards. I’d managed to supply the whole family with waterproof trousers, so sitting on a wet surface shouldn’t have been an issue but the drizzle meant the small people elected to eat inside a little hut. ‘Little’ being the operative word there. There was no way baby would sit in a civilised manner, this meant I also had to bend my ridiculously long legs into the damp wooden playhouse and hold the baby on my knee with one hand whilst organising, opening and handing out picnic food to the big two. Youngest son was in a ‘wriggly’ mood so a large portion of food ended up on the floor. Further food was discarded on the back of my head as I bent down to pick up the first lot. Having successfully fed the littlest one and cleared up the mess I started my own lunch. Approximately 2 and a half mouthfuls later and my smallest child got restless gesturing towards the slide again. We were back on the move.
The after lunch toilet trip was even more interesting. We found a baby change facility that fitted us all in. Middle son was desperate for a wee, however waterproof trousers with straps over the shoulders take significantly longer to remove when you have a jacket over the top and an elder brother using the tiled floor as an ice rink – evidently taking the opportunity to conduct his own friction experiment. All I wanted to achieve was a nappy change for the baby and avoid middle son’s clothing ending up on the floor.
Many sensible people would have given up at this point and headed home. As we’d driven so far to visit, we continued onwards, hoping to move the hide and seek game that the older two were now engaged in…away from the toilet block. It was a good decision, as it meant the children discovered the giant bell, found the crooked tree, went on a stick hunt, scaled tree trunks, playing more pooh sticks and hid amongst bushes.
Then, when we were at possibly one of the furthest points from the exit, middle son decided he could walk no further and collapsed dramatically on the grass making accompanying groaning sounds. I managed to coax him onward and he began the slow crawl on his forearms (much like a zombie from the ‘Call of Duty’ game). He was briefly amused by a selection of pretty flowers before doing a vanishing act, while I was talking to eldest son on the stone bridge. As it turns out, he’d felt the best course of action was to sit himself at the bottom of a muddy ditch – as you do.
He was done walking. He was adamant. The sense of relief that I had my double buggy with us was indescribable. (I’d only brought it having run into trouble earlier in the week when off-roading – the wheels on the single are not suited to mud, but that another story). Middle son sat beside his baby brother and within 5 minutes they were both fast asleep. Somehow we made it back to the tea room to provide eldest son with a hot chocolate. I never thought sitting outside under a dripping shelter could be so relaxing until today.
The method I use to make myself feel on top of this parenting malarky is to compare to a time when everything felt much harder. For me, this was when I had a completely non verbal, fast moving, independent and stubborn 1 year old AND a newborn. I’ve just discovered a text I sent my husband during this time period:
“It’s been a very stressful morning. Both boys have been needy. All I wanted to do was to get the dinner in the cooker (I’d actually written ‘cooler’ but reading it back through, this made no sense) and wash up but both tasks took forever in between bouts of tears, toddler poo and baby sick. I still have a headache but am supposed to be going out this afternoon, so thought ‘eldest son’ should sleep (At the time, he would only snooze while in a moving vehicle or pushchair). Also needed to go delivering but the double buggy was all collapsed out the back so that took me a while to set up whilst ‘eldest son’ was banging his head. He then gave me another scare. I went to pick up the poll cards, turned around and he was gone. Gate was open. Went to check he wasn’t hurting baby (who was in the hallway) and saw the front door was open. I had visions of him standing in the middle of a road so dash outside. Without shoes or coat on, ‘eldest son’ has got himself into the pushchair (his brother’s side) and is looking at me wondering what that problem is. Fast forward 10 mins to when I finally got them both outdoors, dressed and strapped into pram properly. I made it down to the end of ‘our road’. It starts raining. Rain cover isn’t in the back of buggy. I thought about going back but don’t know where to search for the raincover and ‘eldest’ will likely be asleep in a few houses anyway. ‘Youngest’s (now middle)’ dummy is on the pavement. He is howling. Rain is getting heavier. A mere nine houses were delivered. Eldest did fall asleep. I have now settled baby and crashed out in bed. What a morning!”
So whenever someone asks me how I manage with three infants, my response is usually “It’s easier than it was with two”! If anyone is having a bad day and can’t think of a time when things were harder – after all we’ve never had a pandemic like this before – I’d recommend making the comparison to any parent in a soap opera. Or better still, stop, breathe, take an extended look at your little person/people and consider how blessed you are to have them. I don’t think medical science will ever discover a stress reliever as good as seeing your child’s smile.
Apparently eldest son’s love for maps is contagious. After examining and expanding the map selection at work then using a friend’s map to identify a rather elusive footpath, I am now the proud owner of my very own old fashioned OS map. It’s like being back at school in my old geography classroom.
The first few minutes after opening it up consisted of finding our house. Most people do this as standard when presented with a new map, despite their home being the one place that they can quite clearly locate without assistance. This was followed by the search for places with silly names – again inspired by the part of me that never grew up.
Finally we could move onto choosing a destination for our first ordinance survey themed adventure. We found a part of the South Downs way, where there was a conveniently placed car park and footpaths that looped round back to the starting point. We like to avoid linear walks if we can because it’s impossible to convince the offspring you’re nearly back to the car if you are yet to turn round!
Early on, the sky caught the boys interest when we spotted multiple gliders circling over the Harting downs. We were not the only spectators. At least 4 hairy caterpillars were spotted making their way across the grass. The boys felt they required closer examination – I was a little concerned they were dangerous and made the kids promise not to touch them. After some googling my suspicions suggest they are ‘Drinker moth caterpillars’. Disappointingly, they are named because they like to drink dew from grass stems not because they enjoy knocking back a few colourful shots! N.B. Happy to be corrected on this identification by a caterpillar expert.
Our next discovery was a random gate. No fence. Just a gate on its own, in the middle of a wide open space. Eldest son wanted to climb over it. Middle son chose to go to the right of it, while I went round it on the left. Meanwhile youngest son (and the hubster) felt the need to go through it. The path here led us down to Whitcombe Bottom. We found prickly dens (too small for the grown ups), a hill to roll down, fallen trees to balance across and a wooden circular fence supposedly housing a pond. Upon closer inspection, there was no interesting pond life, not even a lone duck – hardly surprising given that this supposed pond was currently the size of a mediocre puddle.
Next we began a rather arduous ascent through the trees. Eldest son began complaining that his feet hurt, meanwhile middle son claimed that it was just too steep for him. OS map came to the rescue when we reviewed the contours (which are marked in orange – his favourite colour), and surmised – from the way they spread out after the bend – that we must be near the top. We celebrated by finding another tree to crawl along. As you do.
The return route featured the acquisition and appropriate allocation of Daddy sized, Mummy sized and baby sized walking sticks. Goldilocks would be proud. Our newfound equipment wasn’t much use to us when faced with a fallen tree across the path. Although the boys made short work of going under it, I managed to get my 6ft4 frame stuck when attempting to copy them! As a result, I needed to back out and follow my husband – who’d done the sensible thing and found a route around.
Our final encounter was with a herd of cows, who I’m sure appreciated the visitors, plus the added bonus of amusing youngest son.
This was the point when middle son developed a fascination with electric fences. We were required to discuss how they work at length and study the warning signs and picture. Normally, I like to encourage my children to investigate first hand instead of giving them the answers. But on this occasion, I thought it wise not to, preferring my little dude in non-toasted form.
Often when we plan a family cycle somewhere new, the time seems to dissolve, leaving the husband unable to fit roof bars to the car and load up the bikes and accessories before we are due to be somewhere else. Today we were in a race to get out before the rain arrived and having been up most of the night with a baby who woke up at least six times. As a result, our plans to revisit the Meon Valley were shelved in favour of a local cycle.
Having previously explored the Queens Enclosure and Havant Thicket on multiple occasions, the new found bike path led us to Hurst Wood – a place I’d been totally unaware even existed until today.
The area was very pretty and tranquil despite its close proximity to the A3(M). There was a map board to navigate through the pathways, the odd tree roots to hop over and an exciting subway under the road to echo our voices. We found a little bridge across a stream – perfect for pooh sticks. Perhaps the most exciting find was a tree balance branch acting as an access to a rope swing.
Overall an enjoyable little cycle during which two things occurred to me:
1) Eldest son’s dungaree trousers seem to get shorter on the leg every time he wears them. They fitted last week now they are barely past his knee. My first tip: Never go cycling in dungarees.
2) How was I unaware of this pleasant little track when I’ve lived in the area for 10 years? My second tip: Adventure locally, you might surprise yourself.
It wouldn’t be a family outing without one of my boys doing something a bit silly. Middle son obliged. He decided to dramatically tip himself sideways off his bike halfway up a hill to ensure that we had realised he found the incline exhausting. Now to find a way to remove the blackberry stains from his clothing…
My audacious offspring and I fancied exploring a new part of the Meon Valley trail so picked one of Hampshire’s beautiful little villages that appeared to be located nearby. I made several attempts to find a friend to join the boys. We found someone, who apparently likes to partake in traditional, but wacky outdoor activities as much as my children do.
Upon arrival I realised that my phone battery had only 4% charge left. The phone can be very unpredictable at times, it has been known to last an entire evening on 1% but is just as likely to randomly turn itself off when opening an app to meet up with the husband. Navigation would need to be completed the old fashioned way. Conveniently, we discovered a map at the village church. As a result, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, until our friends arrived – equipped with a professional looking Ordinance Survey map.
One dead end and two downpours later, we found a route onto the disused railway line and began our adventure. Middle son reached new levels of speed on his bicycle with a new face to compete against; while eldest son tried to cover up the fact he couldn’t keep up, by attempting to cycle up a ridiculous steep bank – a challenge I’m sure even superman would struggle with. This was the first of many pit stops before the discovery of some stairs leading down to the river and its crystal clear waters.
The boys gradually shed clothing as assorted items were splashed or walked on by pesky siblings. I attempted to tidy them under the pushchair to salvage them from from future unfortunate events. What I achieved, was a a forehead full of stinging nettle as I bent down to retrieve them.
Having enjoyed our lunch sat in a muddy puddle (where the water was churned up against the bank then splashed onto the walkway), a lady passing by enquired why we weren’t sat at the picnic area. As it turns out, this was only a stones throw away. It was our next destination. Middle son managed to slip on the way. His only remaining item of clothing was now both wet and muddy! Tip of the day: always carry a towel.
On the 30th July I blogged that I intended to set up a different selection of toys/random items to amuse my big boys when the woke up on a weekday so I could get baby sorted.
It was going relatively well until the husband ended up working at the weekend and I lost the ability to identify what day of the week it was. Unfortunately, my son has recently acquired ‘days of the week’ socks. He wears these religiously. I can’t even begin to describe the problems that ensued when a ‘Wednesday’ sock got wet. I can reassure you that the solution was simply to wear only one (correctly labelled) sock for the remainder of the day.
I digress. This morning, eldest son’s foot warmer system informed him it was Monday morning. So at 7 o’clock exactly, I listened to the patter of feet heading for the playroom, closely followed by a, “wait for me” and a slightly louder patter of feet. Then a whimper sound could be heard, before both boys arrived at my side with heartbroken looks on their faces. “Mummy, where is today’s set up?” There was much guilt at this point. Imagine looking at the face of a lonely puppy dog shut outside in the rain. Quick thinking was required. Normally my brain prefers to work at tortoise speed, especially at this time in the morning. From somewhere, I managed to come up with, “Maybe this morning you could do the setup for me?”
They couldn’t contain their excitement. I watched as they turned towards each other, their eyes met, a wry smile crept across both of their little faces and they raced back to the play room. Anyone would think I’d just announced Father Christmas was in there! They successfully found an ikea box containing a group of toys not yet featured in previous days and worked tirelessly to make it look fun for Mummy. Once completed, it was necessary for me to engage in a game of Thunder Hollow demolition crazy 8s. I wasn’t entirely sure how to play this, but as it turns out, pushing a school bus into a toy car before raising the aforementioned car into the air and rotating it whilst making motor noises, is sufficient. Now to avoid forgetting again.
To avoid coming across as a complete failure with this challenge, since I last posted I have remembered on 11 occasions (out of 12 weekdays). Some were very last minute, ‘I’m tired and I just want bed’ efforts. Others, I may have got slightly carried away with. My top three have been:
Duplo city. Once you’ve finished the standard set up, it’s a challenge in itself to make something with the leftover pieces.
Normally, when the boys are jumping around the living areas, bringing their toys downstairs in hordes and launching balls into the air like missiles; I get grumpy. Today I encouraged it. Pettit Playland is open for business.
Soft play has always been that activity with a bit of a reputation. My personal viewpoint has changed significantly over time. I remember the excitement when my elder sister invited me to accompany my nieces to one. Running around like a crazy thing, whilst taking on the role of the responsible adult was ridiculously fun – a great opportunity to relive my youth. Then I had a crawling baby of my own and soft play took on a new role: a safe place for him to learn new ways to move and climb. Watching my first born meet milestones and the memory of his little face as he took on his first ball pit, will stay with me. But associating these indoor cushioned playgrounds with magical excitement would not last.
Once my children reached the age where they repeatedly asked to visit soft play, was around the same time I began to dislike it. We always ended up going on the ‘everything is sticky’ day because it was marginally more bearable than the ‘super busy can’t find my child’ days. You’d be dragged by your offspring to a difficult to reach place, attempting to bend your 6ft+ frame around several corners. At the top of a slide, your child likes to start on your lap but soon abandons you and goes it alone when it becomes clear your wide, childbearing hips have you lodged. This is closely followed by the embarrassment of trying not to look like you’re stuck. After freeing yourself you scan the vicinity for your child, initially panic only to later find them by the vending machine pressing all the pretty lights while a small queue of other children wishing to purchase drinks is beginning to form. Then there’s the noise level. (I thought nowhere could be louder than my own kids’ playroom. I was wrong.) You zone out in the deafness and start to consider how many little hands have touched the frame and where else those little hands have been prior to this. In addition the odd used sticker or plaster was a particularly unpleasant discovery.
Then the lockdown came and went. Most other places opened up except soft play centres. They might be closed indefinitely. Maybe they are a thing of the past? Of course, it was at this point that I chose to miss them, mourn these little torturous pits of craziness. Youngest son would miss out on this little experience that his siblings had adored.
So today we converted the dining room to our own soft play centre. Youngest son discovered the joys of a ball pit (with a limited supply of balls) and took the opportunity to climb the wrong way of a slide, enjoying a cushioned landing when he slid down at a peculiar angle. Middle son decided to adorn the area by adding every soft toy he owned. Meanwhile, eldest son took the opportunity to market our softplay. He wanted to create a sign and a reading area. They all loved it and playing there filled all morning on a day when we had nothing else planned. So now, I no longer find soft play areas loathsome. If only I felt the same about the inevitable ‘Operation clean up’, which is bound to involve at least 33% of them bawling that their indoor playground has gone.
The hardest part of taking the boys out on an adventure is often finding a starting point – somewhere we haven’t been before. With two infant school aged boys, the activities often plan themselves once you arrive somewhere new (as long as it is outdoor and has ample opportunities to get mucky). If there are arrows to follow, even better.
Today we decided to tackle the Hangars Way. This is fairly local and I was delighted to find that it’s divided into eight different trails. We elected to explore the section between Buriton and Butser Hill, knowing that there’s still at least 7 more adventures to try another time. I say “at least” given that we didn’t complete the route, we were too busy discovering exciting distractions.
We nearly didn’t even make it past the pond that we’d parked next to. The boys got a little over excited when they saw the ducks and appeared to be on the verge of jumping in, while I was still getting youngest son out of the car. They selected our route around the pond, opting to go clockwise over a mini walkway – barely wide enough for feet let alone a pushchair. So I decided to improvise and pushed the pram through the shallow stream in order to join them. Once on the other side, my intrepid children began testing out some stepping stones. I had visions of them slipping in and coating themselves in the stagnant looking pond water. Knowing we were close by to the car and armed with an old towel (for situations such as this), I let them take the opportunity to practise their balance. Only one wobble from eldest son meant getting a foot in the water. Although this was so uneventful, none of the duck community even noticed. Persuading him not to wander off back up the stream was a little trickier, because as he put it, “One of my shoes is actually wet anyway.”
Only at this point, did we begin the trail itself. Within minutes the boys had found three steep paths to convert to slides and a railway bridge. Middle son was thoroughly amused when two trains passed over the bridge. We also saw the old quarry path and an obsolete mine cart. Mario Karts is a current favourite of my big two. They love the Wario gold mine track, so this rusty, disused transporter was always going to capture their attention. The steps down to it meant we continued south along the same path.
On this occasion, Grandma had joined us on our adventure; she requested that we took a circular route, coming off the Hangars way and circling around the Buriton chalk pits instead. Not only did this route seem practically vertical in places but the multiple tree roots and rock hazards made pushing the buggy was similar to an army assault course training facility. We began running parallel to a hard surfaced road path and established from passing hikers that this was part of the South Downs way. Having an extra adult to hold the baby, meant I could lift the pushchair up and over a number of tripping hazards, brambles and undergrowth to reach it. Eldest and middle son followed and we reunited on flatter ground, beginning our descent and stopping only for a snack in the sunshine. Adventure incomplete on this occasion but I’m already planning to returning with the husband and Littlelife baby backpack.
On too many occasions husband and I have said to each other, “How is it they have a playroom full of toys, yet the only things that take their interest are Daddy’s watch, a roll of toilet paper and the kitchen cutlery?”
I’ve narrowed it down to the following possibilities:
1) Things are more interesting if they are in front of you.
2) Things are more interesting if you haven’t seen them for a while.
3) Things are more interesting if you see someone else using them.
4) Things are more interesting if they don’t require any effort to start a game with them.
5) Things are more interesting if you know you aren’t allowed them.
A friend of mine set up all her duplo for her children and watched them play for hours. I decided this was an excellent idea and combined it with the idea of toy rotation. Every evening, after the boys are in bed I set up a different arrangement of toys for them. When they wake up in the morning they have a game ready to go, giving mummy some quality ‘lie in’ time. Well in theory that is. In reality, she is usually removing youngest son from the many peculiar predicaments he finds himself in.
This method gives them the chance to play with toys that they haven’t used for a little while. It also gives them new ideas for ways to use objects e.g. wooden blocks as garages (instead of car tracks or stacking towers). The best bit though is designated time to watch them play – something I find fascinating.
I’ve now set myself a challenge to try a different set up every weekday this summer (excluding the week we’re on holiday). It’s a great way of addressing points 1 to 4 (of the list above) at the same time. If anybody has any tips for how to get round point 5 then I’d love to hear them.
My children love to explore. As I’ve mentioned before, they’re just not keen on walking any distance in order begin an exploration. Yesterday, we were only going to the nearby woodland, but ended up having to begin a scavenger hunt outside the front door to motivate them enough for the ‘long’ 400 yard trek.
Walking on its own is “just boring.” All walks must be converted to an adventure. Perhaps the simplest type of conversion is by adding an object hunt. I’m often feeling lazy and choose a nature one from online (but equally you can make your own seasonal one themed to the area you are visiting).
When going for a coastal walk, I find myself appreciating the scenery far more when I’m half looking out for random boats, benches, seagulls and ferries sailing towards the horizon. Eldest son is quite inquisitive so we often end up discussing some items from the list at length – such as the black lighthouse (that isn’t actually a lighthouse but an old mill). There have been other conversations such as the one about sea barriers and flooding; it only occurs to you later that your child is likely to announce something along the lines of, “I know what a dyke is.” It’s then you cross your fingers and hope that this happens when looking at a picture of sea defences and not as a random announcement.
Another favourite of ours is a number hunt. For this, you need nothing but a sheet of paper with numbers on, although a pre prepared hundred square is even more convenient. This is suitable for any walk around town or simply when you are trying to get from A to B in a suburban area. In the words of the CBeebies show, ‘Numberblocks’, numbers really are everywhere: telegraph poles, road signs, houses and bus stops are all excellent places to start searching.
If you have a bit more time, or walk the same route often, you can generate clues for the children on the way. This is quickly becoming a hobby of mine and now I can’t help but spot different shapes or coloured mini landmarks to become part of a treasure trail.