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.
It’s always so tricky choosing which path to take on an adventure. Today, we simplified matters and took the direct route: the stream.
Eldest and middle son quickly scattered. They sought out the muddiest patches and the steepest banks to play on – as you do. The game which materialised first was ‘Bridge making’. This involved our biggest boy hauling the largest sticks he could find and installing them perpendicular to the water. Some fell in; most wouldn’t even take the weight of a squirrel on a diet. In fact, what this game actually acheieved was new hazards for our toddler to navigate past.
Youngest son had plans of his own. Those did not involve holding hands with Mummy or Daddy. He probably didn’t plan to lose one of his wellies in the mud, or the multiple falls in the water. Not that he minded too much, his main concern was wet hands. These he waved at me with a look of disapproval. When there is no hand drier available, you can always use Mummy’s trousers and go on your merry way.
Things I learnt from this trip:
– Always carry a bag for life. We’d been so good and considered bringing the back carrier to transport youngest on the return journey. What we hadn’t considered was also carrying muddy wellies and dripping wet weather gear at the same time.
– Never give yourself a time limit on a family adventure. It was Sunday and we needed to make it back before 10 to 4 to allow time to nip to the shop on the way home. Then we discovered rope swings. Two rope swings. And almost certain delay removing the children from them.
– If they tell you they don’t need the toilet before you go out, then they clearly do. Actually, ignore the above, I already knew this long before today.
– The child with the shortest wellies will always walk through the deepest part of the stream.
– There will always be that part of a river walk, where a child can fit and an adult can’t follow. It is usually at these sections where the 1 year old picks up speed in pursuit of his big brothers.
– Never try and duck under a branch when you are wearing a large toddler backpack carrier. Happily the toddler was not in it at the point Mummy forgot it was there and got herself stuck.
One final piece of advice: when asking your children for their suggestions as to the best way home, fully expect them to point in opposite directions.
Like so many others, our school run resumed this week. Last December, it was usual that I would have to sprint like an elite athlete in order to keep up with my boys. I’d get ‘those’ looks from people out for their morning walk – the kind of looks that aimed to establish whether I was actually their parent or just incredibly unfit. I would watch other families heading to the school gate, the children holding the hand of their parent or scooting alongside in perfect synchronisation. As proud as I am of my independent boys, a part of me wished they would slow down, just a little. Slow enough for a proper good morning if we passed a friendly neighbour. Slow enough to notice when youngest son pulled off and disposed of a mitten en-route. Most significantly, slow enough so the lollipop lady didn’t get so nervous when they reached her crossing. They are well trained not to attempt to cross that road without me, although they do have a tendency to stand right in the way of other innocent pedestrains.
This morning, after a scooter swap for reasons that I’m yet to understand, I got my wish. The big two willingly travelled alongside me. Only occasionally yanking at the side of the pushchair prompting a collision of wheels or wobble in the wrong direction. We were nevertheless together as a family unit, even having the odd opportunity for actual conversation. Until they began competing to talk to me – each of them had something more urgent to tell me. If their brother was talking, it only seemed logical to stop moving completely. Who knew there was a link between only being able to go forwards if you are also conversing with Mummy? From this point on, people ahead of us seemed to frequently disappear into the distance. Meanwhile my children were still discovering multiple ways to go even slower:
I’ve got an itch on the back of my heel.
I forgot my gloves.
I’ve found a worm.
Can we go up that secret passageway?
The wind is stopping me.
Move my handle up.
Move my handle down.
Then we had the debate over which dipped kerb to cross the road at. This is fairly standard for us and it’s usually not the one I reach first. Shorty after that, the heel itch became something far more sinister and required sitting on a conveniently placed bench (designed for those waiting for a bus) to completely remove both shoe and sock in order to discover absolutely nothing out of the ordinary before putting them on again. Finally, with school just around the next corner I hear middle son say to the eldest “Mummy is slowing us down.” Imagine my disquiet. So I motor past with the pushchair to walk in front of them, when I hear a squawk. I turned to witness what appeared to be a scene from ‘Walking with dinosaurs’, where the dominant males are competing for territory. Concerned it could end up as a sibling battle to the death, (starting with the removal of the other one’s hat) I tried to intervene. Unfortunately this was taking place on an especially narrow stretch of path, at which point other pavement users had approached from both directions. Of course neither boy came over to me when I requested, opting instead to act out the remainder of the battle scene for their newly arrived audience, completely oblivious to Mummy’s rising embarrassment levels.
I have missed the school run so much. It took the best part of three months homeschooling to realise how much appreciation I have for these little chaotic moments because then ‘there is only one’ – for the next six hours anyway.
One of the challenges I’ve faced with my boys recently is: there is always one who feels very strongly against an activity the other two have agreed on.
For many, this wouldn’t be a problem at all – just let them all do their chosen activity. Those of you with multiple under 5s will know that this isn’t always a wise choice. One might request painting (with ALL the colours) downstairs, while the eldest and youngest opt to play with toys upstairs. Watching these two interact is often incredibly proud for me as their parent, but then there are days when it is far from enjoyable. On these occasions, the toy in question is either the type that baby can destroy like a wrecking ball in a building site, whilst simultaneously being hit by a steamroller; or the type that contains several hundred tiny, hazard like pieces, that you can just about save from the grip of a little hand, only to discover another missing and remain paranoid about where it went until it mysteriously reappears a fortnight later amongst the ‘Megablocks’ or ‘Paw Patrol’.
It would also be fair to assume that, with the current lockdown, they’d be keen to get outside. At any given moment in daylight, I would say this statement is true for 2/3 of them. The refuser varies, but the outcome is the same: it’s very complicated getting out for a short walk or scoot. I’ve had all manner of interesting ‘small child’ reasoning in the past week.
“I can’t go out there’s no socks in my drawer.” (Solution: “Have the pair in my hand.”)
“The clouds are the wrong colour.” (I think he was trying to make the point that it might rain.)
“But he got to press the button!” (It would appear that the most exciting part of going out on your scooter is opening the garage door. If you can’t do that, then all the enjoyment of an outing is gone. Absolutely no point going.)
If they wouldn’t go to exercise, the exercise had to come to them. I decided to combine the classic instruction game ‘Simon Says’ with the action game ‘Port Starboard’, I added a modern twist and included some current affairs for good measure. Plus, the new hybrid game succeeded in its mission: to both entertain and exhaust the children. To play, all you need is four pieces of paper. I wrote a word on each (school, shop, hotel and home), then blu tacked each of them to the four walls of your play space. Introducing ‘Boris says’: you run as fast as you can to the location you’re told to go to, but don’t get caught out by running there if Boris doesn’t tell you to. Great fun. For the first time, we are enjoying the rules. By the time we’re done, my four year old may even have learnt to read a handful of new words as a bonus. I believe that’s P.E. Reading and Politics done in the space of 10 minutes. As someone who is finding juggling homeschooling with stopping the 1 year old destroying the house challenging, I’ll take that as a success.
Note: Locations can be added/changed as new restrictions come into play. My boys were very enthusiastic to be the ‘caller’. Their early suggestions included: ‘Boris says do a handstand’ and ‘Boris says go to the toilet.’ So glad my children are not running the country right now, or we’d have some very crowded portaloos.
Actually getting out of the front door for our weekend walk was somewhat of a challenge. Eldest son decided to launch into a full scale meltdown during that critical time slot – between food and youngest son requiring his nap. Two sock changes (obviously) and many tears later we made it out.
Baby was in his little life backpack carrier and mostly we were wearing boots, so we thought we’d be safe to explore some of the off-road footpaths. We discovered new exciting amounts of mud: the type that the playground game ‘Stuck in the mud’ is named after. Middle son found his feet sinking into the mud and accidentally pulling his whole leg out of his boot with each forward step, I made a poor choice of footwear and kept slipping sideways, eldest son didn’t pick the wisest spot to put his hand and got his gloves all muddy. We tried to find a safe route through this simple footpath, but things got more complicated. It felt a bit like we were on ‘Total wipeout’ except there was no comically oversized boxing glove to knock us off course. As we navigated around the more treacherous sections, clinging to nearby vegetation or fence posts; husband bravely waded though the central part of the course and attempted to rescue us from assorted predicaments.
By the time we returned the tantrum might have been forgotten but we’d once again accumulated enough muddy garments to fill the washing machine twice over. I still think Total Wipeout looks like fun but maybe without the kids, TV cameras and running commentary.
Returning home from today’s adventure involved the big boys snuggled under a blanket in the back of the car, Daddy folding his cycling jacket in half backwards and sitting on it and Mummy making use of the car’s hot air blower system into the footwell and baby sat in his car seat giggling away and that he’s stayed clean and dry. An emergency fast food takeaway followed, the promise of which had got eldest son through the last few kilometres of our expedition. We’d been on a family cycle: Our first one for a while and the perfect opportunity to use our new 4 bike, rear cycle carrier. It was a beautiful winter’s sunny day. It was also the morning after Storm Bella raged through Hampshire.
We decided to tackle some of the Meon Valley trail again, this time from the Corhampton end. (We had a delayed start, while we overcame several teething problems with the new equipment. Then baby fell asleep in the car, but all was not lost when the boys clocked a play area and skate park to entertain them while Daddy unloaded and youngest son snoozed.) Access to the trail would take us down a flooded country lane. This body of water was definitely less ‘large puddle’ and more ‘accidental ford’. The road was covered. Unfortunately, the road was also uneven and had a rather large pothole at the side of it – of course we didn’t know this until we hit it, put a foot down to avoid falling and then felt it plunge into ice cold water. Two minutes in to our cycle and there were soaking feet everywhere. Eldest son attempted to avoid a similar fate and managed to get his front wheel stuck against the bank as he rounded the corner. Happily, a passing dog walker – wearing wellies – assisted and sent us on our way.
We’d been warned about mud. There was indeed mud. We hadn’t counted on quite so many fallen trees blocking our path though. Some we were able to move out of the way; others we found a way around; yet more required climbing over, armed with muddy bikes. Lifting over my bike while our 15 month old infant was still riding shotgun on it, was quite a mission; but with two adults doing the lifting and two small boys shouting ‘helpful’ instructions and running in circles, we made it unscathed.
Realising how close to lunchtime it was, we made the decision to turn around once we reached the Soberton section that we’d visited during the summer. The water level in the river was particuarly high so middle son and I amused ourselves by watching a herd of cows elect to cross it in a line. It was edge of your saddle, nail biting stuff. When one of the smaller cows had a little slip in the fast flowing water, I even held my breath. I am pleased to report that every cow made a successful crossing.
Catching up with Daddy and the eldest should have been simple, if middle son hadn’t felt the need to dramatically fall sideways off of his bike as a protest to an amiable couple daring to walk past on his preferred racing line. This technique is tried and tested for maximum attention. He does enjoy going down like a sack of spuds before reaching out helplessly.
A quick pitstop to refuel with fruit pouches and fruit bars and a rather unfortunate time for the sun to hide behind the nearest cloud. When you stop, you realise how cold finger tips and toes are. The boys also realised they were cold. So began the “I’m too cold to cycle home” tantrum. Typically, we were about 6 km from the carpark at this point. Mummy tried the usual tactics: gentle encouragement, challenging them to a race and brutal honesty. These all failed. Enter Superdad. He promises one a McDonalds if he can make it back and cycles alongside the other pushing him gently along. However, the crying level of our 4 year old was increasing and his ability to balance was apparently decreasing. The odds of making it back like this were against us. It wasn’t a surprise when we didn’t. Husband then came up with possibly the most genius of plans. Place child on back. Carry small bicycle. Ride large bicycle. All at the same time.
Middle son found this new method of transportation worthy of a beaming smile and we arrived back at the car without further incident, unless you count the fact that we’d brought enough mud back with us to fill a large bathtub, we’d run out of sunlight to wash the bikes AND the washing powder box was empty!
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.