The Game

Some days I’m convinced that all three of my children are part of a highly tactical game. Not only have they not shared the rules with me, but I suspect that the aim of this game is to keep me moving and alert at all times. If it wasn’t for the fact that they’ve been playing this for pretty much their whole lives, I’d assume that they are simply supporting the government in encouraging me to follow the first part of their current three part slogan. Despite being completely unaware of the official rules, I have established the following:

  1. Points are awarded for converting a simple task into a chaotic one.
  2. There is no finish square. The game is ongoing.
  3. Children play as a team. Usually they tag in and tag out at select moments to lead Mummy into a false sense of security.
  4. Usually children take turns, but they regularly alter the order of play to provide maximum confusion.
  5. If at any point, Mummy appears calm and is danger of either completing a job or finishing a sentence, then immediate action must be taken by one of them.
  6. You win bonus points by throwing yourself on the floor.

This morning my children were definitely playing. I was feeling super positive when I woke up this morning. This feeling of optimism was maintained for at least the first six minutes of the day. Then youngest son played his first move: the cry and wriggle. This is where you cry and refuse to be comforted. The louder the better – this way you have more chance of waking your brothers. You don’t want milk, you don’t want to play with your toys and you don’t want cuddles. You do want to be held in a standing position, in the kitchen, with a plastic spoon. It only took an hour or so for Mummy to establish this and make her comeback.

Eldest son wasn’t hanging around though, and quickly made his move: the whine and stall. This involves taking a standard situation, such as putting your socks on then adding more drama to it than you’d expect from an Eastenders Christmas special. He played well, successfully delaying us just long enough to mean he got to take bike to school instead of walking, but not so long that he would miss any of his cherished school time. While my eldest was was having a tantrum about not wanting to wear his raincoat (on a rainy day), his siblings were being saintly. Youngest son smiled sweetly at me as if to say that he would never sulk like that (conveniently forgetting a moment earlier) and middle son was ridiculously obliging and polite, whilst simultaneously providing a running commentary about the good things he was doing in contrast to his naughty big brother.

After an extended school run, complete with mini adventure, I took middle son to his beloved playball session. Within minutes of starting, he decided to take his turn: the squawking magnet. This move is one of his personal favourites and involves getting as close to Mummy as possible (parents aren’t entitled to their own share of oxygen after all) and forgetting how to use any sort of independence. It starts simple, you simply run over to Mummy every 2 minutes or so at full speed – just to see if you can catch her off guard and knock her to the ground – a loving type of rugby tackle. Around this point, his voice goes all high pitched and instead of using standard sentences, he precedes everything he says with the term ‘Mama’, in a manner which only his baby brother would be proud of. It then progresses to Mummy needing to be within 30 cm of you at all times. This is particularly difficult when Mummy blends in amongst a group of preschoolers in much the same way as a shark would blend in amongst the goldfish in your fish bowl. It also makes running, jumping and striking a tennis ball rather tricky. Finally, he moved on to the third stage, refusal to comply with any instruction and expecting everything to be done for him – perfectly acceptable when you are 4 months old but a touch mortifying when you’re 4 years old.

Luckily for me, breaks in play are as essential in this game as they are in an extended version of monopoly. Therefore the boys are currently back to their lovely selves. One is playing beautifully on his own, one is exploring the room managing to insert only toys in his mouth and one is at school – possibly doing maths – his happy place.

The search for the underground house.

With the husband working shifts, I’ve found that adventures during lock down are like buses. You haven’t been on one for a while, then they all come together. Being able to use the car to visit to new places has really made a difference. We are exploring different locations again and it’s exciting. Driving somewhere pretty to avoid people is much more fun than simply ignoring the locals!

On this occasion we went to Catherington Downs – as a child this doubled up as my ‘extended’ back garden. It would appear to be a happy place for my children too. There was joy on their faces as they ran around in circles. Also, many possible directions to explore in: bumpy tracks, steep slopes, narrow twisty paths and overgrown walkways. I let the boys choose our route. After releasing an initial bout of energy, eldest son made reference to ‘going home’ so we opted for a tactic that my parents had deployed when I was young. I had a rainbow striped teddy bear when I was very small. Prior to my gorilla obsession, it was probably the stuffed animal that I’d loved the most. Therefore any talk of ‘Rainbow Ted’ was automatically of interest to me. Like my son, I also refused to walk anywhere ‘for fun’. The point of going for a walk was to get somewhere and on so many occasions we’d just end up back where we started. My parents introduced a neverending search for ‘Teddys Mummy’s house’. What had previously been a boring walk was now a vitally important quest! Being close by to where I grew up prompted this memory and like so many previously adopted parenting strategies, I stole this one too.

Eldest son has had two bunny rabbit plush toys since he was tiny (one blue and one white), imaginatively named ‘Blue Bunny’ and ‘White Bunny’. So our adventure became a search for Bunnies Mummy’s house. Luckily for us, rabbits are native to the English countryside, unlike Grizzly, Polar, American Black or even rainbow bears. This meant we were able to convert our adventure into a nature trail too, hunting for plants Bunny’s Mummy may have eaten, examining partially dug out areas of the hill and investigating the position of perfectly spherical rabbit droppings. I felt like I was trying to track something on the ‘Lost’ island – if you remember that television series. The excitement was back! Who’d have thought that a detailed examination of grass, dirt and excrement could be so much fun?

Our search led us to a wooded area where we encountered a strange looking tree that appeared to point across a lane and up another field. After establishing that it had a public footpath through the middle we set off in that direction, assuming that Bunny’s Mummy had left a clue for us. Every time we reached a gate we also had the added thrill of ‘getting into the airlock’ using only Mummy’s feet to open it. This made an excellent disguise from the standard response of avoiding touching due to the threat of Covid-19. Upon reaching the meadow, we quickly established that this was triggering the husband’s hayfever. (Interestingly, when we were out driving the day afterwards, middle son would ask “Daddy, are you going to sneeze?” every time we drove past a yellow field.) At the top, there was much to be discovered and a beautiful view but we still hadn’t found what we were searching for.

It was all a bit too much halfway through the return journey and between us, the husband and I ended up carrying all three small people back up the incline on the other side. Then Daddy made a momentous discovery! Below a lonely bush the ground had been disturbed. But this was was not like previous sightings. Here, the divot led to a burrow, which let to a potential warren and the home of Blue Bunny’s Mummy. We’d found it! A good job too given that this unexpected discovery led to the boys suddenly being empowered to motor up the final bank, renewing their energy levels just enough to forget they’d insisted on being carried only 5 minutes before. In fact, holding Mummy’s hand for that last section of the walk was all middle son needed to get him back to the car.

Pure imagination

I’m sat nursing youngest son while the sunshine beams through my window. Upstairs I can hear the conversation between my big two as they play. Currently they are putting on different voices for assorted underwater characters, as they set off on a mission across the playroom. No additional entertainment required.

It’s no secret that my children have always preferred structure over imaginative play. For them, the more rules a game had, the better it was. Eldest son in particular, has always found creative games difficult. He regularly informs me that a grown up is required for maximum enjoyment. Lego is strictly for use with numbered instructions only. Train characters remake Thomas the tank engine plot lines. All games are better with a Mummy shaped audience.

Middle son does play happily using his own ideas but prefers company. Like so many children, he is always eager to share his ideas, so Mummy would be required to sit and watch the paw patrol assist the octonauts in getting through the spooky woods (for an hour or so). I appreciate this sounds like I’m making up some feeble excuse for not getting my housework done. It is, in fact, the reality. Well it was.

This lockdown seems to have changed all that. The big two children appear to enjoy playing together, using their imaginations and combining ideas and without an audience. The irony of it is that I’m so proud of them I almost want to watch.

Edit: I drafted most of this post in the early part of last week. We’ve had a minor regression in patience skills since then. Facepalm.

New found appreciation for our garden.

I’m not a gardener. Plants have a habit of dying on me. Whenever I’ve been given flowers or seeds as gifts in the past, I’ve had instant guilt. It’s like I’ve let them down, like they deserve a better life. Therefore my idea of gardening has primarily been removing weeds from our “picturesque” patio (think large slabs of uneven concrete). The larger, more destructive jobs in our garden, such as kicking down a wall or two, shearing the large bramble bushes back to nothing and taking a sledgehammer to the old rotten shed were completed, but general maintenance not so much!

It used to be my little gardening friend who inspired me to at least try, However, these efforts saw me getting no further than the garden centre, where eldest son was promptly distracted by the soft play. Then the boys got older and started taking an interest. Both eldest and middle son have previously come home excited from preschool, with their homemade bird feeders. We lovingly positioned them on the plum tree. They were quickly abandoned (really hoping we made at least one bird happy in the meantime). The boys’ grandparents live in a flat – with no garden – so last year they started an allotment in ours instead (growing raspberries, rhubarb and blueberries). Suddenly, we had two avid gardeners in our midst, as the boys insisted on going out to pick fruit daily. I would be presented with a bowl containing five and a half berries and I’d be expected to bake something instantly! Then reminded to buy ice cream. That was last summer.

Now we find ourselves in strange times. The weather has been beautiful, yet the only outdoor space we can go is our own garden. I told eldest boy about food shortages in shops, so he is dutifully watering the bare raspberry plants. Middle son also joined in – his input was to share his water with the plum tree by pouring half his cup on to its trunk. Further learning about how trees take in water is required; in the meantime the tree in our garden looked like a passing dog has had a wee up against it!

We’ve also got the boys a climbing frame as they are missing the park already. Their Nanny has been very generous. She knows how active they are. The frame itself is pretty much going to take up the entire garden (minus the allotment). First it requires assembling though. The guide time is 6 hours for construction so I’m aiming for completion in 6 days. That said, 6 weeks is probably a more accurate target for us! The husband likes to procrastinate and the children like to make frequent interruptions. First job: level the garden area it will be stood on.

So despite looking like something the Groundforce team could make a week’s worth of episodes out of, we’ve spent a lot of time in the garden this week. I get out a few garden toys, some chalk and their old bikes and the big ones seem to amuse themselves far better than they ever do playing indoors! Even youngest son seems content enough to sit on a picnic blanket and play. A combination of helping level the soil in the corner and a rock hunt led to an idea for this morning’s project: an Easter garden. Middle son found some sticks, which I tied together using an old daffodil leaf to make the crosses. Youngest son kindly lent us the large toy lorry that he’d been eating, to transport stones and mud across the garden to our masterpiece. Middle son had already began selecting flowers by the handful. (In this respect it’s probably a good thing that the only ones growing in our backyard are wild flowers.) Eldest son took the construction process seriously, he even went to the trouble of running inside to get his children’s bible. He considered it essential that we pay attention to detail when selecting a suitable stone for the front of the empty tomb.

Garden now complete. It would appear I am capable of gardening after all – when the garden in question is no more than 12 inches square.

How to photograph three children that squiggle more than a fish on dry land.

I’ve decided that my children wriggle too much. Even when they are playing a favourite game or watching a favourite program they can’t sit still. I can glance over at something else for a second and when I turn back again they’ve moved. This can be particularly amusing when they are asleep and we go into their room to whisper goodnight. We’ve discovered them in all sorts of silly poses. One day they might be curled up in a little ball like a cat (foot end), while a teddy has occupied the prime position in the main part of the bed. Then the next day limbs might be everywhere, an arm draped across the face and a leg half hanging out the side of the bed.

So when their Grandma won a photoshoot and decided to take the boys along I wasn’t especially optimistic about getting them to stay still long enough for a good shot. For once we had adults outnumbering the children so we decided to make a day trip out of it anyway. The studio was a hit with the boys instantly. Clearly, in their minds it resembled a play room and they were quick to notice a selection of toys on a shelf. These proved to be quite a distraction. When you are a small person, why wouldn’t you prefer to look at the shelving unit then the camera?

Trying to get an image of the three boys together was interesting. Eldest one was having difficulty interpreting the photographer’s instructions, middle one was pulling peculiar faces to get a reaction and youngest one could only be positioned for a second or so before he realised he wasn’t being held and needed to cry accordingly. At one point I was singing him ‘The Grand old Duke of York’ – which makes him very smiley – then attempting to back away quickly after the lyric ‘down’. It was usually in this spilt second when one of his older brothers happened to have an itchy nose (or make a detailed exploration of the nostril). They weren’t particularly keen to interact with each other either – almost like they knew the whole thing was staged. There are occasions when my boys show genuine affection to each other – of course on these occasions I either don’t have a camera to hand or I’m not fast enough to capture the moment before it passes.

Trying to get an image of our whole family was even more of a challenge. When you’re supposed to be in the picture yourself its really hard to remember to smile and look at the camera yourself before checking what the children are up to. It meant relying on the Grandparents to tell the boys a joke. Unfortunately their Grandad’s idea of humour would be a bit beyond them and of course Grandma couldn’t think of anything quickly enough. We resorted to calling out random food items instead. Sometimes nothing beats a good old fashioned call of ‘cheese’.

Despite all of this on top of multiple clothing changes, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the results. Now we just need the boys to sit still long enough to see our chosen photos themselves.

We just forgot one thing…

We are one of those families who always forget something. Even before children, we’d remember to pack all kinds of random items (some of which we never actually had a use for), yet we would neglect that one useful item. Toothpaste and pyjamas were common offenders. Since having the boys, we’ve come to expect that ‘forgotten’ item. I recall one Christmas we were going to my parents for the day and managed to forget all of eldest son’s milk (who at the time was 6 months old and a formula fed baby). Then there’s the annual trip to my Uncle’s house, where we are exceptionally prepared for the outbound journey but have a tendency to leave a toy or rogue item of clothing when we come home again. A more recent occurrence was when youngest son was only a few days old. I’d picked up a few select items for him. Carelessly, a spare pair of pampers was not one of them! My newborn ended up wearing a stylish size 5 nappy. There’s always a way round these things.

This morning our arrangements changed twice at the last minute. With the plan changing, the required items also changed accordingly. The revised arrangements were to go from school to the library (in order to both run an errand and enjoy some music and songs whilst there), before visiting a local fort for our main outing. I was feeling pretty industrious, gathering everything together during the usual morning chaos. I’d loaded the car because (as with most things in my life) it was now a pretty tight schedule so transport would be required, breaking the regular school run routine. I’d managed to remember a whole host of items: eldest son’s school bag and water bottle; middle son’s packed lunch, hat and spare clothing; youngest son’s usual changing bag, pushchair, baby sling and my kangaroo jumper. I’d even got the library books ready to return. Middle son’s behaviour at the library was exemplary. He loved scanning in the old items, made a careful selection of new books and audio tapes and then sat sensibly doing the actions during rhyme time. Watching middle son and youngest son performing ‘Row, row, row the boat’ together was a beautiful reminder that all the exhausting ‘parenting stuff’ is worth it. By lunchtime middle boy wasn’t quite maintaining his earlier high standard, culminating in a heated debate between a biscuit and a banana. I’m pleased to report that team banana were triumphant.

When we returned home later that afternoon, I made the unfortunate mistake of assuming that, despite our earlier tightly packed schedule, we’d conquered the day without overlooking anything. But we hadn’t collected eldest son from school yet!

When the time came, middle son wanted to take his bike – no surprises there. Predicting that my eldest would want to at least contest his brother’s speed, I’d also need a set of wheels for him – drop off by car meant his preferred transport was still at home. I found a new and flashy way of loading a scooter onto the pushchair, however in my excitement I failed to notice the lack of rain cover. I hadn’t even thought to look for it, after all the sun had been shining. I was to discover this to my cost when the rain descended upon us on the school playground. We sheltered by the chickens for a little while but the weather didn’t look like easing up so I was forced to surrender my coat to the baby. Next time I need to check the weather forecast multiple times in one day – lesson learnt!

NB: To clarify, I have never forgotten one of my children. I am proud of this.

Photo credit to eldest son.

See you later, slow coaches.

Lately, it feels like I’m forever running after bicycles. I’m sure this has some advantages, like being able to eat more calories in preparation for burning them off again. However on the whole, I probably look a bit silly. Even youngest son is likely laughing at me as I jog up the road with his pushchair, wearing completely inappropriate clothing for such dynamic enterprises.

Things I have observed while chasing them:

1) They are so competitive. My boys aren’t especially ‘sporty’ types. This is clear from the way in which eldest son wobbles impressively whilst riding. Yet, they always want to win. They’ll race each other, school friends they’ve spotted, random cars, even a passing dog on the other side of the road. Their attempts to hide the fact that they are racing can be quite humorous. You have the announcement method – where one will loudly proclaim to the other one “It’s not a race!” before whizzing off down the road while this information is still being processed. Then there’s the creeping forward (ever so subtly), while Mummy gets everything sorted – to ensure a pole position. Finally, you have the ‘tortoise and the hare method’. Eldest son will elect to use this one when he can’t keep up with his younger brother – particularly on hills. He tells me that he needs a rest and sits down for a bit. Middle son then turns round and cycles back down the hill to us. It’s at that point when eldest son instantly recovers and off he goes, while his brother is still trying to turn his bike around.

2) They know a cul-de-sac when they see one and use it to their advantage. As I’ve said before, my boys do love a good rule to follow. The ‘getting off your bike before you cross’ rule is no exception. They obviously feel that dismounting too often is a bit too much effort, so they’ve discovered a way to avoid it. Eldest son likes looking out for road signs with the blue, white and red sign. He knows this means dead end and will disappear down such roads at speed. The first time he did it, I thought he must know of an alleyway or shortcut that I was unaware of. No. He just wanted to avoid having to cross the road. Now both boys regularly ride right to the end of these streets, round the bottom and back up again – just to maintain contact with the pavement. It’s left me wondering if this will remain a habit right up until they take their ‘Bikeability’ course and begin riding on the roads. I recommend this method to families who enjoy walking long distances unnecessarily.

These rules are made for keeping.

A common parenting strategy when you’d like your child to do something is to count down from 5 or 3 (or I suppose 80 odd if you have a particularly defiant toddler). But what actually happens when you reach zero?

‘Probably very little’ was the conclusion that I swiftly came to when eldest son asked me exactly that while I was attempting to incite middle son to come over to us. He likes to subtly walk backwards until the last possible second, then run over at top speed, while I adjust the speed of my counting accordingly so as to ensure his success. My answer: I’ll tell Daddy. For him, this response took the counting down rule to a new level! Eldest son is a fan of rules. He just loves them. This is probably why he’s so keen on playing board games – plenty of rules to follow. So he likes to keep track of the rules we make and remind us of them should we forget. Usually this is helpful.

The disadvantage of having house rules is that I’m frequently being told off for breaking them. Just last week, I was in trouble with my children for answering the door without checking who it was first. I was fairly confident of their identity, given that person had just messaged me with ‘I’m outside. What is your house number?”. I’ve also been warned that I shouldn’t have been up before the sun – if you have a child with a gro clock this will make more sense to you.

At the moment my bigger boys are very into toilet humour. That probably includes my husband. They find the mention of the words ‘poo’ or ‘bottom’ especially amusing. It’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re tucking into a home cooked meal, or worse: a chocolatey dessert. Hence the introduction of the rule where these words can’t be used during family dinner times. At one such meal, youngest son decides its an ideal time to fill his nappy. You’d think going to change him would be appreciated by the rest of the family, who could now eat without any lingering offensive aroma. Sadly not. I was given a stern telling off for using the poo and bottom words. Note to self: next time say, “Please may I be excused so I can sanitise the baby’s derrière from excrement!”

The truth is out there

Driving home yesterday, my boys had a discussion about their next game. I wasn’t particularly impressed when they decided on the ‘liar’ game. I was even less impressed when I discover that this game pretty much involved reciting the ‘Liar, liar, pants of fire’ rhyme repeatedly, but using an assortment of different voices. Oh, and also replacing the word ‘pants’ with a selection of other items. Daddy nearly had a minor coronary when the game first started and we hear a little voice shout ‘Car’s on fire!’ By the end of the game, we were less concerned about the car’s imaginary combustion and more about how to get this catchphrase out of our heads.

It’s possible they were just voicing their opinion to us about lies. Eldest boy regularly tells me, “You must always tell the truth because otherwise you are lying.” – he’s not wrong! With the exception of the Father Christmas scenario, I like to think we are reasonable when it comes to being truthful. However, all my children seem to make me out to be the biggest liar imaginable. I tell people that youngest son has reached a new milestone but of course he won’t show them. I tell people that middle son doesn’t like chicken then he munches on a chicken nugget happily. And I tell people that eldest son has a habit of wriggling too much, which prompts him to sit beautifully in their company.

When the robots came to town.

My elder two boys are 20 months apart and they’ve always ‘had’ each other as long as they can remember. The majority of the time, it is a beautiful thing how close they are. However, there are times when middle son cannot have the same life experiences as eldest son at exactly the same time. Infant school being one of these. When his big brother first graduated from nursery, middle boy was not impressed. I told him that when he turned four, he’d be able to go to school too. He turns 4 next week. I fear that not only will he expect to start then, but he’ll be holding out for a place in the same class as his sibling – two academic years above. There may be a full scale rebellion once this realisation dawns on him.

What do robots have to do with any of this? Well, yesterday was ‘Internet Safety day’. Eldest was tasked with dressing up like a robot. We had a great time at the weekend: putting together his costume, cutting it to size and discussing it. All was very positive until the actual morning he needed to wear it to school. I did not plan ahead very well, in fact I did not plan ahead at all. I foolishly thought that I would simply be able to apply my regular ‘school morning’ tactics. This was very naïve of me. Middle child was unimpressed. He felt it most unfair that he wasn’t also wearing a robot costume. No amount of wishing that you can turn back the clock and make two costumes instead, is any help in this situation. Getting him to put his shoes on was challenging, getting him out of the door even more problematic and getting him to start walking was nigh on impossible.

Through his grimace and tears, middle son was adamant that he wanted to scoot (see previous blog post re: walking to school). This wasn’t really an option given that eldest boy didn’t have the peripheral vision from behind his robot head in order to scoot safely, Mummy had no space on the pram to carry this robot head and of course middle boy couldn’t scoot unless eldest boy did. Not only would this result in Mummy finding herself in the exact same predicament, just with a different child sobbing on the driveway but also for practical reasons. My boys walk at a speed that could match the pace of an injured snail but I’m pretty sure they scoot faster than a Boeing 747, with a strong tailwind. At these contrasting speeds, I’d need a second parent to escort the child I wasn’t with. After a quick check, I established that there was definitely only one of me and put middle child’s feet on the bar of the basket, which sits below youngest boy’s pram. This prompted some significant rocking – as he decided that this buggy was actually his personal surfboard. I’ll admit to feeling slightly sea sick but I can’t complain too much as youngest boy seemed to appreciate this motion, using it to fall asleep. Nothing takes your mind off that fact you aren’t wearing a robot costume, like helping Mummy look after baby (and apparently being better at it than she is on this occasion too).