Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Art of Leaving the House

How is it that leaving the house, something I do everyday, often multiple times a day, is always a source of so much stress and difficulty?  I always leave later than planned, and usually it's just ten minutes later, but living through those ten minutes takes at least an hour off my life.

I always plan for ten minutes to actually get the kids and bags downstairs and into the car.  But in the interest of setting a good example for my children, I feel compelled to make sure we finish putting everything away before we leave the house.  My three year old assists reluctantly, but the very act of putting toys away reminds my one year old of how much fun she was having playing with them, and she follows us around, delightedly pulling toys back onto the rug.

Everything's away, and I double-check the nappy bag.  Are we stocked up on nappies?  Do I need to refill the wipes?  I'm trying to reduce the snack habit in my children, so I can risk omitting snack-cups if I haven't prepared them in advance, but in this weather, I want to have ice in their water bottles, so these need to be done as late as I dare.  Typically, as I fill them up, the children appear at my legs, suddenly thirsty.  Telling them that we are saving these to take with us will bring the Tantrum of Instant Gratification Frustrated.  Am I willing to deal with that?

If I remember, I tell my son he needs to go potty before we go out.  If my daughter has yet to poop that morning, I check her nappy furtively.  If I am unlucky, my impatient son will be too hasty in positioning himself and will manage to spray his pants.  I have to find him a clean set of shorts and/or underwear, which means going upstairs.  By the time I'm back down, my daughter's in mischief again, and I need to restore order from her chaos.  Did I finish filling those water bottles? 

Time for shoes.  Mine and my daughter's are in the cupboard.  Where are my son's?  Probably by the sofa, he'll have to look himself, but it usually takes me to point them out for him.  My daughter permits me to put one shoe on but insists on attempting the other herself.  I try and gather my bags while she fails.  Nappy bag, shopping bags, swim bag, camera bag, small bag....  Usually not all on one outing, I swear

Keys, sunglasses, everybody's hats, where is my daughter's hat?  Crap (spoken aloud, oops!), we forgot the sunscreen.  We are going out, you just have to give me a moment.  Put that back!  My sunglasses are not a toy.  Quiet voice.  Now you poop?

Finally, we're headed down the steps, me laden with bags and toddler, urging my son ahead of me to open the door into the garage.  Unload half the stuff on the small table in the garage for that purpose, just so that I can open the car doors--it always has to be my son's first.  Sling the other half of the stuff into the footwell under my daughter's carseat, and wrangle her into her straps against her protests.  Load up the boot, and tell my son to get his arms through his straps while I run upstairs for something forgotten--and to check I locked the doors.

Halfway down the road, it will occur to me that I forgot to get the iced water bottle back in the bag after the children were done with it or that I left the wipes box on the dining room table after refilling it.  And I will say "Bugger it," (silently, good Mum,) and drive on.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Transition to Two

I meant to do this post to celebrate my daughter turning one.  She's now sixteen months old, and it's occurred to me that if I don't actually sit down and write it, she'll be sixteen years old and I'll be fretting about the transition back to one again....

Ahem!  So what was it like going from one to two?  For me anyway, since everybody's different--and I'm sure the age gap is a big factor here: ours is two years, two months.  Some people feel that going from one to two is harder than zero to one; for me it was the other way around.  The culture shock of life with a baby eclipsed the shock of juggling two children by a long shot.  But I really did struggle for the first few months of my son's life, so perhaps that's not surprising. 

It certainly had nothing to do with the babies themselves, since technically speaking, my son was much easier than my daughter.  I think, for me, a lot of it depended on knowing that these difficult stages really do pass.  I mean, I knew they would with my son, but having experienced the improvement firsthand made it a lot easier to tolerate the bad times with my daughter.  There's also the fact that I knew what I had found hard the first time around and took what steps I could to mitigate those factors the second time.

What I Didn't Expect

The biggest thing that went against my expectations was that instead of the first child getting neglected for the second, the second gets neglected for the first.  Other mothers I've spoken to have confirmed this, so, without having conducted an extensive survey, I believe this is the norm rather than the exception.  Perhaps if your older child is much older it's different, but if you have a baby and a toddler, expect the toddler to come first.

Obviously the baby requires more actual care than the toddler, but the toddler's needs are always more immediate.  The baby might be hungry, but the toddler has got himself stuck while trying to climb the stepstool in the kitchen.  The baby's soiled her nappy, but the toddler has wet himself.  The baby wants a cuddle, but the toddler is throwing toys at the television.  And while I could arrange my day around my son's napping and feeding routine, my daughter's routine had to be scheduled around her brother's school run.

Even more guilt-inducing, you don't quite relive the magic of the first child.  I remember how much I loved watching my son's personality blossom during the first two years of his life.  I never felt the same way with my daughter.  A lot of it is because I have less time to sit back and watch her, as I did with my son.  Part of it is just because the novelty has worn off.  "Oh, there's another tooth.  Hey, did you hear your brother count to twelve?"

So if there's one thing I've learned, it's not to compare the babyhood of your first with your second, nor to strive to relive it.  With my son's birth, the most fondly-remembered part for me was when they lifted him out of me and laid him on my tummy, all in one smooth, soft-focus moment.  My daughter's was a more difficult birth and on delivery she was whisked ten feet away for a hasty check, and I was briefly devastated to lose that moment.

Less than two minutes later, she was placed on my chest, screaming her head off.  Her eyes found mine, and she stopped crying.  That's the abiding memory of my daughter's birth that I cherish, and it's not one she has in common with her brother.

That's the key: different, not worse, and most certainly not less.  My son had the benefit of my attention maybe, but my daughter has the benefit of my experience.  I had all the time in the world to lavish on my son, but my daughter has the extra stimulation of her brother's company.  And now, of course, she's reached the age where my son was getting carted around to various doctor's appointments as we embarked upon this whole second child thing.  She gets none of that, because she's the second and last.

A Niche Delight

Having our family be complete (we always envisioned having two children, and we still felt two was the magic number after either birth) felt great.  Surprisingly great.  I remember for the first few weeks of my daughter's life, I couldn't stop revelling over the fact that we had our two children, and used the phrase 'family of four' at every available opportunity.

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I'd had to deal with the concept that we might not have any children at all; I had certainly stopped taking the idea of having two children for granted.  To actually have our two "take-home babies" seemed like an overwhelming blessing.

But also there was a certain relief in knowing that this was the last time we ever had to do the sleepless nights, the hysterical crying for no obvious reason, the painful breasts, etc, etc.  Knowing that all that difficult baby stuff would be over and done with after my daughter made it much easier--yeah, with my son, I spent far too much time in irrational despair that every hard part was hopefully to be repeated with a not-yet-conceived second child.

Clearly, there's a lot of sadness in knowing that certain baby things will never happen again (like carrying my tiny baby against my chest, feeling her grab a lock of hair in each fist).  But I have to acknowledge that not having killer sleep deprivation or sour milk regurgitated down my cleavage is a pretty good silver lining.  Plus, as I already learned, you can't relive any child's babyhood simply by having another.

The Sibling's Point of View 

I remember that I didn't want to enforce any sort of relationship on my son, so I didn't talk much to him about becoming a big brother, and since we didn't know the new baby's sex in advance, we never talked in terms of having a little brother or sister either.  I wanted him to decide for himself what the new baby would be towards him.

I was never entirely sure if he understood what I meant when I told him we were going to have a baby.  He went to all my ultrasounds, and got to the point when as soon as the grey blobs showed up on screen, he'd declare: "Baby!"  I had him feel my tummy when the baby kicked and had hiccups, which didn't seem to interest him at all.

I felt that, considering the toddler's natural disposition to egocentricity, the best way to prepare him was to relate it back to his own babyhood.  And considering my natural disposition towards books, the best way to show him was to make a book about him as a baby.  So I scoured the photo archive, pulled up MS Publisher and knocked off a book: "When [my son] was a Baby."

The 'story' ran along the lines of: "He grew inside Mummy's tummy.  When he was big enough, Mummy and Daddy went to the hospital so he could be born.  He drank special milk from Mummy's breast..."  Basically, I tried to cover all the things that he'd see the new baby doing, so it wouldn't be too strange to him.

I don't know how well it worked, but he loved the book--still does (I suppose at some point, I'll have to make one for his sister as well)!  I do think that having actual photographs of our own personal baby equipment helped, not to mention of the hospital where he came to visit his sister for the first time.  And we never seemed to have a rejection of his sister (though we definitely had the novelty wear off).

It should be noted though, that for all our talk of the baby coming out, he was still absolutely gobsmacked when he came to visit me in hospital and saw an actual baby in the bassinet next to me.  All he could say for about ten minutes was: "Out!  It came out!"  But he was happy about it.  When we were discharged a couple of days later, he was so excited to hear that the baby could come home that he grabbed hold of her carseat and said: "Bye, Mummy!" apparently uninterested in the irrelevant detail that I was coming too.

Once she was home, he grew pretty ambivalent towards her.  As I've already said, she ended up getting neglected in favour of his needs anyway, so he would show brief episodes of interest in her before getting on with his own activities.  His behaviour did deteriorate, but that was as much because I could no longer be so on the spot with him as because of jealousy.  I fretted over this for awhile, but I discovered that once I had the freedom to target his behaviour once more, he responded fairly well.  He always has been more difficult, but that's probably what would have happened with age anyway.

I don't know whether it was his age or her age that was the trigger, but she was about seven months and he was almost three when he suddenly started playing with her.  It might have been part of his switch from wanting attention from adults to wanting to play with children, or it might have been the fact that she could sit up and was thus easier to interact with.  But it was earlier than I expected, and one of the most insane joys of having two children has definitely been (and still is!) watching them play together.

Tactical Advice

As I said earlier, one of the big advantages of the second child is knowing what you found hard with the first and preparing accordingly.  For example, I knew that I craved adult conversation during the hard times, so we staggered family visits with my husband's paternity leave (inasmuch as we could plan transatlantic flights when we could only guess the birthdate).  First my husband was home for two weeks, then my parents came out for two weeks, then his mother, then his sister with her family...  I had a few days or so between each of them where I was on my own, but thanks to this plan, I only had a few days alone at a time for the first three months of my daughter's life.

Sleep deprivation is always a killer, and the trouble with the second child is that the first one isn't taking as many naps as you would like to take.  "Sleep when the baby sleeps" is no longer feasible (not that this ever worked for me anyway; thanks, daytime insomnia).  Best tip I received for this, hands down, is to have a soft place where you can lie next to your playing toddler.  It doesn't have to be elaborate: I found a single cushion on the floor worked wonders, because at least I could put my head down even if I couldn't sleep.  Having toys on my nightstand worked too, so I could have the children playing on the bed while I rested.

NB I went through a stage where I didn't dare drive, because I was so drowsy all the time.  Be prepared for home-based activities.

One of the best things I did, starting in late pregnancy when I was trying to keep my feet up as much as possible, was to set up (and cycle through) a number of toys/activities that could be done on a lap-tray.  I kept the tray by the sofa, and the activities on the shelves where my son could reach them.  He would carry them over to me, we would play with them together and then he'd put them away again (I was very firm on that latter; refusing to move onto the next activity until the first had been put away).

It's fairly easy to find toddler toys that fit on a tray: we had a Russian doll, stacking/nesting barrels, those Melissa and Doug jigsaw puzzles in a box, plus others I've forgotten (and don't forget a basket of books as well).  It would generally take us twenty minutes to go through them all: twenty minutes in which my feet would be up; twenty minutes in which my daughter could nurse while I played with my son one-handed; twenty invaluable minutes where my son was happily occupied even though I never moved from the sofa.

It should be noted that the order of that set-up has long since been lost (right around the time my daughter could get to the shelves herself).  But it was my lifeline for at least six months.

Clearly this is all just my experience, and life with a newborn and a one year old or a newborn and an older child would be very different again.  Still, it's definitely a topic that was preying on my mind before my daughter was born, something that I consulted with my friends about and something that I get consulted on.  So for whatever it's worth, it's now written down before it gets too stale in my mind.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Orlando without Theme Parks (mostly)

So last week, we had a family holiday...  kind of.  My husband was attending a conference in Orlando, and it seemed absurd for us not to go with him, even if it meant that I would be solely responsible for two small children: my three and a half year old son, and my sixteen month old daughter.

I wrote off the theme parks as an idea very quickly, because the rides available to us would be too limited to justify the cost of entry.  Not to mention that I didn't fancy keeping track of my wandering daughter in the crowds.  So I did many google searches along the lines of "Things to do in Orlando with toddlers" and came up with a plan.  For the benefit of future parents seeking to do Orlando on a smaller scale, here is my travelogue.

Tactical advice before we start: I usually did a big activity in the morning then returned to the hotel before finding something quieter to do for the afternoon.  The problem with this was that the children would often nap in the car on the way to the hotel, and would be ready for action again while I was ready to collapse and chill.  Our most stressful moments came at this point, despite the toys I'd brought along to keep them occupied.  We weren't there long enough for me to figure out a solution, but going straight from the morning excursion to the afternoon excursion was what I would have tried. (One day the trip back was too short for the kids to fall asleep and we all had a nap in the hotel, which was glorious!).

Sometimes our afternoon activity was just playing in the hotel pool for a couple of hours and for sheer convenience, I would recommend choosing a hotel with a good-sized, fun pool (funnily enough, Orlando has a good range of them!).  Bring or buy a small beach ball which can't be beaten for versatility.  We used ours as a float, we pushed it underwater to watch it erupt upwards... and sometimes we used it as a ball as well. 

Other days, piling into our suite's jetted tub for half an hour was a great way to keep the children entertained without exhausting or overheating Mum.  I should have brought more bath toys.

Dinosaur World


This isn't really in Orlando, but fifty minutes down the I4, well on the way to Tampa.  As you might guess from the name, it's a dinosaur park, with 'lifesize' (I can't verify that, but they certainly looked impressive enough!) models of dinosaurs looming at you from the trees.  My son loves dinosaurs as much as the next three year old, and he just about died with joy when we saw the T-rex at the end of the freeway exit.

You enter and exit through an extensive gift shop, ranging from all sorts of dinosaur and reptile toys to artistic geodes.  Beyond that is a lawn with a few dinosaurs and two very nice playgrounds, one for toddlers and one for older children, flanked with shaded picnic areas.  My son ditched the toddler area very quickly for the bigger slides, somewhat to my frustration, since his sister couldn't keep up.

Included with his ticket price (my daughter had free entry) was a fossil dig, which happened at certain times throughout the day.  He was given a sifter to sift out the fossils from the sand, choose his three favourites and take them to the woman in charge of the dig for identification.  While it doesn't strike me as having a lot of bearing on real paleontology (not that I'm in a position to know!), he enjoyed it, although he was more interested in digging for fossils than getting them identified.  Fortunately, this was a finish when you like kind of activity, and really only took about five minutes anyway.  We ended with an ammonite, tiger shark tooth and stingray tooth.

From there, we proceeded to the main walk through the trees and river, with dinosaurs on all sides.  We indulged in a lot of fake screaming and had to run past the T-rex (aside from our five minute stop beneath his jaws for photos).  That was fun, although since my son wasn't greatly interested in reading the signs about what the dinosaurs were like, he had his fill sooner than I expected.  One thing we failed to do was consult our map as we went round, which meant that we missed a huge chunk of the route along with all the features at the end, including the models of skeletons.  Oops.  Still, as I said, he'd had his fill.  We did get to see a sculptor working on an allosaur by the path, which was interesting.  Arguably, it ruined the illusion, but we enjoyed stopping to watch a dinosaur being made.

Advisory note: one model was of five smaller dinosaurs (deinonychus?) bringing down and tearing into a larger dinosaur.  It wasn't particularly gory, although blood was painted on.  It is one of the more interesting models, and one of the few that I was able to actually discuss with my son (who I think was a little taken aback by it).  I approved of it, as an example of the food chain, but it was a bit of a departure from the more bland poses around us.

There are koi fish swimming through the waterways and machines charging a quarter for fishfood.  This was the highlight of the trip for my fish-loving daughter, who would have spent all morning watching the koi and howled when I made her come with us to see the rest of the dinosaurs.

On our return from the dinosaur walk, we did the museum.  I had saved this for last, because we'd been told there were animatronic dinosaurs in the museum, and I thought that the static forest ones might be anticlimactic after that.  Actually, the museum was a bit of an anticlimax, since there was only one tableau of animatronic dinosaurs, and the bulk of the museum is made up of a winding corridor with fossils behind glass cases and nothing hands on at all.  We went through about a dozen with my son wanting to know what they were, and then both children got more interested in just chasing each other down the corridor.

The dinosaurs are right at the end, and they're motion sensitive.  There was a warning as you go in that small children might be scared of them, and my children were certainly shocked when they rounded a corner and a brachiosaurus (or was it a diplodocus?) started bellowing and waving its head.  Fortunately, this was either not lifesize or it depicted a juvenile!  Still, both children backed up to me and a corner, and my daughter would only continue if carried.  My son, though wide-eyed, was persuaded to come forward and see the entire group of moving dinosaurs, before we headed for the exit.

A bit of a stretch to get to, but a fun excursion if you have a dinosaur lover in the family.  The biggest downside was that there was no food available on site, nor really anything nearby.  Following the advice of the lady at the gift shop, we stopped off at the next junction for a decent selection of eating places, but I'd have done better to bring a picnic.

Dr Phillips Community Park

This was just a ten minute drive from our hotel.  I went for the splash park, having heard it was free, but it turned out it costs a dollar per person in the summer (you get a wristband for re-entry).  My daughter loved it, but my son wanted to go to the main playground instead, so we didn't stay that long.  The main playground is free at least, and it's a rather good one--a lot of the focus is on those abstract climbing things, so there are very few slides and swings, but there were a bunch of smaller things for my children to play with.

Kelly Park

This was the recommendation that kept coming up on my internet searching.  A natural lazy river which you can ride for a mile or so in the midst of nature.  We actually did this one twice, because my husband wanted to see it too.  Just as well, because it's too much for one adult with two small children.  I never succeeded in getting the children in our inner tube the first time we went, because they were too intimidated by it all.

As it was, once you're in the water, you need to be able to steer reliably in order to get out at the end (and to keep from drifting into the underwater grasses--the current will eventually push you out again, but they're a big impediment to progress).  The water is shallow enough for an adult to walk at all points, but if you ride with children on your lap, it's not easy to stand up at short notice.

Even if you don't ride the river, there's a lagoon that's been half-landscaped halfway down, at the point closest to the main car park.  Here there's lots of sand and shallow (cold!) water for small children to splash in and this was what the children and I did on our first visit.  They had a fantastic time... I was a little more jaded about the sand.  We live near the beach as it is, and I had been looking forward to a week without two sandy children!

If you do ride the river, you need to bring your own floats (you can swim, but where's the fun in that?) or rent sturdy inner tubes from places just outside the park.  The park is very popular and visitors are barred entry once it reaches capacity so get there early, particularly on a weekend!  Our second visit was on a Saturday.  We got in at 9am, and found many people setting up camp for the day.  Not sure what time the gates closed, but they re-opened at 1pm and were reportedly closed again ten minutes later.  As we left (by 2pm), signs advertised re-opening at 4pm.

The best (as in closest to the water) car parking spaces are reached by ignoring the signs and driving through the drop-off zone, though depending on when you go, there might not be a lot of choice!  There's a very good playground further up in the car park, which made for a great place to dump the kids while we assembled our gear and applied sunblock.  Also useful for letting them dry off before the trip home.

Head past the concession stand to get to the starting point which is a rocky area containing a jumping (no diving!) pool and numerous places in which to board your tubes.  My own preference, due to small children, ended up being the shelving and slippery rock across the bridge.  We beached the tubes, got ourselves in them and then shoved off with feet and hands.

Going underwater is not a toddler-friendly activity, but I highly recommend bringing  a pair of goggles in case you can sneak a peek beneath the surface anyway.  The starting point is stunning--can't vouch for the rest of it, but the concession stand does do a face-mask and snorkel rental, and we saw several people going downriver like that--also finding fossilised shark-teeth at the bottom.

The river starts off rocky with interesting currents depending on the depth before becoming steadier and broader with a sandy floor, on which you can see fish swimming beneath you.  We also had several dragonflies hitching rides on us as we drifted down, much to my son's delight.  He loved it, but my daughter was done long before the rest of us.

On my first visit, a stretch of the river was closed briefly as an alligator (about a foot long apparently) had been spotted.  Once it moved away, it was opened again.  There are lifeguards posted at regular intervals and several exit points as well.  On the whole, we were very impressed.

Pro-tip: if you bring a ziploc bag to hold your electronic valuables... make sure that bag has no leaks.  We nearly killed our camera that way.

Brilliant fun and this is the one thing that I would definitely want to do again.


Gatorland was a recommendation from a friend.  Probably the most expensive thing we did, but it worked pretty well.  It's more or less a zoo with a fairly limited focus, and to an extent, after you get used to seeing so many alligators around, it's exhausted its entertainment value.

Actually, my son's favourite thing was the zipline--he was far too young to go on it, but he was fascinated by it.  Once he'd established that I was not going to force him on it (my son is well aware of my attitudes to risk-taking), he took great delight in pointing out every person who went whizzing over our heads.

We got talked into buying the 'grunt package' at entry, which meant we were entitled to some free food to feed the gators with, unlimited train rides and to sit on an alligator after the wrestling show (the photograph of which cost extra!).  I should have picked up the food at the start, because ultimately we never got around to it; likewise, we only actually rode the train once.  On the whole, we were pretty inefficient with our routes around the park, which, on such a hot and humid day cost us dearly in time.

We did catch a wrestling show and joined a very long line to sit on an alligator.  I wasn't sure how that would pan out, but it turned out all three of us could go on together.  My son had said he didn't want to sit on a gator when I bought the tickets, though after seeing so many other people manage it without mishap, he changed his mind.  Of course, for him the alligator got wriggly, and I was ushered several feet away very quickly while the handlers retrieved my son (who had kept his balance admirably) and calmed the gator down.

Against my expectations, my son agreed to get back on the gator, though this time they put me on it first with my daughter on my lap, and my son sat (gingerly) behind me and held my hand.  I had told him that the alligator just needed to get into a comfortable position and let the handlers know when she was ready to continue; the handlers told him that silly me had stepped on her toe--I think they were joking, although for all I know they could have been right.  I was more focused on the kids than myself, though I'm pretty sure my daughter did kick her in the eye which the alligator endured stoically.

Yeah, I'm not sure how this balances with my stance against animal cruelty.  Well, animal cruelty is probably a bit strong, especially considering my minimal knowledge of alligator science (is this actually any worse than a pony ride?), but it is exploitation.  Some people might want to take that into account.

On the other hand, it was amazing just being able to watch gators swimming casually around the breeding marsh.  Or seeing the collection of white alligators.  And while the back end collection of crocodiles etc start feeling a bit repetitive, they do try and make the exhibits interesting--my son loved the mock plane wreckage in one of them.

There is also a very nice splash park and playground, located near the train station, which is obviously a great cool-off method.

One problem of the park is that are a large number of wading birds stalking guests for food.  Signs warned that they target small children, and I was accordingly careful to minimise snacks.  At lunchtime, one kept lurking by our table, eyeing up my daughter's messy habits.  She was unbothered, but my son was more aware of the size of the bird's beak and got agitated, so I chased it off a few times.

Also, you have to exit through the gift shop, much to my displeasure.  I warned my son in advance that we would not be buying anything, which worked fairly well.

We did have a lot of fun, and the park is small enough that you can see everything in one morning, but be warned that for small children, you've got a lot to fit into your window of good temper, and the price reflects that.

Lukas Nursery Butterfly Encounter

This is a very small butterfly place, based in a gardening centre, with only a few different breeds of butterflies present though they do also have quail running around!  What makes it stand out from other places is that they have a room where you can feed the butterflies: dip your finger in the provided pot of gatorade and then put it to a butterfly's mouth; the next thing you know, the butterfly has climbed onto your finger and is eagerly dabbing its tongue out.

I personally found that very cool, and a great thing to show the children.  My son was too squeamish to try it himself, and my daughter kept trying to grab the butterfly with her other hand, but it is a unique way to observe the feeding process!

They request that you keep on the path and don't touch the plants, which meant my daughter was automatically relegated to the stroller (alternatively, I could have carried her).  So in that respect, it's not best suited to toddlers, but children three and under are free, which is always nice!

Although the Encounter itself is cheap, bear in mind you'll almost certainly need to take a toll road to get there, and... well... I don't know what I did wrong, but I managed to pay five tolls in less than an hour's trip.  The toll roads of Orlando are not intuitive.  Still worse, the exit onto Red Bug Lake Road (from the 417) has an unmanned tollbooth which requires the exact change.  It's only twenty-five cents, but for the love of God, keep back a quarter for it.

The entire place takes less than five minutes to get around (not including time spent feeding) which is good for short attention spans, but it's not going to kill a lot of time.  Afterwards, my son insisted on exploring their sample butterfly garden because he wasn't ready to leave yet.  If you're a gardening enthusiast, or wish to shop for a gardening enthusiast, the Butterfly Encounter is a great excuse to go to the nursery, but if you're going specifically for the Encounter, be aware that it's going to be a very brief excursion.

The gift shop, incidentally, is lovely, as you might expect from a nursery.  The highlight for me were several gorgeous suncatchers, including some very large pieces that I drooled over though I refrained from buying any owing to their price tag.

One last advisory note: it's hot inside the Encounter.  If you go in the summer months, plan to go early in the day.


Celebration was a last minute substitute for Blue Spring State Park.  I had originally planned to take the kids to see manatees at the latter, but on the morning of the trip, it finally occurred to me to check what time of year manatees could be seen.  Of course, it was during the winter months: November through March.  I was massively disappointed, having always had a soft spot for manatees.  Another time, hopefully.

So after a very hasty check of my secondary to-do list, I plumped for Celebration, a Disney-created community.  I was a little dubious, but I am so glad we did it.  It's got that sanitised, film studio feel you'd expect from a town that's designed to be picture-perfect, but it's still a very lovely place with plenty of interesting views packed into a small space--ideal for a toddler-sized stroll.

I was a little fuzzy on where I should be going as I headed into Celebration and got sidetracked into the various estates before I realised I should be following the signs for Market Street / Hotel.  I also almost got caught for speeding as I came into the town, but thankfully, some reckless soul had overtaken me less than a minute earlier and the cop stopped him instead.  Take note of the speed limit!

The biggest attraction for my children was a fantastic 'splash pad': fountains that rose out of the ground at apparently random intervals.  There were three circles, any or all of which might be going at once.  If you stand in the middle, you'll get sprayed but not soaked, (allowing for some fun photography), so it's possible to play without a bathing suit, although I think all three of us got wetter than we had intended!  Still, I figured accurately that would help us keep cool.

The Splash Pad is located on Front St, between the junctions for Market St and Sycamore St, and there was a shady parking area nearby that we used.  We did the Splash Pad first, putting the children in a fantastic mood and getting us all nice and cool before heading to Market St for lunch and a short walk.

One of the things I wished I'd done beforehand was to get a list of the different buildings and artists who'd designed them.  We saw a few strikingly designed buildings, but reading the Wikipedia article later made me realise how much I'd missed!  The above is the Bank of America Tower.  I'm not entirely sure if we were supposed to be able to climb halfway up it, but the gate was open and my son insisted we should!  Opposite is an attractive wishing fountain which claimed all my copper pennies.

We lunched at the Market St Cafe which I noted for being very good with my children (can't say much about the food as it was one of those meals where I was more focused on getting the children to eat rather than on what any of us were eating).  Directly opposite the splash pad was an ingeniously located ice cream cafe, and the Market St Gallery was good for souvenir shopping.  Still, we didn't stray far from Market St, so don't take this as a comprehensive review!

Nearby is Lakeside Park which had a less-than-a-mile trail around the lake.  I would have liked to have done this, but my son wasn't keen and it was too hot to make an issue of it.  Be warned that Lakeside Park also has a visible playground which is gated, for Celebration residents only.  That required a lot of explanations for my disappointed son.

Lake Eola Park

Lake Eola Park is essentially Orlando's version of Central Park, though considerably smaller, and we thoroughly enjoyed our walk around it.  Be warned that most of the time there is no barrier between path and road beyond twenty feet of grass/flowers/trees.  The playground is more securely enclosed, however.
My daughter's favourite part was the waterfowl, of which there were a number calmly waddling and swimming about--or just snoozing peacefully on the grass, ignoring passers by.  I wish I'd brought something to feed them with.

We also rented one of the swan-shaped pedal boats ($15 for half an hour), but for the most part, these are for two adults with one child or one adult with two children, and they're a pain to steer.  They also have motorised gondolas that seat four, but these weren't in operation owing to windy conditions the day we went.

There's also an amphitheatre ('amphi' here used for its less accurate meaning of 'outdoor'), which was gearing up for a performance when we were there, though the children showed no interest.

Not much else to say about it, but it's a nice easy go-to for an hour or much longer, depending on how much time you want to pass.  Lots of other features at regular intervals as you walk.  Definitely worth a visit.

Wet 'n Wild

OK, so we did one theme park once Daddy was done with the conference.  We chose Wet'n Wild because in our experience, water parks are more forgiving to families.  However, our experience is largely in Water Country USA, which doesn't have a minimum height requirement for most of its rides; instead, riders below a certain height must wear a lifejacket and be accompanied by an adult.  Accordingly, our whole family can go on most of the multi-person rides.

What we failed to notice was that Wet ' n Wild has a height requirement of 36 inches for most of its rides, meaning that our daughter couldn't go on anything.  Thus my husband and I spent most of the day taking turns to take our son on a ride--he's 37-38 inches depending on who's measuring!

The other way in which Water Country USA had spoiled us was its excellent range of kiddie pools.  Wet 'n Wild really only has one: Blastaway Beach.


Now, it cannot be denied that Blastaway Beach is a great play area, with slides of different sizes to suit all ages.  The big problem with it was that it sprayed water at every possible opportunity.  Cannons, fountains, buckets...  it was impossible to go anywhere without getting soaked.  Neither of my children like getting sprayed with water, nor having water poured over their heads, and the resultant noise was intimidating by itself.

While my son eventually warmed up to it, this place was not, as we had hoped, a good ice-breaker for the park, and my daughter preferred to watch rather than participate.  She did pretty well on the Lazy River though, which we took to late in the day: she zoned out on this, eventually falling asleep on my lap in the tube. 

My son went on a good deal of the multi-person rides, but his first and favourite was The Flyer, which had a toboggan style raft that let him sit on our lap as we zoomed down.  He met the height requirements for the cloverleaf style tubes, but he always looked like he was going to fall through and he couldn't move once he was in one.

Queues and waiting time were a problem, but my son actually handled them fairly well, much to our surprise. On the whole, I liked the park very much, but I wouldn't recommend it until all the family is over three feet.

And that is that!  Phew!  For further reading, this was my go-to ideas resource while we were there.

Free Things to do in Orlando - National Geographic

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Summer project: housework

It's been awhile since I posted, mostly because we were on holiday last week and I am still catching up.

Also, because my son is off school, and I am busy adapting our routine to having both children in the mornings.  The biggest part of that is finding time to clean the house.  It used to be that I would include my son in the housework, but since the second child arrived, I fell into the trap of doing chores mostly when both children were out of the way--predominantly during my daughter's morning nap while my son was at school.

The problem with doing housework while the children are around is that they're clingy.  Inevitably just as I get going, there is whining to help with this, to read that, to kiss somebody better....  Which should be all par for the course, except I am not good with distractions while I clean.  I like to do cleaning in solitude, peace and quiet to think to myself, go at my own pace and proceed in my generally disorganised fashion.  I need some social downtime.

So when my children behave as small children do, I get stressed, snappy and resentful.  When my son tries to take my hand, I automatically pull away (I can be funny about physical contact sometimes), and I find myself demanding to be left alone.  This attitude always backfires horribly as the children get upset and thus clingier than ever.  Invariably, would-be cleaning sessions end with us woefully cuddled on the sofa, with little done.

I am determined to change this.  I am going to have to learn how to clean the house with the children around--and obviously, including them in the work is not always going to be a solution.  The aim is for them to play or otherwise interact (peacefully!) with each other while I get on with what I need to do.

The first part of my plan is to have time every day when we are cleaning and tidying, so they get used to the fact that Mummy is not available to read books or play games or make snacks at these times.  The second part is for me to keep my composure with their interruptions, and accept that hands need to be held every now and then.  Hopefully, by the end of the summer, we'll have more independent children and a cleaner house.

In other update news, my son's transition to no naps has improved wonderfully.  It finally dawned on me that I could bring his bedtime forward (duh), so we moved that up half an hour and are strictly observing it--ten minutes late is not acceptable!  He's been doing much better with this regime, and we have dropped the nap completely, though he often falls asleep in the car.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Diamond Jubilee

This year marks 60 years on the throne for Queen Elizabeth II (Queen Victoria being the only other British Monarch to achieve such a feat), and Great Britain is in the middle of celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, over an extended weekend.

Between this and the coming Olympics, there has been a surge of patriotism back home.  I'm aware of this from communication with friends and family, but for us, on this side of the pond, we've not felt it.  I'm deeply regretful that we're missing the Olympics.  Having it in our own country might well be a once in a lifetime event.  Especially considering the comparative small size of the UK, which means the Olympic torch has been passing through just about every place we know over the past few weeks and the weeks to come.  When we first moved to the US, I swore we'd be back for the Olympics... it was not to be.

The Jubilee hasn't really been on my radar.  I've been vaguely aware of it for a few months, but haven't paid much attention, until very recently, and even then I just supposed it was one of those things that we'd miss out on.  Then on Friday, I read this BBC news article, and in the roundabout way of my thought process, I remembered Charles and Di's wedding.

That wedding is perhaps not the most auspicious moment in the history of our Royal Family, but it was a landmark event.  I was three at the time, the same age as my son, and I was living in Hong Kong courtesy of the Royal Navy.  Despite being so far from our country, we watched the Royal Wedding on television and I remember doing so.  It's a memory I share with all my British friends, it's something that contributes to my cultural identity.

With that in mind, I decided that we were going to celebrate Jubilee Weekend and I drove down to the British Shop to buy some cheaply made yet hideously expensive Jubilee flags and some crumpets.  The crumpets, it must be said, did not go down well with the children at breakfast the next day.

Still, there was a picnic held by the local Brit community yesterday, which included a prize for the best crown.  Yesterday morning I cut up an old cereal box and made templates for the children.  My son helped me wrap his in silver foil and then we decorated it with glitter glue (a mistake, since it didn't stick to the foil very well). 

For my daughter, I covered her crown in blue construction paper and then tried to get white and red handprints on it.  In my mind, this would come out as a union-jack-reminiscent star effect on the front of the crown: the white print first, then I applied the red to her hands with a brush, to create narrower lines.  In reality, as soon as I placed her hand on the paper, she started moving it around, so we had a big white smudge, with a little red smudge on top.  I'd have done better to try this idea with my son.

Needless to say, we didn't win a prize.  On the plus side, it was obvious that they'd done the decorating themselves!  They were also just about the only children to go around wearing their crowns during the picnic... those with real works of art kept them carefully pristine on a separate table.  To be honest, I'm somewhat surprised our crowns held up, but both of them are still going strong after two days of celebrating.

Both children had a great time.  There were some traditional silly races, which ours were a little young for... they competed in the under-fives category, but none of those children understood the rules ("We can hold the egg in one hand and the spoon in the other, right?").  We were also given letters to write to the Queen, with word being that some sort of reply would be sent back, so we helped them 'write' their letters, and took a picture of each with the finished letter.  The activity didn't do much for them now, but it's something we can show them in years to come: the letter they wrote to Elizabeth II.

One of the events happening across the UK on Sunday was something called the Big Jubilee Lunch, where residents of the UK were encouraged to have street parties, and thus get to know their neighbours and foster a sense of community.  On Saturday morning, I decided we were going to have our own street party.  Well, driveway party.  I don't think the local police are supporting the Big Jubilee Lunch.

Obviously, it was short notice for a party.  We had no decorations, not much in the way of food and no idea who might want to come.  But at the picnic, I asked if I could have some of the disposable Union Jack tablecloths, and found myself being given all the leftover burgers and rolls.  The children also had a Diamond Jubilee balloon each and I snaffled some Union Jack napkins.  We printed out some smaller Union Jacks and pegged them up on yarn for makeshift bunting (sacrificing a printer cartridge for the purpose).

My neighbours were entirely amenable to the idea of a party, my brother was up for it, along with his Canadian in-laws (so the Commonwealth was represented), another British couple were free and we roped in a few other American friends.  The barbeque, table and chairs were carted down a level to our driveway, and we all sat in front of our open garage and made merry.

The Queen had joined a flotilla on the Thames a few hours earlier, so I brought down the water table and some playpeople and let the children re-enact it as they saw fit.

My daughter takes the Queen for a swim.  Don't forget to admire her patriotic crown!

The UK celebrations will go on for another two days, but as we don't have the benefit of two bank holidays, we're probably finishing here.  My son might keep his memories of this; my daughter clearly won't.  But we've got the pictures and souvenirs.  There will be a time in the future, when they will have reason to look back at the Diamond Jubilee, and we'll be able to say: this is what we did.  And that is something that they will have in common with their British-born peers.