Saturday, 14 December 2013

Five Year Old Birthday Party with Survivor-Style Challenge

Sooo... been awhile. Too much to catch up on now, but my son turned five last week which meant another birthday party. Because my son loves the challenges from the TV show Survivor, I came up with the ambitious idea of creating a Survivor-esque obstacle course for the party.

My original plan was to do it in the garden, since a dry, relatively warm day in December is not uncommon in our part of the world. The weather did not cooperate, so we set it up in the garage instead. We live in a floodzone, so our garage tends to be clear of junk lying around. All we really had to do was move the cars onto the drive.

The other issue is that we expected eight children, and in the end, we only had six. This did pose a problem for a few elements of the course.

I wanted to do a pirate theme and have the challenge be to recover treasure, but my son insisted on a Spiderman party. After a bit of thinking, I came up with the following scenario...

Once all the children had arrived and were playing together, I banged on a cymbal to attract their attention. I had bad news: the Lizard had stolen the pinata! Spiderman had gone after him, but he thought the Lizard had hidden the pinata somewhere close by. Would the children form a team of heroes to infiltrate the Lizard's lair and discover the whereabouts of the pinata? (Somewhat to my relief, yes, yes they would.)

I led them down the stairs and onto the alphabet tiles with firm instructions not to step on the floor because it was actually acid and would burn them. (I did have an explanation ready that I was actually a holographic projection, but none of them questioned my ability to walk on acid.)

Foam tiles were placed around the room at strategic intervals, each one representing a challenge to get to. (Survivor frequently requires all members of a tribe to reach a mat before they can move onto the next stage of a challenge. This seemed to me a welcome way to reduce chaos.)

I explained to them how they were going to get around the course and what they had to do, but they were eager to get started and not really paying attention. In retrospect, I should have stressed a lot more firmly that they needed to work as a team since they all had a tendency to rush on through the challenge without looking behind them.

The tribe will make a bridge to cross to the green mat.  It must then move that bridge to the next mat without any member setting foot on the floor.

By the garage door was a plank of wood, and the children were supposed to use this as a bridge to cross to a mat barely big enough to hold them. Taking care that none of them should fall off, they then had to lift the wood and pass it along the members of their tribe team to use as a bridge to the next mat.

In practice, I probably made that mat a little too big anyway, and with only six of them there, they had no difficulty in staying on it as they moved the bridge across.  After crossing it the second time, they climbed up onto a stage and slid down a cardboard slide into the ballpool.

Each tribe member will climb the platform and slide into the ballpool.

I'd added the slide at the last minute, when I realised that otherwise they were going to jump into the ballpool and get massively bruised since it wasn't deep and there was no padding at the bottom. We didn't really have a large enough piece of cardboard, but I collapsed a box, stuck two cushions behind it and we made do. It wasn't fixed in any way, so my husband (conveniently wearing acid proof shoes) ended up standing next to it and keeping it in place. Ideally, we should have duct-taped the top end to the stage.

(Also ideally, we should have put a blanket or something on the stage for the children to crawl under so that they ended up going down the slide headfirst.)

Inside the ball pool they had to search for eight plastic eggs each containing one puzzle piece.

Buried in the balls are eight eggs containing puzzle pieces.

This had the most problems between concept and execution. I'd used some fairly cheap eggs, since that was what we had to hand, and they came open easily. In one instance, we had to look for a puzzle piece among the balls as well. The children also failed to grasp that they weren't supposed to open the eggs then and there.

I had intended for there to be one egg per child, and once a child had found an egg, they should leave the pool and wait on a mat for the rest of the team to join them. As there were eight eggs between six children, I disregarded this policy, which was a mistake, as the pool was too crowded to search effectively. Finally, I should really have had the basket in the above picture to hand. I had figured that the children could run the rest of the course with an egg in hand each, but when some children had two eggs that got tricky.

All that said, the eggs were not difficult to find but not too easy. This concept could be used for a much smaller ball-pool, with the children kneeling outside as they look through the balls, though in that case, you'd probably want to use eggs that were the same colour/size as the balls to make it trickier.

Once a tribe has found all its eggs, it must go through the tunnel and over the stepping stones.

From the mat on the other side of the pool, they had to crawl through a tunnel and then cross the stepping stones. We had some plastic garden stepping stones which did not skid on the floor, so I used those. For the real budget option, cut up a roll of shelf liner. The hard part here was figuring out spacing that would be challenging but not impossible for a wide range of heights. I underestimated it slightly, so this was easy for all of them.

Once they'd crossed the stepping stones, they faced the Wall.

All tribe-members must then get over the wall and back to their starting mat.

This was simply a table on its side, with cushions for them to land on. The children were told they could not go over headfirst--they had to pull up and swing their legs over. They also had to go one at a time over the middle, as indicated by some tape, so as to avoid the supports on the table. Finally, they were supposed to help each other, as some children would struggle to get up unaided.

This didn't go at all to plan. Because it was at the end of the course, most of the kids were ready to rush back up the stairs with their eggs rather than help the person behind them. Nobody paid any attention to the tape in the chaos, and I ended up having to stand right next to the wall and guide each child over individually. In retrospect, I think having this at the start of the course might have been a better idea, but this is the element that I'd want to rethink thoroughly before attempting again. At the very least, I'd want to use a table that had less metal bars for the children to land on.

Once everybody was over the wall, they took their eggs upstairs and opened them. Once the pieces inside were assembled, they revealed the location of the pinata.

The assembled puzzle will reveal the location of the hidden immunity idol pinata.

For the puzzle, I simply took a picture of the pinata where it was hidden (our cloakroom cupboard), printed it out and cut it into eight pieces. I then folded and rolled these up so that they would fit in the eggs. I was concerned that the pieces might not want to stay flat after this treatment, but this wasn't a problem.

The biggest problem we did have was that some of the children weren't willing to share their piece, stuck to the idea that they had found this egg and thus the contents were theirs. With some encouragement (or outright intervention) we were able to put all the pieces onto one table. What amused me was that, just as on Survivor, we had one child emerge as our puzzle person, and he pretty much put all the pieces together while the others looked on.

Obviously, the birthday boy was the only one who was going to recognise the inside of the cupboard, so he got to 'solve' that final riddle and lead the charge to open the door and retrieve the prize. All children were duly applauded for their team effort in saving the party.

My suspicious son later held me for interrogation, forcing me to admit that it was I, not the Lizard, who had hidden the pinata. And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids...

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Settling into the School Routine

It's been a few weeks now since both children started back at school: my two year old daughter to the old school, less than five minutes from our house; my four year old son to the new school, twenty minutes from the house. We've managed to get the school run down, and I'm finding it less tedious than I expected.  I download podcasts to listen to when I'm on my own, and on the way there, when it's just me and my son in the car, we talk.

It's a twenty minute stretch when neither of us is distracted by anything else that needs doing or anybody else that wants our attention, and it's an absolute delight.  Mostly we talk about how he's going to be an astronaut one day, (I have instructed him to video-chat me from the space station and told him he'd better not bring me his laundry when he gets back to Earth), but all kinds of topics come up as we discuss things he's trying to get his head around.

For a while now, I've been vaguely worried about how to bond with my son now that he's outgrown the cuddly stage (which my daughter is delightfully ensconced in). As it turned out, all I needed to do was to find some peaceful one-on-one time--though that's no easy feat!

Anyway, my son has settled into his new school, although he is not impressed by having to work in the afternoons as well.  He was absolutely shattered for the first couple of weeks, though that seems to have eased, thankfully.  He's still starving when he gets home, and packing the lunch is an ongoing problem (I can't find an acceptable sandwich alternative to peanut butter, and it's looking like we might just have to do pasta everyday.)

Still, I'm pleased with the level of communication I'm getting from his teachers, and although we're still feeling our way into the school, so to speak, I think we made a good call. I'll be going in to observe in another couple of weeks, and this weekend, I am volunteering to help at a school event.

Surprisingly, the transition was harder on my daughter.  There was a last minute class-change, and now she's in a different room with different teachers and a much bigger class. She misses her old teacher and still doesn't seem to have transferred her affections to her new ones, which is a great shame. On the other hand, she has adjusted to the new routine now, and I was able to observe her last week which reassured me that she was perfectly comfortable in her new environment. She has a 'best friend', and unlike her brother, she likes to talk about her day, bubbling over with the same litany, regardless of what actually happened.

More regrettably, she's sort of dropped her nap. Not completely, but she used to go down without a problem between 12:30 and 1. Now that's not happening, and unfortunately, we have a limited window before we go to pick her brother up. If she's not asleep by 1:30 (and maybe even that would be too late), it's not going to be worth it for her to go to sleep.  So I've given up putting her down and instead she sleeps in the car when we do the afternoon school run.

It's frustrating because she doesn't get to sleep out in the car before we have to wake her, and then she always wakes up insanely cranky. Still, it's working quite well as an interim step, when she's not really ready to drop her nap, but no longer needs the full ninety minutes either. Now I've just got to get used to a daily routine that doesn't include getting my daughter into bed after lunch.

Also to an afternoon routine where our starting location for activities is at my son's school. There are plenty of parks along the route home, so generally we pick a playground, spend an hour there, then head home to tidy up and get dinner sorted. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it's surprisingly jarring to be at a different end of town, and I don't feel that we've quite streamlined the process yet.

So to sum up: much change to our daily routine; we're still getting used to it.

Further to my last post on Disney Princesses, we're going to be doing Disney on Ice this weekend, which I'm genuinely excited for, since I've always liked ice-skating and I hear good things about the show. I also hear bad things about the attending merchandise onslaught. Fingers crossed we survive it!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Dealing with Princesses

A month or so ago, my daughter did something I've been dreading since before my children were even conceived: she discovered the Disney Princess aisle in Target.

Why 'Princess' is a Dirty Word

I don't want to be disingenuous here. I adore the Disney movies. When I was three, Snow White was my favourite fictional character, and I distinctly recall telling my grandmother once that I wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I was in my early teens for the 90s Disney Renaissance, and was fascinated by the Disney heroines throughout high school.

However, somewhere between my childhood and the present day, the meaning of princess went from 'fairy tale adventure' to 'pink and fluffy rhinestone tiaras'.  I know I loved the beautiful dresses the princesses wore in my storybooks, but I also loved the adventures--playing princess with my friends in the school playground meant one of us had to play the witch that captured her!  Probably modern day childhood games aren't so different.  At a recent barbeque, my son played pirates with his friend and got into a rousing battle with the (equally enthusiastic) girls playing princesses.

But that's not what the modern Princess franchise (Disney or those emulating it) is about. The roleplay has been lost in favour of dress-up, and yet again women are being marketed based on their cosmetic value--to pre-school girls.

There was a recent internet brouhaha about Merida's entry into the lineup, resulting in a petition to make sure Disney Princess Merida lost some of her glamour and regained Brave Merida's bow. Yet Merida was hardly the first Disney heroine intended as a better role model for young girls than Snow "Someday my prince will come" White. She's certainly not the first to be stripped of those nods to feminism and personality for the sake of marketing.  When was the last time you saw Belle drawn with a book in hand? Even Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had more personality than their sweetly coy promotional counterparts.

My Noble Intentions

Clearly, as a parent, it's easy for me to boycott the make-up sets and high-heeled shoes--I rarely wear either myself and I certainly don't believe pre-teens should. But I don't want to ban the merchandise outright either.  I knew this day was likely to come, and my intent was always to focus on the movies and original fairy tales... but there's one problem.  At two and a half, my daughter is in the target demographic for the Disney Princess Franchise, but she's too young to sit through the films nor do fairy tales hold her interest.

My son, aged four, does enjoy fairy tales.  I started telling them to him from my own memory when he went through a phase of requesting scary stories, and after reading a picture book version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, he was excited to watch the film (mostly for the climactic swordfight with the dragon).  I can rest assured that my attempts to associate princesses with adventure is working like a charm on him.

But my toddler daughter? After weeks of study, I have been forced to conclude that to her a princess is a girl wearing a long dress, and it's the attractiveness of the characters, the smiling faces that appeal to her. Disney's marketing department knows exactly what they're doing. In fact, what she really likes doing best with her princesses is naming them, learning each one as carefully and conscientiously as she learned her numbers and shapes.


That fateful day in the toy aisle, my daughter picked out a magiclip Tiana, with three dresses (all of them ballgowns) and a stand to hang them on. I wasn't thrilled with the theme of the toy, but I liked that Tiana was at least on a similar scale to all our other playsets (Imaginext etc), meaning that there was crossover potential with their other toys.

Despite having a girl and a boy, it's my intention that my children should be able to play together as much as possible, and when we got home I browsed the magiclip line of princesses on Amazon and was gratified to find a selection of actual story-themed playsets as well as the changes of clothing and parties. For our trip around the UK, we got her Snow White with the Seven Dwarf's cottage (now hideously pink-thatched and tending to sparkle) as a portable playset. Come Christmas, I might well buy a non-franchise castle play-set that both children can use as a setting for grander adventures. In the shorter term, I'm eyeing up this cardboard box castle craft.

Amy Mebberson's fabulous yet tragically unofficial Pocket Princesses have proven that there is room for character and story in an absurd little universe where the Disney princesses all hang out with each other. From these I got the inspiration to focus not on story but personality where our princesses were concerned: "Snow White is a princess on the run. Tiana dreams of owning her own restaurant. Together they fight crime!" Or something. Some personality tag to append to the names my daughter is learning.

It's still all a little over my daughter's head, but it's working to keep my son's interest in the princesses, and he's her biggest role model when it comes to playing. I've shown them a few of the Pocket Princess cartoons and they enjoy them (their personal favourite). For the next few years, it looks like we'll be following Pocket Princess canon, and that's just fine with me.

Life Beyond The Animated Throne

Fortunately, Disney Princess remains an appeal rather than an obsession for my daughter, and I'm delighted that she would rather read Charlie and Lola than Sleeping Beauty, would rather watch Lilo and Stitch than Cinderella.  She does like to dress up in her princess outfit--we have the Imaginarium princess dress up trunk, which is thankfully low on pink and high on variety--but she also likes to wear her witch's hat, or a pirate outfit--and she's always game for playing swords with her brother. It seems that I don't need to fear the pink and fluffy rhinestone tiaras just yet...

Dragons make for a better accessory anyway

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Decorating the School-bag (Or the things I can do if I put my mind to it)

All this week, my son has been going to orientation at his new school. This has been kind of a pain for me, because he's been going for a couple of hours a day, a.k.a. half the morning, which has made it very awkward to plan activities for myself and my daughter.  On the other hand, I'm pleased the staff are so careful to settle the incoming children before the returners get back.

My son has, to all appearances, really enjoyed it.  I attended a parent Q & A / meet your fellow parents event on Monday, during which my daughter sat on my lap and entertained herself by asking me: "Where are your nipples?" (Currently, nipples are her favourite part of the human anatomy--possibly just because of the sound of the word.) Thank-you, beloved child, for helping me face my fear of embarrassment in social situations.

However the real disaster came earlier on Monday morning, when my son's teacher handed him a brand new schoolbag, told him he could decorate it however he wanted--and then pointed to a little girl's bag by way of example.  Said girl's bag had caterpillars and flowers painted on with glitter and was completely adorable.  My son was captivated at the thought of transforming his bag similarly; I was horrified.

I am not really artistic in any practical way. I'm always nervous of art projects more complicated than 'give child materials and leave them to it.' It's probably no coincidence that my son is rather behind in art himself.  At age four, he's been writing his letters for over a year, but he only recently started actually drawing things, and colouring in our household means scribbling an abstract mass of colour through which the line-art underneath shows through. At any rate, I knew that the visions my son had were beyond us. Besides, we were all out of paint and our glitter glue stock was low.

So when we got home, I got out the markers (felt tips) for my son and told him to draw whatever he wanted, hoping he might surprise me. He let his two year old sister in on the action, and the result was a colourful scribble all over the back of the bag. I told myself that at least this was his creation, not mine, but the truth was that this was a bag he was going to be using for years to come, and it would be distinguished from everybody else's by being... a messy scribble.

I fretted over this for the rest of the week, and eventually came up with a plan.

The Plan

Today, I gave my son a spray bottle of water and a scrubbing brush. We squirted the bag thoroughly and then he scrubbed over the markers, blurring the washable inks across the canvas to create a watercolour effect.

Once that was dry, he picked out a simple picture of a rocket ship from a colouring book and I copied that onto the bag in first pencil, then Sharpie. Then he painted it (I'd restocked on paints)--and for the first time in his life (and without me mentioning it!) he carefully painted each element of the picture a different colour. I helped a little, but mostly filling in the main body of the ship when he got bored and moved onto the wings. I also painted in the flames at the back when he was unsure how to do it.

When that was dry (huzzah for a sunny day!), I broke out our glitter glue.  This was the only time I over-rode his wishes in design, since he just wanted to scribble any colour anywhere, and I insisted that we had to match the colours already on the ship. I was afraid that if I let him have his way, we would end up with the same messy scribble we started with. Besides, I wanted the glitter glue to act as a sealant, since the paint was washable and this bag is going to get rained on at some point.

I'm not entirely sure how you're meant to use glitter glue, but we found that we got the best result by squirting a line and then spreading it with our fingers.

The final result:
It's flying past a nebula or something...

It's not Monet, and I still worry about what's going to happen when it rains, but this is, I feel, a bag he can be proud of for the next few years (and an artwork that we can gladly keep in the memory box once he's done with the bag). I am tremendously proud of him for putting so much care into it--and have resolved to be less scared of doing art with the children going forward.

I am, however, already worrying about what we can put on my daughter's bag when she joins the school next year...

Friday, 23 August 2013

For the Father-to-be from the Mother-that's-been

Although this is addressed to fathers to be in general, this is written for a guy I know online expecting his first child—because I’m sure that by this point of his wife’s pregnancy, there is nothing he wants more than more advice.

There is a lot of advice out there on babies and new parenthood, yet most of it flows between members of the same gender. Fathers counsel fathers and mothers counsel each other—often with a surprising lack of sympathy for their partners. So here is a mother’s take on what the new father should be prepared for. (Based on the entirely anecdotal evidence of five years of conversations with male friends—which makes it definitive!)

The Baby
I’m going to assume that you’ve done your research here and have a good idea of what to expect from your newborn. You’ve also probably heard numerous times that you can’t really know what it’s like until you experience it for yourself. It’s not that anything’s going to happen that you don’t expect (maybe), it’s more that you can’t know how you will deal with it 24/7.

To put it another way, before the birth you’re saying: “OK, so babies cry and they make a mess.” After the birth, you’re saying: “OH MY GOD! BABIES CRY AND THEY MAKE A MESS!” The good news is that you do go back to: “OK, so babies cry and they make a mess.” It just might take a couple of months.

The biggest transition here is adjusting from being a couple to being a family—knowing that your priorities will have to change doesn’t make the shift easy. However, the best encouragement I ever received came from a father friend: “It just keeps getting better.” From the first smile around eight weeks to the first time you successfully soothe their tears away to their first light sabre battle… Babies bloom into pure awesome.

The Emotions

May I refer you to a phrase coined by Glumbunny’s sister-in-law? You will be FUCKING DEPRESSED.

It’s not necessarily postpartum depression, which is its own animal, but wild bouts of despair are a normal state for a new parent. Mothers do have it worse, what with the hormones, physical recovery, lactation and body-image issues, but that doesn’t mean that Dads don’t get totally miserable too. Both parents are sleep deprived, stressed and suffering from a lack of confidence.

Perhaps the least expected parental emotion is guilt. Guilt over not filling your baby’s every waking hour with stimulation during this vital infancy stage. Guilt that you are doing the things you swore you would never do before having the child. Guilt that you never even thought of doing all the cool kid-friendly activities that appear in photographs on your Facebook feed. Guilt that you are neglecting your career, hobbies and loved ones for the baby. (Get ready for that self-loathing moment when your faithful pet nudges you for attention, and you push it away because you can’t cater to the demands of yet another living thing.)

Fathers feel an added layer of helplessness since the baby is more likely to calm down for Mum—if nothing else men lack naturally occurring pacifiers on their chests. Also, when it comes down to it, it’s Dad who’s got to suck it up and support the mother as she deals with those extra elements. And that extra responsibility means extra stress, which might just be the final straw on some days. In other words, have a backup support system ready.

I’m not trying to give you prepartum depression, but I don’t want to sugarcoat this either. This is the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to you—and it’s going to be agonisingly difficult. People will remind you to enjoy every moment because it goes by so fast, but it’s both normal and OK to have days where you just can’t.

On the plus side, this is what’s going to make you into the man you’ll be a year from now.

That was my attempt at inspiration. Moving on...

There will also be days where you get this fatherhood thing down.

The Relationship

I remember before the birth of my first child, I swore to myself that I would not be the kind of woman who neglects her husband for her child. After the birth, my husband and I both had a bitter laugh over that one.

The view of mothers neglecting fathers once the baby comes along is a male-driven one. From the maternal perspective, I deeply resented the fact that I never came first: I felt like I was spending all my time caring for the baby, cats, husband, and nobody took the time to care for me. This perception may have been mildly influenced by sleep deprivation...

Meanwhile, my husband had to deal with my hormonal urges—not the good (sexy) kind, but the kind where if the baby cried, I had to be the in the same room. It didn’t matter if I knew my husband was taking him in order to give me a break, it didn’t matter that I believed my husband was perfectly capable, it didn’t even matter that I wanted to stay in bed. All that mattered was that, as the mother, I felt morally obliged to be present for my child’s misery. You can imagine how this helped my husband's paternal self-esteem.

Chances are, you and the mother have talked about how you will balance the workload (for both baby and house) after the birth. Try and revisit that every couple of weeks, maybe even more frequently, with both of you being completely honest about what's hitting you hardest. There isn’t going to be a perfect balance, but you will improve. (Pro-tip: if I was doing the first baby over again, I’d ask my husband to make sure I ate breakfast every day—I often found that it was lunchtime and I still hadn’t eaten anything.)

The general consensus seems to be that having a baby is a huge strain on the relationship, with the trite assurance that you’ll come out stronger for it. I can't swear to that, but when it comes down to it, remember you’re both on the same side here, comrades in the trenches. The real enemy is the little sod screaming from the crib at 3am.

The Mother

So how will your beloved partner change physically after the birth? It depends on a lot of variables: scars, size and continence are all going to vary hugely from woman to woman and birth to birth.

The most immediate mystery is the post-partum belly which is round and soft: it deflates with the uterus over the course of a week or so, but the added flesh and stretch marks remain—and wrinkles of loose skin may join them. Those wrinkles, which appeared after my second birth, are the feature of my maternal body that most bothers me, and it took me a long time to look at them in the mirror without wincing.

There’s a lot of fuss about getting back into shape after the birth, and clearly it’s the healthy thing to do, but conventional mother wisdom says that it took nine months for the body to get that way—allow at least nine months to get it back (really a year, since she can’t do much about it straight after the birth). And some elements of her body will never be the same. (That might be breasts, tummy, ribcage, genitals… it’s life’s least savoury roulette wheel.)

Part of the adjustment for both you and your partner will be in accepting the flaws of the maternal body. Check out Jade Beall's Beautiful Body Project, which seeks to demystify the postpartum body.  Different women place different priorities on regaining their old figures, but at least in the short term, they’re going to be very changed from pre-pregnancy.

Her new body really shouldn’t bother you, but if it does, bear in mind she’s probably more upset about it than you are. Relax and embrace it… literally. Getting back in shape is good, but rediscovering her sexiness is vital, and that's something you can definitely help her with.

From A Beautiful Body Project

The Sex

It might strike you as a clich├ęd stereotype that a guide for fathers should talk about sex, but as with the postpartum body, I feel that this is something that needs to be talked about more openly. There is not enough information on what sex is like after childbirth out there—all I had was a few private warnings from a friend who was a month ahead of me in postpartum recovery.

Current American medical advice for vaginal deliveries is no intercourse for six weeks after the birth to allow time for everything to heal. This does not mean that after six weeks, everything is going to be back to normal down there. The area around the vagina is still tender and (especially if your partner is breastfeeding) very dry. Use lubricant, go gently and be aware that she’ll be sore afterwards.

The bad news is that this will be the status quo for months. Breast-feeding hormones are not conducive to good sex—but do not be that guy who encourages his wife to quit breastfeeding to better his sex life. Even after the tenderness goes away, there are still going to be sore points wherever she has stitches—fortunately, this isn’t likely to be enough pain to detract from the sexual experience and this should also disappear within a year.

Will you feel any changes? OK… I’m not really in a position to debunk the theory that after popping out a baby, a woman’s vagina is somehow ‘loose’. Funnily enough, this isn’t something the men of my acquaintance talk about (to me). However, from the limited discussion I have heard on this topic, it seems you needn’t worry. It’s not like you can do a direct before and after comparison anyway, but chances are you won’t notice a difference. (And of course, that kind of thing doesn’t really matter to you, does it?)

The big elephant in the room is the frequency of the sex… and that’s where I don’t have good news. Your average new mother is not feeling a lot of interest in sex in the first place—and not particularly enjoying it when she has it. It does, I am sorry to say, become just another thing on an overwhelming To Do List, and that leaves you at the mercy of her priorities.

I’ve known several women who just stopped having sex after the birth of their child, with this state of affairs lasting for a year or more. I was always of the school of thought that my husband and I needed that intimate bonding moment, that it was worth finding time for… yet my lack of enthusiasm for the actual act caused its own strain between us.

It’s tough on the father, not just because your hormones are still focused on conception, but because it’s tough to see that your sexual partner has effectively lost interest in you. That’s a crisis of self-confidence to rival the mother’s body-image struggles. And like that, it’s something that both partners are going to have to understand and work through together. It will improve, but it’s definitely a long-term project.

Oh, and one last thing… Have you ever felt that the beauty of a long-term relationship is that you have memorised the map of your partner’s particular turn-ons? Yeah, those might change after the birth too. Think of it as Mother Nature’s unnecessarily vicious little joke.

Don't forget all the obstacles between the two of you and alone-time.

So that is the cold hard truth of new fatherhood. That is what you need to brace yourself for. Now relax, because there is also plenty of exultation ahead and incredible amounts of love, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. (We're going spoiler-free on the good stuff!) Good luck to you for the next few months and congratulations for the rest of your life… This is, hands down, the best thing you’ve ever done.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Home from travels and holiday retrospect

Long silence owing to a three week trip around the UK.  It was exhausting, as it has been ever since we went from one child to two, but it was also tremendous fun.  We expected that our daughter, a notoriously bad sleeper, would be the problem, but in fact it was our son who struggled with the new surroundings and unfamiliar food.  Even though he'd been looking forward to the trip for weeks, the first night I sat at the top of my mother-in-law's stairs, cuddling him as he whimpered that he wanted to go home.

But it got better!  I'm still waiting to get to the point where I can actually recover from the jet-lag sleep deficit during the trip, but it could have been worse.  Despite some pre-trip phobia of public toilets, my daughter was an absolute star in maintaining her toilet training through all the travelling and different houses that we stayed in.  Both children watched far too much television, but we told ourselves was almost exclusively CBeebies and thus part of their cultural identity--and felt this rationale was validated when they took a shine to Postman Pat.

And, partly thanks to the best weather we've had for one of these trips, we had so much honest-to-goodness fun.

Anyway, our summer holiday is over, and next week my son does his orientation for his new school, with term for both children starting the following week.  It's been almost three months off school for the children, and this is the first time that I've worried about the academic lapse for my son.  Here in the States, it's an acknowledged problem that pupils forget a lot over the summer holidays, meaning a good proportion of the fall term is bringing them back up to speed.  Previously, that hasn't been an issue for us--not because I've had my son in summer school, but because he wasn't doing anything at school that we weren't practicing in daily life.

Now though, I look at where he is/was in his reading and writing and think that if he hadn't had that break, he would probably be really and truly reading by now.  I've been a bit hit and miss in practising that with him, because I don't want to push it and because he generally doesn't settle with me--preferring to mess around.  But late in the holiday I discovered that if I do push for some sit down and write time (we've actually been using a workbook--not at all Montessori, but it was at exactly the right level for him), he'll get his focus and surprise me with what he can do. 

During our trip, we had a tendency to go out in the morning and chill out in the afternoon.  When we were staying with friends with children, that wasn't a problem, but at the grandparents' houses the children would grow restless in the afternoon and become too chaotic.  We started doing sit-down activities with them: play doh, colouring--and the work-book (I also had an addition activity mat for my son and a counting one for my daughter, along with some beads for the maths side of things, though I never quite got these working smoothly).  This worked a treat, even though sitting down and arranging an activity for the children was frequently the last thing either of us wanted to do!

Next summer, I'll have to try and incorporate this into our daily routine: a 4pm work cycle, of sorts.  As it is, I'm at least satisfied that he hasn't slipped backwards from where his new school expects him to be--though I'm sure they expect a summer regression anyway!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Fizzy Art

Now that it's so hot, I'm breaking out my indoor activities again.  One of my son's favourite things to do just lately is what we call Fizzy Art: i.e. adding food colouring to the kitchen science of vinegar and baking soda for a quick creative blitz.  I can't recall where I first heard about this, but here's my take on the activity.

What You Will Need
  • A large amount of Baking Soda (i.e. think in terms of cups, not teaspoons)
  • Vinegar
  • Food colouring
  • A dish, tray, tub... (I use a disposable roasting dish, but it cleans off perfectly every time with just a quick rinse)
  • Small cups/pots to minimise clean-up from spills (I use plastic shot-glasses; mini play-doh pots would be ideal since they are hard to tip over)
  • Eye droppers
  • Paper towels
  • Instructions on how to get food colouring out of clothes (I can vouch for this method with inexact measurements used two hours after the initial stain--it probably helps that vinegar is involved from the start)

So here is our set-up.  The first time I ever did this, I just put a thin layer of baking soda down and it was swamped by the amount of vinegar the children deluged it with.  These days, I buy my baking soda from a wholesaler and I pour it approx 1cm thick.

I have two children, aged two and four, so they each have their own dropper and their favoured colours on their side. When I refill the cups, they may swap colours.  If possible, it would probably be more effective to provide one eye-dropper per colour, since they can be a little careless about emptying the dropper before going to the next colour.

Obvious enough...
  • Step 1: Fill dropper with coloured vinegar.
  • Step 2: Squeeze vinegar over baking soda.
  • Step 3: Admire the result.
  • Step 4: Repeat until supplies/attention span exhausted.

This really is fantastic to watch.  The baking soda looks and feels beautiful to start with anyway, it's so soft and white.  The fizzing of the chemical reaction (green in the above photo) is always fun, but when the bubbles subside, we're left with cratered patches of colour (the blue and orange above).

Your child will need to know how to use a dropper--though this is a good way to teach them. (I also recommend giving them a dropper or turkey baster in the water table / bath.) If they've not mastered that skill, expect some confusion and 'misplaced' vinegar.

If you want to get into the science of it, (or even if you don't, but want to be prepared for the inevitable day when your kids ask), there are 'simple' explanations of the baking soda / vinegar reaction here and here. The simplest I can reduce it to for mine is that it's a chemical reaction, which means the baking soda and vinegar are turning each other into other things.  One of those things is a gas, and that's what makes the bubbles.  That still goes over my four year old's head.

The End Result
I am fairly sure that older, more aesthetically conscious children, could produce a fantastic abstract piece of art with this, a surreal rainbow cratered landscape... What mine generally do is pile all their colours onto one spot making a mushy brown patch, with some squabbling over territory.

Please note that this took about five minutes, and included me refilling the cups once.  This isn't really something that's worth the effort of set-up if you're looking to occupy them while you get on with something else.  I have debated giving my son a small jug of vinegar and the food colouring so that he can refill their cups as needed (and experiment with mixing colours, if he so desires), but I am wary that my daughter will take matters into her own hands--a staining disaster waiting to happen.

I have managed to extend the game a little though....

Extension Activities
Given the chance, your child might well continue until all the baking soda is a saturated mish-mash of colour.  If it's too swampy, this is the time to clean everything up, but otherwise, you've got something rather akin to rainbow sand.  New sensory activity ahoy!

It really isn't the best medium, but you can mould it to an extent.  My daughter lost interest, but my son spent about ten minutes using the now empty cups to make sandcastles.  This does get messy, since once their hands go into the tray, the 'sand' will start coming out of it, and it might be better done out of doors--but I've never had a problem cleaning everything up again.  It's baking soda and vinegar after all.

Thanks to the inherent cleansing attributes of the medium, even the smallest tots should be able to help clean up the mess afterwards.  My children are expected to carry cups and droppers to the kitchen counter and use the paper towel to wipe up spills. I supply more towels as needed, empty the dish out and rinse everything off again.

Really, I should make the children do the washing up, but I am taking a break from cleaning up the puddles my daughter leaves on the floor.

For further art adventures in the baking soda / vinegar genre, check out this (probably best done outdoors) alternative: Exploding Paint Bags. This sounds amazing, but right now, I am far too much of a coward to actually try it out.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Time-Ins for Tantrums

Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn't any
Other stair
Quite like
 - A. A. Milne Halfway Down

My tantrum education is going swimmingly, thanks mostly to my temperamental daughter. I hate to add my voice to the generalisation, but this is why people say girls are harder than boys. While it's in no way fun, it's given me ample motivation to analyse my relationship with the children and how that's reflected by my reactions to their temper loss.

Back in January I posted about dealing with tantrums, with the main conclusion being to stay calm and focus on getting them to calm down rather than on what caused the tantrum. Since then, both children have improved in their meltdowns, which is likely as much due to age as it is to my incredible parenting skills. However, I've adapted too. I became uncomfortably aware of just how much I was distancing myself from my children because they were losing their tempers.  I didn't want to reward their inappropriate behaviour, but equally, I wasn't giving them the support they needed to find the correct response to the situation.

A First Step in Conflict Resolution

I pulled out an idea I'd mentally filed away back when my son was a baby/toddler: the concept of a time-in instead of a time-out.  Instead of leaving your child on their own for a specified length of time, the parent sits with them and they talk through it together. (NB there are times when the time out is required so the parent can calm down; this obviously is not a viable alternative for those!)

I've never really gone in for time-outs anyway since I find them exhausting to enforce, but I used to send my son to his room when he was in his terrible twos, with the instruction that he could come out when he calmed down.  He used to come out immediately, but the muscle-routine of going up and down the stairs was enough to work him out of his temper.  That was all the calming he needed.

These days, he needs something more than a physical soothing; he wants to understand and to be understood.  As for my daughter, going upstairs and back down again has never worked.

A few months back, I posted about how a loss of my temper as well as my daughter's ended with us both on the top step of the stairs, sitting calmly until my daughter was ready to go bed.  This became our solution to bedtime protests for a month or so until gradually phased out.  But the top step of the stairs (or the bottom, depending which floor we were on) was such a good neutral spot that I started using it for other things.  I believe it was Supernanny who used the 'naughty step' for time-outs.  The same principle of convenience works for time-ins, but now the step is acting more like a Montessori Peace Table.

My new favourite Parenting Tool

A Time Out for Two (or Three)

Initially, I fell into using it for my son when he was acting up and I would have to remind him of the rules, or if he started protesting the rules.  I would call him over to the step and my daughter would invariably follow, so the three of us would sit there while I tried to put the reasoning behind the rules into four-year-old logic (and, if necessary, toddler logic as well). It puts me on their level, hugs can be freely given, my lap is available and--perhaps most important of all--we are away from temptation / the scene of the crime.

The downside is that the step encourages fidgeting, shifting from step to step, and general squirming of embarrassment.  I try and get my son to sit still and make eye contact, but I don't want to distract from the real issue--perhaps I should keep some fidget-soothers close by!

In general though, this has been very effective.  I don't always remember to use it--and there are certainly times when I am just too wound up myself for a time-in (as is familiar to any stay-at-home parent, the children are not likely to grant me a time-out).  Still, overall, this has worked well for us and we're having fewer genuine upsets.

What I should do in due course is to direct the children to go the steps when they are arguing with each other and talk through their dispute.  I'm not sure my daughter's quite ready for that yet.

A Comfort Zone

My daughter, not quite two and a half, cannot be talked through her meltdowns in the way my son can.  There are times when she gets completely hysterical and will scream and hit and kick and there's absolutely nothing we can do for her. Waiting it out doesn't work, as she generally goes until something distracts her--and that something won't necessarily work the next time. When she gets into that state, we generally spend about an hour trying to deal with it.

By far the most reliable method of soothing her is for my husband to take her while I disappear.  She won't calm down for him, but when I return after a couple of minutes, I will be able to cuddle her and get her back in control of herself.

But when it's just me on my own?  I have had limited success with holding her in front of a mirror, so she can watch herself as she cries which seems to give her some validation for her emotions. (Public restrooms, with their added soother of running water, are my refuge of choice when we are out and about during tantrumming). Walking away from her is useless since she will run after me and throw herself down again.

This was a huge concern for me for a few months. In worrying through the problem, I felt certain that consistency was going to be key in resolving this issue and that I had to use a soothing mechanism that we were in the habit of doing outside of tantrums--something familiar. So I started sitting down on the step.

I should make it clear that this does not have a 100% success rate, but it is a clearly established habit now.  My daughter throws herself on the floor, and I go to the step and ask her if she wants to sit with me.  She has the choice of sitting on the step next to me or on my lap, but she must sit herself down--I explain that it is not safe for me to pick her up when she isn't in control of her body. I also explain that if she kicks/hits me, then I will have to leave. (I generally move to the other end of the stairs if needed.)

I don't scold her for the tantrum, not even for the hitting.  I don't spent a lot of time talking to or looking at her.  I am just there.  If she quietly presses up against me for comfort, I'll rub her back and help her sit down.  Generally, once the storm has passed, we'll sit in silence, with her in my arms and her face resting against my shoulder. Increasingly often, she'll never build up a full head of steam but will sit down next to me quietly until she's ready to get on with whatever she was protesting. By this point, I can spot very quickly if this is a time when it's not going to work (though that's not much use without a plan B).

I'm such a scatterbrain that it's easy for me to be impatient with the children when I'm trying to focus on something else. Nevertheless, for the past few months I've been trying very hard to stop what I'm doing and make time to deal with angry children. It's not always possible, but I've come to the conclusion that that's the relationship I want to have going forward--talking through their moods with them rather than scolding them for their loss of control. (Why yes, my paranoia about teenager years is starting early!)

If nothing else, it's a big relief just to have a plan in the event of a meltdown.  Not even the most hysterical of screaming children is worse than the helpless feeling when you have no idea what to do.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Daily Routines

Three weeks into the summer holiday and barely a post.  Obviously, I've lost a good chunk of my free time, but I've also just been enjoying having fun with the kids, doing outings and activities. A change is as good as a rest, they say. (Actually, Ma Ingalls says it... Most of my life-platitudes seem to come from Little House on the Prairie.)

Still, this week it started getting to me a little bit--writing is a form of therapy to me, and I need the outlet, so I'm back to the blog.  Un-coincidentally, the heat's also set in this week, making summer considerably less fun, and my daughter's been having nap struggles which have left her in a major sleep deficit.

One of the things that's been important to me this summer was an evaluation of our daily routine, since I wanted to keep it as much as possible through the summer.  I've also never got round to doing a daily routine post, so let's write it out.  Because our summer routine is a bit more flexible, I'm using the routine we followed during the past school term.

6:15am - I get up, give the cats their breakfast and make a pot of tea. The children are almost always awake by this point, but the rule is that they can't get up until they hear somebody go downstairs, and they have to be quiet! Once the tea is made, we take the mugs upstairs (the children share a quarter-full one) and have it in our bed.
6:45am - this is when the alarm-light in the children's room goes green, which means it's officially time to get up and dressed.  I dress my daughter, and my son dresses himself, and once they're dressed they can go downstairs and watch one show on television. While they do this, I get dressed, put the laundry on and check my email/social media/news what-have-you. I'm trying to get more in the habit of showering at this time, now that the children won't hassle me, but I'm not a fast showerer and it tends to throw me off-schedule.
7:15am - Breakfast time. After breakfast, I do kitchen-based housework (dishwasher, counters, shopping list, etc). The children have a vitamin and are free to play.
7:50am - We wave goodbye to Daddy from the window on the stairs, and then we brush teeth and hair, wash faces etc. Afterwards, I hang out the laundry while the children play.
8:30 - 9am - Dropping the children off at school.  They're usually there pretty promptly, but this very much depends on the day.  If I have any errands to run, I will do them immediately after drop off.

Aside: This is very reflective of what a morning person I am.  On a good day, I can have got the children up and to school, dishwasher emptied, laundry out to dry, and be home from doing the week's shopping by 9:30am, leaving me with two hours to do what I want before picking the children up.  I have got this morning routine down to a fine art, because I know that, motivation-wise, the rest of the day is all downhill for me! The downside is that I tend to get stressed about keeping the pace going through these first three hours of the morning. That leads to impatience with the children, which never works out well.

9am - I do whatever the hell I want to do for the morning.  I usually try to make the most of my high energy levels.  I know that from around 11am, they'll start dropping.
11:45am - Pick the kids up from school. Lunch and play when we get home.
12:45am - My daughter's nap. My son joins us for her song before bed, but then he goes downstairs and watches two shows on television. Often, I will also have a lie-down at this point. My energy levels crash around 2pm, and I usually find that a ten-minute power nap works wonders, provided I make myself get up as soon as I wake. If I'm more alert, I may start dinner preparations or spend time on the computer. Once my son is done watching television, we do something together, an activity that we can't easily do when my daughter is up.
2pm-ish - Wake up my daughter.  She can be tricky to get to sleep in the evenings, so we've resorted to waking her up more promptly from her naps. I regret to say that we've got into the habit of letting her watch television on wake-up, a hangover from when we went through those sick months.
3pm-ish - get our act together and go out. We go out most afternoons in term time, if only for fresh air and exercise (as much for me as for the children). We have gym one day a week and we have a standing playdate with another family, but otherwise, it's up to us. I find it easier to keep going when I'm out of the house too. At home, the temptation of lethargy and distraction is too present; if we do stay in, I usually have to have a specific activity to run with.
5pm-ish - Home again.  Sometime after 4pm, I hit my second wind and become productive again, so usually this time of day I encourage the children to play by themselves while I clean up (hopefully remembering to bring in the laundry!) and get dinner ready.
6pm - dinner time. My husband occasionally is late back for dinner, but we are usually able to eat dinner as a family.
6:20pm - Clean up and another pot of tea.  The living room rug, the usual toy repository, should be cleared before the television goes on (this rule is not always strictly enforced, but it's too useful for us to let it slide). It's 'Daddy's turn to choose' what goes on TV, but we generally watch something in the Edu-tainment category. Mythbusters, David Attenborough and How It's Made are all typical fare.
7pm - Children's bedtime. My husband and I alternate on putting the children to bed: brush teeth, change into pyjamas and one story before lights out.
10:30pm - Bedtime for grown-ups.  Generally, I shut down the computer at 10 and then do a scout around for things to go in the dishwasher, and light tidying.

And that's it.  Weekends are less routine heavy since we factor in a lie in for my husband or myself (I have Saturday and he has Sunday) until 8am.  Since my son learned how to operate the Apple TV remote, the children get themselves up and watch television, so we both get a bit of extra sleep until they get hungry and demand breakfast.  Then whoever's turn it is gets up and attends to them, though they're allowed to have breakfast in front of the television instead of at the table, because we are totally degenerate at weekends.

Vacation routine

Much as I enjoy a couple of lazy mornings, it is very clear to me that without that scheduled burst of productiveness, the whole day tends to get thrown off, so I did not want to treat the vacation as one long weekend for the children and me.  The only alteration I've made to the morning is that they are permitted to watch television as soon as they wake up and before getting dressed--mostly because they've been waking up at 5:45, and the last couple of weeks of school had been immensely frustrating when it came to putting them back to bed at that hour.  They do have to switch the television off and get dressed at 6:45, but they can switch it back on for one final show afterwards.

Of course, with no school to go to, we're going out for our fresh air and exercise in the morning, giving me less impulse to go out in the afternoon.  Logically, I should do housework then, but housework in the afternoon never works out for me.  So I've been practicing being 'at home with the children', trying to use my low energy time to get down on the floor and play with them and their toys. (Reading books unfortunately isn't an option, because reading aloud makes me incredibly tired for some reason--I had to make a rule that Mummy can only read one book in the afternoons.)

This worked admirably for two and a half weeks and then the heat and the humidity hit and I have been drained of anything resembling motivation. I have just over three weeks until we do our UK trip and my goal is to keep going with the routine and not devolve into sitting in front of the television for six hours a day. This is not going to be easy.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Exercising Moral Tolerance for Women's Rights

Amid all the excitement over the abortion debates currently going on in the US, a tribute to a child born too soon was posted on the blogosphere.  Please note that this is not an easy post to read, and the photographs (posted after the story) might disturb you. The author went into preterm labour at 19 weeks and 3 days, which gave her son no chance at survival. Had she gone into labour 4 days later, she still would have lost her baby, but she would have received a very different level of treatment, all because of hospital policy.

While the author of the post, Lexi, is open that she is against abortion and that's why she shared her story, that's not what this is about for me. In philosophy, I am also pro-life, but politically I am pro-choice, and that is because I cannot, in all conscience, push my morals on another person when it can have such potentially devastating consequences for their lives. I have posted on this before, relating to IVF and our freedom of choice within that procedure.

I could not imagine choosing to abort a pregnancy after implantation.  But I also can't imagine enduring the physical, emotional and financial burden of pregnancy, when I have good reason not to do so and when my ethics don't conflict with ending it.  And so I am happy, eager, for abortions to remain legal, although I wish there was as much attention paid to ways of reducing unwanted pregnancies from ever occurring (including education of the male sex) and of providing physical, emotional and financial support to women who need it through pregnancy and beyond.

That said, I urge everybody who is clamouring that abortions are a women's rights issue to remember that women's rights go further than one law can uphold, and Lexi's story is a good example of that. Forcing a woman through pregnancy is infringing on her rights. Denying that her child was alive, and denying her the proper consolation is also infringing on her rights.

Everybody has different beliefs about when life begins. If you believe it begins at conception, you might need to grieve for a lost embryo during IVF.  A woman who has experienced joy after a positive pregnancy test will experience bereavement with a miscarriage, however brief her pregnancy may have been. Women who deliver a stillborn child or one that dies shortly after birth are encouraged to hold their baby's body and have pictures, handprints and footprints taken, so that they have mementos of their son or daughter's existence, something to mark them always as part of their family.

Denying any of these women (and their families) these options to grieve is inhumane. Impairing their medical care (and with respect to the linked blog, we obviously don't know the full details or the hospital's side in that case) is unforgivable.

I don't know if we can really pass enough laws to cover every aspect of pregnancy ethics. However, as people, and especially as an internet (where it is so easy to charge our statements with politics), we can strive to be more aware. It's not as simple as cheering for the politically correct option or damning those who argue against our beliefs. If you're pro-life, bear in mind that pro-choicers love their unborn children too. If you're pro-choice, remember that abortion isn't the only way in which wombs get regulated. Blindly mandating that life doesn't begin until birth/viability is also going to cause trauma and ethical issues.

No woman should be left waiting in an ER because the child in danger is not yet at 20 weeks gestation; no woman should feel that the child she carried, dreamed of and lost is not a person to be remembered.

In an ideal world, laws would give us the freedom to follow our own moral standards. That might not be possible in reality, but we have the power to exercise that moral tolerance on an individual level. Let's remember to do so.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Pre-school Decisions

So as I stated in my last post, we've made the decision to change schools. This wasn't an easy decision, because there are many things we (and they!) love about their current school, but in the end, our reasons for leaving were non-negotiable.

However, I was adamant that we were staying in Montessori education, so I asked around and got a recommendation for another school from somebody who had worked there as part of their training. I visited it, loved it, and fortunately, that decision was a very easy one. It's twenty minutes away instead of two minutes away, but I always knew I wasn't going to find another school so close.  I'm just going to have to make that adjustment. (I am very unenthusiastic about the school run taking the better part of an hour instead of its current ten minutes.)

Complication number one was that they don't take toddlers.  They aren't licensed to change diapers or even help a child undress and clean themselves after an accident.  All children must be potty-trained with no more than two accidents per month. While it's possible that my daughter might be at that level by September (though I doubt it), I certainly don't think she's ready to tackle the full-blown children's house class yet (three to six year olds).

We pondered our options, of putting her in daycare or just taking her out of school altogether until January.  In the end however, we have decided to let her continue on at her current school, for one more term. Come January, though she won't quite be three, she'll have done a full year in the toddler class, and I expect she'll be fine for Children's House, though we can revise our options again when we get there. (I am fairly sure her current school would change her to the full year if we asked.)  Right now, she's perfectly happy where she is, and I don't see the need to change her routine for a single term.

Complication number two was an odd one. The new school wanted my son to start on their kindergarten programme.

To Push or not to Push

Just for background here, my son is four and a half. Going on the national standard, he would not have been expected to start kindergarten until the fall of 2014, so this is effectively skipping him a year. Kindergarten hadn't even been on our radar.

On the other hand, the Montessori system doesn't synch perfectly with the standard one--that's why it's a kindergarten programme, not a kindergarten class.  By morning, he will be in the same 3-6 year old mixed class that we intended to enroll him for.  The difference is that the older children stay through the afternoon as well and have a second, academic-focused, work cycle after lunch (plus some other opportunities).

Now, while I naturally think my son is extremely bright, I don't think he's any sort of child prodigy. The old school had not talked about starting him on kindergarten this early (although they tended to err later rather than sooner with such things). My initial reaction on hearing this news was that I did not want to push him. It wasn't that I thought he wasn't capable of handling the work so much as the load.

His prospective teacher admitted that he was younger than she had originally thought--probably because he was friends with one of the boys in her class. Said friend is only a few months older than my son, but he has an August birthday. I had never really appreciated before that, technically, they were in different school years, even if there's not a big difference between them academically. 

For Montessori purposes, they are in the same class and will be doing the same work--the friend is a little ahead of my son in most areas, but they could certainly work together on several materials. And when my son came in to work with the teacher, she felt he was where she expected her kindergarteners to be.

I did wonder if it would make more sense to start kindergarten in January, when my son would be five and would have completed two of the expected three years in the Children's House. This would let him settle in to the new school before making the switch to afternoons as well. However, when asked, my son (who was utterly dazzled by his new school) was quite excited at the prospect of staying at school through the afternoon. I think he's aware that this is a big kid thing, and is eager to be so grand.

The teacher said that he could start the extended day in January if I wished, but she thought he was ready now.  She also assured me that if she changed her mind after a few weeks, he would be able to switch back to mornings only. Finally, she told me that the school had a number of four year olds in the kindergarten programme, so he would be with his peers.

That last was what decided me.  I feared being a pushy parent, but even if he was exceptionally gifted, I would want him to stay with children his own age as much as possible. I was also a little wary that the school might just be trying to get him in the more expensive programme to get the extra tuition fees, and obviously I can't be sure that this isn't the case... but I don't think it is.

Finally, whenever we do go back to the UK, his education is going to be interrupted for a short while anyway, so I'm more than happy to have him a little ahead of the curve. It feels like we have a buffer against future problems.

I do feel a little ridiculous saying he's starting kindergarten in the fall, but I need to get over it. This is going to be nothing compared to university applications.

Logistics, Ahoy!

Having him stay at school until 3pm will completely change our daily routine though.  Up until now, our afternoon plans have hinged on when his sister wakes from her nap.  Now they'll start from when we pick him up and they'll have to be accessible from his school.  We're not going to be able to keep their gym class up, for a start, and I don't yet know if we'll change classes or change gyms. Fortunately, we don't do any other extra-curriculars.

Of course, this is only going to get worse in January when my daughter starts at the school as well.  It's going to be one thing driving ten blocks to pick her up from school at lunchtime and then going back out for her brother at three.  It's going to be quite another to spend forty minutes on the round trip to drop them off by 9, forty minutes to collect her at 12 and forty minutes to collect him at 3.

The most convenient option is to have her lunch and nap at school, so I'm picking them both up together, but that's a lot of extra fees for her to sleep through. Also, I don't think there's any alternative should she drop her nap. In other words, the nap will be enforced on her whether she needs it or not, which could create a different set of problems for us in the evenings.

Anyway, we are very much crossing that bridge when we come to it. Thankfully, it's going to be a relatively short term problem, but it's going to be a royal nuisance as long as it lasts.

Also a problem? Finding a week's worth of packed lunches for my son when peanut butter sandwiches are banned. It's not a huge surprise, since most schools don't allow peanut butter these days, but his current school doesn't have a problem with it, and they're just about his favourite thing to eat. I am going to need some serious research on packable meals before September rolls around.

But right now, I'm trying to deal with the thought that tomorrow is his last day at the old school--something which is giving me many more pangs than it is him. I really need to take a leaf out of his book and be excited about what's to come rather than mourning what will never be again.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Stay At Home Mum Revisited

This week will be the children's last at school, which means two and a half months of summer holiday--or the end of my mornings to myself!  Seems like a good excuse for a retrospective on being a stay at home Mum with school-age children.

Bear in mind that my intention for 2013 was to return to work although I should note that my hope was to be able to work at the same school as my children. and this did not pan out. I did have a brief stint covering for another teacher, but since February, my children have been going to school every morning while I stay at home. Initially, I was very much looking forward to the experience of having three hours to myself every day--it seemed so decadent and so full of opportunities to Do All The Things.

Children Get Sick

In fact, it started off with me acting as nursemaid as the whole family got sick with the round of winter bugs. The children (mostly my two year old daughter) continued to be sick off and on until the beginning of May, but certainly February and March were almost completely taken up with one child or another being off school. Meanwhile, I felt almost permanently under the weather as ear / eye / throat infections caused interrupted nights, and the stress of not getting other things done translated into insomnia.

Coming right after my month as a substitute teacher, this was something of a wake-up call, as it was starkly obvious just how difficult February and March would have been if I was working.  I could hardly have taken half the week off every week.

Obviously, in that situation, my husband could have taken days off as well--in a pinch, he could probably manage to work from home, although that wouldn't always be feasible.  Also, there were days when I erred on the side of keeping a weepy child home; if we were both working, I'd be more likely to send them into school and hope for the best.

Even so, it made me appreciate just how difficult it is logistically when both parents are working with no alternative childcare.  For that seven week period, there were at least two days of every week when somebody (usually my daughter, but we all suffered off and on) had to stay at home, which would have meant either my husband or myself (and a couple of times, both of us) would have had to take a day off work.

Millions of families manage it, so no doubt we could as well, but that doesn't mean it's easy, and I don't suppose anybody really succeeds in keeping all the plates spinning without dropping one from time to time.  We could afford a nanny, but considering where my interests lie, we don't personally gain much advantage from paying my salary to somebody else to look after our children.

Time Abhors a Vacuum

Once the children did start getting into reasonable stretches of wellness (and we weren't going on trips around the US), I finally got into a routine of free mornings. That has been wonderful.  It's a tremendous luxury after four years of infant and toddler-care, and I love it!

Still, it's interesting noting the disconnect between what I envisioned and reality. One of the things you learn as a parent is that you can get a phenomenal amount of things done if somebody takes the children away for just a couple of hours. Whenever I needed to completely reorganise a room or had some other grand housework job, I would get my husband to take the children out at the weekend while I got the job done.

Therefore, I vaguely assumed that five such opportunities every week would mean that my house would be eternally spotless, I could tackle all those projects I'd been meaning to do, and still have time to go out and just enjoy shopping or maybe take a weekly swimming class or something. Not to mention, with that daily break from childcare, I'd not only be able to stay patient with the children, but I'd have boundless enthusiasm for our afternoon activities.

The reality? Well, my personality is such that I get fixated on things. So if I decided to reorganise the filing cabinets or archive all the photos or write, I would do that. I would not do any housework. Moreover, when the children got home, assuming I had not finished my current project, I'd be thinking about it, twitchy to get back to it and... yes... irritable with the children for distracting me from my ongoing task.

It probably took me a few weeks to figure this out. Damnit, cognitive dissonance. While realising this means I can work around it a bit, it is always going to be a problem for me, it's something I will have to keep watching out for, and it will certainly always be one of the flaws in my parenting.

The truth is, of course, however much time we have, we expand our activities to fill it and thus constantly feel that we don't have enough time. I never did take up that swimming class, and I haven't done much shopping outside of necessities either--though, to be fair, I don't really like shopping that much, and right now, the novelty of being alone in the house hasn't worn off. I'd much rather treat myself to twenty minutes of watching How I Met Your Mother in peace than of looking at clothes on a rack.

Social Guilt

The irony here is that I've always been an advocate of the stay at home mother, yet personally, I felt that I could not justify my unemployment once both the children were at school.  It was always my intention to return to work at this point, so that I would be contributing to the household finances and so that I would be focusing on myself and my career plans--i.e. so that I wouldn't 'just' be a Mum.

Had things worked out and I'd been able to take up the job I originally wanted, this would probably be a post about getting to grips with parenting and career. Instead I've spent the past few months wondering if I should find a Plan B without actually starting the jobhunt.

Part of this has been because we have been finding a new school for the children (more on that in another post) and we agreed both that that should take priority and that there wasn't a lot of point in me finding a job until we had that settled and we knew what my time commitment to the children would be. Working at the same school would have solved a lot of logistical issues regarding hours and holidays; we've still got to account for those.

Yet a lot of my procrastination has been due to my own re-assessment of my value to this family. I appreciate more than I did before that having one parent who doesn't work is a huge asset (even if it does come with unfortunate housewife connotations). And while any family can benefit from a second salary, we're very very lucky that we can live so comfortably off my husband's current income.

It doesn't mean I'm giving up on my career, but I can still plan for it, research my options and prepare myself.  I fully intend to earn money again, but it's going to wait another year, maybe longer. (Around this point in reading the blog, my husband is probably having a great time devising snarky comments--I do it all for you, dear.) Again, I'm in a fortunate position here, in that I'm not looking to climb a lengthy career ladder. I've read plenty of blogposts from mothers who would like to stay at home longer, but whose job aspirations prevent them from putting their careers on hold.

Fortunately, the other lesson I've learned from the past few months (and indeed, the past few years) is that being a stay-at-home mum doesn't mean that I've lost my identity outside of the children.  The internet in particular has been a great outlet for that--thank heavens, I've always been a geek! Serendipitously, this assuages some of my income guilt because at least my hobbies come free.

The Long and the Short Term of It

And that, in a nutshell, is how I've learned to stop worrying and love being a Stay At Home Mum.  (Well, maybe I'm still a little defensive.) What I don't yet know is how long this situation will continue. Until both children are out of pre-school? Until my daughter's immune system kicks into gear? Until an unmissable job opportunity presents itself? Or perhaps until after we've left the US, which is another nebulous deadline we talk about occasionally.

I hope this doesn't become one of those things where I wait for a right moment that never comes, but certainly, here and now, it makes sense to keep ourselves adaptable. Perhaps I'll have new plans for 2014.

Right now, I've got a week left to relish my mornings, before I go back to being a full-time mother over the summer vacation.  I suspect I might be feeling quite jaded about that in another month or so, but for the time being, I'm excited about taking the children on days out so I'm going to capitalise on my enthusiasm while it lasts!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Keep Calm and Nappies Off

So, it's been a little over three weeks since I took the nappies off my daughter and let her (more or less) figure potty training out for herself, and it's been a roaring success.  Let's review.

Day 1 (Friday): Nappies came off at 3pm. Also, the rugs came off our hardwood floors, absorbent pads were laid down on the sofas, and her bed was layered with sheets and mattress protectors to facilitate night-time changing. I did not stress.
Day 2: She figured out how to hold her bladder to delay wetting herself for as long as possible. I would send her to the potty on wake-up and before bed (with random results) but otherwise, it was up to her. I did not stress.
Day 3: She got the hang of peeing on demand, so every visit to the potty was a productive one. I continued to send her to the potty as part of her wake-up and go-to-bed routines, but I did not ask her to go during the day, and she continued to have accidents.  I did not stress.
Day 4 (Monday): Routine potty visits now included 'before going out'. She returned to school with copious changes of clothing, and the teacher took her to the potty at regular intervals.  No accidents. We went out to run errands in the afternoon, and she pooped in her pants, teaching me a valuable lesson in what I needed to have with me for clean-up. I did not stress... just.
Day 5: She cottoned on to using the potty as a stalling technique for anything she didn't want to do. I did not stress.
Day 6: Three days of pooping three times a day, none of them on the toilet, was starting to get to me. There were no signs of any progress on wetting the bed either. She wouldn't wake up in the night, but in the morning, she woke up wet. I did not stress over the bed-wetting, but I was getting frustrated by the poop issue.
Days 7-11: The bowel movement, thank god, went back to once a day.  Both children caught a cold, resulting in broken nights, so I started taking my daughter to the potty whenever she woke up during the night. Her sheets stayed dry... and they kept on staying dry even as she went back to sleeping through.  I went straight back to not stressing. 
Day 12: I happened to be looking at her face at the right time and managed to whisk her to the potty for a bowel movement.  Later she rushed to the potty spontaneously only to wet herself in front of it. I did not stress, but I did start getting excited.
Day 13: Spontaneous potty usage. She started successfully pooping and peeing in the toilet all by herself--including taking herself to the bathroom halfway through a television show.  I did not stress, but I did rejoice wholeheartedly.
Day 14: She got an eye infection and went on an antibiotic that gave her diarrhoea for about five days.  I was not best pleased, but she handled the regression fairly well with about a 75% success rate of getting to the potty on time.  I did not stress.

And that has been that.  No rewards, no scolding, no stories about the poop fairy... and best of all, no nappies!  I did do some encouragement and some reminders, but for the most part, I tried not to make it a big deal, and my daughter took it in her stride, although she was confused for the first couple of days.  I'm sure it wouldn't work like this for everybody (and there was no way I'd have been this relaxed if it was my first time potty training), but I'm thrilled it worked so well for us.

We're now on day 24, and she is still having the occasional accident (something like twice a week), but she's so consistent and so reliable that half the time I don't even send her to the potty at our routine times if she says she doesn't need it.  This is a huge improvement from potty training my son, where I had to send him to the potty every two hours for months.  The rugs are back on the floor and her bed just has one sheet and one mattress protector on.  I'm still taking a bag of spare clothes and my poop clean-up kit around with us, but I think it's time to start leaving it in the car along with the travel potty (which she hasn't used at all).

It's not all joy and perfection.  The actual bodily functions are still such a novelty to her that she contorts herself trying to see what's going on--occasionally managing to pee on the floor.  So much for not having to worry about girls aiming.  She also insists on stripping her entire lower half completely to use the toilet, has no interest in learning how to put her clothes back on by herself and likes to give me as much trouble as possible over dressing her.  That's something to be worked on, but obviously I will take this over nappy-cleanup any day!

In my previous post, I said that since she was happier using the child toilet seat rather than an actual potty that I was hoping to get rid of our potties.  I have done, and not having to clean those out is a ridiculously good feeling.  Better yet, I recently got the coupon book from our local wholesaler, and, for the first time in God knows how long, I did not clip the nappy coupon.

The nappy stage of our lives? Over!

Monday, 6 May 2013

Making a Giant Board Game (with Montessori Pink Reading)

Quick post as we're treading water here. Potty training going swimmingly, children sick again, and endless cold weather. Not really cold weather, but that taunting weather... where it's just cold enough that you have to wear a jacket, and I have to persuade my daughter to wear her trousers, even though she's suddenly decided that all of them have become uncomfortable, and it's really still too cold for sandals, but I've put them into them anyway because their shoes are worn out and I am not buying winter shoes in May!

Anyway, the winter's given me plenty of time to expand upon our repertoire of indoor activities.  My son adores board games, and a couple of months ago, I had this moment of inspiration: I could build him a giant boardgame using our foam floor tiles (you've probably at least seen these around in alphabet form). 

I'd also been trying to find ways of getting my son to use his newfound (and very limited!) reading skills without repeating what he does at school. So my next idea was to make cards for each tile, so when you land on them, you have to do what the card says.  And when I say 'cards,' I mean 'pieces of paper with handwritten text' because I know that the more effort you go to, the less your children will appreciate it.

My son loved the result.

I built the above layout around our playtent.  If you land on the tile in front of the tent door, the card says 'zip' so you unzip (no nitpicking!) the tent, go through and come out of the side entrance, further down the board. 

There are several other props scattered around the board, next to the relevant card.  My son places the cards, and then I put the props down.

We move around the board by throwing a die.  Because we only have twenty-six tiles, it doesn't take long to finish a game, so we normally play it two or three times in a row, which gives us more chances to land on any one card.  Most cards are just a straightforward action, though a few move you forward. One has you miss a turn, but I haven't had the nerve to put in one that sends you back!

My son is on the 'pink reading' at his Montessori school, which means he can (if he concentrates) sound out three letter words with phonetic spellings. At school, he mostly does concrete nouns, so for our cards, I spent a day or two brainstorming three letter verbs, with a few other words thrown in. 

I can see us continually updating this game as the children get older, making it more elaborate.  God knows what it will involve by the time they're in college.

This is the list of cards that we currently use, with italics explaining where necessary. Not all of them are strictly phonetic, but my son has them all figured out by this point. There are less than twenty-six for the simple reason that I ran out of ideas.  Further contributions will be gratefully accepted!

Cut - scissors and paper provided
Dip and dab - Dip sponge in dish of water and dab on paper towel provided.
Dig mime digging (I am still trying to figure out a tidy method of indoor digging!)
Fan - fan provided
Go to red - go forward to the next red tile.
Hit triangle / cymbal / drum
Hop 2 - hop forward two spaces
Hug your fellow player
Jog 2 - jog forward two spaces
Mad - make an angry face
Nap - miss a turn
Nod your head
Pat a cat - toy cat provided
Put on a hat - hats provided
Rub your hands
Run 3 - run forward three spaces
Sad - make a sad face
Sip water provided
Tap a tambourine
Zip purse or go through the tent

And on the final tile: