Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Make and Bake

I read an article on the BBC website last week that said it is good for children to be bored.
Boredom is good for creativity is the main argument, because it forces children to invent fun and find ways to entertain themselves. They interview Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winner who divides his time between making ceramic vases and cross-dressing as a woman called Claire and who described boredom as "a creative state" and an opportunity for reflection, leading me to suspect that he has never met a child.
Children are the kings and queens of boredom. I don't mean very little children - Henry never seems bored. He is 14 months old and the house is his playground. He likes nothing better than to toddle into the sitting room, brazenly whacking everything he sees with a tube of foil he has stolen from the kitchen.

But somewhere between, say, 15 months and two, someone pushes a great big switch inside their heads that says 'Boredom - ON'.
And children have read the dictionary. Because rather than sitting quietly and vase-like to paddle in their own self-reflection they go like a bull in a china shop for the actual definiton of boredom which is:
'weary by dullness, tedious repetition, unwelcome attentions'
or as I like to translate:
'cleaning the kitchen, That's Not My Kitten and having a poo when in charge of a toddler.'
The article suggested not automatically putting children in front of screens when they are bored and letting them find their own activities. Which is all very well, but on days when I do manage to enforce our 'No Television Before 4pm Rule' I end up at 3.59 with a face like The Scream.
And as yesterday was the first official day of the Easter Holidays I had been starting to feel slightly anxious about how I was going to entertain my four year old while the baby rifles through the kitchen drawers and tips granola all over the floor. 
"I'm bored" said Henry's sister crossly, the second she finished her breakfast on Day One of the Easter break. "What can I do?".
Design your own vase? Pretend your name is Claire?
"Let's make some biscuits", I suggest with genuine enthusiasm eyeing the Peppa Pig Make and Bake Magazine I had impulse-bought in the Post Office on Friday.
Out of all the magazines for children it was impossible not to buy this one. For those that haven't seen it, they have basically placed a perfectly ordinary-sized magazine onto a huge carboard backing and then over-inflated the brilliance of the free gift by covering it in a lot of plastic and huge colourful words. The free gift was a child-size rolling pin and a spatula. The free gift which is, of course, not actually free unless you are stealing the magazine. The free gift which you realise you are very much paying for as you hand over £4.99. (To be fair, the first two issues are less than that. Issue one was only 99p. Issue two is £2.99. I suspect I will find myself in Tesco in August with issue 54 and a receipt for 350 quid).
"Wow, Sparkly Moon Biscuits!" I say, pointing to the picture on the cover. "Shall we make these?"
Of course we will. They're called sparkly moon biscuits! It's Peppa Pig! Such fun!
So we began at 9.00am with a quick scan of the ingredients:
  • 200g plain flour - definitely got
  • 30g icing sugar - really? not real sugar? ok, well, probably
  • 50g very soft butter - lift lid on butter dish. The average temperature of minus three outside coupled with no central heating in our kitchen means our butter is more 'frozen' than 'very soft' but I'm sure it will be fine
  • 200g white chocolate chunks - no. Raisins?
  • Edible shimmer spray - YES! We do actually have that, and that's the best bit! Mummy win!
9.05am: Wash hands, put four year old on chair to reach worktop, get out bowls etc.
9.10am: Measure out ingredients using digital scales to include maths lesson. Turns out we don't have icing sugar but confidently swop for caster. This is going brilliantly.
9.15am: Allow four year old to tip ingredients into bowl. Feel warm and wholesome.
9.20am: Follow instruction to mix ingredients together until they form a smooth dough.
9.23am: Stare at dry crumble. Mix again.
9.25am: Google 'children's biscuit recipe' on phone and click on trusty BBC Good Food link. Notice they use an egg.
9.27am: Allow four year old to crack in egg. Congratulate on perfect execution, remove visible shell from mixture and scoop yolk off worktop. Use hands to mix.
9.30am: Panic. Add milk. Instantly regret it. Consider another egg. Realise have made watery play-doh.
9.33am: Attempt to re-Google recipe but impeded by egg on screen. Mix again.  
9.35am: Double check preparation time really did say 10 minutes. Briefly consider suing.
9.37am: Accidently heavily flour worktop surface. Hands covered in egg; dismiss idea of scooping back into jar. Use teaspoon to scrape off the seven eighths of the mixture that is stuck to our fingers.
9.40am: As magazine came with free child's rolling pin allow 4 year old to roll out 'dough '
9.45am: Somehow find a way to say "that's shit, let me do it" without damaging her self-esteeem
9.50am: Use suggested glass to cut out shapes
9.55am: Look at magazine picture of child's hand using free miniature spatula to move shapes to baking tray
9.57am: Look at own child using free miniature spatula to scrape wet egg-circles off worktop. Think about suing again
10.00am: Remember have no chocolate chunks. Break news to four year old. Check I didn't say George Osborne has banned Christmas as part of the Budget. Try to make raisins sounds as delicious as chocolate using tone of voice. Fail.
10.05am: Grab coats, keys and wallet and dash across road wait for green man, to run into Sainsbury's Local for bag of choc chips. Out of stock. Panic-buy massive chocolate buttons. Dash home.
10.25am: Open share-size bag of chocolate and hand to four year old. Make mistake of blinking. Use remaining three buttons to decorate biscuits.
10.28am: Put in oven. Based on misleading preparation time, calculate biscuits will take nearly four hours.
10.30am: Open oven door every three minutes to prove biscuits aren't done.
11.00am: Take biscuits out. Compare to magazine. Start letter to solicitor in head.
11.05am: Get out shimmer spray. Notice it was Best Before May 2012.
11.07am: Use below-par spray to coat biscuits in shimmery gold listeria. Look at beaming four year old's face and realise this has all been worth it even though spray is now dripping on floor as did not Allow Biscuits To Cool On Wire Rack Before Decorating.
Do allow children to eat biscuits and skip lunch.
Spend rest of the afternoon getting confused between allowing my children to be bored and therefore ensuring they grow up to be Orange Prize winners and setting up activities to keep them entertained for five minutes so that I can do some work.
7.00pm: Children in bed. Consider feeling bored. Clean egg off kitchen wall instead.
8.00pm: Do some work. Feel creative. Thank Mother in head for allowing me to be bored as a child. Realise as adult have not felt bored all day.  
10.30pm: Lie in bed. Receive unwelcome attentions. In an attempt to avoid tedious repetition, start discussion on camping. Feel both weary and dull. Go to sleep holding hands but not before realising the recipe for happiness is probably just trying to live your life as best you can between a little bit of boredom and a dash of sparkly moon biscuits.


Friday, 22 March 2013

The North Face Divide

It was Parent Consultation Day at nursery this week.

As Henry's sister is barely 4, I assumed her teacher would just show me a few delightful paintings, tell me she was fairly average and ask if I had any questions.

Of course, if I was really honest, I was secretly hoping they would tell me that without realising it I have produced a mathematical/artistic/musical genius and they have been saving it up to tell me in person just so they could see my face.

I also suspected that a Nursery Consultation is not about the child at all, but primarily for the teacher to understand more about their pupil by taking a good look at her parents. In order to cover this, I got dressed in the hallway two minutes before leaving the house (thus ensuring that no one could stain me) and spent the car journey practising the faces I would need.

These included:

Extremely Interested In This Terms Topic On India Face
Understanding Everything You Are Telling Me About Phonics Face
Graceful Acceptance Of Your Compliments Re My Parenting Skills Face

And in the unlikely event of a totally unsubstantiated 'area for improvement', the Concerned Frown And Listening Carefully Face.

"She's settled in wonderfully", her teacher smiled, as we sat down in her office and I got my best Extremely Interested In This Terms Topic On India Face ready to go.

"Fantastic observational skills", she enthused, showing me a list of times my daughter had spotted a cloud that looked like a dog or noticed another, less observational child, choking on a felt tip.

"And wonderful colouring-in" she gushed, pushing a crinkled pile of unidentifiable scribble under my nose.

"She has a very mature vocabularly and is where she should be for recognising and using numbers".

I was just about to ask if that was 'where she should be' for a child prodigy, when the teacher said;

"However, I have got one thing that she might want to work on..."

(deploy Concerned Frown And Listening Carefully Face).

"She can't catch a ball."


"She can't catch a ball. During P.E., we look at their physical skills. And she can't catch a ball."
"Just a little thing really".
"Right, yes. I mean, that's just quite weird because I'm....I..(was shit at netball?? Can just about throw a tantrum??) My husband is really very sporty" (deploy unrehearsed Casually Accusing You Of Lying Face).

"Yes, don't worry, she just needs a bit more practice, she'll get there in the end."
 "Oh, and she also needs to help more at Tidy Up Time."

And that was it. The moment I was finally convinced, that genetics is A Thing.

On the way out, I bumped into Grace Hobbington-Dodsworth's mum. "Hiya!" she waved, jogging athletically across the car park."Bit late! Had to drop Grace off at her tennis lesson, massive queues at the lights..."

And so all I could think about on the way home were all those families who before we had children I thought we might be like - and quite a lot of whom I actually now know - who every weekend, regardless of freezing fog or torrential rain, don a North Face jacket and a Baby Bjorn and trudge enthusastically up massive hills, pausing at the top to feel the ice cold wind on their wholesome, middle-class cheeks and pull up their hoods to share a seeded cob and flask of tea. Their children's first words are either 'ground sheet' or 'National Trust' and they nearly always own an allotment.

These people's children can definitely throw.

"Right, we need to talk", I said matter-of-factly as I walked through the door.
"Oh, hi, you're back. Need to talk about what?"
"Tennis. Tidying up." I said, tripping over my pyjamas in the hallway. "And balls...".

"Maybe we should just do more stuff," their father shrugged later, watching me Google sailing lessons for toddlers on the iPad. "We could spend less time sitting inside and just...get out there", he said, sweeping his arms towards the fridge.

This was an insultingly simplistic suggestion after the good fifty five minutes I had just spent exaggerating the potential consequences of not being able to throw a ball on our daughter's entire life.

And, standing against the radiator, hands wrapped around a cup of tea, I peered unconvinced out of the window. As anyone living in Yorkshire will be able to testify, it has not got above 3 degrees any day this week. By the time we've all put on the 37 layers it takes to avoid freezing to death in the local park, it really isn't worth going out.

So for the rest of the day I tried my very hardest to make staying in a bit more...'sporty'.

I managed to include the occasional, "I've found your teddy...CATCH!" and "Let's clear up these toys...just chuck them in the box. Throw, just throw them in. From there. Stop walking. JUST THROW THEM".

And as I turned down the page where we'd stopped in our new bedtime story, 'Hitting Back - The Autobiography of Andy Murray', I smiled and kissed our wonderful little girl on the head and said good night. "I'm proud of you darling, you're doing so well and I love you for exactly who you are". Because I really do.

"You didn't buy sailing lessons then", their Father joked as I came downstairs. He settled into the sofa with a cup of tea and switched on the tv.

"Ha! No, of course not", I laughed, flopping down next to him.

Of course I didn't buy sailing lessons. None of us really like getting wet. We hate being cold. We'd much rather be inside, doing something together, just us.

So I've bought a tent.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Click Click DASH

There are two main problems I have found with working from home when you have small children.

One is, working from home when you have small children.
The other is convincing anyone else around you, including sometimes yourself, that what you are doing really is work.

It's hard to feel like I'm doing my best for women's equal rights in the workplace when I turn up to pre-school in the morning wearing yesterday's jeans and jumper, both of which have got porridge on them.

I can usually muster a smile and wave as Tallulah's mummy flies out of the nursery doors in her Whistles two-piece shouting "HI! HOW ARE YOU?! MUST DASH! LATE FOR WORK!" followed by Zachary's father, briefcase in one hand, bookbag in the other, with "Claire couldn't do drop-off today, she's in London for some training".

"Training in what?" I was desperate to ask. "Can I go?"

One Mum couldn't make Nursery Mums Night Out because she was stuck in New York on her way back from a conference. I, on the other hand, could make this condescendingly named social event, because my husband is enjoying being at home with his family after his latest contract came to an end* and I hardly ever leave the kitchen. In fact, most of my evenings are spent sitting in front of the computer while Henry's Father switches between Sky Sports and Actuary Jobs on his phone, making me cups of decaf.

I imagine most of the Other Wives are sitting at home with a large red, discussing their latest court case or highlighting all the companies in the FT they have worked for in the past week, whereas most of our evening conversations go something like this:

Me: Oh...shit. shit...
HF: What?
Me: <clicking mouse> ohhh..nothing, it's just these..moustaches...
HF: Moustaches?
Me: I can't get them to fit in the...thing...the circle thing...
HF: Oh.
Me: I just...I mean....it worked for the jellyfish...
HF: Jellyfish?
Me: <click click click>
HF: ...
Me: Bloody circle making thingy...it isn't doing it...
HF: <mutters> I know the feeling...
Me: What?
HF: Nothing.

So I've given myself until the end of June to produce as much as possible in the way of new products. Then I will spend the summer trying to sell them.

If it works, then great. If it doesn't then I guess it doesn't really matter. It won't have been completely wasted time; Henry's Sister has started to sit next to me in the afternoons and make her own books out of folded printer paper, drawing beautiful little pictures and wrapping them up for imaginary customers. Henry likes to sit on my lap, pointing at illustrations and moving the mouse, albeit deleting half my emails and decaptiating on-screen jellyfish.

If I'm really honest, though, I have to admit, there is a little voice inside of me already practicing her best, carefree morning call, "HI! HOW ARE YOU?! MUST DASH! I'VE GOT BOOKS TO SELL YOU KNOW..!"

*desperate to be in an office again

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Belle Jar

Henry's Sister was four last week.

According to someone else, four is the age that you can start to give a child the responsibility of their own money.

Up until the age of four they just eat coins, but on the morning of their fourth birthday they become like the rest of us, able to make a well-informed choice between spending it on shit they don't need and keeping it in a bank account so they can afford the minimum payment on their credit card.

After a small 'discussion' with Henry's Father, we ushered her into the kitchen and sat her down on a chair. I held her little hands and looked into her huge pools-for-eyes, gently stroking her face and wondering where my little baby had gone.

"Mummy and Daddy have got something exciting to tell you darling". Her eyes lit up. "We have decided, now that you are four and a big, grown-up girl, that you can start to have pocket money!".


"Pocket money!"


"Pocket money!"

Stifles a yawn.

"Only if you're good, though", chips in Henry's Father, pointlessly, as we all know that come every Saturday, regardless of how many meals she has failed to finish, screens she has been glued to, tantrums she has thrown and arguments we have had, we will eagerly press shiny coins into her hot little hand and tell her how terrific she is.

We decided on the arbitary figure of a pound a week, mainly because that will accumulate funds quickly enough to be useful when I raid her savings for the crisps machine at the gym. And it makes the £16 I spent on a Disney Princess money box at the Pottery Cafe seem a little less like a massive, ironic waste of cash.

They know how to play it in there, with the tiny, four quid plaster bears on the top shelves and the big bloody unicorns at the average-height-for-a-four-year-old. And as Henry's Sister now has the, apparently unavoidable, OWDP (Obsession With Disney Princess) she ignored my argument that a massive wine goblet is perfect for storing plastic bracelets and went for the Belle that doubled as a money jar.

I felt quite proud when I went back a week later to pick it up. "Wow", I said as the sickly sweet, teenage pottery girl carefully unwrapped the jar in the shop. "You did that ALL BY YOURSELF! Just WAIT til we show Daddy...".

Of course she had barely done any of it by herself but I wasn't going to admit that as I smiled animatedly at our version of Belle, with her Stephen King death-stare eyes and hideous drag queen lipstick.

"She's so pretty!" lied the teenager, "and you can put your pocket-money in there, can't you?".

And so now she sits by the printer in the dining room, Beauty's ugly sister, fending off potential burglars while we sleep upstairs.

She so far contains a pound coin awarded for imaginary good behaviour and a ten pence that Henry found and tried to eat (he's not yet four).

I'm thinking of going back and painting the goblet. If I got a glass of wine for everytime I did something good in this house I'm pretty sure I would be constantly pissed.

And I'd definitely look a lot more like Belle.