Dot writes: I realise that this year I have no birthday photo to post of Hugh. It’s not that we no longer care enough to mark his milestone with a portrait; more that he and Frank whizz by so fast (usually in opposite directions) that our camera fails to capture them. I have taken a number of pictures of them recently – for example, to record the Halloween costumes – but almost all the shots are blurry. Of course, it could be a tea-induced tremor on my part. (In fact it very probably is. I am not the greatest photographer.) Anyway, no photo; but I’ll make another effort to take one later in the week. Hugh has a new haircut – only the second of his whole life – and is looking very much the Real Boy at present, after a period of cavalier ringlets and sheepdog fringe.
We had the party on Sunday. After cancelling Frank’s party twice we were hesitant about issuing invitations and flung the occasion together at the last minute, but it was third time lucky and went quite well. I offered Hugh a choice of chocolate cake, lemon cake and carrot cake, and rather startlingly he chose lemon. The cake was made on Saturday, and I stayed up late that evening making lemon curd for the filling and lemon icing for the top. Then I decided it was a disaster and rushed out to Tescos on Sunday morning to buy chocolate cake mix, which I just about managed to bake, cover in a cream and chocolate topping and decorate with sugar animal faces (bought of course) before the guests arrived. We put the candles on the chocolate cake and the animal faces were a big hit with the children. Still, Hugh wanted his lemon cake; and when we eventually had some it was after all rather nice. I had cooked it in the wrong size of tin so it came out a bit flatter and browner than it was meant to, and the baking parchment I used for lining had folded itself down over the mix in places producing some odd shapes; for these reasons I had convinced myself the cake would be a sort of dry crumbly lemon biscuit revoltingly smothered in lemon curd. But no, it was fine. (I realise the drama of the cake was a fairly minor part of the proceedings for everyone else, but it kept my weekend busy.)
Monday was the actual birthday. Happily this week is study week – the mid-semester pause – at college. I was able to be at home on Hugh’s birthday and take the boys to the soft play centre for a romp while Ken bottled his beer. Frank slept for the first part of the visit, meaning I could lavish attention on Hugh. Hugh is not a child incapable of amusing himself independently, particularly if there is mud, sand or a television on offer, but he is demanding of and repays attention; if he feels you aren’t giving him his due, he can be whingy and stroppy, but if you play along with him he is full of high spirits and fun. I know the play equipment is for children rather than adults, but on the other hand a notice commands that parents are to supervise their children. I supervised Hugh down the big bumpy slide quite a number of times, and I enjoyed myself very much. Unfortunately, now Hugh is three there is an area he is no longer allowed into. This occasioned some tears. It was very quiet and we could possibly have got away with breaking the rule, but Hugh is so big I had been asked to remove him from that section on previous occasions when he was still technically young enough. Meanwhile Frank, when he awoke, hobnobbed with some other tiny tots and bopped to the music that was playing. It was jolly nursery music with words about how much we enjoy choosing our socks and how when we’re angry we count to ten. It made me want to go away and be very naughty (throw my juice on the floor, perhaps), but for Frank it was just a happy tune.
Until Friday I had planned to take only Monday off and spend the rest of the week on a somewhat over-ambitious programme of research activities, but then I changed my mind. I’m going into work tomorrow and Thursday but I stayed at home today and plan to stay at home on Friday too if I can get away with it. It’s amazing how much better I already feel. Spending time as a family – even taking the boys out and letting Ken have some time to himself – has been absolutely delightful. Somehow a weekend isn’t quite long enough to let the pace slow and the feeling of togetherness properly blossom; one has to get used to the children’s pace and stop worrying about all the outside tasks. I’ve been spending a lot of time simply playing with the boys, for example using the stacking cups, which they both like (Frank is far more interested in that kind of toy than Hugh was at the same age), or joining in Hugh’s game of hiding behind the bushes (the chair) and setting a trap for the wolf (Frank, who toddles eagerly into my arms and thus into Hugh’s trap, poor thing). Perhaps from a work point of view I am just being lazy. But I feel so happy; and I do believe that the energy I am regaining from this family time will help fuel my teaching for the rest of the term in a way that a frustratingly short week of making small progress with large research tasks could never do.
Two positive things we are achieving this week: number one, we have resolved that there is no longer to be television first thing in the morning. It was when I was pregnant with Frank (and tired, and not very strong in the face of Hugh’s early rising) that we started letting Hugh watch DVDs as soon as he got up, and it had become an extremely engrained routine. However, we’re not sure it has a very good effect on Hugh’s mood for the rest of the morning, and it certainly makes him reluctant to leave the screen (the computer screen, in fact; we have no television set as such) to eat a proper breakfast. This week when I am around more to help distract and support the deprived boy seemed a good time to break the habit. It does indeed seem to be having a good effect so far. Positive thing number two: we are looking into a new childcare arrangement for Hugh. We have been very happy with our childminder, but it seems like a good time to move to a playschool or Montessori school in which Hugh would spend more time with children his own age and have a greater variety of activities (we’d also get more time for the money than with one-on-one care, which is not to be sniffed at). Today we went to see Dalkey Playgroup. We were favourably impressed, and Hugh liked the Wendy house so much Ken had to go in and chase him out of it. On Friday we are going to see Little Acres Montessori School, which is cheaper and has sports coaching on a Monday – the emphasis on physical activity sounds like an excellent idea for our very active boy, but on the other hand the possibly more relaxed ethos of a playgroup rather than a Montessori school, and the fact we liked the playgroup so much, might swing it for the playgroup.
I worry about Hugh sometimes. Being away from him so much, and seeing him mostly in the evenings, I’m exposed to him mostly when he’s tired and fractious and seeking attention that seems to be in short supply; and certainly he is a contrary child and a dreadfully fussy eater. But he is also a sweet and imaginative boy, eager to make friends, fond of babies (including his brother), exuberant and affectionate. He tells stream-of-consciousness stories; recruits anyone willing into exciting let’s-pretend games; likes to romp; still loves diggers; enjoys books and stories, both being read to and poring over his favourites by himself; and has flashes of surprising articulacy and maturity, for example noticing when other people are happy or sad. Sometimes he drives me nuts. But I am grateful to be spending this time with him, as he begins – and doesn’t it sound momentous – his fourth year.
Happy birthday, my lovely Hugh.