Hugh is three

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.


Chocolate with menaces

Dot writes: we’ve just taken the boys out trick-or-treating; which is to say, we dressed Hugh as a knight (he was delighted) and Frank as a little toddling tiger (he was less delighted, but he looked extremely cute), and I insisted that Andrew squash me into my corset, which is very beautiful and deserves an outing now and then, even though it made me look less like a witch than a retired goth (which I am, I suppose), and we did the round of the doorbells in our development. Halloween is another time when we deeply appreciate the design of the place where we live: the boys collected enough chocolate to fuel hysterical heel-drumming meltdowns from now until Christmas while never being less than twenty yards from the road. No tricks were required though I was carrying a large fake spider just in case. Hugh never quite managed to say “trick or treat”, but he said thankyou for the chocolate. I was very proud of him.

Halloween was not a big part of my childhood. This is really the first time I’ve done anything much about it. I must confess, it was Ken who actually did the work, from buying the costumes (no miracles of the seamstress’s art from me, I’m afraid) to carving the pumpkin – with a smiley face, at Hugh’s request. I’ve tended to be suspicious of the occasion as chiefly a marketing ploy and an excuse for childish greed. And certainly we rendered loot this evening to some rather lazily-disguised teenagers, one of whom was actually collecting treats in an enormous Lidl bag. But our neighbours did seem pleased to see the boys in their appealing outfits; and the jack’o’lanterns looked spooky and dramatic – our next-door-neighbour has a particularly creative display of them; and we enjoyed handing out sweets, especially to the younger children for whom the dark and the dressing-up were so much more novel and thrilling; and Hugh liked his costume. In fact he liked it so much he was very upset when it had to come off. “You took my knight trousers,” he sobbed. He has been promised he can wear them again tomorrow. He is in bed now and we have to work out how to manage all the chocolate so that we don’t have that series of sugar-induced ghastly scenes mentioned earlier. If only there were some way of just getting rid of most of it quite quickly – but, you know, without waste. Gosh, what could we do with it? 🙂

In other news, this afternoon after swimming Hugh got a raisin stuck up his nose. Not once, but twice. One shouldn’t laugh, but we did.


Dot writes: I’m tired. I was searching for striking and memorable metaphors to express how tired I am, but I’m too tired to think of one. I’m also too tired to bother recording in detail all the ways Hugh and Frank found to stop us sleeping last night, which is probably fortunate (for you, that is, and possibly for them as I might mention it at their weddings). Ken had arranged to go walking with philosophers today and I had fixed up a trip to the zoo with some friends who live near it and have a pass; the said friends were treated to a rather unedifying spectacle of tantrums and crankiness from the boys and limp, ineffectual parenting from me, but they were very nice about it. We did get excellent views of tigers, giraffes, gorillas, and rhinos, and Hugh revived amazingly when fed summer pudding and (bizarrely) three bowls of cheerios.

I was going to post about how annoyed I was with Roisin Ingle’s column in the Irish Times magazine yesterday and how I’m going to throw a chair through the window of Brown Thomas next time someone comments on the economic crisis by saying “we lost the run of ourselves”. Ken and I lost the run of ourselves to the extent of building up our savings, paying off our student loans and not signing up to a thirty-five year mortgage, but we still get to pay all the tax hikes. I’m also contemplating a chair/plate-glass interface next time someone says that Irish consumers are to blame at the moment for saving too much. However, I am (you guessed it) too tired to do any of these things. This may well be a good thing too.

What a red-hot revolutionary I’d be if it weren’t for motherhood.

Balls-up in the ball pool?

Dot writes: Hugh is not a well boy. Last week we postponed Frank’s birthday party because I had gone down with a cold and swollen glands. This week we cancelled it because, with beautiful timing, both boys started to stream with snot on Friday. Frank is breathing through his mouth and has that dirty look around the lower face that children get when they are too young to blow their noses, but Hugh is really miserable: he spent two prolonged periods last night unable to sleep, with his breath whistling and heaving, coughing phlegmily and crying for his mum (when I turned up he switched to crying for milk, and then to have the light on, and then to be in the big bed, and then he gave up because he didn’t even have the energy for sustained whining). This would be worth a post in itself, but I’m not sure how much more I have to say about snot, other than that I would like it to go away and stop coating my sons. Instead I present it as a lengthy preamble to the following awkward moment for my command of parenting etiquette:

It’s a gorgeous day, but because of the aforementioned snot I decided to avoid the playgound in favour of somewhere warm and humid, and for the customary Sunday outing took the boys to the Sealife Centre in Bray. Hugh looked at all the fish with interest though without running as fast as normal. Then he ventured a very brief plunge in the ball-pool. Launching himself back towards the edge of the pool, his arm landed on another little boy. It was an accident, quite slow and can’t have hurt, but the other little boy saw fit to exclaim (after a slight pause): “OWW! That HURT!” Little sh*t, I remarked inwardly, and said nothing. But the other boy’s mother waded in to rebuke her own son: “Say sorry! Say sorry IMMEDIATELY! Say sorry or you’re getting out of the ball-pool!”

Now, the thing was, if anybody had hit anybody it was Hugh who had hit the other boy. The other boy was trying to get Hugh into trouble, but he hadn’t injured him exactly. Decidedly ineptly, I said as much to the other mother. “You know, it was my son who hit your son, though it was an accident.”

I’d really like to rewind and delete this and do it again. Because, if Hugh had hit someone, why hadn’t I asked him to apologise? I normally try to get him to apologise for things he does accidentally, because it matters when someone else gets hurt even if it wasn’t intended. And why did I have to speak in a way that must have sounded to the other mother much more like a correction than an apology? Hugh didn’t have the bounce to stay in the ball-pool any longer and we went back for another look at the sharks, so I didn’t even get the chance to make it up somehow with a display of friendliness toward the other mother or calm and responsible discipline towards Hugh.

The incident left me reflecting on how easily our parenting is affected by what we think other parents are thinking. I strongly suspect that the heavy-handed way the other mother waded in was at least partly for my benefit. I also suspect that her son is rather often involved in altercations with other children and that she’s got used to assuming it’s his fault. (I’m afraid when sharp cries occur in Hugh’s vicinity I similarly tend to think the worst.) And I note that what’s really itching at me about my handling of this incident is not just that I think I was rather rude, but that I also made myself look like a dreadfully lax mother. Whereas, in actual fact, I am enormously stern and an iron (but caring) disciplinarian. As all who know me will attest.

Playgrounds of West Cork (and elsewhere)

Dot writes:

1. Skibbereen. A good playground this, slightly shabby but well-enclosed and with an abundance of equipment for different age-groups (Hugh of course unerringly headed for the set intended for ten-year-olds). We visited on Monday before driving the final leg to Schull and again on Tuesday after picking Ken up from the bus (he followed us a day late, having had a course to go to on Monday evening). Unfortunately it will be remembered chiefly as the site of some astonishing tantrums. Note: this playground is best visited in the morning, when there are no big schoolboys around to whip up toddlers into hysteria.

2. Schull. The playground in the village where we stayed has the most beautiful view of any playground I’ve encountered. It stands on a rise just above the harbour, surrounded by the hills of the bay, looking directly onto the gleaming water and the elegant boats riding at anchor. A steep path just about navigable by pushchair leads down to the harbour and to an extremely excellent fish-and-chip shop; while the high street behind has all the conveniences a holidaying family might require, including a small toy shop, a shop selling posh chocolate, a bookshop, and a Eurospar. The play equipment is less impressive, as the baby section didn’t even interest Frank but the more advanced climbing frame was rather high and Hugh got a bit alarmed. Happily he was not stuck as he thought but came down without making me climb up and get him. Also, I was able to sell the surplus packet of dishwasher tablets from a buy-one-get-one free offer to an au pair I met there.

3. Bantry. After visiting Bantry House and gardens, which offer significant opportunities themselves in the form of cannon pointed out into the bay and a tempting murky pond, those prepared to explore a little may find an unassuming but excellent playground on the other side of the town centre. This probably was the best playground of the trip, and we had it virtually to ourselves. A particularly good feature was a ground-level trampoline over a shallow pit – no possibility of falling off, and a slight lip covered the hooks it was suspended from so there could be no foot-through-the-edge incidents either. We all had a good bounce. The spectacle of Ken trying to come down the curved slide with his long legs getting stuck in the bend made me laugh like a drain. Frank escaped the baby maze with effortless contempt but deigned to be pleased with a giant abacus. I probably preferred Bantry House myself, but there’s no accounting for taste.

It rained on Friday and there were no playgrounds. We pottered around and had lunch in Castletownsend.

4. Kinsale. We took the journey back quite leisurely; rather more leisurely than intended as it turned out there was some sort of cycle race on and I had to drive most of the way from Kinsale to Cork at 20 miles an hour. Anyhoo. After lunch in one of Kinsale’s overwhelming profusion of eating establishments we kept our promise to Hugh and took him up the hill to a playground near Desmond’s Castle. I went back for the car and the heavens opened. I returned to find Ken, his mum and the boys sheltering under an extremely broad green slide. It looked like an excellent set of equipment but I’m not sure they got much chance to try it out. However, the boys were compensated later with a lengthy stop at the attractively designed playground in

5. Abbeyleix. We diverted off the motorway to use this playground, and it repayed the trouble. It’s not much fun for little boys to be strapped into seats all day; and as it had been a couple of days since we visited the beach the car was crying out for a fresh dose of sand.


Dot writes: this afternoon I was admiring Hugh’s skill as he coasted along on his pedal-less bike, weaving slightly because the wheel has a wobble but keeping up quite an impressive speed, and I thought: I wish we weren’t so mean. It’s a nice little bike, a brightly-painted wooden one, but if we’d just splashed out a bit more we could have got a ritzy metal bike from Imaginarium that might not have had the wobble. When he had a trike it was a rubbish plastic effort with pedals that kept falling off. His toy diggers are always falling to bits. His footballs constantly deflate. The outer ramp on his toy garage doesn’t fit together properly so we rarely bother to attach it. The car-with-caravan toy I bought him last weekend was broken within a week. A lot of this is to do with the extreme violence he metes out to his possessions, but some of it’s buying things cheaply. It seems pointless to spend much on things that might not be used for long and won’t be treated well, but on the other hand they get more use if they’re in working order, and one doesn’t want little bits hanging about to be speculatively ingested by Frank. We’re not talking kinder-egg toys here, or even bargain-bin toys, but more there’s-a-cheaper-version-of-this-in-Tescos-and-do-you-really-need-the-one-with-the-realistic-sound-effects toys. Without being poor we do have to watch the pennies, and without denying our children toys (goodness knows the house is stuffed with them) we tend to settle for the smaller and cheaper options. And sometimes I think, well, the best play is when you take two sofa cushions and a blanket and build a world from pure imagination. And sometimes I think, wouldn’t it be nice if he had a really good bike? And maybe we could splash out on some better storage options too, and then we might see the floor again.

Another thing I sometimes wish we spent more on is holidays. I feel a bit self-conscious about how little I have travelled. Ken has been around so much (Germany for a year at 17, PhD in the US, family in Canada and South Africa etc etc) that he says he has little wanderlust left. But I would like to see a few more places, struggle with a few more phrase-books, get some more visions into my head. My friends take their families to Italy or France, so how come we never get further than Wales? Children are, probably, a good reason not to try for anything very exotic; while they’re small a beach and a climbing frame is all they really want and anywhere with a ‘don’t touch’ sign is more headache than it’s worth. But there are some jolly nice beaches in, say, Greece, where we could soak up a spot of classical learning with the sunblock. (I have in fact been to Greece and didn’t entirely enjoy myself – it was a school trip.) And it is always the money that finally makes me balk. Where do my friends get it? What are they not eating in order to pay for the two weeks in Tuscany? Do I simply fritter away those pennies on my weakness for chocolate and being regularly cheated by my electronic DART ticket? Or is it that we have the money but the habit of regarding foreign holidays as an unthinkable extravagance is just too deeply engrained?

One thing: I do think it’s worth exploring one’s own country, or one’s adopted country. I’m enormously looking forward to our trip to West Cork in September. Pray to the weather gods on our behalf…


Dot writes: well, that was a really terrible night’s sleep, starting with a really terrible bedtime (Hugh saying he was scared of monsters, insisting on falling asleep in our bed, wetting himself in our bed), going on through a terrible middle of the night (Frank waking in the small hours, taking at least half an hour for Ken to settle again) and proceeding to a terrible waking (Hugh up at 4.45, asking for lullabies; it then turned out Frank was crying, had possibly woken Hugh; me trying to quieten Frank while singing to Hugh, ending up taking both of them into our bed – monsters again – where Frank eventually fell asleep again but Hugh didn’t). In retrospect I shouldn’t have brought Frank through because it will perpetuate the pattern, but when I thought Hugh would settle back in his own bed I needed a quick way to stop Frank disturbing him, so I popped a boob in. And back when we sleep-trained Hugh I would always bring Hugh into bed in the morning and he didn’t return to night-waking (at least, not until over a year later and ages after he was weaned).

Well, next time poor Frank just goes back in the cot, even though my previous experience of resettling without feeding is that it doesn’t work once 5am is in sight. I wish we had a bigger house. We have so few options for keeping the children from waking each other, and no comfortable way to sleep with either of them in their own room. Anyway, that’s how come a cross tired toddler and I are watching A Bug’s Life at 6.15am; and it’ll probably all happen again tonight as well.

Not feeling witty or amusing.

End of night-feeding?

Dot writes: I didn’t want to jinx our chances by mentioning it too early, but we’re having another go at sleep-training Frank. This time Hugh and I are spending three nights at my colleague Helen’s house (thanks, Helen, your generosity is greatly appreciated) while Ken attends to the small one as he copes with being exiled to a cot in Hugh’s room. “Controlled crying” (where you leave the child in the room and return at set intervals to remind him you’re not dead) doesn’t seem to work on Frank; on Friday night Ken gave up after an hour of hysterical rage showed no signs of giving way to sleep and opted for the La Leche League-approved technique of staying with him until he dropped off. Last night Frank slept from 7.30 to 10 and again from maybe 10.45 to 6am, with comforting from Dad in the interval. So we are optimistic. It may be a while before we completely eliminate the 10pm waking, but there are worse times of night to be soothing a baby.

Meanwhile at Helen’s house Hugh has been sleeping in a cot again. He wasn’t wild about this on Friday, when he arrived there awake. It’s amazing how many devices a two-year-old can find to delay the moment of snuggling down (“I need a blanket. A nother blanket. Not that blanket, the blue blanket. No, the nother blanket. No, the blue blanket. I need milk” etc etc). Last night was better, however. He woke about 2am and wanted lullabies, but afterwards slept until 6.30, when he sat up and announced “OK, I’m finished. We find Daddy?” By Tuesday night, when it will be time for Hugh and me cautiously to resume our customary beds, he’ll probably be quite settled in at Helen’s.


Dot writes: the title is meant both literally and metaphorically, though not in the popular smutty sense. Before we had children I thought their sleeping habits would progress something like this: stage 1: new baby sleeps in co-sleeper cot, wakes to feed. Stage 2: older baby starts to sleep through the night, transferred to own room. Stage 3: Toddler begins to enjoy bed-time stories. Moments of starry-eyed tenderness as little person laid gently in cot still babbling of Spot the Dog. Stage 4: Toddler gets own bed. Further starry-eyed stuff, first cute attempts to sing Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel etc etc. In fact, of course, it has been less a steady stairway to the stars and more a game of snakes and ladders: baby at four months would sleep for stretches of six or seven hours in his cot but at ten months thinks two hours is quite enough and vocally prefers our bed. Toddler has moved from cot to bed but, oh dear, now takes an hour to settle in the evening and every fourth night or so appears sobbing in our room at 1am. The holiday was definitely a big snake (we got to see some rather excellent snakes at the Pili Palas in Anglesey, incidentally): our bedtime routine was reduced to rubble by a combination of unfamiliar spaces, lack of separate rooms, manifold distractions, a delightful blow-up bed that Hugh complained was “bumpy”, and Mummy and Daddy drinking wine in the evenings. Once we were weak enough to let Hugh sleep all night in bed with me and Frank (Ken got a tent-compartment to himself). This has had to be repeated at least once since we got back, with Ken getting the rather less pleasant option of Hugh’s bedroom floor. Climbing back up the ladder has not been that easy, especially as the boys are both having to adjust back to spending most of their time with only one chore-burdened parent instead of both parents plus a selection of other interested adults who also do the cooking.

However, I think we are getting there. One big achievement: we finally seem to be working out a decent routine for Frank. As readers will know, we chickened out on sleep-training him a few months back. However, we did move his cot into Hugh’s room and before going away had been getting him to sleep there for a few hours before he came into ours in the evening. But it was awkward: if he got to sleep before Hugh he tended to be woken by Hugh’s bedtime antics, but if he went to bed after Hugh we couldn’t risk letting him make any noise in Hugh’s room; and trying to do them both together is a recipe for madness. So we tended to let him fall asleep when he felt like it, which varied wildly from day to day. I’ve now started giving him a bath (which Hugh always insists on sharing) at 7pm each evening. (We normally have a family wash in the morning, which is why we weren’t doing this before). I then close the curtains in our room and begin to feed/cuddle/pat him to sleep, and I put him down on a little camp-bed. Later he gets moved into Hugh’s room, after Hugh has gone to sleep. And soon after he wakes up again. Nonetheless, it’s a start, and we are finally giving him some regularity and sleep-cues that can continue past weaning. We plan to have another go at the sleep-training as soon as we’ve made arrangements for me and Hugh to be somewhere else for a few nights.

Hugh, on the other hand, seemed to have reverted rather badly. He was making a dreadful fuss about bedtime and waking a lot in the night. He complained his bed was scary. Twice he even asked to sleep in Frank’s cot. We asked him if he would like to have his bed converted back into a cot; “that’s an idea,” he replied. So Ken did the DIY stuff and for two nights Hugh was in a cot again. But I was depressed at the idea of having to do the cot-to-bed transition, with all the hours of soothing and settling that were required in the first week, all over again, so we tried a compromise: we bought one of those guards that fits on the side of Hugh’s bed, and Ken took one of the cot-sides back off. And I must say, it seems to be a success. Hugh has been much easier to put to bed for the last couple of nights and he apparently finds the guard comforting. Unfortunately his faithful night-time companion Teddy got left on the lawn in the rain yesterday and was rejected this evening for being smelly. But we should be able to fix that.

Oh, the literal bed-hopping: Hugh likes to hop and climb over his bed. With the bed half in cot mode the foot-board is much higher. He is able to use it to climb onto the windowsill, whence he scrambles onto the small cabinet and from there to the armchair. It’s slightly terrifying but I suppose it’s the athletic two-year-old’s equivalent of an evening constitutional.

Sweet dreams, please….