An alternative universe

Cats have necklaces, cars have shoes, and the door likes it when you say goodbye. Soft toys are real and must be made comfortable for the day, sunflowers are as tall as lamp posts and it’s ok to ask a tree if it’s had a nice day. Yes it’s just our regular walk to and from nursery.

I like looking at the world through E’s eyes. In many ways, all she says makes a lot of sense. A telegraph pole used to be a tree and, if viewed in the right way, still looks like one. The cat’s necklace is really a collar but the logic makes sense. As does the thought that the cars have shoes.

The walk takes us 5-10 minutes or so (most of it in the pushchair unless she’s feeling adventurous.) As this constitutes quite a lot of my day with her I use the time to talk to her about what we see. It’s good training for observational skills. She sees more things than I and focuses on items I wouldn’t necessarily notice. Today she was delighted to see so many lamp posts (she calls them “tall lights”) on the way – she’d not noticed them before. She greeted each one with a shout and a laugh, only punctuated by vans and cyclists as they went past us. She’s into vehicles at the moment.

So we learn our colours using cars and flowers, we learn different types of bird as we see them fly overhead, we wave at dogs and cats as they go about their business, and we comment on the vehicles we see. It’s an action packed 10 minutes.

I guess the educationalists would like this kind of interaction but to tell the truth, I get as much from it as she does. I notice the small details I wouldn’t otherwise – how else would we know pigs live in the garden of a house round the corner? – details that spark thoughts and stories in my head, I smile at people and say hello. It helps embed us into the local community. Despite what you might hear in the media, those of us city dwellers do have a community. I know the dog walkers, the fellow workers, the families, the street sweeper and the maintenance man who works in the park.

Part of me is already regretting that she won’t always find magic in these mundane details, that soon she will be able to see something new and won’t make a logical but slightly inaccurate guess at what it is. So to record these details to remember her as she is now becomes vital, something for me to bore her with when I am old. For now, she charms with her imagination.

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A new family member

witchThere are two kinds of people in this world, we’ve noticed in recent months: those who look at E’s favourite toy and say “Ooh you’ve got the witch from Room on the Broom!” and those who look at E, look at me, look back at E and say “What a strange doll to have!” (The last lady to voice this looked very much like she’d never read Julia Donaldson – you can only pity such people.)

The witch has been with us since E’s second birthday and is very much a new member of the family. She comes everywhere with us – on trips into the city, to the park, to the library, days out – she would go to nursery too if E had her way but on days when I can’t persuade her to leave the witch on the sofa then she comes with us to drop E off and accompanies me to work.

She also helps out around the house – showing E how to use the toilet seat and the potty – and is rewarded with drinks of milk, bits of dinner and lots and lots of cuddles. E’s face lights up when she sees the witch and she can get anxious when the witch is not there, especially at bedtime.

Of course, the follow up question from people who aren’t aware of Room on the Broom is “What’s the witch’s name?” to which we can only reply, “She doesn’t have one.” There’s no name in the book and E hasn’t got to the stage where she names her toys yet.

There are other friends. Sometimes we’re joined by a teddy, a soft doll, a knitted doggy or a doggy that unfolds to be a cushion, as well as the witch’s nemesis – a soft red dragon toy. In our house these two are great friends, unlike the book. All of these creatures have demonstrated the toilet, all of them have been fed milk and all have accompanied us out somewhere at some point. But the witch is the constant.

E is also very interested in three soft toys that sit on a high bookshelf in her room. One is my old teddy – a worn threadbare panda – one is a womble backpack I used to wear to work, and the last is a teddy bear my mum bought for our first baby. These three have all been hugged and investigated but somehow I see them as the elder statespeople of E’s bedroom, watching over the others. It’s odd how important such things are still.

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But I know what I like

It was a week of ludicrous statements in the press last week. Artist Jake Chapman said that he doesn’t believe parents should take their children to art galleries because children can’t appreciate the art yet – being, as they are, “not yet fully human.” It’s obvious he’s just saying this for attention and is perhaps easily dismissed except… An interview this weekend in the Guardian with Gilbert and George mentioned that they weren’t necessarily in favour of free art galleries because if 95% of people who are in there wouldn’t pay for it, what do they gain?

Really? I know there are frequent references to artists being as out of touch as politicians but really, this dismissing of most of the public as being unworthy is a little tiresome. (Especially as both lots receive an awful lot of public money – if you don’t want us there, I suggest you give it back.)

And so we come to politicians. The new Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, started her tenure by saying that she will be tackling extremism in nurseries and ensuring that they teach British values. There is no evidence that nurseries are actually teaching extremism to children but don’t let that get in the way of a bold statement. Her ideas of British values included sharing, making the best of things (such as an incompetent government) and some other stuff that many people might just define as values or irritating character traits.

When E wasn’t at her potentially dangerous nursery last week, I took her to Nottingham Castle last week because I wanted to see the WWI exhibition in there. I wasn’t expecting E to be at all engaged with the exhibits and she wasn’t. We spent a short amount of time in the galleries, I checked out a few of the stories and then we made her a medal to wear around her neck. She loves it.

Months back we took her to a Quentin Blake exhibition at Harley Gallery, again because I wanted to see it. That one, she liked – I pointed at the children and the details in the pictures and she looked at them with interest. And then we went and ate a sausage. She will go to several art exhibitions before she starts school and onwards until she goes out without me, at which point she can do what she likes.

I think I want her to be used to seeing these places as somewhere which is welcoming to her and to all. These are public spaces, art is our art – why else is there always such an outcry when a member of the minor aristocracy wants to sell a painting? I see galleries as much of a public space as libraries or parks. Of course I want to take E there, she shouldn’t be intimidated by any of those places. They’re also a useful place for her to learn that she can’t grab everything or touch everything, that there are boundaries and places she should respect. In the Lakeside Gallery the other day I had trouble keeping her away from an exhibition of a chair – she knew it was a chair and wanted to sit on it. But she’s still little and she’ll learn.

Now, I’m pretty terrible at walking round galleries – I snort at the captions, glance vaguely at most of the pictures and sit down at the end and wait for S who is much more contemplative. (Note: galleries without seats are bloody rubbish. Yes, Nottingham Contemporary, I’m talking about you.) But I do like going in them on a regular basis – to sit, to find somewhere with an alternative viewpoint in which to scribble a few things, to seek out art that actually does something to me. And most galleries are much more family-friendly than Jake Chapman and provide all sorts of things to do to engage children with the exhibits.

I don’t expect E to necessarily see this as the inspiration she needs to become an artist. She likes painting, I admit, but she also likes peas. And stickers. And walking in the fountains in the Square. And going down slides. But surely we can all agree that if she can sit and take a moment to look at a depiction of something, if at some point she is engaged with a picture or a representation of someone’s thoughts, if she can see those things in a building which welcomes her and provides her with a moment’s peace, surely that’s a valuable lesson right there?

E is reading: If You’re Happy and you Know it Yes the song. In a book. Free from Bookstart. E has started getting really into songs, as you’ll know if you read this blog last week. This one has actions including wiggling your hips. E and S doing this together is incredibly funny – S looks like a Geography teacher dancing at the school disco and E’s enthusiasm for the wiggling is merely infectious. She has a crazy grin while she does it.

I am reading: Elizabeth Taylor – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I’d heard of Elizabeth Taylor the author before but not read her. This is a Virago modern classic so I had great hopes and wasn’t disappointed. What a great book! Bitchy, funny, and very touching, this is the story of one elderly lady who retires to a small hotel in London and the other well to do but not that well to do inhabitants she encounters there. She combats her loneliness and fear of being pitied by befriending an impoverished young writer and so an unlikely friendship is born. Excellent stuff. Must read more.

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Parenting classes

In my last blog post, I pontificated about what I would teach if I ran a series of parenting classes. The rules below come from my experience of other parents as well as my own and are in no way comprehensive.

  • Swearing at your child is bad. It’s even worse if you do it loudly in the street.
  • Chocolate is not breakfast.
  • Parent/ child parking bays at the supermarket are for those times when you have to take the child out of the car and thus make it easier for them to safely reach the shop’s warm embrace – they are not for you and the child to sit in while your wife pops in quickly to get a few bits and pieces. (I direct this at men because I’ve never seen a woman do it). They are placed next to the shop and with wide parking spaces for a reason – that reason is child safety not your convenience.
  • The library is not childcare. (Nor is a school for that matter but I haven’t got to that bit yet
  • It’s entirely possible that your child is the one scaring smaller children by doing something innocuous like running through water or splashing a lot at the pool. Try and instil some kind of consideration in them. I realise this is difficult.
  • Only dress them for nursery in something you don’t mind them losing.
  • Taking over the colouring in/ train set building/ block construction kits because you don’t like what they’re doing or how they’re doing it is not very nice and won’t teach them about failure. If you must colour in or build, do it when they’re in bed.
  • Always carry small change, wipes, crayons and a plastic fork and spoon.
  • Remember, it’s just a carpet.

There’s probably a load more but those are all I can think of at the moment.

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Wind the wheels on the bus, how I wonder you any wool?*

I’ve never been to a parenting class but I’ve often wondered what it is that they teach in them. Is it all practical stuff about weaning and the naughty step or do they do useful things too? If I ran parenting classes (hold that thought, I forsee a future blog post) they would definitely include nursery rhymes.

A recent Ofsted inspection at our nursery asked them to do more interactive stuff that parents could join in with, so they’ve been picking a nursery rhyme of the month and telling us what it is. At nursery they have singing sessions and the idea is that the children can sing the rhymes at home too. What a great idea that must have seemed, at least in the minds of the Ofsted folk.

In reality, of course, I haven’t sung these songs for years and some of them are completely new. I had a brief refresher course when E and I went to rhyme time in the local library each week but that was over a year ago and I’ve had no cause to sing them since. If I’ve sung E anything, at bedtime or during the day, it’s either been whatever’s been on the radio (everything from Brimful of Asha to ACDC to Aretha Franklin and this week she was dancing to Springsteen – that’s my girl) or I’ve sung songs from The Muppet Show.

This was fine when E wasn’t speaking either but she’s picked up talking so quickly and can remember lots of words to rhymes as well as the actions. I was in the kitchen one afternoon and she was reading Sweet Dreams Maisy which features a scene where Maisy sings Twinkle Twinkle to her soft toy panda. E stood up and started singing and doing the actions – very sweet. I could easily remember that one. Then we moved onto Wind the Bobbin Up.

This one, I have to admit, is completely new to me. I wondered if it was something people sang outside the South, bearing in mind its vague industrial overtones. I asked S with his family history of lacemaking. “Never heard of it,” he said. So much for that – we Googled the words. For those of you who don’t know, it’s an odd song with two distinct parts – the Day in the Life of nursery rhymes if you will. E loves it. Neither S nor I know the tune so we each sing it differently and E doesn’t care about tunes either so if you’re in the Basford area at bedtime and hear some caterwauling, it’s probably us.

Other problems have included Miss Polly had a Dolly which I seized on when they mentioned that was rhyme of the month and then realised I only knew the first two lines. The dolly is destined to remain sick. I’m a Little Teapot frequently comes unstuck around the third line so a line of grizzling noises ensues before we come back in with a strong “tip me up and pour me out!”

Rhymes are fast making up a daily part of our lives. To combat this, I must sit down and find some good pop songs I can teach E instead, if only for the sake of my sanity. Suggestions below please.

*Blogging tip for the day: If you are a serious blogger looking to up your SEO, I recommend not using bloody stupid titles like this – it will only confuse people.

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Potty training blues (and pinks)

So, we’ve been wondering if we should start thinking about potty training. Nursery told us a few weeks ago that E had used a toilet. I think it’s just been the once. Since she’s been talking there have been comments about her toilet habits and she is happy to comment on when Mummy has a wee or at least, says I’ll be going for a wee when I do as much as walk towards a bathroom. How lovely.

I don’t like the idea of potties to be honest. I prefer the idea of a seat on the toilet. Potties strike me as adding to the confusion.

And although I was vaguely aware of there being some differences between girls and boys in training, I didn’t think they were so significant as to make a huge difference. How foolish and naive I was…

First up, a quick look at products. Unsurprisingly there are mountains of plastic products available to see you through this transition. Was I under the impression that all E needed was some pants, a child seat, maybe a step, wipes and a calm, patient instructor? Why would I not treat us both to a 3 in 1 contraption, with potty, seat and ladder set that she can climb to sit on? Or a potty on wheels with a space for a full toilet roll hanging on the front? Or a boy’s special training thing which looks like a mini urinal? No less than £20 each people.

Mothercare have toilet seats. Most are either pink or blue. Why? Mainly so they can have some kind of character – Thomas, Mickey Mouse, and f*&%ing ubiqitous Peppa pig – on them. Some even have padding. Kiddicare

This one makes a REALLY AWFUL noise that goes on for ages...

This one makes a REALLY AWFUL noise that goes on for ages…

have a slightly wider selection with more white seats but there’s still some gender division.

And so I turned to my usual reliable source – books. Could I get E a book to teach her what to do? I could but they were all pink or blue too. Some of them even said for girls or boys on the front. Is it really so different? And do girls really only do things because princesses tell them to?

If this wasn't quite so pink and Polly was a normal girl I'd have bought it.

If this wasn’t quite so pink and Polly was a normal girl I’d have bought it.

I checked the advice given online – there really was very little difference between what they recommend for girls and boys. Boys may start later they say. The actual techniques stay the same to start with until you start to look at standing up for boys but it’s not necessary to do that straight away do why the blatant gender differences?

Tempted by this one except for the clear "for boys" label

Tempted by this one except for the clear “for boys” label

Stupid question really, it’s profit driven isn’t it, like everything else. I don’t know why we let them get away with it.

Yes this one actually comes with a padded decorated toilet seat on the cover...

Yes this one actually comes with a padded decorated toilet seat on the cover…

Anyway, I shall buy something this weekend and start to talk to E about using it. We’ll see how we get on.

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Time to myself

I have the week off. What a treat. We’ve been for a long weekend at my mum’s house, a relaxing weekend of good food, old friends and scarecrows, and came away laden with home grown plums and gooseberries, some new toys for E and a mysterious anniversary present for next month. This Friday we head to the other grandparents for the weekend – more good food, a large barbecue and treats for E are in store.

In between I have taken three days from work, in an effort to be more sensible with my leave, spread out relaxing time and generally have some time to myself. I’ve been looking forward to it and have told myself that I won’t do boring things (clearing out the bathroom cupboard or cleaning) but creative things instead.

As if sensing she might be missing out, E was clingy and cried when I left her at nursery for the first time in ages yesterday. The chances are that she was actually tired having kept herself up late the night before talking to herself and her toys, nevertheless, I did feel a pang of guilt at leaving her when I was just going home again.

I did a spot of writing work at my desk and then headed out. I had writing exercises, a notebook, a large bottle of water, and my ipod with me. I walked in the sun, felt myself bloom a little, stopped in the arboretum, exchanged pleasantries with an old geezer who said hello, wrote some more and ambled into town. In the city, I made a note of some music sessions for under 5s at the Royal Centre, browsed in a second hand bookshop (bought Paula by Isabel Allende and some birthday cards), ran some errands for S and made my way to an art gallery. The idea was to write in different places, to stimulate the creative juices and get some new ideas to work with. The art was terrible (I always feel I should go to the gallery as it’s prestigious and I hate being the kind of person who likes living in a city where lots goes on but I never go to any of it. So I go, and the art always leaves me feeling nonplussed) but it got me thinking in other ways.

And so to the cinema. One of the treats I’d promised myself was a trip to see a film – I’ve not been to a regular screening of a film since I was pregnant. I’d decided on Boyhood and sat huddled down with a packet of pistachios to nibble on for 2 1/2 hours. Once it was over (I thought it was ok but not so worthy of all the plaudits and, as it went, I was more interested in the boy’s mother than him) I headed straight for my reading group. All in all it was a nice relaxing day.

I got home to S by 8.45 who told me that E, as she headed upstairs to bed, turned to the window and waved “Goodbye Mummy, see you later!” Apparently she always looks to the gate for me at bedtime – sometimes I make it home from work for bedtime and sometimes I don’t. Isn’t that just the loveliest thing you ever heard? Obviously I felt even more guilty that I was sitting drinking a small overpriced cup of coffee and discussing Graham Greene at the time.

I’m not really bathing in guilt, you understand. But there is a small voice that tells me I’m being selfish at having a few days to myself when I could be with her. And I do enjoy being with her – especially at the moment when her development is so obvious each day. This morning she commented on how pretty the garden looked and that it was windy. It was like having a conversation with a neighbour. She must have copied it from us at some point, bless her.

Of course, I’m realising three days really aren’t enough for all the things I want to do. Today I’m making plum jam and plum cakes, working on a couple of short stories, making notes on research for my book, sorting through the knitting projects that are piled behind the sofa and taking E for a haircut. I could do things like this for months on end. But I can’t. So three days will have to be enough.

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