Hammy Time

Once I gave in to the children and acquired Dog, I foolishly believed our menagerie was complete. The kids had a pet. One that they could take for walks, lie on the sofa with, talk to about how beastly their parents were. What else could they possibly need? But a few months ago, Miss Nine became obsessed with hamsters. Overnight. The trigger was a friend’s daughter getting a hamster for her birthday (you know who you are…) It was adorable! So cute! And totally owned by the friend! Not like a *sniff * shared dog. She, Miss Nine, needed a hamster. She’d do anything. Anything. She would take any test we devised to prove her commitment. Looking after it herself? No problem. Cleaning out the cage? She’d be only too glad to do so. She wanted – no, yearned – for the responsibility of her very own pet. The hounding went on for days. Each of those days felt like a year. The conversation was unending and deeply dull, yet emotionally draining. It was also made worse by the fact that rodent-love was contagious. Miss Seven also wanted a hamster. Obvs. She needed her own pet too. That was THE POINT. In the end, I put my foot down. No way. No rodents. We had a hard enough time getting rid of the wild ones. I was absolutely NOT going to buy one. Let alone two.

An hour later, we were at the pet shop. There, we surveyed the information board which showed the benefits of all the pets. For the first time, I could see an upside to the hamster. Rabbits lived for twelve years. (Frankly, too much commitment.) Hamsters? Two. Just twenty-four months to get through. A hamster expert came across to talk to me. It was a long conversation and elicited several startling facts. Despite the fact that hamsters were billed as ‘the ideal first pet for children’, they were nocturnal and some species were prone to biting.

My gaze darkened. ‘So they’re only awake at night? Really?’

‘Yes.’ The hamster expert nodded. ‘And if you wake them unexpectedly, they can nip. It can be quite painful.’

‘Right. So… perhaps not ideal for kids,’ I said. A few feet away, I could hear the Husband saying, ‘Aren’t they cute, girls?’ as he pointed enthusiastically at two Russian Dwarf hamsters and lifted Miss Seven up to get a better look. I sighed. ‘I’m thinking we’ll keep them in the boot room.’

It was Mr Expert’s turn to look at me darkly. ‘Is it heated?’

‘Goodness no!’

‘These are desert animals,’ he said, frostily. ‘They need warmth.’

I felt as trapped as the hamsters looked in their little glass box. ‘Right. So I’d have to have them in the house?’ (I wondered whether to mention the mice that seem to thrive in our boot room no matter what the temperature, but decided against it.)


It was clear to me, as I watched Miss Nine and Miss Seven choose the hamsters they wanted and name them, egged on by the Husband, that the battle was lost. Resignedly, we paid for the hamsters (‘Only ten pounds each!’ Miss Nine said) plus the cage, food, entertainment and bedding, before reeling out, a hundred pounds worse off.

Back at home, the new family members were installed in the toy room. There was much fuss made of them by everyone except Dog. She couldn’t quite believe her eyes. Every fibre of her being quivered with outrage as she stared fixedly at the hamsters scurrying around their new abode. What were those creatures doing in her house? Worse than that, they seemed like welcome visitors. Everyone was making a huge fuss over them. Eventually, it was too much for Dog and she snapped at the plastic tunnel the Hammys were taunting her from, only to find herself banned from the toy room. Miss Nine and Miss Seven were outraged. You aren’t allowed to bite family members! (Which just goes to show they did listen to some of the things I said when they were small.)

Several months later, I have to admit that on the whole, the Hammys (Bobby and Speedo – no, I didn’t name them) have been a successful addition to the fold. They are quite cute, relatively low maintenance and sometimes, the promises to clean them out are even kept by Misses Nine and Seven. They do bite (the hamsters, I mean), but we discovered early on that if you wear gardening gloves to wake them during the day and play with them, you normally escape an encounter with your fingers intact.

But. There’s always a but. My complacent assumption that this time the menagerie really was complete was shattered last weekend. We went to Devon to see friends. Friends with kittens (you know who you are…). If I had known that they had kittens, I would have avoided their house until the kittens were cats. Cats with arthritis and failing eyesight. Miss Nine spent the time in Devon stroking a kitten, or looking at a kitten, or taking photos of a kitten, or talking about getting a kitten, or making wild promises about what she would do to get a kitten, or showing me the sheer cuteness of a kitten, or finding a kitten on-line that was for sale near our house. It was a kitten-tastic couple of days. So we’re back to the pet pestering at our house. This time, I’m standing firm. We’re not getting kittens. Definitely not! Certainly not two, because Miss Seven also wants one. There’s no way I’m getting kittens. That’s my final word on the matter.

Dog Days

It’s been a while since I wrote about Puppy – so long, in fact, that she has grown into Dog. She has been a member of our family for almost two years and I’m pleased to report that the training programme is now complete. Yup: she has us (or at least me) doing exactly what she wants. I am essentially her puppet. In my defence, this started because she was the most anxious animal I’ve ever encountered. Just seeing her distress at ordinary events – a car going past, a person at the door, someone dropping a saucepan lid in the kitchen – made me determined to try to reassure her and make her happier. All of the rules I was planning to follow went out the window. Of course she could lie on the sofa. In fact, one of our sofas is now dedicated to her – yes, there’s a dog blanket on one end of it but she doesn’t really like lying on that bit, so I’m not sure why I bothered. She didn’t like sleeping in the boot room? No problem, into the kitchen her bed came. Naturally, she could come in the car with us wherever we go, although this has resulted in my car being covered in dog hair, mud and a strong odour of Springer Spaniel.  The Husband was less than impressed with such antics. He believed in animals knowing their place and only gave in when he realised that she was going to literally wet herself every time she saw him unless he softened his approach. He is irritated beyond belief by the state of my car every time he gets into it.

‘Why is there mud on the top of the back seat?’ he enquired one day.

‘Well, I put Dog in the boot but she doesn’t like being in there so she scrambles over the top of the back seat to get to the passenger footwell and, well, that results in a certain amount of mud transferring…’ I could see there was another question brewing.

‘And why isn’t she clipped into the boot so she stays there?’

‘She is, or was. But then she gets stuck halfway across the back seat and sort of hangs there, looking like she might strangle herself and I have to stop the car and rescue her and no matter how many times I get her back in the boot, she still climbs over and gets stuck…’

At this point, we usually have a heated debate about Dog’s intelligence. The Husband contends that she must be deeply stupid not to have learned yet that her place is in the boot. I counter that she is highly intelligent and knows eventually I will crack under the pressure of watching her almost hang herself. Which indeed I do. Dog comes everywhere with me and she always goes to the back door of the car and waits for me to open it so she can hop into the footwell, and sit with the kids. After all, that’s what she is, isn’t she? One of the kids? Not some animal banished to sit in the boot. All this I was prepared to live with. Dog used to be happy in the footwell, with her head so far under the driver’s seat that she must have  been able to sniff my feet, and she didn’t disturb me at all. I could even live with the times that she jumped up at the window and managed to press the button to open it. Obviously I must have looked like a crazy dog lady driving through the village with a Springer Spaniel’s head hanging out of my car. However, she was quite happy that way and so was I. But lately, things have taken a more sinister turn and I do acknowledge that it’s my fault for encouraging Dog to believe herself to be my equal.

A few months ago, I was driving home from the school drop off when the strong Springer Spaniel odour intensified. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I was greeted by the sight of Dog’s face just a few inches to the left of my own. She had both front feet on the storage compartment between the seats and this was giving her a fine view of where we were heading. I could see her thinking that she’d been slow not to discover this position before. With my left hand, I tried to push her back but Dog is stronger than I thought and resisted my efforts. Stern admonitions made no difference at all. Tongue lolling, she looked ahead with interest as I tried to concentrate on the traffic.

That evening, I told the Husband and he asked, ‘Why wasn’t she restrained?’

‘She was! She was clipped into one of the seatbelt holders. But she has a neck like a giraffe and somehow managed to stretch all the way to the front.’

This situation continued for the next few weeks. Dog was fine in the footwell as long as the other kids were in the back but the second they were dropped off, she came to keep me company in the front. Yes, it was difficult to keep her balance when I went around a corner and sometimes if a tractor caused me to brake suddenly, she’d slip and disappear from view but it took only seconds for her to return. Irritated though I was, I was coping with it. Until one fateful day, she went too far. Driving around a corner, I felt a pressure against my left arm. Dog had obviously decided that leaning against me would not only cushion her from the risks of falling but would no doubt give me some much-needed comfort in my driving endeavours. I shouted at her and she licked the side of my face. We travelled home in stony silence, me fuming and Dog leaning all of her weight on me. This time I was really cross but I couldn’t find a way to stop her doing it.

It’s not as though this is the only thing that has made me think we need to re-establish my position as Dog’s boss. When we first got her, we decided we would not allow any begging for food. As a result, Dog has rather nice manners when we eat. She sits nearby, as though to remind us she is available if we’re worried about waste, but she leaves us to it. Until a few weeks ago, when I sat down at the kitchen table to eat some home-made sausage rolls. I have to say, my sausage-roll recipe is a good one and Dog has discovered this for herself, after one of the kids dropped a bit under the table. Dog was there before I’d even had time to say ‘But they have onion in them!’ We watched her for signs of onion poisoning for days afterwards but the only thing that changed was Dog’s attitude to food. Clearly that sausage roll was the best thing she had ever eaten and the patient, well-mannered approach had not got her very far. So this time when I sat down with several on my plate, she made her move. The first thing I became aware of was a low rumbling noise. I looked down and met Dog’s eyes. The noise was coming from her throat, a grumbling husky sound I’d never heard her make before. I told her to lie down and carried on eating. A few seconds later, she nudged me with her nose. I told her off again. In response, she gave a short yip. A ‘Come on! Just a bit!’ kind of noise. As I ignored her, she put her front paws up on my arm and licked me. Her eyes were molten with yearning. I hardened my heart… for a few seconds until she barked at me again. I had almost finished my meal (honestly, I was intending to leave the last one, I really was) and so I put a piece in her bowl. She inhaled it and came back to check if there was any more available.

‘You know you wouldn’t do this if the Husband was here,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t dare.’

She proved me wrong the next week when the Husband and I both had some sausage rolls for lunch. Dog wasn’t stupid enough to yip at the Husband, but she sat next to me and gave me the full treatment. The Husband was outraged – not just at Dog but at my obvious pandering to her. He’s now talking about seeing a psychologist. I think he means for Dog but it’s quite possible he means me. And of course, he is right. I am the problem. The trouble is that I like Dog showing a bit of cheekiness at home. After her anxious start with us, I like to see her confident enough to boss me around. It’s the same as Miss Six being quiet at school and a total kook at home, where she feels completely safe to be herself. It makes me laugh and that means any attempt to discipline Dog is useless. So we’ll have to see if we can find someone who can deal with my issues rather than Dog’s. If not, I’ll just have to make my sausage rolls without onion and get used to company when I’m driving.

Truth Fairy

Last week, it was Tooth Fairy time again. Miss Eight has been waiting for this particular tooth to fall out for months and had reached the point of imploring me to pull it out. I’ve done this once before – when Miss Eight was Miss Five and was looking like Nanny McPhee with one hideous gnasher sticking out at a weird angle. I resolved not to send her to school looking like that so I had to pull it out. Not one of my more pleasant memories. I managed to avoid that this time but when it fell out of its own accord, I sighed deeply. Tooth Fairy time is truly painful and frankly, it’s the Husband’s fault.

Back when losing a tooth was a charming novelty in our house, the Husband took it upon himself to be the Tooth Fairy. After Miss Then-Five had gone to bed, he disappeared into his study and was gone for some time. When I went in to find him, I realised he was taking this rather more seriously than I had expected. I would have bunged a couple of dollars in an envelope and left it under Miss Five’s pillow. The Husband, in contrast to my casual approach, was researching Tooth Fairy names.

‘I thought that was the name. The. Tooth. Fairy.’

‘No. How about Gossamer Flame-Fly?’

Words failed me but I was sure Miss Five would love it.

‘So, a couple of dollars in an envelope, with ‘From Gossamer Flame-Fly’ written on the front?’

He frowned. ‘No. I’ll write a letter.’

A letter? You’re going to write a letter, pretending to be the Tooth Fairy?’


Sure enough, a delightful rambling missive was put together. (The Husband has close relatives who have not received this many written words from him in their lives.) The letter explained that with all the children and all the lost teeth in the world, one Tooth Fairy would hardly be enough, and that Gossamer FF was Miss Five’s personal tooth fairy. This was written up in curly purple lettering, and some glitter was sprinkled liberally into the envelope. I felt rather ‘bah, humbug!’ about the whole thing. Particularly as glitter is my least favourite decorative thing. One milligram of it is enough to cover a house and everyone in it with inappropriately located sparkles that resist vacuuming for days. But I knew Miss Five would love it.

Sure enough, she did. Even now that she is eight, she believes whole-heartedly in Gossamer and I know I should be truly grateful she is hanging onto the magical thinking of childhood. The trouble is, Gossamer’s standards were set so high at the beginning that even if it’s half-eleven at night and we’re getting up at the crack of dawn the next day, we have to do something special for the receipt of another tooth. This time was no exception.

‘I think we’d better look at the letter she has sent Gossamer,’ said the Husband.

That was my cue to fumble under the pillow and locate the letter with the tooth without waking Miss Eight. My heart instantly sank. This was a long letter. Lots of questions were asked. How did Gossamer fly? Did it require pixie dust? What exactly was she using the teeth for, as this had been bothering Miss Eight. And most of all, she wanted to know this: was it true that if she, Miss Eight, broke five promises, her tooth fairy would die? The killer line was this: ‘If so, I will never break a promise again, and that’s a proper, proper promise!’

I am ashamed to admit it but hot on the heels of my sigh of fatigue at the whole thing was a sense of opportunity. Lately, Miss Eight has been testing out boundaries and there have been occasions when she has faithfully promised to do certain things – go to bed on time, stop winding her sister up, do her maths homework on Saturday morning rather than Sunday evening – and then has insouciantly failed to deliver on said promises. I suggested to the Husband that a fairly direct statement to the effect that ‘Broken promises will kill me!’ would really help parenting in our house.

‘Well, maybe something to that effect.’ He didn’t sound convinced.

He then wrote a letter, answering the questions – pixie dust was essential for flight, teeth were something Gossamer collected, and she would really prefer not to find out if broken promises might hurt her! – in a way that I considered was rather overlooking the contribution Gossamer could be making to family harmony. He finished the letter and found two pound coins. Grumpily, I took the glittery envelope and slipped it back under the pillow.

The next day, Miss Eight was delighted with the letter and read it thoughtfully. Pleased though she was with the two pounds, the letter itself was the most exciting thing, which is why she then informed me that she wanted to take it in to ‘show-and-tell’ at school. Something about the image of Miss Eight standing in front of her class with the letter from Gossamer made me extremely glad we hadn’t been too overt about the consequences of not breaking promises. Miss Eight might not know Gossamer isn’t real but her teacher does, and perhaps death threats to the Tooth Fairy if Miss Eight doesn’t behave aren’t a good look.

Programming the kids

Miss Seven turned Miss Eight at the end of December. I will spare you my usual rant about what a dire date it was to have a baby and and what was I thinking and why isn’t my planning better? Suffice to say, coming up with two sets of fun, desirable presents for Miss Eight with only days between them was a challenge. Which is why this year I allowed the Husband to get involved. The Husband is convinced he is a great present giver (‘genius’ was the word he used) and there are times that this is true. However he is also what I would call an I-love-it-so-you-will-too present giver. Left to his own devices, excuse the pun, he would have bought Miss Eight an iPad back when she was Miss Five. I said no to this at the time and have continued to say no ever since. But this year, I was getting desperate and the Husband is getting sneakier.

‘I think we should get her a mini computer and -WAIT WHILE I FINISH! – she can build it.’

‘Build it?’

‘Put it together. With help, of course.’

In my mind, I can see technical-looking components on a table, with Miss Eight poring over them, absorbing valuable lessons in engineering and team work. I am already softening my stance when a thought occurs to me.

‘Is this a STEM toy?’

The Husband nods very fast. ‘Oh yes, and it’s a STEM toy!’

If there is a label more designed to get modern parents salivating, I don’t know what it is. Science-Technology-Engineering-Maths toys! Helping prepare kids for the great jobs of the future. This is particularly key for my kids as, so far, they seem to lack passionate interest in STEM subjects. Much like their mother, unfortunately. I am keen to do whatever we can to overcome their genetic inclination to choose English over all other school subjects. I read an apocalyptic article a few years ago stating that only people who could write computer code would be even vaguely employable in the future and that studying namby-pamby subjects like languages would lead swiftly to unemployment, poverty and early death. Whilst scoffing at such nonsense, I want to hedge my bets by ensuring Miss Eight and Miss Five develop a keen interest in STEM subjects; in short, I want to re-program them to be a lot less like me.

In the run-up to Miss Eight’s birthday, I ask the Husband lots of questions. ‘Will you make sure you help her but don’t take over?’

‘Yes. When do I ever take over?’

‘Will she be able to do a meaningful amount of the assembly herself? It’s not too old for her?’

‘No, she’ll be fine. She’ll enjoy it.’

I envisage the months passing and Miss Eight gaining confidence and knowledge. Possibly ending with her learning to code and then running Apple. Not when she’s eight, of course, I’m not deluded. Maybe when she’s twenty-eight. I’m quietly pleased with the Husband’s choice.

The birthday arrives and in a flurry of wrapping paper, the mini computer’s box emerges. It’s very small. But then, I suppose the components will be small, won’t they? Miss Eight shares my uncertainty until the word ‘computer’ is used. Enthusiasm picks up markedly. The box is opened along with my eyes. There’s very little ‘assembly’ needed. A few cables to be plugged in, sure. Some letter stickers to be applied to the keyboard in the QWERTY order. But not a huge amount of tiny components to be carefully put together. In fact, Miss Five could have had a stab at it.The Husband heads my next rant off at the pass.

‘It’s a blank slate, she will have to set it up when she turns it on, do some programming.’


Miss Eight looks solemn. Programming is a suitably eight-year-old word. Seven year olds couldn’t do programming. She is very happy with her new toy. As for me, programming sounds like it might be linked to coding, so I think we’re on track. Maybe thirty to run Apple.

The rest of the week passes in a blur of New Year’s Eve planning and celebrations (did I mention that NYE is my birthday? Bad birth-date planning runs in my family) and although Miss Eight spends a fair bit of time ‘programming’ her new possession, I don’t see much of what she’s up to. Finally, I get a moment to sit down and watch. There’s a lot of clicking and dragging from a menu to choose animals to appear on screen and then to make them purr, yawn and say things through text boxes. Miss Eight is totally absorbed. Miss Five is also gripped. I can’t decide what I think. It’s rudimentary stuff and doesn’t seem likely to lead to a career in technology. I think the Husband has pulled the wool over my eyes. But then I watch both the girls playing for a bit longer and realise I am quite happy with the mini computer. It’s very basic. Nothing like as easy to use as an iPad. It has the kind of games we played years ago, when computers were, well, basic. And Miss Eight and Miss Five are just as thrilled with them as we were, mainly because they have so much input. Something that would be a matter of finger-swiping seconds on an iPad takes ages using the keyboard for everything. But somehow the pay-off is greater when the cat says ‘Look at my bottom!’ every time the dog appears. (Sophisticated stuff, I think you’ll agree.) There are gales of laughter and some rather pleasant sibling cooperation in coming up with other similarly witty feline comments. I really don’t care whether it’s a STEM toy as long as it’s a toy: something you interact with, rather than let wash over you. The Husband is forgiven. I’m abandoning my dream of Miss Twenty-eight running Apple but there’s a far more immediate advantage to having kids that are technology savvy. They know how to use the four remote controls that make the TV play nicely with the boxy thing, or the DVD player, and the sound bar. This is great because I have no idea and at the end of a long day of parenting, that’s the only kind of programming I am interested in.

What do to about the ‘f’ word

A few days ago, Miss Seven used the ‘f’ word to Miss Just-Turned-Five. She promptly followed it up with the ‘c’ word and then topped it off with the ‘b’ word. You might think my children are unusually profane for their ages; in fact, they think ‘stupid’ is the rudest thing they can say to someone. But my reaction to Miss Seven’s words was as appalled as it would have been if she had indeed used the adult ‘c’ word. Because what Miss Seven said to Miss Five, casually one day after swimming as we drove home, was, ‘You’re a bit fat.’ In response to my gasp of horror, she then said airily, ‘Well, chubby. Chubbier than me. In fact, you’re a bit big.’

The state of Wiltshire roads compelled me to concentrate on avoiding the potholes while I tried to find the right words. But I think my shock showed as I said, ‘She’s not fat! Not at all! Or chubby!’

Miss Five burst into tears at this point, which left me wondering if she was upset about Miss Seven’s words or my obvious horror at them. Does a five year old get the negative connotations of chubby, or big? Is big just a word to them, just the opposite of small, which – let’s face it – no child actually wants to be? Or did she actually already know about the way you’re expected to look, especially if you’re female in the western world? The thing is, she is a totally normal five year old. Literally in the middle of the graph of weight versus height for girls her age. It’s just her older sister was born both taller and with an insatiable appetite for exercise, particularly of the gymnastic variety. Those two factors have come together to make Miss Seven different in shape to her younger sibling and I had to remind myself that my reaction was almost certainly worse than the original comment. I had effectively told both my children that there are certain things you Should Not Be, from a physical point of view. Which is unfortunate, given how much time I have spent trying hard to do quite the reverse. ‘Healthy and strong’ has been the mantra I have tried to trot out since they were little.

‘Why don’t we eat too many sweets?’

‘Because they are bad for our teeth and not good for our health.’

Both the girls can respond to my question with the correct answer on autopilot. But now they are both at school, I’m not the only influence on them and who knows what gets said as they change for PE? And, if I’m totally honest, I have made comments myself. About Dog, who finds our left-overs irresistible and has grown rather more robust than she used to be. Calling her a chunky monkey as I walk past her might not be helping my cause. Or pointing out the Husband’s problem zone. The Husband, naturally, is immune to such comments and often responds by opening a packet of crisps and crunching one loudly in my direction. But maybe this negative commentary, humorous though it is intended to be, is seeping into impressionable minds. The whole area is a minefield. Not that long ago, I had to comfort Miss Seven when she was worried about being skinny. What I wanted to say was: ‘In years to come, you’ll be very pleased to not have to think about your weight. It will be one less thing to worry about on the long list of things girls are made to worry about by other people or society or the media or mean girls/ boys at school.’ Instead, I said, ‘You’re not skinny. You are fit from all the gym you do, and all the cartwheels and all the trampolining. Your body is perfect just the way it is.’ Miss Seven didn’t look convinced. The only good thing about that conversation was that a few weeks later, it gave me an example to show her how she had hurt Miss Five’s feelings.

‘Did you like being called skinny?’


‘Then please don’t use describing words for other people’s appearance in front of them, unless you’re sure they will like them. Even then, it’s sometimes hard to tell. You don’t like it if people call you pretty, do you?’

‘No! I’m not pretty. I’m a tomboy.’

‘Ok. Then let’s not use describing words for appearance at all, shall we?’

I don’t want to make them censor everything they think. But I don’t think it’s a bad idea for them to consider the feelings of other people. Perhaps I should do the same. The Husband might not be hurt by my comments. But Dog definitely looks at me reproachfully when I poke her expanding tummy.


Heigh ho, heigh ho… it’s back to work I go.

Or rather, went. After seven years at home with Miss Seven and Miss Four, a few weeks ago I finally felt the time had come to do something that other people deemed ‘work’, as opposed to the stay-at-home kind that some people think is made up of long lunches and coffee mornings. I found something part-time not far from where we live. And that’s when the angst started.

How would the girls cope without me? How would they adjust to someone else (the Husband, in the main) doing the school run on the days I worked? Would they feel bereft? Would their sense of self-worth be savaged by my selfishness? It woke me up at night and during the day, it made me ask the same questions over and over again to all my friends, family and the Husband. ‘What if they hate me working? What if they get sick? What if I no longer understand their lives? Will they need psychological help in later life to compensate for me brutally abandoning them?’ Everyone managed to be very calm with me. No one yelled, ‘For the love of Pete, these are not the first kids in history whose mother has gone back to work!’

So back I went. The first day, I felt as though I was at work for the first time ever. And that somewhere, my children might be crying for me, piteously. Why was I doing this to myself, or them? Why didn’t I just stay at home? I drove home that evening full of fear about what I would find.

It pains me to describe how nonchalant my children were when I walked through the door. In fact, they didn’t actually look up from their plates to say hi. So I put my work bag down and went to hug them, at which point they did seem to register I was back. And then Miss Seven said something that totally stunned me.

‘How was your day at work, Mum?’

This was a historic moment for me. It was the first time EVER that either of my children have registered that I might, just might, have some interests or experiences which do not directly involve them. I was so amazed, I forgot to respond that actually, despite the stress, it had been nice to be me again. Without anyone talking to me about children or dogs, or school plays, or after-school activities or anything education related. Miss Four carried on eating. Miss Seven returned to her food, too. And I turned to the only member of the family who had genuinely missed me dreadfully – Puppy. Of her distress at my disappearance, I had no doubt. She gamboled around my feet with pathetic relief, crawled on her tummy towards me and sat on my lap as soon as she got the chance. The fur baby was definitely not happy at my disappearance. And in fact, she rapidly became the problem child when it came to my new job. I didn’t like leaving her inside even for my relatively short days. But I didn’t trust her not to get out of the garden if we left her outside. The Husband didn’t have a problem with it. His philosophy of dogs being treated with firmness, of showing them who was Pack Leader, lends itself to not considering her puppy needs. ‘Dogs are meant to be outside. She’ll soon learn not to go out of the gate onto the road.’ My argument that she would be unlikely to learn much after she was crushed by a tractor didn’t seem to hold water. After some fairly vigorous discussion about the risks, I decided I couldn’t bear to leave her inside. We would need a dog walker.

I found one who had a vacancy. I was thrilled and invited her around for a meet-and-greet with Puppy. This would be the start of a new friendship. They would get on famously. Puppy would love the dog walker, possibly more than me. But unfortunately, as it turned out, she didn’t. Puppy viewed the dog walker with grave suspicion. Who was this woman who seemed over-familiar? Why was she trying to bribe her with treats? She barked vigorously at the interloper and stayed as far away as possible. The dog walker kindly stayed for an hour to give Puppy time to adjust, but Puppy didn’t soften her stance. Still, I consoled myself with the thought that she would be fine. When it came to it, and Puppy was fed up staying in the house by herself, she would happily leave with the dog walker. Of course she would.

The day and time that the dog walker was due to take Puppy out for the first time, I was in a meeting. I therefore missed the dog walker’s resignation. When I finally got to my phone, there were a couple of messages that helped me chart the marked deterioration of their relationship. Apparently Puppy had responded to her arrival much as I might have responded to the arrival of an armed kidnapper. No way was she going with this random stranger! She wasn’t that daft. There was still something very off-putting about this woman and she smelled strongly of other dogs. Who clearly weren’t smart enough to resist going with her, unlike Puppy. It seemed there had been much outraged growling and barking from the confines of a crate that Puppy rarely deigns to use (but which provided excellent protection in this new time of need). After trying for some time to coax her out, the dog walker gave up. When I returned home that afternoon, I was once again deeply sorry I didn’t speak dog. I could tell from Puppy’s effusive greeting that if I could have spoken her language, she would have had much to tell about her courageous escape from an evil dognapper who clearly planned to sell her for a profit to someone even more sinister.

So in the end, it seems I was correct. I will need to seek psychological help for one of the family, thanks to my return to work. I just didn’t expect it to be this member of the family. The dog walker was quite specific in her final message – it wasn’t normal for a dog to be so suspicious of someone who clearly only had good intentions and she suggested I get a good dog trainer to take a long hard look at Puppy. And someone else to walk her.

So there’s more to come on this story. And I’m grateful that Puppy is turning out to be a boon to blog material, even if she is neurotic.

The Good Dad

We knew that parenting would involve sacrifice. Everyone knows this, up front, before the little person arrives. We would lose some of our leisure time (all of it). We would lose spontaneity (except when it comes to tantrums which entirely change the course of the day). We would lose most of our disposable income. But it would all be worth it! The cuteness would be worth it! I can see the Husband is reviewing this at the moment and that’s because he has just had to make the supreme sacrifice. The sacrifice that no red-blooded western man should ever have to make. He went to the cinema at the weekend. We all did. It was Miss Four’s first cinema trip. We went to screen 6 at the local cinema. Not screen 5. Screen 6. Which was showing The Good Dinosaur (warning – spoiler alert coming up later on). Screen 5? Was showing the new Star Wars. The Husband’s heroism, as he walked into screen 6 holding Miss Four’s hand, without so much as a backwards glance, brought a tear to my eye.

The Husband has a number of passions which are not really in keeping with parenthood. Or at the least, have to take a back seat. Storage solutions, for instance, are something of a key focus. In order to require a great many storage solutions, he also purchases a great many large items that need to be suitably housed. The latest thing is a rotavator. I had never heard of such a thing until the Husband informed me that he was currently bidding on two of them on eBay and was the main bidder in both cases.

‘So you might win both bids.’


‘But we don’t need two.’


‘So what’s your plan to ensure we don’t end up with two?’

‘Oh, someone else will probably come in at the last minute and pip me to the post. Probably.’ A look of doubt crossed his face. Then he brightened. ‘But if I win both, I could sell one!’

‘Possibly for less than you paid?’

‘Possibly.’ This didn’t seem to worry him. The main thing was the rotavator! Apparently, it is going to make a huge difference to the garden! Here, we’re in agreement – it certainly will. It will churn up the ground and turn it into a muddy swamp that will allow Miss Seven, Miss Four and Puppy to track dirt through the house for months. I find it difficult to share this enthusiasm and was extremely pleased when someone did outbid him on the second rotavator. Although we will still have one. Which he, at least, is happy about. There are lots of other passions to choose from, though. A couple of days ago, as I stood drinking my tea, he asked if I wanted to see his special place.

‘It’s not a euphemism,’ he added.

‘We’ve been married too long for the thought to even cross my mind.’

I agreed to visit this actual place, only to regret it when I discovered it was the local tip.

The Husband’s face was aglow. ‘Look! You can throw everything away here! Everything! It’s unbelievable. And there are loads of monitors and electrical things that have been chucked. They still work!

Suddenly, it became clear to me. This was simply an opportunity to acquire more stuff. Without even paying for it.  The only upside was that he did also get rid of many of the boxes we had used to ship our belongings from Sydney. I took this as a win-win situation.

Finally, let’s talk about cycling. We live in an area where many men seem to view cycling as a critical aspect of male bonding. They spend their weekends tearing across muddy fields or holding up traffic by cycling three abreast while they discuss, I assume, Match of the Day/ Britain’s Got Talent/ whether Kim Kardashian’s bottom would be that size if she did what they were doing/ what Kim Kardashian’s bottom would look like in cycling shorts. The Husband had not cycled for some time but decided he needed to get back on the bike. Naturally, this required some purchases. New gloves. New bike shorts (camouflage pattern). New shoes (non-cleated, for safety). A hi-vis jacket so hi-vis that I’m sure Major Tim could spot it from the ISS. Dressed in his gear, he made a formidable sight.

‘Do you want to feel my padded seat?’ he asked.

‘You mean the padding that’s not you?’ I asked.

He gave me a look of cold reproach. ‘I’m getting fit. You should be more supportive.’

‘I am! Really!’

He set off to meet a friend similarly afflicted with the new passion. The hours passed. I took the kids to the park. Finally, after we’d returned home and had lunch, the door opened. The Husband was so unrecognizable that Puppy barked furiously at this apparition. Helmet on, covered in mud from head to foot, the Husband was wearing a look of extreme discomfort. To stop Puppy barking, he removed the helmet. It didn’t help.

‘We tried to ring you. From the pub. To get you to pick us up. It’s so cold out there. That was a four-hour bike ride!’

He limped into the kitchen and regaled us with tales of immense hardship and breath-taking courage.

Miss Seven and Miss Four weren’t very impressed. ‘You’re awfully muddy.’

‘I am, aren’t I?’ There was pride in his voice. He limped off to shower and for the rest of the day, entertained us with snippets from the great trek. From the Husband’s point of view, a great weekend would be spent using the rotavator, taking old boxes to the tip, replenishing supplies of critical stuff and the odd (much shorter) bike ride. As I said, not entirely child-friendly pursuits. I feel cold at the thought of unleashing Miss Seven and Miss Four at the tip.

But parenthood is all about putting your kids first and hence he fell on his sword for our cinema trip. We went for The Good Dinosaur, because it had decent reviews. The Husband drew the line at Snoopy. We settled down to watch the film. [SPOILER ALERT!] The Husband’s enjoyment of the movie was hindered by the fact that the dad dies midway through.

‘Why does the dad always die?’ he whispered plaintively to me. ‘I mean, The Lion King did it, now this movie too.’

‘The mum gets it in Bambi,’ I said, patting his leg. ‘But it’s a tragedy, for sure. Who will man the dinosaur rotavator?’

‘I know.’ He sighed. On top of his sacrifice of weekend time, this was a blow.

But a moment later, he nudged me and pointed to Miss Four, who was sitting next to him. She was on the edge of her seat, transfixed. Her face was glowing just as the Husband’s had at the tip. The Husband grinned. Just for a moment, it seemed all his sacrifices were worth it.


PS For any one particularly concerned about the Husband’s well-being and mental health, I can report that since I drafted this post, he has finally seen Star Wars and is feeling much less deprived.


Those of you kind enough to read my blog will have read a few weeks ago about the new addition to the family. I thought you might all like an update on how she has been going.

Well, Puppy is barking. Not in the ‘woof woof’ way, more ‘totally bonkers’. We have been reliably assured by people who know about Springer Spaniels that they are nutty and Puppy is proof of this. At first I tried to work out what we have done wrong, but I have concluded that in fact, she’s just extremely highly strung. She’s scared of pretty much everything. Other dogs. Cats. The vacuum cleaner. A statue of a frog in a friend’s garden. (It took her ten minutes to muster the courage to approach the statue. Let’s be clear. It wasn’t very big or scary and it didn’t move. It was a very small statue of a frog.) You might argue these are all new things that need to be navigated. But she’s scared of plenty of things she sees all the time. Let’s take the way she approaches the Husband (who wishes to be known as Pack Leader where the dog is concerned. And also wishes ‘Husband’ to be capitalised, to make it clear it’s a title, not simply a description. Sweetie, don’t say I never listen to what you want!). The Husband was very determined to be a firm dog owner. I think this may be compensation for the fact he isn’t able to be a Victorian-style parent with Miss Six and Miss Four. So for the first week or two, Pack Leader was very firm indeed with Puppy. No jumping! No biting! No doing anything at all that comes naturally to puppies! There were many rules. Rule number 1: No dogs on the sofa! Number 2: no dogs upstairs! Number 3: no dogs near the beds, let alone on them! All this was delivered in a pretty gruff fashion to the extremely small timid puppy. Her response? She weed on the floor whenever she saw Pack Leader. And in fact, not just the floor. The rug, her bed, the crate in the car. Any time she saw the Husband approaching, she wet herself. Meanwhile, I was reading about puppy development, particularly the sections suggesting that just as parents have decided fear isn’t the key, so should dog owners. I suggested gently to the Husband that if he didn’t want Puppy to be an extremely damp and neurotic addition to the household, not to mention a smelly one, he might want to stop shouting at her. Reluctantly, in order to save us from many accidents, he adopted a more affectionate tone. Maybe not affectionate words, but he thinks ‘Hello, stupid dog!’ when delivered in a falsetto will sound much the same to  Puppy as ‘I love you, dog!’  (As a tangent, I am amazed by the discovery that the entire family has a dog voice. Miss Four’s is particularly wheedling and honeyed. More on Miss Four and Puppy later.) He also started to walk Puppy more often and attempted generally to make her feel more secure. Unfortunately, Puppy had already got the measure of the Large Shouty One, as I imagine she thinks of the Husband. He was to be treated with great reverence and no small measure of fear. Plus he really liked it if you spontaneously wet yourself to demonstrate your craven respect. She approached him by crawling along the floor towards him, wagging her tail, and leaving a damp trail behind her.  This became very tedious very quickly. We racked our brains. How could we show Puppy that she was a much-valued, loved member of the family? That the Pack Leader was well intentioned towards her, and preferred the kitchen floor to remain dry? Reluctantly, we decided that some of our favourite resolutions regarding Puppy’s personal freedoms might have to go. Number 1: no dogs on the sofa! For several weeks, she had stayed in the kitchen on her bed while the Husband and I watched TV in the next room. I found the piteous brown eyes swimming with loneliness and abandonment pretty hard to take whenever I looked up to find them on me. Weren’t we treating her like a cat? Shouldn’t we stop segregating her out of fear of what she might get up to? But every time we allowed her to enter the sitting room, she refused to sit on her own bed. No, she wanted to sit next to me. Preferably surrounded by some of those comfy-looking cushions.

‘I think we have to let her,’ I told the Husband. ‘She needs to feel secure.’

The Husband eyed Puppy darkly. ‘She’ll have to lie on something. Something water-proof.’

Hurrah for brolly sheets! Not just good for toilet training kids, also good for incontinent dogs! I found one and put it onto the sofa. Puppy was blissed out the first time she was invited to sit next to me like a bona fide member of the family. Rarely have I seen such a happy animal. The Husband, however, was less than impressed with his efforts to show Puppy who was boss. He was determined to make sure she sat on the brolly sheet at all times. The result was that he started to adjust it one evening when I was out of the room. If I had been present, I would have advised strongly against it. The outcome? A wet sofa cushion when Puppy opened an eye and saw the Large Shouty One looming over her. Now when she lies on the sofa with only one paw on the brolly sheet, the Husband visibly weighs up his options. Manoeuvre her back on and risk wetting the sofa? Or leave her in peace and accept it? Puppy: one. The Husband: nil.

Gradually, we have relaxed all the rules. Once Puppy could navigate the stairs and was allowed to venture up them (so much for rule 2: no dogs upstairs!), she also wanted to be allowed to wake up Miss Four and Miss Six. By bouncing on the bed and licking their faces, natch. (Say goodbye to rule 3! Whilst recognizing this is revolting, it’s also highly effective and both the girls wake up laughing about it rather than moaning at my attempts to rouse them. It’s amazing how often I ‘forget’ to close Puppy in the kitchen when I go upstairs to get the girls up.)

This is the bit where I’d like to tell you it has all paid off. That we now have a happy, well-adjusted puppy who is confident with strangers and generally happy in her own skin. However, she still seems full of fear and trepidation. Sometimes she still cowers with the Husband (with wet consequences). She is mighty afeared of all delivery personnel and quite barky. If one more of them asks, ‘Ah! Rescue dog?’ I might have to bite them myself. ‘No! We’re her first home and she came from a reputable breeder!’ I say,  somewhat defensively. It does look from her behaviour as though we start each day with a good beating.

But there is one enormous benefit to our neurotic puppy. If you remember, we originally got her to help Miss Four over her fear of all living things. The first few weeks were not encouraging. Miss Four screamed if Puppy approached, sat on the dining table to keep as far from her as possible and liked to live in a separate room. One day, after weeks of cowering in fear whenever the terrifying new beast came within shouting distance, Miss Four suddenly decided she wasn’t afraid any more. She got down from the kitchen table and walked over to Puppy. I held my breath. She put out a hesitant hand and the dog licked it. ‘She’s so cute!’ Miss Four said and a new love affair began. Now Puppy is the younger sibling Miss Four has never had (and will never have). She is bossed around, pushed aside, told what to do and shoved into the boot room for time out (often when it’s none too clear to me what her transgression was). I frequently find Miss Four lying on top of Puppy who just accepts this as part of the deal when it comes to these hairless fellow pups. She might get shoved around but it’s better than being ignored.  Puppy likes to lick Miss Four’s face because it is often covered with interesting foods especially if you get your timing right. Miss Four calls this a ‘smoochie’, and loves it;  I call it disgusting. I find it hard to believe that the child that I had to carry past Puppy for weeks, the girl that shrieked in fear if the dog even came close to her, is now able to pull things out of Puppy’s teeth and give her treats for being good.  Not to mention coping with other dogs and even horses. And if Miss Four can get over her fear of animals, perhaps Puppy might be able to conquer her fear of pretty much everything else.

The spirit of Christmas

I love this time of year. Not, however, for the reasons you might imagine. It’s not because of the lights, the tinsel, or the twinkliness of the high streets cutting through the dismal greyness of Britain in November. Not because of the licence to eat and drink whatever we like pretty much from now on until 1st January next year. Not for all the presents we give or receive from others. Nor for the excitement of the children or our parental vicarious enjoyment of their excitement. No. The reason I love this time of year is that from now until 25th December, I can use the threat of losing presents to control my children. This is the most potent weapon in my armoury. Generally, Miss Six and Miss Four are extremely difficult to threaten. They shrug when I assure them grimly that I won’t be taking them to the zoo/ the playcentre/ little Johnny’s birthday. They know quite well that I will probably give in if they pester me hard enough. And if I don’t, there’s always Mr Caveman. This is my latest name for the husband who seems incapable of denying his girls anything, and caves on all requests. In vain do I hiss at him before he takes them to the supermarket:

‘No soft toys! Or sweets! Or crisps! Or indeed anything at all! Just food. Healthy food. And some chocolate for us.’ (Yes, I do see the hypocrisy.)

He nods sharply each time, a vision of firm, almost Victorian parental intent. He returns a couple of hours later, a broken man, followed by Miss Six and Miss Four who are wearing a look of triumph and at least one large soft toy each and have clearly partaken of many, many banned substances. To compound the husband’s misery, they can’t wait to dob him in.

‘Mummy! Daddy let us have chocolate! And some chips! And he’s going to let us have pizza for dinner! And look at this toy. You said no toys, but Daddy got me this!’

The husband and I then have our usual ‘Why do you give in so easily?’ conversation, which makes not a scrap of difference the next time around. However, the husband also loves Christmas and that’s because Santa Claus can be the bad guy. It is Santa, for example, who has asked us to compile the list of wrong-doings that is currently on the fridge. Each naughty deed is marked with a cross in the relevant child’s column. This is powerful stuff driven by a third party who must be obeyed if you want to get some decent presents in a few weeks. Already we have seen far better compliance across the board, which improved still further with the incentive of the star system. Two stars cancel out a cross, so I feel as though we have got both the carrot and the stick nailed. It does mean I have to be on my toes, however.

‘Mummy! Miss Four just pushed me! Give her a cross!’

‘But I have two stars! So that cancels out the cross!’ Miss Four knows how this maths works.

‘But she already used her stars to cancel out the last cross! She needs a new cross.’ Miss Six is all about justice. For others, anyway.

The piece of paper on the fridge is now quite hard to read, with lots of crosses crossed out and stars dotted around. It is referred to fervently every day.

‘Are we being good? How will Father Christmas know that we’re being good?’

‘I can text him. Or email him.’ I want him to be a contemporary figure, someone with whom I can communicate instantly. That way, it is understood that a sneaky push or pinch in the car will not be tolerated; the Santa Complaints Department is open all hours. Strangely, though, it seems that the orders section is a great deal less high tech.

‘No, I can’t just fax him a list of presents. It doesn’t work like that.’ I think I have one more year of being able to argue this total inconsistency before Miss Six will just call my bluff. ‘No, if you want to tell Santa what you would like, you need to write him a letter. A nice one.’

This is where the benefit of commercial television has really paid off. For the children, at least. In Sydney, they were deprived of adverts and being exposed to them here has opened their eyes. After all, these are public information announcements, no? Something each and every child should be told. So the list contains many, many brand names. Not just ‘a secret diary with a key’: a Vtech Secret Safe Diary Visual. If you leave the ‘visual’ off, it is a totally different thing, apparently. In vain have I tried to ban access to Sky channels. Miss Six is very adept at changing the channel from ‘boring’ CBeebies to something with a more informative bent. (To add insult to injury, I also get given information I apparently need. Such as the fact that my feet really don’t need to look like they have been shoved into wellies for the last year. There is a great product that will make my feet all smooth and without ‘the cracked bits at the back’. ‘You should get some,’ pronounces Miss Six gravely.  Miss Four chimes in: ‘It will take away all your old skin! Get some! We don’t need it because we don’t have old skin.’ Thanks. And why, oh why, are such things being advertised on kids’ channels?)

But back to my Christmas threats. All too soon, the opportunity to threaten will be gone. The wrapping paper will have been ripped open and the long-awaited presents played with for a few minutes before being discarded in favour of eating chocolate. And I will have to wait until next year to really have something over Miss Six and Miss Four. But I suppose if I’m lucky, and write a nice letter to Santa, I might at least start the new year with smooth feet.

Horrible history

Another week, another dilemma along the parenting road. Last week was Bonfire Night and it was the first time Miss Six and Miss Four have experienced it. I used to think that this was because Guy Fawkes hadn’t plotted to blow anything up in Australia so they hadn’t adopted such an English event despite all the Poms living there, but on Thursday night as I stood watching two-metre-high flames roar in the face of the British drizzle, it suddenly occurred to me that to light a massive fire in a public place in November in bone-dry red-hot Sydney might constitute rather a safety hazard. The kind that might reduce the entire city to smouldering rubble.

Miss Six and Miss Four had been very excited about the concept of Bonfire Night. Bonfires, sausages, glow sticks and fireworks. At night! In the rain! This was going to be awesome!  But then the dilemma raised its head.

‘Mummy? Why is there a bonfire tonight?’

Now the trouble is, I do like to feel I am educating my children. As I took a deep breath, about to start on a pithy ‘once upon a time, a long time ago, someone plotted to blow up the House of Lords and got caught and tortured and now we burn his effigy on the fire’ summary, a calmer, saner version of myself murmured in my mind,

‘Do they really need to know about Guy Fawkes in detail?’

Let’s face it, there are a number of unpleasant details in the story. The gunpowder plot, first of all. I haven’t really discussed in detail with my children the kinds of things people might do to show their displeasure at their governments on a large scale. Then the details of Guy Fawkes getting caught and tortured didn’t seem very palatable either. Yet it is a part of their history and is it really wise to sugar-coat the truth? Eventually, I did what I always do: I kept it simple and said it in a very high voice.

‘Well, once this naughty man called Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the government and he got caught and now we have a bonfire to, um, celebrate it! It will be fun! Come on, coats on!’

The whole history thing is a minefield. I had thought that children would be remarkably resilient about hearing the horrors until Miss Six came home a few weeks ago, having seen a Horrible Histories song about Henry VIII at school. She was desperate to show it to me so we got onto YouTube and watched it. Afterwards, Miss Six wanted to know more about Henry VIII. Very unfortunately, I, like many people, find that period of history fascinating and it didn’t help that Wolf Hall had been on only a few months earlier. Miss Six asked me if it was really true that he cut people’s heads off.

‘Oh, yes! But that’s not the only thing worth knowing about Henry VIII.’ I talked about him altering the religion of an entire country so he could change wives and about how he got rid of the monasteries and took all the money and it was a while before I realised Miss Six was looking horrified.

‘Don’t worry, sweetie! It was a long time ago. No one cuts anyone’s heads off any more. Well, at least…’

Fortunately, I did manage to stop myself here and not to be scrupulously truthful about what else might be going on in various areas of the world. But Miss Six was thoroughly perturbed. Later that evening I had to sit on her bed and assure her that Henry VIII wasn’t hiding in her cupboard.

‘Trust me. He really wasn’t someone who would hide in a cupboard. In fact, he wouldn’t fit into your cupboard.’

She was not reassured. It was a long evening and when I finally made it downstairs, the husband wanted to know what she was frightened of. When I mentioned our conversation, he narrowed his eyes at me.

‘I really hope you didn’t tell her too much about it all. Or about what’s happening in the Middle East.’

‘Of course not!’ I hoped my outrage hid my guilt at how close I’d come to a light trawl through more recent events.

‘Why didn’t you tell her it’s not true?’

And there’s the rub.

‘It is true. And it’s part of English history and a great deal of history is nasty. But you can’t just say it isn’t true. Can you imagine her saying to her history teacher in years to come, ‘My dad says it isn’t true’?’

Some heated debate later, we agreed to keep details of such things light without denying their existence. It’s going to get worse. Things will be said at school, or at the park, or on the front page of the newspaper. But in the meantime, we did manage to go to Bonfire Night without too much historical fact-checking. We bought glow sticks and ate sausages (a tick in two of the key boxes as far as the children were concerned). I was relieved to note that the guy wasn’t out on top of the fire either. (I’m clearly not the only parent who doesn’t relish these conversations. Or maybe it’s a health and safety issue.) But Miss Six and Miss Four were still shocked by the evening. As we stood watching the thin pink trail of the first firework light up the sky before dying away, Miss Six turned to me.

‘Mummy? Where’s the flower burst at the end? And why is there only one firework at a time?’

‘Sweetie.’ I realized that the last fireworks she’d seen had been in Sydney. On New Year’s Eve. ‘Not everyone can spend millions of dollars on their fireworks display.’

Miss Six and Miss Four are lucky that a great deal of their personal history is far from horrid. And luckily for me, I have a year before I will have to discuss Guy Fawkes again.