In praise of distant friends

Yesterday, The Boy, The Baby and I got together with my three best friends from school. One of these lovely girls has a son, Luke, who is the same age as The Boy, and despite the fact that it’s a year since they saw each other, they had an absolute ball playing together. It’s one of those friendships where it doesn’t matter that they don’t often get to spend time together; when they do, it’s like they’ve never been apart.

And it’s much like that for me and my friends. We’ve all known each other since the age of 11, when we were thrown together in the same tutor group at secondary school, all shiny shoes and sparkling new uniform. Jill and Ali had been to primary school together, and I vaguely knew Lou through orchestra, but I don’t remember how or why we ended up becoming a unit of four. Were we all seated together at the same table, or did we seek each other out as like-minded people? I honestly have no idea, but the friendship that we formed during those first weeks of high school has endured.

During our teenage years, we shared all the usual rites of passage. We were each other’s first drinking buddies, went on church camp together, whispered about boys and sobbed on each other’s shoulders when those oh-so-important first flings didn’t work out. We had wild parties when our parents were on holiday, glammed up for the sixth form ball, plastered ourselves in black make-up during our goth phase and toasted each other with perry when we passed our GCSEs.

Then our lives went different ways. We all went off to university, but in four different directions. And we’ve never really gone back. Jill and Lou qualified as teachers, Ali as a nurse, and me as a journalist. Lou spent a year in Cambodia. Jill and I coincidentally spent a year living within a few miles of each other – 100 miles from where we grew up – but then she moved back nearer home. Christmas Eve, when we’d all ‘go home’ and gather in the local Wetherspoons before heading off to The Pig – the indie club we’d been going to since we were rather younger than we should have been – became the glue that held us together.

It’s now 21 years since Jill, Ali, Lou and I first met. Twenty-one years. Between us, we’ve shared three weddings and one incredibly sad funeral, and have produced two five-year-olds, two toddlers, two babies and one bump. It’s hard to think back to a time when we were brand new Year Sevens with our neatly pressed uniforms and neatly sharpened pencils. Our lives have all taken very different courses, and we routinely go 12 months without seeing each other, but whenever we do, it’s like no time at all has elapsed. We all have newer friends who we see more often and, no doubt, confide in more regularly, but the four of us have shared so many experiences – happy, sad, downright heartbreaking – that we’ll always have a special bond.

So when I saw Luke and The Boy playing happily together with no regard for the year that has elapsed since they last played, it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Because a true friendship doesn’t depend on daily phone calls or weekly get-togethers; it’s something that can spring back to life despite 12 months of neglect, and be just as good as it ever was. Wherever our lives take us, we’ll always have those shared experiences, and we’ll always – I hope – be able to turn to each other in both happy and sad times.

Here’s to you, my lovelies, and to another 21 years of friendship – at least.

On finishing Reception

At 1.15pm today, The Boy will officially finish his Reception year. And what a year it’s been.

Looking back over his work from the past three terms, it’s amazing to see how far he’s come. Back in September, his writing was pretty much indecipherable, and likewise his pictures. He was just beginning to read, but had no belief in his abilities and would give up within seconds, saying he couldn’t do it. He could count reasonably well, but still had to be reminded what number came after 59, and while he has always had lots of energy, he lacked physical confidence and would panic if he went too high on the climbing frame.

Ten months on, The Boy is a different child. Over the past three terms, he has grown and changed so much. Now he can read more or less anything you put in front of him, and can have a good stab at writing most things, too, if you ignore the suspect spelling (bonus points for figuring out what ‘disighdid’ is meant to mean). He can count upwards and downwards in twos, and do simple sums. He’s been on his first school trip and played the lead role in the nativity play. He’s found his feet physically, too: he’ll never be the sporty type, but now he’ll climb the rigging in the park right to the very top, can cycle without stabilisers, and – shock, horror – even won the obstacle race on Sports Day.

The Boy has also done a lot of growing up outside the classroom. Not all of this is good. Whereas during his nursery year, he spent most of his time playing Mums and Dads with the girls, he’s now All Boy. Playground games seem to revolve around armies, jails and baddies, and I have to throw away at least two indelibly mud-stained t-shirts a week. And at the grand old age of five and three quarters, he’s already working on his teenage attitude. His name has appeared ‘on the white board’ at school on more than one occasion (usually for talking too much), and when asked to tidy up his sprawling Lego game, his stock responses are either, ‘You do it,’ or ‘It’s not fair.’

This has been a big year for The Boy. Not only has he had to get used to full-time school, but he’s also had to adjust to the arrival of his baby sister. It could quite easily have been unsettling, even traumatic, for him after five years of being an only child, but I couldn’t be more proud of how he’s coped. Five months into life as a big brother, it’s as if The Baby has always been here. We’ve had no jealousy, no tearful tantrums, no furtive pokes or pinches; on the contrary, he adores her. When he comes into our bed in the morning, he jostles me out of the way so he can sit next to her, and when I see him snuggling up with her, reading her a story, it melts my heart.

So, in two hours time, I’ll be collecting The Boy (and a huge pile of pictures, paintings and models, no doubt) from the Reception classroom for the last time. How will I feel, I wonder? Although he’s had a great year academically, I get the feeling that his teacher has never warmed to him. I’m looking forward to Year One and seeing how he gets on with a new teacher and a new, more structured school day, but nevertheless, I suspect I’ll feel quite emotional when I pick him up today. From September, he won’t be one of the little ones any more. I won’t be able to take him into his classroom, or collect him from there at the end of the day. It’ll just be a quick kiss at the door (if I’m lucky), then off he’ll go. It’s yet another indication of how quickly he’s growing up.

But while a part of me is sad at how quickly The Boy’s childhood is flying by, it’s wonderful to see him blossoming into a clever, confident and charismatic little person, full of curiosity and enthusiasm. Where his future will take him, who knows, but whatever he does, I’ll be right there beside him, cheering him on.

Happy holidays, poppet: I’m so proud of all you’ve achieved.

Who has it hardest?

I am sulking.

I’m sulking because for the umpteenth time this month, hubby is working on a Saturday. He left home at 8.30am and, if I’m lucky, might just see the children before bedtime – but it’s not guaranteed. The other Sunday his, ‘I should be home by 3pm’ ended with him not rocking up until 9pm that night. On a Sunday, for goodness sake. He’s also staying away for three nights next week, conveniently missing the first three days of the school holidays and our ninth wedding anniversary.

This is, fortunately, an unusual situation for us. Hubby’s job is (generally) office hours only, and he rarely misses bath and bedtime. But at the moment a planning application that he has been working on for the past seven years is reaching its climax, and it’s intense.

The thing is, being at home with two children is also intense. Especially when I’m trying to work as well. Being a freelancer has its merits, but it also means I was back ‘at work’ just 10 days after giving birth to The Baby, and have to try to fit my deadlines in around her (pitiful) sleep. More often than not, that means working from the minute the children are in bed until 10.30pm or beyond.

The main topic of conversation in our house at the moment – other than The Baby’s sleep, or lack of – is who has it hardest. Don’t get me wrong; I know hubby is under massive stress and would much rather spend his weekends at home than in the office. But whereas he can jump in the car and go without a second thought, I can’t. One of us has to look after the kids, and by default, that’s me. And when he’s away at the weekend, I get precisely no work done. Yes, The Baby still naps, but have you ever tried writing an article on innovations in joint replacement surgery while a five-year-old plays a very noisy game of army aircraft around you?

It’s wrong to be resentful, I know, but I can’t help feeling just slightly bitter and twisted. Every time hubby swans off to work at the weekend without a second thought for my deadlines, the implication is that his job is more important than mine. In fairness, I guess it is; after all, he’s influencing the country’s future housing plans while I’m just providing magazine fodder – and, of course, he has a boss to answer to. But if I miss a deadline, you can bet your bottom dollar that the editor will think twice about commissioning me in future, and although my income is roughly half of hubby’s salary, we need that bit of extra money to keep afloat.

I know I have it easy, really. I know plenty of people whose other halves work away for weeks at a time, and a few single mums too, and I have the utmost respect for them. In comparison, I have no right to complain. But I’m staring down the barrel of the school holidays with a list of deadlines as long as my arm, and every hubby-free Saturday piles the pressure on a bit more.

I feel for the children, too, particularly The Boy, who keeps asking why Daddy is going to work at the weekend *again.*

Still, the end is in sight, or so I’m told. After next week, hubby should return to his normal hours until September, at least. And the reality of a hubby-free day is never as bad as I expect it to be. The Boy has spent all morning playing Lego, doing sticker books and reading, and The Baby has kicked about on her playmat between sleeps. It’s a pretty chilled-out Saturday, really, and while I’ll have to work this evening to make up for lost time, I’d much rather be here, curled up on the sofa listening to The Boy reading Bug Buddies and giggling about the dung beetle (‘He eats poo!’) than stuck in the office preparing for what is, by all accounts, likely to be the most stressful week of hubby’s working life to date, where he faces seven years of work being ripped to shreds by the opposition’s QC at a planning enquiry.

Perhaps I do have it easier, after all.

Sleep is for the weak

Whoever coined the expression ‘sleeping like a baby’ clearly didn’t have much experience with children. Or at least they didn’t have much experience with *my* children. When I was pregnant with The Baby, I assumed I’d get another bad sleeper, but I also assumed that she couldn’t be much worse than The Boy. Turns out I was wrong.

Last night, for example, went something like this.

At 7pm, The Baby went to bed after a nice long feed.

At 10.20pm, she started snuffling about. This is actually not bad for her; often, her first waking is around 9.30pm.

At 10.23pm, I plugged the dummy in.

At 10.25pm, I plugged the dummy in again.

At 10.30pm, I fed her.

At 1am, she woke again. Repeat as above.

At 2.53am, she woke again. I lay there ignoring her until the rustling and grunting turned into, ‘Hello, I’m wide awake’ cooing.

At 3am, I fed her again and put her back to bed.

At 3.15am, she started cooing again, so I fed her some more and put her back to bed.

At 3.50am, she cooed a bit more, so I fed her for the third time in an hour.

At 4.06am, I put her back to bed. She finally seemed to be asleep, so I lay there awake, hardly daring to breathe in case I disturbed her.

At 5.07am, just as I’d dropped back off, she started thrashing around so I plugged the dummy in.

At 6.04am, she thrashed a bit more. Sensing imminent waking, I put her in my bed, where she did indeed sleep like the proverbial baby for the next hour until the alarm went off and I woke from a restless doze with a pounding headache, gritty eyes and a stiff neck.

That’s pretty much an average night around here.

They say that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. If that’s the case, I think I’d cope rather well at Guantanamo Bay. Okay, by mid-afternoon – just about the time that I have to collect The Boy from school – few things seem more appealing than retreating to my bed for a siesta, but on the whole, I seem to be holding it together. It helps that The Baby is so easy during daylight hours; no doubt my patience would be hanging by a thread if I also had to put up with her screaming all day long. But given how much I love sleep, I’m surprised by how little I can manage on.

I have no idea why The Baby’s sleep is so bad. The Boy was fairly terrible, too, but he had undiagnosed reflux and screamed day *and* night. The Baby also has reflux, but she’s been on medication since she was six weeks old, and it seems to be keeping it under control. During the day, she is the happiest, most contented baby ever. So why won’t she sleep?

The irony is that at first, The Baby wasn’t too bad a sleeper, and would do at least one stretch of five or six (or even seven) hours at night. When she was only nine weeks old, hubby and I went out for the evening, safe in the knowledge that as long as we were home by 11.30pm, she’d be okay. There is absolutely no way I’d get away with that now. In fact, I’m going out tonight, and fully expect a phone call from hubby at 9.30pm.

I’m not unrealistic about these things. The Baby is exclusively breastfed, so I know she’s not going to sleep as soundly as a bottle-fed baby. I’m not asking her to sleep through the night. I don’t mind feeding her twice, even three times, as long as she sleeps between those feeds. But at five months old, her sleep is worse than a newborn’s. I can’t help but envy those mums whose babies spontaneously learn to sleep through with no stress or sleep training required.

As for how we solve the problem, well, who knows? When The Boy finally slept through at 12 months old, it was the result of Controlled Crying: a process that worked after just one night. But when The Baby wakes, she isn’t distressed – she’s just awake. If I leave her alone, she’ll chat away for an hour and a half or more before finally going back to sleep, having woken everyone else up in the process. How do you do Controlled Crying with a baby who doesn’t cry?

As The Baby approaches six months, I’m clinging to the hope that one of her upcoming milestones – whether it be starting solids or moving to her own room – will improve her sleep. I suspect I’m clutching at straws. I suspect that by her first (second? Third?) birthday, I’ll still be mainlining caffeine and bulk-buying Touche Eclat to hide my under-eye bags. But while right now, I’d sell a kidney in exchange for three hours’ unbroken sleep, it’s hard to be cross with my little bed invader when I wake in the morning to her gurgling and gently patting my cheek. It’s a good job she’s cute!

Where do babies come from?

One of the downsides of having a big age gap between your children is that your firstborn child is, shall we say, rather inquisitive about the biological process that resulted in his sibling. Today was a case in point. I was just about to take the recycling out when The Boy, a propos of nothing, piped up. ‘Mummy,’ he asked, ‘how did you know that there was a baby growing in your tummy?’

I spent, oooh, all of about half a second wondering whether to give him a factual explanation, then thought better of it. Instead, I went for the easy option. ‘Well, my tummy started getting big,’ I told him.

Phew, I thought. That wasn’t too painful.

Ha!

The Boy is, we’re sure, destined for a career in law. At the age of five, his cross-examination skills are second to none, so I should have known better than to think he’d accept such a facile answer. ‘But didn’t you just think you’d been eating too much?’ he countered. And before I knew it, I’d launched into an explanation of how, when you’re pregnant, the baby makes chemicals in your body that come out in your wee, and when you wee on a stick, some more chemicals change colour to tell you that there’s a baby on the way. I’d even promised to show him the aforementioned stick, still hanging around in the bathroom cabinet.

Such is life in our household. All kids like to ask questions, but The Boy *really* likes to ask questions. Worse still, he knows all too well when you’re fobbing him off.

Back when he was a baby, I remember hubby being adamant that he would always endeavour to give The Boy proper answers to his questions. His father is a scientist, and he himself grew up with his nose in an encyclopaedia, so he’s always put a high price on general knowledge. But even he wasn’t prepared for The Boy’s relentless interrogation skills. Where does water come from? Why is it dark in space? How does gravity work? Does God have a very deep voice? Why are some people born with only one arm? (Thanks, Ceri from CBeebies). Can they be born with only one eye? What about with no tummy?

To give him his due, hubby does his best to answer all these questions and more. Me? Well, I tend to resort to the stock answer of, ‘I don’t know; ask Daddy.’ Yes, it’s a cop-out, but hey, I’m not the one who promised to always give sensible answers.

The whole baby-making thing seems to be at the front of The Boy’s mind at the moment. Today, aside from his pregnancy test questioning, he has asked me why I had to go into hospital after The Baby was born (I had her at home, but had a third-degree tear that needed stitching), and why it hurts when a baby comes out (I likened it to trying to do a great big poo). The more questions he asks, the harder I find it to know how much information is appropriate. He’s a bright little boy, and can tell when we’re fudging it, but equally, he’s *five*. He doesn’t need to know the ins and outs (sorry!) of reproduction yet. And he certainly doesn’t need to be the one who then takes it upon himself to enlighten his classmates.

So, while we’re doing our best to answer all those tricky questions about gravity, theology and outer space, for now, I’m drawing the line at explaining just how his little sister came to be. ‘We asked God for a baby, and He decided we could have one,’ I’ve told him. It’s true, more or less.

And if all else fails, we’ll resort to the default answer of parents the world over: ‘Because we said so, okay?’

Breastfeeding: well done me?

Yesterday, The Baby had her third set of immunisations. While we were there, the nurse asked me how I was feeding her. Presumably, this is the oh-so-scientific method of data collection on which national feeding statistics are based. Anyway, I told her that I was exclusively breastfeeding. ‘Oh, well done you,’ replied Sister.

She was the third person this week to congratulate me on still breastfeeding. And every time someone tells me how well I’m doing, I feel a bit of a fraud. Because I’m one of the lucky few who find breastfeeding a walk in the park.

Both of my two have been good little feeders from day one. I breastfed The Boy until 20 months, and am five months into breastfeeding The Baby, and I’ve hardly had a moment’s trouble with either of them. Okay, so the first few weeks were painful at times as the babies learnt to latch on, and no one can fully prepare you for how draining those early cluster feeds can be. But after the first month or so, it was a breeze. At the risk of tempting fate, I’ve never had mastitis, never suffered with thrush, or with bleeding or cracked nipples. The Boy became an extremely efficient feeder, getting the job done in five minutes or so, and The Baby has followed in his footsteps.

Bottle-feeding, on the other hand, has always looked like an almighty faff to me. I’m a fundamentally lazy person, and the thought of adding another element of domestic drudgery to my life leaves me cold. Washing bottles, sterilising them, preparing feeds… No thanks. On top of that, there have been several occasions when The Boy has had to have dry cereal for breakfast because I’ve run out of both milk and bread, so knowing me, I’d forget to buy formula and end up doing a high-speed dash to the nearest 24-hour Tesco in the middle of the night.

I’ve always believed that breast is best, and wanted to give it a good go with both babies, but I’m not militant about breastfeeding. The only reason I continued so long with The Boy was because it was so easy, for both of us. A lot easier than it would have been to wean him off the boob and switch to bottles. Yes, that’ll be my lazy side shining through again. So it always strikes me as odd that people congratulate me for doing something that is, essentially, sloth.

Oh, but it must be hard work at night, they always say. Neither of my two have been good sleepers; The Boy was a year old before he slept through, and The Baby still has at least two (and, at her worst, five) feeds a night. But I don’t honestly believe that a bottle would make a blind bit of difference. And as for hubby doing some of the night feeds? Well, he’s a great dad, but he’s not the sort to be hands-on with feeding, especially in the small hours. I could give The Baby a bottle, yes, but I’d be the one getting up, going downstairs, heating up a bottle while trying to stop the cat escaping from the kitchen and making a break for our bed, going back upstairs, feeding The Baby, winding her… You get the picture. Whereas at the moment, all I have to do is lean over, extract her from her crib and give her a boob. I barely even wake to feed her, to the extent that I often have no recollection of putting her back to bed.

Don’t get me wrong; I know that for a lot of people, breastfeeding involves a heroic effort. I know mums who have struggled to get premature babies to breastfeed, mums who have expressed for months so their babies could have breastmilk even though they wouldn’t take the boob, mums who have breastfed twins, mums who have battled through recurrent bouts of mastitis. I have the utmost respect for these people; who knows whether I’d have had their fortitude in similar circumstances?

But for me, breastfeeding isn’t an amazing achievement, or something that I should be praised for. I love doing it, and hope I can feed The Baby for as long as I fed The Boy, but for me, it’s a parenting shortcut, not a superhuman feat. I get to sit down and put my feet up every couple of hours while The Baby does her stuff – where’s the effort in that?