Reflections on a family holiday

It’s always a blessing to have a relative who lives at the coast – especially if, like us, you reside in one of the most land-locked areas of the UK. The jubilee/half-term break, with its two bonus bank holidays for DH, had ‘seaside’ written all over it, so on Monday we packed the car, packed the kids and headed off to the Wild West of Wales.

The last time we visited my father in Pembrokeshire, The Baby was only five months old, immobile, and not yet weaning. Now she’s walking (running), talking and eating us out of house and home – which made for a very different holiday experience. So what has this week taught me about holidaying with a toddler and a six-year-old?  Continue reading

Moment seized

Yesterday evening, it was looking very much like our jubilee plans were going to be a wash-out. We had decided, last weekend, that as we live within spitting distance of London, it would be criminal not to go in and see the flotilla. After all, none of us is likely to experience another Diamond Jubilee in our lifetimes – and besides, The Boy *really* wanted to wave at the Queen. Continue reading

Beside the seaside

Tomorrow morning, when The Boy goes to school, instead of his bookbag, he’ll be taking this:

They’re off to the seaside, you see. On a coach. And the sun is going to be shining.

He’s just a bit excited.

The Boy is very lucky that in that his teacher this year seems particularly keen on school trips. So far, his class has been to the V&A Museum of Childhood in London, the pantomime, and Stevenage Museum for a Victorian day. Tomorrow’s outing to Southend-on-Sea, however, sounds like it’s going to be the best yet. They’ve been learning about the seaside in their literacy and geography projects, so the trip is meant to tie in with their classwork, but frankly, it sounds like an excuse for a bit of a jolly to me. It’s been planned at the very last minute, to take advantage of the good forecast for this week (the letters only came home yesterday), but the short notice is no bad thing. The Boy is bouncing off the ceiling already; imagine if he’d had weeks to look forward to his trip.

It sounds like a wonderful day out, but I always feel a bit anxious when They Boy goes off on a school trip. As far as I can remember, the most adventurous trip I went on at primary school was to Bristol Zoo – and that was in Year 6. I don’t remember any trips at all in what is now Key Stage 1, although we did walk to the park for a whole-town centenary celebration when I was about eight or nine. The Boy is only six, and the thought of him being out in the big wide world without parental supervision is a bit nerve-wracking.

What if he wanders off and gets separated from the group? Or dashes into the road in front of an oncoming car? What if his coach is involved in an accident on the motorway? You seem to hear about school coach crashes on an alarmingly regular basis – or is that just because my mummy radar is hyper-alert to those stories?

Okay, I’m thinking of the worst-case scenarios here. It’s far more likely that any disaster to befall The Boy will by relatively minor; falling over into the sea, for example, or losing his glasses, or (by far the most likely option) throwing up on the coach. Note to self: must tell teacher about his propensity to vomiting in transit.

But while I’ll be giving The Boy a pep-talk about staying with the group, behaving himself on the coach, listening to instructions and telling the teacher is he feels sick, I know that the odds are stacked in favour of them all having an amazing day out. I’m really quite envious. On the agenda – apart from the coach trip, which is bound to be a highlight – is a train ride along the pier, a picnic, making sand sculptures, collecting shells, paddling, and having a ride at the amusements. Oh, and to top it all off, they’re going to stop for ice cream, too.

I wish my Year 1 teacher had been like The Boy’s.

Mission impossible

In just under three months time, we’re taking The Baby on her first foreign holiday, which means we need to apply for her first passport. So today, we had the delightful experience of taking her to get her passport photos done.

I knew there wasn’t a hope of getting her to sit in a photo booth, and neither did I think there was much chance of me being able to snap a picture that would pass muster. So – just as we did with The Boy when we got his first passport – I decided to take her to a photography store to get her pictures taken. I figured they’d be best qualified not just to take a suitable photo, but also to make sure that the finished product met the official criteria.

It was not a resounding success.

The store was packed when we got there. Packed. And when we finally got to the front of the queue, it was our misfortune to be greeted by a young girl wearing a badge saying TRAINEE. ‘I’d like to have my daughter’s passport photo taken, please,’ I said.

‘Okay,’ she replied. ‘I *think* I can help you.’

Off she shuffled to have a long conversation with her manager. I assumed she was asking her superior to take the photos, but she then drifted off to stare vacantly at another customer, who was having trouble with the photo printer, under the pretext of ‘helping.’

The Baby was already getting grumpy by the time the girl came back, went behind the counter and produced a camera and a white cushion. ‘I’ve never done this before,’ she admitted, as she lay the cushion on the floor in front of the window.

It soon transpired that she was expecting The Baby to lie patiently on this cushion while she took a photo. The Baby is a lively 15-month-old who absolutely Does Not Do Lying Down. You can imagine her reaction…

‘I was sort of expecting you to take her photo sitting up against a white background,’ I muttered, as I tried to pin a seriously annoyed Baby to the floor.

‘Oh,’ said the girl. ‘Can she sit up by herself, then?’

Sigh.

After consulting her boss again, the girl decided that yes, she could take The Baby’s photo sitting on a stool against a white background, as long as I promised to hold onto her (health and safety and all that). So she pulled down the background and I plonked her on the seat, holding her legs while DH stood behind the camera and tried to attract her attention.

Of course, when you’re 15 months old, everything is more interesting than having your photo taken. The Baby was positively owl-like, swivelling her head this way and that every time someone walked through the door, or a printer whirred, or the till beeped. Photo attempts one, two and three failed miserably. She was either looking down, looking sideways, or screwing up her face in an emergent strop.

DH and I swapped places, and I stood waving at her and calling her name. Photo four was taken, and the girl decreed that it was okay. I looked at the camera screen. It was *okay* – but The Baby was looking off to the side.

‘Are you sure it’s going to meet the criteria?’ I asked the girl.

‘I don’t really know,’ she admitted.

By now I was despairing. The whole point of taking The Baby to have her photo taken by a real live person was to avoid the will-it-or-won’t-it-pass thing. When I had The Boy’s first passport photo taken, the man had the checklist pinned up on his wall and instantly knew whether it was suitable or not. Here, however, a guess seemed to be sufficient.

As I insisted that I wasn’t going to pay for photos that might not be acceptable, the trainee went to show her boss the picture. His verdict? No, it probably wasn’t good enough. So back The Baby went onto the stool, thoroughly disgruntled by now. By my reckoning, we were two minutes away from full-blown tantrum, but thankfully, the next shot looked more or less okay. The Baby’s mouth was slightly open, and she wasn’t looking directly at the camera, but frankly, I had Had Enough. ‘I’m sure that will do,’ I conceded, desperately hoping that it would.

Back home, I’ve looked up the passport photo criteria, and it looks like we *should* be alright; under-fives don’t need to be looking directly at the camera or have a neutral expression. It would have been a heck of a lot easier if the girl in the photo store could have told us that; we could have used one of the first few images instead of having to shoot and re-shoot around until The Baby was on the verge of meltdown.

But we got there in the end. It’s not the best of photos, but, well, passport photos never are, are they? Let’s just hope we don’t get turned away at Passport Control…

The day I took my daughter to work

I’m often asked how I manage to work when I don’t use childcare. Often, people seem to think I’m doing something super-human, but really, it’s not that difficult. As a freelance writer, I can do 99.9 per cent of my work from home, when it suits me. The Baby sleeps for at least two hours at lunchtime, maybe a bit more, and both children are usually in bed by 7.30 in the evening, giving me another couple of hours to work before bedtime. So, four hours a day, five days a week (or six or seven, if I’m busy) actually adds up to a pretty respectable 20-ish working hours a week. I have periods when everything goes crazy and I don’t have enough hours in the day, and there’s the odd occasion when I have to interview someone at an awkward time (i.e. when The Baby is awake) and have to pretend I live next-door to a nursery. But generally, it fits in reasonably well.

Every now and then, though, I’m forced to make a foray into the outside world. And that means taking The Baby with me.

I know, it sounds incredibly unprofessional, doesn’t it? But 1) my meetings generally last less than an hour, so it’s hardly worth making alternative childcare arrangements (either getting DH to book a day’s leave, or asking my mum to make a 220-mile round trip), and 2) the only person who ever summons me for a face-to-face meeting is the editorial director of a parenting website, and therefore sympathetic to the whole working-mums thing, and quite willing for me to bring The Baby.

I’ve taken The Baby to four meetings so far in her little life. The first was easy; she was only six weeks old, so I stuck her in the sling, lay her on a sofa while I talked shop, breastfed her when she whimpered, and then slung her back home again. The second and third meetings were a little more challenging, involving things like pushchairs and public transport and preparing lunch for her to have on the run. But they were still manageable and didn’t drive me to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Unlike today’s.

It didn’t start well. I woke up at 4.50am, mentally running through the list of everything I had to take with me (diary, notebook, pen, lunch for The Baby, toys for The Baby, books for The Baby, nappies, snacks, drinks…) and travel logistics (should I walk to the nearest station, avoid too many steps but have a longer journey, or drive to a farther station, but then have to tackle the Underground’s longest escalator with the buggy – the very thought of which gives me palpitations?). Seriously, to think I used to commute into London every day…

Anyway, despite my early start and neurotic behaviour, things initially seemed to be going to plan. I dropped The Boy at school, came home, and drove to the station, having come to the decision that I’d walk the mile or so from the mainline station to the office, rather than negotiating Angel’s escalators with the pushchair. I found a space in the station car park, managed to make the pay-by-phone parking service work (for once), got a nice man to help me up the steps, and boarded an on-time train.

So far so good.

On the train, The Baby was at her best, flirting with people, grinning, pointing at things through the window and shouting, ‘Train! Train! Train!’ with great delight. We got to St Pancras in good time, and slogged our way up the Pentonville Road (goodness me, that hill is steep) in the sunshine. The Baby was still happy (‘Car! Car! Car!’) and all was well.

Until we got to the office. I thought that having been restrained in the buggy or carseat all morning, The Baby would be thrilled to be unleashed. And for the first few minutes, she was perfectly endearing, smiling, looking at her book and saying, ‘Uh-oh!’ when she dropped it on the floor. But then she started to whinge – and from that point on, it was downhill all the way.

I brought out secret weapon #1: a cereal bar. She crumbled it into the floor. I brought out secret weapon #2: one of her big brother’s toy cars. She batted it away. Secret weapon #3 (my pen) was thrown at me in rage. Even secret weapon #4 (the pick of anything in my entire, overstuffed changing bag) failed, when her inability to pull cards out of my purse led to full-on meltdown.

By now, we’d progressed from whinging through tantrum to proper sobbing, tears and all. All the while, I was trying to placate The Baby as calmly as possible, while simultaneously taking in what my editor was saying. I think I got the gist of it (just about), and I managed not to lose my cool (just about), but all I could think was how flipping unprofessional this all was, despite the ed’s reassurances. Mortified doesn’t even come close.

By the time we’d wrapped it up, The Baby was in such a state that I was beginning to think she might be poorly. But no. As we stood up to leave the room, the tears and wailing stopped instantaneously, and she turned and waved to the editor with a big smile and a jaunty, ‘Bye bye!’ And, back on the train, she duly grinned and chatted to her fellow passengers again, all while demolishing her Marmite sandwiches.

The little toad.

To add insult to injury, as we got back to the station car park, a gust of wind blew The Baby’s coat (her new coat, her one and only item of Boden clothing, the coat that I’d abandoned all hope of putting on her mid-strop) off the hood of the pushchair and into a muddy puddle. Oh, hello edge, how nice to be tipped over you…

A two-hour nap (The Baby) and a cup of tea and a chocolate brioche (me) later, and we’ve just about recovered from our ordeal. But one thing is certain: that is the last time I *ever* take my daughter to work.