Feeding time at the in-law zoo

Prosciutto wrapped chicken stuffed with herbs, courgette and tomato gratin, baby roast potatoes.  Sound good? It bloomin’ well better, it took at least an hour to come up with.

Only the in-laws coming to stay, but my fingers are increasingly worn by thumbing a mousepad or recipe books in preparation.  Finding a tasty meal I haven’t cooked for them a million times before that has no rice, no pasta, no couscous, no spice or heat, no fish, no vegetarian…  Phew – what’s left?  Red meat or chicken with pastry, potato or bread.  Crikey.  I’m bored just writing it let alone eating it for a lifetime.

I remember the first time they came for supper at our flat in London.  Mr H told me to keep it simple.  So I wracked my Jamie Oliver-addled brain and came up with mozzarella and tomato salad to start with, some kind of chicken with roast vegetables for main and who knows what for dessert.  Turns out that was the first ever taste of mozzarella for my now father-in-law. Lucky for me he loved it and apparently it became a firm favourite.  Bless them for keeping schtum for fear of offending their number one son’s new laydee.

Time has resulted in more honesty, or at least, more obvious signals.  I guess that’s good.  I don’t want them dreading coming to stay for fear of what I might put in front of them.   I did contemplate a chicken tagine this morning, wondering for a moment if cous cous might past muster.  Thankfully I saw sense.  Using up my bounty of potatoes from the allotment will be far more satisfying anyway.  I am insisting on putting courgette and potato soup onto them, though, which I’m pretty sure won’t become a favourite.  But we have marrows bigger than our kids’ legs to use up – I’ll risk unfinished bowls for getting the damn things off the kitchen windowsill.

How on earth can people survive with so much delicious food off the menu?  What on earth do they eat?!  Traditional simple British food – that oft maligned creature, dare I say it, with good reason.  It’s not that I don’t love the old classics, but I just can’t imagine not eating anything else.  Love the in-laws as I do, I find their food habits, well, a bit boring.  I probably have to ‘fess up to being a bit of a crazy one myself, loving rabbit food for breakfast, and generally salivating over health food shops and stupidly priced, funkily packaged ‘health foods’.   I’m obsessed with coffee and cake.  For a gal who shouldn’t eat wheat, I sure eat a lot of cake. And cookies. Gotta love the cookies.

Crazy how differently Mr H and I ate growing up and yet here we are, sharing a life, feeding our kids balsamic vinegar and vine-ripened tomatoes, curries and stir fries, pasta and parmesan.  Their idea of simple is home made pizza or fish fingers with home made potato wedges and carrots from the garden.  Not a white bread chip butty in sight.

What will they think of our eating habits when they become adults?  Will they look at us and shake their heads?  Will Jamie Oliver’s job be done in a generation’s time, or is that a middle class view of the world, where making meals fresh from scratch is the norm and ready meals a guilty secret?  I’d like to think so.  But the spread of obesity doesn’t suggest things are getting better.  Health scares seem to suggest virtually anything you eat will be bad for you in the end.  So what’s best?  Maybe it is about eating food you enjoy, enjoying the food you eat.  Within moderation of course. Or if not, then with exercise – you can’t beat the old energy in = energy out, however much I might try to sometimes.

And as for the kids, hopefully if we continue to give them tasty, varied fresh food without being militant about chips and chocolate, they will grow up to love the taste of food, enjoy trying new food, and even better to enjoy cooking for themselves and others.  We will see.  Time to go salt the marrows.


To hit or not to hit

I’ve been wrestling with this question for some weeks now.  Not about us and our kids, you understand, as on that line both my husband and I stand firm and united, but between the sprogs.  More specifically, how we can best help Little H deal with her little brother’s unprovoked and out of order outbursts of hitting.

It seems so unfair that he lashes out and she gets hurt, without any reversal in the pattern.  Sometimes, of course, there was provocation, and that’s different – still not a great reaction but a bit more understandable.  But most of the time, he does it for no other reason than boredom, frustration, tiredness or downright limit-testing.   I was hoping it would be a short-ish stage, but it seems to be continuing and given we parents aren’t the main sufferers of this one, I don’t feel we can ignore it until it goes away.

Of course we try to head situations off at the pass as much as we can, or step in, remove him and try to get him to realise its not acceptable behaviour in a (mostly) calm and firm way. We’ve also tried to help her understand that physical games with a rambunctious little brother will often go way further than she wants, so think before she starts them.  But it feels like we haven’t been able to equip her with any strategies that work.  She tries to copy us, telling him it makes her sad, asking him not to, distracting him, but he usually ignores her and carries on, especially if he’s cross and in red-eyed temper-mode.  The thing she has never done is hit back.  And therein lies my struggle.  Is it right to give her permission or ‘encourage’ her to hit back and give him a bit of his own medicine?

With two similarly boisterous boys I don’t think I would hesitate – if you engage, expect to get thumped.  Obviously our boy needs to learn that lesson, but if we go against his sister’s natural un-aggressive character in encouraging her to hit back, are we changing who she is or setting her up to be a girl who uses her physical strength more easily than she should?  Will her hitting him back just mean he escalates and she ends up getting even more hurt, and him too probably? (Knowing him, I think this would be the case.)

This is probably the first parenting challenge where I’ve felt at quite such a loss, excluding the whole crying-baby-what-the-hell-can-I-do-to-help-them-stop-that-noise-piercing-my-skull-and-get-some-precious-sleep thing.  My husband thinks Littlest H needs to learn his actions have consequences: it hurts to be hit and that doesn’t feel good.  That’s true, undeniably.  And I do worry about him lashing out at other children as well – also totally not ok, not to mention somewhat embarrassing to be ‘that’ mother.   And if Little H naturally walloped him I might be tempted to turn a blind eye or use one of the old classics like ‘I told you so’.  But she doesn’t.

We need to help her by giving her some tools to help herself. And I want us to choose ones that set her up as best we can, not potentially have consequences for her as she goes further into childhood and independence, or that start something we can’t stop with a ‘that strategy isn’t working, darling’ type conversation later on.

A friend with two boys has taught her gentle older boy kung-fu blocking moves to defend himself against his pretty full-on little brother.  It’s definitely a good one to try.

As for other options, perhaps I need to read the book on my to-read list, ‘Raising Happy Brothers & Sisters’, to see if that has any gems.  And perhaps we do need to suggest hitting back, however reluctant I am and worried about what it might be starting.

What I do know is that we’re not the only parents going through this joyous experience.  And that tells me many siblings get through it to have normal childhoods and become normal adults (whatever that may mean).  I’m sure starting pre-school in a couple of weeks will help – they won’t stand for it.  Fingers crossed we don’t get too many dreaded calls from the head and he sorts himself out without storing it all up for home.

Any pearls from you lovely bloggers out there would be most welcome.  Right now, I’m off to check out kung-fu blocking moves on youtube.

The art of remembering

I smiled to myself when my petrol strimmer started beautifully, first go, today.  Why would it be any other way, it was my Dad’s strimmer.  He always made sure he bought the best he could find, with plenty of research thoroughly enjoyed in the process.

The small, sudden ways he comes to mind feel both sad and good.  A turn of phrase, a favoured outing, an old possession, a long-held bug-bear, a good wine; any of them and more can be the trigger.   The rush of memory often takes me by surprise, as does its strength.  But I am happy it happens, it brings him into the present.

I remember talking to a friend, who lost her mother around the same time, about my fear of him fading from me, from my memory.  She said she found comfort in talking to her mum, thinking about what she would say in situations my friend was facing.  I found that helpful.  I still do.

I find having photos up of him helps too.  I see him as I walk past, the kids see him, we talk about him.  We sometimes come across videos, but that’s a bit harder to take, hearing his voice, seeing him ‘in the flesh’.  But we have them, and I know that will be important as time goes by.

He’s present all over our house actually.  I love that his hand is in virtually every room – rewiring, moving radiators, building shelves, rebuilding kitchens.  He’s also present in spirit at our annual and family events.  His well-stocked picnicware basket, folding furniture and gazebo help us out no end at our annual summer BBQ.  Whenever we’re setting it all up, I always smile at his way of collecting more of everything than he could ever need.

Probably my favourite way of remembering him, though, is when we make ‘new’ memories.  We talk about what he would say or do in situations he loved or hated, sharing a quiet laugh at his loved and missed idiosyncracies.

Each small element keeps him present; keeps the synapses buzzing, the connections alive.  I can’t pretend the pain, worry, hope and despair of his fight with cancer didn’t happen and doesn’t still hurt to recall.  Nor that the savage, deep, raw pain of those last few weeks, days and minutes doesn’t still hit like a hammer to the chest when something triggers it. But, mostly, when he comes back to me, it’s for how he was in life, not those horrible times as he approached death.

I believe the art of remembering is to grab those small, positive memory rushes, sometimes fleeting, sometimes overwhelming, and savour them.  Stop and be in them for a few seconds.  To share him with our children; to talk and smile about him between us and with those who knew him; to miss him, to value him and what he was to us; to keep him alive as part of our lives and those of our children.

Love you, Dad.

A tale of unanticipated consequences

A proud school mum shows off her tandem skydive photo, a tick on her 40th year to do list.   I think: “what a good idea, a 40th year to do list.” I turn and ask a dad-friend if he’s ever fancied having a go at triathlon.

While slightly hysterically laughing about sudden triathlon suggestion, an intensely active, just-done-a-marathon dad expresses interest in joining in.

One week later

Wife of marathon man tells me he is pestering her to find out which triathlon.  Gulp.

Two weeks later

Little H and I attend Olympics.  I get fired up about sport, trying new things, the reward of effort, leading by example.  Manage to commit to triathlon goal on blog (see here if you missed post ‘I don’t want to be in Olympics’).  Now public. Double gulp.

Two weeks later

Arrive on holiday to discover French gite hosts are triathletes, indeed one is a coach and ex-pro, no less.  Watch them disappear off for daily bike rides, swims, runs.  Feel a teensy bit envious of lifestyle, bodies.

One week later

Husband asks casually over wine and cheese if I’m serious about triathlon.  I (deep breath, big glug) nod yes.  Husband calls my bluff. Offers early Christmas present of coaching by ex-pro triathlete.  Gulps so big just manage not to choke on wine.

Spend hour with pro talking goals, training plans, races, kit.  Express concern re swimming – never learnt front crawl. Bravado surfaces – maybe I could do or watch a race this season to get a feel for it.  Shopping list grows; from goggles to road bike to gym membership to swim lessons.  Realisation of extent of challenge deepens.  Feel excited, apprehensive, a bit gung-ho.

Last night of holiday

Have swimming lesson in small gite pool. Have to stop, gasping for breath after one length of 5 metres. All bravado deflated to fear.  The reality of racing a 400m swim hits.  Coach suggests how exciting it is to be starting right at the beginning.  Decoded: Wow, she really wasn’t joking when she said she couldn’t do front crawl.

Kit list gets longer.  Many swim aids required, starting with swimsuit.  Coach, husband and I agree halter neck, boy short tankini not really appropriate.

Two days later

On return home, training time negotiations and kit shopping begin.  Whenever brain idle, thoughts turn to triathlon.  Mix of excitement (Cool – a new, difficult challenge! A chance to be properly fit! Professional help to do my best and not just ‘enjoy the experience and not embarrass myself’!), nerves (Can I conquer front crawl – being forced to control breathing when working hard in particular. Will I have the mental strength for proper training that hurts and takes sustained commitment) and wondering about all the unknowns (How does it feel to swim with loads of other people? Will I ride and run in a swim/wetsuit? How much will it hurt not to have crotch padding for a 20km bike ride?  Is the transition from bike to run as hard as everyone says?  Will this take over my life completely or just mostly? Will I want to do another one?  Will all this cost and effort and using up of husband support points be worth it?).

5.40am Monday morning after holiday

Out for a run before Mr H off to work.   And so the journey begins.

Time travel

Time takes longer once you’ve had kids.  B.C. (before children), adventurous holidays were a few months or perhaps a year away if lots of saving, planning or training was required.  P.C., our outlook has stretched out to five years ahead or more.

“Once they’re five we’ll go snowboarding again.”

“If we start saving now, then when they’re about 7 we’ll do our dream hiking / camping family USA road trip.”

“Once they’re teenagers we will get them into proper multi-day hiking. They’ll thank us for it when they’re older.”

“Once she can swim I’ll take her sailing.”

“Do you think we’ll be able to do the travelling bits we missed before retirement?” (Trekking in Patagonia and the Himalayas particularly difficult omissions)

In a recent newspaper adventure travel feature, British explorer, Ben Fogle, was quoted saying “I want my children to understand there’s more to life than a sun lounger”. I do too, Ben, yet still we appear to be packing up for our annual sun holiday in a couple of days.  It’s been a five year world tour of beaches, ice cream and play parks, utterly distinct from the travel bug itineraries of holidays B.C.

We did try, and we even had some early successes.  Before I went back to work after baby no. 1 we had two weeks in Chamonix in the Alps, making use of a family-friendly ski company’s summer offering.  We had a great time, particularly on the days Little H was in childcare.  Was it worth it? Yes, but she was a baby.  She couldn’t fix us with tear-filled eyes, pleading to stay with us and pulling every heart string with the realisation she was being dumped in nursery on holiday.  Childcare just doesn’t seem right once they see through the over-excited parental gushing about face paints or baking and show you they know you’re just palming them off.

So why have we let travel bugs lie dormant for so long?  Realism. The fact is, holidays with kids are more enjoyable if the kids are at the centre of it more time than they’re not. At least, that’s how it works for us and our kids – I’m sure other kids are way more amenable.  Dragging ours on expensive, difficult, adult-centric holidays with higher risks and fewer options to manage them just hasn’t appealed.  The flights are longer, the travel more arduous, the attractions less able to be enjoyed and all in all, the experience doesn’t seem worth it.  For once my ‘hang the hassle, let’s have the experience’ attitude fails me.  Why not save ourselves the disappointment and accept that a few years of holidays where not much happens will be ok.  It might even be a form of fun.  At the very least, the weather will almost definitely be better and sharing the load is a welcome change, even if it can sometimes feel like my domestic job is just the same with fewer facilities.

We’re nearly at the first milestones in our years of wistful longing anyway.  Little H’s interest in places, people and history is increasing as school opens her eyes and her attention span improves, along with her stamina and willingness to try new or difficult things (sometimes).  Littlest H is only two seasons away from five, when he can try more than an hour a day of skiing.  Our local sailing club will take kids from six, so I can start to re-find that passion myself through my daughter’s discovery next summer (Yay, Swallows & Amazons here we come!).  We take them out regularly for walks, albeit day hikes or backpacking are still a bit ambitious.  Next year Littlest H will ride his bike properly so we can have longer family outings or contemplate bikes on holiday.  It will all get better here on in, I know.

I’ve been reading various blogs about amazing families travelling all over the place with kids – Keeping up with the Holsbys was one, Travelladywithbaby another. Reading Ben Fogle’s first list of adventure ideas was inspiring, as well as feeling smug about the ones I’ve been lucky enough to experience in life already.  But I must admit, I’m still looking forward to two weeks in a converted French farm with other families we can hopefully get to know, easy access to pool, beach, a play area and cheesy family attractions.   I have my pile of books I will no doubt return with mostly unread, but the hope is there.  The weather will be better than here, “Your turn” will be our stock phrase and each of us will take the opportunities we can to relax, sleep and enjoy each other’s and the kids’ company, good and bad.  No, it won’t become an inspirational memory for the kids, but there’s time for that.  Right now, it’s time to pack the car with sun paraphernalia and get in the zone for early morning sun lounger towel throwing.  We can’t have anyone else getting gold medal at that, can we.