Creative Christmas.

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I learned a long time ago that art + child + predetermined outcome = inevitable disappointment. They, children that is, don’t do what you want you them to do, least of all when you are trying to get them to replicate something that a fictional ‘preschooler’ has made on Pinterest. The googly eyes always go in the wrong place and Rudolph’s nose gets eaten.

What I have found to be a more successful recipe for toddler art is this: a bunch of stuff on the table, a big piece of paper, no agenda. I limit my input to ‘Mmm, yes, I like what you’ve done with that massive blob of paint’, and the occasional ‘no, not in your hair!’. By choosing a few different materials (poster paints, PVA glue, oil pastels), as well as some interesting tools (different sized brushes, sponges, things to print with such as vegetables or blocks), and the odd tube of glitter or cut up bits of coloured paper, some interesting, very different and often beautiful results can be achieved (and sometimes some rubbish ones, but you can throw those in the bin).

Sometimes though, you do have an agenda, like when making a handful of Christmas cards to send to your nearest and dearest, as has become tradition in our house (you can see previous years here and here). You might actually want to produce… something that looks… nice?

To remove any cause for frustration, I stick with my usual ‘chuck everything on the table’ approach, only with a vaguely festive theme, (this year I went for stars, so put out yellow glue, gold and silver poster paint, tubes of yellow and ochre acrylic paint, a star shaped biscuit cutter for printing with and some gold glitter) and it’s a win win situation. He has fun smearing stuff everywhere, I get some good source material, but can tidy it up later and turn it into something that resembles, well, some very glittery stars in this case.

I always like using washi tape to pretty up cards, mainly because I have no discernible creative talent, but am able to cut a length of tape and stick it on some card, then I either use alphabet stampers or my own fair handwriting to etch a festive message.

Merry and Bright indeed.

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Like a girl.

‘I’m Sleeping Beauty’, he says. ‘I’m a pirate, I’m a fisherman, I’m a Princess, I’m The Queen’.

He doesn’t know yet. That there is intrinsic status (or lack thereof), attached to these roles. That some of them are strong, masculine, affirming. That some of them are weak, subordinate, female. And who would want to be female? He must be strange. Or gay. I have no idea if he’s either. I don’t really care, I just play along.

A while ago I wrote about how important it is to raise my boys to be okay with being ‘like a girl‘. The above video might be hawking santirary products, but it makes a good point. When did ‘like a girl‘ become an insult? It is, it was, it has been since forever ago. Our entire society is founded on that construct, it’s called the patriachy, now go buy some tampons, disgusting.

Much of modern feminism focuses on creating equality by elevating women to the same status as men: getting more (primarily white, middle class, but that’s a different post), women into senior roles, accepting and celebrating masculine traits in women (‘I’m not bossy, I’m the boss’), breaking down the glass ceiling. Obviously all of this is important, and really, really crucial for those women who aspire to be doctors or CEOs or presidents or Beyonce. But it is only half the picture.

The ascension of women only truly creates equality if society also gives status to what are traditionally considered to be feminine traits: being nurturing, gentle, emotionally literate. When men can, without shame, aspire to be a care giver, or a stay at home parent. (There is an excellent article about this in relation to how motherhood is so undervalued on Ask Moxie, which is well worth reading).

The bottom line is, should be, that we must accept that while some girls aspire to grow up to be an engineer or scientist, that they may choose to get there wearing a pink sparkly dress and high heels. Some women might choose to stay home with their children/get their nails done/bake a pie/go for cocktails with the girls, and that doesn’t mean that they are letting down the sisterhood. Wearing makeup doesn’t in itself make me oppressed, just like earning the same as my husband doesn’t mean I #dontneedfeminism.

So you see I’d got it all figured out.

Then my three year old son asked me for a princess dress.

And my instinctive reaction was: this is too much. Pink snowflake leggings are one thing, purple snow boots, long hair, Star Wars t shirts, pink eye shadow occasionally (but usually while wielding a sword and an eyepatch), a silver ‘space suit’ coat, a dinosaur jumper, penguin leggings. These are all things, which when combined, say, at most: androgyny. They leave a question mark hanging over his head, a gender mystery, which is no closer to being solved on hearing his unisex name. They do not, in my humble opinion, scream GIRL.

A dress screams girl. I don’t think I want him to get a dress.

But he is Princess Aurora, Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty, he needs a sparkly blue dress and a yellow crown like in the book Mama. To be honest, he never really asks for much, so I agree to give it some consideration. I tell him we’ll go to the shops and just have a look.

In the changing room of TK Maxx I reflect that I have possibly never seen my son so happy. Are those tears of joy pricking his eyes? ‘I must go and show Daddy!’, he declares, and off he goes in a rustle of tulle and sequins, out onto the department store floor, to proudly show his father, who mercifully, is about as right on as they come and who nods approvingly, ‘You look lovely’.

‘Hopefully the sales assistant will assume he’s a girl’, I hear myself think and I’m horrified with myself. It’s not that I’m ashamed of him, certainly not, but it’s protection I suppose. I don’t want people to look at him and write him off as flawed, as one of ‘those‘ kids: the ones who get beaten up at school. I have no desire for him to be one of those kids either, but this is bigger than him, and I also don’t want him to be just another boy (100% BOY!), for who being ‘like a girl’ is basically a byword for being a right twat. Pun intended.

But he’s not just another boy. This is who he is, this is who we have raised him to be, twirling around with a paintbrush as a magic wand. I buy the dress. I determine to see through what I have started, to be proud of him, so he can be proud of himself. Like a girl, or not.

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When I was half way through writing this post, they had a short but very interesting discussion on this exact topic on Woman’s Hour, which you can listen to by clicking the link.

thirteen month update.

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Appearance and Growth:
This month will forever be known as the month of teething. All four molars are finally with us, but not before almost driving us to the brink of our sanity because 3.15am IS NOT AN ACCEPTABLE TIME TO GET UP FOR THE DAY EVEN IF YOUR TEETH HURT AND YOU NEED TO CHEW ON SOMEONE’S LEG TO MAKE IT FEEL BETTER. The low point was when I went to rub some Calpol gel on his gums and noticed that his mouth was full of blood. Fun times!

On the move:
Two words: first. steps. Yaw! It’s still totally as exciting the second time around when you plonk your child onto the floor and watch them stand, then wobble, then kind of fall forward with their feet moving from underneath them until you’re like, ‘Yes! That counted! Those were actual freaking steps!’. He’s a bit steadier now and is letting go of the sofa, taking a couple of steps himself and then grabbing back on, so yeah, exciting.

Food and drink:
Molars = whole new world of chewing. This guy can eat whole tomatoes now. An achievement yes? Also, Rich Tea biscuits. A world of sugary madness.

Playing:
I don’t know, I feel like there’s been a bit of a cognitive shift this month (do I say that every month? Probably), and suddenly we’re playing games like hide and seek (he hides behind the sofa, I find him, he hides behind the sofa again, repeat forever while he laughs like a drain), and he can do cute things like if you ask him to play the drums he will bang both his hand on the nearest surface. Just make sure the nearest surface isn’t your face, because I’ve been there.

Sleep:
I think we’re down to one nap. To non-parents this is probably the least interesting news ever, (let’s face it to parents of children who are not this particular child this is only mildly interesting), but to me, this is awesome stuff. He’s up all morning, then goes down at around 11am and sleeps (usually, touch all the wood) for a couple of hours, then goes to bed any time past 6.30pm. It’s the best and it frees up so much time that we can do stuff without having to worry about tired babies. Now if he would only stop waking up so freaking early it would be pretty much perfect.

Language:
This guy? King of animal noises. He does so many now and also does the signs for elephant and rabbit and a couple of others. Before he would just do them if we asked (incessantly, because it’s always funny), but now if he sees pictures of animals in books he will do the right noises or sign and has also started to point to pictures and ask what they are (dat?). If he picks something up and you ask him, ‘Oh is that your hat?’ he puts it straight on his head. I like to do this when he’s eating spaghetti and my husband is on bath duty.

Personality:
Man, if you had asked me this at the start of the month in the days known as ‘teething hell’ I would have been like, ‘this child is the clingiest one year old in the history of ever’, and had somehow convinced myself that it would never, ever change. I am apparently still to learn that no phase, good or bad, ever lasts that long when it comes to small children. Right now he is super playful and affectionate, very into putting his head on people’s laps to get cuddles and still very into monopolising any reading that takes place with demands for Maisy Mouse.

This boy.

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Can we talk about this boy for a moment?

With his eyes still slightly awonk and his mad dog hair and the biggest. mouth. in. the. world.

God I love him.

He has been cutting all four of his first molars for approximately three years now and man, the drool! The runny nose! The 3.15am wake ups! Ugh. But through it all he will laugh like a drain and do his little horse impression with such seriousness and I will forgive him for not letting me put him down for the first three hours of the morning.

(My husband took these photos, obviously, which is why they have fancy things like depth of field and actual focus.)

He ain’t heavy.

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We entered into the two year age gap thing more than a little naively. I was the first in my friendship group to have one child, let alone two so I didn’t have many people to get advice from. And let’s be clear here, having a newborn when your toddler is barely past his second birthday can sometimes make you feel like you might stab yourself in the eye with a fork just because a stint at A and E in acute pain sounds like a nice break.

But then suddenly the little one isn’t a baby any more, and then big one isn’t a fiery ball of toddler rage any more, and what you’re left with is this: two best friends who will do anything to make each other laugh.

One Love.

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I think, after three years of trying, that I made have found a not only edible, but rather lovely sugar free cake. OMG!

They’re actually muffins and from the Baby Led Weaning Cookbook by Gill Rapley, but are perfect for first birthdays or if you’re on a health kick. They’re also dairy free and could be made gluten free very easily. My husband refers to them as fun free but that’s because he’s an asshat.

To make 12 muffins you’ll need:

2 beaten eggs
100ml of sunflower oil
1tsp of vanilla extract (I subbed this for orange extract because I’d run out of vanilla and I think it was a good call)
225g of self raising flour
2 medium carrots, grated
2 dessert apples, peeled, cored and grated
100g dates, finely chopped
50g desiccated coconuts
50g pecan or walnuts, finely chopped (we left these out due to an allergy, but I imagine they’d be great)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180c and line a muffin tray with 12 cases.
Put the eggs, oil and vanilla into a bowl and mix well. Sift the flour into another bowl and add the carrots, apples, dates, coconut, nuts and spices. Stir and make a well in the centre. Add egg mix and fold together.
Spoon the mix into the muffin trays and bake for 15 – 25 minutes until golden brown and springy, then remove and leave to cool.

Light a candle, let your cousins blow it out and enjoy.

twelve month update.

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For every parent, of every child, I swear it is the same. How is it possible for twelve months to pass so quickly, when in the early days there were nights that lasted for months, feeding sessions when time passed so slowly that you could see your finger nails growing. And then suddenly they’re one.

Our second baby is one! Of course it’s very bitter sweet. We will never have another baby. I’ll never grow another baby inside me, birth him on the bathroom floor, lie in bed feeding him, staring into his brand new eyes, smelling his sweet new head. It’s sad, but not that sad, because what we have now makes me so, so happy. And he is so, so wonderful.

Appearance and Growth:
When you look at them closely, #2 has a lot of the same features as the Mancub. Same pouty lips, same nubby nose courtesy of their Dad, same faintly Asian eyes. But the sum of the parts is totally different, thanks mainly to the appliest of cheeks and the darkest of Cara Delevingne eyebrows. Plus #2 is a lot smaller than the Mancub was at this age and is just about average for his age. He has 8 teeth and a crazy awesome mullet of fine light, brown hair.

On the move:
This guy is a speed crawler. He can be cruising along at a leisurely pace but if he hears the words ‘nappy change’ he will bolt and is quicker than you would think. He can go up stairs confidently and is beginning to learn to come down them backwards, although if it’s just a few he’ll just throw himself down face first. He cruises quickly along the furniture, so if I had to guess I’d say he’ll be walking in the next couple of months, which I am ridiculously excited for.

Food and drink:
So I have finished breastfeeding. I’ll write a proper post about this soon because EMOTIONS, but he handled it really well and now drinks a beaker of cow’s milk in the mornings and sometimes after his naps, then water the rest of the time. He has a HUGE appetite and is a joy to prepare meals for. He has Weetabix, porridge, banana and toast for breakfast (yes, usually all of them), and his favourite foods are pitta pizzas, anything with pasta (obvs), baked beans, oatcakes with cream cheese and just about all fruit. He does pretty well with his vegetables as well and gets a balanced diet. I’m glad that despite having an older brother we’ve managed to stay strict on not letting him have any sugar aside from the odd plain biscuit.

Playing:
He got a few new toys for this birthday, his favourite being a game where you hammer coloured balls through holes, which he loves (thank you Grandma and Grandad). He does a lot of playing with every day objects like pans and spoons and random bits that have been left about the house, but is also a fan of the Schleich animals and dinosaurs, and basically wants to join in with whatever his brother is doing. His main love though, is books. I do not care to count the amount of times I’ve read Rosie’s Walk of late, so for his birthday we bought him a few new ones, just to give ourselves a break. It’s nice though, he turns the pages and points stuff out and likes lifting up the flaps to find things that are hidden. The Mancub just recently graduated to chapter books, and it looks like we’ve got another bookworm on our hands.

Sleep:
I don’t really know how I made it through those first six months in tact, waking to feed him every two hours, every single night. I remember talking to people about the ‘four month sleep regression’ and being like, ‘Hah! We have nothing to regress from!’. At least the only way to go was up. Then as soon as he started eating solids, things started to fall into place and pretty rapidly he was down to one or two feeds a night. At 8 months I decided to night wean and let my husband have a go at handling the night duties. He woke up one night and has slept through every night since, bar a couple of times when he was poorly. Now he goes down super easily at around 6.45pm and sleeps right through. Yes, we still have some pre 6am wake ups (thanks for nothing day light savings), but more often that not they’re at a more sociable hour and you know, I don’t think I can complain all that much. He’s beginning to drop his afternoon nap and the past few days has just had a long sleep in the middle of the day, which has seen him through until bed time.

Language:
It feels like every day he learns something new at the moment. He knows a bunch of animal noises now (lion, cow, sheep, cat, fish), and will turn through the pages of a book to find the fish so he do his gulp gulp noise. He can point out his ears (actually if you ask him to find any body part he points to his ears) and show you his tongue. He shakes his head emphatically and signs ‘all done’ if he doesn’t want something. He’s used Mama, Dada and Buh Buh in the past, but at the moment he isn’t really saying them, although he still says ‘deh’ (there), ‘dis` (this) and ‘dat’ (that). He definitely understands a bunch though, demonstrated nicely if you shout ‘dinner’s ready’ and wait for him to speed crawl towards the table.

Personality:
It’s amazing just how much personality a kid can have at only a year. By turns affectionate, giggly, industrious and seriously feisty if something is not going his way. He’s gone through a few clingy phases, but I think having his brother to play with really tempers this and he only really demands to be carried when it’s coming up to meal times or if he’s just woken up. He’s obviously into everything and loves nothing more than a good root around in the kitchen cupboards, but is also content to cuddle up on the sofa reading stories. Mainly he’s just happy. Happy to show you stuff or be chucked around or to take himself off upstairs until you hear the familiar sound of him calling to be rescued. To him there is nothing, nothing funnier than his big brother, who he adores. And we all adore him. Happy birthday our gorgeous boy.

Raising boys.

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These photos are so horribly out of focus, I’m sorry. But they were the only ones I took and are too freaking cute not to post just because of a bit of blur.

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Before I became a parent I thought a lot about how I would handle raising a girl. I had a lot of opinions on pink and princesses and positive body image and Rhianna videos and how I would raise a kick ass feminist. Then I had two boys.

Sure, being a young boy is not exactly a walk in the park. There is a veritable truck load of pressure to conform to a masculine stereotype, and while girls can get away with being tom boys, it is much harder for boys to subvert gender roles. A boy in a dress is very different from a girl in dungarees. A boy who likes ballet is not the same as a girl playing football.

Why? Why is the whole notion of masculinity so important to young men? Because the alternative is to be ‘girly’, and girly is inevitably equated with being weak. Inferior. Subordinate. Not exactly something to aspire to, even for a girl. How’s that for irony?

With this in mind I set out to raise two boys who would be content to live outside of traditional gender expectations. No pressure to be ‘such a boy’, no shame in having long hair, or in wearing eye shadow, or in dressing as a mermaid on your third birthday if that’s what you randomly want to do. Being ‘like a girl’ is not an insult, at least not yet. Not from me.

Don’t get me wrong, The Mancub likes plenty of things that are generally considered to be at the ‘boy’ end of the toy spectrum: dinosaurs and Star Wars to name two of his all time favourites. But he is also happy to pretend to be Pocahontas on a boat, or Handa carrying a basket of fruit on her head. He builds dens in the park, he gets a dab of lipstick when I put on mine. He thinks nothing of any of these things.

Last week he found this baby doll that we bought for him when I first got pregnant with #2. He was excited to find it again and immediately cuddled up to it and announced, ‘I’m giving him some milk’. Oh, I said, are you his Mama or his Daddy? ‘His Mama’, and then he kissed the doll and tucked him up in bed and promptly climbed in too. That day the doll (name: Bragzilla for reasons unknown), came with us to the park, where he was pushed on the swing and given a second breastfeed in a bush (because sometimes needs must).

Usually children play at roles they find exciting: astronauts, adventurers, pirates. That day he played at being a Mama. With no shame or embarrassment at being a little boy, carrying a baby doll around the park, breastfeeding him in a bush, because that’s what Mamas do sometimes, right? Well I guess some do.

Here is the thing: it’s not really about him and what he likes and dislikes. Pretty soon his peers will get their claws into him and I’m sure it will be all Moshi Monsters and Ben Ten and whatever the hell else kids are into these days, and that’s fine. At some point he’ll ask me to get his hair cut short, and that’s fine too. I don’t care what he’s into, what he likes, what games he plays. What I want to preserve is a sense that the ‘girly’ stuff is okay too. The girls at his school that like pink and play with princesses? They’re okay too. They can be his friends and are his equals and the stuff that they’re into shouldn’t be rejected just because it’s feminine or covered in sparkles.

There is nothing wrong with sparkles. For boys or girls.

There is nothing wrong with being girly. For boys or girls.

Science and Nature.

(Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love my job).

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First off, it has been very affirming to get some feedback from folks who have appreciated my honesty of late, so thank you if you have liked, commented or sent a message following my myriad emotional outpourings. I am grateful to know that I am not talking into the abyss.

And while I am absolutely an advocate for sharing the less than stellar times (aka the reality of life as a stay at home parent), it has also always been my mission to share the good as well. Not the sanitised, Pinterest friendly version, but the ‘here’s how I not only survive, but enjoy my time at home with my kids’. Because at the end of the day, I do choose to do this, so it has to work for not just our children, but for me and my mental health as well.

This year has had its many ups and downs as I have tried to figure that out. The first few months were absolutely lived in survival mode. We get through the day, we keep everyone alive, we try not to lose our patience (okay, perhaps that one was just me). But lately I have found a nice groove again, and have had not just moments, but entire days, that have been just that, enjoyable.

So here are some things that I did to get me there.

1. Find a rhythm. One of the hardest things about having a newborn (apart from feeling as if your eyes are constantly full of sand and you’re surviving on microwaved cups of instant coffee) is the lack of routine. The first time around I just kind of went with it, wore the baby in the sling a lot and went about my business. The second time, because I was also trying to create a sense of order for my two year old, it was hard to know when were the best times to go to the park, or to get an activity out, so we ended up staying in a lot and I found it very frustrating. At around six to eight months, we had a breakthrough as #2 consolidated his naps into a chunky morning sleep, and a short afternoon one. This meant that we could stay in during the morning and I would have time while both kids were awake to do chores (often with the baby in one arm or on the floor right next to me), then once the baby was napping i would focus on the toddler / get some baby unfriendly stuff out (paint, baking, books that you don’t want eaten), and then after lunch we’d all go out somewhere. This has remained the loose ‘rhythm’ of our day ever since, and it not only keeps me sane, but allows me to plan to meet friends in advance, as well as getting everything done that I need to at home. I’m not saying this same routine would work for everyone, but I think it helps immeasurably, especially if you’re finding life at home overwhelming, to have predictability, guaranteed time out of the house every day and sense that you are able to get shit done you know?

2. Do what you like. This probably sounds ridiculous, but it took me a really long time to figure out that I don’t like going to toddler groups. Actually, save for my own and those of my friends, I don’t really like hanging out with small children much at all, probably because I’m a monster it feels too much like work. But despite this, for the longest time, I kept dragging myself along to them, because that’s what stay at home Mum’s of toddlers do right? They go to toddler groups. But you know what? Fuck that shit. One of the only perks of being at home is that you are your own boss (the tiny dictators not withstanding), and you get to do what you like. I like, it transpires, taking my kids swimming. I really, really love it, so we do that as much as we can. I like meeting my other Mum friends and drinking coffee and talking about important issues (my hot new dentist), while ignoring our children (in order to foster independent play, obviously), and occasionally chucking them some fruit to keep them happy. So I do that too. I also like going to the farm and reading books at the children’s library and going to some really good outdoor playgrounds (even better when it’s kind of drizzly, so there are minimum other children there). I do not go to toddler groups. This has significantly improved my life.

3. Ignore the advice. I say this with the best will in the world, because I know people mean well, but the advice that you will receive most frequently when you have a baby is, in no particular order, to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps!’, ‘just leave the housework!’, ‘don’t worry about achieving anything!’. Which, yes, that’s a lovely sentiment, and I thank you for not judging my dirty floors, but, OH MY GOD I’M GOING NUTS ALREADY, IF MY HOUSE IS A SHIT TIP I WILL ONLY FEEL WORSE! (or something less OCD sounding).
I was talking to my friend who is a teacher a week or so back and I asked her if she is able to do any less than we used to do when we worked together, and were working long hours and taking on more and more extra roles. ‘No’, she said, ‘Because I’ve realised that I can’t do a bad job, I can’t let myself get away with just doing the bare minimum’, and I was like, woah, lightbulb, yes, that is me (thank you Anna, for the epiphany). I cannot just sit still and do nothing. Especially if the house is a mess, or there is a meal to be prepared for later, or I can be reorganising a freaking sock drawer (I kid you not, I did this today). Yes, I would probably be more relaxed if I did, but I do not do ‘the bare minimum’. And rather than fighting this, it has helped enormously to acknowledge that if my house is clean and in reasonable order, and I’ve spent some quality time with my children, and ‘have achieved something’, that I actually feel better. Tireder, but better.

4. Your presence is enough. That said, this excellent article by Janet Lansbury, made me realise that actually, sitting and doing nothing is sometimes incredibly valuable for your children. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to spending time with the Mancub while his baby brother naps.
I used to feel as if I should make this real quality time, which for me meant to get a special activity out that we wouldn’t be able to do with the baby around. I would suggest painting, or sticking, or going outside, baking. Which are all valid things to do with your preschooler, but were very much led and instigated by me, because we had this fixed slot of time in which to ‘do something fun!’ and if I didn’t do that, I would feel as if I was slacking, or somehow letting him down.
But of course, this wasn’t about him, it was about me, and my afore mentioned desire to never sit still for a single second. And actually, he wasn’t always that into it. So instead, when the baby was asleep, I began just going and sitting next to him, whatever he was doing. Often he would be listening to CDs at his table in the lounge, so I would go and sit quietly on the sofa and wait for him to take the lead. Within minutes he would come over and every day the outcome would be different. Sometimes he would want to do some imaginary play based on his CD, or his current interest, so I would be handed an oar and asked to go somewhere with him on his boat, or I would become an animal stealing fruit from his basket. Sometimes he would bring me a book to read, or one of his sticker albums to go through with him. Sometimes we would just cuddle up for a bit. Nothing, and yet everything. What a game changer. Now I make sure that the first thing I do is just sit with him, and see where that takes us.

There we are, some really obvious truths that it took me months to uncover: that days are better when you have a sense of order, when you do the things you love, when you put your all into them, but leave a little room for flexibility and the imagination of a small child.

Not every day is good. Not every day is full of smiles. But earlier in the year I got to a point where I felt like I was coping again, and it feels good to finally be going beyond that.