The beginning of the end.

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You’ve probably noticed that this blog is on the wane. Don’t worry, we’re fine! Better than fine actually, and that’s the thing I suppose. I’ve reached a point where I no longer wrangle constantly with parenting issues, no longer find the same need to write, in order to piece together and order my feelings on the things I’m finding difficult or care passionately about. We’re just… living.

One of my favourite bloggers, Esther Coren of Recipe Rifle (do check her out, she’s hilarous and soul affirming and tells it exactly like it is), recently wrote on her bringing her blog to a close, and said it far better than I ever could…

“I was traumatised by my children when they were very small – and doubly traumatised when they were both really small, at the same time. It produced huge questions to which I sought the answers from other people, and from inside my own head.

But life now is so prosaic, we just bumble along. And I’ve completely let go. I don’t twist myself up in knots about anything much these days… We can do the things we can do and we can’t do the things we can’t do. And soon we’ll be able to do whatever we want.

It’s not that I’ve answered all the questions, it’s that I know now for certain that there aren’t any answers.”

Quite.

I made a decision a while back that I would take the blog up until October, when my boys turn 2 and 4. The monthly updates, while some of the least popular posts in terms of readership, form the backbone of why I write here – to record and to remember. I want to see that through.

But like all jobs I guess, once you know the end is in sight, your enthusiasm begins to dwindle, and so here I am writing very little of anything, which is a shame and not my intention. I would like to go out strong, rather than fading away into the abyss of abandoned blogs. I have around 5 months left until I hit the log out button for good, and begin the process of making my posts in little books (does anyone know of a company that’s good for that by the way? Making WordPress blogs into books?), so I figure I have 5 good posts left in me, an overview of sorts, of what I’ve learned here over the last four years.

I hope you’ll stick around for them, see this thing through with me, but I wanted you to know why there’s not been much action here of late, and that there is an end, but that this is just the beginning of it.

eighteen month update.

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Appearance and Growth:
His hair has finally grown in at the front, so it looks (a little) less crazy, but remains perfectly vertical at all times. His appetite has really increased lately, so he’s getting some good toddler chub on him. All the better for cuddling him with.

On the move:
This month he has become much more confident with climbing and with going down the slide if I’m holding his hands. He follows in his brother’s lead, which has given them both extra confidence, and they like to go off exploring in the park and woods together.

Food and drink:
Finally, FINALLY he has started to show that he is done with his food by pushing his plate away from him, rather than throwing his left overs onto the floor / up the walls. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a done deal, but we are on our way to civilised meal times people! His appetite has been much bigger than normal this month and I think he’s eating a wider range of foods too, although peanut butter sandwiches, Pom Bears and fruit still trump everything else of course.

Playing:
This morning I took him to a toddler group for the first time, after swearing off them more than a year ago. He really loved it, especially getting paint everywhere and riding in the big push along cars. He is due to start a few short mornings at preschool after his second birthday *sob* so I think it will be good to get him used a slightly more chaotic environment, not that it seemed to bother him today. He’s started to enjoy playing with cars and vehicles recently, pushing them along and saying ‘Mmm, mmm’.

Sleep:
Wake up times continue to be on the respectable side of 6am and we even had a few 6.45am lie ins. Possibly as a result of me pushing his nap a little later, possibly because he decided we are all just done with starting our day at 5am. Amen to that.

Language:
Here are the words that #2 can say: Mama, Dada and Bobo (usually used to address the correct person now), ball, bear, bat, whale, dinosaur (dadador), more and his all time favourite… No. No, the answer to every question that isn’t, ‘Would you like some Pom Bears?’. We hear it a lot, with a very certain shake of his head. He also has his own words for most farm animals and pets and can sign flower and thank you. He understands so many instructions now and will go and get things from other rooms, put things away and into the bin. He is starting to get the idea of counting and if I ask him how many there are of something he will point to each one in turn while I count.

Personality:
We have had a lot of smiles and giggles recently. It is nice to have a good few weeks, because heaven knows that from this age forth there will be plenty of days where nothing goes right, plenty of clinginess, plenty of lying down on the floor due to some injustice or another, (I wasn’t allowed to drink the pond water! I wasn’t allowed to run into oncoming traffic!). There have been those moments for sure, but also a lot of contented playing, especially after dinner/ before bed, when he seems to be on his best form of the day. He’s super sociable too. I think the Mancub has always done best in one to one situations, or when he is able to talk to grown ups, but #2 loves being part of a crowd and is happy to bowl about with a group of kids, trying to keep up as best he can.

Aquarium.

This morning my husband had to drive his Mum back to London and offered to take #2 with him so that I could hang out with the Mancub for the day. It’s always a treat to have a bit of one on one time with my biggest, and I had it in my head that we would do whatever he wanted with the day, while free from the schedules of preschool and his little brother. It would be nice to follow his lead and see what came of the time.

As soon as I asked him what he fancied, he instantly replied, ‘The Aquarium!’. Not what I expected, but I happened to have a 50% off voucher, plus it was a rainy Saturday, so feeling awfully spontaneous, we headed straight off on the bus.

So often we are out with others, be it the rest of our family or friends and, quite rightly, we have to find compromise and go at the pace of the group. It is nice, on occasion, to not have to nudge the Mancub along, or have him keep up a pace that is either too fast or too slow for his liking. Today the day was entirely his. We rushed through the initial tanks of tropical fish and straight to the rock pool area, where he happily stayed for half an hour, talking to the expert, leaning in and touching the starfish and shore crabs and operating the mini camera. I instinctively went to move him along several times, but he was clearly completely engrossed, so I bit my tongue and let him stay. We whizzed through several other sections too, pausing briefly to take in octopus and jelly fish, before getting to a digital exhibition on prehistoric marine reptiles. ‘Prehistoric is my favourite word!’, he declared, and that’s where we spent the remainder of our outing. It was an absolute pleasure throughout.

As we were in town we popped to the library and took out some books on sharks and fish, then headed home via a pizza restaurant, where he proved that he is still my favourite lunch date, because no one else I know scoops up and eats garlic butter using cucumber as a makeshift spoon, but really more people should.

Back home he spend the rest of the day playing PREHISTORIC MARINE REPTILES! using some of his dinosaur toys and told me that mudskippers are really his favourite fish.

I can’t remember a day where parenting felt so carefree and relaxing. A nice reminder that slowing down and letting them take the lead, avoiding that instinct to always hurry on, often pays off in the end.

seventeen month bonus track.


^^Watch out for the tree.

seventeen month update.

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What is going on? Time seems to have become elastic at the moment, and sitting down and writing the shortest of updates seems to be impossible. But here we go.

Appearance and Growth:
A random fact: this week I put away all of his little baby sleep suits and switched him fully to pyjama sets. I haven’t as yet been all that emotional about the end of the baby phase, but something about that simple act felt very poignant. No more baby clothes, no more baby.

On the move:
The boy runs! Nearly everywhere, usually whilst looking in the opposite direction, so we have had a month of bumped heads and bruises. Following his brother’s lead he is trying with earnest to jump, which as yet amounts to bending his knees then springing up and throwing his arms in the air. He’s very proud of his efforts.

Food and drink:
This boy could merrily live on: black olives, puppadums, crisps, raisins and satsumas. He rarely touches: cheese (cheese! Who is this child?), bread, rice, any carb except for pasta and dry crackers. He has mastered using a fork to pick up foods and eat (more than can be said for his rather more feral older brother), but still asserts that he has finished his meal by throwing the whole lot across the room and signing ‘all done’ with panache.

Playing:
We have been spending a lot of time in the garden this month, which presents all sorts of opportunities for a curious toddler, including but not limited to: picking recently planted flowers, putting pebbles in the pond, putting anything else he can find into the pond, trying to climb into the pond, pouring water from the watering can onto his feet, throwing leaves, tasting the soil, tasting snail shells, tasting everything. Indoors he has begun to enjoy scribbling with felt tips.

Sleep:
Since the start of British Summer Time he has been waking up at a slightly more respectable hour (close to 6am, or afterwards most days). Hallelujah!

Language:
He has a few words now (my favourite new one is bear), but still only really uses words if he is asked to, rather than spontaneously. The rest of the time he has a very distinctive babble (‘la la la, ta ta ta’), that we all seem to talk in now. He has learned an approximation of the sign for thank you (he flings his arm out to the side rather than bringing it to his chin), and also signs sleep (he sticks his finger up his nose and says ‘Shhhh’ if he sees a picture of someone sleeping). He has totally inherited his brother’s love of dinosaurs though and despite only saying a few words, he can identify a whole raft of different dinosaurs in the books that we have and loves to point them out and have you say their names, then quiz him on where they all are.

Personality:
I suddenly had one of those moments this month where I looked at him, almost with fresh eyes and thought, ‘Oh, you’re a little boy now’. He loves to give big kisses and to cuddle up while he drinks his milk in the morning and he runs around the house looking very busy and important. The onset of tantrums is definitely here. If he can’t have something or go somewhere that he wants to go (off down the street EVERY time we get out of the car at the moment), he cries and bangs his head and throws whatever object is to hand in absolute horror at his maltreatment. It’s generally short lived, but he certainly has a hot temper. He often wants what his brother has, which is hard because I’m not in the game of making kids give up their toys, even for a persistent little brother. They are so cute together though and the picture above is of him belly laughing at his brother snapping twigs in the woods, which for some reason he found hilarious.

Life Lately: Into Spring.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how the way I spend my time ebbs and flows, and the things I choose to focus on changes. There are the non negotiables, our status quo: keeping the house (reasonably) clean, putting cooked meals on the table most nights of the week, setting aside a little time each day to watch the children play, to read to them, to take them swimming and to the park. This forms the backbone of my days.

Then there are fluid areas, and sometimes I only have the energy to fill these with reading stuff on the Internet and watching TV. But sometimes, when I have a little left to spare, I write, or I bake something, or read, y’know, an actual book.

Right now is the time of the garden. Whether we’re planting, or digging, making new play spaces, or just sitting out there, that’s where I want to be, at the expense of pretty much everything else. It is the first time since we moved here that I feel totally relaxed about our outdoor space. We did a lot of major clearing last year, and while our lawn is still more moss and bare earth than grass, and every available space is currently full of unidentified bulbs, I just love it. It’s such a hodge podge, and the exact opposite of manicured, but finally I feel like I am getting a lot of enjoyment from it, rather than considering it a giant chore.

So at the moment the house is often more of a mess than I like, and a lot of other things, like this blog, are having to give, but I am really loving this Spring so far, and hoping the good weather lasts.

(Oh, PS. I finally worked out how make a gallery in WordPress, so you can click on each thumbnail to make it full size and then scroll through).


^^So far the kids have a pirate ship made from a pallet and a broom, a sandpit made from a builders tray and some rocks we’ve uncovered over the years, and a mud kitchen made from bricks and an old shelf. Nothing fancy or state of the art, but they play so happily, which lets me not only get stuff done, but occasionally put my feet up too.


^^One of my favourite things in the garden is a dilapidated old chair swing that was left by the old owners. Sometimes I get it to myself for a few minutes, but usually I’m joined by this ham.


^^This one is just happy as long as he has access to a washing up bowl of soapy water, and a vessel from which to sneakily drink it when I’m not looking.


^^The good weather also meant our first trip to the beach this year. I remembered to put the Mancub in his swimming trunks as I know he has a penchant for getting right in, even when the sea is still icy cold, but I foolishly forgot towels and a change of clothes, not realising that he would actually go swimming. While still in his tshirt. Lesson learned, I will be fully prepared for next time.

On a Mission.

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This weekend the Mancub and I went to visit my friend in Nottingham. Thanks to the ever infuriating M25 it took us a solid five and a half hours to get there on Friday, but luckily that boy can stare out of a window for longer than most.

On Saturday we went to The National Space Centre, which is cool but if you’re American, please don’t EVER go there because, embarrassing. It’s on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Leicester and is essentially there to show case the fact that our contribution to space exploration amounts to basically zero. Nevertheless! They have some cool exhibits for littles, including a launch simulator and different shows on through the day. It was a great way to spend a morning, the highlight being the glass elevator ride up the side of a space shuttle.

It was also a big treat to have a weekend away with my biggest boy. We shared a bed, which we’ve never done before, and he LOVED it, snuggling up all night and waking me with the question, ‘Why is some snot wet and some snot dry?’. Okay kid, let me have a coffee at least before we get into today’s big philosophical questions.

Back home #2 got some quality time with his Dad, and on Sunday night we both reflected on how damn nice it is to have just one kid to think about sometimes.

Learning at home: Reading.

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This week, at just shy of three and a half, the Mancub learned to jump with two feet, and read. One of those things was just on the cusp of worryingly late, the other? Well allow me at least a second to Mom brag: the boy can read. Words. Short words admittedly (cat, dog, pot, win), but he sees them, sounds them out, and then tells me what they say. To say that he is excited by this development is something of an understatement. He laughed hysterically for a minute after he read his first word before shouting, ‘Write another!’. And another. And another.

At this point I believe I’m supposed to insert some sort of platitude along the lines of, ‘It’s incredible! Unbelievable! I don’t know where it came from!’, which would be something of a misnomer. I do know where it came from, because I taught him to read. So obviously I knew it was coming and it doesn’t really surprise me, but nevertheless, I’m pretty blown away by it. I’m only human, just like he is only three.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to share a few of the strategies I have used here, because they are things you can do with a child of any age, providing they find them fun and engaging and providing they are ready. Feel free to take a few of them away, or just ignore them and write me off as a terrible show off. If you’re new to this blog or don’t come here often I should also probably point out that I am a primary school teacher by trade, hence my ability to ramble on about this topic for far too many words.

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I don’t think there are many things that we are obligated to do as parents. Feeding and clothing our children is a good start. A few toys are essential I suppose. Love, warmth, affection, but certainly nothing as complicated as the thousands of parenting books on the market would suggest.

Reading for me, like clothes and food, is a non negotiable. Stories, comics and magazines. Poetry, nursery rhymes and information books. All children love being read to, and if they are read to frequently, all children will, eventually, want to learn to read for themselves. It might be when they are two, it might be when they are seven, but I fundamentally believe that children have an innate desire to learn that needs little encouragement.

What we, as parents, carers and teachers have the power to do, is to put out that flame of desire in an instant if we push them too soon, or make reading a chore. Learning anything, whether it’s riding a bike or reading a book should always come from a child’s willingness and ability to do so. I’m absolutely not advocating here that we sit down all kids at age 3 and teach them phonics (that that is happening in nurseries across the country makes my heart sink), just that we to read to them, as early and as often as possible, then the rest will naturally follow.

But, my kid showed an interest. He had that desire, and he has a good grasp of words and letters, so I did some things with him that moved his reading forward to the point he is at now, where he can decode short words himself and make a good guess at many others based on their context and initial letter. Here are a few of the things we’ve been doing over the past year.

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Strategies for Reading With Children.

As I have said, for me the single most important thing a parent can do with regards to their child’s education is to read to them. I had a bedtime story every night until I was around ten years old, and I still remember the feeling of sadness when I realised I was too old to have one any more. No child would ever want to read unless they have an incentive to do so. Reading them stories that they love provides that incentive, as well as about a million other benefits.

Alongside this you can begin to introduce your child to the phonetic alphabet. There is no harm in teaching letter names (A, B, C etc), but it is more beneficial in terms of learning to read to teach the phonetic sounds (A is a hard a, like at the start of Apple, B is buh, C is cuh, E is eh like at the start of Elephant etc). I bought a few simple alphabet books and used these as a starting point, (I would trace the letter with his finger and sing ‘Buh is for ball, Buh-Buh-Ball or whatever was on that page). We also played with magnetic letters (Can you find me puh for parrot?), letter jigsaws and stampers. We wrote letters on pebbles and we traced them in the sand. (Side note: our ridiculously complex language means that all letters can represent many different sounds, so it’s best to go with the most common. However the Mancub’s name ends in a y, which in his name makes an ‘ee’ sound like at the end of monkey, so I taught him right away that Y makes a ‘yuh’ sound at the start of words, but an ‘ee’ sound at the end. He doesn’t seem to find this too confusing, but usually refers to Y as ‘ee’. You might want to do this if your child also has a phonetically complex name such as Phillip or Cedric).

As your child begins to learn some of their letters and sounds you can introduce games like I Spy. The Mancub always finds this easier if instead of spotting things around the room that we can actually see, we play on a theme, (I spy with my little eye, an animal that begins with duh… Duck / a dinosaur that begins with sss… Stegosaurus / someone who begins with mmm… Mama). Sometimes I would collect a bunch of objects on a tray and we would play I spy with them, and you could also use those ‘find it’ books. The point of all this I spying is to focus on the initial sounds of words, as a segue into being able to spell and read them. As a way of encouraging them to think about it from the opposite perspective you could ask your child, I’m writing a card to Grandma, what letter does Grandma begin with? If they’re old enough they could write or use a stamper to print the first letter for you. You could also do this when your writing shopping list (what letter do I need at the start of bananas?), or you could write a story together (they tell you a story, you write it down, but ask them for help with some words).

If your child is enjoying books, they know most of their letters and can pick out the initial sound of familiar words, you might like to start helping them to segment words (break words up into their individual sounds), and blend them (put them back together again). This sounds complicated, but is basically what we’re doing all the time when we read and spell unfamiliar words. We sound them out, we turn those sounds into a word. A nice way to do this is play a game based on your child’s interests. The Mancub loves Octonauts, so I ask him, ‘Which Octonaut am I? D-a-sh-ee’, and he is able to put those sounds together to say, ‘Dashi’. We have done lots of this sort of thing on different themes, and he likes having a go at sounding out words for me to guess too.

Finally, once you put those skills together, you have the building blocks of reading. In time your child will go from having the component parts, to being able to look at a word and sound it out ‘c-a-t’, and know that it makes the word cat. It’s magic really, and it does just seem to happen over night. Of course not all children take this route to learning to read, but it is the one most commonly taught in schools now.

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This is the beginning of a long journey. The Mancub doesn’t yet know that sometimes two letters go together to make a sound like sh or ch. He finds it hard to read words longer than three letters, because it’s still too challenging to hold onto all of those letters in his head and blend them. And then there’s words like ‘the’ and ‘was’ and ‘he’, that can’t be sounded out and just need to be learned by heart.

But he’s on the road and he’s so excited to get going that it’s infectious.

I hope you’ve found some of these little activities of interest or of use. Ultimately I think my only advice is to be led by your child, to use their interests and enjoyment as a starting point and to do little bits here as they want to, (we play these games for no more than a few minutes at a time, and by no means each day).

If you’re child is anything like mine, the laughter that follows the first time they read the word ‘bum’ out loud will be worth it.

The problem with Princesses.

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^^What the Disney Princesses would look like with realistic hair. Via Buzzfeed.

Oh those bloody Disney Princesses, I knew they’d catch up with me one day.

Before having children I viewed them as the axiom of everything that was wrong with childhood in a supposedly post feminist world. In the name of shifting films, books and an awful lot of merchandise, little girls are bombarded with images of these supposedly perfect examples of womanhood, with their nipped in waists and doe eyes, swirling dresses and no notable qualities other than the ability to sing, dance and make their man happy. I swore up and down that if I ever had a daughter, the Princesses, along with Barbie, would be categorically unwelcome in our house.

And then I found myself in a situation where today I sent my eldest son to preschool dressed as Cinderella, asking me, ‘Does my hair look pretty?’, not having read him a bedtime story other than a rotation of fairy tales for weeks.

My main problem with fairy tales, and in turn the highly branded line up of Disney Princesses that they have spawned, is that they tend to depict women as one of two tropes: the kind, sweet, animal loving protagonist, who enjoys singing with blue birds and baking pies, but who has no discernible problem solving skills nor desire for anything beyond being rescued by a handsome prince (see: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Jasmine etc etc); and the evil antagonist, who is driven mad by her jealousy of anyone younger and more beautiful than her, to the point where murder is inevitable (Malificent, Ursula et al). The message is clear: these are your choices girls, a simpering beauty or a total bitch. It is limiting to say the least.

In their defence Disney have made advances of late, most notably with Brave, which features Merida, a much more robust, independent, smart as a whip kind of a Princess, who provides an antidote to the irksome saps who rely on their Princes to get them out of trouble. Frozen also focuses on the love between two sisters, as opposed to winning the approval of a man, yet falls short for me, because it’s still inexplicably done whilst dancing around in sexy dresses, when clearly an anorak and boots would have been much more appropriate attire for a snow covered mountain.

However, the classic ‘Princess’ range remains predictably dull. I was convinced, in desperate times (ahead of a three hour flight and vaccinations), into buying two issues of the Dinsey Princess magazine (BEST SELLING MAGAZINE FOR GIRLS!). Honestly, this stuff is just mind numbing. In the latest issue readers are invited to play a game whereby the winner gets to be Princess Aurora’s bridesmaid (OMG! Squee!), while the stories focus on the characters’ ability to pick flowers, bake cupcakes and, I kid you not, prepare a romantic picnic for their prince. Is anyone else sensing a rather tiresome theme emerging here?

Is this really all little girls, and more pertinently the parents of little girls, want (I say girls because I assume that’s who Disney look to for feedback)? Or is this just what they are being spoon fed? Why couldn’t Disney take those original characters, and put them into new situations that highlight more aspirational qualities: Cinderella’s picnic gets hijacked by the Stepsisters, so she single handedly forages for a new one, before building an escape route for her and the Prince in the process, (as opposed to the actual solution which was… She got rescued by some swans. I mean, really?). It just feels like there is no appetite to update these characters into strong, smart women with attributes to aspire to. Disney, and I can only assume vast swathes of parents, are happy to stick with this bizarre 1950s idea of women as something to look good and be rescued. Nothing more. It’s depressing.

As the parent of a boy who is currently Princess mad, I obviously have a slightly different take on it. It is not so much what he aspires to be that I worry about (I can only assume that his desire to be a Princess will be relatively short lived), but with how he is seeing women being portrayed.

I remember hearing an interview with Caitlin Moran, talking about whether or not she lets her young daughters watch pop videos. Another woman on the show revealed that she doesn’t let her daughter watch Rhianna’s music videos, because she considers them too sexualised, while Caitlin countered that she lets her daughters watch them, but also has a frank conversation about their content: ‘Poor Rhianna, how do you think she feels dressed like that? What if she has a cold? Or is on her period? I bet she’d rather be wearing a nice cardie.’ Instead of censoring, she uses those portrayals of women as a means to discussing how they are problematic and offering up alternatives.

I’ve taken my lead from this I suppose. I haven’t banned fairytales (although the versions we read are the classic stories, rather than the Disney adaptations), and he has been allowed to watch some of the Disney Princess films and listen to the soundtracks. But we talk about the endings, at an age appropriate level, and within our play I try and subvert the roles, at least a little, to make sure he knows that Princesses can be strong, capable, brave and intelligent, as well as pretty and kind.

I also ensure that the Princesses aren’t by any means the only depiction of women and girls he is exposed to. Zog by Julia Donaldson and The Paper Bag Princesses by Robert Munsch both offer direct alternatives to the traditional fairy tale ending (one princess shuns royalty in order to be a Doctor, the other declines her Prince’s offer of marriage when he criticises her appearance), and there are plenty of examples of other strong, feisty girls on our bookshelves from Lola of Charlie and Lola to Pippi Longstocking and Matlida. Films, I admit, are harder to come by, and I would love recommendations of U rated films that feature a strong female lead that aren’t even necessarily subverting the traditional female stereotype but are just… girls, doing their thing (Despicable Me, Brave and Annie are my favourite examples, but it’s hard to find others).

Ultimately, I know that it is the women and girls around him, who serve as his most important role models. I am grateful that both of his Grandmothers are as happy digging for minibeasts in the garden as they are baking cakes in the kitchen, and that his best friend is a girl who can outrun him as much as he can outprincess her. He also has a whole range of other interests and I am currently indebted to the Octonauts who feature both a female engineer and pilot, for some much needed balance in our house.

The Disney Princesses might be getting the better of me at the moment (especially with renewed requests for a Cinderealla doll), but I’m in this for the long haul, and I know I’ll win out in the end.