Amongst the many, many joys of parenting, there is little to match the first gummy smile of a newborn baby, or hearing a tiny toddler address you as ‘mama’ for the first time. Little that is, unless you count the first time emotion overcomes you, and you swear like a debauched sailor in front of your off-spring, only to have your revoltingly sweary phrase parroted back to you by your delighted child.
Like the seriously predictable family that we are, my husband and I took Dulcie and Himself the Elf to a National Trust garden on Bank Holiday Monday, and had a small difficulty exiting the attraction’s drive and getting on to the main road. It had been an early start caused by our lark-like baby, the day punctuated with rather trying behaviour from both off-spring. We had carried a pink scooter all trip after Dulcie lost interest in it thirty seconds after the tantrum she threw when we suggested it was left in the car. The rain appeared to have been lured out by our picnic. And then, just as we were ready – indeed more than ready – to leave, it seemed impossible to actually get on the road. “Oh for expletive, expletively expletive’s sake!” shouted my husband. “Oh for expletive, expletively expletive’s sake!” repeated my thrilled daughter. More than once or twice. Continue reading
In 2008, I knew everything about babies and children. I had a nice, neat set of theories of how my children would never eat sugary food and would only play with wooden toys. They would be bilingual (which would have been a miracle considering I speak halting, holiday French as my only alternative to English) and because of the gender neutrality of their upbringing, they’d adore train and babies, fairies and construction vehicles, aeroplanes and princess.
Then I had Dulcie and realised that I knew nothing about having children and that in fact, they are not little blobs of Play Doh to be formed by their parents, but are complete individuals with their own inclinations. You can add a veneer of civilisation, but you can’t flatter yourself that you’re much more than an influence. You can enthuse about Brio to your daughter as many times as you like and exclaim “Look! A tractor!” whenever you see one, but that doesn’t mean that aged three they won’t be dressed in an eye-wateringly cerise Disney princess dress, clutching a Barbie-like Aurora doll and feigning an American accent. Continue reading
Dulcie and I are teaching Himself the Elf to sign to us. I had a lot of success with baby signing when Dulcie was tiny, as she stridently made her demands clearly known. Himself the Elf watches us with wide-eyes but I’m not sure he has a clue about what we’re doing. We sing various songs to teach him the signs, which are loathsome and utter ear-worms. He occasionally laughs but more often than not crawls away to fiddle with the radiator. If one of us starts to hum anything, you can be sure it will be one of the jolly signing ditties.
We sing him a song about visiting a farm. “Why,” wonders Dulcie. “Are so many signs to do with animals? I wouldn’t care about animal signs if I couldn’t talk. I’d want signs like ‘princess’ or ‘strawberry ice-cream’ or ‘tiara’.” This is, in fact, completely untrue, as her first sign was dog, but of course she cannot remember or realise how her priorities have changed. “A lot of his books are about animals, too. Why?” Continue reading
“I’m doing a grand yeti!” trilled Dulcie as she threw some rather Martha Graham-esque moves around the bedroom. “And I am as light as a fairy,” as she crashed into a chair. I smiled indulgently. I like this game; I am the appreciative audience and get to sit down. Himself the Elf is captivated by his sister’s moves and has pulled himself into a standing position leaning on the chest of drawers, all the better to squeal his encouragement to her. Peace?
Shattered. “HE can’t do ballet! He is bouncing along and only girls can do ballet,” bosses Dulcie. No-one can do self-righteousness in quite the style of a three year old, I find. “Anyone can do anything,” I pointlessly say, knowing it will be disregarded instantly. “I am taking off my tutu,” she declares. Helpfully, it is an imaginary tutu, so my assistance isn’t needed. “Shall we read Dogs Don’t Do Ballet?” I suggest, keeping in the theme and trying to be a good mother. “Just let me put the Elf to bed first…” Continue reading
Himself the Elf is on the move, and has learnt to stand up holding on with only one hand. Part of me applauds his achievement and is pleased for his sake that his world is expanding as he explores higher and higher. But. Oh but. Another part of me is slightly despairing, and this is being egged on by Dulcie, who is a naughty little devil whispering in my ear (or rather bellowing loudly and furiously) that he is snatching, he is grabbing, his is awkwardly interfering with everything that is going on, and that he leaves a trail of dribble, torn paper and bitten books in his whirlwind wake. The wail that something is being grabbed can no longer be countered with the advice to ‘pop it on your desk’ or ‘look at it on your bed’, as the chubby little mitts reach further. And Himself the Elf will no longer revel on the floor with a random selection of plastic belongings no-one else wants (otherwise known as baby toys) as we ladies cosy up on the bed with a book, for he wants to climb up and see what is going on. And then he wants to chew it and slap it and fling it.
As a lifelong preserver of books and their spines, I share Dulcie’s despair as yet another tome gets closer and closer to his slobbery maw. So I have been trying to ensure that story time with both children is covered by reading a book with cardboard pages or a durable plastic library cover, and with a story that interests them both. For Himself the Elf that covers the following: farm animals, vehicles, and pictures of babies and children. For Dulcie, it is almost anything, for she is a slightly undiscerning listener, but with a bias towards princesses, girls that are older than her, anything that culminates in a wedding, and narratives which at some point reflect her life. So yesterday, we settled down to Giving by Shirley Hughes.
Giving by Shirley Hughes
Part of the series of ‘doing’ words by Shirley Hughes (there’s also Bouncing, Chatting, and Hiding), Giving delights Dulcie by showing a baby brother and a big sister. This nameless girl is about three or four, and attends play group without her mum, can dress herself and has friends round to play, supervised only from a distance – so quite a lady of the world to my little girl. The book has no story but is a series of verbal and visual illustrations of what ‘giving’ can encompass, from giving present or a smile to being given a scratch by a cat or a ride on daddy’s shoulders. There are perfect little vignettes of pre-school life – the importance of painting a special picture to give to someone; the pride in being able to present mummy with a gift on her birthday; and a moment of camaraderie as the little girl gives her baby brother some slices of her apple as the pair of them sit under a table covered with the recognisable detritus of a meal that needs clearing away.
The whole gives me a glimpse of life for my daughter, as the parents are important yet not omnipresent figures. Who knows what our children are thinking or what imaginary world they are living in during that unobserved ten minutes as we clear up after breakfast? Yes, we are together all day, just as this family in Giving is, but it emphasises to me that what I see as an important event might not have touched by daughter’s inner world. After a trip on the train to the beach last week, I asked Dulcie at bedtime what her favourite part of the day had been. Her answer? Being allowed to pick which apples in the supermarket we took with us. The world of Giving is very much seen from her level, not from mine, and is all the more charming for it.
The insight extends to the sibling relationship, catching the intensity of the emotions that they experience. We see the younger brother attempt a reciprocal gesture at dinner (“The baby gave me two of his soggy crusts. That wasn’t much of a present!”) as he gives his clearly adored big sister some of his food, to her wry amusement. He sits at the tea party she is giving with a friend, but placed amongst the doll, the dog and cuddly toys, he is clearly for her part of the supporting cast, making up the numbers. Yet his alert posture and restraint in abiding by the tea party rules shows he feels the honour of being included in her game. For Dulcie, there was a resonance of the power that Himself the Elf’s worship and pursuit could be both annoying and pleasing, depending on the circumstances. This is encapsulated in the final scene, which the sister has built a tower from bricks and “the baby comes along and gives it a big swipe!”. Naughty glee on his face, horror on hers, changing to anger with a clenched fist and an apprising look in return from her brother.
It is a scene which is only too familiar here, as I suggested to Dulcie that we read the book after a vicious attack on a castle made from Duplo. The resolution? The story book siblings cuddling on the floor with her magnanimous restraint in not swiping him back as “he is my baby brother, after all”, and here a moment of brief harmony as we three see our own world drawn so beautifully and told to us.