Going On An Expotition

A quick one.

Sometimes your children go away without you or any of your family – with school or maybe Brownies or Cubs or something. It’s amazing.

I mean, it can be very scary and result in tears and tantrums. But don’t worry, you’ll have got over yourself by the time they get back.

They will get grubbier than you thought possible, and they will wear every item of clothing you pack, except the things you thought would be useful.

A few tips:

  • In the name of all that is holy, give them a case/bag they can carry themselves. Make sure they recognise it. This might mean attaching ribbons or toys to the outside.
  • Don’t pack a note or letter. It doesn’t end well. Instead, put an object you know makes them feel better, and hide it in an agreed place. It’s for just in case.
  • For short residentials (one or two nights) pack an outfit for each morning. Lay it out with underwear on top and jumper/trousers on top. Then roll the outfit into a sausage.
  • Additionally, more spares. More socks than a human being could wear during the apocalypse.
  • Lots of carrier bags. Every time they take off clothing, they put the clothing into a carrier bag.
  • When they get home, take all the carrier bags of clothing out of the holdall/case and put them into the washing machine. Yes, that’s right. Put the carrier bags into the machine with the clothes still inside. As the machine flops about, the clothes come out of the bags. At the end of the cycle you have clean clothes and clean bags, separately. You don’t have to touch mud.

They’ll have an absolutely amazing time. And by golly the adults who take them deserve gin. School trip? Why not leave a big tin of biscuits or chocolates in the staff room as a thank-you. Volunteers? Gin. You know it.

Blood, sweat and tears – and grass stains

Children seem to attract muck – well, certainly my children do. The youngest has only to look at a muddy puddle before he might as well have rolled in it.

They play football too, and lots of it, so at least three times a week I have very muddy kit to deal with.

Some of it is white, including the shorts. WHITE. I ask you. No person who thinks white is a sensible colour for the kind of sports kit which is guaranteed to get grass-stained or muddy could possibly be the person in his/her household responsible for laundry.

Many years ago I used to be responsible for the laundry of Other People’s Children, including a whole team’s worth of cricket whites. It was in that job that I learned about Swarfega.

What you’re looking for is the Swarfega in a red tub with a green lid.

I found this image on Wilko’s website and you can often find it there and in other “cheap shops” such as Quality Save, B&M Bargains, Poundland and so on. I really begrudge paying full price for it in Halfords or the supermarket but you can usually find it there too.

It’s designed for de-greasing hands – mechanics love it. It shifts engine oil as though you were rinsing off icing sugar. Grass stains in particular are oily stains. Treating before you wash means you won’t cook the stain in.

So, to work. Here is a typical pair of shorts after a football session, then liberally plastered in Swarfega.

muddy shorts

swarfega shorts

It smells unpleasant and has a texture somewhere between shower gel and jam. Persevere! Once the stain is thoroughly covered, and you don’t need to scrub particularly, throw in its normal wash. In this instance I forgot and put it in a quick wash, but it still came out like this:

clean shorts

There’s a slight shadow of filth, yes, but by golly it’s better than when it went in. The remaining stain completely disappeared on the washing line.

Swarfega and sunshine remove just about every stain I have come across in my parenting career, including blood, grass, gravy, blackcurrant: the lot. Sunshine also zaps any bacteria lingering in your wash. I try to wash at 30 where possible, but when there are bugs whizzing round school it’s vaguely reassuring that at least they can’t cling to the clothes.

A last word before I go, relating to blood stains. I’m afraid they are pretty much inevitable with active children! Blood cooks – maybe you’ve tried black pudding! – which means that you cannot wash it out in a hot wash. Anything bloody needs to be thoroughly soaked in cold (not warm) water before treating, then washed at no more than 30 degrees. If the garment needs it you can then do a warmer wash later, but if you wash it above body temperature you risk cooking the bloodstain into the fabric and it will then never come out.

The Village

There is a saying bouncing round the Internet: It takes a village to raise a child. Now, regardless of the dubious provenance of the aphorism itself, it neatly fits my experience.

You can do the parenting thing on your own, but it’s lonely and frightening. As soon as you involve other adults, you have back-up. For many of us, our primary back-up is the other parent, but even then work commitments can get in the way.

Before there was such geographical mobility, people tended to live where they had been born, within walking distance or even shouting distance of their parents, siblings, cousins, and so on. Women got on with the business of housekeeping with gaggles of small children (not necessarily their own) around their feet until those children were old enough to have jobs of their own either domestically or in employment. If a child fell and Auntie Cathy was nearest, she picked him up and kissed it better. If a child got a bit too close to the river’s edge and his mother was nowhere to be seen, someone else would pull him away and talk about drowning.

It should go without saying that not all adults are good with children. Even those who are good with their own children aren’t necessarily good with anyone else’s. There exists an enormous spectrum of parenting styles and resources, and the Village does need some consistency.

So how do we build a Village nowadays, when we might live hundreds of miles away from our own parents, who in turn live hundreds of miles from where they grew up?

There are two ways, really: geographical and virtual.

My geographical Village is made up of other parents we’ve met through baby groups, toddler groups, pre-school and school. We share pick-ups and drop-offs and babysitting. We text each other reminders about own clothes day or homework. We know where to find a fancy-dress costume with eighteen hours’ notice, or where to find PE kit in an unusual size. If my smallest falls over at toddler group, someone else will pick him up and make sympathetic noises until he’s ready to toddle off again. Middle child is now faintly disappointed if I’m the one picking him up from preschool rather than Alice.

My virtual Village can’t help with any of that. They help with different things. There’s a group I met online who were all pregnant at the same time, so we hit milestones together and discuss why on earth a six-year-old can be so hormonal. There’s an opinions group I met online, so we talk about how to avoid Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, and how to make sure our children grow up as feminists. There’s a camping group. There’s allergy groups (although mercifully I’ve been able to fall away from that need). Whatever very specific community you need, it exists online, just a Google search away.

They are all my Village. The words do not exist to explain how much I need them, and how much I appreciate them. I can tell you, though, that I’d be a shuddering, shrieking wreck without them.

Happy Mothering Sunday. Who is your Village?

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Shortcuts in home cooking

oozing goodness

There is a spectrum in cooking, from restaurants at one end, to cooking only what you grew yourself at the other. Using jarred sauces or ready meals falls in-between, and you can find people very ready to have an argument about where the line falls between “cooked from scratch” and not, or between “home cooked” and not.

I don’t particularly care whether a stranger – or even a friend, to be brutal – thinks I cook “from scratch” or not. There are so many competing pressures on you when you have children to feed. You have to balance variety against food miles and familiarity, quality against cost, and so on, and that’s before you start to fret about artificial additives and salt content. As long as I think I’m striking the right balance, and my children are healthy, anyone else can get stuffed (with ready-made organic lentil stuffing).

Where on the spectrum do you fall?

Before we had any children I was far closer to the DIY end than I am now. We tried new foods, and I happily spent hours after a full day’s work fiddling in the kitchen. Nowadays, as I’ve mentioned before, the children want feeding All The Time, but they won’t give you more than two minutes to prepare anything. Moreover, once they’re over about one and a half they have Opinions about food. I remember a conversation between friends some years ago where one said she tried hard not to give the children the same meal more than twice a month; another friend (with twins, and I think that’s significant) said she felt she was doing well if they weren’t given the same meal more than twice in a row…

In surveys I tick the box labelled “I cook from scratch most days”, because my definition of “from scratch” is “from a collection of ingredients that could have made something else”. If you look in my trolley at the supermarket you can’t tell quite what is on the meal plan this week. Those sausages might be grilled with vegetables, or baked with pasta, or in a Sunday brunch sandwich. Those tinned tomatoes might end up in a casserole, or a chilli, or bolognese. I try to avoid ingredients that limit your meal plan, such as a jar of pasta sauce, which can only be pasta sauce.

This isn’t a pious post, by the way. I am not trying to convert you to hand-knitted lentil bake. I just need to start off by explaining my position: time-poor but slightly fussy.

So I take shortcuts – of course I do. Shortcuts include simplifying the menu (remember macaroni cheese!) and getting someone else to do the grunt work. You can buy nearly anything already chopped up or cooked – believe me, I’ve tried nearly all of them.

We did not like frozen cauliflower florets, but frozen diced onions and frozen sliced carrots are now saved in my Favourites for the online shop. I also buy fresh shredded (that is, grated) carrot. Shredded carrot and diced onion is the base for anything Italian I ever cook, with diced celery if I have an extra minute without someone’s choosing to wipe his nose on my leg.

Frozen diced onion is a bit wet, so you need to fry it off before you put anything else in the pan. No good on a burger, but absolutely fine as the base for something like a stew or soup.

But if I tell you nothing else today, I want to tell you about frozen mashed potato. It sounds disgusting, and it’s no substitute for proper home-made lumpy mash with just slightly too much butter in it, but it means I make cottage pie and fish pie.

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It comes in weird nuggets. You can lay them straight on top of the fish and white sauce (remember? I promised I’d explain further) or mince and vegetables, then happily into the oven. Fork them over once they’re nearly cooked and nobody can see the joins.

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Free yourself. Cook food they like without having to shriek “Don’t kill your brother” from the kitchen for an hour every day.

Most importantly, though, is to remember that meals don’t have to have a name. It doesn’t have to be suitable for a restaurant menu. They can have “chicken, toast and peas” if that’s what there is and that’s what they’ll eat.

Plague! Plague!

Ay me. I’ve been poorly. What they call "poorly sick". I lost about ten pounds in four miserable days. Fortunately only one of the children followed suit, and he had bounced back after twenty-four hours. Fingers crossed that represents an end to it.

When you’re poorly before children, you can crawl back into bed, take any medicine you fancy, and wait. Not so for me nowadays, alas.

On day one, as I fell into incapacity, they wanted feeding. Curry, specifically, as promised. No. Just no. In the end, after a spectacular disaster in the kitchen, there was an emergency dash to the chip shop. I had to hide from the grease because it was overwhelming.

You know, they want feeding every single day? Multiple times a day too, with variety, and balanced nutrients. I mean, that’s enough of a challenge when you’re fully fit and hungry yourself.

And they want taking to school, and stories reading, and clothes washing, and oh good grief they never, ever, ever stop talking.

Mummy, may I…?
Mummy, will you…?
Look at this!
Watch me!
I want a …

But this isn’t a post just complaining. I’m here to talk about how to survive a plague day/week.

First of all, I’m afraid you have to clean things promptly. It’s misery, but puking into a clean loo is marginally nicer than … well, a less clean loo. If you have a healthy adult around, it is absolutely their job.

Wash everyone’s hands like they’ve been playing with bin juice. Keep hand cream handy or you’ll desiccate like coconut.

I recommend antibacterial surface wipes for door handles, taps, etc. I’m not a brilliant housekeeper at the best of times, but containing the contagion is high on my list of priorities.

Secondly, drop your culinary standards. I managed an online grocery shop that was about 90% Favourites, and pointed the children towards the fridge. So what if they have beans on toast for tea a few times. Fish fingers never killed anyone either. Stock the fruit bowl if you’re concerned about nutrition.

Same for you – if you can stomach something, try it. Half a chocolate digestive for breakfast? Better than nothing. Plain pasta with nothing on? Great. Who cares if your meals don’t have a name?

The BRAT diet is often recommended at times like these: Bananas, Rice, Apple juice, Toast. Yes, yes, yes.

And finally, the tv is your friend. Who cares if it’s been on for three days straight? The children aren’t asking for things you’re incapable of providing, like conversation or intelligence.

I’m conscious, after writing "finally" there, that there’s another coping mechanism I’ve left unmentioned.

If help is offered – or has ever been offered in a general sense – then for goodness’ sake take it. Seize it. Someone else doing the school run? Take it. A few hours of child-wrangling so you can go back to bed? TAKE IT. Don’t get to the stage of sobbing down the phone before you say "Actually, yes, how about…"

They say it takes a village to raise a child: nowadays the village may not be a literal geographical place, but the support you can get can make all the difference. Let’s talk about villages soon.

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What’s in a name?

Children have a baffling habit of discarding their belongings willy-nilly. Mine shed clothing, in particular, so shoes, socks and even trousers can be found all over the house despite the strategic placement of shoe storage, washing baskets (yes, plural) and coat racks (again, plural).

And I’m not sure I can remember the last occasion on which the eldest emerged from school at pick-up with all the equipment and clothing one might hope for. “How about your coat? It’s snowing.”

Schools are particularly dangerous regions for clothing-shedders, because 90% of the clothing in any school is identical: two hundred identical jumpers only in various sizes and with varying quantities of gravy and yogurt dripped down the front. The Reception teacher says her class identify ownership by smell: the mind boggles.

In a previous life, before children, marriage or even university, I had a job on a pastoral team at an English prep school. One of my areas of responsibility involved laundry, and a lot of it. I learned to recognise whose shirts and socks were whose immediately (not by smell, mercifully, since they were washed together in the same detergent) but for some standard items such as jumpers or PE shorts you had to check the label.

Woven name tapes. I love them. Quite apart from the fact that they don’t fade, or detach in the wash, you can read them, and there’s no squinting at something that might say Jack F but equally could be Tom T.

Ten years later I was faced with naming clothing for my eldest as he started day nursery. I didn’t bother researching alternatives: I Googled Cash’s, and bought them by the dozen, in plain black capitals. I sewed them into coats, wellies (the lined type) and jumpers, and on to a blanket and a toy mouse he took with him every day, clutched in his little fat hand <sniffs>

That’s all very well, I hear you scoff, but you can get iron-on these days. Well, yes you can, but after a term’s washing they start to unpeel – unless you’re trying to remove them, in which case they suddenly weld to the fabric like chocolate biscuit to upholstery. The only thing that defeats an unwanted ironed label is Sharpie; a wanted ironed label slips away.

Ok, fine, but you can’t label everything with woven labels. No? I’ve labelled clothes, shoes, trainers, wellies, rucksacks, reading folders, water bottles, lunchboxes, microscooters, and even most recently a descant recorder.

The name tapes used to come on a long roll – you simply snipped off a name tape as you needed one. And when you needed two or three together (they make good hanging loops) you could cut off two or three.

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Now, “helpfully”, the tapes come precut. Now if you want six inches of tape you have to stitch them back together. Hmph. Cash’s take note.

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As an aside, I should point out that name tapes vary in length according to the child’s name. There is a big psychological difference between sewing on name tapes for *Rob Key and for *Alexander Raymond-Thorpe, I can tell you. I’m still not sure “Alex R-T” wouldn’t have sufficed. When choosing what to put on the tape, you might care to balance price per inch (they charge per tape, not per letter) against stitches per tape.

In August I always volunteer to do other people’s labelling, because I find it meditative. But nobody has yet taken me up on my offer. I wonder if labelling is a kind of devotional offering as the child is sent into the world.

*Real names changed, obviously, not least because the men in question are each the top hits for their real names on Google.

(there’s a page break here – you need to click on the scarcely discernable 2 down there somewhere…)