Thursday, 30 October 2014

Trick or Treat? When Chocolate Goes Fright Night

There are few things more frightening than having something unexpected in your mouth. 

So imagine my horror when I gleefully popped in a segment of Terry’s Chocolate Orange, only to discover it was the Popping Candy abomination. It was an outrage! It started as an Alka Seltzer-esque fizz, then ramped up to a shaken Coke, before culminating in a fireworks display in my fissures. It lasted for about three terrifying minutes – it felt like the galvanised sugar was literally exploding its way into my molars. 

Through my foaming mouth I castigated my husband for his poor choice. We’d been in WHSmith and he’d grabbed a Chocolate Orange, of which, unseasonal though it was, I fully approved in principle but saw he’d inadvertently picked up the dark, so made him put it back, only for him to – in his panic, I saw now – grab this new version. I only had myself to blame, but this was a punishment beyond compare. My fizz threshold begins and ends with Refreshers; I can go no more hard core than that. My face must have been like my baby’s when I tried to feed him the pumpkin that I carved out for Halloween last night.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE chocolate. I eat the squished bits off the back of the car seat. And I’m not against novelty chocolate. Trying it anyway. Halloween is, after all, one of the key times for a reworked chococlassic. I’ll buy anything once, but it takes a lot for a new innovation to earn its way into my stable of accepted chocfare. The last one that made it in was Cadbury’s Freddo Faces, but before that it was Galaxy Minstrels. As you can see, I like to remain current in my chocolate knowledge, but I will not be made a fool of.

Terry’s, I will eat your Milk Chocolate Oranges till my last Christmas on this earth, but when it comes to your popping candy, you might trick me once, but I won’t let you trick me twice.

Et tu, Freddo?

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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Are You Too Polite To Trick or Treat?

Call me English, but I have a natural aversion to thrusting myself in a stranger's face demanding sugary goods. Is it just me who finds Halloween a little socially awkward? Are you too polite to trick or treat?

Accepting sweets from strangers after dark? What could be more natural? The very things we tell our kids not to do the rest of the year are suddenly positively encouraged on Halloween. Don't get me wrong, I like the concept of Trick or Treating - I'm all for doing fun stuff with the kids, meeting new people and gorging on sweets. It's just I'm not sure I want my neighbours' first impression of me to be of a frazzled witch with a coven full of Haribo-crazed ghouls.

Of course, the key phrase here is: "first impression". This is the crux of the problem - I don't know the neighbours. The scariest thing about Halloween is that it highlights my failure to integrate with the people who live within earshot of my trampoline, to weave our family into the very fabric of the local community. And I just don't like forcing introductions on people when sober, no matter how many baby groups I've had to break into over the years. After a drink, I'm everyone's friend, obviously, but I'm pretty sure that being drunk in charge of a Trick or Treat posse is not my ticket to Neighbourhood Watch glory.

All right on the Fright Night

So it was, that last year, I did a pre-Trick or Treat. We'd just moved in and yes, I went round to a few neighbours' houses in broad daylight, carrying the calling card of my cute little baby, and asked them if they were happy to receive us on Halloween dressed as zombies. Most were a little taken aback but very amenable; several were extremely friendly. A couple muttered that they didn't have anything in - but I was ready for them! I had a carrier bag of Tangfastics to dole out, so there were no excuses. No crusty old cooking sultanas or broken Rich Tea fingers for us! So when it came to Halloween, it was all right on the fright night.

My pre-Trick or Treat round even sparked the beginning of a beautiful friendship with a couple of our nearest neighbours. We're not best buds (they're my grandma's age) but we're on swapping-recipes terms (read, me running round mid-carrot cake asking for cinnamon and, er, flour). But this Halloween, I face the awkward situation of not having seen most of the other neighbours for the whole intervening year. I created the first impression of a fairly normal local mother who is interested in matters such as the campaign for weekly bin collection and better street lighting. I did not completely sully this with our Halloween appearance - "if you scream on their doorstep, there's no sweets for you, young Darth Maul!" But that's as far as it went. But perhaps - like certain family members and Christmas - seeing the neighbours but once a year is the best way to keep up good relations?

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Sunday, 26 October 2014

How To Carve An Angry Bird Piggy Death Star Pumpkin

Oh boys, I would harness the moon for you, but I cannot carve the Death Star.
What my kids want, they get. Kind of. If it’s healthy and / or free, anyway. So when they said they wanted a Death Star pumpkin, who was I to refuse?

If you ask my boys what they want for a present, they say, the second Lego Death Star. If you ask them what they want for breakfast, they say, the Death Star. So it was really no surprise that this was their answer to “How shall we carve our pumpkin?” Of course, as they see everything through the prism of Angry Birds, it was to be an Angry Birds Piggy Death Star. So I got to work.

First, I cut the lid off the pumpkin – all wrong. As I discovered later when I lit a candle inside and it was immediately extinguished by the top falling in. Note: You are supposed to angle it so it doesn’t do that. If you don’t, simply skewer it angrily with cocktail sticks to make the wretched thing balance on top. I hollowed out the pumpkin with a big spoon and every intention of making the innards into a warming winter soup, that would somehow cause the kids to throw aside their lifelong hatred of a) vegetables and b) anything in runny form.

A bad workman…blames his children

That was the easy bit. Having no pumpkin carver to hand, I settled on a potato peeler. Oh, how wrong I was. The pointy end was ideal for carving out the “design” but the gouging was palm-blisteringly laborious.

Still, after an hour or so, I delightedly called the children to witness the Grand Lighting. As with most craft projects, they’d wandered off to do something more fun after about five minutes, leaving me working beaverishly in grim-faced isolation. But they ran to see me light the candle inside. I did so. Nothing happened. None of my lines were deep enough. I nearly cried. They did cry.

Having put them to bed with the promise of having it ready for them at breakfast, I embarked on Gougathon #2. Later, much much later, I excitedly summoned my husband to witness The Second Grand Lighting. One of the pumpkin’s eyes flickered. My husband’s dropped. Mine filled with frustrated tears.

Having sent him to bed, I started again, the determination of an ox crazed with tiredness powering my carving hand, by now in shreds, muttering all the while, “Why did I let them choose what to carve? Why? WHY?”

Finally, at a little past midnight, I applied the match, with shaking hand, to the candle…and the blasted thing lit up! As did my little angels’ faces when they saw it in the morning.
If you are familiar with Angry Birds Star Wars, this may strike you with some element of recognition. If not, you must be wondering what in the name of heaven and earth is going on in my mind to produce possibly the scariest pumpkin ever.

Note: If you were really hoping to learn how to carve an Angry Bird Piggy Death Star pumpkin, do the above, but a) with sharper tools; b) a template to trace onto your pumpkin (you put the picture over the pumpkin and put little dots all along the lines, then cut along them with your sharp tool); and c) less swearing.

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Gross! The Things We Eat For Our Kids

If biting the bruises out of bananas is not the pinnacle of maternal love, I don’t know what is. If you’ve ever eaten the debris out of the carseat because you couldn’t face carrying it in your hand, you’ll know this – motherhood turns you into a human dustbin.

Minesweeping kids’ teatime plates is a commonplace of motherhood and the bane of many a post-baby body blitz. "I just can't stand waste," you mumble, through a mouthful of ice cold potato waffle. Hey, it saves scraping stuff in the bin and the inevitable loss of a precious baby fork that you then have to rifle through the mushy Cheerios and double-bagged nappies for.

The consenting, or Instagrammable, food share

What could be cuter than mother and baby chomping their way to the middle of the same strand of spaghetti, ending this eminently vid-worthy experience with a delicious kiss? The closest I’ve got to this is sharing a breadstick, which ended in a soggy mess, but was cute nonetheless. And then there's the

The human food prep machine

Most commonly seen in the car, this includes biting the bruises out of bananas, and eating all the skin off an apple to satisfy the back-seat partial fruit-lover. Other examples include, eating the crusts off the sandwiches, eating the biscuit around the jam in a jammie dodger (not really a hardship, that one) and eating the pith of bits of satsuma (well fiddly!).

But what about the unsung side of motherly mastication?

The regurge recipient

Sometimes (too often!), there just isn’t a bin around when you need one. Like when your child wants to spit something out. We were on our way to the car yesterday when my youngest decided he didn’t like Smarties after all, and spat all seven of them out into my swiftly-proferred hand. There they lay, their now-softened, not-as-bright-as-in-my-day shells cracked like my detergent knuckles, in a pool of sugary drool that was starting to drip through my fingers. The baby wipes were deep in the changing bag, I was holding onto the littlest on his scooter with the other hand, the other two boys were shooting ahead and I had to push the buggy. I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances – reader, I ate them.

Out of the mouth of babes

As such occasions go, it was one of the more pleasurable. I’ve eaten all sorts from the maws of my children – balled-up Marmite sandwiches, too-large mouthfuls of ice-cream, naked Maltesers. With the chocolate all sucked off, surely these last are practically a dieter’s dream?

Regurgitated food is not the sole preserve of mothers and baby blackbirds, though. My friend once cooked a roast for us. My (then, only) son, aged about two, was delighted with his first taste of roast pork. Five minutes later he was still chewing, his eyes were beginning to bulge, and I gently removed it from his tired jaws. Whereupon my friend’s husband leant over and ate the rejected delicacy. “Mmm, tender,’ he said. One man’s gross is another’s gourmet, it seems.

Surely I’m not the only one who has automatically licked their chocolatey finger, before recalling the leaky nappy you just changed?

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Friday, 17 October 2014

The Seven Stages of Accepting a New CBeebies Show

Picture credit: BBC

I LOVE CBeebies. But I hate it when they change stuff. Until I come to love it again, that is. Coming to accept a new CBeebies show follows a standard pattern. Here’s the timeline of how I – and maybe you too – move from fear to love.

Day 1: Shock or Disbelief. Kate and Mim-Mim. A show that at first glance, beggars belief. Why is Kate so often left alone? Why does she have an adult’s voice? Why does she never talk below a bellow? When you’re used to Tree Fu Tom following Octonauts like night follows day, it is a terrible shock to have a shake-up to the schedule. An imposter in the midst of your afternoon viewing. One to be treated with hostility and scorn.

Day 2: Denial. Kids are much more adaptable than adults. Never is this made more clear than by the fact that they are actually beginning to like this show. I can deny it as much as I want, but that is what they are asking for when the TV flickers into life.

Day 3: Anger. Why did anything have to change? I remember the days before Tree Fu Tom. Heck, I remember the days before The Octonauts. Yes – and I greeted those little legends as underwater agents of evil. “Gup!” I scoffed. ‘What kind of a word is that?” We now own every single one, obviously. The subtext to this, of course, is: why does my child have to change? Why isn’t he happy watching the same vintage Postman Pats I grew up with? Why does he have to grow up? My baaaaaby!

Day 4: Bargaining. If I let you watch two Kate and Mim-Mims, please please can you then watch a Grandpa in My Pocket (my previous bĂȘte-noir)? These are the kind of pleas I hear myself making.

Day 5: Guilt. My kids love this show – who am I to mutter about it in the background? I’m poisoning their innocent enjoyment of this wonderful programme. I’m not the target audience, anyway.

Day 6: Attrition. By the magic of the I-Player, we have now seen every released episode 18 times. I have come to smile when it comes on. I'm humming the theme tune in the shower. I believe there’s a name for this: Stockholm Syndrome.

Day 7: Acceptance… and Love. How else can you respond to a programme that both delights your children and keeps them quiet while you cook their tea?

Thus, like Statler and Waldorf, the Muppets in the balcony, I move from outright criticism to abundant praise in a volte-face as hilarious as it is predictable. Talking of the Muppets, The Furchester Hotel skipped right from Disbelief to Love for me. It’s hard to believe that The Muppets could be recreated but they had me at “Cooookie”. Those tunes are catchy, man! And the Vegetones – they rock!

Picture credit:
'That was awful! That was really bad! Well, it was OK. It was pretty good. That ROCKED!'

There’s one final stage that I haven’t listed above: Boredom. Like any craze, after a certain time, it dies out. Real stayers, like Octonauts, have a renaissance every few months, and obviously there’s huge excitement when there’s a new series out. And then you realise: the guys at CBeebies are not mixing the schedule up for the children. It’s to keep us parents interested.

Is it just me who struggles with changes to CBeebies?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Accidental Cougar

When being maternal gets misconstrued

It started innocuously enough. After an abs session at the gym, I happened to fall into conversation with the new fitness coach, Tom*. He asked me about my exercise routine and goals, I said I wanted to drink wine and eat chocolate guilt-free. I asked him what he did before joining our gym and he told me a bit about his career, including playing county rugby. He said he had to give it up because…and here I found myself uttering this deathless phrase:

“You don’t want to ruin your beautiful face.”

I don’t know why I said it. It just came out! Of course, I had noticed that he was a total hunk of divinity, but very much in an 'ooh, his mother must be proud' kind of way. I can honestly say when he mentioned the rugby thing that I went off into a reverie about my oldest son’s (aged 6) very recent foray into this sport and was ratcheting through my various feelings on the subject – dreams of World Cup glory, fears of a smashed-up face – which led to my final comment. I can thus excuse what came out of my mouth, to myself. But Tom now backs away whenever he sees me coming. You see, I have become an accidental cougar.

Once I was a flirt; now I am a mother hen. 

This was by no means an isolated incident. It all started when I had my first child.
Once you become a mother, you feel full of such emotion and power that sometimes it feels like you could mother the whole world. Mother to one, mother to all. Now I’ve had three, and am permanently around other people’s children too, I can’t keep my maternal manner at bay. In general, this ought to be good for society – offering a kind, interested and sympathetic face to the general public.

However, when it comes to males young enough to be my son – at a stretch (I’m late-thirties) – it can backfire sometimes, as I’ve discovered. “Good for your muscles!” I’ll call gaily to the young chap pushing the trolleys in the supermarket carpark. He nearly rams them into a car. “Oh, you look a bit tired today,” I recently told one of the baristas at my favourite cafĂ©, as if I were going to proceed to put him down for a nap. He said he was hungover; I asked whether he was out with mates, in a ‘check he got home safe’ type way. He seemed to construe this in an ‘are you single?’ type way and now I can’t order my decaf cappuccino without ducking knowing smiles from him and his pals.

But I can rise above this. I know my intentions are pure. It’s too late with Tom – if I tried to retract the “beautiful face” (still cringing) comment, it will just seem like I’m protesting too much. As long as I limit myself to transactional-based chat and keep my cheery commentary for my own children, I may yet shake off my reputation. Is it just me or do you ever find yourself being an Accidental Cougar?
*Names have been changed.

This piece is also over on The Huffington Post here.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Tired Of The Park, Tired Of Life?

I used to live in the park. 'Baby's first swing' was a milestone akin to (and many months earlier than) sleeping through the night. I padded my precious firstborn's swing with a specially-brought cushion and drank in the moment. Pushing with both hands - no IPhone in sight. Seven years on, I have to admit it's worn a trifle thin. But for the sake of baby number three, I need to banish my park fatigue. I need to get my park spark back.

New Park: Luckily (or stupidly, depending on how you look at it), I've moved house with every baby. New area = new park. This helps to keep the interest of the jaded mother - for the first 10 visits anyway. As soon as you've worked out the nearest loo and escape hatch cafe, you're set.

New Child: Obviously, I wouldn't deprive my children of the park just because I'm a tad bored of it. And of course, seeing my third baby on his first - and 200th - swing, slide and roundabout is just as much of a delight as it was first and second time round. I've got it all on video to prove it. Most of these videos end abruptly as I lurch to rescue the star of the show from his latest fearless feat. For, like many younger siblings, he is daring beyond his months. 

New Poo: The other day we were just on the way home from a truly lovely park outing - beautiful autumn day, sun glinting off my wee one's little curls, no serious tumbles. Until now - just by the gate, my son fell over, flat on his face. Maybe it was an uneven patch, maybe it was a rogue conker; whatever, he ended up face-planting in a pile of muck. Now, as mentioned, I'm a park veteran. We've had dog poo (obvs). We've had horse poo. We've had rabbit poo and we've had seagull poo (call it guano if you like, it's still well gross). We've even had human poo - the child's own, i hasten to add, in a particularly tumultous standing nappy change situation. But this was a first. My dear boy's face was besmirched with Canadian goose poo. As I wiped it off, I smiled to myself for ever doubting: there is always something new at the park.