The familarrr

Edit: For those of you who keep telling me you wish you could make it to one of my Interactive Fiction workshops (I generally run one at Conflux every October long weekend), here’s a video course I made on udemy: Introduction to Interactive Fiction. It’s $20.


 

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This was, of course, taken at the Pirate Ball & Book Launch last night.

Here’s some more:

 

Time for a rest!

My next public event is a talk/workshop on Interactive Fiction at the University of Canberra on Friday 2 March 5:30-7:30pm. It’s a rare opportunity to talk IF with me for free, and it’s open to the public.

If you read the dedication to Silver and Stone you’ll know that this group took me in when I was scrambling to write the second Antipodean Queen book. They’re a smart & friendly crowd and I recommend checking them out.

Their facebook page is here.

My new belly button

It’s been about ten weeks since my stomach operation, and although I’m not fully healed I was just given the go-ahead to swim (my favourite and most effective exercise) yesterday so I’m pretty much in the clear.

Some thoughts:

It really really hurt a lot. There were times when I wasn’t sure it was worth it. (But it clearly was.)

Post-operative infections suck. Especially when you’ve allowed a month off and then suddenly it isn’t close to enough (it was more like taking two months out of my life, although I did get some work done in that time).

Yes, I have a new belly button.

I can fit clothes! This is still extremely exciting.*

My blood glucose has been within target ranges EVERY SINGLE TIME ever since the operation. Under the advice of my doctor, I’m slowly cutting out the diabetes medications that I take—continuing to monitor my blood sugar all the time. It’s too early to be certain, but it looks suspiciously like my stomach operation instantly fixed my diabetes. THAT IS AWESOME. It is also another reason this operation should absolutely be covered under Medicare. How many other mothers have severe health problems because their internal organs just haven’t “bounced back” after a massive physical event?

I’m not so hungry. I snack much less often, and don’t feel as weak, shaky and fatigued as I did before the operation. Stomachs are designed to be enclosed by abdominal muscles, and that goes a LONG way towards explaining why I’ve doubled in weight since having kids… my stomach just wasn’t working, and both my hunger and my fatigue were telling me I wasn’t getting enough food.

I’ve lost a bunch of weight since the operation without trying (or being hangry, which is a big problem for me as it connects to my existing mental conditions in dramatic ways). Hopefully this is a trend that will continue! Honestly I know that things will get harder and harder as I have less weight to lose, but this is certainly helping a LOT.

And sure, I’m still massively overweight, and I still have at least two other conditions that make standing/walking a big problem. But my health has improved hugely, and my optimism for the future—maybe even, one day, a healthy future—is greatly improved.

 

*I actually bought a full-on ball gown the other day, on a whim, because (a) It fit, which is an amazing thing. (b) It’s very pretty, (c) It was at Vinnies, so it cost $50 instead of $500. (d) It was near my birthday.

Full disclosure: I can’t actually do up the zip at the back. Yet.

But I promise to post a pic someday. I’m thinking I might wear it as part of the Kickstarter video for “Murder in the Mail”, which I need to film and put together this week.

Christmas Letter

Each year I make a calendar (using Vistaprint) for the following year, in which the photos roughly correlate with the same months of the previous year.

I sure hope that sentence makes sense.

For example, this was taken in March, during which Canberra hosts a massive international hot air balloon festival every year.

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So, what did we get up to this year?

In very early January we went camping with some of our Hong Kong relatives, which the kids were desperate to do. Those relatives became first-time parents this year, so we have another cousin now!

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Lots of health dramas this year for both Louisette (inattentive ADD) and myself (lots of things, some of which have improved or been fixed—and I’m finally getting my stomach stitched together this month!)

Also lots of sleepovers with cousins.

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Lots of AWESOME writing stuff happening. In fact there are two Very Big Things I can’t talk about yet!

CHOICES THAT MATTER: AND THEIR SOULS WERE EATEN has had more than half a million downloads, and most people love it (there are loads of reviews on Google Play and not so many on itunes, despite the fact there are actually more sales on itunes). And next year I’ll finish the ANTIPODEAN QUEEN Australian steampunk trilogy of novels (strange, since I wrote HEART OF BRASS before Louisette was born), and start releasing my middle grade Heest trilogy. Plus I’ll release MURDER IN THE MAIL: A BLOODY BIRTHDAY, which is so ridiculously fun and different. And probably do more stuff I don’t know about yet!

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Chris switched jobs due to his previous job getting automated. He’s naturally content and handles such things much more gracefully than I do.

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Louisette is close to finishing her first year of Kindy. Other than the ADD-related stuff, she’s had a great year. She has some really excellent friends, and is taking more responsibility for things like packing her own school bag. It’s crazy how quickly kids learn to read, considering how complex it is. In the moment, of course, every word feels like it takes a million years (especially when the kid has ADD and the parents have either ADD or various other mental problems). Louisette also lost her first tooth, and won a school prize for the house-car-plane model we made together.

Her kindness and/or cleverness sometimes takes my breath away. Talking to her or sharing ideas with her is sheer pleasure.

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TJ turned 3 (we went to the zoo in a big group of cousins and friends), and became deeply obsessed with puzzles. He’s unusually good with letters and numbers, in part because he’s a smart kid and in part because Louisette loves teaching him (consciously preparing him for Kindy, which is two years away) and he adores her.

The kids continue to get on really well (most of the time).

Also, trains.

TJ is full of newfound imaginative skills (‘Tiggy’ was his first imaginary friend) and spends a lot of his time being the absolute perfect ideal of a happy and funny 3-year old boy. His laugh is so infectious.

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Um… what else?

Horseriding and cat-patting.

We (that is, the kids and I) also went to Telstra Tower twice this year, which TJ in particular enjoys talking about every time we see it (so, pretty much whenever we step outdoors).

We all had birthdays, and we’ll be having Christmas soon.

So that was our year, as far as I can remember it: Doctors and writing for me, job change for Chris, Kindy and maniacal laughter for/from the kids.

And the inevitable Christmas pic:

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And this is why digital cameras are awesome: because we get to keep all the truly terrible pictures taken along the way.

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Santa’s been into the egg nog, it seems.

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Santa get on the sauce and punched an angel. Allegedly.

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No paparazzi!

Parenting Review

This blog post came up in my facebook feed today, and I vaguely remembered it so I went back and had a read. It was written three years ago, when TJ was a tiny baby. It starts out, “I like to think about what I’m doing as a parent, and of course talk about it, because that helps me to understand what matters to me and what I can just let slide.”

That certainly hasn’t changed!

The kids are still pretty decent human beings, so THAT’s good. They barely ever eat a decent quantity of vegies, but at least they don’t eat much junk. They’re almost always well behaved, which makes Chris and I look good (them being functional members of society is a pleasant side effect, too).

The dummy drama is long over. It was difficult for a couple of weeks, then fine. It’s definitely worth reminding myself how much dummies are not an issue any more. Three years ago, that was on my mind every waking hour.

Babysitting-wise I’m now able to get through a full day with both kids, which is a huge achievement. It’s not an easy thing to get through a full day, though. (The Christmas holidays loom ahead, and they won’t be easy.) I haven’t been well enough to go back to work at all (other than writing), and I cope a LOT better if I’m looking after one kid at a time (Louisette is at school and TJ in daycare Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday so I get plenty of one-on-one time with each of them). So do the kids, not surprisingly. The get on really, really well—we have been extremely lucky in the mix of personalities—but no child plays well with another child every waking minute.

(My writing, of course, has taken off spectacularly in the last three years.)

Drool is no longer as issue. Easy peasy. The kids sometimes have food on their faces, but we don’t need a sheet under the table any more. Yay!

The kids watch SO MUCH TV. As I said before, I’m sure I’ll set TV limits sometime before the kids leave home. TV is free babysitting, which is hugely helpful. If everything else was perfect, then I’d probably focus on TV stuff. And if I had more significant issues, nothing on this list would make me blink an eye. Except maybe….

Toilet training suuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. That’s definitely the biggest parental stress right now. Presumably one day it’ll be like the dummy thing, “Oh yeah, I remember that sucked at the time, but it’s such a long time ago now.”

I have to choose to believe that. It’s been three years of misery toilet-wise and we’re seeing various experts nowadays.

The house is messy. I don’t have the energy to make the kids tidy up every day, especially at night when we’re all tired. But there are some things the kids usually do quite well, like putting their shoes in the right place. Usually they’re fairly obedient.

Louisette definitely has ADD. She’s keeping up academically due to being naturally intelligent, but I’ve stopped doing homework with her because it’s just too hard. Since ADD probably has an impact on toilet training, we’ll most likely try medication before the end of this year. It will be VERY interesting to see how that helps her cope with other life things, like emotional overload and reading.

Looking back, I wrote that previous blog entry at a really hard time. I hope that in three more years I’ll look back at this year—a year of miserable toilet training and lots of bad health for me—and say, “Those problems were such a big deal, but they’re in the past now.”

My kids are fundamentally healthy and happy, and that’s any parent really wants.

 

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Gift Guide for Ages 3-6ish

I loooove buying presents for my kids. As in, I’ll cheerfully buy presents in June (like budget experts tell you to), and then continue buying presents for the entire rest of the year (which budget experts do not recommend). Having said that, we don’t do stocking presents in our house, and likely never will. I hate the idea of a pile of low-quality gifts. And I assure you that my kids have plenty of full-blown present-opening frenzies made up entirely of quality gifts (generally around $20 each, although often there’s one gift that is much more expensive).

We also have three Christmases every year: One for my side of the family (usually mid-December, since my Mum runs church services on Christmas Day), one for Chris’ side of the family (usually Christmas Day), and our own private small & special Christmas Eve. We light candles and open 1 or 2 gifts each (usually 1, but of course the kids want to give their gifts to each other and I try not to refuse generous impulses).

You may have heard of the Four-Gift Rule. There’s a few variations, but the idea is that parents can restrict themselves to four gifts. For example:

  1. Something you want
  2. Something you need
  3. Something to wear
  4. Something to read

 

Or:

  1. Something to play with
  2. Something to wear
  3. Something to read
  4. Something to share

 

I disagree with “something to wear” because clothes are only exciting if you only ever get one new outfit a year. Since there is more than one season in a year, my kids often get new clothes. (You’ll be shocked at the knowledge that I love buying them clothes and I’m certainly not going to only buy them clothes in December. That reminds me… Louisette definitely needs a new pirate outfit…)

But enough prologue. Here’s some awesome loot:

  1. Water. Always a winner, in virtually any form. I like a water table because then I can choose to believe that the kids won’t need their swimmers (until proven otherwise). We’ve had a water table before (which was also fun for collecting ice in winter) but after a couple of years outside it was so brittle it fell to bits. Which means I got to buy another one! A BETTER one!

This particular model was $40 from Woolies. But pretty much any one will do. The kids will love seeing the enormous box under (…next to…) the tree, too. The orange handles on the side turn wheels that make the water flow around the circle. How cool is that!

 

2. Books! It ain’t Christmas without books (for myself, Chris, and the kids). There are a million fantastic books for kids, so it’s well worth having a bit of a google, both for the stuff your kid likes, and for lists saying the best books—then you can click through for a better look at the ones that appeal. And of course this is a great time to go and support your local bookshop, too!

I noticed around this time last year that Louisette has a bent toward engineering, so I bought her books that were specifically geared (heh) to encourage girls to picture themselves in STEM careers (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths). Googling “STEM” in combination with “Books” and any other relevant words (age 5, girls, etc) will get you a lot of suggestions.

This particular book emphasises that things don’t work perfectly the first time. It also rhymes.

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This is also the book that inspired Louisette’s House-Car-Plane project, which won her an award.

The same authors have two other books. One is ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and the other is IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. They’re all in the same school, I believe.

ROSIE REVERE and ADA TWIST also have follow-up “project” books. Louisette is going to looooove hers!

For TJ, his grand obsession is puzzles (more on that later). For his books, I googled and then clicked on this list. Easy! Out of those, I chose:

 

A sleep time book (parents can fantasise that it makes bedtime easier), a singing book, and a book about kindness. As you may have guessed, TJ loves vehicles. Also dinosaurs and superheroes.

3. Pets

I dream of one day producing a suspiciously mobile box with air-holes in the lid and a puppy inside. One day. Not sure if it’s plausible. We’d need to have real grass in our backyard first, for one thing.

In the meantime, we recently bought some fish. They’re actually a terrible Christmas gift because the set up and cycling takes about a week (if it doesn’t, you’re likely to have mass extinction—ask me how I know), and it’s such a busy time that it’s hard to get good advice from your pet shop when you need it most. But it could work for a birthday, keeping in mind pets are a huge deal (and fish don’t cuddle, so it’s noticeable that Louisette quite likes the fish but TJ doesn’t care much).

Cats are awesome, of course. In my opinion, they’re easier than fish. You need to think about where they’ll poo (kitty litter? Your yard? The neighbour’s organic vegie patch?) and how much you care about native birds (something like 80% of cats kill at least one native bird and don’t tell their owners).

Pets are always super expensive and higher maintenance than expected. Mice and birds tend to stink. A five-year old can potentially do a small amount of pet-related jobs, but will never be reliable. You’re also taking a risk of experiencing death (although that’s technically an advantage, because it helps kids to understand death a bit better when they lose a human they really love).

4. Building kits.

We have loads of duplo and about five sets’ worth of wooden train set (which has a near-infinite number of possible permutations). But I wanted something a bit older for Louisette (and I fear the dreaded Underfoot Lego—Louisette has some lego, but she has to bring it out and put it away in one session at a time). Then I stumbled across this amazing thing:

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That’s right. It’s a building toy designed for six-year old girls THAT HAS A MOTOR. It’s made by a company called Roominate. This set has three permutations (helicopter, submarine and plane), and it also fits with their various other sets (which, disappointingly, do not seem to have a motor—although you can buy it separately).

I’m buying another set from the same range for Louisette’s birthday, so she can combine sets in unique ways. When I tried it out for myself, the motor was great but the pieces were a little hard to put together. Still, I like the curves and colours.

And it’s under $30. I really like that it has a person (particularly a girl, particularly a non-Caucasian girl—she is Hawaiian) and a rabbit. Not just because it encourages imaginative play, but because engineers SHOULD be thinking about what their machines are actually FOR. Are they big enough for people? Are they comfortable? Are they safe? Can she see out the window while she’s flying? Etc.

I also bought this Melissa & Doug building set for $40 on ebay:

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I look forward to seeing Louisette do weird and wonderful stuff with it. (Following instructions to build a specific shape is also a fantastic skill set that’s well worth developing.)

It’s a little silly to buy two different building sets for one Christmas, but here we are.

5. Speaking of personal obsessions… TJ and puzzles. He does puzzles every day, over and over again. He is very good at puzzles. Although he’s three (and a half), he is well above average when it comes to puzzles.

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Given that he’s just discovered (and begun obsessing over) WHERE’S WALLY? this was the obvious choice. It has 35 pieces, which is challenging but possible for TJ—and then he can amuse himself finding every single one of the items in the border. It’s $25 here.

That particular website gives free postage for non-bulky orders over $100 (I found them because they sell Roominate stuff). This was not a difficult task (although I have several very kind relatives who I tend to source gifts for, that they pay for and then give to my kids—I get to “buy” more presents, and my relatives save a bunch of time and brain effort).

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This is a simpler puzzle (also a floor puzzle, which is great for younger kids). It’s $27 and out of stock (apparently I bought the last one) here (same online store as the above). The genius thing about this is that TJ will learn his continents and several animals while doing this puzzle (over and over again). There are LOADS of puzzles that educate kids about various things (letters, numbers, maps, animals, even spelling).

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This is a 30-piece puzzle that is trickier than it looks. There are holes in the back that TJ will LOVE using to poke out the pieces (also solving a classic issue with new puzzles—pieces that don’t come out!) Every piece is a slightly different shape so it’s hopefully developing a slightly different part of TJ’s brain. It’s $14 here.

6. Trains. Wooden trains are seriously awesome (except for the crawling around on the ground part—we’re WAY past tables here). Pretty much all wooden sets will fit together in lots of different ways. Other than a $30 set that popped up at Aldi this year, they are super expensive. This tunnel is cool (the dinosaur on the top is a separate piece, which will be handy for attacking the trains below), but that one thing cost $20 (here), which is pretty standard.

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7. Active stuff. Any list of four gifts should include “Something Physical”. Some things are super expensive, like a trampoline or bike. Some not so much. This is very much billed as a Summer toy (it floats) but I thought it was a great toy for cold or rainy days when the kids need to do something silly and active… and inside. Even the rings are inflatable.

It’s $35 here. (I bought it when it was on sale.)

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8. Bath letters. Cheap, awesome, and educational. I guarantee Louisette will use these to teach TJ more of his letters. He can already count up to 12 and recognise ten or so numbers and letters—because he worships Louisette, and she loves teaching (which of course also helps her own knowledge). When wet, they stick to tiles. How fun is that!?!

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These were $4 on ebay, and I bet they’re a favourite on Christmas morning.

9. Tradition.

We have a special Christmas tradition in my family. Each year, I buy a small conifer to be our live Christmas tree. I take a picture with it and the children, so that as they grow they can compare their size to that harbinger of Christmas Day.

And every year, it dies. Before Christmas even comes.

I’m really not that good with… keeping things alive.

This year I found this. With postage, it was about $40 from ebay, which is quite a lot—but we can use it every year. There are loads of fun chocolate advent calendars out there, and loads of beautiful reusable ones (often with little drawers to put 24 small gifts in). I don’t want to make over-eating or buying-24-crappy-junk-gifts part of our tradition, so I was excited to find this. Each bauble has a different design, and is magnetised. Then there’s a star for Christmas Day. I think the kids will love it (so long as no one tells them about the chocolate variety), and I’m almost certain I can’t kill it. Although wooden toys DO burn really well…

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10. Something that definitely isn’t useful.

At the steampunk fair, flush with the knowledge that my pirate trilogy would soon be published, I saw someone with a half-goggle. Genius! And only a few bucks to get my own steampunk pirate patch on ebay.

So I guess this is more a present for me than for the kids. I can live with that. In my defence, Louisette specifically asked me for goggles after the fair.

11. Tech

A good friend of ours bought Louisette this talking (and programmable) toy dog for her first birthday. Since then we bought the other one for TJ (“from” Louisette). They’re called Scout and Violet.

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You can choose your child’s name from a list when you program it, and the dog will say things like, “I love you… Louise” (since “Louisette” is not common enough to be on the list). You can also choose volume, and switch it off at any time by squeezing the “off” foot. One of the paws plays “Bedtime music” which is a very useful feature.

These dogs have been a consistent favourite toy for a long time (although if it wasn’t for her computer Louisette would be over hers, I think).

Which brings us to… computers. For children.

I thought the entire concept of computers for children was madness—until I saw a four-year old drawing with her finger on an ipad screen. There was no mess, no stains on clothes, no eating crayons, no sharpening pencils, and no dropping fifty-seven textas on the floor and then wandering away. It blew my mind. Since then I’ve seen a bunch of fantastic, innovative games that make the world better. In my opinion, computer skills are vital, and it’s worthwhile to get kids started early. Plus, of course, when you need the kid to be quiet and still in a public place, a computer + earplugs is magic.

I did a bunch of research and then bought Louisette a LeapPad 3. That was back in 2014, so I think there are new models since then (and I imagine that the Leappad 3 will become obsolete at some point).

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It comes in either green or purply-pink (and so do the gel frames, as pictured). It costs somewhere between $100 and $200, plus $25ish for the gel frame (which protects it from breaking when it’s dropped).

The good: It’s designed for age 3 and up, so a lot of it is set out with pictures that make navigation easy for non-readers. (Louisette was often frustrated and not too fond of it for the first six months after she got it on her 3rd birthday; TJ took to it immediately when he received his on his own 3rd birthday.)

It has camera and video, which kids LOVE. (Caveat: Images can’t be taken off the computer, so it’s impossible to save or share them.)

It has a white-listed internet (which can be switched off and on via the parental settings), meaning that everything the kids can access (and there’s a lot) has been watched and approved in advance.

It has really excellent, educational games, that are tailored to the main user’s age and skill level. (But they usually cost around $20 each.) We’ve only bought a few games (and a book that “reads” to the kid as they touch the words) in almost three years. Plus, each new game (and switching the internet on) is a fantastic gift on its own.

When you have two LeapPads, the kids can actually message each other (using pre-written messages—so bullying is impossible—and a bunch of animated emoticons). It is hilarious to see my two kids with their heads together, screaming in laughter as they say, “I sent you a message!” “I got it!”

It has a lot of branded stuff—Disney and so on—which the kids adore.

The bad: It has an inbuilt game that is literally poker (spinning pictures which reward the user when they match, and can then be spent on features)

It also has an entire section that just advertises LeapPad games, and can’t be removed.

It doesn’t connect to other devices in any way (except, of course, LeapPad devices—it even has games featuring Scout and Violet).


 

Bonus points

Are you buying a gift for a child who’s not your own? You’d ideally check with the parents if you buy something on this list (I’m NOT aiming this at anyone specific, by the way! Please don’t think my kids dislike anything they’ve ever been given):

*Alive (including plants. Parents are very, very tired and even a plant can be too much to care for. The kid is definitely not going to look after it properly.)

*Larger than your head (or the kid’s head, if yours is unusually large). Kids have a lot of toys, and their parents probably don’t have enough places to put them all.

*Involving work for the parents eg craft or science projects.

*Messy, such as paint or play-dough (yes, play-dough is messy).

*Noisy or annoying (electric toys or certain high-pitched TV shows).

*Junk food. (And check for food intolerances if you’re bringing food that kids are likely to eat—food intolerances are on the rise, and some are deadly. Parents are not making this up for attention, I assure you. Peanuts in particular can kill, even if the allergic kid never directly touches the food item.)

If you buy soft toys, you’ll get a great reaction on the day—but by the age of 3 every child has at least twenty soft toys, and probably more like fifty. However, certain toys will be VERY beloved (especially those linked to a TV character the child already adores). So think carefully and talk to the parents. Kids are amazingly specific about their brands, even for intellectual properties they have never watched (such as Star Wars or Superheroes).

However!

Toys that get used up, such as textas (there are washable ones), coloured paper, colouring books, etc are good for homes that really don’t have much space.

When someone has a set of something—duplo, lego, building sets, train sets—you can buy a new set or part that goes with it. That’s brilliant for both kids and parents.

Pretty much everyone loves books (although probably not enormously long ones, which leads to trouble at bed time).

Kids and parents will both most likely adore you for taking the kids for some kind of outing.  Zoos, Questacon (if you’re in Canberra), and those trampoline places are all fun for everyone. Or you can simply take them to a playground they haven’t been to before (or even that they have). They will love you forever.

Also fantastic as gifts that don’t take up space—removable wall stickers. (If your friend lives in a rental, definitely query first; they may not be as removable as one hopes.) There are some gorgeous quirky designs here (I met the artist yesterday, so I’m a little excited).

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You do NOT need to spend a bundle on kids!

So here’s my Four-Gift Rule:

  1. Something to read.
  2. Something creative.
  3. Something educational.
  4. Something physical (fitness and/or coordination)
  5. Something silly.
  6. Something that interacts with an existing toy (lego is almost always a safe bet; duplo for younger kids).

Okay, that’s six. That’s what relatives are for. Or siblings. Or, if all else fails, an inability to accurately count to four. Or you can combine them in various ways.

It’s also vitally important (and easy) to get kids involved in the fun of giving gifts to others. My kids LOVE discussing, buying, wrapping, and giving presents to all their relatives, especially each other. They also love Christmas Shoeboxes and TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop (both of which are specifically Christian, which may or may not work for you), which are a nice tangible way of giving to others and being aware of the rest of the world.

(99% of charities benefit from cash more than physical gifts. Physical gifts are mainly useful for kids to get into the habit of giving, rather than for the charity itself. I really like TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop because it IS a cash gift, that the charity interprets in practical ways.)

PS This site did a very comprehensive review of nerf guns. Enjoy!

Like Mother, Like Daughter

One of the gifts my parents gave me was the belief that writing is not a job, but a hobby. I didn’t write full-time until I was unable to do any other work (and I’m still not making minimum wage, even though I’m well above the average Australian full-time writer’s income of $12,000/year)

I am giving Louisette the same gift, assuring her that her stories are excellent and at the same time teaching her that if she’s a writer she’ll be something else as well.

It happens that she really is a good storyteller, with an epic imagination. At one stage she had had about thirty imaginary friends, puppies, horses, and relatives (including imaginary parents), as well as a range of vehicles to bring them all along with us.

She also has a great mind for science and engineering, which I loudly and unconditionally encourage. Last Christmas we bought her ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, which she loves, and which led to her winning a school prize for a House-Car-Plane device this year.

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This year one of her gifts is this building kit, which includes its own motor! How cool is that, for $25ish!

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But I digress.

Today, for the first time, she pointed out a plot hole in a TV show (specifically, “Why doesn’t the yellow dog go with the blue dog to make the fence? They’re both builders.”) That warmed my writerly heart.

But then I read her the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, bracing myself for my harshest review ever. Not only did she like the story and immediately care about the outcome (phew!) but she understood and extrapolated the universe of the story.

Rahana is a fairly low-tech world (although their ships are more advanced than the rest of their tech due to the fact that the world is made up of thousands of islands), and in the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE an isolated and defenceless island wakes in terror at the news that a pirate ship is approaching.

I asked Louisette what she was worried about in the story. She said she was worried about the pirates coming, because Dance and her family, “don’t have swords or shields or anything”.

Here’s the thing: I never mentioned any kind of weapon in the story. She figured out the technology level because of her knowledge of history and/or the conventions of fantasy fiction!

I’m misty-eyed just thinking about it.

THEN she blew my mind a second time by suggesting, “Maybe they’ll invent electricity and that will help them fight the pirates.”

She’s five years old, and she’s a master of military tactics. That’s my girl.

 

 

The best weekend ever

I had a reasonably productive day yesterday. But our cat, Ana, is having the best weekend since my kids were born. The small annoying creatures are gone! Forever! (Presumably.)

Louisette, age five, is a dog person.

TJ, age three, is a cat person, like his mum (which makes me very happy). He’s at an obsessive age, and will often pause in our living room and say, “Where’s Ana? I want to pat Ana. I want her come IN.”

He’ll sometimes try and involve her in his train set or puzzles, or try to feed her a cracker. It’s adorable seeing him try to please her. Ana knows he is an excellent source of attention, but she also knows he is loud and fast and unpredictable. So she’ll sidle into a room and pause, wanting his pats but dreading his overwhelming love. I watch this dramatic tension play out every day.

These facial expressions perfectly encapsulate their relationship:

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Except of course today. Today it’s just Ana and me, and she is literally vibrating with joy. She’s sticking close to me—not on my lap, which would imply she actually likes a mere human—roughly a metre away, and loudly purring.

She’s going to be so pissed when the others come back.

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(She also doesn’t like having her photo taken. Cats are too regal to be looked at directly, and that includes looking through lenses.)

48 hours

A few minutes ago, Chris and the kids drove away. They’re going to Sydney to stay in a house by a beach with relatives. I’m not going to see any of them for about two days.

The idea of sending them off without me has the ring of genius about it. Today is the last day of school holidays, and we’ve saved money (and spent large chunks of my sanity) by not enrolling Louisette in holiday care. She’s in Kindy this year, and the holidays are just as awful as I expected. (Louisette herself is very low-maintenance most of the time, but I’m just not well enough to deal with kids 24/7.)

I’m literally shaking from the stress of packing the car and getting everyone out and away… but they’re gone now. My time is my own until Sunday, and anything I put away or clean will stay put away or clean until then.

I can watch grown-up TV during the day. I can fix household items without anyone begging to ‘help’. I can cook without anyone loudly yelling that they won’t eat it. I can eat whole meals without having to get up even once. I can work as long as I like, and sleep when I like. I can go the the toilet by myself. I don’t have to dread the usual morning battles. I don’t have to get out of my PJs until Monday.

As I was talking about this glorious weekend, more than one person said, “Or you could, you know, rest. Or maybe do something fun.” Those words literally don’t make sense to me. I have to try to think past the layers of panic, pain, and guilt and then use a dose of imagination.

TV. I like TV. And reading. And napping. So I’ll definitely do all of those things.

And I’ll put all the toys where they belong. And do a ‘toy swap’ (where some are brought out of hiding while others are put away). And maybe clean the bathrooms. And hopefully write somewhere between 10 and 20,000 words. And maybe sort the medicine shelf. And some of the study. And the kids’ rooms. And maybe the pantry cupboard. And I’ll definitely give the kitchen a _proper_ clean, including the oven. And some of the junk spots that we have here and there all over the house. And the winter/summer clothes. And wash all the bedlinen.

The writing will be fun. Plus it will lead to less oh-shit-I’m-behind-on-everything stress, and also some pay. Pay is important.

I can’t help feeling there’s something desperately wrong with our society that makes people (women, of course I mean women) plan an entire free weekend around work and cleaning. But I hope that at the end of this weekend I’ll be ahead on work and temporarily less swallowed up by guilt, and I can be present for the things that are actually fun—being with Chris, and being with my family.

I remember that being fun. It will be fun again.

A conflux pic taken by Cat Sparks:

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Books, Food, and the Dangers of Combining the Two

I’ve hurt my back (again) so for the last two days I haven’t been able to do much. I wasn’t even sure I was okay to drive, so yesterday my partner Chris worked from home, and today my father-in-law brought the kids home after school.

Today was a whole lot better than yesterday, pain-wise, and I even did a teensy bit of cautious cleaning (on the level of kicking dirty washing from the hallway into the laundry).

As my father-in-law left, I noticed a book Louisette (5) had brought home from school. One of those kids’ cook books. My heart sank.

 

Louisette brought it out of her bag (dangit, she remembered she had it) with smiles and requests to read it, and “make everything in it”. I had a look through (approving of the simplicity of the recipes) and said I’d think about maybe making something in it. She wandered off, and I had a look through.

It had ten recipes (not, as the cover proclaims, FIFTY*)

We had too many kiwifruit, which was worrying me (I have many fruit-related anxieties**), so I thought, “Let’s make that kiwifruit smoothie” (but, ya know, in the thermomix and with some frozen raspberries in it too). Kiwifruit is soft enough that I had the kids cutting it up—Louisette cut off the skin (along with two-thirds of each fruit…. well, we DID have too many…) and then TJ cut the remainder into smaller pieces.

This was a grand success, and I rode the high and proclaimed we’d make popcorn too. Louisette has a thing for popcorn and I’d secretly bought some microwavable stuff, so THAT was easy.

I’d already said we could maybe make the tart things for dinner (my own plan was frozen nuggets and chips…. bad back, remember?) since I knew we had a single sheet of ancient puff pastry in the freezer, and I’d also discovered some Chris-made pumpkin soup from a month or so ago, so I thought maybe that’d already count as one of the recipes too. So I took a photo: two happy kids in aprons with smoothie (in a jug to save for Chris), bowls of popcorn, and a freezer container of pumpkin soup.

They’re looking sideways due to watching TV. Mum is boring.

 

One thing led to another and thoughts happened in my head along the lines of, “Hey, we have to cook dinner anyway!” and “I can re-use trays” and “If I start now, I can…”

So naturally I decided to do all eleven recipes… using healthy versions where available, and using only what was already in the house.

  1. Smoothie (specifically, kiwi and raspberry, sweetened with maple syrup). Kid involvement: chopping kiwifruit together. Taste: Excellent. Healthiness: Pretty good. Kid response: Delighted. Mum cheat: thermomix.
  2. Popcorn. Kid involvement: Listening to popping (what else is there?) Taste: Excellent. Healthiness: Pretty good. Kid response: Delighted. Mum cheat: Microwave popcorn.
  3. Vegetable Art. Kid involvement: chopping various things. Taste: Vegetables and cheese. Healthiness: Excellent. Kid response: Delighted. They even ate most of what they made. Mum cheat: Using only a few ingredients (carrot, cucumber, cheese, mini crackers, and 2-minute noodles). I made a hill at sunrise; Louisette made a racing car (it looks like a train to me), and TJ proudly proclaimed that he had made “A Mess!” This also kept them entertained quite well while I prepped various other things (bread dough a la thermomix, roast vegetables for soup, stuff for “Pasta and Sauce”).

 

 

 

4. Pasta and Sauce. Louisette begged me not to cook this at all (not a fan of tomatoes) but it was far too late for moderation now. Kid involvement: I forced Louisette to stir the sauce for ten seconds so I could take a picture. Taste: Very tomato-y but actually rather nice. Healthiness: Excellent. Kid response: Begging for the sweet release of death. Mum cheat: I reverse cheated on this one: I actually added zucchini (pulverised with butter and onion in the thermomix) and fresh tomato. With grated mozzarella on top (we keep grated mozzarella in the freezer).

 

5. Bread. Thermomix bread is pretty easy (and we have dried yeast on hand) so I used the thermomix ‘basic bread’ recipe, made a small loaf out of most of it and let the kids make fun shapes from the rest (which I knew would also cook quickly, being smaller). Top tip: Don’t let kids knead bread. They’re terrible at it, and it always ends up really heavy. But they love it.

6. Soup.

At some stage I remembered we had a pumpkin in the fridge and lost my mind completely. I did a fast-and-dirty roast of pumpkin, carrot, sweet potato, onion, zucchini, and potato and then basically shoved it all in the thermomix. The next pic is Louisette modelling for me….. Louisette doesn’t like soup.

Kid involvement: Posing for photo, under protest. Taste: Pumpkin-y. Pretty good, especially considering I forgot to add stock (I added thermomix-and-butter-fried garlic before the rest, and had sprinkled herbs on the roasting vegies along with sprayed oil). Healthiness: Excellent. Kid response: NOOOO WHYYYYYY/Yum (TJ finished his). Mum cheat: Thermomix rather than saucepan (and I know from experience that you should always roast the vegies rather than cooking them any other way – and cover the pumpkin with foil so it doesn’t burn).

 

7. Tarts/Flans: I made savoury cheese flans plus two jam tarts (both just pastry with stuff inside).

Kid involvement: Louisette broke eggs into the bowl (twice, since the first time she did she added water “because I wanted to make it more healthy”), and both kids helped use the circular pastry cutter, then added scrap bits of pastry to the top of the tarts. Taste: Exquisite. Seriously. I think using the same containers brought in some delicious features from other dishes that did something wonderful to what should have been an omelette with pretensions. Healthiness: Pretty good. Kid response: All the nope, which luckily meant Chris and I got to eat more. Mum cheat: Frozen (and badly freezer-burned) puff pastry instead of shortcrust. I also added ham and avocado because they’re yummy and healthy.

[darn it, I’ve run out of free wordpress image space.]

[picture of muffin tin with tarts/flans because kids were no longer interested in this weird obsession.]

So for dinner we had tarts/flans, fresh bread, fresh home-made pumpkin soup, and pasta with home-made sauce.

Meanwhile, fairy cakes and upside-down puddings were cooking (precisely the same batter, even in the book) were cooking.

8. Upside-down pudding.

Basic cake mixture, in a muffin tin with tinned pineapple, sultanas, and desiccated coconut placed into the pan first. Served upside down (so the fruit is on the top). Kid involvement: Placing pineapple slices inside. Taste: Soap. I have no idea why. Possibly I didn’t clean the tin real well after the tarts. Possibly my body was trying to tell me something. Healthiness: Could be worse. Kid response: Meh. Mum cheat: Cooking fairy cakes at the same time. Genius. Also I’d long since run out of proper flour so I used cornflour. Taste was no longer a factor. The end was nigh.

[Picture of TJ eating his upside-down pudding. I think he actually ate it all, presumably because he was thrown into confusion at this stage of the evening—generally our kids respond to cupcakes with enthusiasm, then eat the top and abandon the rest.]

9. Fairy Cakes.

Same as above, but with paper patty pans instead of fruit. Then flavoured & coloured icing, with all the toppings I could find (desiccated coconut, white choc chips, sprinkles). Kid involvement: Decoration! Much cheering! Also, choosing colour and flavour of the icing (with heavy hints along the lines of “We have lemon flavouring and peppermint flavouring”). Taste: Mmm… artificial flavouring. Healthiness: Nope. Kid response: Delighted with the decorating process, yet strangely unenthusiastic about their ninth course. So this is their dessert-stomach threshold. Good to know. Mum cheat: Dad supervised the brightly-coloured horror of decoration while I did other things (far too hyper myself to panic over the small fingers and food colouring, which would normally be a huge deal).

[Picture of strangely re-invogorated children smeared with chocolate and icing.]

10. Moon rocks (basically lumpy choc chip cookies, but mine turned utterly flat). Kid involvement: Pouring in choc chips. Taste: Cardboard. Healthiness: Fail. Kid response: Glazed. Mum cheat: I had reached a zen-like level of existence where any ingredient vaguely the same colour was a fine substitute, and measuring anything was too hard.

[picture of pancake-like “rocks” melded together.]

11. Chocolate cake.

Yep, for reals. Big finish. Luckily this was a biscuit base with a pure chocolate top. Hello again, thermomix!

Kid involvement: Licking the bowl (Louisette)/showing no interest whatsoever (poor over-fed TJ). Taste: Chocolate. What’s not to like? Okay fine; I haven’t actually eaten any yet. I’m just about to, honest. Healthiness: Hah, lol. Kid response: Too tired to care. Literally zero interest. Mum cheat: THERMOMIX SMASH. Also, Chris does the dishes.

[picture of cake]

I published this post, then went back and tried the chocolate cake. It was excellent. Butter, biscuits, chocolate, then chocolate on top. Rather rich, but easy and fabulous. I shall try to hide it from the kids tomorrow.

 

Chris came home from work to find me wild-eyed and bustling, with the children poring over vegetable art and things bubbling, roasting, and mixing all over the kitchen. After a little while, he came to me and said, “Hmm… might you be having a manic episode?”

Why yes, I am!

 

*While writing this post I tried to come up with fifty “interpretations” of the ten recipes. Some were fairly legit (four different types of smoothie, sure), some were moderately legit (you can make jam tarts by putting jam in the pastry, or cheesy tarts by using this egg-and-cheese mixture), and some were literally a list of “foods that can be eaten from a pot”. I managed to nearly reach thirty recipes by including a list of “other types of tarts that also use pastry” but fifty? Not a chance.

**This is actually true. Weird textures and slight variations in flavour cause me much pain. Don’t get me started on under-ripe/over-ripe fruit.

 

Storytelling by Mr 2

TJ is almost 3; older now than Louisette was when he was born.

A couple of days ago he said, “I tell stories to you.”

“Oh good,” I said. “I’m listening.”

“This story called: Little-Big!” he said. “I biiiiiiiiiig dinosaur, and Mummy little dinosaur.”

“Oh!” I said. “I like this story. What happens next?”

“I eat you! I eat you all up!”

“Oh!” I said, as he acted out this grisly tale. “And then what happens?”

“You all gone.”

“I’m all gone,” I agreed. “There’s no Mummy here any more. And then what happens?”

“I spit you out, ptuey!” he said. “Now you back here.”

“And then what happens?” I asked.

“That end.”

 

 

It’s not his very first story – I think that one was, “Look! I make bridge! People walk across bridge! The end!”

Recorded here for posterity.

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One-Quarter

As I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room today, I realised something.

My job as a parent is to love my kids and help them grow up to be vaguely functional, content, and decent adults (to the extent that is possible). John Scalzi recently wrote a lovely post on his daughter’s 18th, opening with:

Here is a true thing: In the grand scheme of things, I’ve only had three things I wanted to do with my life. The first was to be a writer. The second was to be a good husband. The third was to make sure that any kid I had made it through their childhood without want or fear, and knowing that they were loved. When I was younger, I figured if I could manage those three things, then at the end of my days I could leave this planet with a content heart.”

As you know, dear reader, Louisette just turned five. She is a schoolgirl now, not a baby or a toddler or a pre-schooler or even an “under-five”.

If you consider adulthood to fall around the age of twenty, then my vital task of being the mother of this particular child is already one-quarter finished. Obviously I’ll still be Louisette’s mother after that, but we will both be adults – equals – and, I hope, friends.

Five and a bit years ago, Louisette opened her eyes for the first time.

Now she walks and talks and has opinions and best friends and flaws and skills and dreams. She is herself; different to anyone else in the world.

Another five years, and she’ll be ten. Tall and long-haired, and showing the first signs of puberty. Ten year olds can have intelligent conversations with anyone. They’re smarter and better than most adults, to be honest. When I taught K-10 Indonesian, it was the ten-year olds that I liked the most.

Five years after that, she’ll be fifteen, and utterly different. She’ll have a much better idea of who she is and who she wants to be. She’ll be well past puberty; wearing bras and flirting with boys. Maybe even dating (ugh! no!). She’ll have secrets from me—important secrets. She might barely speak to me at all. She might be learning to drive, or deciding where to apply for her first job. Any movie I can watch, she can watch with me.

Five years after that, she’ll be twenty. She’ll be her own creature more than she is mine, even if we still share the same house. She’ll probably already have at least one serious heartbreak behind her. She can think rationally about marriage, and will know whether she wants children or not.

Five years after that, I might be a grandmother.

All that in the blink of an eye.

 

Time for another collage! Stat!

 

 

 

 

That final photo was taken by http://thorsonphotography.com.au at the National Arboretum.

And I’ll end with another great quote from another great author (in this case, Pamela Freeman*), who is a facebook friend of mine (I knew her before she was as famous as she is now) and said, “Here’s another weird thought: she might be a quarter of the way towards being adult, but it’s the most important quarter. You’ve laid down positive brain chemistry, taught her how to love and how to think, and whatever you’ve done now is likely it: even puberty won’t shape her brain more than you have already done. I find this both scary and reassuring.”

Writers make the best facebook comments.

Since I seem to be quoting writers today, here’s some Tolstoy: “From the child of five to myself is but a step. But from the newborn baby to the child of five is an appalling distance.”

Which is more or less what Pamela Freeman (and various psychologists) said, but in Tolstoy’s inimitable style.

*She writes a bunch of different genres from historical drama to glorious fantasy to children’s books. I just finished reading the second “Princess Betony” book with Louisette, a chapter a night (and freely altering the scary bits to be less scary).

BFFs torn asunder

I had a minor medical procedure today which I had to fast for (what, including chocolate??? Noooooooo!) and it was also Louisette’s last day of holidays before Kindy, which included a special appointment to meet her teacher and look at her new classroom (all very lovely).

I really like the school, the teacher, etc etc and I’m beyond excited that my little distraction is starting a whole new phase of her life.

The epic collages continue…

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(The big photo was taken by http://thorsonphotography.com.au)

But actually right now I’m mama-bear FURIOUS.

You see, the daycare centre next door to the Kindy has been Lizzie’s social hub since she was literally a year old. I actually got to be one of the educators in her room, back when it was just eight kids. There are a small number of kids who’ve gone through the whole daycare centre with Louisette, year by year.

Two, to be exact.

And one of them switched days after that first year, so although the kids still think of each other as best friends, they’ve barely seen each other since then.

Which leaves one. Let’s call her Helen.

Helen is an extremely laid-back individual, who even at the age of one would look at the rest of us dancing with a sweet little smile that said, “I ain’t doing that.” She’s also a freaking genius. When we were gently coaxing our one-year olds to say two-word sentences like “Big Dog”, Helen would say things like, “On the weekend I went swimming with my Daddy.” (Which I remember because I asked her what she did at the pool and she said, “Bubbles.”)

She almost never cried or complained, and I’ve actually never seen her hit another child (I’m sure she has at some point, but rarely). Over the years we became good friends with her whole family, and even coordinated swimming lessons with them.

Helen was having weekly swimming lessons for ages before we joined in (very excited that Louisette could scrape into the same class as Helen). After the lessons, we’d play in the public pool. I’ll never forget the day when Louisette was jumping into the pool from the edge (like usual) and Helen jumped in too. Her parents were over the moon – she’d never jumped in before.

When Louisette is bossy, Helen either wanders elsewhere or goes along with her idea. When Helen is reluctant to do something, Louisette leads the way.

I love both kids so very much.

So of course, being an ex-teacher at the school on top of everything else, I spoke to quite a few people about whether Helen and Louisette (and the other girl) would be placed in the same class. Everyone said that of course close friends would not be separated.

Louisette and Helen have had every adult in their life go ON and ON and ON about Kindergarten for months. They’re both happy and excited about it, but have also shown their nerves in different ways. They’ve both been reassured over and over that they’ll be in the same class.

So we show up today, and HELEN IS IN THE OTHER CLASS.

I’m a (non-practising) teacher, so I do understand that stuff happens, and that every parent is obsessed with their own kid. I’m sure that a lot of thought has gone into the way they divided up the two Kindy classes.

Still.

I cried a bunch, and spoke to the department head (and then also to Louisette’s teacher- not because she decided the classes, but to let her know what was going on). They both assured me that the two Kindy classes will do a bunch of stuff together and blah blah blah. Yes, that’s nice. That will be enough that the girls probably won’t consciously realise that we broke our promise to them. A promise that gave them security for the biggest life change they’ve had so far. But I know that neighbouring classes don’t truly play together; they build different identities around their differing classes. I know that I broke my promise to my daughter, and it isn’t a small matter at all. And I know that these two girls could have complemented each other through the entirety of their school careers, through tricky teenage years (literally the reason we picked this particular school) and beyond. But the colleague of mine who separated them may have put their whole lives on a different track.

So, like I said, I’m furious.

I have told Louisette that she and Helen are “neighbours” (Helen’s mum has told Helen the same thing). Both girls are fine, really.

Helen’s mum is reasonably calm—we both really admire one of the more-recent-but-still-very-familiar girls who is in Helen’s class, so hopefully that girl and Helen will grow closer so Helen can have a same-class BFF who’s worthy of her.

Of course I’ve rambled on too much about this, so I need to start a new entry to actually talk about Louisette.

There’s still a chance that the classes will change and Louisette and Helen will be together. But this is a new phase in these girls’ lives, after all—and the biggest change is that their school will now see more of them than their parents, and make more and more decisions that alter their lives and futures. For better or worse.

 

The artist formerly known as Miss Four

Last Sunday, Louisette turned five. She’s about to start Kindy. Today was her party.

Five years. She’s grown all the way from a giddying hypothetical notion to a wrinkly spew machine to a distinct person: smart, focused, creative, affectionate, gentle, passionate, and gorgeous. I took a photo a day for the first year of each of my kids lives, and those daily photos are here (TJ first, since he’s more recent) if you’re in the mood for a lot of scrolling.

Look at that girl!

(This photo and the next were taken on a professional shoot with Thorson Photography.)

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Right now I feel like just plastering every wall of my home with photos of my kids.

All the most horrifying statistics about kids are “this many kids under five die of such-and-such”. Now that Louisette has turned five, I’m pretty sure she’s going to live forever. We made it this far, right? RIGHT???

Kindy. (Note to self: Learn how to spell Kindergarten. GAR-ten. You can’t rely on five attempts and a spell checker every single time…)

Kindy is the beginning of a new era. It’s a relatively easy transition for Louisette since it’s located literally next door to her day care centre (which she’s been attending since she was a year old; at the party today there were three kids she’s been friends with since that time – and a total of six pre-existing friends who will be in Kindy with her).

Louisette is deliriously excited about Kindy as well as being quite nervous (probably because every adult in her life is so obsessed with Kindy that it’s making it seem like a much bigger life event than it is). She’ll wear a uniform and have school holidays (she’s five weeks into the longest holidays of her life right now). It changes the routine of our family – we’re finally taking both kids to the same school (sort of; TJ is in the day care of course), but the kids have significantly different routines now.

TJ has long days Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, and nothing Thursday-Friday.

Louisette is 9:00am-3:00pm every weekday (I’ll pick her up two hours before TJ) and then has school holidays completely free.

I’m hoping that I can use the syncopated routines to spend a lot of one-on-one time with each kid. They’re different creatures when they’re the only one around (which is part of why siblings are so wonderful; they open up a new part of who your kid is). I’ve had pretty bad anxiety ever since TJ was born, mainly because of health stuff. But a part of that anxiety is the need to divide my attention between them and/or make sure they’re not killing each other every ten seconds or so. Hopefully the one-on-one time will help my brain to stop panicking, and will also give me many of those marvellous, surprising moments when my kids and I are truly connected and I’m suddenly overthrown by awe and happiness and pride and love. I hope there’s a correlation between “time parent spends with little kids” and “time adult kids spend with aged parents” because I don’t want to miss any piece of their lives.

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(ProTip for mothers who feel ugly in pics after pregnancy: Hide behind children. Or, where possible, behind a tree.)

When Louisette was an infant we were at a playgroup for mums with babies all born within about a month of each other (one of those “babies” is the non-TJ gentleman in this picture, who has never missed Louisette’s birthday and who also happens to possess two top-notch parents for myself and Chris to play with while the kids do their thing).

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I noticed that a lot of one-year olds were miserable and/or terrified at their own party. The party wasn’t for them, it was for all the friends and family who loved them. But I decided that although I’d always have a party for my kids, I’d also make sure they did something on their birthday day that was for THEM. In the years since, it’s evolved to “family + activity” on the birthday day; then later a party day (my sister’s kids come to both).

On Louisette’s birthday day we went on a small local waterslide – Chris, TJ, Louisette, myself, my sister, and her two kids. It was great! Then we had lunch with my parents (including my sister and her two kids), and dinner with Chris’s parents, followed by Louisette having a sleepover at their house AND spending the entire next day with them! So THAT worked.

Louisette has been planning her party since her last party and I’ve been actively prepping for months. (Exhibit A: party bag prep)

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Party bags are a blight upon the face of the earth: junk food, noise-makers, choking hazards, and cheap horrors that fall apart (inspiring much weeping) before the guest gets to their car for the ride home. Having said that, Louisette and TJ are obsessed with them, and so is everyone their age. Since I can prep the bags ahead of time, and choose things that aren’t too irritating to me personally, I don’t truly mind the phenomenon.

Kids also loooove pass the parcel. To a kid, pass the parcel means “A PRESENT FOR ME OH AWESOMES” but when it’s actually happening it means “I AM BEING TAUNTED BY EVERYONE ELSE GETTING GIFTS AND WHEN IS IT MY TURN AND WHY DIDN’T *I* GET THE FLASHING EDIBLE BUNNY BECAUSE NOW I’VE SEEN IT I WANTS IT MY PRECIOUS WAAAAAHHH!!”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pass the parcel game happen without at least one kid sobbing. (When the kids are older they’ll get better at it and more realistic.) Last year each layer had a bunch of lollies to share with everyone! Yay! It confused and over-sugared the children, but it was a nice idea. This year my sister was moving house literally today so I said she should drop her kids and leave, and could drop them way before the party started. I had the brilliant idea of having a pre-party pass-the-parcel with exactly the right number of layers for just those four kids, and a new pirate paddle pool in the centre (coordinated to make sure one of my kids got it, to avoid confusion). It went great. (Although one of the other kids—who was having a snotty day anyway—was devastated an hour later that the party didn’t appear to include pass the parcel.)

After months of party-oriented discussion Louisette decided to have a pirate and mermaid party (exactly as she did last year—”in case some people are scared of pirates”), and I encouraged her to make it a pool party. Why? Because at this age, popularity is easy, and I can give it to my daughter for a few dollars. Pool = awesome.

We always have lots of water play at Louisette’s party, and it’s always a hit with the kids (plus super easy to clean up, and it means the inside space is quiet and neat). Chalk is also popular and easy (our house is rendered, which makes it fun to draw on), so I put some chalk outside, and a table (with fruit and fairy bread; water and cups; sunscreen and towels). I hired 1.5 babysitters (the .5 had her own kids there too) for water safety and parental freedom, and barely went outside at all. I ran the party as two overlapping parties, making it clear in the invitations that parents of confident swimmers didn’t need to go outside (in the heat and noise) at all. This cunning plan fundamentally worked. I served a fresh Devonshire Tea (chosen for simplicity while sounding fancy and adult) to anyone who wanted it, and actually enjoyed it myself. It was relatively easy to hold a grown-up conversation, which is pretty amazing considering there were twenty children on the premises. I think a few adults were weirded out about my overt enthusiasm for shoving the children outside, but oh well.

Louisette and I made an ice cream cake again, topped with faux water made from desiccated coconut and colouring (I had reports some of the kids were a bit freaked out, wondering what it was), and with lego people swimming in it. I had one friend distract the kids with the Hokey Pokey while another helped me serve up the cake. That lowered the chaos slightly, and was simple, harmless, fun that suited even the two-year olds.

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I always need a massive debrief after Louisette’s party. This blog was it. I really like the kids my kid hangs out with, and I like their parents too. We talked a lot about Kindy, and uniforms, and school stationary, and eccentric in-laws. Grown-up talking! Yay!

Look at these gorgeous kids!

Louisette’s birthday is the social centre of my year (TJ is a winter baby + a more introverted kid + not born in the major school holidays, so I invite a few close friends to his party but invite pretty much everyone Louisette knows to her parties).

See that blond cherub? I invited him and his sister to Louisette’s party last year without realising they were siblings. That day was the beginning of a whole-family friendship which is one of the best things that happened last year. That boy is TJ’s best friend, his sister is Louisette’s best friend, and Chris and I both like hanging out with their mum.

And here’s a pic of Louisette from her first birthday.

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I loved her with my whole heart that day, but I really do love her more and more as each year passes.

Parental Fears and Failings and Fab bits

I like to think about what I’m doing as a parent, and of course talk about it, because that helps me to understand what matters to me and what I can just let slide. Some things I know I’m doing really well – Louisette’s diet is amazingly healthy a lot of the time (I can literally eat a chocolate bar in front of her and she won’t for a second think she’ll get a taste or treat for herself – when she wants comfort food, she asks for milk. Obviously I need to change my role-modelling, but right now I’m also eating a balanced diet and losing weight, which is impressive enough), and she usually plays very well with others. Her physical skills and vocabulary are excellent too. She is very brave and very friendly (I often see her initiating games with other kids at Questacon), imaginative and gentle and clever (some of which is clearly innate). She’s somehow not managed to pick up on my swearing yet. She can last up to about twenty minutes playing alone in her room on command once a day (rest time) despite being a strong extrovert. TJ is too young to have bad habits, but he’s clearly happy and healthy. On the other hand….

The dummy thing (times two).

Both kids are total dummy addicts. Louisette used to have good boundaries – dummies were for sleep, illness, car rides, or sitting on the toilet – but since TJ was born she’s become obsessive and when we don’t have visitors over she pretty much always has a dummy in her mouth. We fought it for a bit, but that caused her to say she was sad or scared in order to get the dummy, so ultimately we decided it was better to let her have a dummy than to let her self-identify as chronically depressed at the age of two! The brilliant thing about dummies is that, unlike thumbs, they can be taken away. Having a few days or even weeks of misery is vastly outweighed by having something largely harmless than she can use to regulate her emotions. She also has nightmares now, and has been picking at her fingernails, both of which are more concerning. All three activities have improved since TJ began settling in his cot for at least a few hours most days (meaning he’s not the centre of all household activities 24-7), and I hope with a bit more care and time Louisette won’t be anxious any more.

As a baby, TJ’s dummies cause only minor parental judgement. We had strict dummy rules for Louisette from when she was a baby – but TJ can have his whenever. As a result, we’ve had WAY less crying from TJ. So I’m comfy with the judgement there. (Not comfy enough not to write blogs about it, but that’s me. . .)

Babysitting

I’m so weirded out to need babysitting – yet I need it so badly that I now have a regular schedule with at least some babysitting every single day. It feels so pathetic to spend so much money on something that, apart from anything else, is my own actual paid job. Until I got sick with pregnancy, I never once paid for babysitting for Louisette. When she was born, I really was that ecstatic glowy enjoying-every-minute (not literally; no-one enjoys EVERY bit of motherhood) new mum. . . but since TJ was about six weeks old I’ve had an awful time mental-health-wise. Dieting (including swimming, which uses up all the free babysitting from grandparents), physical pain, and concern for Louisette certainly don’t help (my Monday bit of babysitting will usually be just TJ, so I can spend some uninterrupted quality time with Louisette). I’m getting reconciled to the babysitting idea by recognising that it’s totally the kids’ fault: the combination of an extravert developing anxiety (something she inherits from both sides of the family, unfortunately, and something I will save her from if I can) and a baby who doesn’t sleep well means that having only one parent on hand for 10 or 11 hours a day just doesn’t work.

 

And the drool

Somewhat related to the dummy addiction mentioned above, Louisette drools like CRAZY. Without a dummy it’s not too bad – with a dummy, it’s really bad. I’m hoping that the only dramas in our house for the next year or so will be toilet training for Louisette and starting day care for TJ. . . which should mean that we can handle eliminating all dummies at once shortly after TJ’s first birthday. If only all problems could be ceremoniously thrown in the bin. I’m hoping the drool will clear up soon after that.

Food messiness

Food mess bothers me so much that I don’t dare try and regulate it (except for extreme events, like deliberately pouring out water or throwing food), because then I’d have to lift my expectations – which wouldn’t be met, which would make me angry. Louisette also has an amazing range of food-related activities (painting action scenes in yogurt; building a village from her vegetables; wearing carrot rings on her finger, etc) which are probably educationally amazing. Plus she’s usually exhausted and emotional by dinner time (we don’t eat until Dad gets home at 6:30) and dinner time is often really difficult without adding manners to the mix. This is another area where I hope to lump the kids together so we don’t have to go through a difficult transition twice. Once TJ’s old enough, we’ll start upping our table-manner standards.

And the TV

CJ and his dad both have ADD, and CJ and I watch TV to relax (we relax a lot, when we can) so based on a science study or two we aimed to reduce the kids’ risk of ADD (and partially break our own antisocial habits) by trying not to let the kids watch TV until at least 2 years of age. With Louisette we were amazing – with a few exceptions (holidays/while I was babysitting other kids) she genuinely didn’t watch TV until she was 18 months old. . . at which point she began watching about three hours a day (90% Playschool, because Mummy ain’t watching anything too annoying) because she and I were both very sick. Then I was pregnant, and stayed extremely sick for nine months. Then TJ arrived, and he still doesn’t settle well, so Playschool keeps Louisette away from him when he’s getting settled to sleep, AND distracts her from the lack of parental attention.

As a result, TJ (who as a boy induced at 38 weeks from a gestational diabetes pregnancy is WAY more at risk of ADD than Louisette ever was) gets loads of TV every day.

Sadly, until I’m healthier and/or TJ sleeps better and/or the kids play together better and/or until Louisette is less anxious. . . the TV is happening. It’s already clear that TJ loves TV -it’s a great way to keep him calm when he’s tired but not yet actually ready for sleep.

Sadly I don’t have a hope of giving up on TV anytime soon, and I’m not even making tentative plans for how to limit it in future (although that will definitely happen before the kids leave home). The best I can do is treat each day as a new day – if there’s little or no TV, great! – and be self-aware enough to realise that sometimes initiating a “good” activity with the kids will just push me too far and end up backfiring. Better a whole lot of TV than a screaming Mum.

And the toilet training *sigh*

Although technically we are still well inside average ability for her age, we spent over two months last Summer working SO hard with Louisette – who mastered the basics before we even officially began (she would often correctly announce both poos and wees in a timely manner, and do everything herself). Ultimately I was too sick from the pregnancy – she was already regressing in some minor ways – and she had several bouts of gastro in a row that didn’t help. After the first two weeks she was doing extremely well. . . and then something clicked and it all fell apart.

We could have done things differently – used pull-ups instead of undies so the process was more gentle; used a potty in the living room so she didn’t feel like going to the toilet meant missing out on the action – but I didn’t want to go through two distinct stages. We’ll see how things go this Summer. CJ already has leave prepped (again), and we’ve talked a lot about it with Louisette, who is largely positive. She’s started putting off bedtime by going to do a wee on the toilet, which is frustrating (she’s taking an hour to settle at night currently, which sometimes means CJ and I only get half an hour “off” in the evening before I go to bed) but is brilliant for both practising her toileting skills and rebuilding positive associations with the experience. When we have a good chunk of time at home, I’ll sometimes let Louisette wear undies for an hour or so (generally with a wee first, and then a wee at the end – she and I both wee insanely often).

 

Packing away toys

I don’t have the physical strength to consistently get down and pack up with her (a necessary thing at least some of the time – if only so it LOOKS like she tidied up), so it’s not happening. I might institute a tiny bit of regular packing up at some point – five toys away before Playschool for example – but not yet. This might be another thing I do with both kids at once – for example, at some point each day (maybe before lunch – bedtime seems like a good idea, but it really isn’t!) have Louisette pick up 5 toys and TJ pick up 1. Again, not until TJ has some more capability.

Obedience

I feel fairly okay about this – though wistful for an easier future. Louisette rarely has major tantrums (and when she does, she doesn’t expect to actually get her way – she’s just not able to regulate her own emotions). She’s cheeky and troublesome in a lot of areas, and is sometimes just ridiculous about everything (“Do you want an icecream?” “No!” *screams of rage*) but she’s usually considerate of others, patient for her age, and reasonably good at sharing. And I think at two years of age you want exactly two things: 1. Not causing too much danger (eg falling) to themselves. 2. Not causing too much danger (eg hitting/snatching) to others. As her primary carer, I’ve been sick or largely unavailable for the last year and a half – half her life – and she deserves a bit of slack, especially at her age. Overall I think she’s doing fine – but I keep a sharp eye on her when she’s interacting with other kids, especially those who are younger, smaller, or who have a personality that’s likely to cause friction.

So that’s all the stuff that I’d improve if I was a slightly different person.

Here’s proof that Louisette can still come up with new facial expressions, even after all this time:

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I’m scared of the most physically hazardous part of TJ’s life – from about 6 to 18 months if he’s like his sister. Crawling off things, falling off things, having the mental skills to zero in on anything forbidden with remarkable persistence, eating EVERYTHING (Louisette ate, among other things, gravel. Repeatedly), breaking everything, snatching everything, spilling everything. In the terrible twos you get tantrums and emotional problems. . . but I guess I’m better at emotional than physical stuff (which is a big part of why I’m not truly a baby person, much as I look like it at the moment). And I’m scared of the beginning of food – the messiness and complexity in that transition stage (which hasn’t truly ended with Lousiette – she eats 95% of what we eat, with 90% independence and usually causes a wipe-down mess rather than wipe-down and mop-up mess every darn time).

We’ll start feeding TJ solids (not that they’ll be particularly solid for a good long while) next weekend. Expect some messy photos in this space soon. . .

I’m dreading the constant mopping but looking forward to (hopefully) being able to have him in a high chair rather than a lap at meals. Fingers crossed it goes well.

The Four Scariest Picture Books

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are freaking scary.

#4 “My Animals” by Xavier Denaux

Looks nice, doesn’t it? The entire book is pictures of animals, done mainly in black and white (with a feature colour here or there) and clever little holes through the pages where the eye of one animal is also the bellybutton of another. That kind of thing. It’s Louisette’s favourite book.

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One tiny problem. . . things get pretty macabre pretty quickly.

ImageThat’s right: the eye of the sheep is COMING TO GET YOU.

#3 “Teddy the Policeman”

Great! A simplified way to tell kids about trusting policemen to look after them. How nice. Or not.

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This policeman is prepared. But what kind of miscreant needs the automatic application of handcuffs?

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That’s right kids (especially YOU, Timmy: I see that tell-tale dirt on your face). The policeman is much, much bigger than you and he’s going to take you away.

#2: God Made Me

Now THIS is obviously going to be a book about how God made you special and unique. . .

Image. . . and how he can steal your face at any time. Just because.

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#1: God Made Colours

Staying on the all-powerful deity theme, another brightly-coloured offering from the Christian Bookshop.

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As you can tell, Louisette loves it (either than or she is trying desperately to MAKE IT STOP). The book goes through a number of colours, then ends by bringing it all together in one picture:

ImageJust one teeny tiny question: WHY IS THE SKY BLEEDING???

It’s obviously not because the picture had too much blue – there’s barely any blue at all. It’s because God is on his way to smote all the naughty little girls and boys.

Sleep tight.

Milk and Mental illness: ten days as a mum

I am very, very good at being rational. The odd thing is that it’s a skill I’ve learned because of mental illness. I always work hard to sort my feelings into rational and irrational. For example, I felt afraid I’d never give birth and would be pregnant forever – which honestly had me on the edge of a panic attack at times. But I could tell it was irrational, and that kept it under control. (Usually, rationality isn’t as black and white  as that.) I habitually sort my positive feelings into rational and irrational too – for example, I feel that Louisette is the best and prettiest and most charming baby I’ve ever seen and I’m bewildered that anyone could be in the room with her and not spend all that time watching her face. But I can tell rationally that, like all newborns, she looks mostly like a potato – and that the person she most resembles  is E.T. I can also rationally say that she is way above average attractiveness for her age. The fact that I know I’m right makes that last statement all the sweeter.

Observe, and judge for yourselves:

I mentioned in that epic labour entry last Wednesday that giving birth wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The real hardest thing I’ve ever done is to endure seven years of mental illness (which, may I say, I’ve done spectacularly well, keeping almost all of my friends and never causing harm to myself or others – plus I somehow managed to snare CJ in there, which is definitely my most impressive life achievement thus far). My anxiety disorder has made me unable to support myself financially (which unfortunately has always been my concept of adulthood, and far less than I planned to do with my life – I was going to devote myself to the poor in Indonesia, and had consciously prepared and trained to do so for twelve years). But I was right: it gave me certain skills.

All of which is to explain the full context (ie my mind and body) of the following journey:

From late Tuesday (day two) breastfeeding was very painful, and something I dreaded. With each suck I felt unpleasant faintness in my whole body, as if someone was hitting my funny bone over and over. By Wednesday it made me feel like I was about to faint and made my whole body shake – an echo of the way it shook with the pain  of childbirth.

When the midwife visited on Wednesday (day 3), we discovered that Louisette was dehydrated due to my lack of milk. Apparently it’s extremely rare for a woman to produce so little milk that her newborn is in danger. Not only did this mean we had to give her formula (which I was well aware would make the problem worse), but it felt awful. One of my peculiar foibles is that I tend to think in symbols and archetypes – so much so that I’m unable to give blood, because blood is too powerful as a literary symbol of life itself (ZOMG, the vampires are TAKING MY BLOOD!) So finding out MY BOOBS DON’T WORK AND MY BABY WILL DIE WITHOUT MEDICAL INTERVENTION was devastating. So the faintworthy pain of breastfeeding was accompanied by devastating depression.

I’d heard a great deal about the hormone crash and painful arrival of milk on day 3/4 after birth, and had carefully and repeatedly announced that I’d see absolutely no-one on those days. Thank goodness for that.

I’d been feeding Louisette on demand, and on the midwife’s advice immediately switched to feeding her (or at least trying – she is one extremely sleepy baby) every three hours – twenty minutes of breastfeeding (so my breasts were still getting the signal to produce milk, and would hopefully tune in at some point) followed by a bottle. From that instant, Louisette’s health improved – and I began to live in three-hourly bursts. I’d slept fairly well (between feeds and crying) on the first night, but had been so excited and happy since then that even when I lay down to sleep I tended to have trouble dropping off. I was vaguely aware that this was a bad thing.

On Thursday we went in to hospital for a variety of health checks. I was perfectly upbeat in the morning (still so excited between bouts of sobbing that I couldn’t get myself to sleep properly when I had the chance), and took the trouble to dress Louisette in an especially gorgeous manner (the red dress and booties). The midwives in the birthing centre nearly came to blows over who could claim her as “their” baby.

I saw a lactation consultant who said various useful-type things. Towards the end, I mentioned I’d been trying to stimulate more milk production with a breast pump and with my hand, and neither had produced a drop. I showed her the pump, and she explained it was the wrong type for early breastfeeding. When I showed her my clumsy attempt at hand expressing, I saw a look of, “Oh, how VERY stupid” flash across her face before she caught it – and explained how to do it properly. (The birthing class demo – with an attractively knitted prop breast – apparently didn’t work for me at all.) Within moments, I saw a couple of drops of milk – my milk, real milk – for the first time. This was enormously encouraging, and I went home delighted.

My midwife is aware of how much my bad pregnancy has cost in financial terms, and whenever there is something we need she does her best to get us a free one. She gave us nipple shields to reduce the pain of breastfeeding, and lent us the hospital’s clanky but effective double electric breast pump (double = takes half the time, and electric means it will help stimulate more milk production rather than simply taking what’s already there).

Artist’s impression of the breast pump:

It was a very long hospital visit because there were a variety of people we needed to see. The lactation consultant had told me to use the pump for 10-20 minutes each hour in addition to everything else. She’d emphasised it was vital for me to think loving baby thoughts when I used it, or my milk wouldn’t flow.

As soon as I’d attempted to feed Louisette I attempted the pump for the first time. It was very awkward to hold it in place and all I got for my twenty minutes’ of muscle pain (muscles still aching from giving birth) was a couple of drops of milk. Cue more desperate, helpless crying. So much for loving baby thoughts. The long hospital visit had brought back my labour-exhaustion shakiness, even when I lay down in bed to sleep. Louisette had also suddenly developed a very gross eye infection – yuck.

Thursday was similar. Plenty of sobbing and almost no sleep. Finally around midnight, after another pathetic feed (as Louisette grew noticeably less interested in my breasts – a very bad sign for the future) I lay down to sleep. Addled by sleeplessness, hormones, and depression, I had an episode that reminded me strongly of a schizophrenic woman’s description of a psychotic attack (in an Andrew Denton doco). I fell into a kind of dream of mother and baby, but I wasn’t asleep. In my dreams I’m often a different person (every so often I’m Buffy, for example – or a man) but I always have a sense of self.

I had no idea who I was. I was fairly sure I was a one-week old baby, helpless and confused by the world. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know where or who I was. All I knew was that something was wrong and I couldn’t fix it myself. Rather intelligently, I said, “Help, help” until CJ woke up. Even more intelligently, I explained what had happened as well as I could (and later reported it faithfully to the midwife, despite how stupid it all sounded in daylight). Even more more intelligently, I decided to skip the 4am feed and let CJ just give Louisette a bottle.

That night, my body remembered how to sleep again. I was still very depressed the next day, but the worst was over. I’ve had a couple of times when I woke up and didn’t know where I was for just a second (as if I was on holiday), but I’ve been more careful about my sleep (within the realm of the possible – last night I had four hours in a row, which is very rare; a mix of luck and planning) and all the depression is gone.

From Saturday, I began to see genuine improvement in my milk flow, thanks to that breast pump (it’s nice to have measurable progress, and we’re getting along fine now). Since then, Louisette has been taking a little less of the formula. This means she’s getting more milk.

She also has a blister on her lip from her inability to attach properly, but that should go away soon (her eye infection is long gone). Yesterday she had her tongue tie cut (an operation about as complex as cutting one’s fingernails), and she seems to be much more patient with my breasts (now she’s getting a better flow), although the different shape of her mouth is confusing her a little.

Things are good mentally. I believe I’m being rational when I say that the last week – including labour, and including the lack of sleep and my first ever true break with reality – has singlehandedly made up for the last seven years of seemingly meaningless pain. I also think it’ll help me feel better about my novel writing attempts (there’s an epic tale there, but it’s long, boring, and depressing) for at least the next two years (by which time hopefully I’ll have a major publisher signed for at least one of my books).

I’m also cautiously hopeful about how my mental illness will react to my being a mum. It was noticeably dampened during pregnancy (weird but true: I was less anxious while pregnant than I am usually), and I began to wonder how nine months of intense chemical goings-on would affect what is, after all, a chemical imbalance in my brain. Perhaps pregnancy would hit a kind of “reset” code. Many women become mentally ill because of chemical goings-on and major lifestyle change. I may just head in the opposite direction.

Maybe. We’ll see. Either way, I have plenty of rational reasons to be happy. I have a beautiful, extremely pleasant little girl, and my life has a sense of purpose I lost seven years ago, and have badly missed ever since.