The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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Tantrums and improvisation: our DIY naming ceremony

Before my daughter’s naming ceremony, I didn’t understand why most parents hold any such events before their babies are mobile, and hire professionals to do the talking. I do now.

I’m choosing to assume it was teeth, and not that she hates what we called her, but when we “officially” named her she was upside down in her dad’s arms, a protesting bundle of limbs resisting all attempts at distraction. When we vowed to try to make her happy, she was screaming her head off. We drank her health in relative peace, but only because she was busy sticking her hand into my glass of Prosecco, then licking it off her fingers.

We lost the thread of what we were saying a dozen times and forgot half the sentences I had carefully penned. When we did get the words out, they were probably inaudible over her outraged squawks. I make my living, in part, by speaking to rooms of people, but give me a lecture theatre of hungover students any day – or even of intimidatingly senior academics – over one raging toddler.

For all that, I’m glad we did it and (mostly) glad we did it our way. The delay – until she was a toddler – was mostly down to disorganisation. The lack of anyone who knew what they were doing was more complicated.

If we’d been the quietly sincere Christians my grandparents were, we could have had our little girl splashed with font water in our local church, ushering her with practiced words into a ready-made community. If we’d been sufficiently traditionally-minded, like my parents – and insufficiently irreligious for it not to be hypocritical – we’d at least have had the grandparents’ church, and an excuse for making use of the music and the sense of occasion. But we are agnostic almost to the point of atheism, so that was never an option.

Still, we wanted formally to acknowledge our daughter’s central importance in our lives, and to bring together some of the people whom we hope will play a key role in hers. We also wanted her to have a secular equivalent to godparents, although we had no idea what to call them. (Mentors? Too much like work. Sponsors? As though we expected them to pay to have their names emblazoned across her T-shirts. Guide-parents? As though they were dogs. We ended up with godless parents, because that was what they called themselves.)

It wasn’t straightforward. For all there’s a blooming industry in non-religious marriages, it felt unusual to be having a secular naming ceremony. The Humanist Society hire out celebrants but we felt uneasy about involving a stranger in such a small-scale, family event. Presumably, they would work in line with our thoughts, but there was always the worry they would insist in doing so in their own words. So I made it up, with a bit of help from the Internet.

It was small-scale for financial reasons, and local (i.e. our garden) on the same basis. We also kept it short (although nothing, it turned out, would be short enough for little A.’s tolerance), because toddlers don’t have the longest attention spans and all her cousins are under six.

We said a bit about how our daughter had transformed our lives, and how we had chosen her names. We made promises: to love and care for, educate and nurture her. To do our best to help her to grow up happy and healthy, secure in herself and considerate to others. To help her, in time, to live a life she has chosen for herself. We asked our close family to commit their love and support. We asked her godless parents to pledge their time, advice, and emotional support, and to read children’s poems they love and wanted to share with her. (Which they did, impressively, in the face of the A.-induced havoc.) We had asked her older cousins to draw pictures, which they solemnly presented to her, and we gave her a necklace we had chosen by way of memento. Then we all sang a song she loves, drank a toast, and ate barbecued food and cupcakes.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? At least, I hope it does. And it was, except that in all our tidying, writing, gardening, baking, and worrying about the weather, we had failed to factor in the biggest risk: that the main attraction would do her Monster Baby act.

Our guests, being sweet people, made the party go with a swing despite the fury-filled soundtrack, and even found complimentary words for the muddle-through ceremony. “Genuine.” “Informal.” “Relaxed,” I think, featured repeatedly. “Chaotic” would have been more appropriate. But then “chaotic” pretty much sums up our life as parents so far, and having her is still the best thing we’ve ever done. So perhaps, in officially welcoming this small, determined person to the family, I shouldn’t have aimed for anything else.

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Why I take my children to art galleries

On a recent trip to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, twin 2 yowled her way through an exhibition of paintings by American Impressionists. Yowling is good. We take yowling to be indicative of enthusiasm – certainly it comes with lots of smiles and limb-waving – whilst howling, which is also available as a communicative gesture, is most definitely bad. Twin 1, though appreciative of some works, is less of an art-fiend than her sister, but she likes a good gallery-floor space for an uninterrupted sprint-crawl if there’s no one else about.

My partner and I often take our children to art galleries. If the artist Jake Chapman is right, then we’re wasting our time, and perhaps being dreadfully arrogant. Chapman is scathing of parents who imagine that their children can ‘understand’ great works of art. Part of what Chapman seems to want to say is that to take apparently child-like art at face value is to miss a great deal about the complexity and richness of the particular artwork: Fair enough. Another part of what he was presumably up to is getting free publicity for his new exhibition: Job done. But as a parent who regularly takes her very young kids to art exhibitions, Chapman’s pitch has made me reflect.

Let’s start with why I take my kids to art exhibitions: It’s for me. If they get some developmental benefit, then great. But that’s not why I do it. I went to lots of exhibitions before I had children (and never minded or gave much thought to seeing children in galleries). Like most parents, I haven’t transformed into a completely new person with a limitless passion for petting zoos and soft-play areas. So, if it’s alright with Mr Chapman, I’ll continue going to art exhibitions. And since I have children with whom I like to spend time, and since I gather locking them in a cupboard whilst I appreciate art would be frowned upon, I’ll continue to take them with me.

I don’t pretend to be any kind of an art critic, but I liked what Anthony Gormley had to say about Chapman’s comments: looking at art is about experience more than knowledge, and experience precedes knowledge. I was struck when both of my daughters, who are intrigued by other children, seemed keen on Mary Cassatt’s beautiful paintings of children about their age. I can’t believe that such young children have no idea know what they like, or have no capacity to reflect on art. We took the little ones to a JD Fergusson exhibition several times, and on each visit one particular painting (of a voluptuous female nude in striking blues and pinks) completely arrested twin 2. Of course, babies generally see bright contrasting colours more easily than they see subtle colours. But in an exhibition full of big canvasses with big blocks of bright contrasting colours, my 6 month old daughter was repeatedly enchanted by one particular painting. I don’t think that tells you she’s some sort of proto-art-genius – she’s chiefly interested in being able to get her feet in her mouth so we can knock that one on the head. But I do think it tells us that even very young kids can get something from visiting art galleries.

So it’s rather a shame that some people clearly do feel that galleries aren’t for children. Chapman implies that galleries are reserved spaces, for those who can appreciate (‘understand’) art. I doubt that I ‘understand’ Great Works of Art in the way that Chapman intends. I don’t care. I certainly don’t think it means I’m not entitled to sit in front of a painting in a public gallery. And if I happen to sit on the floor and yowl, I’m not too sure why that should be a problem.

I know it’s not quite that simple: Other people (adults) also go to exhibitions and presumably want to appreciate art, and I can see that a yowling baby might disrupt one’s contemplative mood. On one miserable occasion one of our twins howled, not yowled, for a good 40 minutes, in the exhibition, then the cafe, and all the way to the bus stop. Even on their best behaviour, their presence might not suit other gallery-goers. A visit to Edinburgh City Art Centre this week is a case in point. Twin 1 was tickled pink to be able to scramble back and forth towards the wall on which an image was being projected, making shadow shapes as she went. I can see that from the point of view of the artist (whose name I didn’t manage to register – keeping an eye on crawling kids does get in the way of things) it might seem arrogant, or at least disrespectful, to encourage that sort of engagement with their work. And yet, I think that’s an awfully precious approach to have to art.

No doubt my daughters’ behaviour was distracting for the two women who soon arrived to look at the exhibit, and we were pretty swift in gathering up babies and buggy and moving on to another exhibit so as to leave them in peace. These women were patient and polite enough to smile indulgingly as we did so. But that’s not always been the case. An older couple at the American Impressionism exhibition audibly tutted and sighed whenever we were within sight. As we move pretty swiftly – even twin 2’s appetite for gazing at a painting is limited – it would have been easy enough for them to wait us out, but they perversely determined to keep pace with us and disapprove all the way.

On the other hand, on one of my first trips with my children to an exhibition, a woman stopped me to say how marvellous it was that I was bringing my daughters to a gallery so young. It was nice of her to say so, but it honestly never occurred to me not to do this, and it was one of my many experiences early on of being implicitly told, usually by older women, that I was doing something with my children that wasn’t quite the done thing. Why should that be the case? My sense is that many adult gallery-goers think of galleries as an ‘adult’ space, and accordingly expect to enjoy them free of the irritating noise and fuss that kids inevitably bring in their wake. As a parent, it is impossible to be unaware of this and difficult not to feel inhibited by it, even if you don’t agree. Certainly, a public gallery, as a public (i.e., publicly-funded) space, can hardly be justified in thinking of itself in this way, and in fact many galleries have brilliant programmes aimed at getting children to engage with art. My favourite gallery in the world has a whole area given over to children, but much closer to home are the wonderful Kelvingrove, and the truly innovative Jupiter Artland, and no doubt many more I’ve yet to visit with my daughters.

Art galleries strike me as brilliant places to take kids. In Scotland, where I live, they’re usually free, they’ve got space to wander in, they generally have baby change facilities and the good ones have cafés with multiple high chairs (always a concern if you’ve got twins). Best of all they’ve got paintings that have stories behind them to be discovered or invented, by parents and children. Obviously children need to be told that they’re not allowed to touch the exhibits, but I’ve seen more than a few adults who need to be reminded of that too, and I don’t find yowling children any more irksome that adult show-offs declaiming loudly about what (or who) art is for.

Guest blogger: Kerri

Parent of twin daughters and lover of art galleries based in Edinburgh

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The truth about the summer holidays

I am sitting on the freezer in the garage, eating Ben & Jerry’s straight from the tub. Week Four into the summer holidays and desperate measures are called for to save the few remaining shreds of my sanity. I have a maximum of five minutes before my idyll will be ruptured by shouts of “Mummy, mummy, MUMMY!” or the screams that herald one son thumping the other, so I spoon the ice cream into my mouth as fast as I can. I need the energy to get me through the next few hours until bedtime and I have already eaten every morsel of chocolate in the house, even the 80% cocoa solids one that I don’t like.

You see, I am not a mother who embraces the holidays with open arms. Since my Facebook newsfeed is full of the unparalleled fun other parents are (apparently) having with their offspring, I am forced to conclude that either I am an intolerant mother or they are exaggerating to impress their virtual compatriots. I, for one, slightly dread the endless progression of days to be filled, sibling fights to be refereed and activities to be dreamed up that invariably take more time to tidy afterwards than they actually keep the boys entertained for in the first place. This on top of the usual daily round of washing, cooking, (occasional) cleaning and generally trying to run my household. Having chosen to put my career on hold when the Heir was born five and a half years ago, and with a husband who works very long hours, I can honestly say that extra time spent with my children is not always a luxury.

Of course it isn’t all bad: I appreciate that I am lucky to be able to spend so much time with the boys, and that O would relish the chance to swap the two and a half hours a day he currently spends commuting for time spent with his family. It is just that eight weeks is an awfully long time to fill continuously with exciting entertainment. I do as much as I can to prepare in advance of the holiday: throughout June and early July I stockpiled various weapons in my armoury, filling up the arts and craft box, replacing long-dead batteries and amassing previously-unwatched Disney films. Best of all, I discovered that Nectar points can be converted to Ebay vouchers, which I used to purchase a vast bundle of used Lego. The look of incredulous delight on the faces of the Heir and Spare entirely justified the fortune I must have spent in Sainsbury over the past decade to have accumulated so much credit.

We started well, with a packed calendar and myriad activities. I try to avoid the big commercial favourites because they are so unbearably crowded (during a wallet-busting trip to Legoland last summer we spent so long standing in queues that we managed to go on a grand total of seven rides all day). However, the lovely weather opened up endless possibilities of picnics, playdates, nature walks (later using our finds to create “artwork” for the kitchen wall), den-building, and generally having fun outside. When the sun was simply too hot, I dredged though websites, books and magazines for indoor entertainment ideas and we have had great fun experimenting with new things. Any spare minutes were spent happily sorting and playing with the new Lego.

A trip to the beach when last we visited Granny and Grandad yielded a motley collection of stones, and in a flash of inspiration we decided to paint them. This proved a big hit and the kitchen is now home to a herd of brightly coloured stone creatures. Admittedly it wasn’t a hundred per cent success: the Spare painted more of his own hands and the table cloth than his stones; everyone entering the kitchen for the next three days ended up with glitter adhered to some part of their person; and I stuck my thumb and forefinger together when I resorted to superglue after PrittStick failed to stick pipe cleaner “legs” to stone “beetles”. But these were a small price to pay for keeping both boys entertained for the best part of an hour – something of a record for the Spare.

However, despite best intentions, my early holiday enthusiasm has diminished with the slow passing of time, and our busy schedule has tailed off into perhaps one structured daily activity. I spend the rest of the time bribing the boys to help clean out the chickens with the promise of a trip to the toyshop, bribing them to be nice to each other with the promise of a trip to the toyshop and turning a blind eye to them causing havoc creating obstacle courses across half the house (which I later bribe them to tidy up with the promise of a trip to the toyshop…)

Best of friends when they see each other only outside school/nursery hours, the Heir and Spare are currently at an age where too much time in each other’s company invariably results in wars of word and fist (I have it on good authority they should grow out of this by the time they reach their early thirties). It can be hard to gear activities to a level that suits both of them. The Heir will spend ages colouring, creating Hamabead dinosaurs or even (occasionally) practising his letters, but the Spare’s tolerance for any activity involving sitting still times out after approximately thirty seconds. He gets bored, and finds distraction in the destruction of his brother’s creations. On these occasions, when the Heir resorts to violence, I can’t blame him.

Once I realised that we would all benefit from a little time apart, I began to investigate options for outsourcing. A little bit of research revealed any number of holiday clubs and courses to suit most interests and pockets. I enrolled both boys into a week-long course of swimming lessons, happily envisioning a daily half-hour spent sipping Earl Grey and surreptitiously reading a magazine whilst pretending to admire their progress. Alas, the water-phobic Spare steadfastly refused to get in the water unless I got in with him and my bergamot-infused dreams dissipated as I towed him reluctantly from one side of the pool to the other.

When all else fails and both my brain and patience levels are completely drained (usually on a daily basis) I park them in front of a DVD. Even then they often fight over what to watch and instead of gently but firmly impressing upon them the need for harmony and sharing, I put one in the playroom and the other in the sitting room, each with the film of their choice. During the holidays even more than usual I choose my battles wisely.

In fairness to the Heir and the Spare, both have good imaginations and often come up with their own ideas. Yesterday, they decided that the one place they really wanted to play was inside the large dog crate that we keep to house the occasional sick chicken. I entertained a brief fantasy about locking them in for ten minutes while I had a cup of tea in peace, which remained unfulfilled largely because there was no available padlock. My sons mean everything to me, but after several weeks of their undiluted company I have decided that right now I love them best of all when they are asleep. Bring on the first day of term.