Friday, 30 July 2010

4. For the Love of Dogs

My Goddaughter Minky stayed with us at my mother's this week.

Children seem to find their own amusement. The Tank played endlessly with two upturned flower pots she found on a white metal jardinière while Magpie sat on the lawn with Minky, fat and happy, eating daisies. How can she eat flowers but hate vegetables? I must check if daisies count towards a child's five-a-day.

I hosed off a snorkling mask, and other accoutrements of youth which I found in my mother's gazebo. The water from my cleaning efforts collected in a puddle next to a oval-shaped flowerbed, which Magpie decided was far more interesting than the mask.

She sat, wearing only her nappy and smart purple pants (knickers, as opposed to trousers), in the muddy puddle, patting the wet ground as if she had struck gold.

The Tank, never to be bettered,joined her.

My mother makes a move to rescue the mud-bound girls, and I'm not sure what Minky's mum thinks.

'Leave them,' I say. 'They're happy and they seem to like the mud.'

The fact that the mud gave me five minutes peace was an added bonus. It was far more savoury than eating snails, stones and cigarette butts.

I wonder if I have spent too much time bringing up dogs? Do I treat my babies too much like them? Is that why I do not panic at the sight of chubby toddler hands wrist-deep in good, honest soil? I am far more used to dogs than I am children.

'It's nearly bath time,' I add, as justification. 'Don't worry the girls will scrub up like new.'

I text a photo of a muddied Magpie to Big Daddy. He approves.

Our daughters appear to be unneurotic and happy. Maybe our life as dog owners has served us well?

It's been a strange week for canine and human comparison.

Klefti, our wonderful hairy, fat-pawed, naughty, willful dog, who looks like a bearded man in a dinner jacket with his black coat and and white chest, has a lump on his throat. Several lumps in fact. I don't know how we missed them.

It seems mad to write about him in this context, when as readers you don't even know him. He is a clown. He was a clown when we first met him in the car park at Ios Iannis in the Greek Pelion region, what, eight years ago? He was our holiday romance. We were waiting for a bus to take us somewhere and there he was. This silly puppy with huge white-tipped paws, a wise man's beard, a plumy tail and glistening chimp eyes, playing with a pack of fellow strays. He oozed charisma. We were transfixed. He tried to get on our bus. He stayed with us in our hotel annexe where we smuggled in bacon butties. On a beach he stole a woman's sandal, and ran off with a man's money belt. That's why we gave him his name, Klefti: the Thief.

He lived with us on the West coast of Ireland, when he was at his naughtiest, running at a sprint down to the gates to bark at passing cars, or chasing gulls on a wide, tideless beach. He has lived with us in Gloucestershire at a famous writer's gatehouse and in South West London, making himself comfortable wherever we let him, rearranging cushions with his teeth to suit his needs.

A world without Klefti would be a strange one. He has been family for nearly a decade. He is a loving animal, with a mischievous sense of humour. The Tank reminds me of him. She has the same sense of mischief. Is that why she loves him so, leaning on him as if he were a giant teddy bear, looking at us for approval?

Klefti is an excellent guard dog, but with sleeping babies his warnings are not always welcome. Today, having picked him up from the vets for more tests, I do welcome them. Tatty, our Westie, likes to join in the chorus, while Purdey the ever-hopeful lab has no ear for intruders, only a nose for food.

Long live Klefti. We love him.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

3. Toddler Tasting Panel

How can I be so lucky/unlucky to have one toddler who will eat anything - blackberries, butternut squash, broad beans, you name it - and another who is suspicious of anything bright-coloured? The Tank appears to have her father's hearty appetite, whilst Magpie thinks new foods are part of some cruel maternal conspiracy.

She will eat most meat, fish and types of bread, and will happily munch her way through a medley of fruit as long as I taste each piece first (if the watermelon/pineapple/mango doesn't posion me, it won't poison her). This reminds me of having to taste my own breast milk at an airport (if I drink it, I can't be smuggling it onto a plane to blow people up). This was an awkward scenario. Especially as the security guard asked my hired help to drink it before I told him it was mine.

But I digress. So while Magpie is fine with fruit, vegetables are another matter. Occasionally she will eat a few peas laid out in front of her, but only if they are full-sized and not petit pois which would be my preference. If they are the diminutive version, Magpie will 'ping' them across the room like bogies stuck to fingers. Having one twin who will eat tenderstem broccoli in all its floral glory is pointless if the other one won't. I am not, I repeat, I am not, a short-order cook and will not serve different meals at two minutes’ notice.

If it's a 'cleaner day,' I will allow one of our dogs to come in and hoover up Magpie's vegetable rejects. This is because every time I offer her something suspiciously green, it usually ends up on the floor. I get tired of being on my hands and knees, and anyway the dogs can do the job standing. But while I remind myself that dogs are omnivores, I would rather that my daughter improve her five-a-day intake. The dogs get quite enough greens in the shape of Big Daddy’s ornamental grasses.

I have a finger food book that includes a recipe for lentil croquettes. I would rather pay somebody than make them myself and, shock horror, often do. This delegation of culinary responsibility is unaffordable (my lentil croquette creator, who does a few hours a week, is a brilliant ad hoc nanny who just happens to be a trained chef). Aren't I doing what's best for my girls? After all, the nanny/chef is creating something delicious that would otherwise be inedible.

Why oh why am I so lazy about cooking? My mother is the same.


1. She doesn't eat during the day.


2. She can afford to eat out every night.

We manage this about once a month.

I probably don’t cook because Big Daddy does, simple as that. And he likes it. Now he just needs to enjoy cooking for toddlers.

Any advice on Extreme Vegetable Aversion welcome.

Friday, 9 July 2010

2. Feeding Time at the Zoo

I had two playdates this week. Days can whizz by without any excitement in the ‘mother and daughters’ social calendar, then it all happens at once.

Playdate #1 was with an old school friend who met her husband online and who has been living in wrecks for ten years and has now reached the top of the property ladder. She has a boy the same age as my girls and another who is a rather tantrum-prone four year-old. She speaks to him as if he were a surly teenager:

‘Well, if you don’t want to play your game, just do something else!’

This is a refreshing change from some mothers who give their milk-moustached children more options than their developing brains can process. Once the four year-old had crashed on the sofa after his chocolate sundae sugar rush, it was a surprisingly relaxed and fun afternoon. My friend is too nice and has worked too hard for me to feel like a Lilliput in her ginormous kitchen which boasts the biggest marble island I have ever seen.

Playdate #2 was a rather different affair. Gemima, an old work colleague who was always punctual, organised, groomed and had no rough edges (to her personality or her fingernails), re-found me on Facebook when she discovered we both had babies. She was prettier than I was and earned more money. Now she was married, living in Surrey. She took me through her short courtship which was followed by her boyfriend getting down on one knee at dusk on the Orient Express, just as it pulled into Venice.

In contrast, I gave Big Daddy an ultimatum, so he bought me a ring. A very good ring, I must add, but no dusk and no Venice and we still haven’t bothered to tie the knot.

Facebook reunions are paved with broken glass, and different to those made in The Real World. Idle online banter does not have the barbed undertones of face-to-face meetings. If you bumped into each other in Starbucks just seeing the silly cow would make you remember why you never kept in touch in the first place.

On meeting my girls, Gemima said:

‘Oh doesn’t Magpie look lovely, she is sooo dinky! (real observation: does she have growth restriction?)

‘God, your girls’ nails must grow fast! (you don’t cut them enough: you are probably a slummy mummy)

‘Oh, right. The dogs sleep on the sofa, that’s cosy! (you are a slummy mummy!)

Score:      Me: 0       Gemima: 3

We have our playdate in the garden, as the weather is glorious. Gemima’s daughter Bella, 9 months old, is beautifully dressed in Petit Bateau this and Little White Company that. Her pale blue and beige flower-print blouse has tiny buttons all the way down the back. I don’t do buttons, unless they’re the size a dog’s nose.

I have stripped my girls to their nappies after an aborted attempt to give them ‘real fruit’ lollies, which end up everywhere except in their mouths. Bella has her supper in one of my girls’ highchairs, so with one of mine left chairless, I feed both in our large playpen in which babies can crawl and toddlers can walk proper lengths. It’s an Olympic size compared with the average playpen’s paddling pool dimensions. I feel that to some extent, our lack of internal space is thus compensated. At least that was the plan.

Playdate #2 happens to be the occasion on which I make my first attempt at Chairless Dining. Avocado and cheese on toast isn’t the best finger food to pass to one’s offspring in a playpen, as one-year-olds do not have the finesse of seals catching fish.

The Tank ends up with epaulettes of avocado and Magpie has a melted cheese moustache and very greasy fingers. For narrative purposes, I need to add that the toast is made from white bread.

Gemima: ‘I give Bella wholemeal toast every morning for breakfast.’ (Real meaning: you nutritionally neglect your babies by giving them an unwholesome white equivalent).

Me: ‘I was told that brown bread was too fibrous for such young tummies, but what do I know. (Real meaning: Do your homework!)

Score:    Me: 1      Gemima: 3

The dogs playfully patrol the pen. The Tank, my resident blonde tomboy, offers Klefti, our Greek stray, a piece of mushed toast. He accepts. Gemima clocks this but adjust's Bella's bib.  Magpie, my little wide-eyed girly girl, offers Purdey, our stray Labrador, a stringy piece of melted cheese. He takes it delicately, but then ruins things by trotting off and cocking his leg on the pear tree. Tatty, our Westie, who has a fussier palate, noses offerings thrown onto the decking.

I think Gemima puts on a brave face:

‘It’s lovely that you all just muck in together, it’s like a farm in the middle of London!’ (Real meaning: Get some boundaries, Woman!’)

Score:    Me: 1     Gemima:  4

I make excuses (the dogs don’t usually beg) but Gemima isn’t buying them. She isn’t a woman who makes excuses, let alone purchase other people’s. I corral the dogs into the summerhouse at the end of the garden.

I don’t think Gemima and Bella will be coming back, thank God. Surrey can have them. I have to accept things. I am not a mentally neat, tidy and controlled person. I get cross, forget to clean my fridge, need a pedicure and have blurry boundaries between my dogs and my children. Others might say the girls are lucky to grow up with animals and to have a constant source of entertainment. If I posted an advert for a playdate it would say: Must Have Rough Edges.