desert parenting: the early years

There’s been a plethora of new babies born to my friends recently and it’s making me reflect upon my own experience of becoming a mum – in particular, how my faith has grown. The last five years of my life have been the most exciting ones faith-wise, yet this isn’t because I’ve been extra holy – in fact, the number of times I’ve sat down with my Bible for a traditional ‘quiet time’ is shockingly small. I’ve missed a lot of sermons due to being on the kids’ work rota or chasing toddlers round the church or placating an unsettled baby. On paper, my spiritual disciplines would look pretty awful to an outsider. So what’s helped?

* My tribe. I’ve been so blessed by the good Christian friends God has put in my way since, and because of, having kids. We don’t force theology, it just comes naturally. It comes when we’re chatting over tea and cake; we grapple with a tricky Biblical application over jigsaws with our kids; while we’re eating a plastic banquet, prepared by the littlies, we’re also musing over Scripture and faith and life and the grey areas. It’s not a big deal – and it comes alongside tales of the previous night’s sleeplessness, potty training anecdotes, plans for spa days and what so-and-so posted on Facebook – but it’s these snatches of God-conversation with friends which have shaped me, encouraged me, and got me thinking over the last few years. I couldn’t be more grateful for the ‘tribe’ God has put in my life. If you’re new to this parenting business, pray for your tribe to come. And if it’s already flippin’ obvious who they are: use them! Hang out more, open up to them, share your burdens and your thoughts, pray with them.

* Blogs, books and articles. Gradually, I’ve been able to read more whole books – but in times when that’s been too much, I’ve really appreciated blogs and articles sent my way by friends or posted on Facebook. Punchy, succinct thoughts on an aspect of Christian living. Friends, if you read something good: share it! It could be just the encouragement one of your tribe needs. A particularly helpful blog post I read a while back was this one, about reading the Bible as a young mum. Read it now – go on! I dare you! (It’s short and easy and encouraging – promise.)

* Serving and ministering. This is a really tough one. It requires a fair bit of planning (and sometimes childcare) to be able to serve in your church or community when you have kids. It’s never easy – but it grows faith. If I haven’t picked up my Bible in a couple of weeks, you can be sure that having to plan a kids’ work session or story for Toddlers, or preparing a Bible study for a Mums’ cell group, or planning to mentor a younger Christian will force me to open it again! I’ve grown in faith as I’ve seen others grow in faith.

* Sharing faith with my kids. There was a time when I was driving my kids somewhere and was massively challenged by a random Bible story that came on the CD player. (We were listening to the Big Bible Storybook, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected to hear a Bible story – more that it was some random part of the Old Testament which I’d forgotten about.) There have been other times when reading a children’s Bible or Christian storybook with them, or discussing faith, or praying, or playing through the Bible has kept me spiritually ‘topped up’ as well as them.

* My husband. I approach this one sensitively, knowing that several friends long for their other halves to come to know Jesus. I am so massively grateful for a husband who is unswayed in his pursuit of loving Jesus more, and I don’t take this for granted. He shares with me the things he’s thinking about, the books he’s reading, the articles he’s found – and it’s like I benefit from the time he’s put in, without committing lots of energy that I don’t have. Of course Christian wives are just as responsible for encouraging and challenging their husbands with new theological thoughts – but at this stage in life, low on time and energy, I’m thankful for a husband who keeps me on my toes. If you’re a Christian whose spouse does the bulk of the childcare, how are you supporting them in their faith? Those of you who are courageously and unreservedly pursuing Jesus without encouragement from your partner: we want to walk this journey with you. Please tell us how we can be better Christian siblings to you.

Before I had kids, my view of discipleship was very different. Perhaps I could liken it to a knitted square in one colour, row upon row of identical stitches forming a unified whole. There was one way to pursue God: through the Bible, in a daily quiet time, followed by a shopping list prayer. Nowadays, my walk is a tapestry: many different colours and stitches interacting in varied ways. There are dropped stitches too, as well as areas not yet stitched. I am an ongoing work, more aware of my imperfections than ever, but more aware of God’s grace than ever – grace which enables me to pursue discipleship in the haze of early parenthood, guilt-free and joyful.

why i threw away your artwork (letter to my kids)

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To my adult children,

As you read this to yourselves, I want you to do so in the context of our relationship. You must know that I love you dearly. You are, and always have been, our greatest achievement, source of immense pride and joy, and our lives are immeasurably richer for having had you in them.

That said, as children, your artwork was regularly binned – by the bag load. This is not because I didn’t love you or because I wanted to discourage your artistic attempts – in fact, I feel partly responsible for the creative people you were (and possibly still are – I don’t know, because I’m writing this in the past – your past – and you haven’t grown up yet, so who knows). I provided you with materials, and a space, and tried to nurture a love of Trying Things Out. But I threw away so much of what you produced, daily and without shame.

Let me try to explain the factors which led to this course of action:

1) The quantity. I’m sorry, but you seemed to bring back an average of four pictures a day from school. Apparently the teachers also taught you some reading and writing, because you’re now literate (again, not entirely sure as you haven’t grown up yet), but how they fitted this in, I don’t know. Because you drew so much. How big did you think our house was? I mean, I know you were small so it probably felt bigger to you, but seriously – how much wall space?

2) The poor choice of colours. Yellow on white does not work. It won’t be seen from a distance. And that is important, for some reason. Also – you didn’t understand that eyesight deteriorates, not improves, with age. So, no, I didn’t keep anything I couldn’t detect without a UV lamp.

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3) The repetitive nature of your output. Obviously, what with you being all (fictitiously) grown up and everything, I’m over this – but there was a time when I wanted to inflict some serious damage on whoever it is who markets all those identikit superheroes. You never seemed to get bored of drawing them, over and over again, identified in your pictures with capes and sometimes-decipherable labels. But I was so bored I was screaming inwardly. “TRY MIXING IT UP!” I was yelling in my head. “TRY PAINTS OR PASTELS OR COLLAGE OR SOME KIND OF FUN TECHNIQUE THAT MAKES ME LOOK LIKE THE YUMMIEST MUMMY FOR HAVING SUCH NATURALLY CREATIVE KIDS. BUT, DEAR GOD, NOT ANOTHER FELT-TIP SUPERHERO.” Man, am I glad I don’t feel that way now.

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4) The poor choice of medium. Chalk will rub off. Things that were not meant to be stuck to paper will fall off. And I wasn’t prepared to adorn our home with A4 sheets decorated with PVA splodges where the yogurt pot and pine cone had been. Just wasn’t.

I hope you’ll forgive me, and understand why I chose to act in the way I did. I don’t think you’ve suffered any major trauma as a result, and I’d like to think you’re all well-adjusted adults – perhaps that you benefited simply from the act of being creative, even if it wasn’t always displayed. But if you’re reading this with your therapist – what can I say?

Sorry. And I love you.

Mum xx

PS Some tips for when you have your own kids:

a) have a space where their artwork can be displayed. A big space, but defined – so that it can’t overflow. Despite what I said above, you had your own defined display spaces in the dining room, kitchen and bedroom. (They just weren’t enough for the HUGE amount of things you drew.)

b) keep a folder in the hall for all pictures produced in the week. At the weekend, decide with your kids which ones are keepers and which ones are not.

c) work on a one-in, one-out basis – kids want to display a picture? They have to take another one down.

d) cut round anything small-ish and stick it onto a card for the next birthday party they get invited to

e) palm off some pictures next time you see grandparents, aunts/uncles, godparents, cousins, neighbours, random strangers…they see your kids’ pictures as a novelty, something sweet and innocent, rather than a noose around your neck.

f) don’t use the words ‘bin’ or ‘throw away’. Instead talk of ‘recycling’, and make it an Adventure – “hey, I know, why don’t we put this one in the RECYCLING?!” you could say, excitedly. You never know, they might just buy it.

feb express

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Continuing with my one-cookbook-per-month challenge, for February I chose Nigella Express. This is a book I use regularly, but there were still plenty of recipes I wanted to try. So we stocked up on sugar, butter, cream and wine, and were ready to begin.

Oh my word, was this a wondrous month. Flavoursome Coq au Riesling, Macaroni Cheese (with a clever trick to avoid making a white sauce from scratch), Buttermilk Roast Chicken and New Orleans Coleslaw (made for a shared lunch at church) and Festive Fusilli served with Halloumi Bites (the best accompaniment to an evening catching up with a vegetarian friend).

There was not a single pudding which let us down in any way, shape or form: Caramel Croissant Pudding, Flourless Chocolate Brownies (served with ice cream), Orange French Toast, Instant Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Chip Cookies (made for a friend’s baby shower: said baby is still in there, guzzling away), Glitzy Chocolate Puddings and Ice Cream Cake (made for my birthday). I would happily eat any or all of these puddings at any time of the day or night. I swear: not one of these puddings will be absent from the Kingdom of Heaven.

It was a magical morning when we discovered the ease and deliciousness of Oeufs en Cocotte. The baked egg definitely improves upon the boiled egg for (predominantly) lack of shell, but also for the possibilities of adding chopped ham, diced mushrooms, or pretty much anything small and complementary. This and poached eggs have become my new Favourite Ways with Eggs for 2015. (Hashtag, anyone?)

The ‘Get up and Go’ chapter – a range of more interesting breakfast ideas than cereal and toast – proved popular in the Desert household. We had a Valentine’s Brunch with Smoothies, Chopped Fruit Salad, Breakfast Bruschetta, Green Eggs and Ham (pesto pancakes) and Breakfast Bars. The Pear and Ginger Muffins were sadly not as more-ish as the other options.

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Mediocre was the Red Prawn and Mango Curry – I mean, any curry is a good curry (right?) but this one wasn’t up there with my favourite curry recipes of all time (and I do have a few, so I’ve every right to be picky). The Potato and Mushroom Gratin was OK as an accompaniment, but not so good that I’d remember to get the book out again for it. Sweetcorn Chowder was a good option for a veggie dinner, served with toasted nachos and cheese, but I’m not sure I like sweetcorn enough to have a whole bowlful of it in one sitting.

The Naan Pizzas were a let down. OK so it’s a clever idea and, yes, I’ll accept that naans make better pizza bases than shop-bought pizza bases, but the suggested toppings (chiefly mushrooms) were rather lacklustre. I left these for Desert Dad and the kiddoes one evening when I hopped off to a meeting, and they were Not Impressed.

The Brandied Bacony Chicken was just not Brandied or Bacony enough to warrant the addition of these ingredients to a simple roast chicken (which, let’s face it, is one of the most Express things you can make, and tastes flippin’ fantastic with it). The Croque Monsieur Bake – basically a baked ham and cheese sarnie – was a disappointing dinner. And I just couldn’t get the Cheese Fondue to work. I mean, I did leave it unattended for an hour while I went out (accidental) but even before this, the gloopy cheese and simmering wine just didn’t want to be friends.

I think the Maple Chicken ‘n’ Ribs would have been nice, but I managed to overcook these just a little:

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Sorry Nigella.

However, on the basis that the good recipes were really, seriously good, this book is a definite keeper. And you know the best bit?

There are still loads of recipes left to try!

ordinary mum, extraordinary mission – a review and a giveaway!

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The first official book of my 2015 reading list – i.e. the first one that I both began and finished in 2015 – Ordinary Mum, Extraordinary Mission (2013, Anna France-Williams and Joy French) has been sitting on my bedside table since a friend gave it to me last June. Before then it had been recommended to me by another friend. Why did it take so long to get into? Partly, I guess, because other books took over – book reviews, things I’d already started and so on.

But partly – and I’m ashamed to say it – I did wonder whether this book might just say things I already knew. Ever since I was pregnant with Mister, six years ago, I’ve viewed my days missionally – that is to say, I’ve known of the great blessings God has put in my path in terms of friendships, opportunities and ministries. I’ve wanted to follow His leading and allow myself to be used for whatever purposes He has in mind. I’ve seen friends come to faith for the first time, draw closer to God, step out in leadership and gain awareness of new giftings. I’ve led Alpha courses, Mums’ Bible study groups, outreach events and kids’ holiday clubs. I’ve shared my faith through conversations, meals, childcare and home-baked cakes. What could this book teach me?

Well, for a start, some modesty. Damn that sneaky old Devil, edging his way in to whatever good work the Lord is doing by making us believe that it’s down to us and our skills. It is not. To God be the glory. All the time.

And, for a second, this book could teach me a heck of a lot I’ve never considered before about how I’m raising my family to be missional, how I’m investing in my marriage so that it can be the basis of missional living, and how even my brokenness – both my sin, over which I have some amount of control, and the broken things in my life, over which I have no control – can be used by God for His missional purposes.

A bit more about the book…

This is an incredibly empowering, releasing book. It won’t guilt-trip you into thinking you should be running an orphanage in Bolivia or rescuing trafficked girls in the Phillippines. Of course there are plenty of exciting, front-line stories to be inspired by. But, for the most part, it’s about average, everyday mums, offering themselves and their families to God for His service. It is not threatening – but it is utterly challenging and thought-provoking. The two authors have a shared experience – both are mums, and both work with their families on deprived urban estates – but their differences make for a far richer read. One works in London, one in Sheffield. One has young kids, the other has older kids/teenagers. The variety of experiences of the authors and their friends contributes to an extremely well-rounded and helpful book.

What I most appreciated was… 

…the chapter on Marriage. And the one on Brokenness. And the one on killing off Supermum. And the one on encouraging your fellow mum friends. Actually, every chapter had something thought-provoking to say. In my opinion, the perfect cocktail for a Christian book is provocative Biblical insight mixed with down-to-earth practical tips – and this book had just that.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Ordinary Mum, Extraordinary Mission should be the handbook of all Christian mums everywhere. I hope it becomes a Christian classic over the coming years, because it’s that good.

You’ll enjoy this book if…

…you are expecting your first child, right through to if you’re a mum of teenagers. Once your kids have left home, I’d say it probably wouldn’t be quite as relevant – although there’s enough in here to make anyone stop and think, regardless of gender or child-bearing status.

And the giveaway…

You’ll remember I don’t give away something for nothing on this blog, so here’s the question (give me an answer in the Comments section to be in with a chance of winning the book): What quality do you most appreciate in one of your fellow mum (or dad) friends? Please don’t name them – that’ll just get awkward (but feel free to tell them the Nice Thing to their face). I’ll pick a name out of a concave object on Saturday 28th February, 7pm (read: Monday 2nd March, 10pm) and announce the winner on Facebook and places like that.

To kick off: one of my mummy-friends is so deliberate and thoughtful about her faith. She doesn’t just take things as read, or as applied by someone else, but grapples with what the issue means for her and her family. I love this about her!

This competition is now closed. Well done to Lucy!

nits and the sacrifices of parenting

Missy has had nits.

I’ve dealt with a lot of grossness in my 5+ years as a mum: poo in epic proportions, wind which factors on the Richter scale, and vomit to make our house resemble a University halls of residence in Fresher’s Week. I’ve been drenched in wee, baby sick and blood; wiped noses, bottoms and other bits; exfoliated cradle cap and creamed delicate areas. But there is something about nits – live creatures roaming around the scalp – which brings all the usual kiddy grossness to a new level of Vile.

It wasn’t just Missy. I’ve had my fair share, and Mister also got infested. (That is the technical term. Urgh.) These nits were persistent little buggers, and took a few weeks to shift. There was shampooing, conditioning, HeadRin-ing, brushing and combing ad nauseum, and eventually – one Super Dupa Nit Comb later – we identified and drowned them all.

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As I combed Missy’s hair for the umpteenth time, telly on in an attempt to keep her still for the required time, I thought I could really do without all this. I could do without taking an hour out of our day for this conditioning-combing-rinsing debacle. I could do without the argument which ensues beforehand, could do without trying to find a new way to entice Missy to come on board in this process, could do with this all being OVER.

And I realised that this is parenting. It is one, long series of sacrifices – and no option not to make them. Just as I had to keep combing and combing, so we keep parenting and parenting. We love it, and it carries with it great rewards, but it is also one sacrifice after another – too many to count, and, after a while, too many to notice. We sacrifice lie-ins, finished conversations, the state of our homes, our bodies, mealtimes, daytime naps, our appearance, our careers, money, food, the places we want to go, our dreams, ambitions, the option of having a glass vase on the floor, the bed-springs, sleep, a social-life. And these are only the sacrifices which have a name. Day by day, hour by hour, we parents are continually making decisions which put our offspring first.

And this is godly and Biblical. Read Philippians 2, for example. These are the loving sacrifices God has equipped us to make for the children He has given us to care for. Except.

Except that we cannot make these sacrifices when our own tanks are Empty. We just can’t. In order to give, give and give thousands of times a day, we must allow others to give to us without any sense of guilt or pride. Has God given you the money to pay for a cleaner? Use it. Has a friend offered to look after your kids for a couple of hours? Take her up. Spa day invitation? Go for it. Recognise these sweet moments as God’s grace to you. God’s gift of refuelled tank, ready for more sacrificial loving.

And also: we cannot make these sacrifices when our own identity is in question. The greatest sacrifice ever made – Jesus, on the cross, for us – came from a place of true identity. Jesus was truly secure in who he was, that he was God’s son, dearly beloved. We, too, are dearly beloved – our parenting successes and fails don’t ever change this reality. We are loved. Unconditionally, truly, deeply loved. And it is this love, with its deep roots in our lives, which will allow us to humbly make sacrifices for our children (even searching their heads for nits) – sacrifices which, we pray, will show them love. Our love, yes, but also one much deeper, stronger and more perfect than we could ever muster.

“…if [you have] any comfort from his lovethen make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (Ephesians 2:1-2)

january with james

Before you go thinking that I’ve gone and got myself another man for 2015, let me bring you back onto the track of my actual 2015 resolutions, one of which was to cook from a different cook book each month. January was the month of James Martin. So, yes, I did enjoy another man for a month, but not in the way you thought.

Slightly awkward introduction over, what did I learn this month? I’ve set myself this challenge in order to widen my cooking repertoire and decide which cookbooks are worth keeping. Did this book break my cooking rut? Is it a keeper or a bleeper?

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I think this book was a Christmas present a few years ago. The burnt cover might suggest it has been well-used – but, in actual fact, I think we’ve only tried one or two recipes. The rest of the time, the book appears to have been used as a rather unsuccessful trivet. So, with ‘comfort food’ written all over it, what better month to try this book than cold, unforgiving January?

The food, the bad and the ugly

Caramelized braised beef, with a strong flavour of balsamic, was a hit with all of us, as an alternative to a traditional roast. We cooked the Paillard of Chicken – cooked chicken breasts topped with mozzarella, Italian ham, sage, and chutney – when friends came for dinner, and it had that great appeal of being both easy to cook and special to eat. The Roast Cod with Smoked Garlic and Vanilla Mash was a revelation – not the cod, which I often find rather flavourless, but the idea of adding vanilla to mash, which I’ll certainly do again.

Believe it or not, I was keen to try the Calves’ Liver with Port-flavoured Pan Juices. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but we used to eat liver fairly regularly prior to having the kids, and felt now was the time to educate them. Perhaps it was that the butcher only had pigs’ livers available – but this recipe ended up a little more mediocre than one might have expected. Not awful, just mediocre. I would give the same rating to the Chicken with Plum- and Sun-dried Tomatoes.

I wasn’t surprised that a Yorkshire-born batchelor chef hadn’t included a Vegetarian section – but, as we try to eat veggie food three or four nights a week, I had to look a bit more closely to find any ideas on this. The search was rewarded with a few dishes which could easily make it into our regular repertoire: one, beer-battered red pepper fritters – incredibly quick and easy, but very scrummy. I think they were meant as a starter or snack, but padded out with some chips and lots of veg (because, try as I might, I couldn’t really justify deep-fried veg as being one of our 5-a-day), they proved a more-than-adequate evening meal. The next day I used leftover batter to fry some courgettes, and they worked well too.

Another unlikely veggie main course was a Rustic Tomato, Bread and Basil Soup – thickened the Italian way with chunks of ciabatta, and cooked in white wine, it made a very hearty and tasty main course. Then there were a couple of veggie pizzas – red onion and creme fraiche (a combination I’d never have dreamt up in a million years, but surprisingly good), and anchovy and rosemary. OK, so this one isn’t strictly veggie. But you could change the toppings easily – the main difference here was that the pizza was made on a ciabatta, sliced horizontally. A quick and easy solution to home-made pizza when there’s no time to make a base.

Besides the main dishes, I tried a lovely Olive Focaccia with Rosemary Oil – which worked brilliantly in the bread machine – and several puddings. The Banana Tarte Tatin was good, but I always find these a bit of an unnecessary faff, so not sure I’d try it again. The Lemon and Goat’s Cheese Tart divided those who tried it, and the Hot Walnut Tart was only average, like the Lemon, Pine Nut and Brown Breadcrumb Cheesecake. However, everyone who tried the Chocolate Ginger Cheesecake and the White Chocolate, Whisky and Croissant Butter Pudding (served alongside each other at a Sunday lunch gathering) agreed that they were keepers. The latter sounds sickly, but no, it really worked!

Is it a keeper?

For a restaurant chef, James Martin’s recipes – many of them, at least – have been pared down to dishes that are easy to cook. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how little time some of them took to put together – useful for a weeknight, which is when most of my cooking happens.

But there are also quite a few recipes in this book which feature ingredients that would take a lot of effort to source – duck and game, random fish and specific brands of goat’s cheese, for example. Not to say you shouldn’t bother with these ingredients every so often, but the amount of these sorts of recipes in the book didn’t really tally with the ratio of how often you’re likely to cook them. Which was a shame, as it means that the book isn’t quite as crammed full of helpful recipes as I’d like it to be. However, there’s enough food in here that I’m likely to crave miserably if I give the book away – so, on that note, it’s a keeper!

i don’t understand my three-year-old’s play

OK, so I know play is important. Develops social skills, helps kids make sense of their world, bonds them with their parents, yada yada yada…

I have no problem with play. To an extent. Games? No problem. Jigsaws? I could do them all day. Books? Love them. Basically, I’m pretty good at things which have a definite outcome. As long as I know what we’re aiming for, and when we’ve reached it, then I’m happy.

And it’s not as if I have zero ability with open-ended tasks either. I’m a musician, for Pete’s sake. There is no ‘answer’, no ‘end point’ with the arts. And I can deal with this. I can paint, draw, cook, bake and make with my children – no obvious outcome, no sign of when we’re near or when we’ve reached it, but that’s OK. I can do this, and I even enjoy it.

The problem is that old chestnut of imaginative play. Friends with babies or bumps or not-quite-bumps, let me draw you in to the world of what it’s like to have a three-year-old. Today, to give an example, we started off – quite happily – with a good old role play of Mummies and Daddies. She is the Mummy, I am the Daddy – a role I’m happy to take, as it mainly involves sitting and watching Mummy do the work, occasionally suggesting improvements to the routine, but never actually having to implement them myself. Fine. And it’s an easy playtime as we have all the Gear. No sooner had we got rid of our baby bath, highchair and pram, than we were obtaining these things all over again in doll form. So out comes the dolly bath, the dolly highchair, the dolly prams, plus myriad outfits, dummies and weaning paraphernalia, and we begin.

But then – then it all turns kind of weird. With a very determined, matter-of-fact look on her face, Missy guides me through all manner of scenarios, locations and Things To Do. We have two upturned umbrellas in the lounge – I know not why – and these, amongst a random assortment of other items, become a kind of barricade, beyond which we’re meant to lie down and go to sleep. Or do our sticker books. (Hooray! A task with a definite outcome!) Then I’m supposed to go and kill the baddies – which, I have to say, I perform with great aplomb, using a wooden dagger and a gun crafted for me out of Duplo. (All that obsessive Twin Peaks watching recently has stood me in good stead for moments like this.)

And then there’s a lot of time where Missy struts around the lounge, as if looking for something very particular, occasionally gracing me with a sentence or two which doesn’t really make sense out of context. And there is no context. Is this how she feels, when I faff around doing household chores, occasionally muttering something out loud – fully comprehensible to me and my train of thought, but totally bonkers when spoken aloud as a single comment?

I’m pretty rubbish at this kind of play. I never know what to say or how to respond. But I’ve realised that the best course of action is simply to be there. To put the phone away, to sit amidst the chaos and listen and nod when Missy outlines her plans. And, of course, to observe what she’s doing, spotting which parts of her world she’s trying to make sense of as she brings them to life in role play. And it’s bloody fascinating.

If not just a little strange.

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*For any confused souls who know me in real life, I’ve started using pseudonyms for my children’s names to protect their identities.