Getting Down To It (part 2)

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2 – Food Is Fun Before You’re One!

Babies still get most of their nutrition from milk (breast or formula) between 6 months and a year. This means some of the pressure is off  — you don’t need to get a whole plate of dinner down little one as soon as you start.  The whole point of the weaning process is that it’s a transition, so you don’t need to crack it all in one go. The more exploration a baby can do with different foods, the more familiar they become and the more likely you are to have success later, even during the toddler phases! Take it steady. It’s not a race and though some babies will take to food really quickly, others may not. (There can be many reasons for this and if you have a preemie, or any issues that present concerns, speak to your Health Visitor, doctor or trusted professional before you start.) Try not to write anything off too soon — remember they’ve never had anything with any real substance in their mouths before and it’s a weird thing to experience. It’s only natural that they’ll have to get used to the idea that not everything is liquid and milk or calpol flavoured. You’ll have to repeat a lot of foods before they become normalised to the range of flavours and textures opened up to them. Babies learn best through repetition, though, so while you might get bored of the same few things or frustrated that they don’t seem to like more ‘solid’ food, try not to get disheartened or decide they hate it.

Weaning is a great time to explore textures and colours with your baby. Things like porridge can be coloured with fruits and squished with fingers, steamed broccoli has a firm end and an end that will 100% go further than you could ever have imagined broccoli would spread. Food comes in warm and cold varieties (check temperatures on your lips for a few seconds), wet and dry, sticky and smooth. While you don’t have to be too concerned with getting it down them, take advantage of them getting it everywhere else as a learning experience. Let them investigate at their own pace. You’ll probably be amazed (or horrified) at the flavour combinations they’ll happily put in their mouths. Elizabeth once used a chicken flavour crisp as a spoon to eat yogurt. Grim. Let them play with the ingredients you’re using to make dinner and not only will it keep them occupied for a minute, but they’ll be more familiar with these ingredients from an early age.

3 – You Don’t Need Teeth To Eat

When I first started to learn about BLW I was baffled at how Elizabeth would ever manage the foods being suggested (she cut her first tooth somewhere around six months). However, as any breast-feeding mum will tell you, baby gums are harder than you might think. They also love having something to gnash on when their mouths are sore from teething and they have a lot of saliva for softening things up. While teeth are certainly an advantage in some areas (raw carrots, for example, might not get very far) you don’t actually need baby to have a full set of chompers to get started. Steamed veg is a great place to introduce a firmer texture and apple rings or cucumber sticks can be gummed with surprising success — and as a bonus something like a cucumber wedge straight out of the fridge can be super soothing on hot gums. Real chewing will be more effective as more teeth make an appearance but you may be surprised (as I was) to see just how much chewing action happens anyway. It’s all good practice! And on that note…

4 – They Can Do It – Let Them

Something else you might be surprised at is how willing your little is to try things for themselves. For Elizabeth’s first foray into food we placed some steamed broccoli and carrot on her tray and sat back to see what she’d do. She did what all babies are seemingly programmed to do – stuffed it in her mouth. There was a bit of back and forward, gumming, checking it out, spitting it everywhere, swapping it about and then eventually losing interest. It was all a bit anticlimactic, really. But the big thing for us was that she’d done it herself. I didn’t want to force her into and I didn’t want to take that control away from her. It’s easy with babies to do a lot of things for them — sometimes it’s easier, sometimes you’re on a timer, sometimes they’re being a complete menace — but if you can restrain yourself; do. In order for them to use a spoon (and eventually other cutlery) for example, they need to practice with a spoon. When they’re small, I recommend having two or three long(ish) handled spoons with shallow bowls so you can load one with say, porridge, and hand it over or put it on the tray. When they start working that one out, you can load another to swap. Elizabeth spent a lot of time dual-wielding spoons. It took a while for her to consistently get it in her mouth but by a year she was using them confidently, loading and eating from them all by herself. She was pretty chuffed with herself, too.

5 – The Food Processor and Freezer Are Your Friends

Somewhat counter-intuitive, this one. From all the talk of fresh, whole foods you might be wondering why I’m pro-processor. The thing is, having a baby in the house makes everything take approximately one hundred years longer than it ever did before and when everyone is permanently starving and exhausted this does not make for good nutrition. The good thing about the processor is you can use it for a bunch of things to make life easier. For example:

  • Shove a bunch of veg (peppers, mushrooms, onion, courgette) through the slicing function for stir fries and fajita fillings. Make up bags of a variety of pre-chopped veg to suit your purposes and keep them in the freezer for quick dinners.
  • Blitz up some carrots, onions and garlic or celery to form the base for soups and sauces – a super quick way to get a bolognese started! On which note…
  • Blitz up a variety of veg to the consistency of your preference to load bolognese sauce with the good stuff.
  • Home make soups with veg that’s past its best – just roast with your favourite herbs and spices and blitz with stock. Sweet potatoes and squash are good places to start here as they create a lovely silky texture without much help.
  • Use the blender to make pancake batter – flavour with peas and mint or sweetcorn to make fritters for little hands.
  • Whizz up fruit, freeze in ice-cube trays and add to porridge for an injection of flavour and a quick cool-down!
  • For the over-1s who can have cows milk (or your milk substitute of choice) whizz milk and a handful of hulled strawberries for a quick (and much lower sugar) pink milk.
  • Freeze bananas and throw them in the blender with a splash of milk or yogurt for a quick ‘ice cream’. This works with apple juice and frozen strawberries to make a sort of sorbet, too.

The list is pretty endless and if you Google or Pinterest the subject you’ll find a bunch of handy tips and tricks to make your life easier in this way.

6 – Don’t Tell Them They Won’t Like It

If a person you trust told you that you wouldn’t like something you’d believe them, right? Probably. Children’s taste buds develop over time. There are likely many things you remember hating as a child that you actually love now — blue cheese, mustard, beer, coffee, dark chocolate. If they want to try it (and it’s safe for them to try it) let them. If it’s not safe (i.e. it’s a choking hazard, it’s a jalapeño, it’s scalding hot, etc) explain it to them. “I’m sorry, you can’t try this because it’s too XXX for your little mouth. We’ll try it when you’re bigger.” If they do try something new and it’s not a great reaction, that’s ok. They don’t have to like it, they just want the experience. Try not to apply your own tastes to them, either. Just because Daddy doesn’t like peas and Mummy doesn’t like red meat doesn’t mean baby won’t.

The phrase to memorise here is “you don’t have to like it and you don’t have to eat it”. This might seem a bit mad, but it really helps. The thing is, everyone’s tastes are different and everyone feels differently about things on different days — children are no exception. Some days you want soup, some days you want steak, some days you don’t really want much of anything and some days only the all you can eat buffet will do. Sometimes you just don’t fancy cabbage and you know if you’re being honest with yourself that you don’t like everything you try. You’ll have much more relaxed mealtimes if you can let go of the fact they didn’t eat everything and even more so if you don’t make tasting everything into a fight. The best option here is just to eat your own food yourself and not make a huge fuss. Saying things like “I like parsnips, they’re a bit like carrots and a bit like potatoes’ can help because, as you’ll probably know from being presented with strange things, not knowing what something will be like can be a bit scary. Try not to bargain with other foods, too; “you can’t have any cake if you don’t eat all your carrots” is only going to make them resent carrots and put cake in a ‘reward’ category. Not that there’s anything wrong with food rewards (fun day at the beach, everyone gets ice cream!) but be careful of assigning values to food where they don’t belong. The relationships people have with foods they’ve labelled as ‘naughty’ or seen as ‘punishment foods’ (being forced to choke down broccoli you hate so you can have jelly) can last a long time and be quite damaging.

FOR THE LOVE OF WHICHEVER DEITY DO NOT CALL THEM FAT. Just don’t. Don’t get into the habit of it when they’re small because it’ll be hard to shift when they’re older. Don’t call you fat and don’t make life and food about body image. Food is about nutrition, it’s not about what anyone thinks of you or any of that garbage. Positive body image starts right here. Focus on being healthy. If there are genuine medical concerns about weight (either over or under), speak to your doctor.

 

Really Useful Sources: The British Nutrition FoundationThe NHSStart 4 Life

 

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Getting Down To It

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Are you still here? Excellent. I’m about to share with you some thoughts, tips and ideas I’ve come up with over the past 3 years of feeding my little one. A note: this is all based on my personal experience with my children and bits and pieces I’ve put together and discovered along the way. There are no guarantees with babies and just because something worked for me, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you (and vice versa). I just hope that you find something to help or inspire you!

[DISCLAIMER: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a medical professional or dietary specialist. If you have concerns or questions about your child’s health and well-being, you should definitely speak to a doctor, health visitor or other trusted professional. Please be mindful about things like allergies and nutritional requirements and read around.]

Right. My BLW ru… you know what? They’re more like guidelines. Super flexible guidelines.

1 – Don’t Panic!

This is probably the most important thing you can do. Or not do. Whichever makes sense. It’s also arguably the most difficult. Babies react to your emotions so if you freak out, they will freak out. Imagine you’re out for dinner and every time you put a piece of food to your face, the rest of the table starts gasping, holding their breath, making worried faces… It’s not going to be long before you just put down the fork and give up, because clearly they know something you don’t about this food and better safe than sorry, right? Unfortunately, it’s not easy to just sit on your emotional reaction to something, especially if you’re already sleep deprived, exhausted, or simply having a bad day. However, there are some things you can do to help:

  • Don’t start until everyone is ready. And by ‘everyone’ I mean you and them. I knew Elizabeth was ready to start weaning when she attempted to steal a Yorkshire pudding from my dinner plate. When baby is paying attention to food, seems interested in it and is even trying to get hold of some, that’s a good sign they’re ready to get going. They also need to be able to sit up by themselves (or with a little padding in a high chair if they keep sliding around – those things are tricky for young babies!) and able to put things to their mouths. You (and any other adults helping with this) need to be feeling confident and positive about the process. If you’re freaking out about it, that’s no good for anyone so take your time and be ready. A good option if you’re feeling unsure is to have a picnic party with some friends (with or without babies) and be around people when you’re giving baby food. Similarly, if the thought of people watching you attempt this makes your blood run cold, make sure you’ve got protected time so you don’t feel stressed. If you can eat together as a family; do. We were lucky enough to be able to organise our days to at least eat dinner together, but if you can’t do that it’s nice if anyone who can be there for mealtimes can sit at the table and eat something together. It’s a good learning experience for baby, too, to watch people eating.

 

  • Take a first aid course. This is probably the thing that you’re most terrified of and that will be the root cause of a lot of your trauma around weaning. Choking can and does happen. Elizabeth choked three times during her weaning process and the first time was simply horrible. First aiders will teach you to recognise the signs and how to act. When she choked the first time, Elizabeth suddenly went very quiet and very red and clearly began to panic. I followed the instructions I’d been given, flipped her up and gave her a firm, open palmed slap on the back. The blockage came out, she yelled for a minute, I cuddled the heck out of her and then she merrily carried on with dinner and I sat in a chair, shaking, for a while. My eyes barely left her for the first few months of her weaning journey, but knowing you know what to do is a huge relief. Ask your Health Visitor or local Children’s Centre for details on where to find a first aid course — most Children’s Centres will have one on offer at some point. You need one that specifically includes dealing with choking in infants and children and what to do in case of allergic reactions, and anyway it’s never a bad plan to have a basic introduction (or refresher – these things change all the time) on family first aid.

 

  • Learn to spot gagging vs. choking. Linked to the above, getting ok with a bit of gagging will help you to help your baby. While there’s always that moment of heart stopping panic that something’s wrong, it helps to remember that babies’ gag reflexes are further forward in their mouths than in adults so much more food will come out, and sometimes quite dramatically. Often, gagging and spitting out are much noisier than choking and form a crucial part of learning to chew, swallow and get ok with textures. That said – trust your instincts and NEVER leave a weaning baby or small child alone with food. Keep an eye (or both) on them at all times.

 

  • Find out about allergies. If there are allergies in your family (or if you’re allergic to something yourself) you’re probably way ahead here. There are several foods that are known to be common allergens (including nuts, eggs and seafood) — there’s good information in this NHS guide so familiarise yourself. Allergies often manifest strongest on the second exposure so when you’re introducing these foods make sure you’re somewhere you can get help if you need it. If you’re worried about introducing something, say peanut butter, have someone with you when you do. A paramedic once told me that if you call 999 with a child in anaphylaxis you’ll hear the tyres squealing on the ambulance. So that’s good to know.

 

  • Don’t mind the mess. And boy, oh boy, will there be mess. Lots and lots of mess. In their defence, the babies don’t know you just hoovered and they don’t have great hand/eye co-ordination. They’re not doing it on purpose, they’re just learning. Not that this helps when there’s bolognese all up your wall. Stock up on wipes (or whatever cleaning products you use for little ones and for the house). A good highchair will help you no end here — top BLW recommendations usually point to the Antilop from Ikea. It’s not pretty, but it’s entirely wipe clean and has a large tray. You can get padded covers for the seat but, frankly, the more materials and nooks you add; the harder the clean up. I also recommend getting some sort of wipe-clean floor covering — a table cloth, oil cloth, mat — anything that saves the floor is a good investment. On a related note, be prepared to clean up after yourselves if you’re out and about. Don’t be that family leaving a pile of food on the floor under a sticky table. Oh, and get big bibs. Lots and lots of big bibs.

 

  • There’s no ‘right way’/Ignore the Kristas. “Who are the Krista’s?” I hear you cry! No disrespect to anyone named Krista, it was just the most appropriate name I could think of for the beautiful, talented, creative and capable (and usually American) mums you’ll see all over the interwebs. They often have perfect hair, gorgeous children, a side business in photography, hand-made outfits, themed parties and a seemingly endless supply of energy and whole-food ingredients. Do not be put off. Some people have the time and support to manage like that. Some people actually are Wonder Woman. Some of them *must* be faking. The thing is, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be thinking at least once a day that you’ve let the side down by not having freshly baked banana muffins on the breakfast table every morning. You don’t have to match up to these standards, no matter what you think. Don’t forget that your little doesn’t know Krista, they know you and they love what you do for them. Make it fun if you can, make it survival if you must. Some days are bento boxes with moulded eggs, some days are crying in the kitchen with a jam sandwich. You can’t win them all. Anyway, I’m sure there are plenty of things you can do that Krista can’t, so there’s that.

 

  • Other Parents. With the potential to be the most judgemental force on earth, other parents are also a pretty essential part of life with little ones. You may often need them, but you certainly don’t need their nonsense — and rest assured there will be nonsense. You will probably encounter one who tells you wheat is poison. One who tells you to just get on with it. One who is a real life Krista and brings home made sausage rolls to the picnic you only just managed to get to in clean clothes with brushed hair. Or one with a ‘perfect’ child who’s never been a problem a day in their tiny lives. Now, while it’s important to allow these parents (grandparents, your own parents…) room to live their best life, you don’t have to fit in with it. Wheat may be considered poison in one household, but if you love a cheese toastie you do you. Discussion is healthy, sharing ideas is great — after all it takes a village — but anyone who makes you feel bad about your parenting is not someone you need to take to heart.

 

Next: Getting Down To It (Part 2)

Baby Led Weaning

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There are very few firsts in life and by-and-large they’re done and dusted early on. Not so with food. Think of the last time you tried eating something new – it probably wasn’t all that long ago. The process of discovering food isn’t something that ever really ends – we are always trying new flavours, new ingredients, new ways of putting things together. For me, weaning is simply the start of this journey; a way to introduce the idea of food that reflects how we continue that relationship for the rest of our lives. Food is a huge part of life. It’s something we go to multiple times a day – hungry, tired, sad, celebrating… the list of reasons we eat is long. So, for me, discovering baby-led weaning was one of the best things in my parenting journey. I’ll be honest; until I was about to wean my first baby I had never heard of it and thought weaning would involve a lot of pureeing and spoon feeding. It turns out this doesn’t have to be the case. The more I found out about baby-led weaning, the more I liked the idea. Friends recommended it. I gave it a try. I loved it.

Why Baby-Led Weaning?

I love food. I mean, not always, but generally. I have days where I don’t want to cook, don’t want to eat, only want to eat take out and ice cream… but I (generally) see food as a positive thing in my life and I really want my children to have a happy, healthy relationship with the food they’ll be discovering and eating for the rest of their lives. Baby-led weaning (or BLW) is one approach to weaning a baby from milk (breast or formula) to real, actual, solid food. It basically is what it says – a way to let the baby take the lead in the process.

In essence, BLW means you give food to your baby and they eat it. Or mash it up. Or throw it on the floor. The idea is to let your baby explore food in their own time and in their own way, learning about flavours, textures, chewing and swallowing. They learn to differentiate broccoli from beans and decide whether they like either, both or neither. They learn to identify when they’ve had enough to eat. They figure out that apple requires more effort than jelly. Experimentation is key.

As far as I can tell, the main aims of weaning are two-fold: firstly, the little ones aren’t going to be little ones forever and at some point will need to eat ‘proper’ food, so they need to learn. Secondly, in defiance of the classic poem, we’re trying to avoid f*&$ing them up as much as we can; let’s not exclude food from that. A person’s relationship with food can affect their entire life, so we want to give our children the best possible start to that relationship. Now, I’m not saying ‘perfect weaning’ will prevent eating disorders, weird reactions to soft fruit, pickiness or what have you (and, frankly, anyone who tells you there’s a ‘perfect’ way to do pretty much anything when it comes to babies is talking nonsense). What I am saying is that it seems to me if we can set them up right they have a fighting chance.  It’s messy, it’s work and it’s not always going to be easy, but we love these tiny people and they deserve our best effort, right?

It’s by no means the only approach, I couldn’t say that for everyone it’s the best approach, nor make any other ‘be all and end all’ declarative. The truth is there’s more than one way to wean a baby and what works for one may not work for another for a variety of reasons. The parenting motto in our family is ‘Do What Works’ and introducing solids is no exception. If, for whatever reason, you can’t get with BLW: don’t do it. Or do it in part. Or have a BLW day and a puree day and a dear-god-in-heaven-what-am-I-doing day. Whatever works. Survival is the goal! (Incidentally another motto: get everyone through the day, sometimes anything more than that is a bonus).

But what actually is BLW?

When I first started weaning Elizabeth, I really, really wanted someone to properly define BLW for me. I mean, surely it didn’t just mean ‘give them a plate of sandwiches and let them get on with it’? Surely a baby can’t just… eat? Turns out they kinda can. And really, when you think about it, of course they can. We don’t have a regurgitation system like birds. We don’t have wild-growing blenders whipping everything into nutrient paste for us. Babies have been weaning since there were babies to wean. The idea here is to help them do what they’re biologically driven to do: put food in their mouths. It’s also fun. Like, really fun. Watching your child discover and enjoy food is pretty incredible, seeing all these firsts anew through their eyes is fascinating and helping them do it is so rewarding. Baby-led weaning has been a real high point for me through the early years of my daughter’s life and I’m really looking forward to trying it again with my son.

Food is easy to control. The trouble with spoon feeding is that the control ends up with the wrong person — you. There’s a temptation to shovel the food in fast to get it done, at your own pace. It can be tedious, feeding a baby, so you might drop into a rhythm and baby has to fit in. You probably don’t eat your dinner like that. When you do things in a baby-led way, you give the control to your baby and they decide what goes in, when and in what order. Now, this may be frustrating as heck for you, but while they’re doing this they’re learning to pace themselves and respond to their own hunger and satiety cues. They learn specifically what they like and what they don’t like. They’ll socialise with you at the table — eat a bit, chat a bit, take a drink, chat a bit — and they get to be like you which, as you’ll increasingly see from them as they grow, is pretty much all they want (more fool them!). They’ll learn that meal times are important, that it’s important to pay attention to what you’re putting in your body and that spending quality time together for a meal is a good thing. (Seriously, if you can train your family into family meal times early, you can use family meal times later to check in with everyone. It’s a really good time to make sure your older kids are doing ok and creates a safe, regular spot for conversation.) The other bonus here is that if you’re taking this approach you only have to cook one meal, one time. Just crib a bit off plates here and there to make up a plate for baby. Easy.

A Word About Purees

Now, I’m pretty sure people will be saying ‘but I was fed purees and I’m fine!’ ‘there are some really good organic purees on the market!’ and other such things. This is fine and true. I’m not going to say purees are the devil. I’m not going to say you’re a bad parent if you use purees. Heck, I’m not even saying don’t use them — after all there’s a fine line between something like soup or mashed potato and puree, isn’t there? What I am saying is that purees aren’t the last word in baby weaning. You don’t have to puree. You can, of course, if you want to (though if you do, you should taste it yourself, first — I have a rule that if i wouldn’t eat it I’m not going to make them eat it and frankly, nutritionally valid as some purees are, if you squeezed some of them into a bowl and tried to eat it with a spoon I don’t think you’d get very far.)

Purees can be excellent ways to get extra food into a child that won’t (or struggles to) eat. If you need the calorie content, a pouch of fruit and veg can be a life-saver. Do try and let them manage it themselves though, if you can. The benefits there still apply. And, if you really want to incorporate purees into your weaning program, try and make them yourself. That way you can adjust the texture and contents as you go along and you can make batches to store in the freezer for convenience.

 

You’ll never regret time with your children.

Seriously, you’re not gonna get to 90 and wish you’d not spent that time with them at the dinner table. They’re going to drive you mad in a million ways as they grow up – they’ll make a pile of mushrooms on the table despite telling you they only wanted mushrooms, they’ll feed half their dinner to the dog and then scream that they don’t want the dog to have eaten it, they’ll have a complete meltdown because they don’t want the food to be that colour (and yes, these things have all happened to me). In the end, though, you want to love them, to raise them as well as you possibly can and to take all that crap now so that when they’re grown they can face the world with confidence. It’ll be worth it.

Do or Do Not…

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[This post was originally written in 2012, finally posted 2017]

 

 

The owner of a Maltese and I are chatting in the dog park.  The dogs are getting along famously and I envy the ease with which they go from perfect strangers to wrestling teammates.  There’s no standing on ceremony, no small talk and no need for one to pretend they didn’t hear the alarmingly narrow-minded or interfering thing the other just said. A sniff, a play bow and they’re off, leaving the two-legged contingent to make awkward comments about the weather.  It’s been a few weeks since we met the Maltese, so the conversation has progressed from the standard Dog Park 20 Questions (What breed it he? Oh, she, sorry! How old? Did you get her from a shelter?) to the more human-centric “Have you lived here long?” and “How about them Giants?”.  I can hear his next question before he asks and I’m dreading it.  His lips are forming the words.  I brace myself. “So,” he says, nonchalantly throwing a ball for an enthusiastic Bulldog, “What do you do?”

I’m trying to be a writer. The words bounce across my brain but my mouth is quicker. “Not a lot.  I spend a lot of time training the puppy…” My brain slaps its hand to it’s forehead. I spend a lot of time with the puppy. Seriously? He looks at me in what I can only interpret as a pitying manner, and I understand entirely.  I live in one of the most amazing cities in the world. I don’t have to work because I’m lucky enough that my husband is not only brilliant enough to support us financially but wonderful enough that he does it with no expectations of me. We have a deal – I do home stuff, he goes to work. Part of that deal is that I bite the bullet and crack on with my novel writing.  He’s one of those people who actually believes I have talent (fool!), that it all might eventually amount to something (more fool!) and that he’s happy when I’m happy, and I’m happy when I don’t have a job to go to. There’s an element of truth to that last part. But I can’t bring myself to explain this, because it can’t end “…and so I sit at home all day and don’t do anything. Well, sometimes I crochet. But mostly I do nothing.” And if I tell the truth, I have to say “I’m trying to be a writer.”

Why isn’t it ok to be trying? At what point did the pursuit of a dream become something I couldn’t talk about? To me, to be trying at something suggests I haven’t succeeded; and if I haven’t succeeded I must have failed. If I’m only trying I’m not actually an anything. I’m not a writer, I’m one of those ridiculed people who sits in Starbucks with a laptop and a screenplay open in font large enough for the barista to read (because they’re trying to be an actor, so I guess we’re all in this together).  If I say I’m trying to be a writer it opens the door to the follow up questions

“What do you write?”

“Young adult fiction”

“What’s it about?”

“I’d rather not talk about it, it fills me with an overwhelming sense of worthlessness because I’m such a fraud that, as even I can’t take my writing seriously, I doubt anyone else will ever believe me that it’s worth reading.”

“Oh. Any success with that?”

“Absolutely none, both in the sense that I haven’t sent anything to anyone to publish because I can’t deal with the rejection (and because I haven’t finished anything because I took a year off to get married and emigrate and then got a terrier puppy) and that it’s such a waste of computerised ink that anyone involved should probably start charging me for their time.”

“Right…. I own a consulting firm and my wife is a financial advisor. We’re going to our house in Napa for the weekend.”

“Excuse me while I curl up under a duvet and die.”

The word trying holds several meanings.  On the one hand it means attempting something, making an effort at it. On the other it means an irritating and difficult time.  In the case of trying to be a writer, I think it’s safe to say both meanings hold. It is irritating and difficult (and so am I), but that’s ok, because not everything worth doing is going to be easy.  Attempting to be a writer is where I have the mental block.

Maybe using the word trying grates with me because it sounds like an elaborate way of saying “I’m pretending to be something that sounds cool, but basically I’m unemployed”. Maybe it’s simply that I don’t want to admit what I’m doing even to myself, let alone anyone else – there’s no pressure that way. But some pressure is a good thing.  Without the pressure, there’s no external force driving forward.  Internal drive will only get you so far – it’s much easier to justify laziness, bad days and quitting to yourself than it is to explain it to others. Which, I suppose, is the crux of the issue. Admitting and accepting – both for others and for yourself.

I’d love to follow Yoda’s sage advice but, at least right now, I still feel like it’s not justifiable to say “I’m a writer”.  It would be like saying “I’m an astronaut” two days into the training – you have to earn the right to claim the title.  So, this week I am challenging myself that, should someone ask what I do, I shall answer that I’m trying to be a writer.  I shall be honest with them and most importantly with myself. In the end it comes down to this: If I try, I can fail. If I don’t try, I can’t succeed.

Talking to myself

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I’ve opened my blog for the first time in years. I’ve done this for a few reasons: firstly, I want to create a little side-blog about Baby Led Weaning with some thoughts I had on the topic and maybe a few recipe ideas (as we’ve just surfaced from the first 10 weeks of baby number 2 and I’m beginning to feel like a human again) and, secondly, because I’ve started to feel writing bubbling up again. It’s been a while; I guess a toddler and a pregnancy will do that to your life. But the words have started to pop into my brain here and there and I’ve found the best thing to do in that situation is find an outlet (preferably small and non-threatening) so you don’t start either mentally punching yourself when you can’t remember what you wanted to write, or talking to yourself.

When I opened the blog dashboard I found a draft post from 2012 staring at me. I don’t remember writing it, but obviously I did (or else I’ve been hacked by someone who sounds an awful lot like me…) and I never pressed publish. Which, once you read the post is rather ironic. I’m posting it here because Past Me clearly thought it was worth saying and, surprisingly, it still seems pretty relevant. It’s up next, if you fancy a read.

Beyond that, hopefully I’m going to get my act together and sort some BLW/Feeding Kids posts out. If you have any brilliant hints, tips or stories you’d like to share you’re very welcome to share them here or send them to me. I might try and write a story, too. I’ve got several on the go and they need attention. They keep telling me this, and if I don’t pay attention they’ll leave and go somewhere else. It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

[You should note that between starting this around lunch time and posting it now, at 8:30pm,  have wavered approximately 100 times. Just sayin’.]

The Fox & The Boy

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Ok,  here it is.  This is the result of the previous post where I decided to write a short story. I managed to knock this out in about half a day in the end. All things considered, I don’t think it’s too bad, but I still had an internal freakout about posting.  Let me know what you think.

 

 

The Fox & The Boy

It was dark in the forest. The trees loomed overhead, knitting their branches together so it was impossible to tell what was sky.  Not that it would have mattered. The day had been damp and rainy, clouds still sat low adding to the depth of the blackness.  Where there was enough light to reach the ground, shadows danced and flowed through the tangled undergrowth as the wind rocked the boughs above, creating faces, bodies, creatures lurking just beyond sight.  An unnamed beast screeched, its voice magnified and mirrored by the creaking trees and rustling brambles.  Against the trunk of a gnarled old oak, down between the roots, almost entirely submerged under swirling, dead leaves, with her arms around her head and her tear streaked face buried in her knees, there huddled a girl, no more than six years old. The creature shrieked again and she whimpered, shrinking into an even smaller ball, desperately wishing she could be anywhere but here. Alone in the mud and detritus, in the dark, bitter weather, she sobbed into her sodden skirt, wedged in the nook at the foot of the tree; and that is where, hours later after the dawn had finally broken and the wind had died down and the rain was only a drizzle, the boy found her.

He was tall for his age, only nine years old but already broad at the shoulder and strong in the arm.  Both were down to his father; that he should be tall was no surprise but his strength could only have come from rigorous practice under a watchful eye with a sword, shield, club, and lance.  It was not the burly brawn of a farm hand or labourer, but the honed physique of a soldier in training. He was in a foul mood, as he often was lately, so he kicked his way through the twigs and leaves, stomping heavy-booted, swinging a broken branch into the bushes and muttering to himself.  At first he did not see her there, tucked away under the debris of the storm. He would have walked by, but she sighed in her sleep and stirred a little.  He jumped back, expecting a fox but raising his stick in case it was something bigger.  Gradually, the form resolved itself as leaves fell away and she sat up, slowly, stretching her aching limbs and looking about with bleak confusion.  For a few moments they looked at each other.  Then, she screamed.

“Stop that!” he commanded, using a tone borrowed from his father.  To his surprise and relief she did, but her eyes were wide and her tiny body trembled. He dropped to his knees on the damp ground and placed the stick beside him.  “You can come out now.”

She did not move, just stared at him with round, dark eyes.

“Come on,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if he spent every day coaxing small children from hollowed trees. “It’s no good you sitting in there.  There might be snakes. Or spiders.”

In a second she was up, frantically swiping at her clothes with her hands and whimpering.  In her haste to be far from the threatened spiders she caught her boot in a loop of root and tumbled over with a cry, landing heavily on her face and hand. Slowly, she clambered up enough to sit facing him, clutching her bruised wrist to her chest and crying quietly.  He studied her.  She looked awful; her dark red hair was matted and tangled with leaves and twigs and plastered across her head in all directions. Her face was coated with mud and grime and laced with scratches and her hands the same, with black fingernails. Her dress was torn and filthy and the sole was coming away from one of her boots.  She was a pitiful sight.  He shuffled over to her.

“Show me your arm.”  Obligingly, she held it out for his inspection, flinching as he prodded the swelling and gave a gentle turn.  “It’s just a sprain,” he declared, confidently.  He’d had enough to recognise one.  She pulled the injured limb back as soon as he released it. “Where are you from?”

She looked about her and her little forehead creased in worry. She didn’t know. “Where do you live?” he continued, “What’s your name? Where are your parents?”  The forehead crease became a lip wobble which became a low wail. He huffed. “Don’t start crying again!” Girls were difficult enough, without crying.  He offered a silent thanks for the fact he was an only child. “Well, you can’t stay here.” He stood up and offered her a hand, which she took, a little reluctantly.  He pulled her to her feet. She was so light, he almost stumbled backwards. Skinnier than any six year-old had any right being. The sense of duty he’d been acting from faded, replaced with concern; an emotion he was not familiar with. He studied her again. Her face, under the mud and scrapes was pale and gaunt, her eyes red-rimmed, dark circled and sunken, with little light behind them.  The hand in his was slight and bony.  She had not eaten in a long time.

“How long have you been out here?” he asked, more to himself than to her. She simply met his eyes with that same worried confusion.  “You can come with me. I’ll find your family.”  He gave her a gentle tug to encourage her to walk and, picking up his stick, turned back the way he had come.  She trailed along behind him as they went and he made sure to crush down the tougher brambles and nettles for her.  As they walked, he talked.  He had never been very good with silence.

“My name is Sebastian. Sebastian Penhaligon. My father is the Captain of the Watch in Kelvar. That’s the Capital City.” He said this with a great deal of pride; although he and his father did not often see eye to eye, the prestige and fortune of his situation did not escape his notice, young as he was. “We’re here because of the war. You probably don’t know much about it.” He had that condescending tone of children who are aware of their own importance. “There’s a war because there was a murder. My father is here with the King.” He could not help the swelling of pride in his chest as he went on. “My father is an advisor to the Guard and he fights with their army.” Sebastian’s knowledge of this area was not firm, but he was more than willing to piece together things he knew with things he believed to create a likely truth.  “I came with him because it’s good for me to see war.”  His face set into a grimace as he remembered what he had seen of war. It was hard to understand what was good about it.  “My father says the more I know about the world the better equipped I shall be to master it.  That’s how men become great.”  He fell silent for a while as he thought over the conversation he’d had with the Captain that morning.  It was probably less of a conversation and more of an argument.  They were happening with increasing frequency these days.  Sebastian was not inclined to follow his father’s serious instruction; he preferred a free-spirited existence where he did not have to be in the training yard soon after dawn, before breakfast, mimicking the training of the Watchmen. Learning discipline.  His heart longed for his own space, the chance to discover for himself what the world could offer him and where he wanted to go.  He did not fully comprehend the whys and wherefores, but he was beginning to feel the pull of rebellion and the more he saw of this war, the more he knew he did not want to be his father.

The girl was limping. Sebastian had not noticed at first because the ground was uneven anyway, but the rhythm of her uneven gait attracted his attention and he stopped her.  “Do your feet hurt?”  She was resting her right foot — the foot with the broken boot — on its toes.  “Show me.”  As with his father, it never occurred to him to ask permission.  She hobbled backwards a half step.  “Sit down,” he glared.  She sank to the ground and sheepishly stretched her leg out in front.  The sole of the boot was half gone and she had no sock.  There was a deep gash in the heel of her foot.  It was red and angry, swollen and seeping.  It looked like there was something imbedded in there.  She gasped when he touched it.  “That’s no good,” he said. “It’s still really far to where we’re staying.”  He turned and crouched. “Get on then.”  She didn’t move.  He looked back over his shoulder. “Climb on, come on! You can’t walk all the way and if I’m not back by breakfast father will know I wandered away.” The Captain thought Sebastian was in his room, thinking about his attitude. “I won’t drop you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”  Reluctantly, and with some difficulty, the girl clambered onto his back.  She barely weighed anything, no more than the pack his father had him wear for morning runs at least.  With a few adjustments she was secure and comfortable, though she clung to him for dear life as he began to walk again.  For over an hour they continued like this, with Sebastian telling her about his home in Kelvar; his friends and teachers, his room, the things he owned, the horse he’d been riding here who he didn’t like so much as his own horse in the city because it wouldn’t keep his head out of the grass.  He told her how he’d learned to do a backflip and climb the stable building so he could get into the tree beside it and climb up high enough to see right out to the plains and how a lady in the hamlet made bread with plums in that was almost like cake but you could put butter on it.  The whole time she listened, nestled against his back with her head on his shoulder until they finally emerged from the cover of the trees to the edge of the battlefield and she slid down to the grass.

This battle was long over.  Broken weapons remained and some corpses too, but they were mostly being picked over by carrion and scavengers. There was nothing for the living here. The wind ruffled the long grass and carried the scent of the fires smouldering in the distance, out towards the mountains.  Faint plumes of smoke made the horizon hazy.  The girl sniffed back her tears.  Sebastian did not know it but somewhere in this field lay the girl’s father and beyond, in the burnt out remains of a village, her mother.  She had fled before the soldiers to follow her father, but had not found him and, through the horrors of the fray, had somehow survived to the forest at this edge of the plain where she had remained since.

Pulling his eyes from the scene, Sebastian found the girl a stout branch blown down from a tree in the night, as tall as her shoulder, and instructed her to use it as a walking stick for a way as the going was easier here and he would carry her again soon.  Their progress was slow but steady.  He wished he’d had the forethought to bring a water pouch with him, but then he’d stormed away so quickly he had not considered it.  Skirting the space between grass and trees they rounded the forest and could see, nestled by a narrow stream at the bottom of the hill they’d been on top of, a small cluster of buildings, surrounded by fruit gardens, fenced paddocks of pigs and goats and small plots of land given over to farming.

“That’s where we live for now,” Sebastian told her. “Some of the people left when the army came but because it was our army some people stayed. My father is in charge of this position. There are positions all along here,” he gestured out into the countryside as he recalled a map the Captain had shown him, “but most of the soldiers have gone that way as the enemy retreated.  There’s still a few left, just in case.” He pointed a short way beyond the hamlet’s fields to a collection of tents, starkly grey and ordered against the greenery, where banners fluttered in the breeze.  The smell of flowers and food, warmth and welcome wafted up, mingling with the grim scents behind them and drawing them on.  The girl climbed back into her place on Sebastian’s back and he followed a worn track that wove it’s way gradually down to the houses. Some were wooden, some were stone, most were thatched.  There were flowers and berry bushes, trees that yielded apples and plums.  If she did not know her own village was gone forever the girl would have sworn she was home.  Sebastian made his way directly to a large stone house.  It was long and low and had a stable and trees, carts and wagons. The King’s banner flew from a pole beside the door.

“This is my house,” Sebastian said as he lowered the girl to the ground.  “I suppose it’s not really my house. Our real house is in the city but we were allowed to live here while father is working.  “It’s a full week to my real house from here, if you have to walk.”  He pointed to the stable block.  “Go in there and I’ll be back.” He trotted away through the door. The girl’s heart pounded in her chest as she hobbled to the stable. Inside there were three separate compartments, two of which contained horses.  The warm air smelled of hay and animals; sweet and comforting.  She flopped into the straw of the empty stall and waited.  After a short while, Sebastian returned with mugs of water and some bread.  It did not have plums in, but it did have a thick smear of butter.  The girl nibbled it gingerly, as if afraid of what food would do to her empty stomach.  While she was occupied with the bread, Sebastian gently pulled off her boot and examined her foot.  It looked bad and as he touched it she cried out in pain and began to cry again.

“Wait here,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily as she had nowhere else to go.  This time he was gone longer, but when he came back he had a small parcel and a pot of steaming water.  Settling himself on a low bundle of straw, with her foot up on his lap, he proceeded to unwrap the package. “This is chickweed,” he began, holding out a handful of small, white flowers on thin, green stems.  She took one. “We use this on the horses when they cut their feet.  You crush it in your hand,” he did so “and then let it steep a while,” he dropped it into the hot water “and then we’ll strap it to your foot and it pulls out the poisons.”  He swirled the pot.  It smelt odd, but not unpleasant.  While he waited for the herb to brew, Sebastian dipped a piece of cloth into the liquid and began to dab it delicately on the girl’s tiny foot.  She winced.  “It’ll be better soon,” he said, “I promise.” He didn’t know why, but he suddenly felt incredibly protective of this scrawny creature with those huge, dark eyes as if, if he could only keep her safe, everything in the world would be better.  He continued to clean her foot until the herbs were ready, then bundled them into a poultice inside a clean piece of cloth and pressed it to the sore. “It’ll feel better soon.  You should go to sleep, you look tired.”  She lay back into the straw and closed her eyes.  “Please don’t die,” he whispered.

She drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the day, sometimes woken by the throbbing in her foot, sometimes by noises in the yard, so she pulled more straw over herself in hopes she would not be discovered. Sebastian came to the stall several times to check on her and bring food but could not stay as he had errands for his father.  By the time the light outside was dimming she felt much better than she had for a long while.  Sebastian brought left over soup from dinner, still lukewarm, and some of the bread with plums in.  It was as delicious as he had described and she ate it greedily.  A movement at the door made them both jump.

“Sebastian!” It was the Captain.  The boy jumped to his feet and faced his father. The Captain looked beyond him to the small girl huddled in the straw, clutching the bread, then back to his son. “Don’t feed the vermin, Sebastian. It only encourages them. Get rid of it.”  He turned and left.  The girl was shaking as Sebastian knelt beside her.

“Don’t worry, you can stay. I’ll hide you. Then we can find where you live.” He brushed her matted hair out of her eyes and gave her a strong hug.  “I wish I knew what to call you.”

“Imogen.”

He drew back and met her eyes.  It seemed a little light danced in them now, faint, but there. “Imogen. That’s nice. I’m going to call you Fox, because that’s what I thought you were when I first saw you. Imogen Fox.”  He stood up. “I have to go in, now, Fox, but I’ll be back. We’re friends now.”  He tossed her an old horse blanket.  “Goodnight.”

Imogen Fox watched him go with a smile, then lay back in the straw, snuggling under the mouldering cover and closed her eyes against the last of the light, determined to forget everything except this boy; the boy who saved her.

Writing Challenge

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So I got completely stuck writing. You know when you’re just writing nonsense and filler and it’s terrible but you have no idea where you’re supposed to be getting to or how to get there? That. In order to prevent the inevitable meltdown of ‘oh my god everything I write is awful I hate myself’ I decided to change tact and pick up something I’ve not touched for a while. Then it occurred to me that because I’ve not touched it for a while I can’t remember what had happened so far.

Now, because today feels like a Writing Day, not an Editing Day (shut up, that’s totally a thing) I figured that, instead of rereading a lot of words and discovering I hate those too, I would set myself the challenge of trying to write the origin story for two of the main characters; the theory being that this will get my brain into the right universe, let me write and give the other plot time to stew by itself for a while so it can think about what it’s done. It might also help me with some of the detail of this project.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’ll post it up later (assuming I don’t chicken out) and you can let me know what you think.