Category Archives: Activities

No make-up selfie. On live, prime time TV

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So a few days ago, I was in the bathroom, mascara wand in hand, looking in the mirror. I had ten minutes before being patched into a live TV interview – the glossy presenters in a Chicago TV studio and me on Skype in my bedroom, angling the laptop to cut out the litter of baby grows, bottles and nappies on the bed behind.

And that’s when I thought: sod it. I’m tiiiiiired. Why should I spend the next few, precious, quiet moments painting my face when I could be collecting my thoughts and drinking tea?

I’d been thinking, too, about how this wee girl – who has already started following me around the room with her big eyes – is only a few wobbly steps away from absorbing the way I present myself to the world – the moments when I worry about what comes out of my mouth and those when I panic over what’s slicked onto my lips.

And, of course, I’d been spending quite a lot of time on Facebook looking at my friends’ no-makeup selfies for breast cancer awareness. And thinking about a very precious woman who is just recovering and whose example I need Frida to grow up absorbing and admiring. And so… I put the make-up bag down and drank tea. And when the countdown began and we went live on prime time TV, in front of millions of Americans eating their breakfast, I had not a scrap of make-up on.

You can watch the results here.

And afterwards? Honestly, I felt a bit… underwhelmed. It isn’t a desperately heroic act, is it? Doing what you do anyway, just… doing it without mascara, lippy or cover-up? I hadn’t, really, made a stand for the sisterhood, since no one knew, or cared, except for me. But I did feel, somehow, Iike I’d made a stand for myself. And, crucially, had time to have a cup of tea. And both those small things felt really, pretty good.

I’d even had enough time left over to make a donation to Cancer Research UK. And even though my pasty, blotchy, imperfect face will remain on YouTube forever to haunt me and reinforce the American population’s belief that all Brits have wonky teeth and bad eyebrows, I’m absolutely certain that I made the right choice. Tea slurping over make-up slapping, every time.

You can make a donation here, if you fancy.

Frida: my life of late (aged nearly 5 months)


Watching: my reflection in a (pretty smeary) bin. Can’t get enough of it. Reminds me of that hideously over-repeated Oscar Wilde quote: we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are gazing at the stars. Well I spend a lot of time staring at that reflection and I can tell you: it’s the face of a star. Now please someone get me out of this filthy kitchen.

[Side note: I do this staring while listening to Radio 3 because my mother says if you're going to listen to classical music it might as well be the real stuff and not the tinny version on kids' toys that sounds as though the whole orchestra sucked on a helium balloon and makes her ears bleed. Apparently.]


Playing with: this (very particular) piece of cardboard. And no other. NO OTHER WILL DO. Wot? I like all the holes.


Gazing at: the Spring flowers for the first time. Woah… They’re blowing my tiny mind.


Feeling: the grass on my toes. Not altogether sure about this stuff. It’s very… green. Sometimes in a nice way, sometimes in an EXTREMELY alarming way.


Chilling: with my head in the blossom. If you weren’t aware, chilling is best done in the daytime. NEVER at night. And even in the day, best do it with your eyes open in case they get the wrong idea. You can have that one for free. From a top expert.


Wearing: New nappies! Get in. After what feels like a lifetime – in my case, in fact, an actual lifetime – some proper shopping was finally done in this house. There was an offer on the Little Lambs Facebook page – 10 reusable nappies for £50.

Seemingly, there are regular sales on this page which are so good that, coupled with our local council’s subsidy for the purchase of real nappies for the discerning baby, persuaded my mother to actually open her wallet. I KNOW. Although since the subsidy will pay for all these nappies, it doesn’t count. Apparently. Whatever. I was looking at my reflection when she was explaining. But for what it’s worth, you can find your local council’s subsidy policy here. Yawn.


Playing: here and…


here. Oh yeah. We got all the mod-cons here. And you thought babies didn’t do sarcasm.


And finally, chewing on: this poxy giraffe. My mother went into a tailspin and baked biscuits to swap it with some other panicked looking unkempt woman with delightful offspring. Like that would stop the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. The wailing and the gnashing of teeth is my THING. My signature look. Like I said, I’m a star darling.

[An aside: my mother would, however, dearly like your advice on free solutions to The Teething Problem. Otherwise known as "hell" and other less polite phrases she mutters into her glass of wine when she thinks I'm asleep (see my entry on 'chilling'). So if you do have any advice, perhaps you could supply it? I find her vain hope rather touching, in a naive sort of way...]

Dragging up the toddler. For free


So after rambling about the challenges of bringing up the baby for free last week, I started thinking about what battles we’re likely to face with Johnny this year.

He’s definitely more obstinate single-minded willful independent than he was last year. Less easily led. Actually, that’s wrong. He’s more independent from ME. Less easily led by ME. But when it comes to his peers? The opposite is true. The kids at nursery have fireman Sam backpacks? WE NEED ONE. And we need to talk about this urgent need all morning, as we eat our toast, while pulling on my sleeve as I feed the baby, while I’m trying to reverse into a parking space that has suddenly shrunk mid-manoeuvre without denting the Porsche that’s worth more than our collective lives, every time I try to pull off the pretence of professionalism on a phone call to every vaguely important person who calls…


This could well drive me crazy had I not come up with A Cunning Plan. I am particularly proud of this particular Cunning Plan because it knocks down several skittles simultaneously, accomplishing, in one move, the following:

1) regularly exhausting him to the point where he is too tired to form the words required to whine about Fireman Sam tatt

2) giving him a big gang of kids, a pack to run in – something he seems to really need at this new stage in his life

3) reminding him, weekly, of the fact that free stuff can be as fun as a Fireman Sam tatt (even if the effect only lasts a couple of hours…)

4) making sure that this new gang are ALL enthusiastic about free stuff, thereby engineering an antidote of sorts to the usual ‘stuff orientated’ peer pressure.

5) providing some kind of regular focused activity without shelling out money we can’t really spare (since ‘focus’ is an area we, erm, need to work on a little)


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: our Woodcraft Folk group.

Ok, stick with me. I know how it sounds. I assure you there is no compulsory veganism involved and only a small amount of whittling.

I can’t speak for other groups, but ours basically works like this: a happy collection of hippies, atheists, those a little squeamish about all the ‘dib dib dibbing’ involved in Scouts and those who just like to get our snotty-nosed, urban kids outdoors relatively regularly. The official description on the website goes like this:


At Woodcraft Folk we believe passionately in equality and co-operation – everyone is welcome to join our groups.

Every week thousands of volunteers and young people meet in school halls, community venues and a host of other places to learn about big ideas through fun activities like singing, playing and debating. 

Our aim is to have great fun, but also to try and develop children’s self-confidence and build their awareness of society around them.

Through our activities, outings and camps we help our members understand important issues like the environment, world debt and global conflict and, in recent years, we have focused on sustainable development.

By encouraging children to think, we hope they will help build a peaceful, fairer world.


So at the end of last year, we got together with about 20 local families to start our own group. Since it’s entirely democratic and there’s no ‘Brown Owl’ calling the shots, home economics badges to tick off or correct uniforms to starch, we set our own guidelines. In the end, they seemed to boil down, basically, to this: let’s get the kids together once a week, outdoors whenever the weather allows, and organise an activity that’s fun and fosters creativity, collaboration and a bit of a sense of how amazing the world is.


So since the beginning of this year we’ve started meeting once a week – on Tuesday evenings three times a month, and on a Sunday afternoon once a month. The parents all take turns to run an activity: a recycling fashion show with egg cartons and old boxes; mud-volcano making; building time capsules.

The sessions cost nothing to attend, we got some basic funding from another local group to set things up, we’re relaxed about the fact that half the kids will run wild and uncooperatively around on the edges of the activity, and we enjoy each others’ company.


It’s really kind of great. As I’m new to this kind of thing, I feel a kind of evangelical gratitude to have found it. Does anyone else belong to a Woodcraft group? Or have other arrangements for entertaining their toddlers for free?

There’s info on how to set your own group up here if not. DO IT. You’ll love it. And I promise you wont have to wear vegetarian shoes.


UPDATE: I’ve just remembered other useful links for setting up this kind of gig. The fantastic Junkaholique blog recently wrote about the outdoor kids activities that the Wildlife Trust runs in their neck of the (literal) woods. And my favourite Seeds and Stitches wrote about the nature play groups that are dotted about the country. Any others I’ve forgotten?

Bringing up baby. Free.


How time flies when you’re having fun/having next to no sleep/having to spend every waking hour tending to the needs of a very sweet, very short and very particular little dictator.

I sat down and did the maths last night (the poor second child doesn’t have her age etched into our hearts and breathlessly recounted in weeks, days and minutes like her older brother did, and I realised I was slightly hazy on the details). FOUR months. FOUR MONTHS OLD. How did that happen?

Boy is she lovely. But also: boy is she growing. In all sorts of ways that are sending me scurrying to Freecyle and Preloved and Facebook and friends, on the hunt for things that might satisfy her voracious needs.



She has now burst – in spectacularly chubby, Michelin tyred fashion –  out of all the clothes we collected for her before the birth. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to start hunting down a whole new wardrobe in 3-6 and 6-9 months.

Things I’ve learnt: I need to move faster. Monster-muncher that he is, Johnny wasn’t growing anything like this fast when I started the project last year. So I haven’t learnt how to update – for free – a wardrobe that changes as fast as Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection. Easy it ain’t. Do-able, I think it probably is.

I just need to anticipate our needs earlier, start hunting for the next size up before she’s literally bursting at the seams. With what we’ve gathered and the few bits and bobs that we saved from Johnny’s babyhood, I think we’re safe for the next few months. And then we’ll breathe a sigh of relief when summer arrives and I can have a happy naked baby for a few months.

Last weekend we hit the jackpot: in an attic in Tom’s parent’s house, a box full of seventies baby clothes – a treasure trove of smocking, knickerbockers and candy-cane stripes. Apparently they tried to sell it all to a second-hand shop recently and they wouldn’t take it, so clearly it’s not to everyone  - or even most people’s – tastes. But I LOVE IT ALL. It’s so much more beautifully made than any of the modern hand-me-downs that Frida has had. Lovely as they are, I can’t see of them lasting several decades and multiple cousins-worth of wear and tear.

Perhaps that’s the trouble with baby clothes these days? Rather than the need to last for future generations, they’re designed with fashion foremost in mind. And fashion’s fleeting, right? So who cares if they last.

A question though: what’s with all the tiny eyelets and fiddly buttons? Did vintage babies not wriggle?



Gone are the days when I could leave her to flirt with a light fitting (any light fitting) for the length of a nice cup of tea and a short magazine piece. Girl needs stuff. Colours, movement, things to squeeze into submission in her iron grip.

So do we finally have to admit that we need some battery operated, singing, dancing and drive-you-crazy-with-my-incessant-jingle toys?

I’m not sure. Upstairs, we still have Johnny’s old cot mobile, which is one of those plastic-fantastic, Mozart playing monstrosities and, dammit, she LOVES it. I don’t for a minute buy into all the claims it made about enhancing development, co-ordination, tap-dancing and Mandarin-mastering skills but it keeps her quiet and happy for up to twenty whole minutes at a time. Frankly, they don’t have to make any other claims to win me over, heart and soul.

But I HATE it. The tunes hammer away into my frontal cortex so that I’m still humming them at ten at night. I hum them in bars. I hum them in meeting with important people. I hum them in my dreams. I am so, SO unwilling to add to this maddening kiddy cacophony, melting my mind. But she needs SOMETHING  to play with downstairs.

We borrowed a friend’s bouncy chair, which is great but doesn’t have toys to entertain her too. So I’m on the hunt. I found a jungle gym for sale on our amazing local facebook page. After I emailed, the seller agreed that I could borrow it for six weeks or so  - in return for some cake (made my me), marmalade (made by my mother in law) and eggs (made by her hens). Then I’ll give it back, nice and clean and hopefully not too badly mauled by the mini-me, and she can relist it for sale. Everyone’s a winner.

I’m also going to give these beautiful DIY mobiles a go, from the always-inspiring Seeds and Stitches blog. Her’s look beautiful. Mine won’t. But maybe they’ll entertain her anyway and I can always tell people that Johnny made them.

As the weather warms up, I’m going to try and spend as much time as possible outside with her – are the swaying branches of a tree as captivating as a mobile?

But what about things to chew on, shake and rattle? Does she need a bloody Sophie the Giraffe?


We’re introducing the odd bottle over here. I have an old manual pump that seems to do the job fine (I don’t want to try a nice, modern electric one, for fear of discovering how much easier it is… On the other hand, it’s not really a job that any amount of money and technology can made glamorous, is it?)

A friend’s neighbour dropped a mountain of used bottles on her (not literally on her, you understand). Anyway, this friend didn’t need all of them so between the ones she let us have and a few swaps that appeared online, we’re covered for the moment.

Frida also gets a prescription for formula because she has problems with cow’s milk (an intolerance! She’s already so much trendier than her parents…) so when the time comes for us to make the switch that’ll actually be free too.

But what do we do when we need the next teat size up? And sterilising. Do we need to get our hands on a proper steriliser? What does it do that a good boil in a large pan wouldn’t do? As ever, answers on a postcard urgently requested please…

Come up and see me, make me smiiiiiile (no, really)


Normal blogging will resume next week.

Because this week, all week, I’ve taken over the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall and filled it with children and rubbish.  I’m running my Cardboard Kingdom again along with the amazing Sarah from The Bungaloo and the Land of Kids folk. But this time it’s way bigger and has a waaaaay better view.

It’s day three and already, hundreds of kids have helped to create their version of London – how the capital should be in their eyes, building it from the real city’s recycling and against a panoramic view of it.

Hundreds of kids, nine days, a tonne of rubbish, sharp scissors and me and Frida. What could possibly go wrong?! We’ll be there all week – come and see us! Tomorrow, we’re building London Zoo. So pop in and make a tiger or two? And, of course, It’s freeeeeeeeeeeee…


Sarah made this bus out of a cardboard box. She is a GENIUS.


Day one


Day two