Tuesday, 22 May 2018


Occasionally, I think I may be supplying my son with inappropriate reading material.

Last summer, on a trip to a bookshop, I gave him free reign to choose any book that he wanted. And he chose a book about the periodic table of the elements. Being of a scientific bent myself, this delighted me, and we have happily read sections of it together, and I've brought home bits of this and that from work for his box of "precious things". All children* have pieces of Molybdenum and Tantalum in a box don't they?

But now and then I have rather odd conversations with him...

"Mummy, is my shirt made of Tungsten? Because it says Tu in it"

Which shows an endearing grasp of the concept of chemical symbols, if not their details, and a simultaneous lack of awareness of the clothing brands of leading UK supermarkets.

"I like the noble gases Mummy. My favourite is Helium, because it makes balloons float. Hydrogen would be better because it's lighter, but it's more dangerous."

Can't argue with him there, and nor can the Hindenburg.

"Actually, I think I prefer Xenon and Krypton, because you can get more points for them in Scrabble."

Which is also true, and I confess to feeling a glow of pride when he put "Xenon" on a triple-word-score without any intervention from me.

I'm not entirely sure, however, that my enthusiasm for science and imparting its beauty and majesty to my son has the full backing of all members of the bear household...

On announcing that "everything in the world has holes in it**", LittleBear was asked by his other parent, "Has Mummy been telling you about science again?"

Meanwhile, on the occasion that LittleBear's homework involved finding items outside that began with every letter of the alphabet, naturally LittleBear chose "Xenon" for "X", as he had discovered in his marvelous book that there are trace quantities of Xenon in the air. So far, so good. And then he asked me to bring home a mass spectrum from work to go in his homework book. I started to feel we were heading into slightly alarming territory at this point. Feeling a few minor qualms about what his teacher would think of this, I slipped a little note into his homework explaining how we had reached this point, what with Scrabble, and a book about the Periodic Table, and me making mass spectrometers and all, and I apologised and attempted to explain that I'm not actually a deranged Tiger Mum after all. (I may be deranged in many ways, but not in the field of driving my poor child to learn atmospheric chemistry from an early age.)

Which is how it came about that LittleBear's lovely headmaster stopped me at the school gates one day to laugh at me, and tell me how much he and LittleBear's teacher, Miss M, had enjoyed me digging an ever deeper hole for myself with my note. Because nothing says I'm winning at parenting quite like being mocked by my son's headmaster.

* For the record I would like to point out that Tigger's daughter (aged 10) is attempting to collect as many different elements as possible, and Piglet's son (aged 8) is pretty hot on Tom Lehrer's son "The Elements", so while I may be odd, and my child may be odd, at least my friends and their children are odd too. We may just go off and be odd somewhere together.

** A slightly more in-depth approach to atomic theory than I'm prepared to go into here is required to assess this statement. 

Saturday, 19 May 2018

A learning experience

Last weekend, BigBear abandoned us for the day went to a football match, leaving me pondering what LittleBear and I could do instead. LittleBear was somewhat peeved not be allowed to go to the football match, but given it was 200 miles away and he doesn't like the sound of a hairdryer, let alone 25,000 roaring fans, we declined to give him the chance to go. I was somewhat disappointed not to be able to go, as it's now coming up for seven years since I went to a match in the flesh, and it would be nice to go again. So we deserved to do something fun together.

And so we did. I booked LittleBear in for a session at the local fun climbing centre. But, knowing my LittleBear as I do, I knew that fear and uncertainty were a potential risk, and that he needed a little compatriot to climb with, to encourage and inspire him. So we went with FearlessFriend and her younger (slightly more fearful) brother.

We sat through the safety briefing, with LittleBear on my lap, not quite brave enough to be separated from the security of my arms. With many glances over his shoulder and anxious frowns and shrugs cast my way, he made his way to the front to be fitted with a harness, before darting back to me to examine clips and buckles together. The safety briefing including the imprecation that non-climbers were not to enter the "arena" unless it was absolutely necessary and they were wearing a hi-viz jacket, and that unless you had a particularly small child who needed your presence, parents should stay firmly ring-side. And since FearlessFriend had NervousBrother, their mother (my friend) opted to be a hi-vized parent, while I looked after our bags and what seemed like 37 coats and jumpers.

And, as I suspected/feared, LittleBear was rather unsure of himself. In fact, on his first few attempts, he looked like nothing more than a frog that someone had nailed to the wall, unable to move any limbs as they were all splayed around him with no possible purchase to push or pull himself in any direction. I stood, out of range of instruction, virtually hopping from foot to foot, itching to give my boy some tips on how to use his reach and upper body strength in combination with his legs to ascend.

Climbing frog getting stuck
But, I was too far away for him to hear, and I was not one of the privileged few in the arena, so I had to remain on the sidelines, developing a nervous tic as I suppressed the urge to dash in and offer suggestions. And LittleBear barely got above his own height off the ground.

But then, he watched FearlessFriend romp to the top of a climb. And he watched other children, and how they tackled it. And he went and queued up to try something he preferred the look of. Before I knew it, he was finding his own techniques, and using his body with increasing strength and agility, until he made his way to the top of a climb.

LittleBear conquers the wall

He was not a natural at it, as FearlessFriend was, but he worked it out himself. And he kept trying, and he didn't give up, and he didn't need me to tell him what to do or how to be better. And he came out of the arena with a huge smile on his face, asking if we could climb every week, and asking if he could have his birthday party there.

And I need to remember this. I need to remember that he can and should try and fail, and try again, and fail again, and keep trying. And that he will find enormous rewards and pride in managing without me, no matter how much I want to "help". And this may be the hardest lesson I have to learn - when to step in, and when to step back. Because I don't step back enough at the moment, and I need to, because when I was forced to, he didn't sink, he flew.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Slightly going out

So here we are, a month and a half after our not-enormously-successful attempts to have a babysitter. And it would still be nice to go out, once in a while, and not traumatise LittleBear too badly. Fortunately, my dear friend Piglet has volunteered to step into the breach, being one of LittleBear's Trusted and Loved People*. Yesterday was our wedding anniversary, (nine years. Nine years?! How did that happen?) and we decided to take Piglet up on her offer.

We prepared LittleBear for this event, without making a Big Issue of it, just mentioning it and reminding him that this was Completely Normal. And he was fine, and unperturbed by the idea. At first.

Then came bath-time, which was fine.

And then we tucked him up in bed, and aside from a little clinging, it was fine.

And then, five minutes later, a gentle whimpering sound started emanating from the monitor. And yes, LittleBear was getting increasingly upset about the idea of us going out, and being left "alone". I jollied him along a little, and he stopped the greebling, albeit reluctantly.

Piglet arrived, and popped upstairs to let him know she was now in the house, and give him a kiss and a cuddle. And all was well.

So, finally, we went to give LittleBear a last kiss and cuddle before going out...

... and there was a pathetic little scrap, huddled up in his bed, tears streaming down his cheeks, begging me not to go.

I suppressed my rolling eyes, suppressed the wave of frustration, and also suppressed the gut-wrenching need to sweep him up in my arms and promise never to leave him. Because beneath those tears, I was fairly certain that actually he'd be fine. So, I reverted to my "jollying" tactics and talked about all the things he could think about and plan while falling asleep, and reminded him we were only a few hundred metres away really, and reminded him that Christmas had not been that long ago, when he'd had Piglet look after him for much longer, and it had all been fine.

We dried his tears, kissed him and left, hearts in mouths. Hearts in somewhat pursed and grumpy mouths.

Happy Anniversary BigBear.

We simply went to one of the local hostelries, and had a meal and a drink. There was a certain amount of tension and stress about proceedings as we both stoically tried not to think about our baby crying himself to sleep. But within half an hour there was a telltale burble from my phone to report that LittleBear had not let out so much as a whimper after we left, and was fast asleep.

And breathe...

We were almost having a nice evening until a random middle-aged man with his laptop came and asked if he could sit at one of the spare seats at our table, which rather put a damper on our ability to converse in peace and privacy, so after an enormous hour and half out, we trundled home again.

But at least we went out.

* This select band appears to currently consist of LittleBear's blood relations, and Piglet. When probed about why he didn't want anyone else to babysit, he started with "I can't explain..." before giving it some thought and informing me, "I don't feel safe when you're not here to cuddle me if there's something wrong. Piglet is good at cuddles." He has conceded that there is one other parent-of-a-friend that he would consider allowing to look after him. I guess that gives us something to work with.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Golden rule

The first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.

Only slightly less well known is the first rule of having a child who sleeps. It's remarkably similar - the first rule of Good Sleeping is that you do not talk about Good Sleeping. This is for many reasons...

Firstly, it's just not fair. At least 50% of your friends will have a child who is not a good sleeper; they will be surviving on brief snatches of an hour and half of sleep, interspersed with a wailing or vomiting or insomniac child. They do not want to know that you are getting a solid eight hours sleep. They may take a pause from clawing their own eyes out to claw your eyes out instead.

For those of us who are either not brimming over with the milk of human kindness or whose empathy has been erased by the trauma of dealing with every permutation of crisis that one's own child presents, there is another reason for not mentioning you child's ability to sleep. You will jinx it. The moment that you inform anybody, even in a hushed whisper, that your little darling sleeps for twelve hours without a murmur it will be the last night that this happens for several months. You will suddenly have a child who cannot fall asleep without being held, or a child who wakes at midnight needing a drink, at 2 AM needing help blowing their noise, at 4 AM having lost their favourite cuddly toy, and at 5 AM because it's time to play. If you have the audacity to offer advice on your own fantastically successful bedtime routine, it will immediately cease working for you. Bath-time will become a war-zone; bedtime stories will be required to last for an hour and a half; sleep will not come without seventeen dinosaurs and a cuddly squid being aligned with the earth's magnetic field, but your child will not tell you about this requirement, he will simply object, frequently and vociferously that everything's wrong.

As I said, the first rule of Good Sleeping is that you do not talk about Good Sleeping.

And why do I mention this now?

Because after yesterday's food-related post, I exchanged anecdotes with a friend about her children and food. Her children are Good Eaters but Bad Sleepers. Mine has, historically, been the opposite. We agreed that we all had our crosses to bear. But it was too late. I had already transgressed. I had mentioned LittleBear and Good Sleep.

So this morning he woke up at 5:30am.

He felt poorly.

He was too hot.

He felt sick.

He didn't know what to think about.

Could he have a bucket please? In case he was sick.

He burped and stopped feeling sick.

Could he have a drink of water?

He needed to go to the loo.

Four times.

Could he have a tissue to blow his nose?

He still felt sick. Or thirsty. Or both.

After an hour and a half of this, it was time to get up, at which point he decided he felt sick again. Until he'd eaten a piece of toast and beaten me at Scrabble, and then he felt fine, apart from the dark circles under his eyes.

I might feel sick now. Or maybe it's the side-effects of the high doses of caffeine with which I'm attempting to navigate the day?

It would appear I've basically written this post before. Maybe lack of sleep makes me repeat myself. Who knows? Maybe lack of sleep makes me repeat myself. Who knows? Maybe lack of sleep.....

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Food, again, as always

Is the Pope Catholic? Do bears....? Will I inevitably end up writing about my son and food?

I think we know the answers to all of the above.

Last week, as I collected LittleBear from school, I was summoned to one side by his class teacher. Apparently he's struggling with certain lunches. Like I didn't know that already. On this occasion, he ended up gagging on his lunch and spitting it out. It was chicken in barbecue sauce, so I don't really blame him. The problem appears to be that the lunch supervisor insists that he eats everything, or at least some of everything, and if there's one thing that bitter experience has taught me it's that attempting to force LittleBear to eat anything is futile, counter-productive and liable to end in tears. For everyone involved.

I explained* to the class teacher that there are certain things that he doesn't like, particularly those things that involve sauces, and that I really don't mind if he doesn't eat them, as long as he is able to have whatever carbohydrate and vegetable is available without someone helpfully pouring the sauce all over that too. I'm sure the school is doing its best to do the right thing in attempting to get all the children to eat something at lunchtime, but there has to come a point where forcing a child to eat is the wrong path. Gagging on their food is probably that point. I don't want my boy to end up in the position I was in at primary school - the only child left in the school hall, with a plate in front of me and a teacher beside me as we had a show-down for the entirety of the lunch-break over a brussels sprout. I won. I didn't eat the brussels sprout. But nor did I get play time that day. This is not the future I dream of for my child.

I could, as various people have suggested, move LittleBear over to packed lunches. Except that would involve me having to make packed lunches, and I need more to do like I need a hole in the head. It would also involve LittleBear missing some of his favourite meals, which he is adamant would be unacceptable. The school has a three-week menu, and one can opt to have packed lunches every day, or perhaps every Tuesday, or every Tuesday-and-Thursday, or some other repeating pattern. What one can't do is have packed lunch on Tuesday one week, Wednesday the next week and Monday the third week. Which is what we'd have to do to try to avoid LittleBear's most-hated meals. So, again, packed lunches are not the answer.

Last year, in his first year at school, there didn't seem to be much of a problem. He ate the things he liked, and didn't eat the things he didn't like, and nobody made a fuss. He was encouraged to try new things, but not forced. I don't know whether there's been a change in policy, or whether it's simply a different expectation for the older children than for the tiddlers that start at age 4.

Fortunately, LittleBear's lovely class teacher has asked that I bring her a marked-up copy of the menu, indicating which are the things that LittleBear really, really struggles with, and she will "have a word" with the lunch supervisor so that he isn't forced into eating them. I don't know if this is a feasible proposition or not, because I find it hard to imagine the lunch supervisor being interested in having bespoke instructions for one child amongst the rabble she has to oversee. I also find it hard to believe that all the other children dutifully eat everything they're given without cavilling. Surely it's not just my little boy? Surely the lunch supervisor doesn't insist they all eat everything? Surely the others don't simply bow to the imprecations to eat everything? Surely it's not practical to make my LittleBear a special case? Surely he's not that different? Is he? Is he?

* Yes, I did feel as though I were the worst kind of helicopter parent protecting my special snowflake from facing things he doesn't like. And then I remembered how many years we've been living with this anti-sauce position, and how many ways round it we've tried, and I just felt weary with it all, and no longer embarrassed.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Science is easy

I've been a bit quiet again, not because there's anything catastrophically bad, or ecstatically good happening in the World of Bears, but rather because my mind has largely been frothing and ranting to itself about the stupidity of my customers who refuse to engage their brains. What I've been wanting to do is illustrate the utter idiocy with which I'm faced in a way that other people will understand, and yet I know that if I simply repeated, verbatim, what the customer has asked for, I'm not sure I'd get very far. I probably have two or three friends who would laugh immediately. And everyone else would look blankly at me, as though I were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. And then I thought, "hold on a minute PhysicsBear, you took an entire course in science communication at University, and you keep banging on about how anybody can understand science, this should be something you can explain."

So here goes....

I'm going to start with the easy stuff. The stuff that you know without evening knowing that you know it. Because there's a lot of science just hanging around, minding its own business, not causing any trouble, that you do know really. For instance - the boiling point of water* is 100 degrees Celsius. See, that's not so hard is it?

Now we'll move on to the next one. Humidity. There's water vapour in the air all the time. Water vapour is the gaseous form of water. Just like ice is the solid form of water. If there's water vapour in the air, that gives it what we normally call humidity. For instance, it's a damp day here in the fens, and the relative humidity** is 94%.

We've made a pretty good start already, and to get to the heart of what I'm going to explain, all we need to do is look hard at those two facts and think about their consequences.

1. The boiling point of water is 100°C

2. At 8°C there is 7.8g/m3 of gaseous water in the air**.

Can you see where I'm going yet? I'll help out. A substance does not need to be above its boiling point for some part of it to be in its gas phase, The air around you is definitely not above 100°C, and yet there is just as definitely gaseous water in that air. Admittedly, the higher the temperature, the more water there will be in gaseous form - if we had 94% humidity on a day where it happened to be 24°C instead of 8°C, then there'd be more like 20g/m3 of water vapour in the air, but the point remains - a substance doesn't have to be above its boiling point to be a gas. However, the closer to boiling point it gets, the more of it will be a gas.

Step one of today's lesson is now complete.

Step two is marginally less likely to be part of your everyday experience, but it might still be something you know, as it relies on one of those factoids that occasionally get batted around: if you try and boil and egg at the top of Everest, you will find it takes longer, because water at the top of Everest boils at approximately 70°C. And why is that? Is it because it's terribly excited to have climbed a big mountain? No. Is it because it's closer to the sun? No. Is it because gravity is trying to persuade it back down the mountain again, so it's in a hurry? No. It's because the air pressure is lower. The boiling point of water decreases with decreasing pressure. In fact, the boiling point of any liquid decreases with decreasing pressure.

Now, we can have a go at adding step one and step two together. It's getting pretty exciting isn't it?

Step 1 told us that a liquid doesn't have to be above boiling point for some portion of it to have turned to a gas and that the closer to a liquid's boiling point you get, the more of it will be in the gas phase.

Step 2 told us that a liquid's boiling point decreases at decreasing pressure.

So now we could take a wild deductive leap, and notice that as we lower the pressure, for any liquid, we'll lower the boiling point, and more and more of that liquid will move into the gas phase. We can take this to quite absurd levels. Sticking with water, if we drop the pressure to only 1% of atmospheric pressure, then water will boil at approximately 7°C. Drop it to 0.1% of atmospheric pressure and the boiling point has plunged to a distinctly chilly -24°C. And to be really silly, we'll drop the pressure to where the ion source of my mass spectrometer operates, which is 0.00001% of atmospheric pressure, at which point water boils at -101°C.

Given your, now enormous, wealth of knowledge about temperature, pressure, boiling point and liquids-turning-to-gases, I have no doubt that you've immediately spotted that a really vast amount of water will have turned to a gas at room temperature once its boiling point is a paltry -101°C.

So now I can tell you what my idiot customer has said.

He wishes to analyse a compound with a boiling point of 350°C. He has told us he wishes to heat our ion source to 350°C to make sure his compound remains as a gas.

Tell me, dear friends, do we really think that at 0.00001% of atmospheric pressure the boiling point of his compound is still 350°C? Do we even think that his compound needs to be above its boiling point for some of it to be a gas? Do we already, in a few short paragraphs, have a better grasp of the thermodynamics of gases than this alleged "expert"? And we haven't even started on the fact that some significant parts of my beautiful scientific instrument will melt at 350°C, thus rendering it utterly incapable of analysing anything at all, no matter what its boiling point. Do we now cease wondering why PhysicsBear could be found literally banging her head on her desk in frustration when she received another email from this muppet last week?

* For the pedants among you, and for the sake of future paragraphs, this is the boiling point of pure water at standard atmospheric pressure.

** Relative humidity is a technical term and in this case it means that the air is holding 94% of the maximum amount of water vapour that it can hold at the current temperature. That actually works out to be that there is about 7.8g of gaseous water in every cubic metre of air here at the moment.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Not Going Out

So here we are, not going out. Not having a babysitter. Not leaving LittleBear. Not following all the unsolicited advice I received about making sure I "kept at it" and that I didn't let one little set-back put me off. Here I am, not believing that all I have to do is what everyone else does, and all will be fine.

It's two weeks now since we went out and LittleBear crumbled. And since then, he's managed to find some reason that a parent is required every evening, except the evenings when there was someone else sleeping in his room with him*. We've had additional wee-ing, additional poo-ing, itchiness, pain, being too hot, being too cold, having a nightmare (despite not being asleep), not being able to get to sleep, being worried, having a sore finger. You name it, and LittleBear has thought of it. In my worst moments I am certain it is a conscious effort to ensure that we are still there, and can be called upon at any moment. In my less angry and resentful moments, I am more convinced that his poor subconscious mind is desperately worried about abandonment, and he can't help himself in his need to know that we are there and will always look after him. And sometimes he just needs to go to the bathroom.

I arranged a babysitter. LovelyGirl who coped so admirably last time with his misery at being left. He likes her. We went round to visit her after The Incident, to give her chocolate, and play with her kitten, and play with her, and he had a wonderful time, and she plied him with more chocolate, and he came home thinking she was splendid. So we made a lovely new plan, where she'd come here in time to read him a bed-time story (as well as having his normal stories from one of us). And we planned not to leave straight away, but to wait and be here with her while he got used to the idea that she was downstairs too.

And now I've bottled it. She was due to come tomorrow, and tonight we had not one, not two, but three summonses upstairs to tend to a variety of real or imagined ills. And my spirit was crushed. I can't face even trying. I've cancelled LovelyGirl. I feel defeated. On the one hand I fear that I'm allowing myself to be emotionally manipulated by my son. On the other hand I cannot bear the idea of causing him the level of distress and anxiety that gave him night terrors last time. I don't know how to coax his subconscious mind into being fine with someone other than his parents in the house with him. I can't rationalise it out of him, despite his splendid ability to be rational and logical. He knows, rationally, that all will be well. He knows, rationally, that we will never abandon him. He knows, rationally, that LovelyGirl is lovely and will look after him. He knows, rationally, that he is loved beyond all reason. But his heart still doubts. And I don't know how to erase those doubts.

I tried suggesting to him that maybe there could be something I could give him to take to bed, something so precious that he knew I would always return for it. Except, the only thing I can think of that is that precious to me is my LittleBear himself. Which I told him. He countered with the suggestion that he take my handbag to bed, and then I wouldn't be able to go out. Perhaps he is a devious little child after all...

So now I just feel like I've failed. I've failed to raise a robust little child. I've failed to enforce any kind of "parental authority" and insist that he cope. I'm the parent who bends to the whim of her small tyrant, and gives up all semblance of life.

And I find myself fearing being judged by other parents more than I fear that failure. I fear being condemned for my failings. I fear being told that I just need to get on with it. I fear being told about how everyone else's child sobbed and wailed and they just left them anyway, and I should do the same thing. Because my LittleBear may have his fears and his foibles and his irritations, but he is my LittleBear, and he won't need me forever, but just now he does, and if I have one job as his mother, it's to make sure that he is secure and loved. I was not the mother who was capable of letting her baby "cry it out", and I'm not the mother who's capable of letting her six-year old sob himself sick because he doesn't want to be left. I need to remind myself of the first of the lessons I learnt about having a baby This is just a phase. And yes, BigBear and I could go out, and spend our time fretting about our LittleBear, and come home to handle night terrors and sleeplessness. Or we could just spend our evenings at home together, and be here for our fragile little boy until he is ready for us not to be.

So please, feel free not to tell me about your amazing child-free evenings and weekends. Don't assume I want to know how awesome your babysitting strategies are. Don't advise me that he'll "get over it" if we force the issue. Don't try and reassure me that because your child overcame their fears, mine will too if only I do what you tell me. Because I already have a reputation as being the mother who cries a lot and swears too much, and I might just resort to one or both of those strategies if you offer me your words of wisdom. Even if your words of wisdom are right. Because at the moment, I'm following my second piece of advice - I'm doing what works for us, until it stops working. I'm not going out. Until I do.

* We had the Tigger family staying with us for a few days during the holidays, and BoyTigger (almost 8) shared LittleBear's bedroom with him. They both went to bed calmly and without fuss, and we didn't hear a peep from them.