Blatant mum pride post

April 22, 2019 at 9:27 am (Cat pics, Mum Stuff)

So my son will be five in a few months. His preschool gave him a box with a toy sheep, a toy cow, a toy bear, a toy zebra, and a rock. This is the story he wrote.

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He is a genius. That is all.

Here is a picture of him trying to help the cat see through a kaleidoscope.

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This weekend I shall be selling books at IronFest for the first time, AND running the “Madame Alchemist” escape room.

Next weekend I’ll be in Nimmitabel’s Steampunk @ Altitude festival, also selling books and running “Madam Alchemist”.

I’m hoping to finish edits on “Death at the Rectory” before I leave. I have no idea if this is realistic or not. It all comes down to the final chapter, which I am now going to attack. Wish me luck.

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Christmas: Stress

December 26, 2018 at 2:13 pm (Fully Sick, Mum Stuff)

NB: The Mary Sue pop culture site wrote a far better article on Christmas stress. Go read it here.

I live in fear of Christmas from about October onwards. (I also start buying presents for my kids at that stage, which I like doing—so there’s that.)

It’s particularly tricky for those who are at the “moved out of home but don’t have a family of their own” life stage (which can be incredibly lonely) or those who have recently lost a close family member to death or divorce.

And of course for those who suffer from depression, social anxiety, or other chronic illnesses. The pressure to be happy and joyful can be horrifying, and it climaxes on Christmas Day. It feels like the whole word is saying, “You must be happy and healthy at this time and place!”

There are four major sources of stress around the holiday season:

Finances

There are two ways to make finances better at Christmas. Either you spread things out over the whole year (buy one present a month, for example; buy travel tickets in February and then pay off a little each month) or you reduce the cost of Christmas.

Sometimes, the only option is to be honest: If you can’t afford travel, tell people that you can’t. If you really want to travel, it may be possible to receive travel costs as a gift—send an open group email to the whole family and say, “Instead of gifts, can everyone put in $20 so I can come to the beach without breaking the bank?”

Gift-wise, especially with kids, remember that YOU are setting the standard of what is normal. If the kids get a single gift from you each year, then that’s what they’ll accept as normal (with the occasional comment of, “All my friends get ten presents for Christmas” which you’ll have to resist along with every other “All my friends…” comment that the kids send your way the rest of the year).

EXPECTATIONS are crucial, and honesty, though awkward (and I guarantee some people will just think you’re cheap—screw ’em) can save a lot of pain.

I knew someone who would pick a fight every December and then not show up at Christmas. That’s… certainly a strategy. I would really rather this person just talked to us.

I know someone else who gave spectacularly expensive-looking but wildly thoughtless gifts. Every time they saw something on a massive sale they bought several. And that’s what everyone got for Christmas. They once got really weird about having gifts with half our family at one event and half somewhere else—because of course they’d bought the same thing for everything. Again, that’s a. . . strategy. That one could have worked great if there was any correlation between the gifts and the recipients. Like, if someone hates reading, don’t give them a book? Save it for someone else.

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Family

Family is complicated. Some people love getting the full set together in one room (I’m one of them). Other people would rather not see a single member of their family ever again.

If your family is truly abusive, you don’t owe them anything. Get out fully if that’s truly what’s best for you.

If your family is annoying, or just one or two are awful but the rest are great, see if you can work out a way to take the bad with the good (or, if you’re especially cunning, find a path where you get more good and less bad).

If your family is mostly good, be honest about your abilities to give/host/travel/etc. Traditions don’t have value if they’re hurting you. For me, it’s often easier to host than go somewhere else.

Travel

It’s really, really hard. Things will also go wrong. Travelling at Christmas is harder than at any other time because (a) So many people are doing it, and (b) You gotta pack gifts (both giving and receiving).

If you know you’re not physically, mentally, or emotionally up to it. . . you have a choice.

If you can handle travel, work out what you need to make it suck less. For me, an ample supply of chocolate, water, and snacks makes a huge difference. Air conditioning is crucial, and so is ‘down time’.

Take your painkiller of choice, and if you’re inclined to get travel sickness of any kind then take supplies for that too.

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Pure Busyness

Don’t be an idiot and promise a 3-part Christmas blog.

Manage expectations, both those others put on you and the ones you put on yourself.

Learn to say “No” and/or “Not this year”.

Basically, expectations (including traditions) can be helpful (“I know I’m meant to bring a plate every year”) or harmful (“I know I’m meant to bring a whole roast turkey even though I’m driving interstate to get there in time aieeeee”). In the end, although manners are important, you are the boss of you. Take charge, and make Christmas fun for you—whether that means staying home and watching “Die Hard” with no pants on, or travelling in convoy with your 32 cousins to great-grandma’s retirement home and eating nothing but funyuns for two days.

Kids home from school

That’s a whole ‘nother story. I haven’t worked out a good strategy for being “on” for ten hours a day for 6 weeks, so feel free to share your strategies in the comments.

The moral of today’s blog: Kids, animals, travel emergencies, and health are unpredictable. Plan for that.

But most of all, plan for who you are and what you can realistically do.

Good luck.

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Christmas: Gifts

December 24, 2018 at 11:54 am (Mum Stuff)

Last Christmas was tricky. Louisette (then aged nearly-6) well and truly understood Christmas, and she knew exactly what she wanted. . . and was loudly disappointed when a gift didn’t live up to her expectations.

She’s a sweet girl really, and we’ve had a lot of conversations since then about how to react when you don’t like a present, including the fact that she can secretly come to me if she truly doesn’t like something and I’ll buy it off her.

This year both kids have been pure adorable. So that’s nice! TJ has been opening incredibly random items and saying things like, “This is what I always wanted!” which is hilarious.

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(Those are not oars, by the way. They’re novelty pool noodles; one with a unicorn head and tail and the other with a shark head and tail.)

There is a fundamental problem that permeates virtually every aspect of parenthood. Every parent wants to make their kid’s life better than what they experienced. Did they always desperately want that one special toy? Did they wish with all their heart that they didn’t have to share a room with their siblings?

So we give our kids what we never had… and they take that as normal, because for them it is. Yay. And then they want a BIGGER room, and a more expensive toy… and the parents are left wondering how their kids became so spoiled and ungrateful.

My only advice is to say ‘no’ often, and stick to it. But choose your moment to say “no”, and choose your moment to say “yes”, too. And teach your kids that life is never perfect, but if they work hard and make sacrifices, they can probably get a bigger room (or whatever) when they’re an adult. They still won’t be able to get everything they want, but they can choose what to give up and what really matters.

I looove buying gifts for my kids. But I do get stressed when there are toys all over the floor and/or no room to move because there’s just so much STUFF in my house.

Some parents incorporate charitable giving in their family Christmas traditions (I really like TEAR Australia’s Really Useful Gift Shop for that—keeping in mind that it’s usually more efficient for recipients if you simply give a donation and let the charity sort out where it’s most useful at the time).

There is a famous ‘list’ going around (if you know the original source/s, let me know):

Something you want

Something you need

Something to wear

Something to read

And there are a couple of variations: Something to do and something to love.

I think most kids would be annoyed at getting something they need and/or something to wear. How would you feel to get a new school uniform under the tree? So I personally would only use those if I wanted a few extra things to wrap (and I thought I could get away with it… it very much depends on the kid and the age).

Having said that, TJ is getting an insulated lunch box for Christmas (he’s going into pre-school so he’ll be taking in his own lunch for the first time… and the lunch box has dinosaurs on) and Louisette received drink bottles (Doc Macstuffins ones).

So there’s a different between getting something plain and something that feels special, even when it’s something the kid legitimately needs. But I’d still advise caution.

And I definitely think every xmas gift list should include something to DO. A puzzle, construction set, activity book, etc etc.

In all honesty, one of the reasons I like getting the kids gifts is so that they bother me less when I’m trying to work. Is. . . is that the real meaning of Christmas?

I usually buy more than 4 presents, but then “sell” several to relatives who want to give the kids gifts and ask me what to get them. (FYI That kind of relative is the BEST.) But four gifts is usually plenty.

My mum tends to buy a LOT of gifts (it’s her love language, and definitely expressed in quantity), and one will be the ‘main’ present—considerably more expensive than the rest. That’s a good system in its own right, although not well suited to those who get stressed by large amounts of cheap plastic nonsense in their house.

Sidebar: Christmas is a great time to have family members with inattentive ADD (aka Chris and Louisette). This year Louisette was looking through photos on my phone when she came across a gift I bought for her. It’s literally sitting on our couch, out of the packaging—I took the photo for Chris since I thought he should know what I was spending all our money ON before I wrapped it. It’s a Doc Macstuffins pet carrier including a pet, and one of Louisette’s biggest gifts (she’s obsessed with Doc Macstuffins at present).

“Oh, Mum!” she says. “That is so cute. It would be a really great gift for me for Christmas.”

Me: *internally swearing* Hmm? Oh yes, it’s very cute.

Aand… she accepted that, and has forgotten all about it.

 

And of course, as far as adult presents go… it’s all about books for me. I buy lots for others, carefully chosen (I get all bewildered with friends who don’t love fantasy novels, but I do like one or two non-fantasy books a year so that’s handy). It’s tradition in my family to read a book before giving it to someone, and then give a kind of review as part of the gift. “This is so deliciously eccentric; you’ll love it” “Watch out! It’s a 4-book series and the cliffhanger at the end of Book 3 will drive you nuts” etc. Great tradition.

I get quite stressed nowadays when I receive physical books, because I vastly prefer reading on my kindle (it’s easier on my wrists and neck). So that’s awkward. But they’re still books, and books are always good.

Between Chris and I, Christmas is an excuse to buy something way more expensive than we’d normally buy for ourselves. Chris is getting ug boots (he likes ‘proper’ ones, and wears them constantly around the house), and I’ve already ordered and received a made-to-order corset from Gallery Serpentine (they make high-quality corsets and are the go-to shop for Canberrans despite the fact they’re based in Sydney).

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For many years, when I was living on very little (there were times when I didn’t have enough to eat three meals a day), Christmas was all about tricking people into buying necessities for me, like clothes or a secondhand microwave. My finances revolved around Christmas, and I’d carefully think about what I needed most, that could appear to be a fun and frivolous gift. There are definitely others out there going through the same thing. If you know your friends are super pov, a gift of shoes can make a big difference (obviously you have to figure out where they’d like to buy shoes from, and give them a voucher). Or a gift basket of food (either sensible or silly; both are expensive). Or something they can regift to someone else, because of course gift-giving is very hard when you’re too poor to afford anything much.

Christmas, commercialism, and the sheer push-and-pull of STUFF are all inextricably bound together. It’s worth thinking about what you really want, and what you really want to give.

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Christmas: Jesus, Gifts, and Stress

December 15, 2018 at 3:26 pm (Entries that matter, Love and CJ, Mum Stuff)

So Christmas is about three things for me. (Cunning readers may guess what they are based on the title.)

This is the beginning of a three-part blog series on Christmas (aka holiday therapy for yours truly).

Fairly obviously for a Christian, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus aka the God I follow. Yes, I’m aware that the date is wrong and most of the traditions are stolen/borrowed from Pagan traditions, etc etc.

Still.

It is extraordinary that my God chose to set up a universe in which he himself would be required to be tortured and killed and condemned in order to show us in the clearest possible terms that being “saved” is a gift that he desperately wants to give us. Easter is at the heart of every Christian. It’s why we call it “Good” Friday when it’s marking the darkest day in the history of the universe.

In some ways, Christmas is even more shocking. The God of all creation had his nappy changed, was breast fed, struggled with toilet training, and probably grew up wondering in his heart of hearts why he always found the smell of manure strangely comforting.

For those just tuning in, I have two kids of my own. Currently Lousiette is 6-nearly-7 and TJ is 4 and a half. Exhibit A:

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Exhibit B:

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It is incredible to think about the whole “having a kid” thing. These two started off as nothing more than a goofy hypothetical notion, then Chris and I MADE them… but they were only about this big:

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And now they walk and talk and have opinions and dreams and say all kinds of weird and wonderful things both good and bad. In the blink of an eye they’ll be as old as I am now—then older—perhaps with kids of their own, and jobs, and much stronger opinions that I may find utterly horrifying.

How can a tiny dot grow into a whole person?

It’s part of the glorious nonsense of being alive.

Even more bonkers is the idea that God could squash himself down to fit into that tiny dot.

Exhibit C:

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And even more bonkers is… why?

Jesus spent thirty-three years on Earth, as a man. He was sweaty, and he was sometimes attracted to people he didn’t want to be attracted to, and he ate freshly-baked bread, and he sometimes disagreed with his mum and brothers, and he lived through the death of his mortal dad. Why didn’t he just skip the whole ‘being human’ thing, get crucified, and save the world over a single rather intense long weekend?

It wrecks my mind that he chose to become one of us. He really understands, from our side, what it’s like to be mortal: messy, scary, and smelly.

I love that.

I even made a little YouTube video trying to point out just how bizarre it is that God really did become a slob like one of us.

It’s a mishmash of different messages really. Is it just an excuse to show off old pics of my kids? Is it a brilliant mix of the carnal and the divine? Is it just too much fun to see babies looking wise/annoyed/gassy? You can make up your own mind. There are a couple of other baby pics in there too so go ahead and play “spot the cousin” if you like.)

 

So. When Jesus Christ, creator and saviour, was born, he probably looked not that much different from my own brown-eyed, dark-haired TJ (although being from the Middle East, Jesus would have had darker skin):

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If you want to know what God looks like, that’s pretty similar to one part of it.

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The familarrr

February 18, 2018 at 5:45 pm (Interactive Fiction Tutorials, Love and CJ, Mum Stuff, My Novels, Pirates, Rahana Stories)

Edit: For those of you who keep telling me you wish you could make it to one of my Interactive Fiction workshops (I generally run one at Conflux every October long weekend), here’s a video course I made on udemy: Introduction to Interactive Fiction. It’s $20.


 

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This was, of course, taken at the Pirate Ball & Book Launch last night.

Here’s some more:

 

Time for a rest!

My next public event is a talk/workshop on Interactive Fiction at the University of Canberra on Friday 2 March 5:30-7:30pm. It’s a rare opportunity to talk IF with me for free, and it’s open to the public.

If you read the dedication to Silver and Stone you’ll know that this group took me in when I was scrambling to write the second Antipodean Queen book. They’re a smart & friendly crowd and I recommend checking them out.

Their facebook page is here.

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My new belly button

February 11, 2018 at 9:36 am (Entries that matter, Fully Sick, Mum Stuff)

It’s been about ten weeks since my stomach operation, and although I’m not fully healed I was just given the go-ahead to swim (my favourite and most effective exercise) yesterday so I’m pretty much in the clear.

Some thoughts:

It really really hurt a lot. There were times when I wasn’t sure it was worth it. (But it clearly was.)

Post-operative infections suck. Especially when you’ve allowed a month off and then suddenly it isn’t close to enough (it was more like taking two months out of my life, although I did get some work done in that time).

Yes, I have a new belly button.

I can fit clothes! This is still extremely exciting.*

My blood glucose has been within target ranges EVERY SINGLE TIME ever since the operation. Under the advice of my doctor, I’m slowly cutting out the diabetes medications that I take—continuing to monitor my blood sugar all the time. It’s too early to be certain, but it looks suspiciously like my stomach operation instantly fixed my diabetes. THAT IS AWESOME. It is also another reason this operation should absolutely be covered under Medicare. How many other mothers have severe health problems because their internal organs just haven’t “bounced back” after a massive physical event?

I’m not so hungry. I snack much less often, and don’t feel as weak, shaky and fatigued as I did before the operation. Stomachs are designed to be enclosed by abdominal muscles, and that goes a LONG way towards explaining why I’ve doubled in weight since having kids… my stomach just wasn’t working, and both my hunger and my fatigue were telling me I wasn’t getting enough food.

I’ve lost a bunch of weight since the operation without trying (or being hangry, which is a big problem for me as it connects to my existing mental conditions in dramatic ways). Hopefully this is a trend that will continue! Honestly I know that things will get harder and harder as I have less weight to lose, but this is certainly helping a LOT.

And sure, I’m still massively overweight, and I still have at least two other conditions that make standing/walking a big problem. But my health has improved hugely, and my optimism for the future—maybe even, one day, a healthy future—is greatly improved.

 

*I actually bought a full-on ball gown the other day, on a whim, because (a) It fit, which is an amazing thing. (b) It’s very pretty, (c) It was at Vinnies, so it cost $50 instead of $500. (d) It was near my birthday.

Full disclosure: I can’t actually do up the zip at the back. Yet.

But I promise to post a pic someday. I’m thinking I might wear it as part of the Kickstarter video for “Murder in the Mail”, which I need to film and put together this week.

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Christmas Letter

November 22, 2017 at 11:31 pm (Love and CJ, Mum Stuff)

Each year I make a calendar (using Vistaprint) for the following year, in which the photos roughly correlate with the same months of the previous year.

I sure hope that sentence makes sense.

For example, this was taken in March, during which Canberra hosts a massive international hot air balloon festival every year.

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So, what did we get up to this year?

In very early January we went camping with some of our Hong Kong relatives, which the kids were desperate to do. Those relatives became first-time parents this year, so we have another cousin now!

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Lots of health dramas this year for both Louisette (inattentive ADD) and myself (lots of things, some of which have improved or been fixed—and I’m finally getting my stomach stitched together this month!)

Also lots of sleepovers with cousins.

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Lots of AWESOME writing stuff happening. In fact there are two Very Big Things I can’t talk about yet!

CHOICES THAT MATTER: AND THEIR SOULS WERE EATEN has had more than half a million downloads, and most people love it (there are loads of reviews on Google Play and not so many on itunes, despite the fact there are actually more sales on itunes). And next year I’ll finish the ANTIPODEAN QUEEN Australian steampunk trilogy of novels (strange, since I wrote HEART OF BRASS before Louisette was born), and start releasing my middle grade Heest trilogy. Plus I’ll release MURDER IN THE MAIL: A BLOODY BIRTHDAY, which is so ridiculously fun and different. And probably do more stuff I don’t know about yet!

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Chris switched jobs due to his previous job getting automated. He’s naturally content and handles such things much more gracefully than I do.

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Louisette is close to finishing her first year of Kindy. Other than the ADD-related stuff, she’s had a great year. She has some really excellent friends, and is taking more responsibility for things like packing her own school bag. It’s crazy how quickly kids learn to read, considering how complex it is. In the moment, of course, every word feels like it takes a million years (especially when the kid has ADD and the parents have either ADD or various other mental problems). Louisette also lost her first tooth, and won a school prize for the house-car-plane model we made together.

Her kindness and/or cleverness sometimes takes my breath away. Talking to her or sharing ideas with her is sheer pleasure.

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TJ turned 3 (we went to the zoo in a big group of cousins and friends), and became deeply obsessed with puzzles. He’s unusually good with letters and numbers, in part because he’s a smart kid and in part because Louisette loves teaching him (consciously preparing him for Kindy, which is two years away) and he adores her.

The kids continue to get on really well (most of the time).

Also, trains.

TJ is full of newfound imaginative skills (‘Tiggy’ was his first imaginary friend) and spends a lot of his time being the absolute perfect ideal of a happy and funny 3-year old boy. His laugh is so infectious.

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Um… what else?

Horseriding and cat-patting.

We (that is, the kids and I) also went to Telstra Tower twice this year, which TJ in particular enjoys talking about every time we see it (so, pretty much whenever we step outdoors).

We all had birthdays, and we’ll be having Christmas soon.

So that was our year, as far as I can remember it: Doctors and writing for me, job change for Chris, Kindy and maniacal laughter for/from the kids.

And the inevitable Christmas pic:

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And this is why digital cameras are awesome: because we get to keep all the truly terrible pictures taken along the way.

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Santa’s been into the egg nog, it seems.

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Santa get on the sauce and punched an angel. Allegedly.

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No paparazzi!

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Parenting Review

October 31, 2017 at 10:37 am (Fully Sick, Mum Stuff)

This blog post came up in my facebook feed today, and I vaguely remembered it so I went back and had a read. It was written three years ago, when TJ was a tiny baby. It starts out, “I like to think about what I’m doing as a parent, and of course talk about it, because that helps me to understand what matters to me and what I can just let slide.”

That certainly hasn’t changed!

The kids are still pretty decent human beings, so THAT’s good. They barely ever eat a decent quantity of vegies, but at least they don’t eat much junk. They’re almost always well behaved, which makes Chris and I look good (them being functional members of society is a pleasant side effect, too).

The dummy drama is long over. It was difficult for a couple of weeks, then fine. It’s definitely worth reminding myself how much dummies are not an issue any more. Three years ago, that was on my mind every waking hour.

Babysitting-wise I’m now able to get through a full day with both kids, which is a huge achievement. It’s not an easy thing to get through a full day, though. (The Christmas holidays loom ahead, and they won’t be easy.) I haven’t been well enough to go back to work at all (other than writing), and I cope a LOT better if I’m looking after one kid at a time (Louisette is at school and TJ in daycare Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday so I get plenty of one-on-one time with each of them). So do the kids, not surprisingly. The get on really, really well—we have been extremely lucky in the mix of personalities—but no child plays well with another child every waking minute.

(My writing, of course, has taken off spectacularly in the last three years.)

Drool is no longer as issue. Easy peasy. The kids sometimes have food on their faces, but we don’t need a sheet under the table any more. Yay!

The kids watch SO MUCH TV. As I said before, I’m sure I’ll set TV limits sometime before the kids leave home. TV is free babysitting, which is hugely helpful. If everything else was perfect, then I’d probably focus on TV stuff. And if I had more significant issues, nothing on this list would make me blink an eye. Except maybe….

Toilet training suuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. That’s definitely the biggest parental stress right now. Presumably one day it’ll be like the dummy thing, “Oh yeah, I remember that sucked at the time, but it’s such a long time ago now.”

I have to choose to believe that. It’s been three years of misery toilet-wise and we’re seeing various experts nowadays.

The house is messy. I don’t have the energy to make the kids tidy up every day, especially at night when we’re all tired. But there are some things the kids usually do quite well, like putting their shoes in the right place. Usually they’re fairly obedient.

Louisette definitely has ADD. She’s keeping up academically due to being naturally intelligent, but I’ve stopped doing homework with her because it’s just too hard. Since ADD probably has an impact on toilet training, we’ll most likely try medication before the end of this year. It will be VERY interesting to see how that helps her cope with other life things, like emotional overload and reading.

Looking back, I wrote that previous blog entry at a really hard time. I hope that in three more years I’ll look back at this year—a year of miserable toilet training and lots of bad health for me—and say, “Those problems were such a big deal, but they’re in the past now.”

My kids are fundamentally healthy and happy, and that’s any parent really wants.

 

Tanya3

 

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Gift Guide for Ages 3-6ish

October 23, 2017 at 11:35 pm (Daily Awesomeness, Mum Stuff, Reviews, With a list)

I loooove buying presents for my kids. As in, I’ll cheerfully buy presents in June (like budget experts tell you to), and then continue buying presents for the entire rest of the year (which budget experts do not recommend). Having said that, we don’t do stocking presents in our house, and likely never will. I hate the idea of a pile of low-quality gifts. And I assure you that my kids have plenty of full-blown present-opening frenzies made up entirely of quality gifts (generally around $20 each, although often there’s one gift that is much more expensive).

We also have three Christmases every year: One for my side of the family (usually mid-December, since my Mum runs church services on Christmas Day), one for Chris’ side of the family (usually Christmas Day), and our own private small & special Christmas Eve. We light candles and open 1 or 2 gifts each (usually 1, but of course the kids want to give their gifts to each other and I try not to refuse generous impulses).

You may have heard of the Four-Gift Rule. There’s a few variations, but the idea is that parents can restrict themselves to four gifts. For example:

  1. Something you want
  2. Something you need
  3. Something to wear
  4. Something to read

 

Or:

  1. Something to play with
  2. Something to wear
  3. Something to read
  4. Something to share

 

I disagree with “something to wear” because clothes are only exciting if you only ever get one new outfit a year. Since there is more than one season in a year, my kids often get new clothes. (You’ll be shocked at the knowledge that I love buying them clothes and I’m certainly not going to only buy them clothes in December. That reminds me… Louisette definitely needs a new pirate outfit…)

But enough prologue. Here’s some awesome loot:

  1. Water. Always a winner, in virtually any form. I like a water table because then I can choose to believe that the kids won’t need their swimmers (until proven otherwise). We’ve had a water table before (which was also fun for collecting ice in winter) but after a couple of years outside it was so brittle it fell to bits. Which means I got to buy another one! A BETTER one!

This particular model was $40 from Woolies. But pretty much any one will do. The kids will love seeing the enormous box under (…next to…) the tree, too. The orange handles on the side turn wheels that make the water flow around the circle. How cool is that!

 

2. Books! It ain’t Christmas without books (for myself, Chris, and the kids). There are a million fantastic books for kids, so it’s well worth having a bit of a google, both for the stuff your kid likes, and for lists saying the best books—then you can click through for a better look at the ones that appeal. And of course this is a great time to go and support your local bookshop, too!

I noticed around this time last year that Louisette has a bent toward engineering, so I bought her books that were specifically geared (heh) to encourage girls to picture themselves in STEM careers (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths). Googling “STEM” in combination with “Books” and any other relevant words (age 5, girls, etc) will get you a lot of suggestions.

This particular book emphasises that things don’t work perfectly the first time. It also rhymes.

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This is also the book that inspired Louisette’s House-Car-Plane project, which won her an award.

The same authors have two other books. One is ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and the other is IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. They’re all in the same school, I believe.

ROSIE REVERE and ADA TWIST also have follow-up “project” books. Louisette is going to looooove hers!

For TJ, his grand obsession is puzzles (more on that later). For his books, I googled and then clicked on this list. Easy! Out of those, I chose:

 

A sleep time book (parents can fantasise that it makes bedtime easier), a singing book, and a book about kindness. As you may have guessed, TJ loves vehicles. Also dinosaurs and superheroes.

3. Pets

I dream of one day producing a suspiciously mobile box with air-holes in the lid and a puppy inside. One day. Not sure if it’s plausible. We’d need to have real grass in our backyard first, for one thing.

In the meantime, we recently bought some fish. They’re actually a terrible Christmas gift because the set up and cycling takes about a week (if it doesn’t, you’re likely to have mass extinction—ask me how I know), and it’s such a busy time that it’s hard to get good advice from your pet shop when you need it most. But it could work for a birthday, keeping in mind pets are a huge deal (and fish don’t cuddle, so it’s noticeable that Louisette quite likes the fish but TJ doesn’t care much).

Cats are awesome, of course. In my opinion, they’re easier than fish. You need to think about where they’ll poo (kitty litter? Your yard? The neighbour’s organic vegie patch?) and how much you care about native birds (something like 80% of cats kill at least one native bird and don’t tell their owners).

Pets are always super expensive and higher maintenance than expected. Mice and birds tend to stink. A five-year old can potentially do a small amount of pet-related jobs, but will never be reliable. You’re also taking a risk of experiencing death (although that’s technically an advantage, because it helps kids to understand death a bit better when they lose a human they really love).

4. Building kits.

We have loads of duplo and about five sets’ worth of wooden train set (which has a near-infinite number of possible permutations). But I wanted something a bit older for Louisette (and I fear the dreaded Underfoot Lego—Louisette has some lego, but she has to bring it out and put it away in one session at a time). Then I stumbled across this amazing thing:

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That’s right. It’s a building toy designed for six-year old girls THAT HAS A MOTOR. It’s made by a company called Roominate. This set has three permutations (helicopter, submarine and plane), and it also fits with their various other sets (which, disappointingly, do not seem to have a motor—although you can buy it separately).

I’m buying another set from the same range for Louisette’s birthday, so she can combine sets in unique ways. When I tried it out for myself, the motor was great but the pieces were a little hard to put together. Still, I like the curves and colours.

And it’s under $30. I really like that it has a person (particularly a girl, particularly a non-Caucasian girl—she is Hawaiian) and a rabbit. Not just because it encourages imaginative play, but because engineers SHOULD be thinking about what their machines are actually FOR. Are they big enough for people? Are they comfortable? Are they safe? Can she see out the window while she’s flying? Etc.

I also bought this Melissa & Doug building set for $40 on ebay:

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I look forward to seeing Louisette do weird and wonderful stuff with it. (Following instructions to build a specific shape is also a fantastic skill set that’s well worth developing.)

It’s a little silly to buy two different building sets for one Christmas, but here we are.

5. Speaking of personal obsessions… TJ and puzzles. He does puzzles every day, over and over again. He is very good at puzzles. Although he’s three (and a half), he is well above average when it comes to puzzles.

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Given that he’s just discovered (and begun obsessing over) WHERE’S WALLY? this was the obvious choice. It has 35 pieces, which is challenging but possible for TJ—and then he can amuse himself finding every single one of the items in the border. It’s $25 here.

That particular website gives free postage for non-bulky orders over $100 (I found them because they sell Roominate stuff). This was not a difficult task (although I have several very kind relatives who I tend to source gifts for, that they pay for and then give to my kids—I get to “buy” more presents, and my relatives save a bunch of time and brain effort).

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This is a simpler puzzle (also a floor puzzle, which is great for younger kids). It’s $27 and out of stock (apparently I bought the last one) here (same online store as the above). The genius thing about this is that TJ will learn his continents and several animals while doing this puzzle (over and over again). There are LOADS of puzzles that educate kids about various things (letters, numbers, maps, animals, even spelling).

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This is a 30-piece puzzle that is trickier than it looks. There are holes in the back that TJ will LOVE using to poke out the pieces (also solving a classic issue with new puzzles—pieces that don’t come out!) Every piece is a slightly different shape so it’s hopefully developing a slightly different part of TJ’s brain. It’s $14 here.

6. Trains. Wooden trains are seriously awesome (except for the crawling around on the ground part—we’re WAY past tables here). Pretty much all wooden sets will fit together in lots of different ways. Other than a $30 set that popped up at Aldi this year, they are super expensive. This tunnel is cool (the dinosaur on the top is a separate piece, which will be handy for attacking the trains below), but that one thing cost $20 (here), which is pretty standard.

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7. Active stuff. Any list of four gifts should include “Something Physical”. Some things are super expensive, like a trampoline or bike. Some not so much. This is very much billed as a Summer toy (it floats) but I thought it was a great toy for cold or rainy days when the kids need to do something silly and active… and inside. Even the rings are inflatable.

It’s $35 here. (I bought it when it was on sale.)

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8. Bath letters. Cheap, awesome, and educational. I guarantee Louisette will use these to teach TJ more of his letters. He can already count up to 12 and recognise ten or so numbers and letters—because he worships Louisette, and she loves teaching (which of course also helps her own knowledge). When wet, they stick to tiles. How fun is that!?!

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These were $4 on ebay, and I bet they’re a favourite on Christmas morning.

9. Tradition.

We have a special Christmas tradition in my family. Each year, I buy a small conifer to be our live Christmas tree. I take a picture with it and the children, so that as they grow they can compare their size to that harbinger of Christmas Day.

And every year, it dies. Before Christmas even comes.

I’m really not that good with… keeping things alive.

This year I found this. With postage, it was about $40 from ebay, which is quite a lot—but we can use it every year. There are loads of fun chocolate advent calendars out there, and loads of beautiful reusable ones (often with little drawers to put 24 small gifts in). I don’t want to make over-eating or buying-24-crappy-junk-gifts part of our tradition, so I was excited to find this. Each bauble has a different design, and is magnetised. Then there’s a star for Christmas Day. I think the kids will love it (so long as no one tells them about the chocolate variety), and I’m almost certain I can’t kill it. Although wooden toys DO burn really well…

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10. Something that definitely isn’t useful.

At the steampunk fair, flush with the knowledge that my pirate trilogy would soon be published, I saw someone with a half-goggle. Genius! And only a few bucks to get my own steampunk pirate patch on ebay.

So I guess this is more a present for me than for the kids. I can live with that. In my defence, Louisette specifically asked me for goggles after the fair.

11. Tech

A good friend of ours bought Louisette this talking (and programmable) toy dog for her first birthday. Since then we bought the other one for TJ (“from” Louisette). They’re called Scout and Violet.

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You can choose your child’s name from a list when you program it, and the dog will say things like, “I love you… Louise” (since “Louisette” is not common enough to be on the list). You can also choose volume, and switch it off at any time by squeezing the “off” foot. One of the paws plays “Bedtime music” which is a very useful feature.

These dogs have been a consistent favourite toy for a long time (although if it wasn’t for her computer Louisette would be over hers, I think).

Which brings us to… computers. For children.

I thought the entire concept of computers for children was madness—until I saw a four-year old drawing with her finger on an ipad screen. There was no mess, no stains on clothes, no eating crayons, no sharpening pencils, and no dropping fifty-seven textas on the floor and then wandering away. It blew my mind. Since then I’ve seen a bunch of fantastic, innovative games that make the world better. In my opinion, computer skills are vital, and it’s worthwhile to get kids started early. Plus, of course, when you need the kid to be quiet and still in a public place, a computer + earplugs is magic.

I did a bunch of research and then bought Louisette a LeapPad 3. That was back in 2014, so I think there are new models since then (and I imagine that the Leappad 3 will become obsolete at some point).

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It comes in either green or purply-pink (and so do the gel frames, as pictured). It costs somewhere between $100 and $200, plus $25ish for the gel frame (which protects it from breaking when it’s dropped).

The good: It’s designed for age 3 and up, so a lot of it is set out with pictures that make navigation easy for non-readers. (Louisette was often frustrated and not too fond of it for the first six months after she got it on her 3rd birthday; TJ took to it immediately when he received his on his own 3rd birthday.)

It has camera and video, which kids LOVE. (Caveat: Images can’t be taken off the computer, so it’s impossible to save or share them.)

It has a white-listed internet (which can be switched off and on via the parental settings), meaning that everything the kids can access (and there’s a lot) has been watched and approved in advance.

It has really excellent, educational games, that are tailored to the main user’s age and skill level. (But they usually cost around $20 each.) We’ve only bought a few games (and a book that “reads” to the kid as they touch the words) in almost three years. Plus, each new game (and switching the internet on) is a fantastic gift on its own.

When you have two LeapPads, the kids can actually message each other (using pre-written messages—so bullying is impossible—and a bunch of animated emoticons). It is hilarious to see my two kids with their heads together, screaming in laughter as they say, “I sent you a message!” “I got it!”

It has a lot of branded stuff—Disney and so on—which the kids adore.

The bad: It has an inbuilt game that is literally poker (spinning pictures which reward the user when they match, and can then be spent on features)

It also has an entire section that just advertises LeapPad games, and can’t be removed.

It doesn’t connect to other devices in any way (except, of course, LeapPad devices—it even has games featuring Scout and Violet).


 

Bonus points

Are you buying a gift for a child who’s not your own? You’d ideally check with the parents if you buy something on this list (I’m NOT aiming this at anyone specific, by the way! Please don’t think my kids dislike anything they’ve ever been given):

*Alive (including plants. Parents are very, very tired and even a plant can be too much to care for. The kid is definitely not going to look after it properly.)

*Larger than your head (or the kid’s head, if yours is unusually large). Kids have a lot of toys, and their parents probably don’t have enough places to put them all.

*Involving work for the parents eg craft or science projects.

*Messy, such as paint or play-dough (yes, play-dough is messy).

*Noisy or annoying (electric toys or certain high-pitched TV shows).

*Junk food. (And check for food intolerances if you’re bringing food that kids are likely to eat—food intolerances are on the rise, and some are deadly. Parents are not making this up for attention, I assure you. Peanuts in particular can kill, even if the allergic kid never directly touches the food item.)

If you buy soft toys, you’ll get a great reaction on the day—but by the age of 3 every child has at least twenty soft toys, and probably more like fifty. However, certain toys will be VERY beloved (especially those linked to a TV character the child already adores). So think carefully and talk to the parents. Kids are amazingly specific about their brands, even for intellectual properties they have never watched (such as Star Wars or Superheroes).

However!

Toys that get used up, such as textas (there are washable ones), coloured paper, colouring books, etc are good for homes that really don’t have much space.

When someone has a set of something—duplo, lego, building sets, train sets—you can buy a new set or part that goes with it. That’s brilliant for both kids and parents.

Pretty much everyone loves books (although probably not enormously long ones, which leads to trouble at bed time).

Kids and parents will both most likely adore you for taking the kids for some kind of outing.  Zoos, Questacon (if you’re in Canberra), and those trampoline places are all fun for everyone. Or you can simply take them to a playground they haven’t been to before (or even that they have). They will love you forever.

Also fantastic as gifts that don’t take up space—removable wall stickers. (If your friend lives in a rental, definitely query first; they may not be as removable as one hopes.) There are some gorgeous quirky designs here (I met the artist yesterday, so I’m a little excited).

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You do NOT need to spend a bundle on kids!

So here’s my Four-Gift Rule:

  1. Something to read.
  2. Something creative.
  3. Something educational.
  4. Something physical (fitness and/or coordination)
  5. Something silly.
  6. Something that interacts with an existing toy (lego is almost always a safe bet; duplo for younger kids).

Okay, that’s six. That’s what relatives are for. Or siblings. Or, if all else fails, an inability to accurately count to four. Or you can combine them in various ways.

It’s also vitally important (and easy) to get kids involved in the fun of giving gifts to others. My kids LOVE discussing, buying, wrapping, and giving presents to all their relatives, especially each other. They also love Christmas Shoeboxes and TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop (both of which are specifically Christian, which may or may not work for you), which are a nice tangible way of giving to others and being aware of the rest of the world.

(99% of charities benefit from cash more than physical gifts. Physical gifts are mainly useful for kids to get into the habit of giving, rather than for the charity itself. I really like TEAR’s Really Useful Gift Shop because it IS a cash gift, that the charity interprets in practical ways.)

PS This site did a very comprehensive review of nerf guns. Enjoy!

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Like Mother, Like Daughter

October 17, 2017 at 8:17 pm (Advanced/Publication, Mum Stuff, Pirates)

One of the gifts my parents gave me was the belief that writing is not a job, but a hobby. I didn’t write full-time until I was unable to do any other work (and I’m still not making minimum wage, even though I’m well above the average Australian full-time writer’s income of $12,000/year)

I am giving Louisette the same gift, assuring her that her stories are excellent and at the same time teaching her that if she’s a writer she’ll be something else as well.

It happens that she really is a good storyteller, with an epic imagination. At one stage she had had about thirty imaginary friends, puppies, horses, and relatives (including imaginary parents), as well as a range of vehicles to bring them all along with us.

She also has a great mind for science and engineering, which I loudly and unconditionally encourage. Last Christmas we bought her ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, which she loves, and which led to her winning a school prize for a House-Car-Plane device this year.

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This year one of her gifts is this building kit, which includes its own motor! How cool is that, for $25ish!

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But I digress.

Today, for the first time, she pointed out a plot hole in a TV show (specifically, “Why doesn’t the yellow dog go with the blue dog to make the fence? They’re both builders.”) That warmed my writerly heart.

But then I read her the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE, bracing myself for my harshest review ever. Not only did she like the story and immediately care about the outcome (phew!) but she understood and extrapolated the universe of the story.

Rahana is a fairly low-tech world (although their ships are more advanced than the rest of their tech due to the fact that the world is made up of thousands of islands), and in the first chapter of THE MONSTER APPRENTICE an isolated and defenceless island wakes in terror at the news that a pirate ship is approaching.

I asked Louisette what she was worried about in the story. She said she was worried about the pirates coming, because Dance and her family, “don’t have swords or shields or anything”.

Here’s the thing: I never mentioned any kind of weapon in the story. She figured out the technology level because of her knowledge of history and/or the conventions of fantasy fiction!

I’m misty-eyed just thinking about it.

THEN she blew my mind a second time by suggesting, “Maybe they’ll invent electricity and that will help them fight the pirates.”

She’s five years old, and she’s a master of military tactics. That’s my girl.

 

 

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