Our family’s life in strange times – not harder, nor easier, just different

For a while now I’ve been meaning to blog about our experience as a family of these strange times that we’re living through at the moment during the Covid-19 pandemic. As with all my blogs, it’s partly just therapy for me, to get my thoughts out of my head and to be able to look back on them, and partly because other people may like to read them and get something from it. Of course I haven’t exactly had loads of time to do this, so it’s taken me a couple of months to get round to it!

I think the first thing to say though is that in the grand scheme of things, our life as a family hasn’t changed as radically as I’m sure it has for many. We are very grateful that we still have one steady income, and another that we don’t rely on for daily living costs, which fluctuates depending on the amount of time I have around looking after the kids even in normal times. Our pace of life is similar to before the social distancing measures came in to effect – we don’t feel like overall we’ve slowed down or sped up, just done some things differently. We parents aren’t really sociable anyway – our interaction with adults was mainly at work for Tom and brief conversations at groups and school gates for me; our leisure time as a family was mainly spent at parks and other free / low cost outdoor spaces; Tom had a short commute on bike or foot; and our kids didn’t do loads of out of school activities. We don’t feel like we’ve had to make huge changes other than the boys not going to school, Tom working from home, and us all not being able to see close family. It could have been a lot harder to adjust. I thought I’d write about the things we’ve found hardest first, and then finish with the positives.

Probably the hardest thing for us as a family has been not seeing our immediate extended family. We used to see my parents at least once a week as they came to our house on Wednesdays, and sometimes an extra day or we’d go there at the weekend or a day in the holidays. We used to see my parents in law once every half term roughly, for a few days to a week at a time – at Christmas, Easter and August we go to stay with them, and they come up to us for family birthdays in between. Of course we’ve not seen any of them in person since March or January. The kids all have a great bond with all four grandparents. Although we keep in touch via Skype and Facebook portal, it’s not the same for the kids, as they don’t seem to “get” video calls like they do face to face interaction, particularly group calls, though one/two kids at a time is less chaotic and do they get more out of it then. 

On Facebook portal with Grandparents and sometimes cousins too

Although the boys don’t mention it much, they have talked about wanting to see their friends when this is all over. I asked them recently whether they wanted to go back to school in July if it was possible. They both said to see their friends it would be good. Joel had a couple of chats with his best friend a few weeks ago when they came our way on their daily exercise and stood at the end of our drive as we stood at the front door, but this arrangement didn’t really cut it because Joel just wanted to play rather than stand and chat like adults. As I said, video calling hasn’t really worked for them, and I think part of the problem is just that, it’s a chat rather than actually playing with each other. A good thing about having three siblings each is that our kids do have each other to play with. Although they do have conflicts, as is inevitable with siblings, they generally all get on well, and that’s continued to be the case even in this strange situation. It also helps that we have neighbours with kids of similar ages, who they’ve been able to shout across the fences to, so have had a small amount of social interaction with other children at a distance. 

I know we are now freer to spend unlimited time outdoors, but for 8 weeks we weren’t allowed to play in the park or hang around anywhere outside for long periods of time. Thankfully the kids all like walking and cycling, so at least we could get out and keep them moving, getting fresh air and burning off some of their energy, but it did get a little boring for them. In the week we still don’t get much chance to spend lots of time out of the house (though I’m thankful we have a garden for playing in and a drive for balance biking on) because we are limited by Tom’s core working hours. But at least at the weekend we can stop at parks and have a run around, climb trees, kick a football etc. away from others. They missed this freedom and so did we. 

Family bike ride one lunch time

For me personally I’ve had to learn to accept the challenges of juggling the demands of four kids who are all very different in personality, preferred learning style, body clock, interests and attention span. At first I got constantly frustrated by this situation, but I’m slowly coming around to how I can manage it as best possible whilst accepting I can’t be perfect. In the week it’s mainly down to me to look after the four of them, because Tom’s work is full time and I’m self employed (part time in a very flexible way) so it makes sense for us to do this. Tom takes care of the twins after breakfast for an hour. They go out on the (carless) drive when they’re ready so the twins can ride their bikes. This allows me to focus entirely on Joel, who really needs this input; we are both morning people and his attention span is best then. Tom also does most of the toileting/nappying with the twins during his lunchbreak and other short breaks. I’d love to be able to completely go with the flow with the boys’ learning, and to a great extent we do, but you can guarantee that Joel has a moment of brilliance or shows a keen interest in something else that we could investigate just as I’m being pulled away by a twin wanting to do a jigsaw with me, or Andrew wants to tell me all about what he’s just found out about some intricate topic of science! We’ve all had to learn to be more patient, and my ability to multi task and switch from once task to another and quickly back again (multiple times) has been severely tested. I’ve had to split myself in four, which obviously can’t literally happen even though I wish it could. When the boys used to be at school I could focus on splitting myself in two during the daytime and then focus my attention on the boys after school. Now that they’re learning at home full time, the juggle is much harder. I’m very grateful to grandparents who have helped me out – science (especially Chemistry) and KS3 level maths for Andrew, and spellings and film making out of his story writing for Joel. 

Learning with Granny and Grandad on Facebook portal

Yet for us it hasn’t all been harder than before the pandemic, there has been positivity. We have realised how thankful we are for all we have that has helped keep life relatively stable for us. A house and jobs mean we can provide the basic necessities of food and shelter for our family without fear; this means a lot at the moment. The house also includes a garden, which, although not huge, has allowed us to be outside beyond our daily exercise.

On the point of exercise, we’ve been able to do a lot of cycling as a family, even more so than before. The roads have been quiet, so we’ve been able to go places on roads that I wouldn’t normally dare to on my own with the kids, or even all of us at weekends. The boys have had a fantastic opportunity to gain some skills of cycling as a form of transport, with their dad being well experienced on this subject to teach them. We’ve used the excellent new(ish) cycling infrastructure that is the blue route from the University of Birmingham in to the city centre along the A38. Although we’ve not been all the way in to town (because there’s nothing to do there at the moment!) we’ve had chance to scope out the route, build up stamina, and gain the confidence that we can do this ride in future as a means of going in to town together. We were already in to cycling (and we are SOOOO glad that we got the Tern GSD in February in the end), but we are encouraged too at how much cycling is on the radar locally as an alternative to public transport, so hopefully others will also get in to it, and we may all see some improvements in cycling infrastructure as a result. I hope that’s a positive thing to come out of this pandemic. 

Exploring new places on bike

I personally have really appreciated the chance to have a go at home education, though I do understand that this isn’t exactly like it would be in normal times, as we could do more out of home activities such as museums, libraries, groups etc. Homeschooling seems to be the word used by the majority of parents suddenly finding themselves in this situation, but I’ve never been keen on this word. School is school, home is home; both are places where education can happen, but home will never be school and school will never be home – they are very different environments. I prefer to think of it as school education and home education. I’ve written about my views on this before on this blog. 

Our kids’ learning isn’t normally confined to just what they do at school, but we did choose to outsource some of their education to our school for 6 hours a day in term time. For both the boys, we didn’t just send them to school in reception because we have to. We weighed up the pros and cons of full time home learning versus some school learning and home learning, and decided that overall the best option to try at the time was school, for each of them as individuals and us as a family, acknowledging that this could change. They and we have been very happy with our individual school, including the approach the staff have taken during the closure (to us) period. There has been no pressure or expectation to complete any work; they have provided suggestions of activities and offered to provide support and feedback should we wish to maintain some form of teacher-pupil relationship. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed the experience with the opposite pros and cons in this period compared to before, and it has taught me a lot. In particular it has given me the confidence that should we change our minds on whether school is the best option for any of the kids in future, I can totally do this! 

As I suspected, Joel has really benefitted from some one to one time in reading and writing. I’ve always known that he’s got loads of info and ideas in his head, but he’s often reluctant to let on and he isn’t the most capable at doing so quickly enough in writing. At school this makes it look like he isn’t as capable as he is, though his teacher these past two years has been brilliant at recognising this, encouraging him and celebrating him as a person beyond the tick boxes she has to complete. He’s always been happy to go to school, enjoys lots of things there, and just seems to shrug off the more challenging things he faces. But obviously I have been able to spend more time with him and go with his interests and body clock. It hasn’t all been plain sailing – he does still have moments of defiance and frustration (often related to tiredness), and I know he pushes boundaries more with me than other adults so sometimes this impacts his learning. However, overall I am seeing him grow, which is rewarding for both of us. 

Reading one of his favourite Oxford Owl books (free ebooks at the moment)

I also wondered whether Andrew would use the opportunity to delve deeper in to areas he’s interested in and explore new interests. He always had his head in non fiction books – before school, after school, bedtime, weekends, holidays etc. And he’d recently got in to baking on his own. Like I said, it’s not like the kids only learn in school anyway, there’s so much more to learning life skills than what is taught at school. He generally finds school work easy, though I think his teachers managed to challenge him enough in class as far as they could with 30 kids because he didn’t complain about boredom nor behave in a way that suggested he was bored – I think he liked to help others which kept him occupied. But he has used this extended time out of the classroom to do lots of independent learning in areas that really interest him – like chemistry and maths. He’s in year 4, yet his knowledge is often what I’d expect of a secondary school pupil; he’s even got the hang of some GCSE level maths. He has baked loads, had a go at learning Dutch and Latin on Duolingo, and has recently got in to cross stitch too. It’s been lovely to see him enjoying all these various learning opportunities. It’s a shame his residential trip got postponed until next year, because that’s one opportunity we can’t offer him at home. 

One thing that surprised me about all four kids being together all day every day is the amount of learning they do from each other – I’ve really enjoyed witnessing this. It’s definitely an advantage of a larger family, particularly good for me to realise as I never thought I’d have four kids. For example the boys like reading to the twins, Joel likes Andrew explaining maths to him, and the twins are picking up lots of new language and interest in topics that I don’t think they’d have done so quickly had the boys not been around so much these last couple of months. All of them are learning various things from all their siblings. 

Whilst we wouldn’t necessarily stick with the exact style of home education that we’ve had to launch ourselves into at short notice if we actively made the decision to do it, it has been an interesting experiment should we need to change course in future (particularly if we’re not successful with our application to have the twins start reception at age 5). I’ve figured out that the style that suits us best is somewhere in the middle of a continuum between unschooling and rigid curriculum – lots of freedom for the kids to learn what interests them at the times when they are most keen to, but also some guidance from me on maths, reading, and writing. Sometimes we do suggestions from school, it’s particularly handy if there’s a free resource for us because school has paid for it, and sometimes we don’t.

If you follow me on Instagram you may remember my post on the last day of school, with the Bournville Carillon playing at home time as everyone left not knowing when we could be together again. I’d been really struggling with school runs since about January, because the twins (one in particular) were having so many meltdowns about needing to leave home at certain times when I said so – I think they didn’t like their lack of control, understandably for two year olds. It was really getting me down. In that post I said I never wished a pandemic would be the thing that stopped this, and that is still true. However their behaviour has been so much more pleasant since then. Yes we’ve still had some meltdowns, but nowhere near as many, and usually over quite negotiable things rather than something I ultimately couldn’t change. I do not miss school runs in the slightest for this reason. 

In general all the kids have coped really well with the situation, considering it’s a change from life as they knew it. Of course we have had times when behaviour hasn’t been great, us parents included. But I have been surprised how the kids’ behaviour has, on the whole, been similar to, if anything a bit more positive than, previously. Especially Joel, who I thought would struggle the most with a change of routine, but he now doesn’t need the same after school unwind period as his frustration outlet happens more gradually at various intervals throughout the day. 

Over these past couple of months there have been ups and downs. Overall I wouldn’t say life is harder, neither is it easier, it’s just different. And who knows what life will be like in the coming months.

Our family cycling journey: can we go car free?

Andrew aged 9 and Joel aged 7 on the back of a Tern GSD

Meet Mike, our new bike. Named after the excerpt below from Dr Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. He’s a Tern GSD, a longtail cargo bike with electric pedal assist. As you can see we can fit at least two kids on the back, as well as various other cargo such as bags, shopping and kids’ bikes. We’ve been thinking about whether to buy one for a few months, and even once we’d made the decision there were a few hurdles in the way of actually getting one, but now he’s finally here! I thought I’d write a post about how we got to this point, and where we hope our family cycling journey will take us in the future.

I remember learning to ride a bike as a child; I don’t remember exactly what age, but I must have been at infant school. With my parents and brother, I did quite a lot of cycling for leisure – we always took bikes on camping holidays both in the UK and France. But cycling as a means of transport was never something I thought about…. until I got to know a boy who did it. I say a boy – he was 18, I was 19; he was a fresher and I was in my second year at the University of Nottingham. We met at church, somewhere I used to drive to because it was too far to walk from my house on the other side of campus, though it was only a short walk from his hall of residence. That boy turned out to be my future husband. 

Over the 4 years that we both lived in Nottingham, he cycled a lot, at a time when you didn’t see that many cyclists on the road. The hills were no issue since he was used to cycling in Plymouth, where he would also cycle miles to work and back for his holiday job. I mainly walked or got the bus, but did use my car at weekends and to travel back to my parents’ house in Coventry. Then Tom and I moved to Cambridge for my postgraduate studies, and for the first time we lived in a city where cycling was popular! His interest in sustainable transport really had chance to shine through there – he joined the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, and shared his views on local transport politics.

It was there too that I got in to cycling as a means of transport. I bought a fairly cheap ladies hybrid and used it daily for cycling to my classes and then later my offices for 3 and a half years, basically until I had severe pregnancy sickness with Andrew. I didn’t feel able to cycle in pregnancy, at first due to the sickness and then after a break I didn’t feel confident to start again with a bump on board, though heavily pregnant women cycling through Cambridge were a common sight. In fact all sorts of weird and wonderful things travelling through Cambridge on bikes/trikes were common sights, it was amazing! In the first year of Andrew’s life I did a lot of walking with the buggy – that’s how we got around, with the occasional bus trip, and the car was mostly used to get out of Cambridge. I didn’t feel the need to cycle with him, and by the time he was old enough for a child seat on the back of my bike, I was pregnant again with Joel – cue even more severe sickness. After he was born we got around town as before, this time with a sling plus single buggy combo. 

During the summer when Joel was about 9/10 months old, I started to think that a cargo bike which could fit both boys in, as I had seen so many people ride in Cambridge, would help us get around faster. The boys’ combined weight was starting to get more intense to push and carry for the miles of walking we did, and I couldn’t expect them to walk those distances for a while yet. I test rode a couple of different options – a Bakfiets bike and a Winther Kangaroo trike. There weren’t that many makes and models available, even in the cycling city of Cambridge, at that time 6 and a half years ago. So we made the decision that we’d buy the trike as I preferred that one. However, before we’d moved our money around to order it (I couldn’t find any second hand at the time), Tom got an interview in Birmingham, and he got the job. We’d been planning on moving back to the Midlands at some point for various reasons, but it all happened quite quickly in the end. Trike purchasing was put on hold until further notice. We lived with my parents in Coventry for 7 months (and Tom commuted by train), to allow us to sell our flat in Cambridge and buy a house here in Birmingham without a chain. 

About a year after my first thoughts on getting a cargo bike, we were settled in our new house in Birmingham – on a hill. Most of our daily routes turned out to be up and down hills, which just hadn’t been the case in flat Cambridge. Electric assist cargo bikes weren’t really a thing then; I didn’t come across them in my researching, and the technology was more expensive then anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have been financially feasible after the house move. So we gave up on the idea of a cargo bike. I still walked most places with the boys, or got public transport in to town. Then a year later Andrew started school, so we did school runs on foot and I only had Joel with me for groups and activities in the daytime. Tom of course commuted by bike, or sometimes walked.

We did ride to the park all together though for leisure at weekends. Andrew had learned to ride a pedal bike aged 3 whilst we were living in Coventry – he started on a balance bike aged 2 in Cambridge, where it was common to see them, and quickly took to a pedal bike because he’d mastered the balance already. I had a kids seat on the back of my bike for Joel, as cycling myself was the only way I could keep up properly with Andrew on his bike, I’m not a good jogger! I didn’t get on with the seat that well – it made the handling of my bike trickier, so I didn’t feel confident anywhere other than short rides on paths to the park. But Joel also picked up balance biking aged 2 and then pedal biking aged 3, so it wasn’t too long until they were both keen to ride.

Andrew’s (aged 2) balance bike parked up in the bike shed at our flat in Cambridge – where cycling was normal and loads of people had bikes.

And then I was pregnant again. Sadly this pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but before this happened we began researching cars because we knew ours wouldn’t fit three car seats across the back seat. We questioned whether we needed to buy one, because we didn’t use it much, mainly for days out of town and long distance trips to see family, or whether instead we could go car free, using public transport and occasionally hiring cars including the then new CoWheels hourly hire/car share company. Tom did some maths to work out rough costs of owning a car versus not owning a car, based on our needs at the time, and there wasn’t a lot in it if we could find the right car for us. Since we were only going to buy second hand, we needed to wait until something we liked and in budget came up for sale near enough to us anyway. Not long before I was pregnant with the twins one did come up, which was an “eco” model meaning tax is quite cheap, fuel economy quite good etc., so it swung the costs in favour of buying a car and we went for it.

I’m so glad we did! Our family unexpectedly went from 4 to 6, so an extra person to include in costs and an extra back seat needed. Thankfully we’d bought a 7-seater, but CoWheels don’t have one of these near us. When the twins were babies I certainly appreciated the times I did use the car, even if not loads; it did give me more freedom than without it. It was more about timings than anything else – when I had two school runs, groups at specific times, constant feeding of two babies, the twins’ differing nap patterns etc. to work around, the convenience of using the car to actually get out and do stuff sometimes was great, when walking or taking the bus would have taken too much time to fit everything in the day. Plus in the holidays when I had the four kids with me all day it was very useful. I’ll get back to bikes in a minute, but this was just to show that we’d seriously thought about going car free before, but it wasn’t quite right for us then.

So bikes…. in amongst the craziness of having baby twins in the family, the older boys still enjoyed riding bikes to the park every now and then. Tom would jog after them as I walked far behind with the twins in a wrap, or we’d take one twin each and the boys were under strict instructions to not go too far ahead. Neither option was great for all of us, and once the twins were over a year old we decided that we really needed to get us all on bikes to properly enjoy this family time together. At first I assumed we’d just get another child seat to go on Tom’s bike, but then I remembered double bike trailers were a thing, and this meant that one of us could more easily concentrate on helping Joel who, although physically could ride perfectly well, still struggled with thinking ahead and reacting to obstacles etc. So we got a trailer for Christmas just over a year ago. It’s been brilliant!

One of our first family bike rides with all 6 of us on bikes/trailer

We were able to get out most weekends as a family to one or two local parks that are reachable on paths all the way. The twins loved it in the trailer, and the boys really enjoyed being able to ride at a decent pace. Over the months their stamina and confidence grew, and Joel in particular came on a lot in terms of the skill of reacting to the world around him when cycling. By the summer holidays I felt able to take all four kids on my own to the most local park on bikes. This park is right next to school, so after the holidays I decided that I would try some school runs on bike. The boys thought this was absolutely amazing! They really enjoy having a purpose to a cycle ride, to get somewhere specific rather than just riding for leisure to the same old parks. We then found that we all had the confidence to go further as a family. So we looked up some routes from home using mainly paths, and found we could actually do some useful journeys – particularly to the opticians which has now become a running family joke because Joel manages to break his glasses so often *sigh* . 

I also tried cycling to a couple of our weekly toddler groups (we go to one every day except Wednesdays when my parents look after the twins whilst I work). These two I used the car for due to time constraints with school runs, post office runs, naps (or later not!) etc. One route was fine, if a bit of a struggle up the hill on the way home, but the other I couldn’t manage to tow the trailer on multiple hills. When we first got the trailer it was just about doable to tow it up the hill of our road coming back from the park, but over time this too started to get harder as the twins got heavier. And my bike has by now seen much better days – the gears have a mind of their own, sometimes they change when I click the shifter, sometimes they don’t, they keep me guessing! But Tom also agreed that even with his decent bike that’s less than a year old, it was getting harder to tow the trailer uphill.

My old hybrid bike plus trailer

I’m not sure exactly what first made me think of googling electric bikes, quite possibly it was a well targeted ad on social media since I’d mentioned cycling a few times in my posts. But soon my eyes were opened to a huge range of bikes out there that I didn’t know anything about. In my browsing of webshops, blogs etc. I also came across the various kinds of cargo bike that are now available in the UK, many with electric assist motors, and so many more than there were over 6 years previously when we’d first thought about getting one in Cambridge. It was also around this time that a friend (in Cambridge) added me to the Family Cycling UK Facebook group, which is such a great resource, and I learned even more from there about the vast number of options we had for transporting toddler twins, even with our hills. 

Once I’d done a lot of browsing myself, I chatted to Tom about the possibilities. I don’t think he could quite believe that I’d become so interested in researching bikes! He did some googling himself, because although he knows a fair amount about bikes, he knew very little about electric motors. We decided it would be a good idea to try to find somewhere local where we could go to talk to a human about electric bikes. At that point we still weren’t sure whether we were after a standard electric bike to tow the trailer, or an electric cargo bike. I found some online recommendations for Trikes and Bikes in Sutton Coldfield, as a bike shop who knew their stuff on electrics. The grandparents kindly volunteered to look after the kids one Saturday afternoon in November so we could get the (direct) train over there. It was well worth the trip, and we came back knowing much more clearly what we were looking at in terms of motors. All we needed to mull over more was the type of ebike that best suited our needs now and in future. Of the various cargo bike styles, I was leaning most towards a longtail rather than a box bike/trike, because a downside of the trailer was how wide it makes the bike to ride, and on some routes we do this makes it tricky. There seemed to be 3 brands/models that fitted our requirements- the Tern GSD, the Bicicapace Justlong, and the Yuba Spicy Curry.

Then Tom broke his arm, and for 6 weeks we did no cycling as a whole family, although I continued to do it a couple of days a week for school runs and our Thursday group. A new bike was put on the back burner somewhat, until Christmas. 

A family friend helps out on a school cycle bus scheme near where my parents live, and she was talking to my mum about another twin mum who does it on a longtail electric cargo bike – the Tern GSD. When she offered that we could test ride it, I jumped at the chance! So we arranged a date in late December when we were staying with my parents. It was an amazing experience! I’ve never ridden an ebike before, but I didn’t find it hard to pick up. Basically it felt like someone else was pedalling with me, so when I gave the amount of power in a pedal push that I normally would, the bike went much further than I expected. On the flat I didn’t really need the motor, and Tom even turned it off (I didn’t dare fiddle with the screen), but on our hills I could just imagine how perfect this extra power would be. The kids all enjoyed sitting on the back, and there’s plenty of room for two of various sizes. Unlike most longtails, the Tern GSD isn’t actually any longer than a standard bike, they’ve just made the wheels smaller and the geometry of the frame different to give the “long tail”. Crucially the small wheels make the centre of gravity lower than a standard bike, and riding with even a nearly 9 year old on it felt so much more stable and easier to handle than it had ever been with a toddler on the back of my old bike.

Test riding the Tern GSD

 So we were sold on the idea of an electric longtail cargo bike. It’s a more expensive option than a regular ebike, but we feel this is an investment into our future transport use, because we think this gives us a really good chance of being in the position to not buy another car when ours gives up, whereas a regular ebike would be more about the here and now of towing a trailer with toddler twins, who will outgrow it in the next couple of years. Even a longtail ebike costs a heck of a lot less than an electric car, which is the only type of car that we’d want to consider now that a couple of 7-seater models exist. We can use the bike with all the kids – not at the same time obviously, but it would be handy to take an older boy or two further than they can reasonably cycle or if the logistics of taking their own bike would be tricky. We can use it for large shopping trips – currently Tom gets most of our food shopping little and often every day on his way home from work on his bike, but this gives us more flexibility. We’d still need to get the train to visit family, and probably hire a car for some days out, but if it’s just me and the kids we’d only need a 5-seater for that.

We just needed to decide which of the three longtails we’d go for, weighing up the various pros and cons of each. The second Sunday afternoon of January, whilst we were watching the kids have fun riding around a deserted car park, we concluded that the Tern GSD was the one. That’s mainly because we knew Trikes and Bikes was a Tern dealer, so we would have a local point of contact should we need to deal with any warranty claims. We’d already test ridden it, whereas with the other two we’d need a trip to London or Cambridge to try them out. We would have considered buying second hand, however these bikes very rarely come up and even if they do we’d need to travel a fair distance to collect. 

Tom set about mobilising all our savings – eek, that’s the scary part, this is a considerable leap of faith for us financially! He emailed the dealer to ask for a quote including the accessories that we needed to seat kids on it. A quick reply from them told us the price, but also that there wouldn’t be any new stock of the bikes arriving in the UK for them to order for us until June! Argh! Having made the decision, we were keen to get one sooner than that. I tried another dealer near where we’d test ridden, but they couldn’t help either, because they too didn’t keep any in stock. We could buy one online from various larger dealers across the country who do keep them in stock, but we would need to get it back to them to make any warranty claims, or get free parts posted to us and pay a local bike shop to fix it. I even emailed Tern, who passed my details on to the UK representative and in turn the distribution team, to whom I asked the question would it be possible for them to organise getting a GSD sitting in stock elsewhere in the country to Trikes and Bikes so we could buy it from them. The answer was no.

So we looked back to the other options, particularly the Bicicapace Justlong because it was significantly cheaper. Although we’d need to travel to test ride it, pay for delivery, and have a non-local point of contact for potential warranty claims, if it was cheaper in the first place then we were more prepared to do these things for this rather than the GSD. It was incredibly frustrating that it seemed impossible to buy a longtail cargo ebike in the West Midlands at that point in time. 

Just as we were mulling over our next move, to go and test ride the Justlong, we had a phone call from Trikes and Bikes. They made us a fabulous offer, which they didn’t have to – if we bought a stock GSD from elsewhere, they would still act as a local point of contact for any potential warranty claims. Although it’s a risk for them as a business, they believe it’s one worth taking, for the bigger picture of getting one of these fantastic bikes here in Birmingham, to promote the Tern brand, and to get a family out there using sustainable transport. I’m certain we will be turning heads with the bike, starting conversations and advocating for family cycling as a means of local transport. And anyway, they’re confident it’s a quality product and they probably won’t need to be involved. We were delighted to accept this offer, and bought a GSD online straight away. It was delivered a few days later to their unit in Sutton Coldfield. 

One thing we could sort out through Trikes and Bikes though is the set of accessories – a beach seat, foot plates and hand bars for the back, and a front rack. These were ordered for us as soon as the bike arrived, whilst we eagerly awaited news. Unfortunately these also had an unforeseen supply issue – I’m trusting that Tern have a better reputation for actual bikes compared to their supply and distribution system in this country. So we waited another 3 weeks for these to arrive and be fitted. But finally we got our hands on our very own longtail cargo ebike, with huge thanks to a brilliant local bike shop who couldn’t have been more helpful and on our wavelength. Tom went to pick it up on the train, though ended up cycling it half way back home along the canal towpath from town, because trains out of New Street along the line back home were suddenly all suspended – it got a fun maiden voyage and he was very impressed.

A first quick go on the new bike for the twins. We are aware that you shouldn’t leave them unattended when the bike is on the kickstand – my husband was just out of shot in front of the other bike and watching that they were sat still whilst I took the photo. I’m also going to make some skirt guards for the back wheel before they ride again.

So now we’re looking forward to using our lovely new bike. We will still keep the car for now, but ultimately we would love the bike (and some trains/buses/occasional hire cars) to replace it. At the moment we are so fed up of the general attitude around here that cars rule the roads. Every day I witness terrible, dangerous and illegal parking around school, which basically boils down to people’s lifestyles being so rushed and down to the wire that they can’t find the time to park just a 5 minute walk away in designated car parks that local organisations have allowed school to use. 5 minutes, that’s all. I have 4 kids, I get it, life is busy, but it’s 5 minutes. I very rarely sit in rush hour traffic jams but on the rare occasion I do, it really depresses me that there are just so many cars in this city. We want out! We want to be part of a change, a shift in attitude, we want to see the car brought down from its pedestal as THE way to get around. And we want our kids to grow up knowing that there are alternatives, which are far better for environment and health. Let’s do this!

Birthday cakes – 2019

Andrew’s 8th birthday

He wanted a science themed cake this year, and his favourite science at the moment is Chemistry.

Samuel and Naomi’s 2nd birthday

They love listening to the the Muppets song “Muh Nah Muh Nah” on repeat at the moment, even as a way to fall asleep! I absolutely had to make these cakes, and like last year, it’s handy to make two cakes of a pair like this in terms of the amount of work that goes into making two separate cakes.

Joel’s 7th birthday

In the summer Joel bought an Angry Birds album from a National Trust second hand bookshop. In it there were idea for an Angry Birds themed birthday party, which he decided he really wanted to have this year. So of course that was the theme of the cake.

Starting reception at compulsory school age: our journey begins

It’s that time of year again, when my social media feeds over the last few weeks have been full of back to school photos, as well as a fair number of not back to school photos from the home educating families that I know. I’ve been asked a few times if the twins are starting at nursery soon. They’ll be going to a lovely little church hall playgroup next September, when they’re eligible for the 15 hours a week free childcare from the government. We don’t need childcare before that as my paid work fits around what time I get when looking after them, which is mainly a few hours at weekends and most Wednesdays when Tom or my parents are around. But when we get it for free, I’ll use that time to do more paid work (sewing) and voluntary work (slings and breastfeeding support).

At that point the twins will be 3 years 2 months old. We would like them to go to the playgroup for two years, until they go to school at 5 years 2 months old. I know lots of children in England start school when they’re 4 years old, including our eldest two who were 4 years 7 months and 4 years 10 months, but I’d like to explain in this blog post why I think starting school at 4 years 2 months old is not in the twins’ best interests and how we can change this.

In a nutshell, I think we start formal schooling too young in this country. Most of the rest of Europe don’t start school until 6 or 7 years old; until this age children learn though play in nursery/kindergarten type settings or at home. This is because children aren’t, on average, developmentally ready for formal learning until this age. Notice I did say “on average”, which means some are ready (much) sooner, some (much) later; that’s the nature of a normal distribution. We seem to be an anomaly here in England. I became interested in this when I heard about the Too Much Too Soon campaign having worked in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge (in a different department). Here you can find a summary of the evidence they found for not starting formal learning at age 4: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence

So why did our older boys start reception class aged 4? Well first there was Andrew, the child who was clearly way above average in terms of his development in all areas including emotional, social and academic. He went to a lovely play-based daycare nursery with his free 15 hours for the year before school. It was there where they picked up on his exceptional abilities – for example, he could tell the time aged 3, just because he’d been curious and learned it from real life with us before nursery, and would tell the staff when they were due to go on breaks! I never had any doubt that he would thrive at school, and he always has. 

And then there was Joel, who thankfully has an October birthday, meaning he is one of the oldest in his class. Although I had more reservations about whether Joel would suit school, because he wasn’t as emotionally, socially or academically as developed as Andrew had been, at least he wasn’t long off 5 when he started reception. Furthermore, by the time we needed to consider whether to send him to school, we’d experienced over a year of the fantastic learning environment at Bournville Infant School (now Bournville Village Primary School after the infants and juniors merged). I was very impressed with how playful the reception class was, with most of the day spent outdoors, very little formal structure, hardly any tables in classrooms as they didn’t expect them to sit at them to learn etc. Even the transition to year 1 was gentle, with still a lot of play-based learning and no pressure of anything like homework. The Cadburys founded the school, and their ethos of letting kids be kids (rather than sending them out to work in those days) is still apparent today. We felt that considering the constraints of the education system that the school is in, formal learning wasn’t really starting until later in year 1, by which point Joel would be 6 and a half. So we tried it, and actually he’s thrived at school so far too, particularly the social aspect of it. He’s just started year 2 aged nearly 7. I don’t think he would have coped with this had he been any younger than he is. If he’d have been born just a couple of months earlier, there is no way he would have coped, let alone thrived, in the school year above.

So why will the twins not start reception aged 4? Essentially it comes down to the fact that their birthday is in June. The chances of them both being exceptionally above average in all areas of development at just turned 4 are pretty slim, and I wouldn’t want one to start school without the other as I think that could cause issues between them later on. Even at a school which doesn’t press ahead with formal learning very quickly, being summer born means they would be starting it younger than age 6, and our experience with Joel suggests this could all go horribly wrong for them. My own experience of being summer born, so starting school at just turned 4, also comes in to this. I never struggled academically – I left school with straight As at GCSE and A-Level, and went on to achieve a first class bachelors degree, a masters degree and a PhD. But emotionally I don’t think I coped well, and my mental health was poor when I left school. However, it’s precisely because the twins are summer born that we now have the chance to do things differently.

The School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17 states that “the parents of a summer born* child may choose not to send that child to school until the September following their fifth birthday and may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group – to reception rather than year 1.” (* Summer born is defined as born between 1st April and 31st August.) And actually compulsory school age (CSA) in this country is 5 years old anyway. Even though in practice most children start reception aged 4, this is not compulsory, and of course parents have the legal right to home educate once CSA is reached. Prior to the current admissions code, parents didn’t have the right to request a CSA reception start, they just had the right to skip reception and start their child at CSA in year 1 – which we still have, but I never really understood why that helped at all. Starting reception in September at CSA isn’t a deferred or a delayed start (this means a start part way through reception year such as after Christmas or Easter), rather it is referred to as a deceleration or an admission out of the normal age cohort.

So this all sounds straightforward to me, what’s the catch? Well the hard part comes (or may come) in getting our preferred school(s) to agree to our request for a CSA reception start. The School Admissions Code (December 2014) section 2.17A states that “[a]dmission authorities must make decisions on the basis of the circumstances of each case and in the best interests of the child concerned. This will include taking account of the parent’s views; information about the child’s academic, social and emotional development; where relevant, their medical history and the views of a medical professional; whether they have previously been educated out of their normal age group; and whether they may naturally have fallen into a lower age group if it were not for being born prematurely. They must also take into account the views of the head teacher of the school concerned. When informing a parent of their decision on the year group the child should be admitted to, the admission authority must set out clearly the reasons for their decision.” It is our right to wait until CSA (5 years), but ultimately the admission authority decides whether the child goes in to reception or year 1 at that point, having considered the parents’ request for a reception start, and the authority must detail why they think reception or year 1 is in the child’s best interests.

The admission authority varies for each school. We have 4 primary schools about half a mile from our house in different directions: one is an academy, so the authority is the academy trust; two are voluntary aided schools, so the authority is the governing body; one is a community school, so the authority is Birmingham City Council. Basically it will depend on who out of all these people agrees with us that a CSA reception start is in the twins’ best interests and is therefore happy to grant our request on the sole basis of birth date, since we have no other factors such as special educational needs or prematurity involved. We do have sibling priority at Bournville Village Primary School, but if they are not willing to grant our request, we are not averse to trying the other three schools, particularly because Andrew will start secondary school when the twins start reception at CSA. If none of these schools agrees with us, we will probably home educate them for a while until we are happy that they are ready for formal schooling. But that’s a bridge to cross once we’ve gone down the route of requesting a CSA reception start first. 

For me it’s not just about them being ready for reception at just turned 4, because actually I think they’d probably cope if not thrive (the latter being the thing to aim for) in BVPS reception class. It’s about them being ready for the transition to year 1 at just turned 5, and the transition to year 3 at just turned 7, and the transition to year 7 at just turned 11, and doing GCSEs aged 15 and A-levels aged 17 etc. It’s about their whole school life ahead of them. I personally think there’s far more risk involved in the potential long term negative consequences of sending them to reception aged 4 years 2 months than there is risk in sending them to reception aged 5 years 2 months. I can only see benefits of waiting that year. So they will finish school aged just turned 19? That doesn’t seem to have caused any of my German friends harm. What’s a year in the scale of a lifetime? 

This blog post is the first chapter in documenting our journey of the twins starting school. It may be that all goes smoothly and there isn’t much to write home about, but we may have challenges. I want to document it to raise awareness of the rights we have as parents in terms of our children’s education, but rights which aren’t very well known or talked about. I’ve already found lots of support in the Flexible School Admissions for Summerborns Facebook group, which I would recommend joining if you’d like to find out more from parents who have been successful in or are applying for a CSA reception start. Watch this space for more updates in future.

Birthday cakes – 2018

Andrew’s 7th birthday

He had a swimming party this year.

Samuel and Naomi’s 1st birthday

Since we used to call them Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the womb, a term of endearment named after the little creatures in The Cat in The Hat by Dr Seuss, I thought this was appropriate for their first birthday. I want to always make one cake each for them, so doing something like this where there’s two in a pair is handy.

Joel’s 6th birthday

He had a soft play party at Tumble Jungle this year.

The twins turn two

Today the twins turned 2 years old! This means we’ve survived our second year of this crazy thing that is parenting 4 children. But not only that, their second birthday marks a significant milestone – I have now breastfed all 4 kids to (at least) the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of 2 years. Considering how dire I felt our breastfeeding journey was going at just 2 weeks old with our eldest child, this is definitely something I want to celebrate.

Breastfeeding is something I don’t see celebrated much in our society. The only place I really see celebrations of milestones, whether 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years or whatever, is breastfeeding support groups online, which are of course full of people who are/were breastfeeding. And I must admit I don’t often think of it as an achievement when we are going through the challenges of everyday life. But when I allow myself to stop and ponder, I’m really proud of myself and of how far we’ve come. 

It can feel difficult to openly celebrate breastfeeding when you see that anything about breastfeeding in the media ends up turning in to a debate on breastfeeding versus formula feeding. So many mums join in saying they are being made to feel like failures because they didn’t have the right information and support to breastfeed or didn’t want to breastfeed. My view is that individual mums aren’t failing to breastfeed, they are *being failed* in a society that doesn’t value breastfeeding – but that’s a whole other topic!

It’s a hugely emotive subject, and I definitely shy away from getting involved, which means I don’t often talk about breastfeeding beyond circles that I’m comfortable with (like support groups online or in person). I wrote a fair amount on breastfeeding our kids as babies on this blog, mainly to raise awareness of specific issues and circumstances that aren’t that commonly written about – hypoplasia, true and chronic low supply, using a supplemental nursing system or SNS, breastfeeding in pregnancy, tandem breastfeeding a baby and a toddler, breastfeeding twins etc. 

But I haven’t written much about the achievement that has resulted from perseverance through all of this – the achievement of breastfeeding until the boys self weaned at 4 years old and 2 and a half years old, the achievement of breastfeeding twins until at least 2 years old. I haven’t been motivated to, I didn’t want to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, partly through fear of offending anyone who hasn’t breastfed (or breastfed this long) for whatever reason.

However, recently I read a social media post about celebrating breastfeeding achievements that went viral. I’ll now paraphrase the gist of what I took from it. The author likened her breastfeeding journey to running a marathon. Many people train hard to run marathons – they put in lots of effort, dedicate their time and energy over several months, they build up with shorter runs and then celebrate these milestones as well as the final achievement of the marathon (online and in person). Now does anyone who doesn’t run a marathon for whatever reason get offended by this? Is it seen as an attack on anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to run a marathon? Does it mean everyone should run marathons? No, it’s simply someone choosing to aim for an achievement and smashing it. 

For me, and many others, breastfeeding is my marathon! I persevered through so much, mainly due to my hypoplasia and the resulting physiological inability to produce enough of my own milk. But our youngest three children have been fed milk entirely at the breast, no bottles whatsoever (thanks SNS!), and the eldest only had a few. When I think of it like that, why shouldn’t I openly celebrate the hardest achievement of my life (after the PhD)? Just like I have friends who openly celebrate running marathons (I seem to know quite a few!)

The current plan is to let the twins self wean, like the boys did. They only usually feed once first thing in the morning and once before bedtime. I expect one of these will drop at some point and then the last one will gradually decline in frequency until one day I’ll look back and think it must be a few weeks since they last fed and I didn’t realise at the time that was actually the last feed. That’s how it happened before at least, I know it might not be the same, though this is often what people experience with self weaning in toddlerhood or beyond. Of course if I feel the need to stop sooner this plan may change, but for now it suits all three of us so I’m happy with that. I’ll stop blowing the trumpet now.

My wrap stash explained

I was inspired by a recent blog post written by my friend Nicole, and she in turn was inspired by another mum who carries her child in slings. They both shared why they own their various woven wraps, detailing what they like about each wrap in their stash. I thought this would be an interesting post to write, to explain why I have more than one, and why they are so versatile for carrying twins.

From left to right – ring sling, size 2, size 3, size 4, size 5/6, size 7

I’ve only become a woven wrap enthusiast since carrying the twins. I rarely carried Andrew in a sling – we were given two high street ones (Baby Bjorn and Baba Sling) which I didn’t find comfortable for long, and then we acquired a framed back carrier, but I didn’t get chance to use it much before I was pregnant again and was too sick to have it pressing on my stomach at the waist. I made a concerted effort to look into the possibility of more comfortable slings before Joel was born, mainly because I didn’t want a bulky double buggy with two kids under 2. Thankfully I found out about stretchy wraps, and carried Joel everywhere in that until he was about 6 months old. We then had a few different sizes of soft-structured/buckle carriers and two ring slings for both boys into toddlerhood until we stopped carrying them around age 4.

When pregnant with the twins, I looked at the various options available, and decided that woven wraps would be the most versatile to see us through from birth to the end of carrying. I knew they came with a steeper learning curve than other slings, but with my experience of front carries with a stretchy wrap, back carries with buckle carriers, and hip carries with woven wrap fabric in ring slings, I felt less daunted by them than I had before. And so I began to think about what should be in my wrap stash!

So after this introduction to set the scene, I’ll now go through them in size order and explain why they’re in the stash……

Girasol light rainbow diamond weave cream weft ring sling

This is the only one that was left over from my time carrying the older boys. I made it myself after buying a longer wrap, chopping it down to the right size, sewing the rings in, and using the left over wrap scrap for my work. I found that standard ring slings which you can buy from wrap companies have too long a tail for my liking, so I made ours shorter. 

It is woven with 100% cotton yarn, with a diamond pattern in the weave. It has had lots of breaking in so it is gorgeously buttery soft. It is quite thin, but supportive enough for a toddler for a while or a baby for longer. 

I use this sling when I need to carry one baby on my hip but have hands free. This is usually around the house for short periods, or when going out from the front door to the car – I can take both babies by having one in the sling and one in my arms on the other hip, or one baby at a time with bags etc. on my other side. It’s a very handy way to cuddle a baby who wants to see your face, but you can also get on with things in front of you.

Firespiral spindrift cyano seafoam size 2

This one joined the stash when I started doing front-back tandem carries when the twins were around 3.5 months old. I found the easiest place to start with carries like this was to master a simple ruck back carry, then add a kangaroo pouch through the ruck straps on front, which required a very short wrap. I knew I wanted to get a Firespiral wrap with their cyano (blue/green) coloured warp thread at some point in our wrapping journey, because I just love the colour. When I saw this size 2 for sale preloved on the day I decided to look for one, I knew it was the one for us. 

It is woven with 50% combed cotton yarn and 50% hemp yarn. The hemp makes it really supportive despite its thinness, which means it’s great for tandem carrying, when I want to get maximum support for minimum fabric. It also has just the right amount of grip and glide for threading through ruck straps to make a front pouch.

I use this wrap mainly for a front kangaroo pouch as I said. But I also like this wrap on its own for a quick ruck tied at shoulder (with or without a candy cane chest belt) for one baby on my back. Its short length means it’s quite easy to wrap with in a muddy car park without trailing the tails in the mud, and the hemp means a simple ruck is pretty supportive even as the babies are getting heavier. It’s also my plan to use this more over the coming summer in tandem with another shorty (see below), and I’ve just begun practising the options.

Oscha starry night prism size 3

This is the most recent addition to the stash – it arrived this week! My main reason for buying it is that I’d like to have two short wraps (or “shorties”) for summer, so that I can do some front-back tandem carries that have less fabric around me than the carries I first learned when it was winter. I’d been practising with my size 4 and my size 2, but really the 4 was a bit long and not quite the right blend for front-back tandem carries. More on the specifics of these carries below. The colours of this wrap really caught my eye; I love graduated warps like this, for both aesthetic and practical reasons (it’s easy to see where you need to tighten!) I also like the starry night pattern – and the abbreviation SN has meaning for us since the twins are Samuel and Naomi. The fact that the blend sounded just what I was looking for clinched the deal, and I bought my first brand new Oscha wrap.

It is woven with 56% organic combed cotton yarn, 13% organic linen yarn, 13% hemp yarn and 18% Tencel yarn. Since we’ve only had it a few days, it’s not broken in yet, so I can’t comment on what it will be like when we’ve used it more, but my first impressions are that it is just what I was looking for. Not really thin, but not thick either; a good amount of grip but also slightly shiny with some glide; enough cush on my shoulders and supportive enough in simple carries with a shorty; cool for summer.

As I said above, my plan is to use this for tandem carries with two shorties. So far I’ve tried a ruck tied at shoulder with a kangaroo pouch on front, and a pre-tied short cross carry with ring finish on front and a ruck tied at shoulder on back. Both work well for minimal fabric, but I like the fact that in the latter combo front and back baby are completely independent, so back baby can come off even if front baby doesn’t. The size 3 is also great on its own for either a SCC or ruck TAS with candy cane chest belt.

Girasol double rainbow purple weft size 4

This one joined the stash when I started back wrapping when the twins were around 3 months old. At that point I only had my base size (5/6) and a size 7. Although it’s perfectly possible to do a simple ruck back carry with long wraps, because too long is better than too short for a wrap, I felt that it would be easier to learn with a shorter one, so I didn’t feel too swamped with fabric tails stretching  along the floor. I also wanted something thinner than my base size wrap, more similar in thinness to my size 7, again for ease of getting a good wrap job when learning. And my final criterion was to have colour stripes going along the length of the wrap, for ease of finding the rails and sections across it when learning to back carry. With these criteria in mind, I decided to look for another Girasol. Once I saw that a retailer in Europe had Girasol double rainbow wraps for sale, I knew we had to have one. The twins are our double rainbow babies after a miscarriage, so this means a lot to me. The choice of purple weft relates to my business, Sewn Down Purple Lane, and ultimately where we live – Bournville, home of Cadbury’s. This is going to be our legacy wrap – the one that I will keep to hand down to any of our children if they have their own babies one day. It’s a great beginner wrap for all the reasons listed above too, so a good one to start them on their carrying journey if they wish.

It is woven with 100% cotton yarn. Since I bought it new, it’s not quite as broken in yet as our Girasol ring sling, but it is well on the way to it with the amount of use it’s had. It is relatively thin but supportive enough for single carries, and grips well enough and isn’t hard to knot. It’s really easy to care for too. The thickness and grip is just right for the tandem hip carry with 4 rings that I use regularly.

I use this wrap mainly for two things these days. First, a simple ruck back carry with one baby either around the house or when we are out as a family and Tom has the other twin on his back. Second, a Jasmine’s tandem hip carry with 4 rings, which is essentially like using two ring slings but with one longer wrap instead, and it’s perfect for quick ups, like from the car to a building so I have hands free to carry bags etc. This gets lots of comments for how useful it looks. I couldn’t carry them for ages like this, more because my arms are pretty restricted now they are bigger, but it’s perfect for short periods. When I first started front-back tandem carries, my staple carry for the school run for a good month or so was a ruck tied Tibetan with this wrap, and a pouch on front through the ruck straps with my size 2. Now the twins are heavier I find the Girasol not quite supportive enough for front-back tandem carries, and I moved on to preferring a double hammock on back, which requires a longer wrap than a size 4.

Firespiral twilight anemone tourbillion size long 5 / short 6

This was the first wrap I bought when I was pregnant with the twins. I knew that my base size was going to be between a 5 and a 6. I’d been looking at Firespiral wraps on their website, and this one really caught my eye in terms of pattern and colour, and its average thickness and easy care fibre content seemed to make it a great starter wrap to have a go at wrapping one or two babies. I deliberated for a while over which size I should get – 5 or 6. But then I saw one come up preloved for a great price, and it was described as a short size 6. Perfect! Just what I was looking for, so there began my wrap stash.

It is woven with 100% cotton yarn. It arrived with me already lovely and soft, so had clearly had a fair amount of breaking in. It has an average thickness for a woven wrap, though it’s actually my thickest wrap, because I tend to favour them on the thinner side, particularly for tandem carries. But this does give it a lovely cushy feel on my shoulders, and I can get some great pleats when tightening strand by strand up there. I find it really supportive for 100% cotton. I think the grip of the fabric helps this too, and the pattern and typical Firespiral weave make the texture nicely grippy without being too difficult to handle.

I have used this wrap consistently for a few different things. First, it is my base size for doing a FWCC with one baby when I want to front carry. I don’t do this as much as I used to because I tend to prefer back carrying now that they’re heavier, but it is still great for this when I do. Second, my staple tandem carry for school runs over the winter was a double hammock on back (tied at hip) with this wrap, and a kangaroo pouch on front with my size 2. The support, grip and cush are just right for this, however I find I’m getting a bit warm in the nicer weather. Third, I used to use this in the first 3 months or so for an Amanda’s tandem hip carry, or sometimes a Jasmine’s tandem hip carry with one ring. Again it offered just the right amount of grip and cush for this.

Oscha roses mutiara size 7

This was the second wrap I bought when I was pregnant with the twins. Although I had a 100% cotton base size wrap, I knew that having a longer wrap would be useful for twins for tandem carries using one long wrap. Since we were going to be doing a lot of newborn carrying in the summer months, I decided a thinner wrap than my size 5/6 and a blend with cooling linen in would be a good idea. When I saw the colours of this which was for sale preloved, I knew it was the one for us. I’d not previously been as big a fan of the roses pattern compared to other Oscha patterns, but somehow with this gradient of colours it looked brilliant.

It is woven with 80% cotton yarn and 20% linen yarn. It arrived with me already soft and floppy, which can take a while with linen, so I was really glad I’d bought it preloved as other people had done the breaking in for us – it was ready for newborns. It is quite a thin wrap, but really supportive, thanks to the linen. But is doesn’t feel at all stiff, and I can tandem for about an hour (with a good wrap job) before it feels diggy on my shoulders, which is pretty good going. It has a slight stretch and spring to it too.

This was the wrap that I first wrapped the twins in at a week old. I did a tandem FWCC, which wasn’t the greatest, but I soon got better with the loads of practice that I got doing it multiple times a day, day in, day out. They lived (mainly slept) happily in there so I could get on with jobs or do things with the older boys. I will never forget those double squishy cuddles in this special wrap. Although it is possible to do a tandem FWCC with young babies in base size, I liked the extra length on the tails for pinning purposes, and the wrap qualities of this size 7 were better suited to our needs over the summer, plus it looked nice to have beautiful long swishy tails at the back! As I moved on to two-wrap front-back tandems, this wrap took a back seat for a while. But as I got more experience with back wrapping, and therefore could handle the long tails, I came back to this to do front-back tandem carries with the one long wrap. Either a ruck on back, tied Tibetan, with a FCC on front in the cross passes, or a double hammock on back, with the same on front but with a ring finish instead of knotted. The ruck version is what I’ve been mainly using for the school run since the weather turned a bit warmer. I’ve also used it for single carries like a FWCC or a double hammock, to enjoy the extra tails, or when I might need to take the other twin at some point as we juggle them between Tom and me.

Brands

As you can see from the photos of these wraps, my favourite colours are very much reflected in my stash – pinks, purples, teals and rainbows. I also like how neatly balanced my current stash is with my three favourite brands – two Firespiral, two Oscha and two Girasol. 

Firespiral and Oscha are both UK based small businesses, with an ethical and sustainable approach, keeping their products as locally sourced and manufactured as possible. The founders are mums themselves, and as a small business owner myself, I can relate to their work life, balancing it with young children. Girasol make the best rainbows! There are so many different versions too, it’s hard to say which is my favourite. It is a German company, but the wraps are hand woven in Guatemala in a Fair Trade agreement, and again I like the ethical considerations that the owners have given to their brand. 

I hope that this has been an interesting read. I’ve enjoyed writing it, getting down in words what I often think about with a baby or two wrapped on me. One day I will enjoy looking back on it too, when the twins are older and our stash may have changed to suit our changing needs, or when they no longer wish to be carried at all. 

29-30 weeks – rest and getting prepared

There wasn’t really much to write about for 29 weeks. We were away for the long Easter weekend, down with Tom’s parents in Devon. It was good to get away, and I’m glad all is going well with the pregnancy so far, which meant that we were able to go that far, even if sitting in the car wasn’t that comfortable – we had an extra stop compared to normal.

30 weeks

The last time I blogged I had just had my 28 week growth scan and blood tests, including one to check for ICP (intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy). I didn’t hear anything back about this, which means it must have been negative, so I’m pleased about that. The tingling/itching hasn’t got any worse, and if anything I noticed it even less when we were away.

However, when we got back home, I opened a letter from the hospital which said that my blood test for iron level showed that I am anaemic. This isn’t hugely surprising for a twin pregnancy, as lots of mums expecting multiples find their iron stores are depleted more quickly from growing two or more babies. I don’t particularly feel any different from how I have all pregnancy in terms of tiredness – one of the major symptoms. I don’t get that out of breath, though I can feel it’s starting to become harder work walking and going up stairs, for example, with the extra weight I’m carrying. When I looked up anaemia on the NHS website it did say that one of the less common symptoms is itching/tingling though, which is interesting. After a short delay in my GP receiving the letter from the hospital due to the bank holidays, I got some iron tablets and have just started taking them. I’m slightly apprehensive about the potential side effects of nausea and constipation that are common with iron tablets, but I’ll have to see how it goes.

We’ve also started to get organised this week with preparations for the twins’ arrival. I have packed my hospital bag except for a couple of additions that I need to buy (snacks and drinks). It’s been so long since I did it that I had to remind myself what we need in the bag! We were in the birth centre for less than 12 hours last time, so hardly needed anything that I’d packed. I expect we will be in for longer with twins, even if they get to term (37 weeks), because they are likely to be quite small compared to the boys, which may cause issues with starting feeding, for example. And of course this time we need double of all the baby bits. If I need a c-section, I personally will also need to be in longer than after a vaginal delivery. We don’t live very far at all from the hospital, so I’m sure we can top up with anything that we don’t have enough of pretty easily between Tom and other visitors such as our parents.

We have very kindly been given this week plenty of tiny newborn baby clothes, as we didn’t have any smaller than 0-3m ones for the boys who were born average weight for singletons. So we’ve put most of these into the drawers in the boys’ room and some have gone into the hospital bag. We’ve moved all the feeding equipment into the kitchen and found a place for it – steriliser, several SNS (supplemental nursing systems – made from bottles and thin NG tubing) and formula.

I’m sure there are a few more bits and bobs to sort out, but I feel like we are pretty prepared for them to arrive whenever (well, as much as one can ever be prepared for the arrival of twins!) Even if they were born in the next few weeks, we wouldn’t be home straight away as they’d need time in special care, so there’s still time to sort out anything here that needs doing.

22-23 weeks – twins antenatal class

Last week we were away for half term with family, which was a lovely time for us all, particularly for me to rest as well as do some swimming – non-weight-bearing exercise is good. There wasn’t much to write about in terms of pregnancy. I’m continuing to monitor my blood pressure – it is staying at around 105/65 at home, and it went up a little to around 110/70 last week when away, but it’s back down this week. This is still pretty low for me personally and for being pregnant with twins.

23 weeks

There’s more to write about this week at 23 weeks. On Sunday Tom and I attended an all-day twins antenatal class. The twins specialist midwife, whom I’ve seen every time I’ve been to twins clinic, had invited us and said that it was focussed on specifically twin labour, delivery and early postnatal care in hospital, rather than general things you’d learn about at antenatal classes, which as third time parents we really don’t need. We’d done the NHS classes in Cambridge when pregnant with Andrew, and found them rather useless – nothing I hadn’t read about already and the assumption that birth should be medicalised. I’d also done an NCT antenatal refresher course when pregnant with Joel, which was more useful in a non-medicalised approach for us, though I mainly did it to meet local mums with toddlers who were having another baby around the same time as me, from a social perspective.

The twins antenatal day also included a tour of the delivery suite (including the entrances to the operating theatres and SCBU, and the transitional care ward) at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital. This is what really sold it to me, because I have never given birth in a hospital room, and not in this hospital at all. Andrew and Joel were born in the midwife led birth centre in Cambridge – with lovely homely rooms that look nothing like a hospital, with no monitoring equipment, a birth pool, a normal bed, low level lights etc. Well actually, Joel was nearly born in the reception area, but we just made it into a room! I found it very reassuring to see where I will be giving birth this time.

Before we found out it was twins, I’d decided we would stay at home for the birth, because I’d only just made it to the birth centre last time, and having done labour twice before with no pain relief or complications, I now had confidence that my body can do it. Both my labours have followed similar patterns – some sporadic, irregular, non-painful but uncomfortable tightenings/Braxton Hicks for a few hours, then a sudden gushing of the waters breaking, followed by a quick ramp up in strong, painful and regular contractions until pushing and then delivery. The time from waters breaking to delivery was about 3 hours with Andrew and about 1 hour with Joel. However, twins is automatically considered “high risk”, so I’m “not allowed” to have a home birth or go to the birth centre. Though actually, as the home birth coordinator midwife pointed out to me when I rang her to tell of the twins news and that I’d no longer need to meet with her, there’s no legal reason why I can’t ignore the doctors and have a home birth, it is ultimately my choice. I just feel this is one step too far in going against medical advice, so we will try to get to the hospital. I wouldn’t be at all surprised though if we ended up with an accidental home birth, because quite frankly I’d rather have a home birth than a car birth!

This is, however, assuming that twin 1 is in a head down position by around 32-34 weeks, after which point they are unlikely to turn due to lack of space. At the antenatal class the midwife showed us a diagram of the various permutations of twin positions. There were 6 in total, and only for 2 of them would I “be allowed” to attempt a vaginal delivery, the other 4 would automatically mean a planned c-section. Basically twin 1 has to be head down, and twin 2 can be bottom down or head down – twin 2 is likely to move anyway once twin 1 is born and he/she suddenly has half a womb’s more space to spin about in! If twin 1 is bottom down, or if either/both of them are transverse (lying horizontal instead of vertical), that would mean a c-section. So I am hoping that twin 1 gets head down at the right time, though if not I will do my own research on the risks of attempting a breech (bottom first) birth, particularly with my good delivery history, rather than simply going along with what the doctors demand without question. They seem happy enough that twin 2 can have a breech vaginal birth, just once twin 1’s head has paved the way. I asked what would happen if twin 1 was bottom first and I went into a spontaneous and fast labour before a planned c-section date – the answer was an immediate emergency c-section, which would be a race between doctors and babies I think.

When we were hearing about these birth options in the class, the midwife posed the question – who decides how the babies will be born? I answered “me!”, because ultimately I know it’s my body and my decision, and I think she already knows from seeing me in clinic that I’m going to be “one of those” who doesn’t just go along with what the doctors say without question. They talk of what is and isn’t “allowed” – but what they really mean in most cases is what is and isn’t advised in their professional opinion, and even that can differ between individual doctors. What she actually was trying to get at though is that the babies themselves determine how they will be born, depending on their position before and during labour. I see her point, and I’m not against having a c-section if it ensures that the babies and I survive any threat to our lives. Of course I’m glad that medical intervention exists when it is needed. But I am aware that it does come with risks itself, not to mention the recovery from surgery.

I did feel a little on my own amongst the mums at the class for really wanting to have a vaginal twin birth. We were all carrying “DCDA” twins – two placentas and two amniotic sacs, so the least risky in terms of likelihood of complications, and the only kind for which we are “allowed” to attempt a vaginal birth at this hospital. Three had already chosen a planned c-section – because they had had one with their older singleton, and even I’m not sure I would want to attempt a twin VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean). One was a first time mum and was still unsure what she wanted, and one had previously had an emergency c-section and a VBAC with her two singletons, so was probably going to attempt a second VBAC since the first had gone well. It made me very aware of how blessed I’ve been with uncomplicated labours and deliveries, which sets me up well, both mentally and physically, for doing it again with twins. I’m also aware that all of these thoughts about birth are based on my pregnancy staying uncomplicated and the twins not arriving early or needing to be delivered prematurely for whatever reason. I’ll write more about that next week, along with what happens in the case of the other extreme of timing – potential induction of labour if the twins arrive “late”.

As well as the information from the midwife about labour and delivery at the hospital, she had invited three families with twins of different ages to come along and chat to us about their experiences. All of them only had the twins, no older or younger singletons. It was interesting to hear from them, but a lot of what we ended up talking about I either knew from having had babies before, or I’ve seen from other twin mums online in the twins groups on Facebook that I’ve joined. For example – the lack of knowledgeable breastfeeding support from the NHS and the fact that babies don’t sleep for very long at a time. Some of their tips were of a different parenting style from ours, so they weren’t something I would take on board. And I think Tom felt a bit left out when the dads were discussing the pros and cons of different brands of double pram, as we aren’t getting one!

I think that’s probably enough writing for one week. Next week I will write more about the potential timing of birth that we discussed in the class, as this is related to the fact that 24 weeks is an important milestone in any pregnancy – it is the point at which a foetus is thought to be “viable”, with just over 50% chance of survival if born in the 24th week, providing there is intensive medical care available.

20 weeks – anomaly scan

This week was a great week. On Thursday I had our 20 week anomaly scan. I was nervous about this – I think I probably was to some extent before the boys’ 20 week scans, because there’s all sorts of things that could be picked up as potential issues. But even more so given there are two of them in there this time, and I still have memories of our sad scan in the last pregnancy.

20 weeks

However, all was absolutely fine with the twins themselves and the sacs and placentas. It was lovely to see them in so much detail, I’m sure scans have become higher in definition since I last had them 4 and a half years ago. The print outs pictured below don’t do what I saw on screen justice. Or maybe the machines are just newer at this hospital compared to where to boys were scanned. They were both in good positions to get decent views of organs to check there were no issues, which apparently is quite uncommon for twins. I remember Joel wasn’t in a good position even just the one of him, so I had to go for a walk half way through his scan to see if he would move!

IMG_3899 IMG_3900 The medical convention for labelling twins in utero is twin 1 for the lower one, and twin 2 for the upper one. This is because that’s the order in which they are born, if birthed vaginally. Twin 1 was the first to be measured and checked, and it was amazing to see him/her sucking their fist on and off, moving it in and out of the mouth, opening and closing the mouth each time – the detail was fantastic! Twin 2 was doing an interesting movement with his/her nose against the sac membrane, moving the head up and down as if sniffing/licking it. Quite often when the sonographer was trying to take a shot of one twin to measure something, there suddenly appeared a foot, hand, or head from the other in the picture. That was funny! Talking of funny, our nicknames for the babies are thing 1 and thing 2 – this is a reference to Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat.

thing1thing2

Another important point is that both placentas are posterior, on the back wall of the uterus. This is the best place for them to be, to avoid complications in pregnancy and/or birth that are involved with lower or anterior placenta placement. So that’s good news.

I was asked at the start of the scan if I wanted to find out the sex of the babies. I said no thank you, and the sonographer was great at telling me when to look away. We didn’t find out the sex of the boys until birth, for several reasons, and the same holds this time.

Above all, discovering the sex of our babies ourselves at the birth is a hugely important part of the birth experience for me (and Tom, though I think he’d go along with whatever I wanted on this as I’m the one who has to give birth 😉 ) There are so few amazing surprises in life, I feel this is one I can’t miss out on. I have so far been blessed with quick and “easy” labours, which, compared to the sickness and nausea of pregnancy, I have actually enjoyed. For me, part of the enjoyment of the whole process of giving birth comes from the building excitement of finally meeting my baby and finding out all about who they are. Their sex is part of who they are, but there are many other aspects of their appearance and personality to get to know too, which you can’t find out from a scan.

We have already seen evidence from our two boys that sex is really not that much of an indication of who they are in personality anyway. Andrew and Joel are so different from each other in many ways, that knowing in advance that they were boys would have been no big deal. In some ways they are similar, but I don’t think this is entirely down them both having XY chromosomes rather than XX – the fact that they are brothers means their DNA will have similarities, because they both came from me and Tom.

We really don’t mind if we end up with four boys, three boys and a girl, or two of each. So I see no reason why we need to “get used” to whichever combination it is in advance of the twins arriving. We have always believed that any child is a blessing, and even more so since we experienced the pain of miscarriage. There are so many couples who struggle to conceive or to carry babies to term, so we feel incredibly blessed to have had the children that we have, regardless of whether they are boys or girls.

Most of our baby clothes are “gender neutral” in that they are white/cream/yellow etc. However, I personally don’t believe that colours belong to either gender, and have had no issue with putting pink cloth nappies and clothes on the boys. The blatant genderisation of clothes, toys and other consumables in our society annoys me. Just let toys be toys and clothes be clothes! We have given the boys access to all sorts of toys, and although their absolute favourites have tended to be what are seen as “boys toys”, they have also enjoyed playing with things such as dolls, prams, princess dressing up clothes and shoes etc. The same goes for clothes since they have been old enough to have a say. So it will make no difference if the twins are boys or girls, they will be dressed in any clothes that fit and play with any toys that are age appropriate.

We are just hoping and praying for healthy babies, an uncomplicated pregnancy, and a safe arrival. And we are looking forward to meeting them, whether boys, girls, or one of each. This is the kind of reply I’m having to give quite often when people make comments such as “I bet you’re hoping at least one is a girl!” or “What will you do if they’re both boys?!” I get the impression that not everyone shares our lack of obsession with sex and gender 😉 Now to come up with several names for all eventualities!

After the scan, I had to go for my usual visit to a doctor in the twins clinic. Unusually there wasn’t a very long wait there (and the scan had also been surprisingly punctual!) First up was a blood pressure test, and of course it was high. Although I was by that time relieved that the scan was over and had gone well, my BP had been raised even since the morning at home, compared to what it has been consistently on non-hospital days, and I could feel the sensations of anxiety in myself – heart pounding, sweaty, dry mouth etc. It did come down a little on a second reading. As usual, there were no signs of protein in my urine.

The plan was to talk to the doctor about coming off the drug to lower my BP, because it has been going too low at home, making me feel dizzy – I only get high BP in hospital when I’m anxious. My parents had been advising me on this, as you have to cut down gradually to avoid a rebound reaction of higher BP. So my mum offered to come with me, to explain her opinion on this, since the last doctor I saw was adamant that I still needed to take it and just put up with the dizziness.

Well the doctor at this appointment couldn’t have had a more opposite opinion! After I explained, she didn’t hesitate to tell me I don’t need to take it any more! My mum didn’t even need to say anything. Just like another previous doctor I had seen, she admitted that doctors often over medicalise twin pregnancies, when actually there’s nothing to worry about. She was happy that I’m self-monitoring my BP at home, and that I would say if I see any changes that look worrying. And that was that! She said I just need to go back in 4 weeks for our first growth scan. From now on I will have scans every 4 weeks until birth, to check that the twins are growing well.

I find it quite difficult that I never see the same doctor twice – I’ve seen 4 different ones at the twins clinic, and 3 at the day assessment unit, all of which have had slightly different opinions on whether my BP is really an issue. Every time I have to explain afresh why my readings are high in hospital but not at home. But this is just the way it is. I wonder which new doctor I’ll see next time…..