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Becoming Mrs Mum: Strategies for at-home learning with primary children

Mum and child drawing with chalk

Three years ago I was a parent to a newly minted prep boy.  I was a prep mum the year after too.

Afterschool learning activities during those first years of school – practicing readers, learning high-frequency words and some finishing off – were difficult, especially with my eldest boy.

My requests of him to do these things were met with refusal or a reluctance that saw him grudgingly do the task quickly and with little care. It was difficult keeping my own emotions in check as well, with increasing frustration and a track of “I can’t do this” playing in my head.

Three years on, with our boys now in Grades 2 and 3, the difficulties and frustrations are far less frequent.

In this post I share strategies that have worked for me for both afterschool learning and homeschooling (we had a stint of that just prior to the Term holidays).

In the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely that most parents will need to facilitate some form of learning at-home in place of school for at least part of Term 2. In my home state, the government has just announced that children who can learn at home will be taught remotely for Term 2.

I hope the strategies in this post can help with that.


At-home learning is different to school

One of the greatest challenges to creating an effective at-home learning environment is that home is a child’s safe zone and parents’ are a child’s safe people.

Home is where our kids get grumpy and throw tantrums. Our children say “no” to us in a way they never would to their teachers.

Some of the strategies in this post will help with this dynamic. To the extent they don’t, I think it’s important to accept that at-home learning is not going to be perfect and to be kind to yourself and your children as you work together and do your best.

Agree and display a written schedule

This was a very successful strategy for both our afterschool reading practice and our recent week of homeschool because it:

  • took the focus off me as the source of the program
  • created a structure and boundaries (most children respond well to these)
  • avoided confusion and arguments about what was meant to be happening at a particular time
  • allowed the kids to be part of the decision-making, bolstering their enthusiasm for the activities and making it harder for them to refuse to participate
  • provided something to look forward to (whether a special activity or just the end of the program for the day)!

But, while structure is good, it’s also important to be flexible, particularly if you’re like me and juggling school and younger children. Many a reading practice session at our house has been cancelled due to a toddler meltdown! Allowing room for spontaneity and variation may also allow you to develop your child’s learning about things that catch their attention (and cope with things that don’t!)

Be prepared for younger children

Younger children are another major challenge for afterschool learning activities or homeschool.

To help cater for everyone’s needs, I suggest:

  • having activities the younger child can do beside your school children, eg, blocks, dolls, playdough, drawing, books
  • preparing snacks and a water bottle in advance

Your younger child may feel put out with his or her older siblings home and less time alone with Mum and Dad. Try to dedicate some one-on-one time for your younger child. For that, I love bathtime and stories before bed!

Enlist others

This was a masterstroke in our quest to get our particularly reluctant reader to practice reading at home and gave me a rest from having to be the organiser (also chief nagger). Our reading practice schedule included a read to Dad session every Sunday night and, in the event of visitors, we enlisted them to listen to our children read too.

Applying this strategy in the COVID-19 pandemic comes with its challenges of course – but your children could read to their grandparents over Facetime or video conference. And, what about enlisting grandparents to read a chapter book to your child over the phone? Grandparents might not have all the modern titles on their bookshelves, but they might be able to dust off a classic or two. The Famous Five or some of Enid Blyton’s books, perhaps.

Read aloud

Reading went from being a chore to a captivating adventure for my particularly reluctant reader after a Summer holiday during which we read a number of chapter books pitched perfectly at young boys.

Even with my school boys’ now in Grades 2 and 3, we still read to them most days – at bedtime and at any time we need to change the pace a bit!

Audiobooks are another great option for helping kids get interested in books and reading. We have memberships to a couple of libraries and get access to audiobooks for free.

Learning opportunities are everywhere

So your learning activity (perhaps even the whole day!) doesn’t go to plan?

Yes, I’ve had a few of those!

Get your kids to help make dinner and make it a lesson in reading, maths and science. Or, show them how to peg clothes out or fold washing – they’re going to need those skills in the future too!

A break for the subbed-in playmate

If your kids are learning at home in place of school and you have a particularly social boy or girl (as we do!), you may find yourself being asked to play more than usual.

Try to give yourself a break each day – otherwise the program of teaching/supervising, parenting and play can be all-consuming.

For me at the moment that comes in the form of putting on the TV.

Paid work from home with kids in tow

Doing all this and doing paid work from home at the same time is another level again.

I worked part-time for a number of years after having kids and had some days working from home with kids in tow. I’ve taken phone calls in closets and worked while my kids watched TV all day. These experiences were not fun for any of us.

While it depends on how old and independent your kids are (mine were little at the time and not very independent), my advice on adding paid work into the juggle is that to the extent you can, push your work to kid bedtimes and early mornings. With daytime work commitments, tag team with your partner and use TV when you can’t.

Good luck and may the force and these ideas be with you for Term 2!



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Go bush: for one and all!

Government and media campaigns are encouraging us all to visit fire-affected and other rural communities to help support local economies.

But getting out to rural areas across the state, indeed across Australia, is not just good for rural communities.

It’s good for us and our children too.

And not just because of the incredible festivals some of these places put on, the local markets with locally grown produce or the award-winning sausage rolls baked in the ovens of local bakeries.

Getting out into rural areas is good for us and our children because we can learn first-hand about the hardships our fellow Australians face, but also see how they adapt and cope with them. The resilience of these people and these communities is inspiring and sets a wonderful example for all of us.

IMG_4081 (002)

As the green of Melbourne fades in the rear view mirror and is replaced by crisp dry grass or bare rocks and soil, school is in. This is what our family learnt from approximately 6000kms on the road this summer:

  • Australia is a huge country and subject to a vast range of soil and climatic conditions. Our trip up the middle of New South Wales and into Queensland on the Newell Highway showed us a wide range of land – from prosperous farmland to dry, desert-like conditions. For some Aussies, it’s home.
  • The conditions are volatile too. Australia is indeed a place of “drought and pouring rains”. Much of our trip through the barren landscape up the Newell was in 40+ degree heat. In those conditions it’s hard to imagine that it ever rains there. In fact, marking the sides of much of the highway are flood markers, suggesting that it not only rains, it floods. And a mere four weeks on since our time there, many places have flooded.
  • Australians care about each other. In late December we met two inspiring women in Lightning Ridge – a mother and daughter duo. Over breakfast at a local cafe they heard us deliberating about our trip that day to Goondiwindi and piped in with their local knowledge to help plan our trip. As we shared our story and they told us their’s, we learned they were accepting handouts from local businesses to keep food on their family’s table. They didn’t know how long they would be able to stay on their farm, which had been in their family for generations. But not only did they go out of their way to help us navigate the next stage of our trip (including recommended food stops and landmarks), they talked with deep concern for the people affected by the bushfires.
  • We are resilient too. To me there is no better symbol of resilience in the face of brutal conditions than the silo and water tower art in many outback towns (for where you can find them, see We visited the silos at Thallon (population 257) in Southern Queensland. At Thallon, the Grain Corp Silos have been painted to showcase icons of the area and the presentation is simply stunning (see top photo on this post). The signs providing background to the project state:

“The Silos mural project means a great deal to the Thallon Community as the town has suffered many setbacks over the years with population decline and business closure. We believe this project marks a turning point for the community.”

There are less obvious symbols like these too all over the countryside – the Christmas displays along roads (often featuring a piece of discarded farm machinery and some tinsel) and in rural townships. And, of course, the locals themselves, like the women in Lightning Ridge.

So definitely go bush – go fishing, hiking, camping or searching for the best sausage roll or potato cake. Take a look around you too – see what it’s like to live outside a capital city if that’s where you’re from. And talk to the locals – hear what it’s like to live a vastly different life to your own. Their story might give you a new perspective. It might inspire and uplift you too.

Yes, your trip will be good for local communities.

And it will be good for you too.

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Navigating the noise: how I became a more confident mum

Once I was calm, in control and able to problem-shoot a million issues without breaking a sweat. I thought critically about everything and I got paid to “cut through” as a corporate lawyer.

But as a first-time mum, even a cry would send my nerves sky high, my brain into panic mode and trigger the “I can’t do this” self-talk. A first vomit (no one talks about that gruesome milestone!) saw us racing to the Royal Children’s Hospital. And I was drowning in information and advice that was often contradictory, irrelevant and usually unsolicited.

When you become a mother there’s so much noise from the sidelines: from the pages of books; from the internet; from family and friends; and, even, from complete strangers.

One time when Little Mate was around six months old, a friendly-faced woman approached me at the shops. She poked her head into the pram and said “ah, he looks ready for a sleep.”

Those words instantly triggered my anxiety. Settling the little guy at night was challenging for us and I’d been told that he should be self-settling to sleep in his bed during the day. Quickly I made tracks for home, stopping only to poke Little Mate out of his increasingly sleepy state and chastising myself for being out too long.


Now after two more kids and eight years, it’s different.

Now I call advice that does not suit the unique characteristics, personalities and needs of our family at a particular day or time: “noise”. I’m not saying that advice about a daytime nap routine is “noise”, but rather that there are other factors that also need to be considered – like a mum’s need for extra time out of the house – and, in that case, maybe daytime nap advice is “noise”.

While I still waiver and deliberate at times in making decisions as a parent, I no longer feel so overwhelmed by all the information and advice. Three things stand out as significant in my journey to more confidence.

1. Getting professional help

We sought professional help for one of our kids early on. Certain everyday tasks and some social situations were challenging for him: mainly, getting out of PJs, leaving the house and sitting still. Kinder was also not a happy place for him.

When you have a child that is different, you might wonder what you have done wrong – I certainly did. And while I was never that interested in making comparisons, it’s hard not to as a parent when a lot of things are measured in relative terms (eg the way children’s height and weight is measured in percentiles against other children).

Meeting with a developmental paediatrician and later, an occupational therapist, was the start of the turning point for me. These professionals gave us advice tailored to our children and our family. They reassured us about all the things we were doing right (many things they suggested we’d in fact already done) and offered us new strategies to try.

We found books and the internet were not particularly helpful. Sometimes in fact they stoked the fire of my parenting guilt when they suggested things that I could do when my child was a baby that I had not done (he was already three and a half)!

What I know now is that parenting books provide general guidance for a broad audience. When I look back on some of them now, what I see is not all the things I could have done but all the reasons why the book doesn’t suit our family.

They also cannot just be taken as wisdom because they’ve got a shiny cover – a recent study in the UK concluded that some books go against government advice on important issues such as safe sleeping: see Professor Amy Brown and Victoria Harries, “Some baby care books are giving advice that goes against safe infant care guidelines”, The Conversation, 4 July 2019 (


2. Finding someone to talk to

Some people have friends, relatives or parents they can call on to discuss parenting advice and information and whether it works for their family. Maternal health nurses can also be good for this.

My number one “go-to” has been and remains, our nanny, Jess. For more than six years, we’ve had the benefit of her wise and supportive counsel. Jess came to us with about 10 years of nannying under her belt, childcare and teacher’s aid qualifications, a life lived around children and a desire to always learn more. And she knows our family intimately.

Our relationship has always been a two-way street and most “Jess days” start with lots of chatter. We both bring ideas and observations to the table and workshop them in the context of our family circumstances.

3. Getting some “wins” on the board

There were lots of little wins along the way, like weight gains, smiles and rolls, first words and first steps. But one thing that really stands out to me now as having really boosted my confidence as a mum was when our little guy, who’d detested kinder, bounded into the school gate on day one of Prep with not much more than a “see-you tonight Mum and Dad.” We really haven’t looked back since.


With children aged eight, six and two, I certainly don’t have all the answers (teenagers…argh!). But what I do now have are the tools to find the answers for our family. My number one tool in my toolbox is my gut instinct. Now I have enough confidence to trust it in all the noise.

Whatever stage you are in your parenting journey, I hope this post gives you comfort that you were or are not alone and, perhaps if you’re in the thick of it, some ideas for what might just help get you through it.

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Body safety education: protecting their innocence or taking it away?

At eight and six years of age, we’re sending our boys out into the world more and more without being right by their side.

As they grow, our ability to veto the people they come into contact with becomes less and less.

This trend will continue as the kids ask for more opportunities to be independent, which is something we’ll encourage to grow their confidence and resilience.

But how do we keep them safe?

The answer for our family is body safety education.

But what does that conjure up for you?

Do you wonder where to start, what words to use, how far you’ll have to go?

Do you feel sick thinking about talking about private parts with your kids?

Do you feel your child is ‘not old enough’ and fear you’ll end their carefree, happy and innocent childhood by talking about these things?

For my latest blog I spoke with Caroline Ellen, a Melbourne Mum of two with many years’ experience as a social worker and educator in schools on body safety. Caroline runs a business called ‘Safer Stronger Kids,’ which offers body safety courses for parents, as well as parent training and mentoring more generally.

In a series of posts on this site, I’ve been exploring the idea that ‘kids should be kids’ and, it’s variant, ‘let kids be kids’. It seems to me the values associated with these ideas, including kids being happy and having fun, and being sheltered from the worries of the adult world, may hijack talking to our kids about body safety. Some of the things we do because we want to ‘let kids be kids’ could compromise their body safety too – like giving their private parts nicknames and dismissing or minimising their feelings and jumping in to solve their problems.

If something is holding you back from talking to your kids about these things, I hope this post encourages you to think about it further.


1. Goodbye innocence, hello worries?

“Some people say they’re worried their child’s innocence will be taken away in educating them on body safety. To that I say that body safety education does not take away their innocence, it helps to protect it by keeping them safe from abuse,” says Caroline.

Caroline also says that parents can be concerned about worrying their kids about the prospect of sexual abuse. But Caroline says the research shows that kids don’t worry more or become more anxious when they do body safety education. “It’s actually can be an empowering experience for them,” she says.

Caroline recommends that parents start giving body safety messages from when their kids are three and, otherwise, as soon as possible.

“It sounds early doesn’t it, but the secret is using age-appropriate language,” she says.

“And the advantage of starting early is that the messages can be reinforced over time. When you are wiping your child’s bottom, for example, you can talk about your child’s body parts and who can touch them.”


2. What’s in a name?

“The way we name and talk about our private parts is a really good example of a topic within the body safety umbrella that parents really struggle with,” says Caroline.

“Parents can worry about telling their children the anatomical names for their private parts. It can make them feel awkward and embarrassed, perhaps because when they were kids these things were never discussed or were regarded as dirty or rude words. They may also feel that by using the correct anatomical terms, it may sexualise their child.”

“The other thing I hear frequently is that parents worry that their child will run through the playground shouting ‘penis, penis, penis’. To that I ask, have you ever heard a child running through the playground shouting ‘arm, arm, arm’? Kids will take their cues from their parents – if you are uncomfortable saying these words, if you react like they’re rude or dirty words, the kids will pick up on it.”

And this is not just an oh, aren’t we a funny lot us parents, light-hearted kind of discussion. It’s serious and may, according to Caroline, compromise their body safety in a number of ways.

“Firstly, if children sense that we’re uncomfortable talking about private parts, that they’re dirty words or they are shameful, including when we give them nicknames, they may not talk to us when something is wrong or if they experience sexual abuse.  Secondly, your child might have difficulty getting help if they are unfamiliar with the proper names for their private parts because the person they approach may not know what they mean or may be less likely to take it seriously. And, another reason is that the use of unusual nicknames may affect any investigation of abuse.”

3. Building confidence in their feelings

We all want happy children. We want our children to look back on their childhood and say it was happy.

Sometimes we can be too quick to jump in and solve our children’s problems: to turn that frown upside down!

And sometimes we might dismiss or minimise their feelings. I know I do it when we’re in a rush to get out the door. Does “you’ll be right” sound familiar or “don’t worry, everything will be all right in the morning”, or even “don’t be silly”?

And while this all comes from the right place – from love and a desire to make everything better – it could actually be compromising our children’s body safety.

Caroline says we need to allow children to express their feelings and have confidence in what they are feeling.

“It’s an important component of body safety education – to help kids listen to their bodies, to encourage them to trust their bodies and to give them the message that we trust them too,” Caroline says.

It means that if they are in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, they can process the messages their body’s are giving and they know we will have their backs to speak up and remove themselves from the situation. Makes sense, doesn’t it!

4. Culture of consent

Another really important aspect of Caroline’s body safety education program for parents relates to teaching kids that they are the boss of their own body and body bubble (and that each other person is the boss of their own body). This discussion is a building block to understanding consent.

Caroline urges parents to not just have these conversations with their children, but to create a culture of consent at home as well.

“Sometimes this is the hardest part”, says Caroline. “As the parent, we can rely on our size and our strength to get things done. Like, for instance, getting our children to brush their teeth, getting them into the car or the pram pronto or even changing their nappy.”

But what kind of culture does it create? What is it telling our children for when they are older and beginning to have sexual relationships?

Our boys like to kiss Miss Gubby goodnight. But lately she’s been saying ‘no’. Yes, I want my children to be polite and I want to foster strong sibling relationships. But what am I telling Miss Gubby, and what am I telling the boys, if I allow them to force it? As Caroline says, no one owes anyone else physical affection. So at these times, with Caroline’s wise words in my head, I explain that Miss Gubby is the boss of her own body, that the boys can ask for a kiss or a cuddle (and they should ask first!), but she can decide if she agrees or not, just as the boys also have that power to decide if someone asks them too.

While Caroline acknowledges that we parents cannot always ask for or wait for consent (for example, nappy changes or where a child needs to see a doctor but doesn’t want to), we can explain the reason why we need to do something (for example, to keep the child healthy or safe), make the situation more comfortable and give them some choices around it.

In her course, Caroline also talks about that tricky situation where a friend or a relative asks for a hug or a kiss and the child doesn’t want to.

“It’s really important that we don’t override the child’s feelings because we want them to trust their feelings. We want them to know that they are the boss of their own body and they can give and refuse affection as they choose and that they have our full support to do so. Of course we also want our kids to be polite, but there are many ways to greet or farewell people or to thank them for gifts. Saying hello, goodbye or thank you are also polite gestures,” says Caroline.

A high-five is a favoured gesture in our family – and I know our kids generally feel comfortable with a high-five in most situations. So when they’re trying to come up with a gesture to mark a greeting or a farewell and they’re a bit stuck because they sense the person might want more than just words, this is often the one I suggest!


And, on the subject of high-fives: if you made it this far I’d like to give you a virtual one! This is not easy this stuff. In fact, it’s hard, really hard, to get our heads around. It’s the stuff no one tells you about when you’re waddling around with baby no one on the way and it’s oh so important.

I hope this post has been thought-provoking reading. Any questions or comments, please let me know!

In terms of help getting started talking to your kids about body safety, I’d hand on heart recommend Caroline’s body safety course to you. Caroline offers tools for having the conversations and creating a culture at home that promotes body safety. While founded in academic research and years of experience, Caroline’s advice comes with a healthy dose of reality. “Some days we don’t get these things right, me included,” she says.

For more about Safer Stronger Kids and to learn about Caroline’s body safety course, see @saferstrongerkids on Facebook. A new look body safety course for parents is launching in November 2019!


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From laundry hang-outs to lunch dates: Seven cracking tips for one-on-one time with your kids

A photograph of Katie, Dave and their 8 children

Parenting experts everywhere talk about the benefits of one-on-one time with your kids.

From helping your child to feel important and developing their own unique identity, to warding off negative attention-seeking behaviours, one-on-one time between parent and child is a go-to parenting strategy.

For me, with three under wing, one-on-one time is something I’ve aspired to but generally found difficult. I manage the household solo on most weekday evenings and, by the time the weekend rolls around, all-in family time becomes the priority.

Recently I raided my friend Katie’s bag of tricks for one-on-one time ideas. If anyone would know, it would be Katie with eight kids ranging in age from 20 years down to nine years (with twin girls at positions six and seven).

Katie’s tips for one-on-one time are practical and insightful and I think bring one-on-one time within the reach of all families.

1. Make the snippets count!

Not all one-on-one time needs to be planned weeks in advance or involve expensive or elaborate outings.

Katie suggests making the little moments count too, like a trip to the shops, the doctor or the dentist, doing chores at home or time in the car.

“If you’re heading out to run errands, invite a child along and build in a quick stop at a coffee shop. Or make the most of your time on the sidelines at soccer or tennis practice – bring a book to read together or chat and have some cuddles,” says Katie.

“Car trips to and from sport and work, even driving lessons (there’s a whopping 120 hours of one-on-one time in that!) are great for engaging one-on-one with your child. Because you cannot make sustained eye contact, I find the conversations cover a broader range of topics, including things they may be embarrassed to raise at other times.”

2. Be bold and schedule more elaborate outings too!

This means that the child looks forward to their special time. It also means that the other children know about it and also know when their turn is coming up, minimising resentment and jealousy.

“When our family was younger, we took a more scheduled approach to one-on-one time. One child a month would get special one-on-one time with a parent. We would allow the child to choose the thing they wanted to do (and choose the parent they wanted to do it with). It could be a trip to the movies, lunch, a bike ride etc,” says Katie.

Katie finds their family plans these outings less and less now as their calendars are full and need to be more flexible.

“These days we prefer not to plan things as much. The danger with making plans is we may have to cancel or postpone them when things come up,” says Katie.

3. Notes, texts and other personal interactions

As your children grow, the ways you interact with them will change and expand. Katie considers that text messages with her children can count as one-on-one time.

What about a note in your child’s lunchbox wishing them well in the school’s speech competition?

Or what about a shared diary or notebook that can be used to communicate thoughts or ideas in writing just between you and them? Sounds kind of Elizabethan doesn’t it? But maybe it could help your child work through issues that are bothering them and that they don’t wish to raise in a spoken conversation.

4. Sign them out for a lunch or coffee date!

Sign your child out of school during lunchtime for a quick bite to eat or a coffee while the other children remain at school or in care.

“This works where all children are in care, kinder or school. It’s also a great strategy if it’s hard for one partner to cover the other partner with the other children. Years ago we had a babysitter for the younger children at various times. Having cover for the younger children allowed me to grab one of the older children from school or allowed me to take one of the younger children out alone,” says Katie.

“When we do take a child out of school at lunchtime, we’re really conscious to be back before the end of lunchtime so that the outing does not interrupt the child’s classroom. We also encourage our kids not to make a big deal of it with their friends and classmates as not all kids may get the same opportunity,” she says.

5. Call on a “sub”

One-on-one time doesn’t always need to be with mum or dad. Enlist trusted friends and family members to spend special individual time with your children.

In Katie’s house, for each child’s birthday, Grandma takes the child out for lunch and to buy a present.

“This has become a very special tradition in our family. Each child looks forward to their special time with Grandma around their birthday.”

And now that Katie’s eldest child can drive, he often takes one of the younger children out for a special treat too.

“Emma loves basketball and will accompany Luke to his basketball games (she scores the matches). This is a special time for both of them and I see it as strengthening their sibling bond.”

6. Be flexible and let it evolve over time

With serious parenting runs on the board as a mum of eight over 20 years’, Katie says it’s also important to acknowledge that what the individual child needs and what the family can manage will change over time.

Perhaps elaborate and planned one-on-one time is out of the question at the moment for your family because of work or other commitments or because flexibility in the calendar is key (as is currently the case for Katie’s family). But that may change down the track, so Katie suggests being open to change and also aware of your current limits.

7. Consider each child’s individual needs

Photograph of Katie and one of her children.

Katie says that some of her children ask for or seek out one-on-one time with her. Others don’t ask for or seek it out at all. And some only need it some of the time.

And what they ask for or seek out differs between them.

“One of our children likes hanging out in the laundry with me. That child will often follow me into the laundry and we will chat while I do the washing,” she says.

Katie uses the walk home from school and those first minutes as her children enter the house after school as a time to gauge who might need some special time alone with her later in the afternoon and evening.

“I know when things are off and can generally tell when someone might need some attention later on,” she says.

“My advice is to go with what they ask for, seek out or otherwise need,” says Katie.

To me that seems to be the key to all of this. After all, one-on-one time is really all about treating your child as an individual.


I’ve tried out some of Katie’s ideas since first chatting to her about this blog:

  • The lunch date during school lunch time idea turns out to be gold, gold, gold!
  • A movie for two is also a winner!

To make those things happen, I’ve had to rethink how I spend my time when Jess our nanny is here. From now on its no longer purely kid-free time!

Speaking with Katie has also helped me appreciate the little and spontaneous moments I have individually with my kids every day (and the moments other important adults in their lives also have). The mornings when one child wakes first. Bath time when the other children are playing. A few kicks of the footy outside with our number one sportsperson Dames. Damien and Miss Gubby’s Saturday morning swimming lesson. And the wonderful moments that our children share one-on-one with their grandparents, their godparents, other significant adults and with Jess our nanny. These moments all count too!

I also feel like I now have permission not to always be planning the big, bold and elaborate one-on-one outings I’ve always aspired to but found hard to make happen – because sometimes in family life they just aren’t possible!