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Grizzly Mummy Bear

Growling my way through motherhood

Miles away from my little Bean who’s out of sorts

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I find myself sitting miles away from home on a work contract – away from home for the first time in months – wishing I was back home taking care of my Bean.  The little lady started pre-school recently and seemed to be settling in really well, playing with all the other children and having fun.  When I dropped her in the mornings, she couldn’t wait to get to ‘Skooool!’.

Now though she seems to be having a wobble and I’m not there to sort it out or give her a reassuring cuddle.

Teachers say she’s not been herself the last couple of days, she’s quiet and doesn’t really want to play with the other children.  This morning on Facetime she said “Mummy coming home?” and then with a sad face “Mummy away work”.  I couldn’t help but think my going away has prompted a bit of sadness and possibly added a bit of insecurity about being dropped off or ‘left’ at pre-school.

Maybe it’s just a little wobble.  The teachers did tell me that although she settled in seamlessly when she first started, she might have a ‘moment’ or two a couple of weeks later when the realisation set in that the whole ‘being left at pre-school for a few hours’ a few days per week was going to be a regular thing.

I hope that this is just a temporary blip and that she’ll return to her cheery, relentlessly friendly and energetic self in a couple of days.  Either way I can’t wait to get home and give her mammoth hug and make sure she knows that Mummy always comes home and that even when she’s away, she’s constantly thinking and worrying about her.

 

The Nanny Business: Does the government value employment protection over child welfare and safety?

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Who knew getting childcare could be quite such a minefield? It seems unless you have a conventional job with regular hours, finding suitable childcare is destined to become your full-time job and by the time you’ve found it, you’ve lost whatever vestige of a career you had left before you got pregnant.

I work as a consultant so have different commitments every week.  My contracts are booked well in advance but my weeks can range from full-time work away to working 2-3 days from home.  When I looked at going back to work, I visited and researched nurseries but they all required you to book at least a term in advance and you had to pick which days you wanted and the hours.  And none of the nurseries I visited offered hours that corresponded to a ‘full working day’ in the professional world or had any flexibility from one week to the next.

We looked into child minders but there were none in our area, or they were fully booked months in advance.  And again, none of them offered a full working day.  So we thought a nanny would be the answer.  Having done my research, it seemed that nannies were the pinnacle of all child carers, the ultimate professional, whether in the guise of Mary Poppins, Mrs Doubtfire or Nanny McPhee.  Expensive yes, but the ultimate professional and someone you could count on to care for, nurture and stimulate your child, and tend to their needs as an invested, qualified and experienced carer working as a team with you and as part of your household and family.

Eighteen months into our childcare journey, I have come to realise that whatever the standard might have been once (if ever), many nannies are about as far from Mary Poppins as you could imagine.  But the biggest issue as far as I can see is that the government is not only doing nothing to remedy this, it is in fact indirectly encouraging the trend through other legislation.   Not only that, the government puts a burden on families to understand and apply employment law as it changes and evolves.  Any misstep or misunderstanding of the extensive rules and regulations and the ‘employer’ is looking at serious repercussions and potentially an employment tribunal.

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There is currently a huge imbalance between the government protection afforded to ‘nannies’ and the qualifications required of someone before they can call themselves a nanny:

On one end of the scale, a so-called nanny is considered an employee and the family taking her on is considered an employer.  The parents of the child are legally required to set up a PAYE system for the nanny, pay National Insurance contributions, pension contributions, statutory paid holiday and organise the repayment of any student loans that the nanny might have outstanding.  Should that nanny get pregnant, the family is expected to foot the bill for hospital appointments and sickness that lands on work days, and is expected to pay statutory maternity pay, as well as the holiday and other contributions throughout maternity. Some, but not all of that maternity pay will be refunded by the government but not before the parents of the child have paid it, while recruiting and paying for alternative childcare.  The family carries the burden for holiday pay, NI contributions and pension not only for the nanny on maternity but whichever nanny stands in for her.  If the nanny is sourced through an agency, the family pays a whopping finder’s fee for the nanny (over £2000 for ours).  When she then gets pregnant a few months in, they foot another finder’s fee for a replacement or daily charges for a replacement ‘cover’ nanny (£25 per day in our case).

Add to that the loss of time and income and added stress when you’re left high and dry by the nanny and the disruption to the care and welfare of the child.

Don’t get me wrong; I strongly believe women should be protected in the workplace and be free to have children and still be able to continue their careers.  And I’m sure the cost detailed above is a burden easily carried by a company or a business.  Not so when the ‘employers’ are private individuals and the parents of a small baby; one of whom is ironically battling her own way back into an unforgiving workplace after a maternity break and is relying on a fair and equitable system to support her in her childcare needs.

The issue here is about balance:

While a “nanny” has the full protection of the state at the expense of the family employing her, there is literally no legal regulation for the nannies themselves and no protection for the families of the children they are charged with, the so-called ‘employers’.

As a parent (the ’employer’) you are expected to put your child – the most precious thing in your life – in the care of someone whose only claim to any qualification is what they have put on their CV.  To become a nanny, you do not need any childcare qualifications, or experience and there is no legal requirement for you to be registered.  In fact there is no legal requirement at all; if you call yourself a nanny, you are a nanny.

You do need to get a DBS (Disclosing and Barring Service) check done and produce a certificate to your employer to show that you do not have a criminal record.  But for this all you have to do is complete a 5-minute online application and then wait about a week for your certificate to come through the post.  The DBS “helps to prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, including children” according to the government website.  But there is no vetting or interview or even any requirement to get off your sofa for a face-to-face application.  So once you submit the form, and as long as you’ve never been caught doing anything nefarious, you’re in the clear.  When I applied to be a school governor, my DBS certificate arrived in the mail less than a week after I filled in the form online.  Even the lazy, dishonest and completely uninterested in the real job of nannying will manage to conjure up the energy to enter their name and address onto an online form in between Snapchatting mates or loading their latest selfie.

It is hardly surprising then that there is a glut of young women (I have yet to come across any men) who have no real interest in a career in childcare or education, or in many cases in children full stop – marketing themselves as nannies for what they clearly see as easy and good money.  They arrive at interview with no preparation, no idea what activities they might do with the child (“play with her toys?” – when asked how they would plan a 10 hour day) and barely acknowledge the child who’s trotted into the living room mid-interview to show them her favourite toy.  They shrug and say they can’t cook when you ask about meals, have never heard of EYFS, and look blankly back at you when you ask what they would do in an emergency (say, if your toddler fell down the stairs head first).

So if you’re at a loose end, think babies are cute and have done some baby-sitting for your little brother, you can call yourself a nanny.  The government, it appears, deems that sufficient for the self-proclaimed nanny to be in sole charge of a newborn baby or toddler, drive them to activities, chart their developmental progress, cook them nutritional meals, provide them with a nap routine, provide educational and stimulating games and activities, and have the patience and wherewithal to understand whether it’s a tantrum or genuine pain, and act appropriately if they suspect illness or injury.

Of course, every and any woman can become a mother, regardless of her qualifications and regardless of her capacity to care for a child.  But this is a job, and one that is handsomely paid and is afforded all the government’s statutory benefits and protection, so surely that should come with some kind of minimum requirements?

Childminders have been subjected over recent years to increased scrutiny and they are required to meet strict standards and pass regular Ofsted inspections.  One of my friends suggested recently that this was a shame as it meant there were fewer and fewer people prepared to ‘jump through the hoops’ to become childminders.  That may be so, but I’d rather have a limited and depleted pool of regulated childminders to choose from, who I know will provide the care and service they advertise and whose credentials are monitored by specialist inspectors than enter into the riskiest of lotteries where my daughter’s safety and welfare are the stake.

Regulation and paperwork would not automatically solve the problem and government intervention may not always be the answer.  But some level of regulation would at least demonstrate that the government cares as much for the welfare and safety of children as it does about the employment protection of this largely unqualified group of people employed to take care of them. And it would mean those of us who cannot rely on conventional childcare to cover contract or shift work are not having to resort to our ‘gut’ to select someone to invite into our homes and take care of the most precious little things in our lives.

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Tears at the School Gates

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She sat there crying her eyes out, snot running down her face.  The car doors stayed closed until the loud sobs had subsided and lively pop music played on the radio – an attempt to calm and cheer the mood.

It wasn’t really surprising; it was the first day at pre-school after all.  Leaving the little Bean all on her own for the first time, expecting her to fend for herself, expecting her to man-up and get stuck in with a load of strangers in an unfamiliar setting.  You would totally expect her to be in floods of tears.

Of course, she wasn’t. The Bean was absolutely fine. She’d marched in through the gates, given her key worker Zoe a big smile and waved bye bye to Mummy and Daddy – a bit bemused by the noise, the people and the fact that Mummy wasn’t staying with her – but confident and dry-eyed nonetheless.

Mummy was still blubbing in the car ten minutes later.  She’d held it together all the way out and through the car park.  Thankfully she’d held it together when a lovely blonde lady said hello and “is it your first day?” and “Welcome, I’m Rafe’s mum”.  And she’d held it together as she unlocked the car and jumped inside, wishing it had darkened windows to conceal her imminent and undignified sob-fest.  The ever reliable ‘doctor Google’ and various ‘new mum’ forum searches in the wee hours had said nothing about this kind of ‘separation anxiety’; it was all about perfectly coiffed yummy mummies consoling their little ones, not puffy-eyed mums with porridge down their tops having meltdowns in their cars while their toddler wandered off unfazed, to explore the latest in Duplo construction.

She made a note to self to buy more tissues and ignore all serene and idyllic and therefore totally unrealistic forum posts about parenthood.  She then went off to the nearest café and ordered a huge pot of tea and a greasy sausage, egg and mushroom sandwich.  After all, this had been a traumatic morning, and it was too early for Gin.

Forget football…Mummy’s coming home!!

 

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Family day out at Longleat before my business trip

Well, football may not be coming home (and yes I watched the match last night and screamed and sighed with the other 37 million England fans) but Mummy is and I can’t wait!  I’ve been away with work again on a contract for the NATO Headquarters in Norway for the last couple of weeks and, despite twice daily Facetime calls and multiple messages and photos, I’ve missed my little Bean more than ever. When she careered off a trampoline run at a soft play yesterday and cut and bruised her face (why do they always land on their heads?), our summer nanny Candice sent me pictures and explained what had happened.  I went off for a quiet cry in the toilets before beaming with pride at the news that the Bean had dusted herself off and run off to the trampoline for another go. It was kind of Candice to offer to give the Bean a hug for me but didn’t make up for the fact that I wasn’t there when she needed a cold compress, a plaster and someone to dry her eyes.

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Busy busy busy – Mummy? who’s Mummy?

The Bean now also makes me pay for my absences, which makes it even harder to be away.  As a baby, she had no idea whether I was there or not other than recognising the smell and sound of Mummy  – chief feeder and snuggler – when I was with her.  Now, as a little human with a strong personality, she wears her emotions on her sleeve.  Before I leave on a trip, she knows something’s up when she sees the suitcase.  She doesn’t let me out of her sight and insists on taking me by the hand wherever she goes – even when it’s only to the next room.  When I’m away and we’re on our daily Facetime calls, she refuses to say goodbye and either walks away from the phone in a sulk, gets upset and sticks her bottom lip out at the screen or grabs the phone to show me more of what she’s been up to – ignoring the calls from me or Daddy to “say bye bye to Mummy”.

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Daily discoveries

I decided when the Bean came along that I would only agree to contracts that took me away from home for a maximum of 2-3 weeks at a time, rather than the months I used to do in remote locations and war zones.  Apart from the strain it would have put on my other half having to single parent while I was away (albeit with a nanny while he’s at work), I wanted to spend as much time as possible with the little Bean we’d waited so long for, while still having a career.  I’ve stuck to that, despite the temptation of exciting contracts that I would have taken up in a heartbeat before she came along.  But even being away for a week or two here and there is difficult, especially when she is at an age when every day is different and every day is a new discovery, a new word, a new emotion.

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“Boat!”

Yesterday I missed out on ‘mermaid’ and ‘boat’.  Last week I missed out on making butterflies out of cardboard and baking banana bread. But in about an hour I’ll be home. In about an hour and one minute, I’ll be sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, eating banana bread, while the Bean shows me her latest “bwooze” and leads me off to put on her favourite blue “Boootchs” to go outside for “Woosh” on the swing.  And for a few hours at least, all thoughts of how NATO is tackling the latest global threat will be the furthest thing from my mind.

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Getting the shopping done for when Mummy gets home…

Mother’s Day thoughts from a ‘geriatric’ mother….

At the ripe old age of 45 with an 18 month old daughter, I am an ancient mother, at least by some people’s standards. Totally past it, ‘a geriatric mother’ according to an acquaintance who has just had a baby and is barely 3 years younger than me. Like many other older mothers, this was not out of choice. We spent nearly a decade going through the trials of IVF before our incredible little Bean came along. We had all but given up and then she arrived and turned our lives upside down.

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As an older mother, albeit a fit and slim one, I do feel that I don’t have quite as much energy as I might have had if I’d given birth in my twenties. I could spend all night out drinking and then go for an 8 mile run in the morning in those days and I certainly couldn’t manage that now. So stringing a coherent sentence together while chairing a meeting after a night spent soothing a screaming baby, then spending what little sleep was left having nightmares about what could happen to our most valued treasure is quite hard. Hard for all mums but I think a little more trying on those of us closer to middle age than adolescence.

It is a lot easier in some ways too though. When my Bean came along, I had established myself in my career and I am confident enough to refuse to let anyone treat me any differently just because I am now a mother.

We have saved and invested over the years, so are very comfortable financially, which is often a luxury younger parents haven’t yet earned. We still have to compromise and budget differently for a little one and cater for her care and future education, but we are not worrying about how to make ends meet and can afford childcare. And I have the luxury of working for job satisfaction and career ambition rather than because we can’t afford for me not to.

I think I am also more confident as a mother than younger first-time mums. My husband and I were just as clueless as any new parent when our Bean came along, but we were more philosophical in our approach and didn’t seem to panic quite as readily as some of our younger friends or bother too much what other people thought. Many of our friends from ante-natal classes seemed to get tied in knots with the conflicting and judgemental advice everyone seems to feel entitled to make around new sleep-deprived parents. We took the comments on board, disregarded those we didn’t agree with and made our own judgements. When Health Visitors messed us around or doctors sent us home with a floppy feverish baby, we didn’t take no for an answer, we did our research, then persevered and got the care we instinctively knew she needed.

And my rather insensitive acquaintance who dismissed older mothers as geriatrics failed to take another important positive into account. I have life experience to hand down that a twenty-something year old couldn’t hope to have. I have lived and worked in countries around the world, trained as a professional dancer, run marathons, been to war for my country, furthered my education regularly and successfully forged different careers over decades. I have all those years of experience, hard work, education, adventure and thirst for life to pass on to my precious beautiful daughter.

And although my fertility diminished with age, my capacity to love, nurture and care for our Bean did not. You can call me a geriatric mother but this is one mother who would still kill and die for her young. And that passion only grows painfully stronger every day.

Older mothers may have more wrinkles, but we also have stability, confidence, life experience and a ferocious capacity to love. When my daughter grows up, I will teach her to follow her dreams, whether they include motherhood in her twenties, her thirties, her forties, or even at all.

 

Christmas through my baby’s eyes

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I’ve always been a complete sucker for Christmas. Just as I am mourning the passing of the warm Summer months every year, I get a boost at the thought that Christmas is around the corner and about to brighten the grey, misty, cold and wet days ahead.

There is the tradition of making the cake – preferably as many as six weeks before the big day so it has time to fully mature and imbibe as much cognac as I can provide in the weeks leading up. Every member of the family has to stir it before it goes in the oven, and make a wish. This year, our Bean joined that fold. At just 14 months old, she gripped the wooden spoon and mimicked Daddy’s stirring with a vengeance. I’m not sure she grasped the concept of making a wish and she definitely had no idea she was answering every one of my last ten with each toothy grin she shot my way.

And then of course, there is the selection of a suitable tree. It has to be real, thick and of a height that invariably looks about right when you are choosing it, but seems to have grown by a foot or two by the time you are shoehorning it into the corner of the living room. The star made years ago from a packet of cornflakes and some kitchen foil proudly sits aloft and various decorations collected around the world litter the branches, each with its own backstory.

We decorated the tree this year over a glass of wine, after the Bean had had her bath and was snoring away in her cot. She tottered down in her pyjamas with me early the next morning, her mop of golden hair standing on end, while Daddy prepared the living room for the ‘reveal’. He switched the living room lights off, left the curtains closed and illuminated the tree. The baubles glistened and the lights flickered.

As the Bean’s scuttled in, her bottom wiggling to keep up with her enthusiastic little legs, her jaw dropped and, eyes like saucers, she stopped, pointed up at the tree and went “oooh”. Well, if this was enough to give me a lump in my throat, I was never going to make it through the whole of Christmas without blubbing into my sherry….

A fun new game: Rejecting Mummy

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There are a number of things noone tells you before you have children. I would give parents the benefit of the doubt and think they just forget to tell you, but I think it’s far more likely they deliberately withhold some facts because they sadistically want to be sure you will enjoy the surprise of these ‘joys’ just as much as they did.

One such pleasure is the moment your baby or toddler decides you are no longer flavour of the month. In fact you are most probably the last person on earth they want to see, hear, or spend time with. If you so much as attempt to pick them up, you are greeted with ear-piercing screams, writhing limbs and hands that slap you back with what can only be described as pure disgust. This moment is particularly rewarding as it comes with no warning at all, about 13 years before you were expecting it. It also usually coincides with a day when you’re feeling a bit low or tired and you had really been looking forward to the kind of hugs only your baby can deliver: little hands stretching as far as they can around you, sausage fingers digging into your upper arms, short legs wrapped tightly like a limpet around your waist, a little warm head resting on your shoulder, and a ruffled mop of soft baby hair tickling your neck – made extra special when accompanied with a big chesty sigh of contentment.

The Bean reached this memorable benchmark this week. It coincided with a horrific vomiting bug visiting our household so it was a particularly joyous time anyway. I was spending the days with a permanent wave of nausea hanging over me as I recovered the 5lbs I’d lost in the space of 24 hours. I had had no sleep due to being in an ongoing and unabated conversation with Armitage Shanks for hours, and spending the fractions of minutes in between attempting to keep down the tiniest sips of water. I was overwhelmingly grateful that the Bean had chosen those two nights to sleep for 11 hours’ straight (and all the way through the animalistic noises coming from the bathroom next door), releasing both me and my husband to deal with my messy predicament. But I should have known I would pay for it later. She got her own back as soon as I was out of the woods. I came in very handy when she caught the vomiting bug and was under the weather of course. The Bean just clung onto me for dear life for a few days, in between covering my hair, ears and clothes with regurgitated scrambled egg, milk and chunks of Weetabix. But now that she’s feeling almost back to her sunny self, mummy is redundant. Mummy is in fact persona non grata. Daddy, however, is the sun, the world, the best goddamn human being on the planet, thank you very much.

So I’m now considering disappearing for a day or two; quaffing inordinate quantities of champagne, eating rich, over-seasoned and piping hot food, having a long bubble bath on my own without impaling myself on plastic toys, and then falling into a deep sleep for an entire night on clean sheets. But on reflection, I would probably spend the whole time feeling guilty, wondering how they’re getting on at home and worrying that they might actually cope quite happily without me.

So I’ll stick around being the Bean’s punchbag, feeder, servant, entertainer and cuddle-provider while she’ll have me. I am now bracing myself for the ‘I hate you’ treatment in about 13 years’ time, because let’s face it, if parents don’t tell you about this phase but feel the need to warn you about teenage behaviour, that must be a million times worse. I can’t wait.

Finding our own Mary Poppins

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When the Bean was born, she was so precious I couldn’t imagine handing her over to anyone else, let alone a complete stranger. I had always known that I would go back to work after having a baby though so the time would inevitably come when we would have to scout out the best childcare option for us.

As a consultant, my work is unpredictable, can be based anywhere in the world or occasionally can be done – rather more conveniently – from my laptop in my ‘She-Shed’ in the back garden. I have a variety of clients and contracts ranging from a few days’ work to weeks and months. I could do it full-time but decided when the Bean came along that I would make the most of the flexibility of my job and pick and choose contracts to fit around quality time together and my husband’s time off. The rigidity of 9-5 nurseries or allocated times and days week in, week out were never going to work with my haphazard contracts. Neither were child minders who worked set hours every day and every week. So I started to look at nannies.

I needed someone who would be willing to have completely different hours, on completely different days every week and every month, and someone who was qualified, enthusiastic and perfect for our little Bean – no pressure then.

Through an agency dedicated to providing tailor-made solutions, we settled on a contract that would guarantee a minimum average number of hours’ work per week/month so that the nanny would have a stable and reliable minimum income every month. I could then add hours onto that when my contracts demanded it.

The difficulty when you’re new parents and looking for a nanny is you really have no idea what it is you’re looking for. People tell you to trust your instincts, but you’re not really sure what those are until they hit you smack between the eyes. We shortlisted from CVs and personal videos, then brought a few candidates in for interview. We knew our nanny had to have all the legal qualifications – DBS clearance, first aid, some level of NVQ etc – but we also wanted someone with experience, preferably with babies. We were handing over our precious 6-month-old after all.

Our first choice started well and then went downhill fast. It was a shock to find that the first time my – usually fairly reliable- instinct about people failed me should be when choosing a carer for my baby. I spent a two-week contract abroad hearing increasingly infuriating tales of her ineptitude and unreliability from my bedraggled husband who somehow was caring for our little bean and holding down his job.

She was gone the day I returned.

The agency sprung into action, mortified at the service we had received. They arranged emergency cover immediately, refunded some of the fees and sent me a list of candidates within hours. But after one day of that emergency cover, we had found our Mary Poppins. Thankfully, she felt the same and was keen to take us on permanently. Now I know what people mean by trusting your instincts. We just ‘clicked’. And judging by the raucous giggles from a delightedly exhausted Bean I get back after every day, our little princess also thinks she is ‘practically perfect in every single way’.

Guilt Trip – Leisure time and brain games

It took me a while to get over the feelings of guilt at having a day off during my business trip – while my husband was toiling away at home and taking care of the Bean single-handed. I eventually realised that there wasn’t much I could do to help from thousands of miles away and that I’d be more use to him and to the Bean if I came back rested and refreshed. So in between visits to museums and markets, when my colleagues suggested we visit the Escape Rooms in Kansas City, I thought why not?

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After a quick brief on dos and don’ts, we selected the ‘Prison Break’ room and were all handcuffed and locked together into a prison cell. One of us had been wrongfully arrested and the remainder of us were there to break her out of jail. We had one hour to complete our mission. There were keys, padlocks, riddles, mathematical equations, mug shots and word puzzles. We worked our way around the room and into the next one, encouraged by the drawl of the prison ‘warden’ every now and again over the walkie-talkie we’d been issued. Occasionally, when we were clearly either totally stumped or barking up the wrong tree, the ‘warden’ would come over the radio net: “You haven’t solved the calculation on the white board” (most of us had been studiously ignoring it) or “what do you guys call the trunk of the car in the UK?” (‘boots’ was the clue). With just 5 minutes to go, we found another code and got into the final room. Dominating the cell was a skeleton in an orange jumpsuit sitting strapped to a wooden electric chair perched on a pedestal, a basin of water and sponge at his feet. We rummaged around his bones, tipped the basin upside down, tried to extract key clues from the fire drill instructions on the wall, but to no avail. Time was up. We had failed to break out of jail. To be fair, we had missed an invisible pressure plate in the floor and some ultraviolet lights projected onto a wall – so not embarrassingly obvious.

But we’re going back tomorrow and this time we’re going to beat the clock in the ‘Secret Agent’ room. And if I have too much fun, I’ll make sure I make up for it in cuddles for the Bean and time off lounging for my husband when I get home.

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