Friday, March 23, 2012

But he only eats Marmite sandwiches: Children's books and one-track minds

We were at a disability freebie today, a day out at a petting farm. It was glorious. Not just the setting or the treat, but the relief of being surrounded by other families who were just like us. You didn't have to worry what other people thought about the meltdowns. As a delightful extra, lunch, we discovered on arrival, was thrown in for free. (I am just about to serve my packed-up ham sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs for dinner). My husband stood in line for the sausage sizzle (which is a Kiwi institution treated with reverent seriousness, I am half-expecting the New Zealand Masterchef programme to feature an episode where the contestants earnestly discuss the precise ratio of mustard and onions to ketchup and sliced white bread). Whilst I hissed at the servers "No Mustard. They won't eat it if it's got Mustard. Not even a tiny bit. Please, No Mustard," he got talking to the woman in front of him, whose son was going to eat his usual lunch: Marmite sandwiches. That's all he eats for lunch. And for dinner, three nights a week too. Suddenly the earthquake damage to the factory which makes New Zealand's Marmite became very serious. For the time being it was OK, she told him. She had put out an internet appeal and people from all over New Zealand were sending her supplies. She hoped she'd have enough to feed him that way until the factory was working again. Jeepers, and I was worrying about my children getting bored with too many cold burnt outdoor Kiwi sausages.

I've been lucky enough not to experience that level of food "jag," as they are known in the occupational therapy trade, but I can so sympathise about children getting stuck on a preferred, favourite, familiar thing. I hadn't realised how horrendous I had found the demand for the same book, or couple of books, for years on end , until I stumbled across this brilliant blog to which I am trying to link: (look up if my linkage fails) It's another one on the Mumsnet network and I read it assiduously, although initially it made me madly jealous. Like seeing someone eating proper sausages indoors when I all I was getting was the ubiquitous Kiwi sizzle. You see, when I had my first child I KNEW he would be a booklover, just like me, who had refused to do anything BUT read as a child. I looked forward with eager anticipation to the reading we would do at the library together. When I started taking him, he fiddled obsessively with the computers in the corner of a room and barely registered that the rest of the library existed, other than a wail for a DVD as we left. Not quite what I was hoping for. He also hated being read to, except at bedtimes: and at bedtime would only want one story for months at a time, and would scream or refuse to co-operate if I read anything else. Everyone said it would pass, but it didn't It went on for years. I grew to loathe reading to him. And I felt depressed at the sight of picture books we couldn't share, the rows of shiny colours in the library that had to be for other children, never for him.

Gradually it improved, but I was by then too tired and stressed to think of picture books with any enjoyment, or to see evening reading as much more than an irritable chore. Then my second came along, and with his speech delay came a wild dislike of being read to, unless it was one of the Thomas books. Headbanging in his room, and the difficult of getting him to sleep without a tantrum and an attempt to throw himself down the stairs, meant that reading stories together went out of the window. A story at bedtime would guarantee an hour or so of screaming afterwards. Often I would have to stand outside his room, holding his door shut with both hands, whilst he howled and hurled his head against it repeatedly. (When we left the house, we found that he had banged dents in those great solid English walls beside his bed). Not worth the hassle.

I couldn't face even starting to read at bedtime to my youngest. This is me, with a Ph.D in English Literature, who couldn't get her nose out of a book during childhood. Even if I'd wanted to, it was impractical. The other boys' needs meant that I had to run upstairs, pop him in his cot and then dash straight downstairs again, before anything terrible happened in my absence. Oh, I did keep trying. I dragged them to the library occasionally. My eldest would cry if I made him choose anything other than a TV knock-off and my middle one would go systematically around the room throwing books off shelves. It was Purgatory. This dire pattern continued when we moved here. My first post on this blog was inspired by a terrible trip to our local library, when the librarian watched my children for a couple of minutes, took me to one side, kindly asked about Special Needs, and suggested I apply for some help.

By now my eldest had learnt to read, but was refusing to read any of the books that we gave him: they were chapter books, and although he could manage them perfectly he found them too scary. He kept stealing his brother's picture books, the ones that I was tentatively managing to read to him in bed for the first time. As I read the blog "The Little Wooden Horse," and envied the easy way books were shared in that house, an exciting thought suddenly hit me. OK, he wanted picture books. Well, he hadn't wanted them when he was younger. Maybe it was a stage he had missed out on. I wanted him to read chapter books for the entirely selfish reason that it would keep this hyper child occupied for a bit. But perhaps this was the wrong tack. Maybe instead of hurrying him along I needed to stop and let him enjoy picture books now.

I experimented, with starting to read a simple story to the two of them together. This worked. They both loved it. The younger one thought it was brilliant to do something with his elder brother, and the elder one loved the picture book. I loved it, too. The next week I took them to the library, and whilst the younger ones stood on their heads and screamed a lot, I told the oldest it was his job to choose a picture book for us all to read together.

We're doing it every week now. Sometimes more often. Even more often than taking them to a sausage sizzle and trying not to scream at the helpers that there to be is NO MUSTARD on anyone's bread. My eldest loves curling up in bed with the middle one, who is so excited to share a story with his big brother that he will let me read new material three or four times a week. I am suddenly getting a chance to dip in and out of picture books, with a child who is alert and keen, plus a younger brother who is adoring the sense of being read to. It is like a Renaissance. I haven't lost the chance to enjoy picture books, it has just happened later. I feel as if a door I shut several years ago is suddenly open, inviting, and my children are standing there, beckoning me. We are a story-reading family at last. Such a pure, glorious pleasure, like water in a desert, or sweets after Lent. There's something in that about Special Needs, and patience, and things being even more special when you have waited for them longer than the average. There are upsides to this whole additional needs business, even more so than the occasional free ticket to a petting farm.
I do hope that that woman gets enough Marmite to keep her son nourished and healthy until the Marmite factory starts work any again. And I hope even more that her boy gets to taste a wider range of foods, so that she tastes the sweetness of relief and enjoyment that I am experiencing about children's picture books, now. I just hope for her sake that he doesn't then get fixated on these blasted sausages in white bread.


  1. Hurray :)!

    beautiful post- and thank you for the link

  2. It is I who should be thanking you for the inspiration :-) Please keep writing: I have discovered that quite a few of the books you mention are available here through local libraries

  3. Loved reading this, C. Feel warm and happy that you have reached this point with your boys.

  4. Delighted to hear it, S.

    I have lost your golden syrup/yoghurt chocolate cake recipe in the move! Any chance of having it again? My boys did love it.

  5. I will look it up - so glad to be able to share something good! Luckily your boys will eat other things than Marmite!

  6. One day I will never, ever, ever, ever eat or make mashed potato, ever ever ever again.

  7. Yes, you will Gipsy, have faith! :-)
    At least it is unlikely that there will be a national potato shortage any time soon!

  8. Yes, thank goodness for that. My heart went out to the woman with the marmite sandwich fixated son. I could totally relate. Although we're at the point now where I can feed him pasta a couple of nights a week, or chips, so it isn't quite the battle it used to be. And he doesn't meltdown over it. Well sort of doesn't. Only if I have mistimed things and he's gone into hunger mode/low blood sugar/poison o'clock time.

    oh no trust me. When the day comes that he finally eats something else (well he has already broadened his palette it just HAS to also be with mash) I will never make the stuff again. I might eat it - if it is made for me - but I shall NEVER EVER have to mash the stuff again and after 5 years of mashing nearly every night I simply cannot wait for that day!