Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Snow joking matter

Don't worry, this isn't an obligatory 'we had a charming day in the snow' post. Not that I didn't enjoy some blogs over the last few weeks, or see some amazing pictures posted all over t'interweb showing kids in cute wellies, cheeks glowing in the cold, tableaux after tableaux of smiling through damp socks. On twitter and Facebook my timelines were filled: so many all-in-ones and woolly hats, so many snowmen - from the sculptural to the silly, via icy knobs and famous figures.

Some icy frolics featured people I know and love, others people I'm loosely linked in with via online forum and groups, by being a tag-along friend of friends, by being on the photo sharing applications and social media networks - like instagram and twitter they allow me to act out a fantasy that by seeing into someone else's life (even someone famous) in this weird way I am connected to other human beings.

I'm not entirely sure I've come to a conclusion about social media but the recent snowy days did give me pause about the occasional way they tap into my own peculiar cocktail of social neurosis. Snapshots suggest all and nothing, we know this - from pictures of Charles & Di which on the surface suggested a marriage in trouble but when shown in context revealed ambassadors on a sombre occasion, through every other celebrity stitch up in press history via the occasional shot of ourselves which misrepresents us to brilliant or appalling effect. Any 5 year old whose played on almost any educational website or children's digital camera is well versed in manipulation, and in the digital camera age we are far more used to taking more pictures than we need and then sifting through, editing and gatekeeping to tell a particular story, than our parents were. Their family shots could be argued to have more validity for that - at least they seem to tell a more honest story.

The cheap nature of digital imagery, stored on hard-drives and websites, the possibility for millions of images where previously it was 12 or 24 (or 36 if you were really lucky/extravagant) means we use images with more editorialising. More, the shift to public albums which are shared, rather than plastic books gathering dust in the living room, means we do that editorialising publicly. In the facebook age part of our role in communicating with the world seems to be creating an image (using images) of ourselves, our families, our relationships, for the express purpose of others to see.

And yet pictures do seem to hold their false value for all of us, we still have faith in them to give us a truth, and more still to present a truth about ourselves. Despite knowing the opportunities for fakery and manipulation we put up profile pictures (of us, or something amazing or witty or classy we've seen) in the hope of showing something of ourselves to others.

I'm musing on this because when it snowed we ventured into the garden, but we have no pictures of the snow to show off. No family album of frozen fun to hold the moment and preserve it for a memory. Firstly because Newborn hates the snow. Who knew? Well, us, within about 10 seconds. He didn't like to stand in it, despite his gorgeous wellies. He didn't like to touch it. He didn't like to look at it and he didn't like it anywhere near his face. And hating something forcefully does play to his tyrannical modes of expression.

Secondly because even when we did try to get a snap Spider-boy was more keen on perfecting his slapstick by diving into the fluffy boarders (our garden became the ultimate crash mat) than shivering into a lens.

And thirdly because it had been a stressful week at work and home, medical bullshit, dreary money worries, thoughts with others in trouble, all the *stuff* that can make Sunday some impassive mediator between the struggle of the last few days and the dread of the next seven to come.

As the boys go, I see both their points of view. So does my husband. And it was clear within minutes that there would be no Thathousehold portrait of the cold snap, but we persevered (in vain) until our fingers were numb. Why? To feel that we were getting family life right by being like everyone else. To feel we could say 'look we are normal too' and we have so much fun, and we're so cool and relaxed and great at being a family. And that's the bit I really can't understand properly - I know, right, that if we'd got a good pic it wouldn't have been representative, but I'm so easily seduced by the idea that I am failing at mothering and family and other people are getting it right, that I was prepared to see the lack of a snow shot as disaster.

I don't normally add notes, but a very kind friend @Laflafster donated a snow picture to me. It needs no particular introduction, apart from her lad and mine would be very good friends:


Saturday, 11 February 2012

Making the rules

I met blogger @meandmybigmouth for lunch a few weeks ago. It was brilliant to catch up and find a new haunt in Soho for speedy tucker. When we were chatting, he told me some of his family's rules.

I'm always fascinated by the rules other families live by, and by their traditions. It is such an insight. I won't betray his here; they are his stories and a part of his family life and how that lovely gang of his works. But he did talk about a general life rule, for all kids not just his own: a 'zero tolerance/no second chances' attitude to children saying 'please'. I'm impressed by it and thinking of emulating it once the kids are older. Mainly, I'm still kicking myself I didn't get his take on 'thank you'.

Being hardcore on 'please' is one thing, the rewards are obvious: whatever you asked for. Of course it is important for children to be polite and learn to operate in a polite way, without a crazed sense of entitlement or a lack of respect because it makes everything nicer for everyone - but it is hard to explain this to the very young. This simple economics, however, even very young toddlers 'get'. If you don't say 'please', people won't give you stuff. But 'thank you'? Hard to explain that one without getting a bemused look or even an explanation from a three year old - 'why would I bother doing that? I've already got it.' In the end I settled for: 'If you don't say 'thank you' then people won't offer you stuff again'. Though presenting it in brutal grabby terms felt wrong somehow.

Ps & Qs aside, I had another conversation about rules today. Our family has many of the usual suspects:

be polite
don't touch the fire
don't run by/on the road
don't kick daddy's seat in the car
no drinks balanced on the arm of the sofa

and of course

Be gentle aka if he looks like he doesn't like it, he probably doesn't so DON'T DO IT

Most families have variants I expect. We have one other though, one which is a definite rule and which I often say wearily to Spider-boy near the Piccadilly Line. It was only today when I said it loudly that I realised how weird it sounded:

Don't do slapstick on the (tube) platform

Not for the first time, I blame/salute Justin Fletcher for giving my life this physical comedy focus.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Go baby, go: Second first words

Newborn is still teasing us with whether his sounds are words. Don't get me wrong, he has means of communication. He has his vigorous shouting and pointing, an ability to vote with his feet and either stomp off (from any situation he dislikes) or stand up (in his high-chair and change the dynamics of mealtimes). And his keen penchant for throwing things (in temper or exuberance) or screaming at will is serving him well in getting what he wants. But I feel on the end of a long game, as he articulates on occasion as if to tease me and sound me out.

It is hard to tell if all his momentary flashes - boo, ball, yum, look, NO, Spider-boy, more, yeah - prove his understanding and ability or are merely echoes of what he hears, tongue experiments sent to try us. Some are real. His mummy, daddy, bye bye, uh-oh and hiya have been clear enough for a while, said in context, obviously meant. But his new word, baby, is far more problematic. I've noted before this was Spider-boy's first word, said brightly and proudly to his own reflection.

I was so excited when Spider-boy first spoke, not least because of the amazing moment where we realised the hidden obvious. The sound of that first word was the first time we heard his voice. A voice we'd learn to love. One that would question, whine, tempt, affirm, joke, cajole, comfort all foreshadowed by those first two syllables.

Newborn of course says it differently. His voice has a different sound*: more sputtery, underscored with a squeak of excitement and weeziness, not least as he is always on the move. He says baby to the mirror, but is also pointing at his belly, and then the glass as if he's having a moment of pure cognition and doubt at the same time - which is which? who is leading who? which is the 'baby'. He's the same with photos. Finger smudging images of himself and his brother, and roaring with laughter at the strangeness of a him which is not him, and the witchcraft of the reflection allowing him to play with his body and his image.

He also uses it for dollies too, especially plastic dollies which are newborn looking with wrinkles and 'bits'. At an appointment with a sleep psychologist he insisted (by pointing and shouting 'Uh' and discarding anything else offered) on two dolls. I've seen him point at dolls before, and, of course, bite and throw them adding them to his plastic arsenal of Megablocs and balls. But as the session started he did something new: he carried them across the appointment room to a sofa and lay them down, as if putting them to bed. Sensing the enchantment spilling from me and the health professional at this precocious display he patted them, smiled and stood back, before grabbing both babies and smashing them in to the floor.

He ferociously set to on these anatomically correct 'behbehs' so fast I started flustering out loud and blurted:

'We've never hit him. We don't hit him. However annoying he is when he doesn't sleep we don't do that. I've never seen him do that. HE'S NEVER DONE THAT BEFORE'.

I mean seriously, he's chewed quite forcefully on his Happyland caveman baby but never gone into attack mode. I mention the incident though, not just to show that like his brother he's happy to humiliate me, but because it fascinates me that he's wrestling with something his brother was so comfortable with - his identity as a baby and his transition away from that to something older and more capable and no longer nearly so scrawny and scrunched up. Is this what happens when you are at the bottom of the family tree, the youngest and possibly, probably, the last baby in your house?

Perhaps I'm being a deluded and scantily read old Freudian but it fills me with questions (and slightly uncomfortable answers) about how and why he is embracing and rejecting his infant self.

Does he sense that he may always be the baby, however much he grows, and resent it?

Can he tell I'd like another baby but I probably won't have one and sense the babying of him, for his entire life, which could come from that?

Has he guessed that for Mr Thatwoman and I any other child is at best a hint or wisp of a family life we once imagined but probably won't engage with?

Does he understand me when I talk about how much I love babies, and loved him, even scrawny and new, hell especially scrawny and new, and note to himself that he no longer looks like that?

We've bought him two dollies so he can act it out for himself.

*another surprise for us demonstrating the terrible pitfalls of second time parenting: assuming always the second follows the first is a rookie error, why would he have the same voice?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The biggest insult

I was prepared, if apprehensive, for school and the complex battering process of growing up my son would be entering in to. His socialisation, so to speak. I say prepared, I mean aware, aware and slightly worried about it. My lad, my lovely, naive, curious, beautiful lad with all his silliness and ghosts of toddler boyishness hanging around. With his unworldliness and charm and his deep deep well ready to be filled with anxiety, self-doubt, questions. I knew he would be hewn and remoulded, his edges smoothed out and homogenised and then roughed up again. I'm guessing his brother will find it easier to be a top dog, so much less first child angst to cope with.

Spider-boy plays at being a big wig. Amongst our family friends Spider-boy is one of the oldest, and tallest. These make him an alpha lad. Running around, ruling the show, having new games and info to pass down through the colony of amazing boys my friends have created. And height and a few months of experience are great traits for a boy to experience in some social circles, probably more socially useful than the sporadic braininess, chronic self-doubt, corny sense of humour and button nose I've passed down to him in his/my/our genes. But at school he's a bit of a runt. He's the youngest, small, not cool. He needs help from us to catch up with transformers and Ben 10 and to get good enough at football or riding a bike to even be acknowledged by those towering and robust five year olds that range around like bosses in a video game, kings of the climbing frame, Gods of the sandpit and giants amongst minibeasts.

Knowing all this, and remembering that school would be a kind of social experiment didn't make the first term or so easy. Or help stop me feeling heartbroken by the daily rounds of 'You are not my friend' and 'You are not coming to my party' and 'I don't like you today' he reported, but having guessed they were coming I had my replies ready. Counselling on the difference between defending yourself and fighting back, saying silly things, playing with children who are nicer to you, remembering to be kind, and really trying to learn not to hold grudges or take the silly things people sometimes say too seriously.

And as I have friends who are primary school teachers too, I could help him pre-empt the insults where part of the insult is even knowing what you are being dissed for. In our patch of North London (and perhaps elsewhere, who knows?) a gladiatorial trend is upon us: the ultimate diss is one of 'thumbs down' to someone else. It is like 'you're not my friend, and you're not cool enough to even know me'.

It is a current trend, and one I don't especially remember from my school days (though I can only really think of the 'not my friend-ing' that went on and the terrible stress of never knowing whether you would be welcome at the same table each morning). However, I like to fancy, secretly, that this isn't a revival but a truly perennial way of expressing contempt and disrespect.

It cheers me somehow that the emperor's deadly judgement may have been appropriated from the games of the Roman empire and merely passed down, schoolboy to schoolboy, through the ages, seamlessly, as one of those tropes of childhood - like building dens under tables, hitting pans with spoons, throwing balls, collecting sticks, grabbing at anything shiny your Mum is wearing - that unites us all. I'm a simple soul and things which unite like this, like everyone saying similar (ish) wedding vows on the same day, like prayers which follow a pattern and repeat and are being said elsewhere in the world at the same time, please me. They make me feel if not at the cool girl's table than at least at a gathering where she may pick me to share her Square crisps at breaktime.

And being sentimental about the everyday was a comfort. Until my son came home looking perplexed and revealed the most amazing of insults that is doing the rounds. I asked him what was wrong and got the usual list of who was who's friend today. As ever it pained my heart that the lad he's most thrilled to describe as his 'best friend' was the one who told him they could only be friends at lunchtime, but these are life lessons I can't learn for him about popularity and valuing yourself. Then he told me something else. The biggest insult of all: 'x says my baby's rubbish' he declared, lightly, trying to gauge my reaction and forgetting himself by giving his brother a quick kiss even though we were still in the playground. For several days he did check 'it isn't true, is it? My baby isn't rubbish, is he?'

By Spider-boy's baby, they mean Newborn. And this is common parlance, my role as mother doesn't exist in this playground chatter, his brother is his. This reminds me of wolves and packs and I don't mind being removed from the equation - after all one day they will have to roam without me. But the affront? The crushingly casual thumbs down, to Spider-boy AND his brilliant brother? I had to stop myself from immediately shouting out 'Well X's brother is hardly anything to fucking look at, and he can't even walk'.

I didn't, because for all my sweary Mary tendencies I know I shouldn't go too blue when hovering at the glass doors catching glimpses of my son, book bag ready, sitting on the carpet. Although it took me longer than I'm happy to admit to cool down the wodge of ice around my chest when I think of the insulter, himself, of course, only five. Maybe I can learn something from Spider-boy's sanguine responses too...