Thursday, 28 November 2013

Home Coming

In Belfast airport this evening, on the return leg of a work trip, I was confronted with my son’s first love. Sophie The Giraffe! There she was, a tiny statue version of herself, dancing on a music box in a tourist shop. A last minute gift for a busy parent like me to grab at; she’ll be gone by Christmas Eve.

I let out a gasp and said, ‘Hello Sophie!’ with such an air of mad recognition that two assistants asked if I needed any help.

Our Sophie, so important once, so key to my baby’s happiness that I felt jealous of a plastic toy, is now forgotten, her squeak no longer heard, her rouged up cheeks and rubber neck no longer needed for nibbling. She’s been usurped by Fireman Sam and the fine upstanding members of Pontypandy’s rescue service and it almost makes me sad.

Kids are so casual with their passions. Time is theirs to waste; they can’t imagine a life without love and discovery around every corner. I am less confident and elastic. I hoard my memories.
I suspect newborn wouldn’t know her name if he found her behind the sofa – but I can still feel her, spit sticky, chewed up, consumed, adored.

She’s on the list of cast aside toys. Next to trains and big red buses, Iggle Piggle, the colour blue, the poster for The Lion King. Things my sons loved so much that I fell for them myself now treated with crushing indifference. Perhaps one day I will feel like this about their partners.

But I was feeling maudlin anyway. I’d slipped into the Titanic Experience on my way out of the city. I didn’t go all the way around, I just got to peep through the artfully glistening dark glass, to check out the educational 1:1 scale drawings of bolts and chains and wrenches (as big as shire horses some of them) lining the silky corridors down to the loos. And to eat a White Line muffin and ponder the gift shop.

Usually gift shops are my favourite bit of any museum or gallery, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve skipped an exhibition to loiter with the merchandise. I should be ashamed but I don’t care. I like to see the rainbow rubbers and over-priced tea-towels, the piles of tie pins, the plastic boxes of pencils.

Here, I felt odd though. My appropriate-o-meter was on overload. Is it okay to buy a Titanic rubber duck? Is the lack of iceberg imagery proper or disingenuous? Will I forgive myself for not buying a replica Heart-Of-The-Ocean necklace for £4.99?

I’ve been in Belfast city for three days. I’ve asked every cabbie whether I should go, and heard every view: yes, no, life-changing, meh. I’ve been told it is stunning, a respectful tribute, something for the ladies, a weird celebration of failure.

The building itself is a heartbreakingly beautiful thing. Massive in impact and height, simple in design, it cuts through you as it slices the afternoon light and shimmers. It dares you to remember a night a century ago, it ripples your gut with the recall of a stunning achievement, an enormous feat, a terrible, terrible end. I could hardly bear to leave it as the sun set. I wanted to stare at it at least until darkness fell, to feel the chill of it, watch the jagged edges fade into a stark monolith.

I say I didn’t have the time but I suspect I didn’t have the stamina for all that loss and memoriam. Fittingly at George Best Belfast City Airport some little poppies shook their heads, wilting by the pavement, drowned out by the over-zealous crunch of unnecessary salt on the tarmac. They shamed me in my idling over the ship building.
I am torn apart by Poppy Day these days, mostly by a blush that lasts November through. I’m shamed by all the years I didn’t really try to understand what those lists of names meant. All those little boys and people left who were no different from me.

The past is not a different country after all, grief is just the same. I can’t believe I did so many Brownie Sundays and never really felt as sorry and appalled as I should have done, wrote all those essays on Sassoon, wept at all the novels and films but never had the grace to acknowledge that time does nothing to change the banal and horrific loss of it all.

Like geographical distance time brings the worst privilege: a suggestion that being in the olden days when death was closer made things easier. As if the fact that there were so many left behind was easier. As I send a plaintive text reminding my husband to spend my death in service on luxury items should my plane crash (a ritual of mine) I can only think of mothers catching memories of their boys. Of rooms haunted by toddlers crouched in love and concentration over their latest passing fancy, blond heads flashing in the corner of an eye, like a mouse by the fireplace, vanishing to dust on a second glance.

I was so glad to come home.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Pot(ty) Luck

I loathe the phrase 'quality time'. Possibly because I can't work out what it means. And I am both suspicious and indignant about things when I don't know what they mean (and everyone else seems to). I'm told my husband and I should have more of it. And I should feel guilty for not spending enough of it with my children.

Personally I think time is precious enough without fetishising some of it to the point of making people feel terrible. After all, I have to remind myself each day when I want to whine - whine like a toddler at half past seven whose mum is still fannying around trying to sort out tea and then presents me with a carrot, an untoasted bagel, some too garlic-y humous and an apple for 'pudding' as if I should be grateful (what?) - that however much I would like more hours in the day, that is never going to happen. There is no more time. There's just 24 hours. That is it.

The massive flaw in the 'quality time' guilt trip is that no-one is admitting what they would really like to do with any extra hours some clock-God could throw at them. Well, maybe everyone else would climb Everest, or teach their kids Cantonese. I know what I would do: I would sleep. Sleep and maybe indulge a hangover with a morning in bed or just do a pee in peace whilst my children were somewhere else. And then, perhaps, just do a normal thing like playing with duplo without having to check my work email every five minutes or be on the phone to the plumber about the leaking bath, or rearranging a doctor's appointment or wondering where the HMRC letter that looked important is.

I mean, I don't need more time. I just need less shit and boring things to do, which take the shine off the fun stuff, like teaching a toddler to gurn.

But I am grumpy today. It might be because I haven't slept through the night for well over a week. It might be because I have a broken foot which makes me look like I'm turning into a stormtrooper. This may account for my furious mood. I am raging, incandescent, ready to cascade from one moment of fury to another this evening like a demented snookerball . But it isn't just being tired, really, really, really tired. So tired I've started to fantasise that John Lennon must have been a parent with a broken leg, a sick child and another with nightmares when he wrote his classic I'm So Tired, rather than a millionaire popstar on a retreat.

It is knowing I'm wasting my time worrying about something I know is already a load of baloney. Time spent thinking and talking about the bit of parenting people lie about even more than sleep. Lie to others, lie online, lie in books they write, lie to themselves. Move over mums whose toddlers who cry it out once and never stir before 7 AM ever again; step away those folks with newborns who 'sleep right through'; make way for bullshitters to end all fucking bullshitters: the parents who find potty training easy.

You know the ones. The ones who pretend merely having a potty around, making it normal is going to make it easy when you decide to introduce the hazard of defecation and puddles of piss to an already toy- and tantrum-strewn toddler landscape. The ones who assure you there is an optimum time to trip over a can of wee and kick it all over your socks.

I've waited and waited with my second one. Putting it off because, just like moving house, I can remember nothing but a mauve mist of fear about the period of potty-ing Spider-boy. My conclusion, finally trying again, is that it (advice re potty training, that is) is all bullshit. That buying 'big boy pants' and endless readings of 'I want my potty' are as useful as dream catchers and those snoring lion things which you buy when you think you are going to fall down dead from exhaustion about nine months in.

Big boy pants, for example, chosen with favourite characters just mean endless tantrums about who my son would prefer to piss on - 'Not bob the builder I WANT MONSTERS'. He has no pants with proper monsters on, just some slightly dogeared Primark ones I bought because someone had fiddled with the packs and two of the pairs were orange, his then 'favourite'.

I hate a stealth-boasting parent but waiting until son was old enough to talk about what he did and didn't want or need to do in the little boy's room has done nothing to improve potty training. It has simply given him the vocab to turn weaning off nappies into some Greek dialogue play. Potty training was awful enough last time, when I wasn't working with a philosopher. One who could see me coming and was in the midst of the biggest hormone surge of his life, and the biggest bid for power.

'We don't wee on the kitchen chair' I said, gamely, with only a hint of annoyance. 'I JUST DID' replied his nibs, looking at me with disdain. 'You can't just poo on the floor' I say, trying to remain up beat. 'YES I CAN' he says staring at his moussey offering as it seeps into the floorboards. 'Are you doing a poo or a trump?' I ask today as he crouches down ominously in my office, and I combine working and parenting like the multi-skilling deamon that I am. 'YES. YES IT IS A POO OR A TRUMP' he shouts as if he'll never meet a bigger moron.

I have no idea how it will end. I'm hopeful with pants before school, but consoled with the wry knowledge people can remain witty, and kind, and useful people even if they aren't always in control, even when they are wet-knickered at 36. Mainly, for once, I'm hoping for shit luck.

But at least I know the answer to one crucial question. What is the one thing that would improve the quality of my life? My youngest son being able to tell the difference between a shit and a fart.

Well it would do for starters. Quality.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Don't Touch

My favourite parenting nightmare is when a simple conversation with a toddler is revealed later to have a different, often diametrically opposite meaning to each participant. Or indeed when many conversations appear to have been at cross purposes. Such as in February when we realised the toddler thought that the word for the ladder on his brother's bunk bed was 'NOCLIMBING'.

Having sagely discussed the 'no climbing' policy for two weeks we were both happy and confident of our chats. Me thinking we'd finally established a house rule he understood, the tiny dictator mildly amused that I kept showing him how to heave himself into his brother's forbidden top bunk, even giving him a nice new word for the means of getting there.

We had an arty weekend, one of fun and learning. My strongest learning was you can only do so much stuff with kids on a bank holiday, something I know really but always fail to heed in my attempts to make any family time jam packed with fun. That, and that buying a load of cheap canvasses and throwing paint around the garden a la Jackson Pollock is more cool than almost anything else you can do with your best friends.

In preparation for our action painting we went to the TATE to see some real life pictures on walls. That husband and I split, he taking the eldest to see Roy Lichtenstein (Spider-boy liked the explosions and the nudes) and me schlepping younger round Ellen Gallagher's exhibition AxME. He liked her pictures and collages, especially the ones which involved playdough, pictures cut out of magazines, face doodles and lots of yellow paint: these are his mixed media of choice too.

Mostly though, he wanted to touch them. I can't blame him, not least because most adults get a glint in their eye near the really massive pictures which look so rough, and huge and kind of touchable. You can tell if no one was looking most people would cop a feel of the Mona Lisa.

He's faster than roadrunner and as bossy as Napoleon though, so I had my work cut out. I began a tortured Joyce Grenfell monologue about standing back, looking, pointing, appreciating, liking, talking about but NOT TOUCHING, and a physical routine of manoeuvring and scooping up out of the way. He was unimpressed and grabby.

He clarified in case I didn't understand his requests: 'LOOK mummy, play dough! I touch?' I point at a guard rail and say 'Look, the wire is there to stop us touching the pictures'. Son inspects the small wire frame protecting the sacred foot of floor beneath the biggest most touchable ones. A problem he can solve: 'I noclimb over it?' he offers.

I have him up in my arms before both hands have gripped the wire but an assistant has seen us. Son and I freeze, already chastened. I explain I wouldn't let my son touch the actual picture or win the argument, and that I'm hoping this painful display will pave the way for easier gallery visits in the future.

The assistant looks slightly suspicious of me but tries his best children's TV presenter voice for the child. 'We don't touch these' he says.

Toddler narrowed his eyes. 'Not that one?' he says, pointing at the one furthest from us. 'No' says the assistant with great clarity. 'No touch that little one?' bargains the kid gesturing nonchalantly at the least impressive. Negative agrees the assistant. Son nods to himself and points out some more, 6 more in fact in the same request/denial mode. He pauses, isolating the biggest picture without a cordon: 'This one?' he suggests. 'None of the pictures' says the guard, with authority.

Bloody hell I think. I'll invite this guy over for tea. He can teach them to wash their hands and not throw their cereal. Son breaks into a broad grin and then with perfectly clipped, loud sarcasm sighs at the guard:

'My touch your chair?' he asks and then shakes his head and strides out of the room laughing. His conviction the guy is a lunatic who can't share his toys is as clear as his rueful giggle. I grab his hand and we walk into the next room, with a 40 foot installation of what looks like a climbing frame and no assistant visible. 'Mummy' he says, knowing we're on the same page: 'We touch this one'.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013


Eldest child has his first wobbly tooth. This is the sort of thing which makes me feel unimaginably old, but also so very young and green and quick. It unites the child me and the grown up me, sheds light on the foolish me of my twenties when I was clear I'd leave a twenty pound note for the child's first tooth to make snarky amends up for all the bullshit I've endured in school gate talk (my own and his).

But parenting has taught me you can carve your own tradition but be really careful, never do anything at a momentous or potentially repeated festive or milestone time which you are not prepared to do again. Never eat something for Christmas dinner, or create a birthday cake you aren't happy to eat or bake every year from now on. Kids are sticklers, well mine are, so I'm a BFG style collector of traditions from parents and families I respect and love, always on the hunt for a greatest hits of special things to do for my kids which combine the best bit of me and thathusband's memory boxes with new things for our kinder.

There are obvious questions which I flirt with immediately, though I try not to slide too far down the rabbit warren of worry. I ask around about what the rules are in 2013. I try to gauge what is the real going rate for an incisor 20p? 50p? More? Do the first teeth to hit the pillow space get a bonus, a golden handshake? We've settled on a pound or two pound coin, depending on which is shiniest though I feel odd about my son's excitement about selling a body part. Son is unbothered by that aspect, and already though this is his first wobbly tooth, has an inkling there's more (or less?) to the tooth fairy than to Father Christmas - I think it might be just your mum or dad, he hypothesises over Easter, but that would be okay, I'll leave the fairy thing a note just in case.

But nevertheless I feel a bit like my voice will crack when I talk over the tooth with my husband and make our plan.

I wonder why the tooth feels so poignant before it has even gone? And why it feels like the strand that holds it in is echoing a strand which pulls together so many mes.

It reminds me of a physical sensation which sends me back in time to my own Reception class. The achingly exciting painstaking gradual work of loosening a tooth, like excavating one of those amazing but infuriating plaster of paris eggs which hold a Gothic knight or a plastic dino skeleton which must be carved and chipped and brushed until they kiss the half-term morning light and signal a new activity. And we both know it won't be long until snap: the tooth will be out.

For him he'll be able to big boy up, join in on the categorising of experiences and firsts which dominate the playground chatter. But it is hard for me to completely avoid the feeling his milk teeth arc built from me, my great creation, crumbling and making way for something larger and bigger and further out in front. A good thing, natch, but as ever his wiggle work project takes place as I project on him.

I'm transported to my 30th Birthday party, when fecund and swollen and really, really wishing I was drunk, I got the fear about teeth and, knowing he was a boy wriggling inside me, for some reason the concept of dealing with wet dreams. The latter I have had to delegate to my husband out of a combination of squeamishness, and cowardice, and a poor understanding of our washing machine settings which I imagine I may never rectify. The former though, has remained. Then I was quite terrified about not what to pay for a tooth, but what to do with it. Throw it away and risk it being found and thought part of a body? Even as I ate my birthday cake my mind spiralled into a Waking The Dead montage whereby I keep and then finally throw away my child's string of teeth only to find his face reconstructed after a worried tip worker discovers a potential fragmented corpse. Luckily my nice mum has bought me a pot for his teeth which I will keep in my dusty bedside drawers until I can fathom the right place for them.

But when you see a child worming out a wobbler, it is visceral and inviting, and almost impossible not to feel like you too are wearing plimsolls thinking of shiny coins unaware of the precise precipice on which you stand. As I see him working away at the forward and back tooth rock I can feel the cool warm jelly slick of the undertooth space, the curved rectangle of you goo that a tooth bequeaths as a fleeting memento of the struggle.

I realise that apart from my usual sentimental fool's position in the courtly world of parenting I'm over identifying because I'm all about the minutiae of physical recovery right now. So tight tight focus on one pain/pleasure place is so real I feel closer than I have for two months. More at home as I just about make it up the ladder to lie under my son's ikea canopy of stars at bedtime, giggling as he wiggles and feeling like we understand each other so well it doesn't matter that so much of the last few weeks have been about catheters and tubes and the piss and glory of surgical recovery.

As if a metaphor moment created for us both his new teeth signal a brave new world. I understand the appetite for change he has as he knows, he surely does, that this is a milestone, even if he doesn't feel the cordsnap sensation I do at his new skeleton. But I understand the fear of it, a new body, a better one, a stronger one too.

Will it hurt mum?, he asks, (now he's grown up and in year one and can go to sports camp on his own I'm not mummy). And it feels like he's asking about more than a tooth. Certainly I am when I say, only a little bit, and there are probably great rewards after the initial wobbles.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

To do

David Attenborough was allegedly asked once which animal he found most fascinating to observe and replied an infant human. I concur. I was holding a baby yesterday and her mum remarked on how the wee one liked me. I put it down to a combination of experience at mumming and the fact that uncivilised babies have ruthless instincts for an old hand's safe arms and the feeling that whoever is holding them is both interested and unafraid.

I'm interested, and unafraid, of babies, even tiny ones. Toddlers though? They are different beasts. I love them. But I will never understand them. They are unknowable jaguars to the scrawny orang-utan charm of little newborns. Predatory forces of nature when compared to teeny babies who are just stretching their necks to see the world, all about the velvet skin and bright eyes reflecting back the best in all of us. Toddlers are far more beautiful. Beautiful, fierce, snotty, profound, cross patches. Familiar, cliched and simply unknowable. They are also terrifying.

Tonight newborn, who is now two, and solid and tormenting and all about the eyes and the indulgence they squeeze from sentimental adults, was in an inglorious mood.

We crunched home at 6.20 pm. He upended a litre of apple juice, overflowing, sloshing, insisting he was 'sharing'. He slammed me and his brother in the bathroom door, and eschewed tea by shoving a handful of crisps into his mouth and, then remorseful? resolved? relentless? let them fall out of his mouth again: splat. Returned. A sticky lump on his dinner plate. He put himself in time out, then told me off for eating an egg. He cuddled me deep, fought his brother off my lap like a wildcat, then asked for chocolate, cereal and porridge, 'please'.

And then? then he laughed so hard at his brother's impromptu slapstick show, all loose trousers and a comedy crutch, that we, his brother and I, cried with proud hysterical joy to hear him.

After climbing the wooden hill, ranting step by step about toilets, he fell to his knees mid-sentence on the landing. He sighed and smoothly fell on to my lap as I reached the top stair.

It was 20 past seven. On his face, a face unweathered, unwrinkled, untouchable, the serene smile of a man who has finally finished his To Do List.