Category Archives: Family

The art of losing

My children are a source of many small frustrations, but the one thing that’s guaranteed to wind me up is their propensity to shed possessions like dead skin cells. Their impetuous nature makes them incapable of pausing to pack their games kit neatly into its drawstring bag, or remembering what they did with their school jumpers. Instead, personal items are discarded and trampled underfoot as they charge off in pursuit of the next big adventure. In the last week alone, they’ve lost a pair of PE shorts, a single astro trainer, two water bottles and a library book between them.

I should know by now that most of it eventually turns up, but still I find it intensely frustrating – and I envy those laid-back parents who don’t fret when things are misplaced. I recently turned down a friend’s offer to drive my children to a football tournament, just so that I could accompany them myself and ensure that they returned with all their clobber. My partner doesn’t understand: ‘One day, you’ll drop dead and lose everything,’ he helpfully points out. This is a man who bellows ‘Have you seen my wallet?’ on a daily basis, and who regularly leaves his iPad on the train. To him, my reaction seems disproportionate and reveals worrying control-freak tendencies. And on a rational level, I agree with him. It’s only stuff:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Nevertheless, it’s my irrational side that dictates my reaction when the boys spray their possessions around. Why am I so bothered by loss? It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Aged four, I went into a period of mourning after leaving my rag doll on the bus. As a teenager on holiday, I’d bring along a list of the items I’d packed and check it every night before bed to make sure nothing had been mislaid. This batty behaviour appears to run in the family: I remember my father stomping through a Bavarian forest, re-tracing his steps in a futile attempt to find his clip-on sunglasses. When they failed to materialise, he descended into a black mood that cast a shadow over the rest of the day.

You’d imagine that the demise of loved ones, actual or anticipated, would make the loss of mere possessions seem insignificant. After my father died, I sat alone beside his coffin and spoke into the empty air about my hopes for my young half-siblings and my infant sons – my dad’s living legacy – and how they would continue in his place. ‘This isn’t the end,’ I insisted, but who was I trying to kid? For him, it was all over – he’d never drive an open-top sports car, buy a flat in Berlin or write a novel. (To be fair, he was far too risk-averse to have done any of those things even if he’d lived, but there was no harm in dreaming.)

It’s hard enough when a parent dies, but to produce children is to be haunted by the fear of loss. What if that rash turns out to be meningitis; that stomach-ache a malignant tumour? How easy it would be for them to step into the road without looking, straight into the path of that idiot speeding in his 4×4. The many sporting activities enjoyed by my sons only seem to increase the chances of disaster: the bone-shattering tackle on the rugby pitch; the sharp crack of a cricket ball to the base of the skull. The knowledge that one small error of judgement could destroy a young life in a millisecond is almost too much to bear. Perhaps that’s why I keep displacing my dread on to trivial everyday losses: after all, the missing goalie gloves, the Star Wars watch and the Lego mini-figure can easily be replaced.

All about the money

So it’s done. After months – no, years – of procrastination, I’ve made the phone call and fixed an appointment for the end of next week. I’d expected to feel relief as another long-outstanding job is ticked off the list, but instead I’m anticipating my meeting with the financial adviser with about as much enthusiasm as I would a visit from a Rentokil operative or a Macmillan nurse.

My reluctance to think about money is rooted in my childhood. My father was a worrier. He earned an adequate but relatively modest salary as a teacher, and I grew up with the constant parental refrain of ‘We can’t afford it.’ Family outings were sometimes ruined by his anxiety about the cost: on one occasion, he drove from our house in Manchester to Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire, only to balk at the price of a ticket, turn around at the entrance and head back home, stopping briefly at a lay-by outside Leek for a digestive biscuit and a flask of greasy tea. It’s been liberating to distance myself from that. While I have vetoed some requests from my own children (an Xbox, a mobile phone), I have rarely done so on the ground of cost.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the unedifying spectacle of certain acquaintances – all of them highly paid professionals – taking on extra locum and freelance work in order to feed their pension pots and service their buy-to-let mortgages, while relying on friends and grandparents to look after their children at short notice. If that sounds judgmental, it’s because I am judging. These are the same people who never have change to cover the taxi fare into town, and who plead poverty in restaurants, sucking all the joy out of life. They make me want to chuck money around, to splurge it on the Kobe beef and a bottle of the best Bordeaux, just to show them up for their meanness.

Until recently, the need to make provision for my retirement seemed entirely theoretical. No-one on my dad’s side of the family makes it beyond their sixties: why save for a future that seems unlikely to materialise? I’m assisted by my hypochondria: the fact that I interpret every twinge as multiple sclerosis and every freckle as a malignant melanoma means that I don’t expect to survive for long enough to draw my paltry private pension. Living with me is like being subjected to an endless re-run of the brain tumour scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. It must be exhausting.

But what if I don’t die early? I’m becoming increasingly aware of the need to address the dire financial situation in which I’m likely to find myself if, against all the odds, I reach old age. And I know what the financial adviser is going to tell me: it’s time to grow up. When I try to picture our meeting, I see a dramatisation of Eric Berne’s book Games People Play. Our conversation will run along the lines of the mind-game known as ‘Why don’t you – yes but’, in which character A makes a series of well-intentioned and sensible suggestions, only to be met with a string of objections from character B:

A: Set aside some savings every month.

B: I would sooner spend my spare cash on eating out, red wine, smelly cheese from the farmers’ market and supervised sporting activities for the children that knacker them out and absolve me of any obligation to engage meaningfully with them, thereby freeing up more spare time for me to carouse.

A: Pay more money into your pension.

B: I am inherently suspicious of pension fund managers, who already relieve me of a large portion of my monthly income, appropriate a hefty percentage for sitting around on their arses, and cannot tell me what – if anything – I will get at the end of it.

A: Review your tax liability.

B: Taxes pay for schools, the NHS, state benefits and social housing. They are a good thing. People should pay more taxes and do it with joy in their hearts; they shouldn’t seek to exploit barely legal loopholes in order to minimise their liability.

A: Get married.

B: After twenty years’ cohabitation and two children, this is a ridiculous suggestion. Neither of us is capable of the sincerity or emotional engagement required to meet each other’s gaze and declare ‘I do’ – and, besides, I’m secretly afraid that a wedding would upset the increasingly fragile equilibrium of our dysfunctional partnership. It would simply be a means of taking advantage of various tax breaks (as to which, see above).

A: Make a will.

B: Yes, but that would entail naming guardians for the children, a matter about which we have repeatedly failed to reach agreement. Most of our friends are inherently unsuitable. In any case, who would thrill at the prospect of taking in one boy who keeps a stash of dried bogeys on his bedside cabinet, and another who insists that every car journey is accompanied by Justin Bieber’s Sorry on an endless loop?

So I think it’s fair to say that my meeting with the financial adviser isn’t likely to go well. It taps into too many anxieties and prejudices. I know I should be planning for my future and yet I feel resistant; I don’t want to become the sort of person who concerns herself with hoarding money at the expense of fun and friendship. Besides, the need to save for a time when I may be frail and unable to work reminds me of my own mortality, and I’d rather not contemplate that. I can only prepare myself for the appointment by calling to mind Woody Allen’s line: ‘Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.’

The magic word

When my elder son was a toddler, I spent a lot of time policing his manners. I thought I’d cracked it years ago, with my constant refrain of ‘What do you say?’ and my upbeat exhortations to remember the P-word. Fast-forward a decade, and he seems to have regressed. Head ducked, grunting and mumbling as he shovels food into his mouth in a restaurant or at a friend’s house, he apparently finds it more comfortable to be perceived as rude and entitled than to lift his head and say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to an adult. It’s infuriating. Is he just ungrateful, or is there more to it?

I’m beginning to realise that, for a boy approaching adolescence, it requires a certain self-assurance to look an adult in the eye and express gratitude (let alone initiate a conversation). Charm opens doors, which is why it’s taught at public schools; its absence in a child shouldn’t necessarily be equated with rudeness. When I was eleven or twelve, I was under strict parental instructions to seek out my friend’s mother whenever I’d been round at her house and say, ‘Thank you for having me, Mrs Martin.’ I still remember the accompanying flush of shame: it was excruciating. But it wasn’t as bad as the time when a close friend of my parents insisted that I address him by his first name. I was so mortified that I ended up calling him nothing at all until I was about thirty. No doubt I came across as rude and sullen, but inside I was dying of embarrassment.

My real problem with my son’s behaviour, I suspect, is that it reflects badly on me as a mother. Consider the way we encourage small children to parrot the word ‘sorry’. Some toddlers can sign it before they can even speak. But ‘sorry’ isn’t really about teaching our children kindness or morality: often, it’s about our desire to save face in front of other parents. Whatever the misdemeanour – from bashing a child over the head with a building block at playgroup, to biting him on the leg in the sandpit – small children learn that a swift apology gets them off the hook. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card. Better to remove the perpetrator from the scene and get her to reflect on her behaviour. If that doesn’t result in a heartfelt ‘sorry’ – because the victim has wandered off, or the moment has passed – then so be it. Other parents may tut their disapproval, but our child will have learnt a lesson and be less likely to do it again.

Like that sing-song ‘sorr-ee’ at toddler group, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are usually said reflexively, without real feeling. More often than not, they’re a matter of social convention rather than a genuine measure of our consideration and gratitude. So, just for the record: my gauche pre-teen greatly appreciates the many dinners, outings and sleepovers arranged for him by family and friends. It’s just that, at the moment, he finds it difficult to express that verbally – for the same reason that he flushes when approaching the supermarket check-out, or mumbles incoherently when asked to read out a poem in class. He knows he’s lucky to have these treats, and no doubt I’ll continue to badger him if the magic word doesn’t trip off his lips. For the time being, though, I refuse to judge him for its absence.

What’s underneath?

I’m a sucker for horror films and their standard tropes – the car that won’t start; the killer in the back seat; the group of friends who decide it’s a good plan to split up in the haunted wood. For me, though, the most successful examples of the genre involve an element of psychological terror, preying on our darkest fears and revealing the madness and violence that lie beneath an apparently ordinary suburban existence.

One of my favourite horror films of recent years is The Babadook. A widowed mother, Amelia, is raising her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel, whose behavioural problems lead to his being pulled out of school and breaking his cousin’s nose when he pushes her from a tree-house. At first his brattish whingeing grates, while Amelia’s drippyness irritates. For God’s sake, why doesn’t she just take the home-made crossbow away instead of trying to reason with him?

Then Sam comes across a mysterious rhyming pop-up book, Mister Babadook, in which a grotesque figure in a cloak and top hat – a cross between Struwwelpeter and Freddy Krueger – terrorises its victims. The Babadook is crudely drawn in charcoal, with a white face, dark silhouette and claw-like fingers. ‘If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look/You can’t get rid of the Babadook.’ Soon enough, the mythical figure comes to life and begins to stalk mother and son: ‘A rumbling sound then three sharp knocks/Ba BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!’ as the demon announces its presence.

Sam’s tantrums and night terrors escalate, while Amelia’s growing sense of desperation is compounded by the immaculate friends who close ranks and distance themselves from the problem child and his dysfunctional mother. Amelia’s sister tells her to get back into writing but, significantly, makes no offer of childcare, while the others talk about their charity work and complain that they no longer have time to go to the gym.

As Amelia’s mental state deteriorates, strange noises fill the house and imaginary bugs crawl out of a crack behind the fridge. (I’m reminded of my own post-partum hallucinations brought on by pethidine and sleep deprivation, when the wallpaper seethed and pulsed like a bad acid trip and the hum of the hospital air-conditioning system became a disembodied lament.) What follows is a terrifying portrayal of a mother’s psychosis and descent into insanity, reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, as the Babadook possesses Amelia and places Sam’s life in grave danger.

The Babadook is more than a demon conjured up by the febrile imagination of a small child, or a symbol of the grief that stalks a bereaved family. It’s also a representation of the terrible power that a parent wields and must never misuse. Here lie our deepest, unspoken impulses; the darkness at the heart of the family. One of the most chilling scenes is when Sam wanders into his mother’s bedroom complaining of hunger and Amelia, half-crazed, lifts her head from the pillow and snarls, ‘If you’re that hungry why don’t you go and eat shit.’ On a really bad day, faced with a small child’s relentless demands, some parents might momentarily relate to this poisonous outburst. In the words of Mister Babadook: ‘Once you see what’s underneath/You’re going to wish you were dead.’

Perhaps the truth is that we need there to be mothers like Amelia. Anyone who has ever bellowed at a child, or delivered a slap in the heat of the moment, needs to feel that there are worse parents and more heinous acts. Like Amelia’s circle of supposed friends, we love to judge others from a distance: the mother in the stained shirt who rages ineffectually at her children in the playground and seems always to be on the verge of tears; the woman with the orange spray-tan who parks on the zigzags and dispatches her grubby five-year-old for a hastily-arranged sleepover on a school night. Of course, this isn’t transgression on the same scale as Amelia’s, but these characters still fascinate us and attract our censure. We use them to preserve and bolster our self-image; we rarely acquaint ourselves with the facts or offer practical assistance. To do so would involve recognising that we aren’t so dissimilar.

By the end of the film, the Babadook has mutated from an evil force possessing the mother to an external reality, acknowledged by her but placated and confined to the cellar (that other classic horror-film trope). Like Amelia, most of us succeed in taming our Babadook and keeping it safely under lock and key. The real horror of the film, and the reason why it disturbs and resonates, is the realisation that it might take only a few small tweaks to our circumstances – bereavement, a difficult child, an absence of social networks – to unleash the demon.

A tale of two football teams

My elder son plays for a local football team – let’s call it Swallows United – that trains on the playing fields of a well known public school. A couple of the players show promise but the rest display more enthusiasm than talent. The atmosphere is firmly inclusive, with an emphasis on enjoyment and team spirit, and for the less able – including my son – there are friendly games running alongside the competitive cup matches.

The Swallows are drawn from the affluent suburbs of north Bristol and their parents, almost without exception, are middle-class professionals. When a child broke his leg in a recent match, two GPs and an orthopaedic surgeon rushed forward from the touchline to offer assistance. My son is a recent addition to the team, and the club was able to offer him a place only because another boy had dropped out owing to the unfortunate re-scheduling of his private maths tuition.

I look forward to Saturday mornings, not so much for the football, but for the chance to catch up with the other parents as they offer polite encouragement from the sidelines. Most of them are relaxed about their sons’ sporting abilities; their competitiveness manifests itself in other ways, focusing on academic success. I’d guess that most of these boys will go to university. Football will continue to feature in their adult lives but it won’t be all-consuming: some might play in a dads’ team or kick a ball around on a stag weekend, while others will draw on their knowledge of the game to form a rapport with clients and facilitate business deals.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, my younger son plays for Amazon Athletic, a club that competes in a regional youth league. All the boys are skilled and a few are outstanding, showing a raw intelligence on the pitch. It’s a competitive environment; at some point, my son will probably decide that he can’t take the pressure and ask us to put his name down on the Swallows waiting list.

Many of the Amazon parents come from tough, working-class areas of Bristol, and a few struggle to eat decently and pay the rent. This isn’t a snotty assumption on my part; it’s what they tell me. Just as grammar school was a passport to a better life for my father’s generation, playing for the Amazons represents a chance of success for these parents, who dream of their sons being scouted and going on to become professional footballers. The game means everything to them, so it’s not surprising that passions occasionally run high. Bad language isn’t unusual in the heat of the moment, and last season a couple of families were asked to leave the club because of a series of angry confrontations with the manager over his selection decisions on match day.

It’s been said that sport is human life in microcosm, and in my more pretentious moments it strikes me that my children’s football teams, with their different composition and philosophies, reflect the divided society the boys are growing up in. The Swallows raise their children to value academic achievement above sporting prowess, but the truth is that almost anyone can go to university these days, provided mummy and daddy have sharp elbows and a fat cheque book. Even the Swallows who don’t shine academically will have their paths through life smoothed by their parents’ money, connections and social capital.

We ascribe high aspirations to middle-class parents, but it’s the Amazons who are truly aspirational, shaming those who peddle the myth of low expectations among the working classes. The sad thing is that, in all likelihood, none of their sons will make it in the competitive world of professional football. In every city across the country, there are hundreds of committed, talented boys just like them. Only a handful will ever be picked to train with the professional clubs, and most of the lucky ones will end up falling by the wayside. For now, the Amazon players have no class consciousness – they’re just a group of small boys who love to play football. They’re a pleasure to watch, but it’s painful to imagine a time in the future when their dreams fade and reality looms into focus.

When worlds collide

In her thought-provoking book ‘Life After Birth’, Kate Figes describes the gulf between the lifestyles of those with and without children, and the naïve assumptions about parenthood that fall away as soon as we reproduce. ‘We delude ourselves that we will be able to socialise as we have always done by organising babysitters or taking the children with us. Then when our children arrive we understand that there are two separate worlds, one with children and one without, which rotate in opposite directions and occasionally collide.’

The planets collided for Figes when she took her two-year-old daughter to lunch at the house of a childless aunt. When she arrived, the joint was only just being put in the oven and there was no snack sufficiently bland to tide over the hungry child. The adults became steadily drunker; the toddler increasingly distraught. As the food finally arrived on the table, the child demanded the toilet. Sitting her on the potty, Figes noticed through a fog of booze that her daughter had already deposited a trail of small turds across the floor. As she attempted to clean up, her child trampled in the shit, spreading it everywhere and ruining the aunt’s white shag-pile carpet.

To any parent of small children, this account will seem comically, horribly familiar. But what strikes me about Figes’s story is that she seems embarrassed rather than apologetic. Serves you right, is the subtle, underlying message. Accommodate my toddler or face the consequences. Figes was in a better position than anyone to anticipate her child’s needs and bring a snack along. The carpet had to be replaced, but there’s no mention of Figes offering to pay. And the next time the aunt invites the family over, she ‘bends over backwards to get a child-friendly lunch on the table by two o’clock’, the implication being that she has learned her lesson.

Last week, during the half-term holiday, I witnessed another small inter-planetary collision in the quiet carriage of an intercity train. I had dropped my sons off at holiday club and crossed over to join the ranks of the child-free for the day. I settled back in my seat, anticipating the opportunity to read the newspaper from cover to cover and doze off for a while. Then, at Bath Spa, a couple with pre-school twins boarded and claimed two unreserved seats across the aisle. Concentration, relaxation, sleep – all the things I craved – suddenly became impossible. The girls’ shrill voices were just as irritating as the incessant trilling of a mobile phone, yet the passengers in carriage A – normally militant to the point of aggression in defence of their right to silence – didn’t say a word.

Perhaps this unusual reticence was due to the fact that the toddlers, although strident, were inquisitive, engaging and (considering their age) well behaved. The middle-aged parents seemed attentive, replying patiently and uncondescendingly to the girls’ endless questions and proferring a small stash of books, crayons and healthy snacks. It would have been unreasonable to ask the children to pipe down – they were too small to comply – and yet it seemed equally unreasonable to inflict their clamour on the occupants of the quiet carriage.

I suppressed my irritation and smiled indulgently from time to time, complicitly signalling my own parenthood. I reminded myself that I knew nothing about the situation. Perhaps the family’s seat reservations had been mucked up, or they were travelling at short notice and there were no other spaces available. At the same time, uncharitable thoughts began to surface. Wasn’t there a hint of smugness in this self-conscious display of modern parenting? The presence of the small group seemed to throw out an implicit challenge to the rest of us: we’re a nice, bookish, middle-class family, so don’t you dare object.

My ambivalence was compounded by the fact that I’ve been in similar situations with my own children. Several years ago, on a long bus journey across rural Wales, my two-year-old son began to wail in frustration. The woman sitting a few seats in front of us flinched theatrically at each piercing squawk, casting disapproving glances over her shoulder, until I went over and politely – but in my best patrician accent – pointed out that I was doing all I could to placate him.

I’m sure I have inconvenienced others – even acted selfishly – in order to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. I recall the occasion when, in my desire to enjoy a civilised Sunday lunch with friends, I let my small sons run around inside a gastropub. They dodged between tables and giggled hysterically, sending their pencil crayons clattering across the wooden floor. Although nobody objected, I now wonder what everyone was thinking. But that’s different; I would never let them make a noise in the quiet carriage, says a small, self-righteous voice inside me. So where should we draw the line?

I don’t advocate a return to the world my grandparents used to inhabit, where women and children stayed at home, out of sight, while the men drank in the pub. Things have moved on; the world is more welcoming to families and undoubtedly a much better place for it. Still, I wonder if these occasional clashes of interests reveal something unpalatable about those of us who choose to reproduce.

Parents consider their small offspring endlessly fascinating, to the point of being unable to see that they impinge on other people’s lives. If we’re honest, it’s all about the nuclear family: most of us don’t care all that much about the children of our acquaintances, let alone those of strangers. So who is more selfish: the couple who remain childless in order to pursue other interests in peace, such as travelling, dining out or going to concerts? Or the couple who have babies because they want somebody to cherish, and then assert their right to frequent restaurants, galleries and quiet carriages with their young family in tow, expecting the rest of the world to put up with the noise and disruption?

Winterval

I always enjoy the hiatus between Christmas and New Year. As I emerge, blinking, into the winter sunlight, my liver throbbing and my skin an attractive shade of elephant’s-breath grey (™ Farrow & Ball), my main feeling is one of immense relief that our families have departed and I have the house to myself again.

For a control-freak with misanthropic tendencies, Christmas is a difficult time. I can be superficially gregarious, glass in hand, in short bursts of a few hours. The problem is that people pitch up for days on end at this time of year, bringing with them their relentless physical demands and irritating personal habits. My daily timetable is dictated by their round-the-clock need for plates of food, cups of weak tea and sphincter-straining visits to the lavatory. The constant throat-clearing, finger-tapping and inane chit-chat make it impossible to ignore their physical presence, frustrating my attempts to grab a few moments’ peace by reading the newspaper or dozing off on the sofa.

Visitors are programmed to inflict domestic chaos. They can’t avoid it: they pile suitcases at the foot of the stairs, festoon coats across armchairs and balance glasses of red wine within inches of my marauding children. Offers of ‘help’ are designed to salve consciences, not to result in actual assistance. People hover aimlessly at the sink, purportedly searching for the washing-up gloves, just at the moment when the potatoes need draining. Dishes are wiped with the floor-cloth; hands are dried on the tea towel. Pans are extracted from the dishwasher and randomly distributed across every spare surface in the kitchen, while a mountain of empty plastic bags appears overnight on the table like a primary-school recycling project.

Apart from my control-freakery, the fundamental problem is the gaping chasm between the Christmas that I’d envisaged and the one that materialises. The Christmas of my imagination is heralded by the crunch of gravel on a sweeping driveway; a tasteful holly wreath at the front door; and a scent of cinnamon, oranges and pine needles. Radiant friends clad in silk and cashmere step indoors, brushing the snow from their woollen coats, and gather round the hearth to exchange witticisms and gifts. Tree-lights twinkle, candles flicker and silver cutlery gleams discreetly in the firelight.

The reality offered by our downmarket house-guests is somewhat different, involving a wilting poinsettia, sachets of instant trifle-topping and a lingering aroma of sprout-induced farts. Dog poo is trodden into the carpets, while occasional gaps in what passes for conversation are plugged by my mother discussing her forthcoming dental extraction. Don’t get me wrong: I love my family, and I’m secretly grateful that they’re not the kind of pretentious tossers who aspire to a Christmas modelled on the Toast catalogue – which is to say, they aren’t remotely like me. Still, it’s great to have the house back. At least I can be grateful that we aren’t hosting New Year’s Eve.