Tag Archives: children

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.

Things I’d ban #1: snacking

Of all the things that make me want to commit murder – and, believe me, there are many – snacking comes near the top of my list. When did adults develop this infantile need to cram Mini Cheddars down their gullets every five minutes? It’s an assault on the senses: the constant crinkling of sweet wrappers in the cinema; the noisy mastication in the train carriage; the synthetic stench of Cheesy Wotsits on the top deck of the bus. Assailed by the intimate sound of all that chomping, squishing, gobbling and gulping, I despair for humanity. Why can’t they all just sit quietly and look out of the window, or focus on the film? Why the constant need to gorge on Pringles and wipe their greasy fingers on the seats, or stuff Maltesers into their horrific, wet, gaping maws?

These days there’s even a supermarket aisle called ‘snacking’, as if it’s a thing that everyone does, like shitting, shagging or sleeping. A quick internet search reveals copious information about the latest market trends in the sweet and savoury snacks industry. And it’s not even real food – just refined sugar and E numbers in bright plastic packets. It’s a huge marketing ploy; a way of getting us to buy more pointless stuff. Am I alone in finding the sector’s carefully formulated marketing terminology repellent? To me, a ‘grab-bag’ sounds greedy and selfish, while the snacking brand Graze calls to mind a herd of lumbering ruminants wrapping slobbery chops around their cud.

Where small children are concerned, I’ll concede that snacks can be handy. An emergency packet of rice cakes isn’t a bad idea with a two-year-old in tow: I’ve experienced at first hand a toddler’s sudden drop in blood sugar and attendant grumpiness. And I’m not the sort of puritanical weirdo who never buys her kids an ice-cream as a treat. What baffles me is that many parents continue to regard snacks as a round-the-clock necessity, even when their offspring have long outgrown the toddler stage. On a recent outing, my friend brought along multiple bumper packs of Skittles and Haribo, and proceeded to distribute them to the children at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day. Not wishing to come across as a censorious snob or provoke filial meltdown, I suppressed my irritation and allowed my sons to dip in. Perhaps she thought I was tight-fisted or disorganised when I failed to produce my own stash of sugary multi-coloured crap.

Of course, not all snacks are of the sugary or salty variety. Nutritionists tell us to eat lots of healthy nibbles throughout the day – satisfy your cravings by gnawing on a nut or a stick of celery, throw in the odd oatcake, and you won’t even need lunch! Just think of all the calories you’ll save! Well, sod that. Snacking all day long – whether on Oreos or olives – may be a way of occupying our jaws while we gawp at a screen, but it deprives us of the pleasant anticipation of coming to the table hungry. It’s a joyless approach to eating, and one that entirely disregards the social aspect of sitting down to dinner, pouring wine and engaging in conversation; of serving food made with passion and generosity; and enjoying ourselves with the people we love.

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.

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?

Parent wars

There’s nothing quite like the arrival of children for bringing out the latent inequalities between men and women. Before my sons were born, I worked full-time in an office and felt equal in every way to my partner (to avoid the slightly self-conscious clunkiness of that term, let’s call him Bob). I’d like to say that we shared household tasks fifty-fifty but, even if that’s not quite the case, at least I felt entitled to object if he failed to take on his fair share of household drudgery. We frequently went out together for dinner or to the cinema. I also made my own, separate social arrangements, often at short notice, and felt no obligation to consult him before doing so.

Fast forward a decade, throw in a couple of kids, and things look a bit different. I now work part-time in a job that fits in around school hours. I am responsible for supervising the boys’ homework, booking their numerous after-school activities and arranging their social lives. On the rare occasions when I can’t collect them from school, it’s up to me to arrange childcare. I do the shopping, cooking, washing and tidying; sort the recycling and put the bins out; organise plumbers and builders; buy birthday and Christmas presents; and pay the household bills out of our joint bank account. And when I want to go out with my friends, I effectively have to ask permission, because it’s assumed that I’ll be at home in the evenings unless otherwise stated.

Bob, meanwhile, has taken on the role of provider, working in a stressful, intellectually challenging job that frequently demands long hours. His work fulfils a useful social function and lots of people depend on it, so I can understand that it sometimes has to take priority over our family life. In fact, Bob focuses almost exclusively on his job during the week, knowing that I’m here to deal with the children. If paperwork has to be done at the weekend at short notice, he knows I’ll be there to take the boys off his hands. And whatever time he comes home, there will always be dinner on the table.

Most couples I know fall into this traditional set-up, or something quite like it, once children arrive. It’s an arrangement that often breeds resentment. The women feel undervalued and complain about their husbands’ ineptitude when it comes to doing the housework and organising the kids. One friend, frustrated by her husband’s failure to wipe the table after their toddler had eaten breakfast, scrawled ‘Weetabix + time = concrete’ on the kitchen whiteboard. Another tells of the occasion when her husband, on lone childcare duty one evening, forgot to give their small daughter her dinner and sent her to bed on an empty stomach.

These conversations with women create a sense of solidarity and allow me to give vent to my own domestic issues. On the rare occasions when he rolls up his sleeves in the kitchen, Bob specialises in partial washing-up, inexplicably leaving a small selection of crusty plates and greasy saucepans for someone else to sort out later. It almost goes without saying that he never wipes the kitchen surfaces. When I’m in one of my more curmudgeonly moods, it occurs to me that if he did his job in such a half-arsed way, he wouldn’t last five minutes.

Now that the family’s social calendar has become my responsibility, one of my particular frustrations is that it’s almost impossible to pin Bob down in order to fix dates. I have been known to chase him through the house clutching my diary, pointing out that, although it may suit him to make arrangements on the hoof, life doesn’t work like that when you have a young family. And I can’t help but notice that he’s very good at carving out leisure time for himself – the Saturday morning bike rides that are apparently essential for his physical and mental well-being, and the mind-expanding evening classes that take place while I’m hanging wet washing and packing schoolbags.

Bob and his friends, no doubt, would say that they feel under scrutiny by their wives when they attempt any household tasks; that nothing is ever good enough, so it’s no wonder that they eventually stop trying. They might point out that their partners seem to find plenty of downtime themselves, sipping lattes with their friends while the children are at school, and slipping away to pilates classes in their Boden sweatpants. I normally find it remarkably easy to ignore such accusations, but in a recent exchange of words with Bob, when I was berating him about his domestic failings, something he said brought me up sharp. He said that he envied my life and asked, ‘Would you seriously want to do what I do?’

And I have to admit that, no, I wouldn’t. The stress, the long hours and sleepless nights, and the pressure to earn enough money to support a family I’d see for only an hour or two at breakfast and bedtime? No, thanks. I’ve sometimes sensed a slightly disapproving attitude towards the mothers at my sons’ school who work full-time and send their children to after-school club. But those women aren’t doctors and lawyers, who largely work by choice and can afford nannies. Many of them are public sector workers – teachers, midwives and social workers – struggling to fund a decent family life on a relatively low dual income. Some are single parents. And most of them look knackered.

The fact that I don’t have to do that – that I can keep my work within reasonable limits, be here for my children most of the time, and take an active interest in their daily lives – is an enormous privilege. In fact, I’d say that, between Bob and me, I’m the one who has the better end of the bargain. There, Bob – I’ve finally said it. Let’s just hope you don’t read this blog post.

Out of control

To mark the start of the school holidays, we take our children camping. We’re joined by friends who have daughters of a similar age to our sons. For two blissful days, the children play in the woods and stream bordering the campsite, out of sight (but never quite out of earshot), while we sip wine and snooze in the sunshine. They return at dusk, grubby and elated, to toast marshmallows and tell ghost stories by the campfire before tumbling into their sleeping bags. This heady freedom, we tell ourselves, is the stuff that childhood memories are made of.

The paradox is that there’s nothing spontaneous about this trip. It’s a carefully choreographed experience in which nothing is left to chance. We book the campsite weeks in advance and hold detailed discussions about the food and equipment that we plan to bring. On the morning of our departure, we park the boys in front of the television and frantically cram holdalls into the roof box, fretting about whether we’ll get away in time to claim the best pitch and avoid the thunderclouds that threaten overhead.

On arrival at our rural idyll, the stage-management continues. The children are plastered in sunscreen and insect repellent. The country ramble through dappled woodland is marked in highlighter pen on the map. The picture-postcard pub where we eat lunch, with its tastefully Farrow-and-Balled dining room, is the product of an evening’s research on TripAdvisor. I’m reminded of Rachel Cusk’s scathingly perceptive description of ‘that family you see out on a Saturday afternoon, with their cycle helmets and their fear of strangers and their fourteen varieties of apple juice in special beakers, [who] wouldn’t stop to help you if you were bleeding to death in the road’.

My urge to create the perfect camping weekend is partly due to the fact that we live in a city, where the ever-present threat of cars and the imagined censure of other parents combine to make us cautious. It would be almost unthinkable to let a six-year-old out to play unsupervised in our street, so we shepherd the boys from football club to play-date. The upshot is that, on the rare occasions when some degree of freedom is possible, it’s hard to relinquish control. Remove the traffic and the need for constant vigilance, and it’s no surprise that my anxiety finds a different outlet, manifesting itself in the kind of meticulous planning more suited to a trek across the Andes than a camping trip in the Cotswolds.

Back at home, most family experiences end up being milked for maximum emotional and educational value. I’m not alone in this. Down at the local park, there’s a whiff of desperation about the father exuberantly chasing his child around the sandpit while impersonating a lolloping yeti; or the mother keeping up a loud commentary on clever Finlay’s attempts to negotiate the monkey bars. We’re incapable, it seems, of just letting our children be – a product, no doubt, of middle-class competitiveness and nagging guilt at working long hours.

That’s why our camping expedition, with its increased scope for benign neglect of the boys, is such a precious interlude. It’s fun for the adults, too. Much as I love my sons and enjoy being around them, their undiluted company is sometimes (whisper it) just a tiny little bit boring. Occasionally, I crave a glass or two of prosecco and an adult conversation rather than, say, the hundredth unanswerable question of the day about Lego or loom bands or Lionel Messi. So why does our trip have to be so carefully stage-managed? Why can’t I shake the superstitious notion that our family life might come crashing down around us like an Ikea flat-pack unless it’s meticulously constructed, with all the nuts and bolts in place? Life is to be lived, not controlled. Sometimes I’d do well to remember that.