Monday, 28 July 2014


This post is a bit late, I’ve missed the rush of blogs and features on SATS and school reports and the start of the holidays. It has been in the air though – exam and test results and that dreaded social impetus which is the humble brag.

And in the world of humble bragging what you see or hear is rarely what you get, no opinion is unfiltered by neurosis.

I remember it from my school days as much as I can see it now. Parents and gossips feverishly comparing the A level results in the local paper, looking especially at kids who went to the same primary school but different Secondaries – the photo line up stand offs between the prettiest cleverest clogs types at opposing private schools in the vicinity.

In a way though the results analyses I remember best are those tastily awful seconds after Mrs Kelley gave back the A Level English coursework and the skittering whispers started.

What did you get? What did he get? What did SHE get? What did Mrs K like? What did she SAY?

Always the search was for the best kind of comment. Acerbic or congratulatory in the body of the essay, or scribbled with a grade at the end.

My best comment was usually something arch or chastising but personal nonetheless hiding in the margin. I cared far more for the moments where I knew I had made some dialogue with my reader teacher then the grades I actually got (complacent teen). Comments meant connection:

‘Lucy, really!’ next to a heroine/heroin spelling malfunction = she remembered my name!

‘I know what you mean here, an examiner will not. More clarity.’ Next to an assumption everyone agrees that Jane Eyre and Rebecca are basically the same book = she knew what I meant!

It is understandable for both parents and pupils to pour eagerly over reports and marked work to look for evidence of how they or their child have done and also proof that they, or their child, are known and understood and well cared for. It evidences our own choices within our circumstances, doesn’t it, makes us think phew, this is going okay, or shit, something needs changing.

I find the whole question of how to be positive to and about your children regarding school work, without be a dreadful show off and/or a boring twat, quite hard. In that, of course I know what side of the fence I want to stand on, but I don’t know how to do that without falling straight into the thorns on the other. Especially because there are so many pitfalls of complacency around it.

I was pleased for my lad and pleased, I guess, for me when I read his report. And I know I am lucky for that. He’s lucky too, but he also worked hard, and deserves some credit as well. Quiet, non braggy credit, but credit all the same for the work he did within the realms of his massive good fortunes. It is funny blogging as your kids get older when there is so much you want to think on and discuss which is really not yours at all. He’s had great and not great times at school, but those are his stories and lessons, not mine to learn from.

But I have been thinking about perceptions. To what extent is it useful to be ranked against your peers, is it as rude to write off results (they don’t mean anything!) as it is to brag about that, even humbly? How helpful are comparisons really? A lot of my dissatisfaction throughout my life has been cased by comparing myself to other people, personally, socially, physically, whatever.

I saw several wonderful parents with marvellous kids getting upset about the facebook and forum showing off. I saw some incredibly dissing of ‘average’ from people who blatantly do not understand maths. And heard a lot of thought about whether the most important bit of the report was:

  • the teacher’s comments
  • the remarks about effort/how hardworking child was
  • enthusiasm for subject/school
  • social happiness or
  • results achieved.

Forget all the arms taken up against phonics, what I think is hardest about parenting a child at school is that while it unutterably does help to have a good education, and therefore one must encourage trying and excelling as far as possible across the boards, the real life lesson in terms of attainment and effort is lost. For surely the prize in life is always maximum achievement with minimum effort and most fun on the side or as you are doing it? And by God would I have loved the Facebook Mom saying:

So thrilled with X’s mega results. Totally nailed her sats, with a long comment from the teacher saying she barely gave a shit all year!

Formal marked education cannot teach you that sometimes in life you need luck with you and, even more god-willing, an aptitude for what you are interested in or vice versa. You have to witness it yourself and set your own parameters.

His teacher, whom  I like, and who knows my son very best 30 hours a week at school, described him as quiet and softly spoken little boy. Ha! I thought. I had the instinct to insert a load of jokes into my repertoire about not knowing who that boy was. But I do, or at least I can imagine him, he’s just my boy as he is for other people, a side of him I can never see without spying.

And that’s okay, but it does kind of kick into a cocked hat any idea that I can be an exam result peacock beyond something very superficial. My boy is different to my boy at school, the credit and responsibility is his. Even as young as 7.

My son snarls if I mess up on series link, dresses as a bear for the fun of it, has his own spotify playlist, sneaks pickled raw garlic with me in the kitchen, and asks for a custard pie in the face for every Birthday. I have no idea really about the little boy who did my boy’s SATs, but I don’t need to, he needs to keep finding his own connections with his own teachers and his own interests. At the moment he’s lucky enough to have the sort of environment and circumstances which make that possible.

The day son got his results and his report something far more significant happened. I ran to collect him from afterschool club, scuffing round the school corner at a sprint, tripping over the mound of bookbags on my way to find the sign out sheet and only to be greeted by an empty room.

Disastre! Son was playing outside. All the kids were outside.

This is good – BIG TICK – fresh air, fun for him, hooray. It is also a –BIG BAD CROSS for logistics.

When the kids are outside it means another three minutes (or even more if a shoe is lost in a bush or he’s smuggled yet another bloody toy into school and lost it).

Four minutes is a killer in the mad dash to get from one childcare venue to another and get his brother. Commuting doesn’t give me any elasticity. Beyond five minutes and we are fuck-a-doodle-fucked. And taking time to strategise is crucial when hoiking him out. The potential for a tantrum if I extricate him at the wrong moment of a game could mean we actually take longer than if I’m dead casual. And then we would miss the nursery 6pm cut off and we will ALL TURN INTO STONE.

I pause on the edge of the playground wondering whether being chatty, cajoling, or shouty will be most effective today. He and some friends are in some bushes, their shirts grime smeared, their hands and faces sticky and hot and dusty with discussing who is in charge of the game, which seems to be taking place in a cloud of parched earth and dry rhododendrons where the picnic area used to be.

One of the TAs who works at the club walks up. I don’t normally have much time for chat and today I am on the wire so I am only half listening.

‘I love your son’ she says, staring as I do across the hopscotch. ‘I love him. Look at him, Eh!’

I look. He is animated like a cross between Jim Carey and Scooby-Doo. White spaghetti legs flying out of polyester shorts, shoulders pulling back thrusting out his chest, shoulders looping up and back again, everything ranging around, as if enraged, the storm suddenly breaking into arm whirling outreach as he throws back his sweaty, sticky, sticky face and parts his lick-spittle rosey lips in a laugh.

I don’t know what I’m looking at, but I love it too. He’s exhausting to watch, total Loony Tunes.

‘Look Thatwoman,’ the TA carries on. ‘Everything he does he feels. His whole body is his smile. When he loves something it is all there. When he plays his whole body and his hair play’.

She was right. That’s my boy after all. The one without filter. WYSIWYG.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Diamonds And Pearls

Oh Maya Angelou. So beautiful and strong. It is so sad to know she's dead when her honesty and generosity with her own life and her raw story felt like such an open gift to everyone. 

She was one of the first authors who wrote about themselves that got in to my head. Her dancing, angry story of herself felt like a shout out into my teenage brain: she sang her uncaged heart out loud. Her words so easy to slip in to, but so hard to shake off.

If Toni Morrison is stuck for words, then I feel worried writing a shallow tribute. But it is funny reaching somewhere near middle age and realising, as your inspirations and heroines start to die, which ones you have lived closest to, and who has popped up unexpected to taunt, share, help and re-express themselves through your experience. I was such a dilettante in my youth, perhaps the only blessing of my wrinkles is the endless confirmation of that when I realise I finally have understood things I thought I knew, or become accustomed to knowing I don't know them.

I saw The History Boys last night. I don't love it but I do like the explosive ownership of the c-word from a teacher and the emphasis (in the film at least - I haven't seen the play) on the moments from films and books and plays which stick with us precisely as they reveal our lack of originality. I agree with Bennet's inspirational teachers: the best books are not those which are life-changingly original, but those which whenever, wherever, and by whomever they were written, express a thought which we had foolishly imagined was a thought unique to us. Be that thought joyful, shameful, clever or silly. We must only connect, and all that.

And the things we read which return to us at different stages, works we once knew well and then realise we never understood at all, or which we hated and then are re-revealed by a shared thought later, those are the ones we should cherish.  Lots of people have taken Maya's words and relived them, relieved at her generosity in sharing herself and the ease with which they can identify themselves or love her words with others. Nelson Mandela apparently read her poem And Still I Rise at his inauguration.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted, lies
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise

I remember inhaling Maya Angelou's poetry and prose the summer between my A Level years, along with a load of other books on a list given to me by my Head of English and my amazing teacher Geraldine Kelley. One of the lists, I can't remember whose, was in green ink on a piece of lined A4 paper. I kept it for years.

Between them, they set out to offer me a chance to build my knowledge of contemporary voices, offer my brain more than the well-worn rites of passage (On The Road, The Catcher in The Rye, Adrian Mole etc) and 'the classics'. All of them were books from my birth century if not my lifetime and, at 17, I'd only heard of some.

Those books that summer made it feel like life itself could learn and tell everything through poetry. Some of them made it shudder. Most of them confused me, or more shamefully, didn't and only confuse me now that I know how perky and ignorant I was then.

They were interesting bedfellows as they piled up by my mattress on the floor. Surrounded by teen girl tat and revision post-it notes. I can see them now. The best were mostly modern and blew my tiny mind when I thought literature meant Silas Marner, Heathcliffe and Cathy, and small uniform volumes with a penguin on the front (or, if I hadn't the cash, a Wordsworth daffodil on the spine).

The list books included Schindler's Ark, The White Hotel, Tales of The City, Staying On, Beloved, The Bell Jar, Moon Tiger, Midnight's Children, The Swimming Pool Library, To Kill A Mocking Bird, Unreliable Memoirs, The Female Eunuch (I think). Also PD James and Garcia Marquez.

Many of them I should re-read now, now that I can share my experience with the writers rather than take their words for it, or rely on a teen imagination and sense of drama to fill in the gaps.

But I think I'll start with Maya and Clive James (who is so reassuringly funny and wise and sincere) as I start to rebuild my blog again. I have noticed I have been away and think James' jolly and clever retelling of himself is a good combination with Angelou's soothing and straight up simplicity.

As I read the tributes and remember when I first met her writing, a lot of her words cut to the chase regarding why I stopped last year (and why I started in the first place).

I began this blog to look for things in the blankness and the madness of a changed world (mine). Changed by madness and sadness (postnatal depression), injury and joy, newness and epic blank exhaustion and confusion. These were bold sensations and for me thunderingly dull and exquisite. Epitomised by being a mother, confused by being a bear of little brain. But there were specifics too. An outrage about mental health, child bashing, battered feminism, broken bodies. A fury and a shame about what I had become, the sorry state of incontinence, the contradiction of my lucky heart and lips with their soft sweet-breathed babies to kiss and the violence of their arrival and the broken body and world they left me (that I am still shocked by and sorting out).

When Maya Angelou died yesterday, a friend posted a quote on Facebook. A quote which has slipped around my brain, like an ice cube in just too much whiskey for a respectable late-night glass, for years. Clinking up against the sides: floating, chiming, melting in. I shouldn't appropriate for myself, but I think it is okay to share in it a bit.

It is also from And Still I Rise. I like it because it is funny and warm and spiky and challenging and celebratory all at once. It holds great joy and self-possession and asks us to move outside our feelings about ourselves and be unintimidated by another person's confidence in her worth.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I have diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs

For me now, because I am a narcissist, and preoccupied with wimmins' things and bits, I like best her proud display of her intimacy and her challenge. Whatever we have to rise from, whatever privilege or lack, we can hold surprises and wealth in what we are and we certainly don't have to accept or be cowed by any expectations of our worth, confidence or lack of either.

And in this world of commercially accessible porn and women's bodies dressed up as show and tell, it is a salutary and necessary 'fuck you' to objectification too. Go Maya. I don't know what I have inside me, I know I don't have diamonds in my tush, just stitches and scars and contradictions, but I've remembered I have something and I think that is a good enough place to start.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

In Memoriam - Part II

My 6 year old son is more sentimental about the past than his Great Grandmother who was born in 1920.

And yet... he combines this nostalgia (for when he was a small boy, that day when I let him have 3 polos, the time he found a stick in the park, the birthday party three years ago on Hampstead Heath where he had to do a poo on a party plate because there was no toilet nearby) with such a ruthlessness.

Take TV. Fireman Sam, poor old Fireman Sam with his simple, manly heroism and simple tales of being a good sport - he's rubbish now, Elvis doesn't even raise a smile. All those hours spent in front of In The Night Garden and Tinga Tinga, now dismissed as wasted. They are 'nothing' and 'for babies'. I point out he liked them then - he replies, wistful about my endearing idiocy rather than his past, he didn't know what he could like because he hadn't seen Horrible Histories yet. Some things remain, we revisit horrible Histories from time to time, but we have emigrated to popcorn proper kidz TV.

Worst though buses are now officially, completely and forever just not all that. They aren't even shit (like Fireman Sam). They are just, you know, buses. The winning seat above the driver, that still matters, and newborn (now 3.5) and he vie for the best seats in the house, but all the Ferver is gone.

For those who don't know me, I wasted hours, days, months of my life looking at buses. I went to bus museums, became a member of the Transport Museum. I frequented greasy cafe after greasy cafe drinking wartime tea to sit and watch the 144s move off majestically in the rain. We had one of our worst journeys ever on Christmas Day 2009 in the car when it became apparent that apart from the four double deckers standing proud on the Muswell Hill roundabout stop there are no buses on Christmas Day. He cried all the way from N8 to Loughborough.

Mr Thatwoman once took him to the Isle of Wight bus museum open day. Spider-boy took his best mate (more of a train man himself) and got his dad to ring me from the pier to say 'There are so many buses mummy and they are ALL OLD'. They were both pretty discerning, and though forgiving of the different colours of buses from the war and other areas of the country, clear that proper buses are red (and double deckers). Which meant they were positively gleeful (and slightly condescending) to the queues of grown up IOW bus fanatics purring enthusiastically over a vintage London bus. 'We see buses like that everyday' he told one gentleman with the pearl cheeked wisdom of a true toddler sage.

When I was pregnant with newborn, a kind friend C took Spider-boy out with her while I had a scan. The scan, though thankfully fine, was much longer and more fraught than expected. Stuck on Tottenham Court Road, having gone on a date with him, eaten pizza and run out of chocolate buttons and bubbles she resorted to her last ditch plan (a final plan filled with great insight, resourcefulness and imagination I might add). She just took him to a bus stop. At that point he had reached his high point of obsession. Not yet four he could name most bus routes that went from North London into the centre. He used to quiz (and judge) adults on whether they understood the route of the 41 or 29. At the bus stop he asked which bus they were taking.

'You choose' she replied.

His mind is still boggled, I'm not even sure he could handle the choice now and then he was stumped: so used to being thrown on to whichever bus had space by a harassed parent late for something, he'd never been given such power or responsibility.

'Okay, let's just get on the next one which comes, whichever one it is' she soothed. And so they did. Just got on, marched to the top seat made of win, and 'drove' to Kentish Town. And then, in the stroke of genius from Friend C, they just got off and got on another, fairly happily trundling up and down a section of the city for another hour.

I tell that, merely to present one of the happiest days of his life; his passion was simple and true and specific, as all the most honourable passions should be.

And he had a collector's eye for specifics. It wasn't just the bus number he wanted to remember and discuss, Oh No. IT WAS THE ADVERT ON THE BACK which was the way he decided how to rank his spots. And there was only one advert that would do: The Lion King. Nursery staff who he has long since left behind still tell me about the days where he would stand by the window on tip toes waiting for a lion all through lunchtime. They eventually printed out a copy of the poster, so he could hold it tight and be persuaded to come and eat with the other children.

It was a fever, an obsession, and it was infectious. I became both addled with nerves and throbbing with joy, depending on what the back of a bus looked like. The worst, of course, were buses with nothing on. Then there were those with 'just a lady' (Mamma Mia!), 'horse' (War Horse), 'just writing' (several productions which dared to only show their title).

Husband and I started to live in fear that The Lion King would end its run, and we'd be damned to standing at the bottom of Turnpike Lane in the rain and mist for all eternity. How I cursed that fucking lion, intoxicatingly beautiful though his abstract design maybe.

And then one day, 2.5 years after it started, it stopped. A lion went past, and he didn't say anything. He smiled, benignly, not unkindly, but with something like sympathy, when I said: 'Yay LION' and went to high five him. Buses drifted off into the distance. He sometimes notes they are quite cool, and the best vehicle, but he's given half of his collection to his brother already, and re-utilised the others as enclosures in a zoo and props in gross out magic shows.

I on the other hand am left bemused and bereft. I sometimes forgive myself and point out a bus on the horizon. I tell him titbits - 'I saw a ghost bus today' I enthuse after seeing a learner driver one morning, and am greeted with gentle repetitious reprimands:

'Did you forget? Did you not remember that I don't like buses any more'.

His knowledge of the bus routes has faded, he's no longer bothered and more concerned to learn which Big cats can't roar or why some jokes are funny. But I still can't shake it, and feel slightly perturbed that newborn likes fire engines and making up rock songs. My son's easy transition is not so for me. Don't get me wrong, I'm no busspotter, but I was so immersed in that which gave him joy, that I feel oddly bereft. It was a sad day, and a salutary reminder that I'll always be playing catch up. 

Always one step behind. Today he went with his father to the zoo. Big cats have been replaced with horrific insects and arachnids. Fodder for pranks and playground boasting. It makes me feel terrible for all the times as a youth I poured scorn on adults trying to be 'in with the kids'. For sure some are pretending they aren't ageing, which is self-deluding and therefore futile and boring for others. But some? I think they are just trying to enjoy the easy rapour and shared enthusiasm, the vital interest and fun that you can experience with the young.

The very young are incapable of hiding their love, their one track mind obsessions with things. They are often bores on their favourite subject and yet the brutal sincerity of their early love, is something I can only envy as I scrabble to keep up, and mourn with fitful transport nostalgia.

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.