Why can’t we call a woman, a woman?

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Searching for a name at an early age…

There is a problem with the word ‘woman’. I am in my late thirties and, although I am racking my brains, I can’t actually recall being referred to as a woman. Ten years ago I would be called a girl, and now it is usually lady. Just today, a woman said to their child who was standing in my way, “move out of the way for the lady.”

I find myself doing the same. I feel awkward in referring to my peers as women, even though it is difficult to decide on a suitable alternative, when ‘girls’ is surely too babyish and ‘ladies’ sounds like a toilet or a day at Ascot. We were in a restaurant recently and I wanted my daughter to ask for her own juice. The waitress stood there expectantly, and I said, “tell the nice lady what you want.” Nice lady? At the last minute, saying ‘woman’ sounded all wrong, ‘waitress’ too menial and using the name on her badge too familiar. ‘Lady’ seemed to be the most polite term, but what is wrong with ‘woman’?

The French have a neat solution, calling their women ‘Mademoiselle’ – an elegant and graceful word (has anyone not grinned inside after being referred to as Mademoiselle?) – until they are married or noticeably over the age of thirty, and then ‘Madame’ – which has gravitas and dignity – thereafter. But in English, ‘Miss’ is outdated and ‘Mrs’ too much like ‘her indoors.’

Even the French word for woman – une femme – is not half as loaded as its English counterpart. ‘Woman’ sounds like a statement of gender: a police report, medical description (‘a 39 year old woman presenting with the following symptoms…’) or Carrie from Sex and the City affirming ‘I. AM. A. WO-MAN.’

It is natural to write the word ‘woman,’ but can you say it?

If there are problems with ‘woman,’ far worse is the lack of suitable names for a woman’s ‘bits.’ ‘Vagina’ is medical, cringe-inducing and unpopular, ‘fanny’ is old-fashioned and associated with Enid Blyton, not to mention it is what North Americans call their bottom (a bum-bag is a ‘fanny-pack’ in the US). Then there are the babyish names: ‘Foo-foo,’ ‘Woo-woo,’ and the unparalleled ‘Rudy Judy,’ that may work for the three-year old girl but not one ten years older. And it is rarely acceptable just to point or to pull a face and say “down there.”

A quick Google search on the issue highlights a webpage boasting ‘238 words for a vagina.’ 238, really? Surely that is more than the eskimos have for snow. But we don’t build our houses out of vaginas and nor do we melt them to make water. So why are we so obsessed with naming them? The answer may be that most of the 238 names were thought up by men. The vagina list includes names associated with semi-aquatic rodents, shellfish and Mexican food which conjure up fairly disgusting imagery and I doubt were invented by women to describe their own body parts: ‘beaver,’ ‘clam’ or ‘taco’ anyone? But I could be wrong.

In a desperate bid to to come up with an inoffensive moniker that wouldn’t cause undue embarrassment if our little ones shouted it across Sainsbury’s (which of course they do, all the time), we turn to euphemisms. My husband (only when absolutely necessary) will refer vaguely to our daughter’s ‘bits and pieces,’ which could equally be used to describe the contents of a toolbox. When a friend’s daughter asked recently where babies come out, she told her that they come out of your ‘front-bottom’. “I didn’t know what else to call it”, she whispered. And nor do any of us.

No doubt due to my hesitation to refer to her vagina at all, my four-year old daughter has christened hers, her ‘bo bo’. “Boys have willies and girls have bo-bos,” is what she tells me when taking a bath with her brothers. My failure has led to my child being forced to invent names for her body parts. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.

Is this a big social problem? Well, no, not really, but it is irritating, particularly since the difference for men in all this, is that there are fewer negative connotations. A ‘willy’ is so harmless that it is acceptable as a first name for a boy (I doubt there are many girl babies born these days with the name ‘Fanny’) and slang names for penis tend to denote strength and power (‘manhood,’ oh purleeease) or harmless comedy (‘mini [insert man’s name here]’). Admittedly, ‘dick’ has become a bit ridiculous and is now interchangeable with ‘idiot’ but it is not half as bad as ‘gaping axe wound.’ Why can’t vaginas have a non-sexual name as inoffensive and universally used as ‘willy’? One that doesn’t make you blush and cross your legs when you hear it?

Equally, we can refer to a man as a ‘man’ or a ‘guy’ without hesitating and worrying that we are saying the wrong thing. Women need to have a ‘guy’ equivalent: there are many alternatives to the word ‘woman,’ but most of them you wouldn’t want to be called. Perhaps ‘woman’ is the best option after all.

So, I have made a pact with myself to use the word ‘woman’ more regularly, rather than ‘girl’ or ‘lady,’ in the hope that I get used to it and no-one is mortally offended when I call them a woman. They certainly shouldn’t be. We will see. As to the vagina issue, I will let my young daughter lead the way: for our family, ‘bo-bo’ it is.

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Keep the Weetabix flying

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Singing, rather than talking, circa 1982

You wait years for your children to start speaking, imagining all the wonderful conversations you’ll have when they can finally communicate in words and not just point and say ‘ba!’ How you will have intelligent discussions over the breakfast table, rather than spending the time dodging flying Weetabix and wiping the jam off your jeans. How your children will be well-versed in classics, politics and morality and that this education will start when they are pre-schoolers listening attentively to your every word. They will be able to hold forth on any topic. They will be able to think for themselves.

The reality can be very different. What really happens when your children start to speak is that they then decide to shout very loudly at each other and at you. Rather than all copying the oldest, the four and two year olds mimic the one year old and they all chant in unison bashing their spoons on the breakfast table: “Ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma” as I fly around pouring juice into beakers and milk into bowls. They don’t want to discuss Brexit.

Here are some things that they do, however, like to do with their new found words:

i. Give their opinions (endlessly): 

From giving them the wrong coloured breakfast bowl (“red one, red one”), the wrong towel (“blue one, blue one”), the wrong pants (“I don’t want it Gruffalo pants”), the wrong coloured Zoggs swim toy (“purple one, purple one”), to the wrong type of toothpaste (“I want big girl toothpaste” – from my son), I fear I will never get this right. However, I can start to make things easier for myself, not by remembering the correct variations of crockery, swimwear and toiletries, which alters daily, but by ceasing to court their opinion at all. This avoids conversations such as the one below, which my two year old son and I have regularly:

“How about pasta for lunch today?”
“I don’t want it pasta”
“Peppa shapes?”
“I don’t want it peppa shapes.”
“Ham sandwich?”
“I don’t want it ham samich.”
“Pizza?”
“I don’t want it pitsa.”
*sigh*

ii. Repeating words and phrases: 

They have learnt a new word – wonderful! Their brains are like sponges, soaking up their surroundings. They even invent their own phrases and speak in nonsense sentences – all great for their developing imagination, surely. Then the four year old starts talking about bogeys all the time and magics up sentences such as this:

“I’m going to the bogey shop. I’m going to put my bogey in the bogey basket and go to the bogey shop” (collapses on the floor in hysterical laughter)

And the two year old thinks up a favourite nickname, in his case ‘smackybum’ which he calls everyone from his sports teacher to his grandfather.

“You’re cheeky,” says Grandad.
“I’m not cheeky, smacky bum.”

iii. Describing (mainly bodily functions):

Then they start to be able to describe the world around them and begin to use adjectives. A real leap forward in terms of their conversational prowess, you might think. For example, the other day my toddler was digging around in his nose, found a particularly disgusting bogey and then handed it to me saying,

“That’s a sticky one”.
“Thanks,” I say, suppressing the urge to wipe it on his tracksuit.

When I go to the loo, he follows me in, stands right next to me and then peers down behind my back into the toilet bowl,

“Doing a poo?”
“Er, no”
“Just wee wee?”
“Er, yes.”

He proceeds to pull half the paper from the roll and starts to polish my bare left buttock.

Yesterday morning, yes at breakfast again, a large raspberry sound ripples through the air, reverberating the radiators, loud enough to mask the music on the radio for at least three seconds. We all look at the two year old.

“From. My. Bum.” he announces proudly as my daughter collapses into fits of giggles and the one year old joins in, so as not to be left out, even though he doesn’t really understand.

iv. Criticising your parenting:

In my experience,this happens at around age four. Phrases that my four year old daughter has said to me in the last few weeks include:

“You’re not my best friend.”
“When I talk to Daddy, Daddy talks to me, but when I talk to you, you don’t talk to me.”
“You’re always talking to me. Stop talking to me.”
“Just don’t look at me.”
“Mummy, you’re always on your iPad” (when I’m looking up a recipe in an attempt to make them something other than pasta for tea.)

And, my particular favourite:
Mummy, you make everyone sad”.

Just when you think all is lost, the older children start to call each other “my darling” for at least twenty minutes before hitting each other again and my daughter says “Mummy, please may I have a napkin please Mummy” (as her Granny has taught her that young ladies use napkins).

At breakfast time, the Weetabix is still flying across the table but on the whole, they are eating their cereal and toast. No one is talking. It is bliss. I have given up on discussing classics, politics and morality. Surely Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote that “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”?

I make a vow never to try to talk during breakfast again.

(This post was featured as Blog of the Day on Mumsnet)

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To sleep, perchance to dream 

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I wrote the piece below a year ago when I had a new baby, a 22 month old and a 3 year old. It is a reminder that the stages of childhood are just that: a stage. Everything passes. This is both good and bad.

It is 5 a.m., I am in bed and a toddler is crawling on my head. In my bed are:

A) the toddler, my 22 month old son,
B) the baby, my 3 month old son who is not technically in our bed (of course not because I have read all the guidance on co-sleeping with multiple children etc, although yes he sometimes is when A is not there), but is surgically attached by way of a ‘bed nest’ locked to our bed,
C) A’s over-sized stuffed toy penguin which goes everywhere with him, named Pi-Ping,
D) A’s milk bottle, mostly spilt on our sheets which are now wet and sticky for all the wrong reasons,
E) a musical sheep with which I aim to build a virtual white noise wall between A and B,
F) miscellaneous dummies; and
G) an owl night light to aid breastfeeding since B and me can’t see in the dark and it’s pitch black outside since it is February and very gloomy.

Oh I nearly forgot, there is also:

H), my husband, a few feet away at the far side of the bed, legs and arms dangling over the edge, fighting for a share of the duvet with me and the rest of the zoo and at the ready to hit snooze on the radio in one hour’s time when the alarm goes off and all four humans will wake for another day (but not the animals, this isn’t a Disney film you know).

Disney, why am I even thinking about Disney? The beat of the musical sheep’s battery heart judders and stops and all I can hear is the breathing of the three male humans in the bed, becoming steady and slow. It is time to get some sleep but the soundtrack to Disney’s Tangled, which my three year old daughter loves, goes round my head. Flynn Ryder, the selfish anti-hero who gets to marry the lost princess, dancing on the bar at the Snuggly Duckling,

“I have dreams like you, no really,
Just much less touchy feely
They mainly happen somewhere warm and sunny
On an island that I own
Tanned and rested and alone
Surrounded by enormous piles of money.”

Oh what a dream. Tanned and rested and alone; is there a greater bliss? Why am I even thinking about this? There’s less than half an hour of precious sleep time to be had.

A shifts in his sleep, rolling so that he is horizontal across the bed, his head in H’s ribs, the soles of his feet pressing against my jugular. I rest my head against C and start to drift off just as the clock display flips from 5.59 to 6.00 and the alarm goes on. “Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.” A sits up, puts his face against mine and demands milk, B starts to cry. It is like Groundhog Day all over again and again.

That evening, I decide it’s time for A to sleep in his cot, to go to sleep on his own and to stay there. All night.

All the armaments are in place: items C, D, E and F, black-out blinds (not at all necessary in winter but I daren’t not use them); warm blanket under and on top of him; portable oil radiator set to medium; comforting orange night light which also plays soothing Mozart.

His breathing settles, grows steady and deeper. The eyelids start to droop and close, then ratchet open again, but soon begin to fall. I’ve told him that Pi-Ping is tired, that Mummy is going to have her tea now (when can I stop referring to myself in the third person? And will I even be able to now it’s a habit and an annoying one at that?), and that his siblings are asleep too.

I start to move, not daring to stand up, so I’m crawling on all fours, not quite commando-style but not far off either. The squeaking floor board under the blue carpet is my undoing, dammit. Suddenly he is bolt upright, like the handle of a garden rake whacking in the face the owner of an accidental foot on its prongs. He opens his mouth and wails. The orange light doesn’t give enough glow to see his face in detail, but I know I could see his tonsils if it did.

We start again. It’s now 8.25 p.m. In my head I’m unwriting my to-do list for the evening: mentally eliminating what it’s going to be possible for me to do before I get too tired and have to collapse into the zoo-bed. Eventually he settles but I wait at least twenty minutes before I dare to even open the door and crawl out into the corridor. Success! I’m only going to go downstairs, bung some sausages in the oven and check my emails but it feels liberating: this is what functioning adults do.

Reading this reminds me of how quickly things change. If I hadn’t written it down at the time, I wouldn’t have remembered (and clearly my brain was mashed). Last night, one year later, the same little boy climbed into bed, I read him a story and he fell asleep within 30 seconds and woke up 12 hours later (this was a good night). He still has items C, D and F but we all have vices, right?  So, just when you think that you can’t carry on with this level of sleep deprivation, the toddler begins to sleep. And then he stops eating or wanting to sit in his buggy and refuses to do anything except watch Paw Patrol. There is always something to deal with, but it’s never what you expect it to be. I guess that keeps things interesting.

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Investiture*

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Little boy kneels by the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
The 45th President-Elect of the United States is saying his prayers.

God bless Ivanka and keep her body tight.
Wasn’t it fun tweeting about Russia tonight?
Hollywood’s so cold and my daughter’s so hot.
Oh! God bless Tiffany — I quite forgot.

If I open my fingers a little bit more,
I can see Melania’s dressing gown on the door.
It’s Armani gold trim, a gift from Newt.
Oh! God bless Melania and keep her mute.

Mine has a hood, and I lie in bed,
And pull the monogrammed hood right over my head,
And I shut my eyes, and I curl up small,
And pray BuzzFeed doesn’t bury me under that wall.

Oh God, I wish Mommy were here today.
Cherry vanilla ice cream, with Vlad, Rex and Nigel to play.
But she never loved me, how could that be?
Everyone’s gonna regret being horrible to me.

Little boy kneels by the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
The 45th President-Elect of the United States is saying his prayers.

 

*With apologies to AA Milne and his wonderful poem ‘Vespers’

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My House is a “Squash and a Squeeze”

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Christmas 1979

Before Christmas, my husband and I were bemoaning our cramped living quarters overrun with under-5s and the trail of destruction left in their wake. Sticker books, paint pots and glitter on the dining table, three (yes, three) buggies in the hall, a toddler scooting around the kitchen, puzzle pieces and items of plastic (and non plastic) food behind the sofa cushions, 150 ball pit balls upturned onto the carpet.

“Our house is a squash and a squeeze!” said we. So, as we had learnt from Julia Donaldson, we asked a wise old man (let’s call him Santa) what to do. “Take in your hen. Take in your goat. Take in your cow,” said he. In the absence of such items in our immediate suburban vicinity, we took in a 7 foot tree, decorated it with yellow lights and gaudy baubles and placed red and gold parcels at its foot. We took in 45 Christmas cards and hung them from ribbons down the walls. We took in miniature animals in festive attire: a 20 inch reindeer, an owl sporting a woollen hat, a medallion-bearing baseball-capped Snowman which sang a rendition of Ice Ice Baby when you pressed its foot. Our children papered the front of the fridge with scribbles of goggly-eyed snowmen and stuck twenty pencil drawings to the bifold doors with festive tape. We took in candles, clementines, eight rolls of wrapping paper, bottles of champagne, platters of cheeses and boxes of chocolates. And we took in friends and relations: grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews and close friends.

“Wise old man, what do we do now?” “Take them all out,” said he. So we drank the booze, scoffed the chocolates and packed the relatives off onto trains and planes. And yesterday, while my husband took the children to bike and scoot at Bushy Park, I purged the house of all things Christmas. I packaged up the paraphernalia in tatty old boxes long ago marked with the words ‘Xmas Decs’ and put them back in the loft. I ruthlessly removed the festive drawings and stickers from the windows and household appliances and chucked them in the recycling. Gone are the festive candles in jam jars, the gingerbread men in snow domes and the seasonal stuffed animals. And you know what? The house is enormous. I could swing ten farmyard animals in the living room and I can see my face in the fridge door.

It is wonderful, liberating and just a bit disconcerting. With no pine needles to absorb the noise, our voices echoed around the living room yesterday evening and the one remaining vase looked lonely on the mantlepiece. We sat on the sofa, the children sleeping upstairs, and wondered what on earth to do when there was no wrapping, no hosting, no more excuses for Baileys and bumper biscuit selections. Get back to the day job seemed to be the solution, whatever that was, before festive hysteria swept away all notion of normal living. But we shall enjoy the temporary peace, calmness and ten minutes of tidiness before the new school term craft projects and the January sales fill the house with yet more possessions and there is no wise man available to tell us what to do with it all.

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Happy Hangovers! The Downside of Having Young Children During the Festive Season

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The festive season is a cruel mistress: she seduces us with the lure of parties, mingling with friends old and new and the promise of a night of fun that we can’t refuse – go on, you deserve it, she silently urges us. We think ‘no, no, what about our responsibilities?’ and then we our resolve weakens, we succumb, we forget who we are, don’t even care who we are anymore. The evening flashes by in a swirl of laughter, confidences, flashing lights, cocktails and dancing. We feel invigorated, exhilarated and invincible. Thank you kind mistress for mulled wine, tinsel and Noddy Holder.

But fast forward six hours and her merciless hand has lifted off the top of our skulls and poured a double amaretto directly onto our brains. The liquor has soaked into the mechanism and interfered with the wiring. The alarm is beeping, the sun’s rays are coming through the curtains, a baby is wailing from the other room and a toddler is bashing you over the head with a Tommee Tippee bottle. We raise our heads from the pillow, amaretto still sloshing around our skull, Sauvignon Blanc stinging our eyes and the best we can manage is a throaty ‘meh?’

There is only one thing worse than a difficult day with the children and that is a difficult day with the children and a hangover. Long gone are the days when our hangovers were fed, watered and indulged. Ten years ago, even six years ago, I would hide a weekday hangover behind a computer screen or by resting my head against the toilet roll holder for forty winks in the loos (classy). A hangover never saw a weekend before noon, and then spent most of the day buried beneath a blanket, a takeaway and the newspapers on the sofa. I staggered to the shops for provisions early one Sunday afternoon in April and saw a woman staggering towards me. It could have been me, I thought, until I noticed that she was in running gear and had a London Marathon medal around her neck. I briefly wondered whether I should be doing something better with my mornings, but the hangover coaxed me back to the couch before I had time for regrets and self-recrimination.

Nowadays, I feel as if I have done the equivalent of the London Marathon by midday. Young children are utterly dependent and devoid of pity. Worse, they are like tiny parents, punishing their adult children for dancing on tables at midnight. The baby awakes at 6 o’clock and I fumble around in the dark for milk, before my two year old climbs into bed, manoeuvres his wee-soaked nappy into my face and demands to watch Paw Patrol. Eleven episodes later, I stumble around in a panic, trying to put a nappy on my four year old and school shoes on the baby, while they fling bits of marmite toast and raisin wheats around the kitchen and my hot tea slowly cools untouched on the side. I am wearing sunglasses indoors even though it is 8.30 a.m. on a December morning.

So what is the solution? Stay at home and be tucked up in bed by 9 o’clock so that we are always ready for the next day? Go out but only have one drink and leave when the party is just getting going? Everything in moderation, as they say, but isn’t this a bit, well, boring? If we are hopeless at refusing that last glass of white wine, the only option is to grin and bear the hangovers and try to remember, when we am sitting in a heap and the children are swinging from our hair like mini-Mowglis in the jungle, that we are now in fact doing something better with our mornings.

‘Tis the season to be jolly (fa la la la la…)

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On the town age 18: could life have been better twenty years ago?

Hurray for Christmas party season; the time of year when I imagine myself to be the picture of sophistication in sparkling earrings, perfectly coiffed hair, immaculate make up and a flattering festive dress. Except nowadays the challenge is simply to get out the house without blobs of cheese in my hair and snot on my trousers.

Rewind ten years (twenty is too long ago for my baby-addled brain to recall) and the picture was very different. Here’s what I remember about (rose-tinted) pre-children party preparations compared to the current challenges of exiting the building in the evenings without three children clinging to my ankles.

Getting ready for a night out aged 28

5.30 pm – choose uplifting mood music; try on 14 different outfits with a variety of shoes, scarves and jewellery.

6 pm – relax in decadent bubble bath with a wide array of posh smellies; use deep conditioner; face mask; pumice stone and complete a thorough shave of all the necessary areas. Rise from the bath wrinkled, hair-free and smelling like the perfume counter at Debenhams.

6.50 pm – brush teeth, pluck brows, slather body in expensive scented moisturiser, then crack open a chilled bottle of Sauv Blanc.

7 pm – apply make-up carefully using serum, primer, concealer, foundation, powder, blusher, intricate eye make-up and lipstick.

7.30 pm dry and style hair whilst dancing to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

8 pm – after 17 texts and calls to finalise the sartorial decisions, finally leave the house in chosen party dress and glamorous fake-fur jacket, 4 inch heels, a cloud of Coco Chanel and a sequined evening bag bursting with make-up for mid-evening reapplications, folding flat shoes, cash, bank card, keys, phone.

Simple, huh?

Getting ready for a night out aged 38

5.30 pm – feed whining, snotty children beans on toast and Petits Filous, then get baby yogurt hands in your hair when on all fours wiping the kitchen floor with a paper towel.

6 pm – relaxing bath-time (for the 3 children): do laps of the landing as you chase the hyperactive toddler who is screaming ‘no bath, no, no NO, don’t want it BATH’; dunk three of them in the bath and pour a jug of water over their heads and stick a toothbrush in their mouths; stop the older two drowning the baby and poking him in the eye with the toothbrush handle; get weed on by the baby as he sits on your lap in a towel; retrieve pyjamas and nappies after the toddler throws them over the bannister and finally wrestle them into their night-clothes after a bribe of ten episodes of Peppa.

6.50 pm – stick on Peppa Pig and while they are momentarily distracted brush their hair, wipe their noses, apply Vicks to coughing chests and crack open a carton of blue-top milk.

7 pm – during the quiet TV time: stop the oldest two from kicking each other; ask your daughter not to pull down her pyjama bottoms and pretend to do a poo on her brother; pick up all the puzzles and toys that the baby has pulled from the cupboards and dodge the plastic balls that the toddler is chucking around the room.

7.15 pm – drag them up to bed with the lure of stories, dummies, extra milk and cuddly toys. Read the Gruffalo, the Gruffalo’s Child, What the Ladybird Heard and Room on the Broom.

7.30 pm – explain to the crying four year old that you’re only going out for your tea and the babysitter is LOVELY; placate crying toddler with third bottle of warm milk and change crying baby’s 4th pooey nappy of the day.

7.50 pm – dig out a pair of moderately clean jeans and a crumpled sparkly top (which you wear over a thermal vest).

7.55 pm – wash pits with old flannel; clump mascara onto eyelashes; dry shampoo hair; change pants; locate some old earrings; run toothbrush over front teeth and in your haste spray Coco Chanel in your eyes.

8 pm – offer babysitter a glass of Sauv Blanc and run from the house as if from a crime scene in a pair of comfy boots, with some tissues, an old lipgloss, keys and bankcard shoved in the pockets of your winter coat. Text babysitter from the taxi to check that everything is ok.

Ah, life in my late thirties. Wouldn’t change it for a moment (ha!).

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Not waving, but washing

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We have a magic washing bin in our house. Every time I empty it, I open the lid again and it’s full. Full of tinned spaghetti-stained t-shirts, milk-soaked cot sheets, muddy mini-jeans, dribbled-on dribble bibs, and socks. Tons of socks. With pro-creating comes mounds of washing. One follows the other. It would appear to be the natural order of life. Then there’s my clothes: clean every morning but peeled from my body at the end of the day covered in a variety of saliva, snot, baby sick, wee, poo and milk. If it emits from a bodily orifice, I wear it, not quite with pride.

With a household of five, there’s at least five washes a week: a dark one; a light one; a bedlinen one; a wool one and probably another dark one for good measure. Get it wrong at your peril: a woollen jumper in a hot wash or a tissue in a pocket can ruin the whole morning. Some people find doing the washing satisfying in some way: the sorting into colours, the array of products to tackle every stain; the clean detergent smell when the clothes are hung to dry; the folding; the putting away. I find it tedious and never-ending. I am drowning in washing.

So I spoke to my mother. She says that I have it easy. When she was a mother of young children in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she spent every morning standing at the twin tub washing terry cloth nappies. I didn’t really understand what this meant so she explained the process. First she disposed of the paper liner (i.e. the part that held most of the excrement) and disinfected the nappies in a bucket. The twin tub, now a mythical beast, was a rectangular appliance about a metre long by half a metre wide. My mother would fix its pipe to the sink tap and fill up the drum with hot water. She then added a pile of nappies with detergent and the agitator in the drum would swish the nappies around, before she lifted them out with tongs, rinsed them in the sink and spun them in the next section of the drum. Then they were hung out in the garden or on a clothes horse. Only the nappies were done separately; when she was washing clothes, she would use the same water, putting the whites in first, then the coloureds and, finally, jeans. I’ve no idea what I was doing during this whole process, but I assume this is why my mother’s generation put their babies in their prams in the garden for the morning.

But then she had it easy, compared to my grandmother. In the ‘50s, she had a square Parnall washing machine and an electric wringer. She had to feed each item of clothing through the wringer and then back again. Her mother, my great grandmother, had an old copper boiler (i.e. a large pot) in her kitchen. It had a gas ring underneath which heated the water for the clothes. The clothes went into the boiler and my great grandmother poshed them up and down with a wooden dolly. She didn’t have a spinner, or a wringer. My mother remembers squeezing out sheets in the yard; one person at one end, another at the other. She had a flat iron too, that she heated on the gas stove and then spat on to see if it was hot enough.

By this point I am thinking of my Hotpoint washing machine and tumble dryer with an emotion similar to fondness. I often put on a ‘goodnight cycle’ when I go to bed and in the morning the dirty washing is clean. I cannot imagine a copper boiler, a wooden dolly. I also have a sense of guilt: at least they reused their nappies. I don’t want to calculate the volume of landfill that I have contributed to, by putting three children in disposables. I imagine the ground filling with pyramids of nappies containing cold excrement, like Ferrero Rocher on a platter at the Ambassador’s drinks party. I don’t know anyone who uses cloth nappies and I wonder why they are not more popular when we try to be ‘green’ in other aspects of our lives. We recycle our cardboard, compost our food and worry about waste, but we draw the line about recycling the nappies. I guess we want to maintain the simplicity of our lives; we don’t want to return to the hardships of our mothers and, let’s face it, we’re still squeamish about shit.

It is also because I am aware of the one constant in my generational scenario: it is still me, the mother, that does the washing or the majority of it at least. My four-year old daughter likes to fold the clothes; my two-year old son kicks the neatly formed piles like leaves in a park. I will try to teach them both to help with housework but I wonder what position my daughter will be in in thirty-odd years time. I hope that her generation will be eco-minded enough to use cloth nappies but perhaps by then there will be a magic robot-pixie to complement the magic washing bin, who sorts, washes, dries, folds and puts away the clothes.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday

 

My Petit Canard
Pink Pear Bear
Mummuddlingthrough
Cuddle Fairy

Beware of the bear: motherhood’s changing perspective of fear

img_0606My toddler woke up and after a half-hearted rendition of Wheels on the Bus, I managed to get him to stay in his bed and go back to sleep. It’s the dead of night and I’m now wide awake, considering the possibility that if we ever move to or holiday in North America, the children might be attacked by a bear. The scenario could play out thus: we are all going on a drive and my husband stops the car to take a leak behind a tree, when out of nowhere a great big grisly bounds towards the car gnashing its gnarly teeth. What would I do? Gnash my own gnarly teeth at it? Aim the Dettol antibacterial spray in its eyes? Play the Peppa Pig soundtrack on full volume until it collapsed on the forest floor paws over its ears, defeated? I probably wouldn’t even have phone reception to call a ranger, but the only one who springs to mind is Yogi Bear’s adversary, Ranger Smith. Why am I even thinking about this? The gruesome bear attack scene from The Revenant is clearly still with me.

There was a time when I would have laughed in the face of the bear. On a driving holiday through California circa 2011 with my boyfriend (soon to become fiancé on a beach just off Highway 1), we stopped at Yosemite. ‘Beware of the bear’, said the signs. Ha! Bring on the bear, I thought. Once we left the glorious park I was a disappointed not to have spied a grisly. We saw some deer, but it’s not really the same. Likewise canoeing through the crocodile-infested rivers of southern Venezuela in a dugout boat, I was searching eagerly for the crocs. In a floating raft somewhere in Southern Africa I enjoyed the steady gaze of the watching hippos from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees (it wasn’t the Limpopo but you get the drift). Clearly had I been confronted by a potentially deadly wild animal, I would have been terrified, as any sheltered middle-class English girl would be. But also I think I would have been more than a little bit thrilled.

Now I’m here in blissful suburbia, perfectly safe and warm in the middle of the night, having cold sweats about bears I will most probably never see. What has changed? Yes, I’m older but in my mind there’s only one difference: the C word. Children. I am now a mother which means that I will never again – or at least until they are old enough to get their own mortgage (and maybe not even then) – view motor vehicles, open windows, open water, and any implement with a sharp point as anything other than a object of danger to be avoided. But I’m mostly talking about irrational fears here. We all know that there are plenty of accidents and illnesses that can and do happen to children of all ages, which are too terrible to even contemplate here, but there are also things that if I stopped and thought about it, probably aren’t going to occur. When my baby was very tiny, I used to be anxious about being so tired that I would put him in the washing machine with all the clothes by mistake. My stomach would churn with the washing machine drum as I imagined the horror of realising my terrible error. Could it really happen? It would be a bit like putting a baby in a handbag and a manuscript in a perambulator. In reality, I don’t know how tired I would have to be to make that mistake.

There’s a wider point here, in that if I’m cosseting my children (and I think I’m not the only one?), is it because of truly rational concerns, or am I shielding them from my own improbable fears? They are already scared about the Gruffalo in the cupboard without me following them around like a shadow lest they escape from the house and attempt to hitchhike to the airport or (more likely) unscrew the battery compartment of the remote control. I’m not suggesting that I let my four year old scoot alone to school and play solo in the woods, but perhaps I need to mindful of imparting my own fears onto her and her brothers as they grow older.

To have a child is to sign up for a lifetime of worry; it is a pure and primal parental instinct. Like the mother bear in The Revenant, we take offensive and defensive action to keep our offspring safe at all costs. We’re all animals, after all. And if my over-active imagination burdens me with irrational night-frights, it’s not such a high price to pay. Once the dawn and three demanding children have helped me to regain my sense of perspective, we will watch Jungle Book under a blanket on the sofa and I will pretend that bears are all like huggable Baloo.

(This post was featured on the front page of Mumsnet)

My Petit Canard
Pink Pear Bear
Mummuddlingthrough
Cuddle Fairy

iOS SOS

img_0487
Letter from Uganda, April 1997

I am yet to meet someone who isn’t irritated or frustrated by iOS 10, the recent Apple update. While the Silicon Valley technocrats salivate over the new predictive emojis, advanced fingerprint recognition and new-look email chains, the rest of us miss recording our child’s first steps as we can’t get beyond the home button to access the new-style camera. It is less iOS 10, more iOS 101.

iOS 10 and the issues it spawned are just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that our lives are becoming totally over-technologised. I want to do something simple: communicate with a friend, say, but I have about eight methods of choice of how to do this and the one I never choose is to pick up my phone and call them. My phone isn’t really a phone anymore; it is a device of vast capabilities way beyond my basic understanding (although my children seem to have a good grasp of it). It is a mini-computer, game-centre, TV, diary, camera; it is a portal to the outside world. I am sure Siri would know if a butterfly was flapping its wings in Japan.

Take a break from the online arena at your peril: a few months or years is comparable to decades here. I took a backseat to have children and when I emerged blinking into the virtual sunlight, it had moved on, quite considerably. Everyone seemed to know what a meme, GIF and emoji was and the hashtag was ubiquitous. The sophistication and evolutionary pace of online communication is breathtaking. Where do people learn these things and how do they have time?

I dusted myself off, downloaded 43 App updates and dived in. I was met with an onslaught of information; a relentless bombardment of images, articles, status updates, tweets, messages, videos. I want to go to sleep, the baby will be up in six hours time, but still I keep scrolling through my Facebook feed. I seem to be afflicted by the very modern phenomenon of excess communication. How is it possible to keep up with social media, let alone the rest of your life? There is so much to know these days, but how much of it do I need to know? I would like to read a book, a newspaper, but I spend so long reading other people’s Twitter chats that I have used up all my precious evening time and the Sunday papers (yes, hard copies) remain neatly folded on the coffee table. My husband sits next to me, scrolling on the iPad, on which my browsing history appears as pop-up adverts for shoes, holidays and children’s toys; the exposure of my thought process. Sometimes we favourite each other’s tweets or like each other’s messages. It is an absorbing habit that is difficult to break.

Yes, I have bought into this, both financially and by way of lifestyle, but sometimes I think that I am just the wrong generation: not quite forty, but not twenty either. Born ten years too late for technology to have been a big part of my childhood, I grew up with PacMan and thirty minute Computing classes once a week at school. We went orienteering with a map and a compass, friends were real and not virtual and if we lost them in town on a Saturday afternoon we had to use our initiative to find them again. I used to write letters to my friends, handwritten in ink, with little drawings in the corners. They wrote to me too, when I was abroad or even just at home, and I have kept all of them. The internet was coming into common usage as I was leaving home for university. It was twenty years ago but in today’s terms, I am a dinosaur.

I took out a pen and paper on the underground recently and started to write. “What the hell is she doing?” the carriage-full of people silently enquired, and craned their necks to see what I was writing. I felt like a spy from another era, recording secret notes on my clandestine mission.

If I feel overwhelmed and confused, what about my parent’s generation? When my mother was born in 1947, there were no TV’s at home, war had been announced to the nation eight years’ previously by Neville Chamberlain on the wireless, and apples and blackberries were fruit that went into a crumble. She is 70 next year but she doesn’t think that she is old and to be fair to her, she is grappling admirably with her smart phone and sends regular photos to our family WhatsApp group from far-flung corners of the world. The first time she used a sat-nav she spent the entire motorway journey sat panic-stricken in her Toyota Yaris in the fast lane, no doubt holding up a train of faster cars behind her, as the nice woman kept telling her to ‘keep right’. She didn’t realise that it meant ‘don’t turn off’. My father rarely uses a mobile phone and never texts, as it takes him too long to put all the semi-colons into his perfectly formed sentences. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter if you are 70 or 40; if you grew up thinking that a tablet was a slab of stone or a pill that you ingest, then all your social media skills will be acquired rather than innate and therefore slightly alien.

Most of us, young and old, are embracing this new way of living to such an extent that we can’t function without our preferred technological device by our side at all times, day or night. And I am in absolutely in no doubt about how useful it can be or about how I will return to loving Apple products once I figure out how to work them again. I used to say that of all my possessions I would rush back to save from a house fire, it would be my photo albums; now I would save my Mac, iPad and iPhone. They are a bit like my three children; I couldn’t choose between them (the real children in this scenario are safely sat in the fire engine, playing with the controls). Let’s just hope that the Cupertino innovators put their feet up for a couple of years and let the rest of us enjoy the status quo.

In my more wistful moments, however, I think back to an earlier, more simple age of communication and I find that I miss the traditional hall phone, with its circular numbered dial and the message pad and pencil next to it on the table. I miss lifting the telephone receiver and saying the house phone number: “570882, hello?” I miss being unavailable.