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
Cuddle Fairy


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.

Even the Boss gets the Blues (reflections on the changing nature of stadium gigs)

Off to see U2’s Zooropa Tour at Wembley Stadium, 1993

So Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography is at the top of the book charts and in it he admits to having suffered from depression for many years. In some ways, it is reassuring to discover that a hugely successful, happily married, multi-millionaire rock idol suffers from his own demons, but in other ways it is faintly disquieting: if he is depressed, what hope do us lesser mortals have?

At a warm and friendly Wembley stadium this summer, Bruce looked to be having the time of his life and perhaps he was, as he writes in his autobiography: “There is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away [and] lets the sun in.” And the crowd looked as if they agreed with him. We came for the music, the dancing, the experience, to remember and to forget. Whether you’re a couple on a rare night away from the children (yup, that was us), an inebriated twenty-something there for the greatest hits, a jacketed corporate type or a die-hard fan sporting a 92-93 tour t-shirt, there is something about the collective unspoken agreement to enjoy yourselves that is a great leveller.

The other thing that we had in common was our ability to illuminate the pitch with the lights of thousands of mobile phones; taking videos, posting Instagram photos and checking in on Facebook. A couple next to me took a smiling selfie, hands in each other’s jeans pockets and then didn’t speak or touch for the three and a half hours that the Boss was on stage. The modern phenomenon of the general public looking down at their phones rather than up at the world around them seems to be no different at a rock concert. Bruce didn’t seem to notice and if he did, he was probably used to it.

Things were different in 1993, when my friends and I went to our first stadium concert to see U2’s Zooropa Tour, back when Wembley had twin towers rather than an arch. We were 15 and my Dad (who I am amazed let his unworldly suburbanite daughter go) took us there and then drove around north-west London until it finished. As someone who is now reliant on a mobile phone to make and change plans of any sort, I have no idea how he found us again, amidst the other 80-odd thousand people. But he did and that was just how life worked those days: we looked around us, talked to each other and didn’t have a panic attack if we couldn’t Whatsapp as there was no 4G.

For Bruce at Wembley, it could have been the early 90’s: the show was him, his guitar, his harmonica and his super-cool, and may I say, also ageing gracefully seven-piece E-Street Band. There was no lighting extravaganza, no professional dancers, no gimmicky props and no need for any of that. In the mass-media digital age, people still came bearing cardboard plaques with song requests and messages for Springsteen: “I got Mary pregnant too…”

But the present day was never far away: during a slow-tempo, guitar solo rendition of Thunder Road, one chap’s attempts to slow-wave a lighter in his hand were met by sniggers from the people around. It wasn’t retro, you could almost hear them thinking, it was just pointless. Why wasn’t he watching the show through the phone of the person in front like the rest of us? All in all, some things have changed but the basics stay the same. The maxims of concert-going, whether you are 15 or 38, remain: take your own loo roll, wear decent shoes that you don’t mind getting sticky, do buy a t-shirt, don’t buy a burger and watch out for the flying bottles of beer. The gathering of souls will do the rest.

Ryder Cup blues

img_0352It amazes me that my husband has watched the Ryder Cup on TV every night this week and the tournament only started today. Apparently the build up is really important.

In truth, the Ryder Cup is probably the most interesting tournament there is for a golf layperson like myself and we all know that there are a lot to choose from. After all, there are only three certainties in life: death, taxes and continuous coverage of golf tournaments on Sky Sports. I am not completely disinterested – I have some awareness that I must have acquired by osmosis: I know my foursomes from my fourballs; I know the names of the four majors; I know that Rory McIlroy won $10 million for playing a game of golf last weekend. I even went to huddle under an umbrella in 2011 at the final day of the Open on the Kent coast, hanging like a dog after being a bridesmaid in Dorset the day before. Now that’s commitment to the cause.

So what’s the beef with golf? Firstly, it’s the time commitment, whether you’re watching it or playing it. Golf clubs are only positioned at least an hour’s drive from where you live, preferably somewhere windswept on the coast (why?); if you factor in the drive, the 18 holes, the time spent at the 19th hole afterwards, it’s a good day out. For him. For me, it’s a bit dull: he has the car and I have three young children to entertain at home or in the immediate vicinity.

It wasn’t always thus. Pre-children, we both enjoyed our Saturdays pursuing our own hobbies, although mine tended to focus on shopping or lunching with friends. More fool me: these pursuits are the first to fall by the wayside when children enter the picture. I expect I should have taken up a ‘proper’ hobby, such as, I don’t know, learning how to iron maybe, that would have set me in good stead for future domestic duties. Still, I mustn’t grumble. My husband plays very little now and I (occasionally, after having had a glass of wine) encourage him to go to play more than he does; I like the fact he is passionate about a sport he is good at it and it is something he has done since he was 11 years old.

So the real beef, the real pink-in-the-middle chateaubriand for two, is about the golf clubs. Why are they still bastions of male tradition and exclusivity, with outdated rules and unnecessary conventions? When my mother-in-law came to pick up her young son from the club, she was turned away for wearing leggings. Yes this was nearly 30 years ago but unlike most of the rest of society, I’m not sure that things have changed much. When I went to the club many moons ago, I put on three-quarter length trousers, a pastel coloured polo shirt and a baseball cap. How ridiculous! One of my husband’s clubs (yes, there are two), only allowed women to become members last year and the handful of women I know of who play, took up the sport so that they can join in with their husbands and sons. But the clubs themselves are not exactly family-friendly and yes, I guess that this is the point. They are little pockets of old school Englishness, closeting away acres of glorious woodland and green spaces for the privileged few to enjoy. I don’t see them inviting me and the rugrats down to throw food around the jackets-only restaurant or for a romp on the putting green. Why no kid-friendly cafe? Why no windowless soft-play with a million brightly coloured plastic balls? No wonder the men flock there on a Saturday morning: the blissful peace and quiet is pure escapism.

But for this weekend only, I’ll join my husband on the sofa in front of the dedicated Ryder Cup channel, and cheer on Team Europe in their matching sunglasses. You never know, we may not be eligible to be on the team once we leave the EU: finally, I have found an upside to Brexit. (Joke, honey)

Apologies to the 1996 Epsom team whose photo I have made unauthorised use of. It’s a goody though.

The best things about having 3 children under 5 (yes, really)

Disclaimer: not all of these children are siblings and we may not have all been under 5, but to me this photo is the perfect reason to have 3 young children

It would have been much more straightforward to compose a piece on the subject of the worst things about having 3 children under 5 years old: including for example the nightly waking-up relay; sobbing infants clinging to various parts of my body; Peppa Pig on repeat; going anywhere or doing anything being a logistical nightmare; the constant battle to keep them amused; Weetabix stuck between my toes after every breakfast.

But that seemed unnecessarily negative. As much as I can find myself wishing away great swaths of time, the other part of me knows that one day in the not too distant future, I will hark back to this period as a happy time of innocence, (relative) harmony and sleep-deprived simplicity.

So here are my top 8 great things about having 3 under 5 (I was aiming for 10 but I got stuck – any suggestions welcome…)

  1. Finally, I’m funny!: When I do my distracting-them-at-tea-time totally crap juggling routine with two satsumas, they laugh hysterically and nearly fall off their chairs with amusement. Clearly, this one has a shelf life.
  2. Their friendship: They are close enough in age to enjoy playing with (or fighting over) the same toys and my oldest says that her little brothers are her best friends (I know this won’t last forever). She can even interpret my toddler’s words when I can’t (“Eye sore Ugg?” /“No, Mummy, he saw a slug” /“Aaaah”)
  3. Every day is a new day: Even if one of them (or me) has been grouchy or emotional the day before, they don’t remember. Or if they do remember, they don’t mind. Their little brains neither judge nor bear a grudge. And when they wake up each morning they are refreshed, happy and full of bounce. I hope one day that will rub off on me.
  4. The physical work out: I am so used to carrying a child in each arm (usually whilst avoiding the lego bricks on the stairs) that I am sure I could now hold my own in an arm wrestle, which I never used to be able to do. I imagine that I am Jeff Goldblum from ‘The Fly’ snapping the wrist of my opponent due to my brute force.
  5. Assistance with menial tasks: I can say ‘who wants to help water the garden?’ and they say ‘me, me, ME’ and run outside with their small plastic watering cans while I issue directions from the lounger. They even have a mini broom and dustpan and brush, and when I say ‘whoever sweeps all the food from the floor first can help me sort the washing’, they sweep and brush with even more determination.
  6. The welcome home: When I return home after an absence, long or short (usually short), they run or crawl with delight to the front door and nearly knock me over.
  7. The excuses: I can get away with being a bit rubbish on most fronts and it doesn’t usually seem to matter. Late for an appointment? I’ve got 3 children under 5! Forget a birthday? I’ve got 3 children under 5! Sainsbury’s delivery man waiting on the doorstep? Not volunteered for anything at school? Absent from the office Christmas party? Ditto, ditto, ditto.
  8. The smallness of their world: Their lives revolve around our little family and they copy what they see with their own miniature versions of adulthood: they push buggies, shove dolls under their jumpers and strut around in our shoes saying ‘hello, I’m too busy’ into plastic phones. If they have a problem they come straight to me, and I can usually fix it. And when they want comfort they can fit on my lap, sometimes all three of them together.

When I started writing this piece a while ago it was called ‘the best things about having 3 children under 4’ – but without me having had much to do with it, they got older. Maybe that is the best and the worst thing.

This Mum's Life

Advice I would give to my daughter on her first day of school (if she were old enough to understand)

7 September 1982

You’ve got the uniform (which is a bit big admittedly; I have to hunt for you beneath the green cardigan and sunhat), the smart new shoes (comfy but not too snug a fit that we won’t try to make them last the whole year), the water bottle (does everything have to be Smiggle these days?), the PE kit and the book bag (will you really be reading real books soon?).

So what else can I give you?

Well, the answer is probably, ‘not much’. I can’t come with you into the classroom: the chairs are too flimsy for me to sit on and green gingham just isn’t my style. There are a few things I’d like to say to you though, some of them based on my own experiences of early school life many moons ago, which you can read at a later date (when you can actually read):

  • I know you think that school is going to be like a fun playdate which you do on one day and then go to the park the next. I’ve tried to break it to you that school is somewhere you will go most weekdays for a long time. In truth, you started learning the moment you were born and I hope you’ll go on learning for the whole of your life, so if you decide you’re going to enjoy it then that’s half the battle.
  • Don’t be too shy to answer questions. If you think you know the answer to something, just give it a go. Being wrong isn’t a bad thing and it’s good practice to learn how to be wrong.
  • Likewise, if you need to go to the loo, please don’t wait until it’s too late to ask your teacher otherwise you’ll be wearing spare clothes for the rest of the day. Hopefully it won’t be the brown 80’s style dungarees that I had to wear.
  • Appreciate your teachers: they work hard and their day doesn’t finish at 3.10pm. You’re lucky in that I hope most teachers that you encounter will actually like teaching and like children. This wasn’t always the case in the history of the English schooling system.
  • Best not to take all your clothes off when you’re in the classroom and run around shouting ‘I love my bum bum, I love my bum bum’ like you do at home.
  • On that note, never stop loving your bum bum; it’s just that silent appreciation may be the way to go.
  • When you’re older, if we try to palm you off with your aunt’s 30 year old hockey stick which isn’t even regulation size any more, like my parents did to me, don’t stand for it. We may say that we are trying to build your character but actually we are just being a bit tight.
  • Love the friends you make: you never know, they may be your friends when you’re as old as me. I am still friends with a number of my primary school classmates; two or three of them I would count as my closest friends even now.
  • Try to be friends with boys as well as girls; they may not like playing with dolls as much as you do but it’s good practice for later life.
  • That said, not everyone is going to be your friend. You know how your little brothers annoy you, just as my little brother annoyed me? Well, other people in life will probably annoy you too, but don’t try to strangle them or pinch their faces. Just be nice, and I hope you’ll find that most people are nice to you as well.
  • If your drama teacher asks you to be a weasel in the school production of Toad of Toad Hall, just say politely but firmly, that you think you’d be better as a rabbit.
  • Remember last week when we put you on a climbing wall for the first time and you climbed right to the top without looking down? At first, I wanted to grab hold of your ankle so that you wouldn’t go any higher but in the end I let you go and I watched until it hurt my neck to keep looking at you. I think that starting school will be a bit like the climbing wall. So keep going, don’t look back and try to give me a little wave from the top if you remember. And whatever Pink Floyd might say, to me you’ll never be just another brick in the wall.image
  • Finally, don’t worry. The likelihood is that you’re not going to remember this day. Your father and I, however, will never forget it.

When is a holiday not a holiday?

In France circa 1987. We were a bit older (and therefore ‘easier’) than my children at this point…

It’s summer holiday time: that must mean lazy days sipping cocktails by the pool, long lunches followed by indulgent siestas and G&Ts in the early evening sunshine. Erm, no. One of the hardest adjustments to having children is accepting the reality that the annual holiday has changed unrecognisably. In fact, it’s no longer a holiday; it’s like being at home, but worse: the children are even more excitable than usual, they rise at dawn, demand ice cream for breakfast, run around in pants like Mowgli, go feral and pee in the flowerbeds, don’t let you nod off on the lounger even for a second in case they fall in the pool /slip and hit their head /run off and get lost or abducted. And try putting sun cream on hot, sticky, sand-covered and writhing octopi-offspring.

And that’s not even the worst part. Nope, much more hair-pullingly stressful and, at times, excruciatingly embarrassing, is the actual preparation for and journey to your place of paradise.*

1.       Going away pre-children

a)      A month before you set off you cut down on chocolate and take up running. It doesn’t do much but you feel better about wearing a bikini (not realising that your 20-something body is pert and toned compared with what is to come. Yup, that’s the best it’s gonna get).

b)      You organise a haircut, mani/pedi, wax and spray tan for a few days before you head off.

c)       You plan your day and evening outfits well in advance, with co-ordinating shoes, bags, flowing scarves and jewellery. You have three different bikinis, sarongs and a large sunhat.

d)      Your suitcase is full of heels, toiletries and make up. In your small handbag there is a Kindle stocked up with great summer reads.

e)      The night before you leave you read the Lonely Planet and make a iPod playlist especially for your interesting and far-flung destination.

f)       At the airport, you wheel a well-behaved suitcase behind you, head for the bar and hope that there aren’t any young children seated near you on the plane.

g)      During the flight you have a glass of wine and watch the latest feature film.

h)      You return two weeks later, tanned, well-rested and probably quite hungover.

 2.       Going away post-children (3 young ones, to be precise)

a)      A month before you set off you make a six-page spreadsheet of things to buy, to take and to do, which you keep adding to at 2 in the morning when you awake in a panic. You still forget your phone charger.

b)      You clip your toenails one evening when you’re sitting on the loo.

c)       You make a last-minute internet purchase of a “flattering one-piece swimsuit”. There’s no such thing as ‘bikini-ready’ any more.

d)      Last season’s maxi dress for evenings lies crumpled in your suitcase beneath bottles of ready-made formula, plastic musical toys and inflatables. Your enormous hand luggage holdall contains snacks, tissues, nappies, wooden cars, dummies, Frozen stickers, Lemaze crunchy toys and board books.

e)      You do 7 loads of washing the day before departure and in the evening you sit weeping beside piles of unironed laundry. Your holiday playlist consists of the Frozen soundtrack and 8 Julia Donaldson audio books. There are 32 episodes of Peppa Pig on the iPad as they love Peppa.

f)       After a noisy ride in the too-small airport taxi, at the airport there are long queues for your budget airline and the children keep running away, so you push a buggy with one hand and pull a toddler along the polished floor by the ankle with the other. There is no time for the coffee and pastry you’d been hoping for so you all eat Garibaldis.

g)      On the flight you have a kicking toddler on your lap. He wants to lie on the floor and your only potty-trained child needs the loo but the ‘seatbelts’ sign is displayed for most of the bumpy flight. They won’t share the iPad. They now hate Peppa. The baby is crying and sicking up the milk that you gave to placate him. The person sitting next to you who was initially friendly sits stony-faced with spilt squash in her lap and crumbs from your children’s Organix snacks hand-printed on her shoulder.

h)      You return home two weeks later, exhausted and sunburnt (through lack of time/motivation to apply suncream to yourself), with squashed raisins, crushed mini cheddars and broken smarties in your handbag. The children cry all the way back. There are no more healthy snacks so the children, including the baby, eat pain au chocolate. You’re covered in snot and sick but you’ve run out of wipes and don’t have a change of clothes. If you did you wouldn’t bother changing as you don’t care anymore. You’re probably quite hungover.

*obviously it’s all worth it, they’re wonderful really, blah di blah.

“Go Forth and Procreate” – reflections on a 20-year school reunion

I have never forgotten the parting comment our much admired history teacher made to us, a group of 18 year old girls, at the end of our final A-level lesson in 1996. After years of recounting tales of revolting (i.e. revolutionary) peasants, vain Kings, royal imposters, gruesome battles, Thomas Cromwell, the Hapsburgs and Tsar Nicholas, I thought she would tell us to go out and conquer the world. We may be women, but couldn’t we write ourselves into the male-dominated history books? Apparently not. “Go forth and procreate”, she said. I did my best not to vomit on my extended essay on Cardinal Wolsey. Intensive lessons, hours of exam preparation, future universities and careers mapped out for us, and this was her advice? At the time she said that we were the sort of girls who should procreate, so I suppose it was a compliment.

But how much, even back then, did we put our personal ambitions ahead of our professional ones? Looking back at our 1996 Leavers’ book on the way to the 20 year school reunion a few weeks ago, we weren’t all the radical, feminist bunch that my idealised recollections thought we were. About a third of the year put that their long term ambition was to ‘meet a rich man’ or simply to get married. Why? It was an all girls’ school: were we man-deprived to such an extent that this was our main goal in life? I bet none of the pupils at the boys’ school would have put that it was their ambition to marry a rich woman. Why weren’t our horizons’ broader? Or maybe we were just being honest – who doesn’t want to marry a rich man? It’s possible that I’m looking at 1996 with 2016 eyes and I wonder what the 2016 Leavers’ year book will look like and hope they’ll all want to be engineers, inventors and foreign correspondents, even if they do have to give it up (for a while) in their 30s to bear children.

So there we were, 30 of the class of 1996, back 2 skool for the afternoon. Two decades seemed like a long time and it made me feel old until I saw that the class of 1966 were also invited. Some people I hadn’t seen since school, others since the 10 year reunion, back when social networking barely existed and those who wanted to could easily hide from their old classmates. In 2006, most of us weren’t married and only one person brought a baby, who we cooed over and then went back to the pre-paid white wine. I believe that it was a success since I can’t remember much about the event, which is a mark of a good time in your 20s. 10 years on, life was different for most of us.

The school was different too, more hi-tech and modern, and they’d even done away with the now Dickensian-sounding blackboards and actual chalk. How are you meant to get anyone’s attention in a classroom if you can’t screech your fingernail down a blackboard? While the school was looking forward, for us, exploring the empty classrooms on a Saturday afternoon, it was easy to look back and remember when we sat at the individual wooden desks and hid bottles of hard liquor under the lids (as a class of naïve rather than wildly rebellious 12 year olds); when we started an impromptu rap group (the songs are better left unrecalled); when we formed a sit-down protest on the netball court to stop it being turned into a staff car park (it became a car park and still is). What I hadn’t expected was the number of things that hadn’t changed: the chemistry lab wooden benches and the D-handle suction doors; the smooth black floor of the drama studio; the rubbish bins by the entrance (yup, still there, although to be fair it’s no longer the main entrance); the disinfectant smell of the locker room loos; the window seats where we clustered in our usual huddles.

So what else hadn’t changed? First of all, pretty much everyone looked exactly the same and some people I hadn’t seen since we were at school. I reject the idea that men age better than women; in fact I think it can be the other way round, although I appreciate that women have more aides to youthfulness at their disposal (make-up, a salon hair dye, spanx, hot wax…). I would go so far as to say that we’d improved with age, and I’m not just talking about no longer spraying Sun-In on our hair or lathering Clearasil on our distressed skin. It was more that there was a collective feeling of genuine confidence in the room and it had to do with the fact that (funnily enough), after 20 years we’d all moved on. I didn’t arrive at the lunch in abject misery because a friend didn’t sit next to me in double-Biology. I wasn’t plunged into the depths of despair because people were passing notes which didn’t include me (handwritten notes! So 1990s).  Gone are the days of writing lists of our friends in order of preference, depending on our mood. In all honesty there was none of the competitiveness that everyone seems to associate with school reunions. It may be disingenuous but I don’t think we were comparing notes on who had married the richest man to see who had managed to fulfil their teenage ambitions. We’d all formed our own lives: we had travelled, lived in other countries, we had (or had had) careers, we had hobbies that weren’t just netball and boys, and perhaps inevitably, most of us had followed the history teacher’s advice, even if we hadn’t acted on it straight away.

There was coffee, a talk about the school, lunch, a tour, more coffee and then off to the pub for the evening. There was nothing remarkable about it and yet somehow there was. It was more than just an exercise in nostalgia. No-one had been forced to attend the reunion and yet I am sure that there were a lot of mixed feeling about going back. For some, it had taken courage – either Dutch courage or, in one friend’s case – a drive around a roundabout a few times until she decided to take the exit that led to the school rather than the one that led back home. But what about the people who didn’t come back? Some would have rather eaten their own arm than come to the reunion and, in hindsight, I understand why. Let’s face it, it was a girls’ school and we weren’t always nice to each other, to put it mildly. And I was one of the ones who on the whole really liked being at school and I am sure I did my share of the not-being-nice as well.

At the time what you don’t know is that the cliques don’t matter but that they’ll always exist (whether you’re at school or at the school gate), that when you’re older you’ll crave individuality rather than be desperate to have the right basket bag, doc martins or denim jacket. You don’t realise that school days are the best days for some and the worst days for others, that there is a whole lot of life beyond it and sometimes you’ll be up, sometimes you’ll be down, but what you won’t know is when or why and the best you can do is just to make your own path and be decent to people who are having a hard time. I’d love to bottle up the feeling I had at the reunion and hand it to my first procreation, my daughter who is starting school in September, so that she can take a swig of understanding when she needs to over the next fourteen years. Clearly this won’t happen: instead, the reasons why she listens to me now will decline as she grows and by the time it matters she probably won’t be interested in a word I say. But hey, she’ll learn at her own pace and that’s all we can hope for.

I would do well to listen to my own 18-year old self’s parting comment in the Leaver’s Book: “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught” (Oscar Wilde, obvs)

Ways in which perhaps we should be turning into our mothers

There are clearly ways in which I should be turning into my mother, but for some reason I am not. So following my previous post, for fairness and completeness, I wanted to acknowledge the ways in which I should be more like her. I know this list doesn’t apply to lots of my peers, who are much less domestically hopeless than I am.

Here are a handful of them (although I am sure the list is non-exhaustive – just in case you’re reading, Mum):

  1. By running a tight ship

Thrifty housekeeping, by which I mean housewifely tricks such as meal planning, budgeting and making leftover food into tasty meals for the following day. How many times do I keep cold mashed potato in the fridge intending to make bubble and squeak but never get round to it? (In fact I don’t think I know how to make bubble and squeak.) Or a chicken carcass which could be turned into stock or a healthy broth? My mother grew up in 50’s Yorkshire when “ee by gum, times were tough,” as we used to say to annoy her. But now I’m older and a little wiser, I know that life was much more about the hard graft than I will ever know and I admire her for not abandoning her economising principles in a throw-away society.

  1. By knowing how to ‘make do and mend’

When my mother was younger, socks were darned, leather patches were sewn on jumper elbows , cardigans were knitted by hand and embroidery was a common pastime of a woman in her prime. Most of my clothes as a child were made from Clothkits patterns. Most of my daughter’s clothes are from H&M, Next and Boden. The haberdashery department at John Lewis is a fascinating new world: a treasure trove of thimbles, bobbins, press studs, satin ribbons and coloured threads.  Am I part of a lost generation of terrible-at-textiles women, or is it just me? I know it’s not just me because some of my friends’ mothers mend the holes in their sons-in-law’s trousers and knit their grandchildren cozy hooded jumpers, while their daughters are doing the online weekly shop and buying birthday presents from Amazon. I’m not advocating a return to the 1950’s England of village fetes, jam-making and the WI (although that pre-EU dystopia may soon be repeating on us like Great Auntie Mabel’s homemade elderflower wine), it’d just be useful to know how to sew on a button with dexterity.

  1. By being more house-proud

My ‘down-time’ – i.e. when the baby is having his morning nap – tends to consist of doing what I term ‘essential iPad admin’ (including the shopping referred to in 2 above, as well as emailing with a bit of social networking thrown in). I have already been reprimanded by my mother for this. By midday she would have already washed 20 terry cloth nappies in the twin-tub, peeled 11 spuds, polished the brass, plumped the cushions, mopped the floor and lined the shoes up for cleaning. My daughter’s school shoes are lucky to get the once over with a baby-wipe twice a term and a good friend who bought us a silver salt-shaker for a wedding present complained that it looked like pewter a few months later.

  1. By attempting my own Bake-Off

When I bought my first flat, I used to keep empty butter packets in the fridge like my mother did when we were growing up, but I didn’t really know what they were for (something to do with making cakes?). I gave up after a while, since I had to throw them away unused every month or so. Plenty of my peers can bake really well, so this isn’t necessarily a generational thing. My baking tins sit pristine at the back of the cupboard and when I attempted to make chocolate crispy cakes for my daughter to take to school for her birthday, I put cold syrup into warm melted chocolate and the mixture turned irreparably solid. Fortunately my mum was there to make a new batch.

   5.   By being green-fingered

My mother was gardening the day before she gave birth to me. I imagine her having her first twinge while kneeling by a flowerbed with a trowel in her hand. I didn’t have a garden that I was responsible for until I was in my mid-thirties and it took me a while to realise how utterly time-consuming it is to tend a garden so that it looks passably good and you don’t have to apologise to guests if they trip over a molehill on the unmowed lawn. Strimming, trimming, planting, plucking, pruning, deadheading, digging, raking, hoeing, sowing, shovelling, tending, watering, weeding: seriously, who has time for all of this? Fortunately, the garden is full up with a climbing frame, trampoline and assorted plastic toys so there’s not much room for nice flowers. My favourite plants are our pale pink Camelia which flowers in early April for my son’s birthday and a Rhododendron whose vibrant dark pink flowers blossom for our daughter’s birthday in late May. And that’s about as much as I know.

The tell-tale ways in which we turn into our mothers

imageAll women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” – Oscar Wilde

I have noticed some strange quirks in my behaviour over the last few years, which I think have dated from having children, and which have now become too obvious to ignore or to laugh off as a coincidence. I am doing things that my mother does now, and things that she did when she was raising us in the 1980’s and 90’s.

These are some of the signs that made me first realise that I was becoming like my mother:

  1. Using tried and tested stock phrases to your children, usually at moments of high stress:
    • Play session becoming increasingly excitable? It’ll all end in tears;
    • Small spillage from a sippy cup? There’s water all over the floor;
    • No-one listening? It’s like talking to a BRICK WALL.
    • They want more toys, DVDs and clothes? I’m not made of money;
    • Children being particularly irritating? Give me strength;
    • The just-replenished biscuit tin is now empty? You can’t pull the wool over my eyes;
    • Exclaiming, he won’t get there any quicker whilst watching the speeding motorist disappear into the distance;
    • Someone guzzling wine? It’s not pop you know;
    • Children squabbling? If you can’t play nicely, you can’t play at all;
    • Children whining that they don’t have enough to do? Well, I wish I was bored.
  2. Saying ‘Ooof’ whenever you sit down or get up from a seat (whether a comfy sofa or wooden chair) and also when you bend down to pick up an item from the floor.
  3. Mixing up the names of your children ALL THE TIME and calling your son by your husband’s name or your daughter by your sister’s name.
  4. Recognising your child’s cry as either a) tired, b) hungry or c) hurt and if c), reprimanding their sibling who tries to deny any wrongdoing. (Flashback to 30 years ago when I scoffed at the different cries:

Ridiculous! They all sound the same”.
Ah, but a mother knows”.

  1. When daily routines are controlled by caffeine intake: Ken Bruce’s Pop Pickers is on? Time for a milky coffee. Just had an afternoon stroll to the shops/park? Stick the kettle on, I’m parched.
  2. A fervent obsession with turning off the lights in unoccupied rooms whilst muttering under your breath about pressure on the national grid (my mother also used to exclaim: “it’s like Blackpool illuminations in here”. I don’t do this. Yet).
  3. Using words such as ‘snazzy’ (“that’s a snazzy top”); canoodling (“there was a couple canoodling in the swimming pool and it rather put me off my stroke”) and ‘bit of alright’, as in “he’s a bit of an alright”.
  4. Developing an unnatural pre-occupation with time: looking at your watch before setting off on any journey longer than an hour and announcing to the car that ‘it’s 20 past ten’ as you start the engine and continually stressing about missing a train even though you always arrive at the station 13 minutes early.
  5. Anxiety about driving long distances or to places you haven’t been before and refusing to drive in the dark / at rush hour / when it’s raining / anywhere in London / anywhere that you may have to reverse park.
  6. Realising that Question Time is on too late to stay up for. Sorry, David.
  7. Favouring knickers that provide optimal coverage and comfort over, well, ones that don’t. Thong? In the bin. Not that I like to throw items of clothing in the bin but I don’t even think the local recycling clothes bank would want my cast-off G-strings and I don’t trust my two year old to use them safely as a catapult.
  8. Always having a tissue on one’s person (e.g. stuffed up sleeve / down bra) and favouring clothes – especially pyjamas – with pockets in for that reason.
  9. Developing a general obsession about clothes and linen washing. It’s a sunny breezy day? Perfect for getting the washing on the line. Then furtively checking the washing to see if it’s dry and re-pegging it correctly if someone else hung it out. And is there a bigger treat than getting into bed when the sheets are clean, crisp and cold?
  10. Commentating on TV programmes, whether watching alone or with others. My favourite one is commentating over sport commentary, particularly when watching an important golf tournament with my husband: ‘it’s going in the hole, it’s going in the hole, IT’S GOING IN THE HOLE… Oh, it’s not going in the hole’.

For me, the main sign that I am turning into my mother, at least in some ways, is that I recognise all the above and yet I’m not all that bothered actually. Perhaps this is because I’m a mother now and have therefore given up on all hope of maintaining my identity. Or perhaps I’m just more mature than I used to be. I am not saying that Oscar Wilde was wrong (that would be heresy!) but I find it more, shall we say, tragi-comic than tragic. My husband may disagree. In the hole! 

This Mum's Life
One Messy Mama