When I was a little girl, my mother used to regularly tell me that she was complimented often on mine and my older sister’s behaviour when we were out and about. In fact, it became such a part of our family’s myths that I do find myself wondering whether it could be entirely true. Not to say that my sister and I weren’t complete angels, but still. I was never sick in the street after my first taste of curry, and she never lost the Red Trousers on the way back from the shops, no. If you look at pictures of us, two little girls in matching cheesecloth dresses and little white socks (one pulled up neatly, the other somewhat falling down and twisted round) (I’ll leave it to you to decide who was who), you’d have had no trouble believing her. Butter wouldn’t melt.
I, on the other hand, have never had the pleasure. These days, now that they are Big Children, no one comments at all (except when they think it’s acceptable to inform me that Sam is an Actual Angel). When they were little, and I was busy with the pushchair and the toddlers, and they were busy trying to be the first, or getting their fingers stuck in the check-out conveyor belt, most often, people would say to me, with the raised eyebrow that means you’re not quite sure if they are joking or not, ‘you’ve got your hands full.’
And I, struggling with the shopping and the escapee baby, the toddler who delighted in running off and the pre-schooler who seemed to give in to the regular temptation to sit down in the street, whatever the weather, agreed. I did, indeed, have my little hands properly full.
No one tells you what it’s like, the bringing up of multiple young children. You think to yourself, after Baby Number One went not to badly and you managed to get them to the grand old age of about two and a bit without too much trauma and difficulty, ‘how hard can it be?’ How much trouble could one, small baby actually cause?
No one tells you about the loss of privacy, the way you can’t even go to the toilet on your own any more, either for fear that the toddler will bash the baby on the head with the duplo, or the toddler and the pre-schooler will follow you into the smallest room, just for a chat. No one tells you about the way they take it in turns to be ‘challenging’, how, as one turns into the Infant From Hell, the other one will smugly polish its halo. No one tells you that four o’clock will no longer be the quiet moment when you look around the room, all tidy and everything put away. And no one tells you about the fighting.
Fighting over who gets to sit in the front seat. Who gets to ride on the back of the pushchair, who gets to walk. Who gets to open the front door, and, even, who gets to do anything. There came a point, when the boys were little and the girl was still, almost, firmly strapped in, that, such was the ferocity of the fighting, I began to wonder at my capacity to take them out of the house on my own at all.
The problem for me, as the woman charged with keeping them alive, was the way that they became so focussed on it. The fighting. They couldn’t seem to see beyond their internal competition, so carried away by the sense of their own importance were they that they ceased to care about the world beyond their own conflict. They would have happily run in front of oncoming traffic, turned themselves into a tragic headline, if only one of them could have been first. One slip, one mistake, and that would have been that. It was terrifying.
And tonight, as I consider the news, the news to which I have been glued for the last five days (is it really five days?), I remember my children, locked into their infant battles. I thought they were grown ups. I thought they had got beyond that sort of behaviour.