Tag Archives: parenting

Welcome back, the weekend wash

It’s the start of September and I, like my teaching colleagues, am gearing up for the new year by having recurring anxiety dreams (mine involve no one listening to me) and wondering how, after a summer of baguettes, I am going to fit into my work trousers. I have browsed my favourite clothing websites (lovely) and completed as much planning as I can before the starting gate opens (mummy, you have worked for FAR too long today). I have bought the shoes, checked the bags, lunchboxes, pencil cases and stationery supplies, looked at the forms (they are under the fruit bowl, their clamour for attention getting louder by the day), attended all the appointments, fetched the prescriptions (but not visited the hairdresser, haven’t had time for that) and, luxury of luxuries, read five books (didn’t really like The Time Traveller’s Wife, to be honest).

And now, the Saturday before it all starts again, before we put our collective family feet on the treadmill to Christmas, all of us fit and healthy all at the same time for the time being, in that moment of pause while we who are about to go back to school take in and seem to hold a simultaneous breath, I have depressed myself with a reflection upon the state of my household laundry.

Unlike many others of my ilk, I have to admit that I don’t overly mind doing the washing. Leaving aside the anxiety and angst it causes me when my beloved puts my best things in on a hot wash, I am really relatively happy to be in (mostly) sole charge. It’s quite therapeutic, especially the clean bedding bit, and it means that I always have a good idea of who needs new socks and pants, and who has grown out of what. I even know which bits of clothing belongs to which person. I don’t particularly mind the ironing – although I prefer it when my mum does it. She’s so much better at it than me, but more, the act of chatting while she does it brings back echoes of my younger self when I used to hang around for hours while she transformed seemingly endless stacks of shirts from crumpled rags to pristine uniform.

The only part of the process I actively don’t like is the putting away. By the time I’ve got to sorting out six piles and putting them on the bed (one for each of us and one for the airing cupboard) I’m bored. As a consequence, the washing can stay in suspended animation for days, sitting in silent tower blocks in my bedroom or accusingly in the kitchen, waiting for someone to complain that they have NOTHING to wear, not even a sock.

One of the (many) nice things about the long summer holiday is the sudden ability I have to space it all out. Apart from those moments when you return from a week away and you have everything in the entire world to wash, you can take your time, do it in dribs and drabs, set your own timetable. Nothing needs to build up, or wait for the Sunday evening session of sorting out and putting away, the sweaty race against the clock to get everything done before Monday morning comes around again. And that’s what I thought, as I pegged it out (usually a cause for celebration, especially when you can get all the towels on the line as well as the bedding and everything is clean and nice and fresh) this morning.

Living through the school terms, whether as a parent or a teacher (and a parent) has that quality about it that wears us all out – careful about workload or not. If you’ve got a private life (and who hasn’t) you will need a survival routine there too and preferably one that’s shared.

(One day I will write a blog about modern parenting which seems to require double the economic contribution while at the same time demanding one partner stays at home to service the needs of the rest and make a comment about how constant homework and clubs and running around after your kids encourages the idea that they need a support team of their own.)

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The Promenade

When I was 17, my mum took me to a prom concert at the Albert Hall. Being from Devon, we made a day of it; she took me to see where she went to college, bought me a t-shirt from some sort of brown paper bag, organically woven, rustic varnished floorboarded shop, you know, the sort that you only find in London (or on Gandy Street in Exeter). I wore it a year later, when I went to college. She’d got us seats, right at the front. I remember watching, fascinated, as the percussionist sweated through the soundtrack from a TV show, gaining a round of applause, all to himself. My uncle, a long standing friend of my dad’s, dashing off to get us drinks in the interval, the race to catch the last train home. A hot summer day that sits in my memory, part of my cultural upbringing.

I’m not quite such a fan of theatre as my parents, it must be said. While my childhood was full of visits to the Northcot, Plymouth Theatre Royal, the Haymarket, my own children are much more schooled in the way of the castle and cathedral, seasoned visitors to museums and Site of Historical Significance. This is not to say that theatre and musical culture isn’t something we deem to be unimportant; just that, for us, it is more difficult.

There’s something about the darkness, the tension, the are they pretending or are they real that turns what should be an enjoyable experience into something that…isn’t. Rather than pleasure, it so easily becomes struggle. An attempt to stay rather than participate. Apart from anything else, taking a family of five to the theatre or to a concert isn’t cheap, and certainly not if you add in the cost of transportation and time. For a long time, it hasn’t been worth it.

But last year there was a change in our circumstances. We moved house and suddenly, the idea of going to London for a show wasn’t quite such a pipe dream. For some reason, I can’t for the life of me think why, I made a discovery. A prom concert, something that was impossible for the likes of me and mine became something real. Relaxed. A lunchtime performance, lights on, a social story, break out spaces and hand dryers turned off. Even a short video to show us where to go and what to do. I spent much of the performance with the sort of lump in your throat and moisture in your eyes that won’t quite let you speak. I can’t have been the only one. The mother who chased her son across the stage; I recognised her quiet sense of determined desperation. The girl the conductor gave his baton to so that she could lead the orchestra from the pit, conducting a piece she knew well and loved, she still has the power to call an unfathomable emotion from the well-spring of my heart.

Without that experience, the rules relaxed, what was happening and what it meant spelled out clearly, in a straightforward, no nonsense way, even down to the musicians, wearing different coloured t-shirts according to which part of the orchestra they belonged, we would never have been able to go again. Because last week, that’s what we did. We gathered up an even larger number of family and off we went, access lines to railway and hall called, special seating arrangements for disabled guests made.

As I sat there quietly, lights dimming, waiting for a fantasy, an imaginative weaving of music and movement, words and song, to start I thought about how much it is assumed that we, the audience, will understand. How much it is assumed that we, with no preparation, no explanation, will be able to do, how we will be able to bring together, from the snippets of our experience, to make an evening at the Albert Hall a success. A children’s performance – and a very good one – a serious introduction to some serious classical music. An important addition to a cultural upbringing. A step on the road towards something with even less support for understanding.

I don’t know though. The one that went before. The bounce. The unpredictability of the audience. The love and joy at sharing their musicianship that came from the orchestra in waves as they swapped places during the Soul Bossa Nova, how we sang along to ‘Happy’ (sung by one of the Strictly singers). There was a real-ness to it, a raw power to the performance of disabled children from a special school who played alongside the professional orchestra. There it was, almost touchable in its intensity; the knowledge that music isn’t simply a matter of ‘the best’, but is an experience that should be shared, and that the sharing goes both ways.

The Roman Bath

The first time we visited the Roman Bath, it was snowing. Newly married, we had booked a City Break; it snowed, R had the flu and I…well, I convinced him (through some sort of Early Marriage Force) to ignore both the weather and his internal temperature. It was not the most successful weekend away there has ever been. We squashed ourselves against an 18th Century window, I failed to convince him of the exciting ness of Jane Austen and it was some years before we attempted to take the waters again.

The next time we visited, taking a young S and an even younger A, it wasn’t so much an Austen influence as Arthurian. As we explored the complex, instead of ladies in their dampened muslin gowns, I imagined the soaring roof and the steady decline and fading out of a Roman era, the smoke of tallow torches drifting upwards into the gloom, mingling with the faintly sulphurous steam rising from the green water. I’m not sure it was the start of my mission to take my children to sites of historical and cultural significance (I’ve always been a bit of a visitor to such places), but, wherever it sits in the chronology, it was certainly one of the earliest.

Over the years, I have taken them (not dragged, I hasten to point out, despite L’s latest protestation – half term is coming up and she is fighting a rear guard against being forced away from the computer game) to castle, cathedral, ruin; anywhere, in fact, that looks like it has an interesting story to tell (or features in one or other of the novels which form a part of my internal world). Our local church, an abbey saved by the townsfolk from the dissolution of Henry VIII, was always good for a wander about should we feel the need to get out of the house. I enjoyed the appearance of historical characters, firmly lodged in my imagination, they the quirks of architecture: angels playing harps and drums and weird pipes with, no doubt, even stranger names, chests with unimaginable locks, or the size of grand pianos. Or even grand pianos. The odd rehearsal of a visiting orchestra or choral society.

Museums are always tempting, but I don’t know…apart from the entrance fee, there is something ‘managed’ about them that I just don’t like. Someone else’s interpretation. Someone else’s idea of what we should know. So little left to the imagination. Millions may have been spent on a visitor’s centre, but give me real over plastic reconstruction any day. And definitely don’t give me one of those hand held, silence inducing guides either, you know, the ones that force you to stop and crowd around the same points as everyone else, while you listen to the prescribed story and haven’t got any time to look around you and ask, I wonder?

I did it once. I hired the handsets at the Roman Bath, convinced, for once, to give the conventional a try. They didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I was carrying them all, chatting our way round, seemingly inconsequential, quirky questions flowing from my knowledge of my children and the place we were exploring. They couldn’t access someone else’s explanation, someone else’s idea of what a child should know. They were too young; they didn’t know enough about yesterday – they didn’t have enough yesterdays – let alone two thousand years worth of them to make sense of it all. They needed to experience the place, to follow their interest (channels and watercourses and throwing coins into water, bubbles and steam and funny smells, lions in the rock and golden treasure), to be given the opportunity to return, again and again if need be, at their own level, at their own pace, until they were ready to meet me at mine.

An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.

 

Someone to watch over me

For some reason, I know not why, there is always some aspect of Christmas that I decide to make more difficult for myself than it needs to be. For a couple of years it was making my own Christmas puddings (yummy, but needing a large number of hours steaming and then maturing under the bed in the spare room before steaming again, on The Day). Home made pastry for home made mince pies. Gingerbread houses. (Last year, for some equally bizarre reason, we decided – or rather they decided – to have a go with boiled sweetie stained glass. Mary Berry makes it look so easy, after all. No doubt she doesn’t have to trail around the shops fetching said boiled sweet on her lonesome, along with all the other shopping.) This year, after having a word with myself at the end of November about not making a song and dance about it, it was fill your own crackers.

Now, I am, I freely admit, totally in love with crackers. A festive meal isn’t a festive meal without them, I’m afraid. When I was a very little girl, my mum used to save bits off them and put them in the useful drawer and my sister and I would pore over them, delighted by the shiny foil and scraps of tinsel, using them to create our masterpieces throughout the year. When we were older, we were instructed, by our dad, as to how to pull the snap without damaging the body of the cracker, and later, when the jokes were told and the party hats discarded, he would reconstruct them carefully, and they would come out, every year, to decorate the beams, along with the holly my mum had liberated from the local hedgerows (there were never any berries, the birds were too hungry). In 1999, when I went with friends to see in the new year in in the far north of Scotland, the crackers were my job, and I bought enough to cover the table, twice.

The thing about crackers, though, is the gifts. We all enjoy the terrible jokes, and some of us wear the party hats for the rest of the day (and some of our children hide them away in their bedrooms for some unknown reason), pulling them is fun in itself and it makes us all laugh, but the gifts are always a bit of a disappointment. When I was a little girl (again) we had some crackers that contained china figures of animals. I don’t remember the crackers, but I do remember the animals; we played with them for years, and nothing has ever lived up to them. A plastic moustache and yet another pair of nail clippers that don’t really work cannot compete, not in any way, shape or form.

So this year, thinking I’d be organised and buy my crackers while there was still a choice, as I hemmed and hawed over the options, I discovered a small, flat packet of fill your owns. There’s nothing really whizzy about the design (I usually go for something the more bling the better, if you know what I mean) and these, in their holly-printed simplicity are nothing of the sort. The designers have gone for home-spun-wisdom-stylee, no doubt. I thought that the cracker itself would be enough (why waste the the money on a useless gift you will only chuck out in a couple of weeks?), until, that is, I showed them to my daughter.

What a great idea, she declared. We can put gifts in that people would like!

So, there you are. This week, instead of sitting at home, doing something useful like wrapping all the presents while the kids are out of the way, I found myself trailing around the shops looking for gifts of no more than 5cm in diameter, and something that family members would like and appreciate, to boot. Making Christmas life more difficult than it needs to be. Again.

I kind of enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it.  Once I came up with some ideas about what to put in them, it wasn’t too much of a chore. I enjoy gift giving, and I love thinking of things that those I love will love. It gives me pleasure to bless them in a small way. But then, as I exited the last shop, no-more-than-5cm-in-diameter sized gifts in hand, I realised something that made me feel…sad.

I had spent so long, running after everyone else that I had neglected to think of myself. Who would buy a surprise gift for me? Self pity washed over me as I considered the state of Christmas, for me, and for countless other mothers. The shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the cleaning. The making sure that everyone else has a good time. The mental load I carry for my family is great, and Christmas adds to it, whether I embrace it willingly or not. It’s so easy, when you serve, both professionally and personally, to lose yourself, to ignore your needs and put yourself at the bottom of the list.

 

But then, you know, I gave myself another talking to. If I want something in my cracker – and if I want to like it – there is nothing to stop me getting it myself. My daughter and I will have just as much fun making them, no matter who buys the gift. It’s OK.

Christmas is a time for giving, but the price doesn’t have to be your mental health and wellbeing. We all need someone to watch over us, but sometimes, it can be us who does the watching. And that’s OK.

 

Mind you, if nobody notices that I have tatty holes-in-the-soles slippers, a wonkily fixed handbag and a broken iron I’m not entirely sure what I will do with the (frozen) roast potatoes. Nobody will get any, that’s for sure. They will have to make do with broccolli.