Monday, 4 March 2013

The perils of tearjerking TV

I used to be quite heartless. Before giving birth gave me a core of mush in more ways than one, I would  scoff when my mother burst into tears over some heart rending tale of child abduction or a the grisly murder of a girl around my age. I couldn't understand why tales of some stranger's suffering touched her so deeply.

Well the boot is firmly on the other foot now as I was reminded when I watched the Richard Curtis drama Mary and Martha the other day. This rather heavy handed and implausible tale centred on two mother's who had lost their sons to malaria. One of the dead boys was around the same age as my eldest, cue floods of tears at this unremittingly bleak story.

As the two mothers compared notes on their top life moments, starting with the birth of their boys and ending with all the days their sons' had been alive, I was thundering downstairs to shower my sleeping sons in kisses, dripping those maternal tears onto their cheeks as I went. My husband who had rather grumpily been woken by my nocturnal weeping asked, really rather reasonably: 'Well why on earth did you watch a program about children dying?'

While I take his point, sometimes it does me good to remember just how precious my annoying children really are. Having spent the day refereeing various pointless skirmishes over the ownership of toys and whether or not it was a reasonable request to ask a four-year-old to at least attempt to put on his own shoes, it is sometimes hard to hold onto the concept of childhood as a golden time.

Watching the agony of those onscreen mothers who would never again have to remonstrate with their boys about mess, bargain over the eating of a few more vegetables before pudding is back on the menu or nag endlessly in the vain hope this might mean that homework or music practise actually got done, served as a painful reminder of what a gift the mundane actually is.

Of course it would make you into rather a tedious type of person to be walking round in a perpetual state of recognition of what joys your children are. In fact people would soon start to question or mental capacity if you were to don a beatific smile of gratitude as your little terrors thumped one another and whined at you to buy them sweets in the corner shop.

That said it does no harm to indulge in a little bit of a tearjerker from time to time, even if all it means is that for just one morning you might think twice before starting to scream when your seventh suggestion that shoes and coats were put on as it was time to leave for school about ten minutes ago was ignored. If you can hold on until your requests reach double digits then that sad screenplay has done its job.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Child of our time

Just watched Child of our Time which has always offered me a little glimpse into my future as the children are just three years older than my eldest boy. Tonight's episode was particularly poignant as it captures all the children on the cusp of teenage. Watching them transition from carefree, twirling toddlers to spotty awkward almost adults was almost physically painful.

I have long been one to agonise over the loss that is intrinsic to childhood, weeping over last trips to baby music groups, playgroups or classrooms. I still recall walking home after my oldest boy's last day in his reception class as tears poured down both our cheeks at the realisation that he would no longer pass his days in that colourful room, with that delightfully welcoming teacher. That he would finally become a big boy.

I am not good at letting go and appear to have developed an allergy to change. I watch as my children grow up and ram my finger down on the pause button. While everyday frustrations mean that often their demands on my time drive me demented, I continually scold myself that one day I will long for the time when they would badger me to play with them, talk to them or simply provide them with a fresh piece of paper to scribble on.

I felt my heart preparing to be crushed into a million scared and bewildered pieces as I watched the onscreen parents attempt to navigate their new relationships with their growing up children. Flailing to cope with the fact that the daughters who had loved nothing more than pink and fairy tales, now scorn them as childish preferring to discuss potential boyfriends and mull over future career choices in which the option of astronaut has been firmly rejected in favour of pop star or actress.

The sons who were only recently the same unformed mess of energy that is so typical of my own young boys, who are now sullen, wrapped up in fashionably flicked hair dos and unfeasibly baggy trousers, who listen to music their parents can't pronounce and have ditched childhood sporting dreams in favour of hanging out aimlessly with their friends.

The grandparents who played such a critical role in the years when the height of excitement was pushing the swing a little faster in the playground or being spun on the roundabout are now superfluous to a teenager's needs. The are too old and too slow to hold the attention of someone whose life is moving forwards at such high speed.

It is the heartbreaking human condition that time marches inexorably on leaving each of us behind eventually, even those all powerful teenagers whose hormones tell them they are immortal and invincible. Who amongst us doesn't blush at our callous treatment of our parents when we look back on our teens with the benefit of hindsight?

It is a strange thing though that for us as parents we are savouring each moment, holding onto them for dear life as our children just as eagerly seek to discard them. Perhaps it will serve as a warning to occasionally stop work or to miss out on that run or that episode of my favourite TV programme in order to just be with them. To drink in their childhood before it runs out.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Four little Valentine's sweethearts

Don't go breaking my heart 

Call me soppy but every year since my eldest was born I have given my boys Valentine's cards. I am not sure they will thank me for this maternal gesture when they hit their teens, but so far the still seem to appreciate their old mum's love tokens.

This year I had to think up something that a nine-year-old would think was cool so I decided to create my own cards for each son tailored to his own interests. The oldest got what he instantly christened the Cupig - an Angry Birds piggy complete with wings and a bow just like the mischievous god of love. It made him smile and anyone with a nine-year-old son exhibiting all the hormonal signs of the early onset of stroppy teenage knows just how hard that can be.

The seven-year-old got a Dr Who card featuring a most un-romantic looking alien known as an ood, which looks disturbingly as if it has been halted halfway through swallowing a particularly unappetising squid. The card declared that I love him oodles. This elicited a fit of giggles, despite the fact that he is laid up with a sore throat, so that was success number two.

The twins are easy so I simply appealed to their current obsessions - one got giraffes and the other polar bears. Things are so easy when you're four.

However, whether this gesture is terminally sad or really quite sweet the concept of Valentine's Day certainly lodged in their psyches.

Son number two had already made us a Valentine's card during his break time earlier in the week. It featured a really rather terrifying self portrait of him sporting enormous teeth and no hair. He had also fashioned a rose out of purple tissue paper which takes pride of place next to the bunch given to me by my old romantic of a husband.

But that wasn't the end of his romantic gestures. As he is off school with the aforementioned sore throat the moment I came home from dropping off his brothers he beetled off to his room to get busy with the Lego, fashioning a wonderful red heart from a intricate pattern of bricks. It's just a shame his little brother came home from nursery and immediately broke it.

That is not to say that the twins don't share their brother's romantic soul. Each came out of nursery clutching many scribbled upon and stuck together efforts. Both had created Valentine's cards for their big brothers, while they had also painted and stuck cards for their favourite toys. Aww sweet, unless you have to carry them, without breaking or dropping them, whilst also holding hands with two small boys and negotiating opening car doors. Ooops.

I will naturally be expecting a big thank you from any future daughters-in-law for making sure that the men I am breeding understand that even if Valentine's Day is a commercialised farce most women still won't say no to a rose or two and some posh chocs on February 14th.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Pink for boys

A trip to Build a Bear is a birthday treat that has been bestowed upon all of my boys around their third or fourth birthday. For those who have yet to enjoy the pleasure this is an emporium devoted to extracting cash from indulgent relatives in return for stuffed animals and their essential accessories such as high heels, hot pants and One Direction sound boxes.

Today was the twins' turn and their indulgent grandma and I set out to furnish them with their very own tailor made teddies. This was the cause of much excitement as they leapt from bed screeching that today they were going to 'Buildy Bear Workshop', many times, at the top of their voices. Once I had finally calmed them down sufficiently to stuff them into their clothes we made our way to the shop in Covent Garden.

Step one of any such endeavour is to choose a bear, or other animal, to stuff. Now with small boys in tow you might imagine they would steer clear of the neon pink or sparkly species of teddy. Oh how wrong can you be.

Twin one is currently in the grip of an all-consuming obsession with polar bears so his choice was simple. Twin two selected a bear emblazoned in a 'tasteful' rainbow of pastel shades. This while the only other boy in the shop picked out a plain, workmanlike brown bear.

Onwards to pick out a soundbox to give their bears a voice. After much dickering over Cyndi Lauper's Girls just want to have fun and the aforementioned One Direction, the boys eventually opted for a saccharine American version of Happy Birthday that I already know I will want to rip from the poor bears' paws within seconds of them coming home.

Then the bears are stuffed and fluffed up to their full potential, at which point things start to get really expensive, because this is when pre-school children are let loose in a world of accessories for their bears. Imelda Marcos' would have been impressed by the range of paw sized footwear, while the range handbag and luggage options would put Louis Vuitton to shame.

Now while Mickey, the other boy in the shop, made a beeline for the extra small Arsenal kit for his bear, my sons were not to be fobbed off with something as dull and boring as a plain red and white football strip. Oh no, where would be the fun in that?

Instead they insisted on trying a whole range of sparkling dresses on their bears. After toying with a glitter pink T-shirt and tutu combo, twin two eventually fell for a plunging dress with a diamond sparkling in the deep, sequined cleavage and a layered, pastel tulle skirt. But what to go with it? We tried deep pink, sequined Ugg-style boots, silver pumps and sparkling Sketchers. But no, in the end we opted for toning rainbow sequined ballet flats. Gok would have been proud of the use of colour.

Twin two, who is usually the more manly of the two, was initially diverted by the superhero costumes for his polar bear. We browsed through Spiderman, Ironman, Darth Vader and Yoda, but the one that really caught his eye was Tinkerbell's dress in a brilliant lime green, complete with gossamer fairy wings and a wand. On it went over the bemused furry head of his bear, but it turns out that it did nothing for her.

Off it came with a dismissive flick of his tiny hand. This would not do. I scanned the rails until I alighted on a white dress with a decorative floral design on the bodice. 'Yes', my little boy squealed in delight, even better - it came with a veil. The next dilemma was the shoes - always a tricky area. The high heeled pumps he initially selected to ram over the poor bear's paws just looked cheap. Then we tried on some open toed patent sandals, but he just wasn't feeling it.

Finally he spotted some white boots with diamante detailing that set it off to a T. Add in two white bow on her ears and it was a done deal. Who said I would miss out by not  having daughters? This was the sparkliest shopping trip I had ever been on, even if I did have to endure the rather pitying glances Mickey's mum threw me as we all queued up to pay.

Luckily this penchant for pink sparkles didn't come as too much of a shock as I had been softened up by my older boys, one of whom came home from Build a Bear with a pink unicorn with sparkly horn tucked into his very own pink handbag. Middle son's choice was outwardly more masculine as he opted for a brown bear dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. But when you take into account that he added on a pair of chaps and a flat, black leather cap, the final creation looked as if he would be right at home in the Village People.

It warms the cockles of my heart to know that despite the mountains of guns, stones, sticks and Lego that litter my home, my sons are clearly still in close touch with their feminine side.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Confessions of a working mum

I read a funny Tweet the other day from a fellow parenting writer who said something along the lines of 'Now it's that dreaded time of day when I have to stop writing about the joys of motherhood and actually look after my kids'. Oh how well I know that feeling.

I know us working mothers are meant to feel endlessly guilty for failing to properly nurture our children. Just as breast is best, so a mother's love cannot be replicated by the most capable or loving childcare. Or so the theory goes. I began to feel a little suspicious about this hypothesis back when my children where in the Playdough and finger painting phase. While my nanny actually appeared to take pleasure in sharing these pursuits with them, I found them boring to the point of pain.

I would often sneak upstairs to tap out a blog post or whizz off a pitch leaving them to their own devices, dreading the moment when I would hear that familiar thud, thud, thud as they made their way upstairs to my lair. It's not that I don't love my boys. It's just that I am not sure I was cut out to be a full time mummy, as rather than feel guilt at the requirement to work, I felt nothing less than a joyous sense of release.

Naturally I played this down as it is not the done thing to admit that working was way more fun than running around after a toddler - even when commissions were backwards in coming forwards, or I was forced to make ends meet by writing pious sermons about the benefits about NHS support groups.

Now I know a lot of stay at home mums take this attitude to be somewhat patronising, as if their lifestyle were beneath us high flying (har de har) working mums. Instead I am in awe of anyone who can entertain children all day. Just as I look on in wonderment at downhill ski racers, when I myself can only weep terrified tears as I slither and snowplough down blue slopes, or admire those gifted souls who can coax beautiful melodies from an instrument when I am tone deaf, I recognise that a knack for childcare is a talent and one that I simply do not possess.

For example, I would love to be the kind of mother who enjoys, rather than endures, baking with her children. I love making cakes, but I absolutely hate cooking them with the children. I like my cakes to be things of beauty with smooth icing and colour co-ordinated decoration, with perfect swirls of butter cream and a rice paper daisy placed just so on top. I do not like flat as a pancake fairy cakes, dribbling neon bright glace icing with a thousand smarties dumped on top. It pains me to see what a mess they can make of a cake.

This does not make me a good person. I am well aware of this. I should be passing on my passions so that one day my offspring would credit me with igniting their own burning desire to bake. Instead I try to bake in secret, or save the decorating (the bit I like best) till when they are out. I know I am not alone. One mum admitted to me that she too baked late at night so her children couldn't get their mucky fingers all over her icing.

Another episode that highlighted my lack of aptitude in this sphere was when I spent a rare weekend afternoon on London alone with my husband. We went to the South Bank Centre and as I strolled through the couples stopping for coffee, idly browsing in the bookshop or simply walking unencumbered by small people I had a sudden feeling of being at home. I turned to him and said: 'How is it that after nine years as a mother, I still feel like this is normal life?'

His response was simply to drag me into a nearby pub for an illicit mid-afternoon drink, which reminded me why I love him so much.

A great friend of mine always put me to shame. She would constantly say how impressed she was with me for combining a career (of sorts) with children, flatteringly forgetting that actually I didn't as while I was working the children were being looked after by someone else. Meanwhile she was the kind of mother who would fashion a fantastic birthday party complete with hand painted decorations, thoughtfully chosen going away presents, hand sewn costumes for her children and a knock out home made cake, while actually looking after two small girls. Now that is impressive.

So it was with huge relief that I discovered that my beloved nanny who is a whiz at board games, loves making banana cakes with the kids and endlessly plays hide and seek with them is not leaving me until school can take over where she leaves off. That means I can carry on doing what I am good at, generally wasting time at the keyboard, and she can do what she excels at, looking after my children. Harmony is restored.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Crouching tiger mummy

I am no tiger mummy, not least because I am far too lazy to prise myself away from my G&T and the latest addictive app on my iPad to supervise homework or music practise. It's not that I don't have aspirations for my children, it's just that they match my aspirations to give up booze and chocolate, in that I have, as yet, failed to live up to them.

Fortunately for me my children are far more industrious and enthusiastic than me and as such, just like tiger cubs in the wild, paw me out of my somnolence and insist that I ferry them endlessly to their round of activities. I sometimes feel slightly miffed that my nine-year-old's CV is already far more impressive than my own, despite me having over a decade's worth of career behind me.

That said it has always been the way with me. I still remember that frantic scrabble to come up with hobbies, interests and achievements to fill out my UCCA and PCAS college application forms all those years ago. Many a biro was chewed to a crunchy plastic mess as I pondered how to dress up lunchtimes spent sneaking off to the local pub to smoke and flirt with older boys as some kind of worthy activity that would mark me out as a bright young thing. Could I possibly put down the geography prize I had won in year 8 or perhaps the one time I came first in cross country running because my sadistic PE teacher had forced the fastest girl to drag me along with her?

Is it any wonder that despite my lofty plans for a lucrative career in law I ended up as a jobbing freelance shuffling from one ill-paid commission to the next? Perhaps it horror of the same fate befalling them that has inspired my sons to be far more goal-oriented than me.

While I meandered through school choosing only to participate in activities that involved spending time with whatever spotty oik was the man of my dreams at that particular moment, my sons are like human dynamos. In fact it is me who whinges about their activity schedule. I am ashamed to admit that I frequently attempt to bribe them to skip their judo classes on Friday evening so I can stay in with a takeaway and the latest episode of Homeland on the Sky+ box rather than having to stay sober so I can them drive to and fro to a church hall where they will join other sweaty boys in grunting and tossing one another over their shoulders.

Despite my best efforts at subversion my oldest boy remains defiant in his eagerness to achieve. He plays cello and piano, in which he wins plaudits in every exam he takes, he's won medals in both judo and for his roles in his drama group plays, he runs with a club and frequently begs me to allow him to take up tennis and gymnastics. It is only my lack of enthusiasm combined with limited funds and hours in the day that stop him from adding these and many more strings to his bow.

It might sound as if I am boasting, but honestly I can take no credit. I am entirely convinced it is despite, rather than because of me that he has turned out so well. I have always subscribed to the view that if you love your children that is sufficient, surely you don't have to help them with their maths and listen to them scrape their way through their scales too?

My husband assures me that this is an entirely flawed philosophy as he buggers off to work leaving me to applaud loudly at the latest concert or sit, rapt, through another bravura performance. Thank goodness the boys are pretty good at what they do or this really would be torture.

Indeed it is somewhat of a consolation to me how much pride I do take in my boys' achievements. I always despised those mothers who constantly crowed about the many talents of their offspring, but now I sometimes find myself skirting dangerously close to becoming one. I like to tell myself it doesn't count if I casually drop their latest triumph into general conversation with friends, or paste it into my Facebook status, but I suspect I may be deluding myself. In my defence this is only because I know the restraint it took not to buttonhole complete strangers in the street and bounce around them crying 'My baby got a distinction in his cello exam!!!!'

So it turns out that even the most crouching, or more accurately prone after a good lunch, tiger mummy can still turn out a pretty good litter of cubs. Now where did I put my car keys? It's time for the blasted piano lesson again.

Monday, 4 February 2013

All aboard the motherhood express

When I first started this blog it was when my twins were virtually newborn. They had just popped out all wrinkled and pink and I was once again negotiating my way through the thick fog of new motherhood. This is a strange time in a mum's life, when each filled nappy or broken night seems worthy of recording for posterity.

In my ignorance I thought this was the most compelling stage of motherhood. Perhaps because it is so intense, so physical and so all-consuming. As you wait on tenterhooks for all those firsts from smiles to steps, from solids to sleeping through the night, your days and month lurch from one noteworthy achievement to the next.

As your children get older it's not like that any more. Instead of time stretching out ahead of you measured moment by moment, it starts to speed up. It's akin to when a train has finally left the chain of suburban stations that continually halt its progress on the way out of a big city, and is suddenly out in the open countryside speeding along with the trees and fields blurring as you attempt to catch a glimpse of their beauty.

This is how it feels when as children grow up. Rather than waiting around to see what they will do next, I feel as if I am sprinting to keep up with each new development. They are visibly changing and before I have mastered one stage they are rushing off to the next. It seems just moments ago that I was agonising over selecting primary schools, but now I am worrying about tutors to get the oldest into secondary school.

Everyone warned me it would be like this. That their childhood would sweep past me like an irresponsible pilot doing a flyby. I wasn't convinced as my days dragged with the tedium of nappy changes and feeding routines. I already felt as if motherhood had lasted a lifetime.

As my parents in law pored over faded albums showing them smiling on holidays with the chubby toddler who had grown into my husband it looked as if it was a lifetime ago. But now I understand why their nostalgia was tinged with puzzlement over how the squirming little boy captured in the photo had become the man turning the pages of the album.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of that transition in my own son. I can still see the baby in him, but now I am also beginning to discover the man he will become and as I watch him grow I wonder how I could ever have thought the interesting bit of parenthood ended the moment they are no longer babies.