Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Am I a "success" now I'm just a stay-at-home Mum?

I saw an old school friend last week who mentioned a young man I'd briefly had a crush on in Year 9. "Any idea what's he doing these days?" she asked. Funnily enough, the "young man" in question, now in his late 30s, had recently befriended me on Facebook, so I did know what he was up to: living somewhere in the Arctic circle, doing climate research. "Wow," she said. "Good thing you never got together or you could be freezing your butt off out there with him right now!"

I laughed: who'd want to be doing anything (literally) that cool, right?! Well, actually I would. Quite a lot. After I got home, I had a bit of a poke about on LinkedIn and Twitter to see what other ex-boyfriends and former crushes were now up to. Turns out they're all busy being awesome. One is deputy headmaster of a posh independent school in London. One is a film director (his dream even when I knew him) for a popular liberal news publication and spends his life in Borneo, Paraguy, Antarctica and other places I will almost certainly never visit. One heads up an EU policy think tank in Brussels. One lives in Berlin and translates books into English for a living. And the last guy I was with before Drake is now a senior director at a national newspaper who happens to volunteer in Greek refugee centres in his spare time. Nothing like a spot of cyber-stalking to depress you.

The point is not that "I married the wrong man". Far from it: Drake leads a pretty travel-heavy lifestyle himself, and I've had the opportunity to visit Germany, Malaysia and the USA thanks to his job. Also, I love him and I really wouldn't have wanted to marry any of the others anyway. I may apparently have a thing for globe-trotting high achievers, but most tend to come with planet-sized egos and notable committment issues sadly.

The point is that at nearly thirty-seven years of age, I haven't done anything anywhere near as cool as all of these clever, successful men. Despite having a degree in French, a Masters in International Development, and working for international charities for thirteen years, I've never travelled overseas for my job (Oxford is as far as I got). I haven't had anything in print (this blog doesn't count) or on film (except a cringey interview on BBC news) and now I'm not even working. My primary achievement today was deftly steering both kids round a pile of dog poo on the way to nursery. The term 'wasted potential' comes to mind.

These men - most of whom I considered intellectual equals - have somehow gone on to live the life I always expected to have. As I sighed at their pictures of sun-drenched European capitals and snowy Nordic forests, I pondered why this was.

Mostly, I think it's my own fault. Despite thinking a bit of adventure might be nice, I never went out of my way to forge a glittering career. I simply didn't want excitement enough to choose anything other than a safe and sensible path. I was relatively senior in my last paid role, but it was a job where I quietly made things happen behind the scenes, rather than loudly broadcasting my grand visions to all and sundry. It suited me and I mostly enjoyed it, but I was never going to set the charity world ablaze. I suppose I'm a level-headed realist (and maybe a bit lazy too). I know earning lots usually means considerable stress and the requirement to take "business" very seriously (I can't), while living abroad involves language barriers and instability and homesickness. I love to travel, my extended family all live in far flung places, and I lived and studied overseas in my youth, but I also have strong family ties here - all the more so now I have a husband and kids. And in spite of my feminist pretensions, marriage and children were always as important to me as a career.

Is this lack of ambition a personality thing, or a result of societal pressures that seek to quash women's dynamism and persuade them procreation is still the most important thing in life? Probably a bit of both. My personality is undoubtedly shaped by gender norms. I think when nobody expects great things of you, you don't really strive for them as hard. Men know their most important role is to make money and society affords them the freedom to do that however they see fit. In my early twenties, I had that same luxury in theory, but I also knew if I wanted children (which I REALLY did for some reason), I'd have to work on finding a partner too, so I could embark on the suitably long-term relationship that produces them. After a few false starts, I eventually did that, with a man who kept buggering off abroad all the time. Could I have travelled too? Yes, but with my chosen profession, I'd have been in developing countries while he was in developed ones.  We'd never have seen each other. So I held down a steady job in the UK and waited for him to come back and propose. For seven years. Annoying, but ultimately necessary to be with the man I loved and have his babies. Before I knew it, my chance to be free and travel the world had gone...  Excuses excuses.

My recent decision to become a stay-at-home Mum has been driven by this slightly regretful, perhaps even resentful, pragmatism too (and has no doubt enhanced the feeling of failure as I saw what my former paramours were doing). With Drake's far superior salary and tricky working patterns, it was always going to be the most sensible option, and unless I totally screw up my parenting, I know the kids are going to benefit. But let's face it, professional parenthood is just not very exciting. Identifying yourself as "a Mum" is never going to make people go "oooh!" in the same way that telling them you're "a film director" might. Maybe that's the fault of our patriarchal society, or maybe it's just that Mums are ten a penny, while directors are more one in a million. Either way, as much as I love my children and enjoy being with them (mostly, ahem), I don't want raising them to become the only thing I achieve in life.

Yet there are people who spend so long seeing the sights and being successful, that they run out of time to pass on their genes and their passion for the world.  So as we all must do these days, I recognise my privilege too. Wiping bums and hands and noses, isn't quite the same as undertaking pioneering arctic climate science, but it's important in its own way and it won't be forever. I will get my non-Mummy identity back eventually, even if it is linked to a job in Uxbridge rather than Uzbekistan. I also need to remind myself that Social Media can be deeply misleading in how it portrays people's lives.  None of the guys (except one) I cyber-stalked apparently have children - which perhaps explains their more untethered lives - but I have no idea if this is through choice or sad circumstance.  And the one who does, someone I dumped back in 2004 for being a bit too impulsive and overly emotional, is currently divorcing his wife and the mother of his four young kids to shack up with a new young lady from Carshalton, who keeps insensitively blabbing on Facebook about her "incredible new beau". So it could be worse.  I could be him, or heaven forbid, his poor wife. Sometimes having a sensible side is no bad thing at all.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Some weeks are not so wonderful

"So how was your week then?" asks Drake, as he empties out his bag and moves his shoes to the big suitcase.

I shrug. I'm not sure where to begin. What I want to say is, "Awful. I've had less than five hours sleep for five nights in a row. Ducklingette is teething and ill and coughing like a sealion at night. Duckling is coughing too and has been incredibly emotional about everything, particularly you being away. He spent the week having bad dreams and bursting into tears about such tragedies as me brushing his teeth, or changing the TV channel, or eating a bite out of his toast. Both of them want to be in my arms almost permanently and fight each other to get there. My IBS is playing up and I'm in pain and I somehow also have conjunctivitis. I nearly lost an arm getting that massive cabinet we sold down the stairs by myself so the person who bought it could drive it away yesterday. I've also had to pack all our holiday suitcases while the kids conspired to remove every item I put in, ten seconds after packing it. And if I hear "Mummy!!!" screeched at me one more time, I can't guarantee I won't yell "F**k Off," at my own children. I'm amazed I haven't done it already. Then you saunter in, having been away all week, tell me you got SEVEN whole hours sleep on the plane then complain that all the carefully packed and repacked and re-repacked cases will never fit in the car and "do we really need all this stuff for a long weekend? I just went to the other side of the world for a week, hand-luggage only, ha ha ha ha!" Well you didn't take me and two FRICKING CHILDREN with you, did you?! So I'm done. It's your turn. You're going on holiday, with the kids, without me. I'm going back to bed, to sleep, for twelve hours, then I'm going to sit and watch Netflix for the whole long weekend while I drink wine and eat peanuts and unsliced grapes and giant bars of chocolate and all the other things I can't have within sight of the kids. I HAVE HAD ENOUGH."

What I actually said was, "wonderful," and rolled my eyes. Because frankly, I no longer have the energy or brain power to put all my frustrations into words, and even if I could, I'm sick to death of bloody moaning. It won't change Drake's job or his need to travel with that job, nor will it make him truly understand how impossible it can feel at 3am when both children are awake and coughing and crying and wanting to burrow into into you and drain you of every last drop of energy.

Complaining won't make me feel any less burnt out, just as it won't make Drake any less jet lagged. I can't really opt out of the holiday either as I stupidly booked it in my name. So yes. It was "wonderful" darling. Now let's drive three hours through the snot and snow to Norfolk for some -3°C fun in a forest. I'm sure that'll be "wonderful" too.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Never just 'a cold'.

How would you describe 'a cold'? The NHS website infoms me that it is "a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It's very common and usually clears up on its own within a week or two." So far, so obvious.

Except the colds that we get in the Duck household often don't fit this definition. Sure, they include your basic snot and cough, but also deliver a host of other fun symptoms that seem to play out over a month or more.

Take the current 'cold' that has just swept through the family. Duckling is on antibiotics after developing a suspected secondary bacterial chest infection three weeks into an otherwise standard snotty cough, just as I thought he'd recovered. This resulted in a 40° temperature for 3 days, a tummy ache and puking incident, and a cough so incessant that I had to use his asthma inhaler round the clock just so he could go longer than 20 seconds between coughing fits. Drake was, and still is, afflicted by very painful sinuses and a snot cascade of Niagra proportions. I meanwhile had minimal snot, and no sore throat but ran a high temperature for five days along with chest issues, shivers, viral conjunctivitis in both eyes and a total loss of my sense of smell and taste for a fortnight. Excellent for the diet at least. Ducklingette was a bit snotty and had a good wheezy chest rattle going on for a week, but avoided the high temperature everyone else had. Until this evening at least... Which suggests that she's either having a relapse, she too has a bacterial infection or she's caught another cold off someone. Given that the symptoms so far are very similar to Duckling's alleged 'secondary infection', I suspect the last one. 

Nearly four weeks all this stuff has been plaguing us. A whole bloody month. I'm knackered and struggling to see any light at the end of this mucous-flooded tunnel. It's not flu - I've had flu and that is AWFUL. But nor is it "just a cold" as most people - and the NHS - would define it. It's more a Cold Plus, or a Cold 2.0 if you will. These uber colds seem to hit at least once each winter. So is this normal? Do we, as a family, just have crappy (for failing to defeat them quickly) / overly enthusiastic (for causing so many crazy symptoms) immune systems? Is it genetics (Duckling almost certainly has the Drake's dodgy lung genes)? Are we all lacking decent nutrition? Are colds evolving to be more virulent than they once were? If so, is it global warming? Or am I just massive hyperchondriac making a big song and dance about perfectly normal, if slightly drawn out illnesses? I mean, we always get better eventually, and Duckling only got hospitalised the once...

I honestly have no clear answer to any of these questions and it annoys me because when you don't know why you're spending weeks at a time being unable to smell a reeking nappy (great for me, less great for Ducklingette) there's nothing much you can do about it. At the very least, it would be good to know the exact virus we all have so I can get a better handle on what to expect in terms of symptoms, severity, duration and treatment, and an idea of what we are all now immune to. For not all cold viruses are created equal - there are over 200 of them, with more emerging all the time, each one has a slightly different profile. It would be great to blot a few off the giant cold bug bingo board.

I thus find it odd that in the modern age nobody has decided it might be helpful to be more precise, and produced a quick test that enables doctors to say (e.g.) "Ah yes, you have Human Rhinovirus C. This one last ages and is likely to cause wheezing, pneumonia and hallucinations of purple rhinos, so do watch out..."  But no such luck.  Why so vague?

Of course I know the answer - a system that identified viral species in every coughing person in the doctor's waiting room would be prohibitively expensive - I'm no biologist but I imagine it is neither a quick nor easy task, for all my wishful thinking. Beyond basic curiosity and my pedantic need for precision, there is not an awful lot of epidemiological use in tracking bugs that rarely cause much damage beyond a crusty nose either.

What would have more value, as I have argued before, would be a Viral v Bacterial test. Doctors often can't reliably diferentiate between colds - caused by viruses - and bacterial infections (though pharmacies were trialling such a thing for sore throats).  For this reason, we have on more than one occasion now had to force antibiotics down Duckling without knowing if they're strictly necessary. This week is a case in point - Ducklingette appears to have caught her new bug off Duckling (same symptoms, just less melodramatic), implying his was viral not bacterial all along. Having had an argument over every single dose of the stupid bloody banana gloop, this is a tad frustrating.

As it is, we, as parents, just have to live with the unpredictability and rely on conversations at the school / nursery gate and Facebook parenting groups to reassure us that six weeks of coughing is absolutely de rigueur for those with the current lurgy du jour.  Because even if we knew what the kids had, the solution will, nine times out of ten, be the standard coldathon drill anyway - be liberal with the cuddles, trust your instincts and try to ignore the urge to shout "really, how are we still in the middle of this?!" every ten minutes. Which is parenthood in a nutshell really, isn't it?

Saturday, 11 November 2017

A morning (with children).

Awake to the sound of a six-month-old farting. She has been in your bed since 3am following her third wake of the night - later than the night before but not as late as the one before that. The farter is goldfish-mouthing for a nipple but is nowhere near and latches onto your elbow instead. Redirect her and wonder why she always snorts and gulps as though she's chugging a beer when she breastfeeds. So bloody noisy. Try to keep your eyes closed and will her fall back asleep, while she finishes guzzling her breakfast pint. No chance - she starts to burble and squirm, a sure sign she's ready for the day. Sit her up and give her a hairbrush to play with while you bury your head back in the pillow. Husband is in the shower which must mean it's 06.40. Sleep laps at the outer shores of your brain, before rapidly receding as you hear the wail of "Mummy, come and seeeeee meeeeee!" from son's room. Surround daughter with pillows to prevent a bed-to-floor tumble and drag your knackered corpse in to collect son from bunk bed that he still can't safely exit solo. Bring son back into your bed and inform him that it's very early so he should go back to the land of nod. For a brief, tantalising moment, as you crawl back under the covers, you think he might comply, but no, he's sits bolt upright again and the peanut butter toast demands begin. There's no going back now. The day has begun.

Husband emerges from shower, gets dressed and engages son in loud, animated discussion about underpants, before taking him downstairs for the inexplicable morning ritual of placing a banana in a laptop bag. Briefly check weather and headlines on phone before son is back, jumping on the bed and trying to steal daughter's hairbrush to vigourously brush her bald pate. Daughter wails and the first "gentle please!" of the day is issued. 

You re-exit the bed, trip over various pillows, toys and clothes and locate a dressing gown. It needs a wash as the single marmite stain has now spawned three more, but your other one hasn't yet graced the washing machine after a tea disaster, so marmite robe it is. 

Wave husband off out the window and perilously carry both kids down the stairs, because one can't walk and the other refuses to. Hope today is not the day that you slip and drop them both. Locate the remote, click on CBeebies, and stick the baby in her cardboard box playpen while toast is prepared. Wonder, as you have every day for the past month, whether today is the day to start giving the baby something other than boob for breakfast, but decide, once again, that you don't have the time or energy right now. Maybe when more stuff goes in her mouth than on the floor...?

Dole out toast and water and answer son's question of "What we doing today Mummy?" for the third time. Today is a nursery day. Still. Shovel own toast into mouth and down juice while checking Facebook before embarking on some washing up. But wait, what's that smell? Daughter has pooped up her back! Oh happy day. 

Deal with the poomageddon, noting that the box of used Cheeky Wipes still needs to be washed and you still don't have time right now to do it, and throw poopy babygrow into the "to soak in stain remover" bucket by the washing machine. Return to find large puddle in the middle of the kitchen thanks to an upended cup incident. Spend five minutes persuading son to wipe it up, which he does, but so incompetently that you have to complete the job yourself. Do a little jig to the Hey Duggee theme tune and get momentarily distracted by its zany charm. Glance at clock. 07.45. Right, operation Get Dressed must begin. The washing up can wait.

Corral children up the stairs, repeatedly instructing son NOT to drop plate of half-eaten toast, before picking up dropped toast six steps from the top. Stick son in front of laptop and fight with Amazon Prime website and crap broadband speed until Paw Patrol reluctantly agrees to play. Install daughter on a mat on bathroom floor with a random collection of bath toys and empty shampoo bottles.  Collect son's nursery outfit from his bedroom, plonk it on bed next to him with instructions to put it on while you are in shower, then strip off clothes, have a quick wee while daughter attempts to gum your toe and jump in.

Zoom through shampoo and conditioner, washing body with shampoo as you still haven't remembered to buy more soap, and step out into a puddle of milky baby sick which daughter is merrily swishing around the tiles with her pudgy little hands. Bite back a swear word, pick her up, rinse her off under the tap and stick her on the floor in the bedroom. Rinse foot, dry foot, dry everything else, wrap hair in towel, then streak down the hallway to the airing cupboard to collect a flannel, hoping the neighbours don't see your naked wobbly bits through the landing window. Wipe up sick with flannel and start brushing teeth. Continue brushing while attempting to rescue daughter, who has reversed herself under the bed, and put Paw Patrol back on for son, who has somehow opened an Excel spreadsheet and is busy populating every column with the letter k. Complete toothbrushing, moisturise and deodorise, then wipe up random toothpaste dribbles on duvet and daughter's head with the baby sick flannel.

Note that son has not yet even removed pyjamas. Gently encourage son to do so by slamming lid of laptop shut and stating there will be no more Paw Patrol until he is dressed. Brush hair and drown out whining with hair dryer, then tie hair up to keep it out the way of sticky baby gecko hands. Rummage in wardrobe for outfit that fits and doesn't have any major holes, then get dressed while simultaneously putting on son's socks. Leave him to complete dressing while daughter is wrestled into clothes, generating customary screaming fit. Return to bedroom where son has still not donned his trousers, but has made a den out of the bedclothes, in which he is now sitting, building a road out of husband's cufflinks and loose change. Instruct him in no uncertain terms that his trousers must go on NOW, and that the cufflinks and change must go back in the cupboard before you count to 10. Count to 7 quickly and loudly while son provides full range of reasons why he should not comply (but the road isn't finished and his invisible friends won't be able to get to nursery without it!), then 8..... 9.... 9 and a quarter..... 9 and a half.... 9 and three quarters.... Son madly scrambles to find his trousers and return all items to husband's wardrobe. 10!

Usher son into bathroom for toothbrushing, and precariously balance daughter on knee while attacking son's teeth with brush. Tell son to "open wide, look at me, stop talking" at least five times, then get him to rinse and spit, which he does, half in the sink and half down his t-shirt. Towel him down the return to bedroom to collect phone and put on socks. Note baby is yawning and check time. 8.35. Ten minutes to exit house. Go to find son who has gone very quiet. Discover him on toilet, singing. Curse too loudly. Pooping takes ten minutes minimum. Wait outside bathroom on son's insistence while he rattles through all the kid's TV theme tune classics - Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig, Go Jetters, Octonauts - asking him of he's finished every 30 seconds. Briefly feed baby who is now due a nap and is grizzling and check Facebook again. FFS what is he doing? Poke head round door and note unravelled toilet roll pooled on floor. Deliver usual lecture on waste while rolling it back up, then wipe bottom and wash hands, before beginning another countdown to get son to pull trousers back up.

Wonder what happened to your life as you chase son downstairs. Grab pushchair and strap in tired and howling baby, then grab nursery bag and instruct son to put on shoes. No, not those shoes, those are Mummy's. Not the wellies either. Where ARE your shoes? Hunt for shoes and discover them in plant pot. Ram shoes on son's feet and throw coat at him. Shush baby while pulling on own boots and bump pushchair over discarded wellies and out front door. Return for coat. Return for keys. Return for son who is brandishing a pair of kitchen tongs that he wants to take to nursery. Return kitchen tongs.

Haul pouting son onto buggy board and gently jog down road. Three minutes to get to nursery. It can be done in three minutes, can't it?  Breathlessly discuss son's invisible friends LeafHead and CutterHedge who are apparently going to be doing some tree felling at nursery today, say hello to some cats, have a dispute over who should open the park gate, underline that there really are NO MORE BLACKBERRIES on the brambles because it's November now, then run across park, sending wet grass clippings flying everywhere as son yells "faster, faster!" followed by "Why we going so fast Mummy? Are we late?" 

Arrive at nursery a hot sweaty mess and ring the Buzzer of Shame because the teacher on gate duty has already gone back inside. Apologise for tardiness as teacher writes 09.05 on sign in sheet, and hurry son into building, brushing wet grass off both of you as you go. Give son a hug and a kiss as he merrily tells teacher he is late because he had to do a big poo, then push daughter back out of the gate and across the park. Watch as she slowly nods off and breathe in the fresh air and silence. Walk rest of way home listening to tunes from your youth and wondering where that person went and whether she ever realised just how free she was, how unencumbered, how energetic, how untested in the patience department. Curse her naivety for thinking children would be a brilliant idea, then look at beautiful sleeping daughter and thank her to the stars and back. You wouldn't have it any other way. Especially when they're at nursery. Or asleep.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Slumps in self-esteem

How's your self-esteem? It has come to my attention recently that mine is not especially great. I do have days where I like myself; where I've managed to put together a reasonably flattering outfit, kept control of the daily toy explosion in the house, have said something vaguely intelligent or have earned a B+ or above at parenting.

Then there are the days where I feel USELESS. Stupid, incompetent, forgetful, socially awkward and clutzy. Fat, frumpy and old.  On an OK day, I'll forget what it feels like to have a self-esteem slump. I'll laugh at my crisis over a thoughtlessly missed birthday the week before. Catch me in a crap mood though, particularly during a hormone storm or after drinking gin or wine, and the slightest little thing can make me dissolve into a frothing pool of self-loathing.

Holidays seem to bring out the worst of my self-confidence issues, probably because of the heady mix of alcohol-induced emotional hangovers and the need to wear revealing swimwear. And Drake's requirement that we play crazy golf. I am not good at crazy golf. And I am not good at not being good at things. It was the crazy golf ("Not CRAZY golf; MINI golf" Drake would be huffing were he to read this) on our current holiday that started my latest bout of hand-wringing. Objectively, I'm probably not terrible. But out there, facing down the mini windmills, little orange club in hand, I feel like an uncoordinated chimpanzee. So I just whack the ball willy nilly, figuring I'll be less disappointed in myself if I don't even try. And lo, I go ten over par every time. Or whatever the correct terminology is. Drake thinks my subsequent strops are funny at first. Then he gets annoyed because I'm sucking all the fun out of a game he loves. Which just makes me feel worse because I'm ruining it for him and making everyone else feel uncomfortable and why can't I just a) laugh it off or b) just be bloody better??? Drake is of course very good at mini golf so has no idea why I hate it. But then he doesn't understand why I beat myself up about anything really. Like map reading. Or social interaction with vineyard owners. Or map reading. Or tumble drying plastic undersheets (turns out you really shouldn't). Or buying dinner in sufficient quantities (more chicken needed! Why didn't I trust my instinct and buy more chicken?!). Or map reading. Have I mentioned the map reading?

To be honest, I've kind of had enough of feeling like a failure, because I know I'm not. I have a masters degree, a good job, two lovely kids, a great husband and an understanding if occasionally disfunctional family. I'm a great swimmer and singer and a reasonable dancer, writer, public speaker, cook and runner. I think I'm doing OK at the Mum thing. I speak French and some Spanish. I can still touch my toes. Heck, I could definitely be fatter and uglier - but I also know looks should not define a woman's worth so I actively strive not to care. And given the state of my nails and eyebrows I'm doing pretty well at that.

The fact is, I'm just fine and my occasional faux pas do not define me. I forget this for many reasons (comparison to my very competent, self-assured and even-keeled husband; a history with bitchy classmates and university friends; a sensitive personality and tendency to dwell on the negative; a personal expectation of perfection left over from my over-achieving school days; sleep deprivation; time deprevation; the discovery that I own the same coat as my mother-in-law; poor short term memory; a tendency to leave the car keys on the roof of the car overnight etc. etc...). But I am fine. One might even say, hopefully, maybe, quite nice and sort of funny. But shh, don't tell anyone I said that. I don't want to sound big-headed. Oh God, do I sound big-headed?!  Someone shoot me now.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Threenagers - where did the innocence go?

I knew it would come some time... That point at which your wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked toddler turns into a knowing, precocious preschooler. When people stop being reliably amused at their funny exploits and outbursts, and start giving them, and you, rather less of the benefit of doubt if they act up. A threenager is well and truly among us.

This loss of innocence really hit home the first time Duckling genuinely embarrassed me in public a couple of weeks back. He's generally a pretty good kid when we're out, if a little selectively deaf and exuberant at times (when he's not being painfully shy). So as we entered the National Trust property we were visiting that day for a picnic, I didn't think twice about taking five minutes to fill in an membership form (#middleagedandproud). I quickly realised my mistake as Duckling rolled his eyes at me and huffily declared he didn't WANT to sit down, he wanted to go and have the picnic NOW. I informed him that demanding was never the right way to get anything, and he would have to wait. I sat him beside me as an NT volunteer started to take me through the form. 

My friend's little boy came to sit with us. Duckling took exception to this and tried to shove him off the bench they were both on. Stern words got a petulant look and had little impact so I took Duckling onto my lap where he wriggled about in irritation. The valiant volunteer tried to give him an activity sheet to distract him. Duckling threw it on the floor in disgust, shouting "I don't want that!". He then tried to grab my friend's son's sheet too, in which, unlike Duckling, he was quietly and politely showing great interest. I died a little inside, but with the volunteer still patiently completing the form - "and could you spell that for me please?" - I had no choice but to sit there, restraining a struggling Duckling, and issuing "I know you're hungry but we DO NOT do that!" and "we are going to have WORDS about this in a minute young man," threats under my breath. At last we escaped, but not before the volunteer - who had clearly not learnt his lesson - tried to proffer another leaflet Duckling's way, only to have it derisively thrown back in his face. Profuse apologies and a serious talk with Duckling predictably followed.

He's only three, I know. It feels like an excuse but he truly doesn't yet understand that good manners should apply in ALL situations. He is prone to melodrama, eye-rolling and like all three-year-olds, he's also a bit of a narcissist who doesn't fully get empathy yet, as much as I might like him to. He also has a great love of biscuits, and for him, eating the shortbread we'd bought was the primary purpose of our whole expedition. I know all this, yet I can't help taking this sort of behaviour very personally. I am excessively English. I hate rudeness, awkwardness, or for anyone to think badly of me or my offspring. For my son to behave like such a spoilt brat was mortifying. How could a child of mine act so entitled? Am I an awful parent? Everyone must have thought he was vile! And at a National Trust property of all places! The middle-class SHAME of it!

There have been other incidents since, all underlining that my son has left his two-year-old innocence well behind. He's still enthusiastic, bubbly and full of fun, imagination and giggles, but also moody, bossy, egocentric and very dismissive of anyone "silly" (which seems to be largely everyone at the moment). He's also particularly articulate, which I think is what makes this new phase so fraught with potential humiliation. He is totally honest. Whereas before he just yelled and cried, now he can explain (or shout) exactly what he thinks and feels - but with few filters and some obvious impulse control issues, it's not always what people want to hear.

In some ways I long for the largely mute innocence his four-month-old sister still displays.  Yet I know there's no going back. So as humiliating as National Trustgate was, it was also a wake up call. I realised that my parenting methods may need a bit of a polish. I simply cannot rely on him being guileless and cute in social situations anymore. I need to more actively teach politeness and self-control and help him to understand why he can't just yell whatever he's thinking, even if he is hungry and bored. Modern parenting manuals all laud "modelling" as the best way to teach manners - well I'm sure it does play a role, but I know I am always unfailingly polite in public (I'm fairly sure I've never thrown a major strop at an Edwardian country retreat before for instance) so I think its powers are possibly overrated. Boundaries and consequences seem to work better for us.

In an odd way, I'm quite looking forward to helping Duckling through this next stage. He's (mostly) mastered the basics of life - how to walk, how to eat independently, how to use the toilet, how to talk... Now we get to teach him how to be a decent, thoughtful and sociable little person. I hope I'm up to the challenge. Though I fear I may need to toughen up (or avoid National Trust properties) while he gets there.

Friday, 16 June 2017

"There's a Fire at London..."

Duckling, like many three-year-olds is completely obsessed by fire engines, police cars and all things "memergency". I have lost count of the number of times I've been pulled into his emergency rescue games with cries of "Quick Mummy, there's a fire at London!" (I think this is his interpretation of Fireman Sam's catchphrase "Great Fires of London").
It is a very hard thing to explain to a three-year-old that fires are more than just 'exciting'. I tried a few months ago, when some neighbours down the road had a minor issue with a singed bedroom carpet, prompting the arrival of two fire engines in our street. He sort of understood, but mostly he just wanted to wave to the fire fighters.

Yesterday, the explanation of what had happened at Grenfell Tower was infinitely harder. He saw the pictures on TV as I watched the news. "Wow Mummy! That's a big building on fire! And lots of fire engines!" I explained that this was a genuine 'Fire at London', and after some confusion about it being in the building where I worked (London and my office seem to be largely synonymous in Duckling's mind) he grasped the concept that this was a building where people lived. He wanted to see more pictures. He wanted to see the fire and the fire fighters and the sad people. I showed him some pictures on my phone, then told him I couldn't show him any more as I was very sad too. He asked me why.

What I wanted to say was I was sad because so many people had died in the most horrific circumstances imaginable, leaving behind desperate parents, children, siblings and friends. I was sad that mothers had been compelled to throw their babies out of windows, or had faced the agony of losing their children in the choking smoke as they ran for their lives. That those who survived had just had all their earthly possessions taken from them, and would never, ever be able to return to their homes. And above all, I was sad that this tragedy had happened, today, in 2017, in a wealthy developed nation, not because of an unpredictable freak event, but because the prescient concerns of residents were ignored and safety was forgone for the sake of a few thousand pounds. That this whole awful, horrible disaster was so fucking avoidable.
You can't say all that to a three-year-old though. So I just explained that people's homes had burnt down, and some had lost their friends and family and that made me very sad because I could imagine how scared and upset they must be. "Oh." he said. "What if our house goes on fire? Would we be burned and trapped like the people?" I reassured him that our house was very unlikely to burn down, but if it did catch on fire, we could escape out of a window or down the stairs. "No Mummy. I would put out the fire with my fire stingsquisher! Ne naw ne naw!" he cried and zoomed off to build a towerblock and a fire station out of Duplo.

Three is hard. Old enough to understand and be scared, but not yet quite able to fully empathise and grasp the gravity of what a fire - particularly one on the scale of Grenfell Tower - really means. In a year, he will get it. Right now, I'm kind of glad that he doesn't.