Yesterday, we came back from Camp Bestival. It took us 7 hours to travel the 3 and a half hour journey back. I am now surrounded by washing. My living room has been overtaken by camping paraphernalia which I can’t imagine myself ever being bothered to sort out. While there we endured torrential wind and rain, three poo disasters so bad they resulted in clothes being abandoned forever and so many ‘emergency snacks’ I fear my children may actually be turning into giant bear crisps.
Sound like the worst holiday ever? It wasn’t. It was awesome.
I know for many of my friends the idea of camping with kids alone is frightening, let alone a festival. The weather was mostly horrendous and I totally sympathise with the many families near us who gave up and packed up mid-festival after almost two days of solid rain.
But I love festivals – the music, the atmosphere, the people – and no amount of kids or rain would stop me from going!
There were certainly low points: the ‘poonamis’ on day one certainly put a downer on things, at one point I thought the tent was going to fly into the air and transport us over the rainbow to Kansas, and it is never helpful to have a child who likes to throw his wellies away when you’re in the middle of the world’s boggiest field and the festival shop has already sold out…
Still, where else would we get to dance with Ubercorn* next to the world’s biggest disco ball, see my son laugh so hard at Big Foot the clown I worried his vein would pop out of his neck and bounce around in the pouring rain to Mark Ronson as if we were teenagers again (thanks to the babysitters for that kiddy-free moment)?!
If I was to give any advice to people thinking of taking kids to festivals, it would be this – there is strength in numbers. There are times when you want quality time just you and your family, but this isn’t one of them. Take friends. When you’ve spent nearly an hour dealing with poo, everything you own is damp and you and your partner are on the verge of throwing tent pegs at each other’s heads, what you need is someone to laugh at you, hand you a plastic cup of wine and remind you that it is all actually quite funny.
And if my raving about it isn’t enough to persuade you to give it a go, here are my son’s wise words:
“Being at a festival is great. You can eat loads of junk food and because you don’t have to wash, there’s so much more time to play Uno!”
*A giant disco dancing, go-jetting unicorn. Do I really need to explain?
“Why did we have another one? Why did we think we needed two? It was going so well with one!”
Such are the desperate cries in our household at moments when the children have decided to tag team their night time neediness.
It’s a good question. We were set with one. We had it covered. We outnumbered him. We could tag team parent, each of us got at least one lie in on a weekend and it was fairly easy to find a babysitter for just one child, especially one who you could just read a story and send to bed with no crying.
Now most tasks are twice as difficult. Bedtime is an organised chaos of synchronised reading and feeding, there is always at least one point in the day when one child is being ignored almost to the point of neglect and our nightly conversation is now a bet as to who will wake up first/most/in the most confusing and annoying manner.
Put it like that, why would anyone have a second?
Well, we’ve got two now and I kind of love them both so, time to focus on the positives.
1. You’ve got a built in play mate.
“Can you just keep brother company for 5 minutes while I do this?” Such a handy and surprisingly effective phrase! Voila. Both children entertained with no input from me. Only for a maximum of five minutes and I’m sure the novelty of this won’t last for the older one, but still, works for now! Plus, one day in the future there’ll be two of them to go on the swing and that will save both my dignity and a whole load of knee and thigh pain.
2. Practice makes perfect.
I remember once asking my mum for money for a night out when I was a teenager. She said no. I pointed out that she had given my older brother money for nights out. It wasn’t fair! “That’s because he was my first. I made all my mistakes on him. I know better now.” How wise you are mum! The joy of having a second baby is I can now do, panic free, all the things I was crap at the first time round (feeding, changing, pushing the buggy, knowing all the words to wind the bobbin up). And if I can’t do them, I at least care less.
3. Who needs sleep?
I remember having a new baby to be the most horrendously traumatic experience. It was like my body shut down. I just could not live on so little sleep. 3 years later and it appears my body has learned to cope. 4 whole hours uninterrupted sleep? I could rule the bloody world on that!
4. It’s all relative
3 years ago a whole day in the house by myself with the baby was a true test of wills. Likely by 3pm I’d be calling my husband desperate for conversation, and by 5pm I’d be literally pacing the floor, counting the seconds until he got home to relieve me.
These days, a whole day with only one child is like a spa treatment! You mean I can sit on the sofa, have a cuddle and watch something that isn’t CBeebies? Result!!! I might even get round to washing up.
5. It’s just so bloody cute.
Look at them. How could you ever regret that?
“You’re going to a festival? With a three year old? While 7 and a half months pregnant? Are you mad?!!”
Erm, yes, looking back I probably was. We knew it would be tricky, but had been whining for some time about missing live music since the onset of parenthood, so when a friend suggested we all go together we threw caution to the wind and booked our tickets to Latitude.
As the months progressed and my bump grew bigger, tiny doubts grew in my mind. My first pregnancy had been a walk in the park compared to the aches, pains and exhaustion of this one. However, the internet reassured me festivals were full of pregnant women: one source told me Glastonbury even has an on-site midwife just in case anyone goes into labour! How had I never spotted all these pregnant women before? Looking back, I guess they didn’t feature in my early festivalling years of bouncing around to Rage Against the Machine at Leeds.
Despite having done my research, practically I was no better prepared than before, but I felt optimistic. If they could do it, so could I! My only concession was to buy a set of camping chairs – we didn’t have a tent, or anywhere for the toddler to rest during the day, but hey, we could sit down if we wanted. Let’s go!
I won’t say it was all plain sailing. For a start, we forgot our son’s bed, meaning the three of us and my by now ginormous bump had to squeeze up on a smaller than double blow up bed. The up side was it kept us warm as temperatures plummeted in the night, a possibility we hadn’t considered when we decided to forego sleeping bags in favour of a couple of cheap blankets. Our blind faith in the English summer and the warmth of canvas proved to be as idiotic as you would expect. Turns out our optimism was more to blame for insomnia than my pregnancy, but I guess we’d better get used to sleepless nights!
The low point came on Saturday afternoon. After having failed miserably to get my son to nap, we began the trudge from the tent to meet my husband and I attempted to ‘nip to the loo’. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fit in a festival toilet cubicle with a three year old, a backpack, two camping chairs and a baby bump, but it’s not easy. Then, with truly hideous timing, my freakishly laid back son finally discovered his ability to throw a tantrum. Thank god we hadn’t yet left the family camp site. I’m not sure my crouching, head in hands, so close to the urinals would have been so sympathetically received elsewhere.
Still, despite our odd moments, we found our family festival mojo and I can only describe the weekend as bloody brilliant!
Watching my little boy air drum to The Vaccines ‘20/20’ on his Dad’s shoulders was a true polaroid moment; listening to Naomi Shelton in the glorious sunshine while 3 toddlers attempted to throw popcorn in my mouth was one of my most fun festival moments ever; and, while it may not have been my finest moment of parenting – letting the boy fall asleep at 10.30pm in the middle of a field with a sugary lollipop in his mouth – I have rarely been happier than reliving my teenage years and shouting along to ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, my little man and other half by my side. Plus, maybe listening to Noel Gallagher in that field as he drifted off to sleep will endow him with a little more cool than I ever had as a kid.
I’m standing at the bar with a cool glass of rose, tapping my feet, with my eyes closed. Behind my eyelids flicker the unmistakable lights of a club. The beat vibrates through the floor; an expert mix of reggae, dance and just a hint of drum and bass. As I sway my hips and sip my drink, I can just begin to feel the stresses and strains of the working week drift away.
The next thing I know a hand reaches out and guides me to the dance floor. We move to the beat, joy filling our bodies and my dance partner looks up at me with love in his eyes and says…
‘Mummy! Do the wiggly bum dance!’
No, I am not dreaming. Nor have I taken leave of my senses and, desperately unable to find a babysitter, taken my two year old out clubbing on a Saturday night. I have, however, take him to a club.
This is the phenomenon of ‘baby disco’. On Saturday afternoon at 3pm, the hipsters of Hackney congregated in a warehouse to combine their love of rave with their love for their kids. Not for these parents the run of the mill toddler group. There were no cringeworthy ‘hello’ sing song introductions, no coordinated dance moves and no tailor made kiddy songs. No. This was a full on club night: flashing lights, banging beats, fully stocked bar and a DJ shouting things like ‘Get on your feet! Go crazy! This next tune’s going to be mind-blowing!’, pausing briefly in between statements to dance like a loon with the crowd of adoring pre-schoolers before him. It even came complete with bouncers clad in skin tight black tops hinting at intimidating muscles and biceps adorned with official security badges. At one point, their skills were required to remove a gang of rowdy 6 year olds from dancing enthusiastically on the DJ stage (yes, really!). Yet, somehow it achieved the seemingly impossible – it was a truly family friendly event.
While the walls may have still been decorated with signs declaring that ‘anyone found with illegal drugs will be asked to leave’, immediately to the right was a cupcake stall and ice cream stand. The glittering disco lights were complemented by swathes of transparent balloons, coating the floor with a sea of colours which would surely transfix any tripping clubber, but garnered a far more energetic response from the average infant. In the corner sat a street artist, teaching toddlers how to tag and advising on the best way to colour in a graffiti skull.
It was truly a surreal experience. And yet somehow, amazing!
The event was Disco Loco. I first discovered them when my son was tiny. Pre-pregnancy I had been a regular at the strange and kooky club nights of Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club: an obscure mix of Shoreditch, Eastenders and Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Weird, but brilliant. So, after months of being deprived of anything resembling a night out (never mind a night’s sleep) when we discovered there was now a daytime version to which you could take your baby, we jumped at it. At that time, it was all about the parents: come and listen to good music in a cool venue, and just happen to have your kid by your side. In time, however, it has morphed into a far more all encompassing event.
Truth be told, I’m fairly certain the parents’ intentions in taking their children were far from altruistic. There’s no doubt the kids loved charging around, kicking balloons and eating cake. But the joy as a parent in being able to dance and mess about with your family, without having to sing Wind the Bobbin up for the fifty millionth bloody time, is immeasurable.
Is it a good idea to take small children to what is, essentially, a sanitary rave? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is irresponsible to introduce them to the ideas of drinking and dancing so young. Or, perhaps it will demystify the whole thing, making it much less exciting and rebellious when they’re older. Perhaps they won’t even remember, and I should point out here that it was generally an unspoken one drink rule – there were no drunken and disorderly parents! Or maybe kids won’t care because they’re too busy kicking balloons. What I do know is that it was a better afternoon for everyone than hanging about in a grubby soft play centre; the fluorescent lights slowly bringing on a migraine, the constant droning noise sapping your will to live and your child coming back crying because some big kid kicked them out of the ball pool.
Whatever your views, we had great fun and I don’t think my son has ever slept so well. Plus, these guys could definitely teach a thing or two to the clubs I used to go to. It might have been full of kids, but there was none of the urine and vomit you found at student nights, cupcakes do indeed make an excellent addition to a bar and dancing with balloons is much more fun than you remember!
“We should just admit that all adults hate some children. At least some of the time.”
The wise words of my husband. A man who in the early years of parenthood also admitted “I don’t really like children. Only my own. The rest are annoying.”
For many years, since before we had a child of our own, I have admonished him when he expressed his reservations about the children we met.
“You can’t say things like that! All children are beautiful/lovely/special in their own way” I would preach at him, reeling in shock at his cruel, thoughtless and downright un-fatherly comments.
Parenthood should be a special time, in which we discover all the ways children can enrich our lives. We discover that they see the world in a whole different way to us, and their innocence, curiosity and wonder infects our own cynical and world weary perspective on life. Indeed, all children are beautiful, wonderful creatures to be treasured. After all, they are the future.
Except that, some days, they are just a pain in the arse.
The thing about being a parent is that you don’t just get to know your own child, you get to know others as well. You become friends with other parents and, before you know it, your calendar is full of ‘play-dates’ and babysitting swaps. Suddenly you get a chance to see what children are really like, close up, without the inconvenient blindness of parental love. It really is an eye opener.
Last weekend we looked after a friend’s toddler. We thought it would be simple. All we had to do was double the entertainment and food we normally provided and find another place for someone little to sleep. It could even be fun!
15 minutes in, everything was great. They were playing happily and if anything it felt easier than usual! We didn’t have to play garage for the sixth consecutive hour because there was someone else to do it. Wonderful. She could come stay round all the time.
30 minutes later, in the midst of a full on screaming fit seemingly for no other reason than she had suddenly decided she didn’t like us, things were looking less rosy.
One hour and several more screaming fits later my husband turned to me, stony faced and said “I’m starting to think I don’t like this kid…”
“You can’t say that…” I began to protest, before I was drowned out by a new realm of sonic pain and a number of podgy, drool covered fingers being rammed in my face.
Another hour later, a few brief happy moments, a near A&E trip and some more screaming later, I was beginning to wonder about my ‘all children are wonderful’ philosophy…
The following day I handed her back (My other half had buggered off to a conference leaving me in sole charge of the screamer. There are few things that 4 days in a Travelodge in Glasgow covering the Lib Dem conference is preferable to, but apparently this was one of them). I smiled, said it was ‘no problem’ then savoured the peace and quiet as the door closed and the screaming left for good.
Thank God my child is so well behaved, I thought. I don’t just love him, I genuinely like him. He’s actually a nice person to be around.
Fast forward two weeks and fate has come back around to bite me firmly on the backside.
If parenthood is a journey, the early days were the slow trudge through the slip road to the motorway – tough but necessary and ultimately worth it. The following two years were a slow drive along the Northern Irish coastal road – each time you think it’s the best it’s ever been, a new scene of beauty and wonder unfolds even better than the last and you smile, happy and slightly smug that it’s all so much better than others led you to believe. From walking to talking to full blown conversations – it’s just gotten better and better as the boy has grown.
Unfortunately, in the last few days we’ve hit the inevitable traffic jam. We’ve been diverted away from the coast onto an ugly inner city ring road, where bumper to bumper traffic jams have forced us to stop at Little Chef, sitting on ripped up plastic seats, eating cold eggs on toast and drinking bitter coffee from chipped cups as the rain beats down on the dirty windows. We know it’ll be worth it when we get out the other side, but it’s hard to seat that when you’re choking on a mouldy toast crust.
We’ve officially hit the terrible twos and after being stranded outside our home in the pouring rain with a toddler who steadfastly refuses to move – “Mummy go in. I stay here!” – and a visit to a friends which started with a refusal to go in, moved into a refusal to eat dinner, and ended with a refusal to come home – “No! I want to stay here forever!” – I’m starting to wonder what someone would think if I left my son with them for a weekend.
How long would it take before one person turned to another and muttered: “I’m starting to think I don’t like this kid…”?
Love may be unconditional, but liking isn’t. I will love my son with every fibre of my being until the last breath is dragged unwillingly from my body, but it’s tough to like someone when you’ve run yourself ragged for days on end just to sneak home to see them half an hour early and they greet you by crying and running in the other direction.
Cheers mate – right now, the feeling’s mutual.
T S Eliot once said ‘The journey, not the arrival, matters’. I can only deduce from this that he never had to travel with small children.
There was a time when travelling anywhere could be a joy, a time to be cherished rather than a trial to be endured. A good book, a hot coffee and a big fat muffin meant any train journey could be a delight. Then you had children.
The thing is, I don’t really find travelling with children that difficult. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy – I learned my lesson not to stuff your toddler full of cheese and tomatoes before their first ever flight if you don’t sent to spend two hours smelling like sick and sitting in stinking pink-stained trousers, and when recently faced with the possibility of a five hour coach journey with a two year old I quickly arranged alternative childcare for the weekend – but on the whole I reckon I’ve cracked it travelling with my kid. In fact, it can be a fairly enjoyable experience (not as enjoyable as with a good book and a muffin obviously, but still ok).
No, the problem is – as always – other people’s kids. No, scratch that. The problem is – as always – other kids’ parents! Bumbling, hapless, moronic parents who don’t consider that sitting on a plane, train or automobile for four hours might be a little dull for a child. Weirdos who haven’t thought that the passing clouds and the low hum of the engine might not provide enough entertainment for a child with the attention span of a gnat and whose go-to activity when left to their own devices is either running around in circles or shouting loudly, neither of which go down well on public transport. Worse still are those who vaguely realise that they need to structure the journey and do so using only food, opting for the ‘why don’t we spend the first half an hour eating Haribo and crisps then wonder why you’ve gone so mental for the rest of the journey?’ technique.
I like to travel. I may not be off anywhere exotic, but I want to be able to take my boy out and continue our journeys in relative peace and quiet. Even more so, on those rare, beauteous days when I am blessed with a stretch of time travelling sans-child, with nothing to do except read and relax, I do not want my journey ruined by a useless parent-traveller. I make my point clear here. I have no problem with children – they are just doing what comes naturally – I will just never understand parents who can’t foresee and at least try to prevent the hazards that come with such a family journey.
So, in case you are one of these poorly planned travelling families (and, as the cliched comedy stand up goes, if you don’t think you know any, it’s you!) here are some basic tips for getting through a trip with your hair and nerves thoroughly in tact, and without making enemies of the other passengers.
1. Go by train wherever possible. That way if they get bored, you can get up and wander around: it’s dull and futile, but better than getting into a fight with a seatbelt and a raging toddler.
2. Plan in advance and choose your times. There’s nothing worse than a buggy taking up half a carriage while every other passenger crouches with his nose crammed into some sweaty businessman’s armpit. The fact that many people have already realised this is what I credit with creating ‘buggy rush hour’. Between 4 and 5pm there is clearly a spark in most parents’ heads shouting: ‘Bugger. I need to get home before rush hour!’ meaning buses and trains are suddenly abound with more children than The Sound of Music. Clever parents – they clearly remember what it was like commuting pre-baby.
3. Take books. Lots of books. Pack your bag full to bursting, then balance a few more on top. Read in a quiet voice, keep your child calm and avoid massive dirty looks form strangers who really don’t need to hear what the hungry caterpillar ate on Saturday for the fourteenth consecutive time.
4. Take snacks. Lots of snacks. Pack another bag full to bursting point, balance a few more on top, then cram a load more in your pocket. Worry about the perils of encouraging overeating when you get there – right now you just need something to keep them quiet. Anything but Haribo and crisps.
5. Dress your kid cute. If all else fails and the other passengers are staring at you with hatred in their eyes, you can always have it up your sleeve that when you whip off their jumper, your little one is wearing a t-shirt with a grinning tank engine and an irresistible slogan that says ‘I’m choo-choo cute!’ or some other mush to pull at their heart strings until they can’t hate you any more!
Right, now we’ve cleared that up, anyone for a day trip?
20 years ago this week the first episode of Friends aired (how old does that make you feel?!). The realisation led to an inevitable dinner table conversation: ‘Which friends character did you most want to be? Who do you think I am?’ (I think I’m Rachel. Husband seems unconvinced.)
It seems whatever the context or stimulus, we are desperate to define ourselves, to create pigeon-holes, to stamp great big labels on our foreheads and those of everyone around us.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of parenting, where labels are more plentiful and irritating than the queue for the baby changing in a family friendly pub. Pushy parents, attachment parents, yummy mummies (yuk!), baby carriers, helicopter parents, tiger moms and now, apparently, ‘snowplough parents‘.
Someone, somewhere, is desperate for us to define ourselves by the occasional choices we make.
But what about our children? If judging parents is taboo I may well be placing myself on the verge of exile, but what if we started to label our children?
Over 2 years of hanging out in places full off children, I have come to the conclusion you can tell everything about a child and the adult they will become simply by observing their behaviour in a public playground.
- The child who plays alone in the sandpit
Concentrated, quiet, bothering no-one, possibly even appearing to an onlooker to be a little lonely. Sure there’s a chance this solitary chap will become the class ‘weirdo’ or geek, ostracised on the edge of a cruel teenage society. But worry not, he’ll make a great comeback. His quiet perseverance when surrounded by madness means he’ll be the one curing cancer, winning a Nobel prize or leading us all on the first mass mission to Mars when Earth is no longer fit for human habitation.
- The kid who never gets off the swing
“Higher, higher, higher”, she screeches as the queue of patient pre-schoolers grows ever longer. She is a thrill-seeker and once she’s found a thrill, she’s not letting go. In 20 years time she’ll either be harassing you for sponsorship for her latest naked-bungee-skydive endeavour or bankrupting her parents while she treks around the outback.
- The bossy kid
There’s always one. Everyone’s having fun, jumping around randomly with no purpose, chasing pigeons with no hope of success, then along comes Bossy-boots and insists on instilling some kind of killjoy order. She’s a middle-manager, obsessing about whether the copier has been loaded with the right-sized staples and solving every problem she comes across with a spreadsheet and a team bonding exercise.
4. The kid who throws stones
Who knows whose genius idea it was to stop building playground with that nice soft plasticky stuff which actually cushioned you when you fell off the climbing frame, and replace it with loads of small, hard stones, but they have inadvertently created a new breed of monster. All kids are fascinated by stones – why not? Pick them up, roll them through your hands, take one home as a pet. All fair enough. You could even throw one a small distance, just to check it out. But kids have no self-restraint, and some are downright evil. Playgrounds are now populated with hoards of pint-sized people assaulting anyone who comes near them, whether they know them or not, with handfuls of small hard rocks which, unsurprisingly, bloody hurt. They charge around looking for free equipment, not to play on, but to vandalise them, damaging them forever with dents so small they are almost invisible to the human eye. But they are there. They are definitely there. Devoting their lives to a pointless and yet harmful activity, these are the marketers and advertisers of the future.
Then there are the kids who you know, already, are going to ruin the world. The kids hell bent on anarchy and ruin. The kids who just won’t stick the the rules of the playground. They are…
5. The kid who climbs up the slide
They’re selfish, pushy and unaware of anyone else’s fun. Determined to break the rules for no reason other than to prove that they can, they reign over the rest of the playground with disregard and disdain. Some are curbed by ashamed parents, running in quickly as they clamber up the steel slope and swiftly lifting them away. Meanwhile others roam free, uncontrollable, reaching the top of the slide in seconds and striding over anyone who dares to get in their way at the top, anyone who is actually using it the right way.
These kids, the slide climbers, are the investment bankers, the corrupt politicians, the tabloid journalists and paparazzi who run and ruin our society.
Parents beware! It might seem harmless, a momentary inconvenience to other children at most, but left to roam uncontrolled, their next venture to the bouncy horse could ride us all into the apocalypse.
I bloody love the summer holidays – I would, I’m a teacher.
Months and months of never having the headspace for anything more than lesson plans, making and exam prep are finally relieved. After the inevitable first few days of illness (end-of-term-itis), there stretches ahead of me several weeks of carefree abandon and something finally resembling a normal life – at least until results day.
Now I’m a parent, I appreciate it even more. I appreciate there are some parents who dread the holidays – their normal routine is disrupted with the need for childcare, holiday clubs and, scariest of all, whole days of family time which need to be planned, organised and endured. For me though, it’s the best time of the year, the only time I can fully devote my attention to my son without rushing out of the house while he’s still in his PJs and rubbing his eyes, or trying to play jigsaws whilst also reading a stack of essays I promised my year 12s I’d hand back the next morning.
In the summer we can really get to know each other: building towers for hours on end, running through the fountains in the park on a hot summer day and reading Peppa Pig books ten times in a row (ok, I’m less keen on that last one).
There’s just one thing that threatens the bliss that is my summer holiday.
Bloody kids, they’re bloody everywhere.
A quick trip to the shops becomes a mission. Gangly teenagers lurk around every corner looking hopelessly angry or angrily hopeless at the prospect of having to entertain themselves for six whole weeks. Hyperactive children charge out from under racks of clothes, turning corners at a pace which would make Jenson Button envious. Where they don’t knock you down, you’re likely to knock them down, or else maim them by running over their toes with your buggy.
Buggies: there’s another thing I hate. I hate having one and I hate the way everyone else’s gets in your way. When did everyone in East London meet up and decide to have babies at the same time? Walking through Boots is like an obstacle course – The Krypton Factor meets One Born Every Minute.
In a previous life, I would have escaped to a museum, though you’d have to be careful which you picked. Head to the British Museum and far from a peaceful exploration of our nation’s history, you’re liable to be confronted by hoards of holiday club children. Underpaid, undertrained, overly stressed and largely hungover students and graduates attempt to herd round rowdy groups of kids who in theory are using their holidays to expand their minds, but in reality are just scouting for the nearest corners to lurk in while they post selfies on Snapchat or Instagram. ‘In museum. Everything old and boring. Lolz.’
There are of course a few more ‘boring’ museums from which you can escape the masses, but while they may have nominally fitted a changing unit in order to class themselves as ‘family friendly’, they’re really not. They’re trying to keep out the under-18s riffraff to please grumpy old gits like me, who don’t want their peace disturbed by noisy children. The problem is, I now come with one of those permanently attached. It’s fair to assume no one in the British Library wants their afternoon disturbed by my son singing Old McDonald at the top of his voice, no matter how impressed I might be with his impression of a cow.
Finally there’s the park – every cash strapped parent’s best friend. If, like me, you’re lucky enough to live near one of London’s big parks, there’s enough to keep you occupied for days on end: paddling pools, water fountains, swings, slides, climbing frames, boats and of course big open spaces to run around on and have picnics. It’s perfect for when people visit and, when the weather’s right, it’s near paradise.
Except for those bloody children.
Everywhere you turn, there they are. Toddlers having tantrums, brats on bikes and scooters, pre-teens giggling and taking up the equipment clearly marked ‘under-10s only’. If you’re really unlucky you’ll be hit by another holiday club group – packs of little monsters in hi-vis jackets, storming at you in a scene reminiscent of the stampede which killed Mufasa in The Lion King and causing just as many tears. Perhaps the hi-vis jackets aren’t really to help the workers keep an eye on the children – they’re a beacon warning innocent bystanders: ‘LOOK OUT, HERE THEY COME!’
I don’t mind children. Contrary to current appearances, I actually quite like them. While most parents lurk in the corners of the play area sipping on a coffee, I always seem to end up stuck in the middle orchestrating some kind of elaborate game which inevitably ends with me getting covered in either water or sand.
It is my curse in life to spend all my working time surrounded kids, only to get a break and be surrounded by more somewhere else – and this time I’m not allowed to tell them off when they’re naughty!
Someone disabuse these children and their parents of the mistaken notion that this is their summer holiday. It’s not. It’s mine.
It’s memorising and somewhat therapeutic to watch a toddler running around the park. The sheer pleasure and the shrieks of glee remind you that there is nothing quite as wonderful as the truly simple pleasures in life. Whether you’re charging after them or just watching from a distance, as soon as those pudgy little legs start waddling along, all the worries in your life just seem to drift away…
With one exception.
While still mesmerising, there is something rather troubling about watching a toddler chase pigeons.
First of all, why pigeons? Why are little kids so obsessed with a creature which is essentially a rodent with wings? My boy has been fascinated by pigeons since the moment he could walk and his fixation shows no sign of abating.
Second of all, what’s the point? On Saturday I was killing time in the park and enjoying running around and pretending to dance on the grass with the little man in my life when suddenly, out of nowhere, he charged off with more sense of purpose than most business people show walking into a make-or-break meeting. My only warning to what was happening was a sweetly chirped ‘Oh! Mummy! Pigeons!’.
So began 10 minutes of desperately energetic, impressively purposeful and yet entirely pointless chasing. Like a lame cheetah chasing after a the gazelle equivalent of Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprinting team, he pursued those pigeons with steely determination. I watched in wonder. What was he trying to achieve? At what point would he realise his still disproportionately little limbs, with their plodding and waddling stride, we’re no match for an animal with wings who could glide off at a second’s notice? And when would he give up?
We walked all the way home and the chasing continued. Every time a feathered rodent appeared the ‘oh mummy’ cry and charge down the road swiftly followed, each time as enthusiastic as the first.
‘God, how did we ever involve into civilised societies if all we naturally want to do is chase flea ridden BIRDS?’ I pondered as we approached home and, watched him cheerfully accept yet another defeat – a brief moment of utter, earth shattering disappointment at missing yet again quickly replaced by the boundless optimism which vexed me, being so entirely unfounded and pointless.
Then it occurred to me: here I was acting all high and mighty, thinking I knew better because I wasn’t pointlessly chasing pigeons, but he had one over on me the whole time. It’s not about catching the pigeon; it’s about the chase, the effort, the determination.
A while ago, a psychologist friend of mine explained to me the differences between goals and values. We are a primarily goal driven society: buy a car, get a promotion, get married by 30. So often we forget the important values that go with these things: being able to get around independently, doing well at something you love, sustaining and enjoying a loving, committed relationship. I’d struggled with this. I’ve always lived my life by dent of over-organisation, but since becoming a mother I’m practically incapable of doing anything if it’s not first written on a list with a handy tick box at the side. Each evening I set myself an impossibly long list of often unnecessary tasks to complete once the pigeon catcher is in bed – do the ironing, mark a set of essays, call family, clean the house, write a blog (tick!) – and inevitably go to bed feeling like a failure because I didn’t meet all my goals. Inevitably I start to feel frustrated and give up: so many times I have moaned that I haven’t blogged for ages because I can’t think of anything good enough, or I haven’t written in so long everyone will have forgotten and no one will read it, forgetting that the value was always in the joy of writing, not in what happened with it after.
So, this week I’m setting myself a challenge – a pigeon challenge! I’m going to focus on the values, the thrill of the chase, and not simply on ‘getting things done’. Each time I feel like giving up and moving on to a more ‘productive’ task, I’m going to picture my boy chasing after those pigeons. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t catch one, he’ll keep trying and so will I. He’s only two and sometimes gets closer than you think; I’m. 32, if I’d kept at it, I’d almost certainly have caught a pigeon by now.