This is Jeffrey.
Jeffrey once got left in a café in Hackney; my husband had to leg it back sharpish when we realised he was missing only 5 minutes from home. Jeffrey came with us to Barcelona; after the Hackney café incident though, he wasn’t trusted to leave the apartment so didn’t really see the sights. Jeffrey was once the cause of the most traumatic bedtime in memory, when his owner – our eldest son – snuck him into the bath when we weren’t looking, not realising monkeys take a lot longer to dry than people and therefore couldn’t accompany him to bed.
Jeffrey is part of our family.
This is Sleepy Bunny.
Sleepy Bunny is disgusting – a constant bundle of smeared snot and spit, chewed and sucked on continuously and inexplicably all day by our youngest. Sleepy bunny is also a saviour; when all else fails, ‘do you want bunny?’ is sometimes the only thing to stem the tears. Sleepy Bunny is also my nemesis; I can often be found running around the house at 2am muttering ‘where the f***is Sleepy Bunny’ when we have forgotten to put him in the cot at bedtime. Sleepy Bunny is an enigma; no one has the faintest idea where he came from!
Sleepy Bunny is part of our family.
(Had I known this at the start, I would have given him a better name.)
The attachment a young child has to their soft toy is a strange and beautiful thing. A source of comfort, a confidante and an early friend, the soft toy is a staple of any kid’s life.
But soft toys are slowly destroying my sanity.
I blame Toy Story.
Every time I tidy up, ramming seemingly endless toys into which ever bag, box or tub has most room (I’ll sort it all out one day, I promise), the shiny plastic eyes of a fluffy owl seem to gleam up at me, begging me not to leave them stuck underneath that stupid phone on a string, it’s sharp plastic edges sticking into its fuzzy little wings.
Last week, we had a mini-clear out; my son chose a few toys he never played with and agreed to give them to charity. As I placed the bag at the end of our driveway for collection, an elephant’s trunk reached out to me. ‘I’m sorry Nellie’, I whispered (yes really!), ‘but no one plays with you here anymore. Maybe you can find a new child to play with, someone who really appreciates you’. I hoped this was the case, and she wouldn’t be left on a shelf, gathering dust for ever more.
And on rare occasions when Sleepy Bunny isn’t being used as a chew toy, I find him/her (can an animal which is half blanket have a gender?!) unceremoniously abandoned in a corner of the room. ‘Don’t worry’, I want to say, ‘He still really loves you. He’s just busy trying to figure out how to break into the snack drawer’.
I blame Toy Story because, with alarming regularity, I imagine the boys’ toys springing to life the moment I leave the room. I imagine them crawling desperately out of the crush of the toy box. ‘When the hell is she going to sort us all out?’ they wheeze. ‘There’s a soft toy bag upstairs, why aren’t we all in that? Why do I always end up with the double decker bus on my head?!’ I imagine them comparing their days, those who haven’t been played with in months quietly sobbing into their cotton padded sleeves when they hear of the fun Tom the Triceratops and Eddie Dinosaur had in the garden today.
But most of all, I think about Jeffrey. Poor Jeffrey. Once so loved, but now so often rejected. I imagine the silent hurt he feels every time I say to my eldest, ‘Do you want to cuddle up with Jeffrey?’, and he cheerfully replies ‘No thanks’ as he turns to gaze adoringly at his Spiderman posters, or switches on the torch to look at his Horrible Science book under the duvet.
I imagine Jeffrey’s heart breaking as he realises: ‘He’s growing up. He doesn’t need me anymore’.
I’m sorry Jeffrey. I know how you feel. I really do.
If ever there was a convincing argument against evolution, it’s babies.
For years now, the majority of us have gladly accepted the genius of Charles Darwin’s theories, merrily accepting the idea of survival of the fittest and gradual adaptation of each species to their environment. We consider ourselves, humans, the most successful of all, with only the Creationists and a few other mad conspiracy theorists daring to contradict the father of evolution.
Yet, all anyone needed to do to undermine Darwin’s genius was shove him in a room with a baby for a few months. He, presumably, was too busy conducting actual scientific research to deal with nappies and weaning, but had he had the time, surely he would have realised his theories had no basis in reality.
For a start, let’s take sleep. If ever there is a time in the human life cycle where sleep is crucial, it is in those first few years; years of huge physical, emotional and mental development, all requiring large amounts of sleep. If evolution was true, surely human infants would have evolved to be able to…well…sleep! How can a species which has the capacity to build cities, create the internet, produce Shakespeare, not evolve in a way which allows a baby who needs to sleep to go the **** to sleep?! Did Darwin ever spend endless hours in the midst of the night, pacing back and forth, bleary-eyed whispering ‘it’s ok, I’m here, go to sleep, please go to sleep, pleeeeeeeease go to sleep!!!’, or arguing with a toddler who screams ‘but I’m NOT tiiiiired’, while sprawled across the floor, yawning and rubbing their eyes so much you think they may actually rub them out? I think not, or surely it would have blown a substantial hole in his theory that animals adapt to meet their own basic needs.
Unconvinced? Let’s consider teething. When all the other bones and vital organs have developed in the womb, teeth are left to the outside world. Perhaps this is deliberate? It allows for easier suckling in the early days (Ha! We’ll come to that later). Yet how can a system of development which causes infinite amounts of pain to a child be a result of millions of years of careful natural development? Aside from the total bewilderment of a poor, miserable child who cannot possibly comprehend what is happening to them, it once again brings us back to sleep, or rather the lack thereof. Screaming baby = no sleep for anyone = bad backs and grumpiness for the parents = miserable family = very poor design.
Finally, let’s look at movement. Ever watched a nature documentary where a baby giraffe is born? We might coo and aww, giggling slightly as it tries to stand and inevitably stumbles over its newborn, gangly and cumbersome limbs. ‘Aww bless, it can’t stand up’. Erm, yes it can! It might be wobbly, but 2 minutes out of the womb and it’s already on the move. Give it a few days and it’ll be walking miles to find food and water. Our lazy offspring laze around, crying for attention, and half of them can’t even eat properly when a nipple full of milk is shoved right into their open gobs. How is that the result of years of careful natural selection? Is that really the best we can do? If humans have truly evolved to be so successful over the years, surely they should be born, jump onto their feet and head straight to the fruit bowl to help themselves to a banana before coming over to snuggle up with a calm, contented and rested parent.
Sorry Darwin, I’ve always believed you, but I can’t ignore the evidence of my own experience. If babies were designed, the poor designer who presented them to the boss would be promptly kicked out of the board room: “Come back when you’ve figured out how to stop it defecating everywhere, and, for God’s Sake, surely the sound department can come up with something that doesn’t grate quite so much on the ears!”.
Self help books are big business. Key among this genre are books about the power of positive thinking. Apparently all you need to do is believe in what you want and it will happen.
Having had only about 3 hours sleep in total and driven largely by coffee, I’m struggling with this, but watching my 3 year old in action over the last few weeks, I reckon I might have the basis for the next best seller.
The pre-schooler’s guide to the power of positive thinking.
Step 1. Know your goals.
They might seem unimportant, silly, even downright ridiculous to others, but you must be certain of what you want to achieve. If you want to wear shorts on a snowy day, insist on it. People might tell you it’s stupid and potentially even dangerous, but don’t listen to them. Once you’ve chosen a goal you must stick with it at all costs (even if that cost happens to be a week in bed with the flu).
2. Believe in your goals.
At times people will try to sway your from your goals, telling you they are unfeasible, impossible even. They may even try to bamboozle you with ‘facts’ and ‘the truth’. Never sway. If you believe it enough, it will become true.
Below is a real life example of step 2 in action.
Christmas Eve. A cold day. A family on the way home after a trip out for hot chocolate. A tired child.
“Come on. Let’s go home.”
“No. I want to go that way.”
“We don’t live that way. We need to go up this hill.”
“But I want to go down the hill.”
“But we live up the hill.”
“No we don’t”
“Yes we do!”
“No we dooooooooon’t! We live dooooooown the hiiiiiiiill!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Child promptly sits down, crying and refuses to move.
See how effective it is. Sod the truth. Believe whatever happens to be convenient to your wishes at the time!
Step 3: Visualise your success
As you have seen, real life can get in the way of your goals. Sometimes it is better to imagine what you want.
Want to a play game? More importantly, do you want to win? Play the real game and there’s always a risk you won’t. Avoid this downfall by playing an imaginary version instead. Ensure you are the only one who can see the ‘imaginary board’, make your own imaginary rules and you’re guaranteed to always reign victorious!
Step 4: Invest all your energy in what you want.
At times, even when you have followed steps 1-3 people will stand in your way. In these moments, a full on screaming tantrum is your only option. Whatever you do, don’t hold back.
Step 5: Enjoy the little victories
Unfortunately, sometimes not even the most positive thinking can overcome pesky things like facts, physics, geography and grown ups. In these moments of defeat, enjoy the fact that a well employed step 4 tantrum may at least result in you being given a biscuit or plonked in front of the telly just to shut you up.
Yesterday, after a trip to visit a friend and her baby (let’s face it, practically all my social engagements involve babies and small children these days), I nipped in to the chemist for a few essentials.
Christmas is absolutely, 100%, irrefutably the best time of the year. That is a fact.
No one and nothing will ever detract me from my evangelical adoration of the festive season. Everything about it is brilliant: the food, the mulled wine, the music, the parties, the presents, squashing every member of your family around a minuscule table and realising at the last minute that you haven’t got enough chairs so you have to eat your roasties perched precariously on an old packing box piled high with threadbare cushions. I even like the shopping.
The only downside is that when you’re a 17 year old, or 22 year old, or 30 year old who loves Christmas that much, people quickly get tired of you or brand you a loon and a child.
But it’s ok now; I’m no longer branded a child, because I have a child. A child is the passport to all things Christmas! No one tells me off anymore, because it’s ‘not for me, it’s for him’.
Now that my son is old enough to sing ‘When Santa got stuck up the Chimney’ , and has a vague grasp of the concept that when his advent calendar runs out he’ll inexplicably be showered with presents, we can really go to town and indulge my…erm, I mean his… festive desires.
We’ve been to the panto: he was terrified of the witch and asked to go home within 2 minutes. I said no. He was going to enjoy shouting ‘cooee!’ at a man in a dress whether he liked it or not!
We’re making our own Christmas Cards; he doesn’t want to. He’s made it clear he’d rather build Lego towers, but it’s a festive family activity so we’re doing it – I’ve already bought the Christmas stickers.
We’ve scrambled through crowded Christmas markets, we’ve watched the most uninspiring Christmas lights turn on in the world, and I’ve traumatised him forever by forcing him to watch The Snowman. After much moaning about wanting to watch ‘dinesoor fiiilm!’ he relented. We cosied up on the sofa and I watched delighted as he was slowly mesmerised and won over by the Christmassy wonder. By the time of the snowman party, we were up on our feet, joining in the dancing and pretending to fly back home. It was only moments before the end I realised my mistake. I watched my son’s smile fall from his face as he stared at the screen and mumbled ‘Mummy. That boy looks sad!’. I had forgotten how horribly and suddenly the beauty of The Snowman comes to an end. It was a significant flaw in my ‘get the boy to love Christmas as much as me’ master plan, and a bit of a traumatic moment for us both.
Undeterred, we have, of course, been to see Santa. I knew he wouldn’t like it. Why would he? Being dragged into a tiny dark room, pushed towards a man in a ridiculously ostentatious outfit whose beard is so large you can’t see his face and being instructed to reveal your innermost desires. It’s weird! Yet we pushed ahead and when the inevitable ‘No! I don’t like Santa!’ came, we laughed, gave him a cuddle and continued to sit there in the grotto. When we finally left, the boy was still baffled but cheered by clutching a cheap plastic penguin. Swiftly, we set about the inevitable task of reordering his perception of life: ‘Wasn’t it exciting to see Santa? Shall we go tell everyone about it? If you’re a good boy he said he’d bring you a train set. Isn’t that nice?’
When you think about it, the whole concept of Father Christmas is weird, selfish and a little bit cruel.
First, it’s clearly a construct of a purely capitalist society. Aside form the fact that we’re essentially voluntarily indoctrinating our own children into a lifelong obsession with Coca Cola (did you know the red outfit and beard were their invention?), we’re teaching our children to value stuff above all else: behave well, get toys and you don’t even have to thank the person who gave you them, because you never see them.
Next, let’s focus on the weirdness of forcing our children to embrace (sometimes literally) a complete stranger, contradicting every other safety message we give them. Then, as if forcing them to meet him wasn’t enough, we tell them that this man is going to break into our house while we’re all asleep and vulnerable, where he’ll feast on snacks we gave him so he has the energy to carry on breaking into our neighbours’ houses too! Finally he’ll help himself to some booze and head on his merry way, keeping up the age old Christmas tradition of drink driving. I wonder what the limit is when you’re in charge of a reindeer powered vehicle.
Finally, perhaps the biggest issue for many parents, is the lying; sugar coat it however you want, but that is basically what we’re doing. We’re lying, telling them to believe in something which we know isn’t true. Knowing their innocence is going to be shattered in so many ways as they get older, why do we choose to add an extra disappointment? For all the fun it provides through the early years, for every time we trundle down to Santa’s grotto, for every mince pie and brandy we place carefully by the fireplace, for every letter we send to the North Pole and for every relative we get to phone up and put on a funny voice to persuade the kids to be good and go to bed, we should know there’s a big old disappointment waiting somewhere down the line. One day when some mean old bully at primary school leans over after the Carol singing and whispers in your little treasure’s ear ‘you know Santa’s not real…’ And they run home in tears, in many ways you’ll only have yourself to blame.
I ramp up the Christmas excitement in our house knowing that I’m setting us up for a fall. It will be The Snowman all over again: caught up in the warmth and fun if the season, we’ll get carried away and forget the inevitable ending, until one day my son’s face falls. He’ll have to face the sad reality which has been hidden from him for so long, and I’ll have to face the guilt that I knew it was coming, and let it happen anyway.
Ah well. Sod it! It’s just a bit of fun. It’s years before I’ll have to tell him the truth. Now pass me the mulled wine and a mince pie.
“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.
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 have learned a lot from being a mum. Not in a soppy ‘isn’t the world a wonderful, more magical place when you have children’ way, nor in an ‘I’ve read lots of books and am now a parenting expert’ way. No, I have genuinely learned from my son, who I am starting to think is some kind of philosophical genius.
As a small child, his first and favourite words for some time were ‘all gone’. All day, every day, he would point out what was all gone – not just food but people, birds, objects, even states of mind.
‘Are you still tired?’
‘Tired – all gone’.
A layman would assume he’d just learned some words and liked saying them, or perhaps wanted to point out that his food had ‘all gone’ in the hope he would get some more. I, however, like to think he was more philosophical than that, simply yet effectively pointing out the transient nature of life and how we must make the most of every moment before it too is ‘all gone’.
Last week I wrote about how his boundless enthusiasm for chasing pigeons had taught me the importance of appreciating the process and not just the end product; it doesn’t matter if you get there, it’s the chasing that counts.
Then this week, at a most unexpected moment, he taught me my latest lesson.
I was awoken at 2am by the cry every parent dreads. Stumbling into his room, I held out his water with all the energy of a particularly lazy zombie, half heartedly trudging after a much quicker and more energetic youngster. I hoped it was just the heat, that the water would do he trick and I could collapse back into bed having never really woken up in the first place.
It didn’t happen.
Twenty minutes later and much cuddling, probing and ear splitting refusal to go back to bed revealed he was scared.
‘What are you scared of?’
I looked over. There was indeed a dinosaur in his cot bed. It was a birthday present received a few weeks earlier – a giant, green rubber dinosaur which has inexplicably been named Eddie. My son has refused to go to bed without it since the day it arrived. I had to admit it did look pretty frightening at that time of night.
‘Is Eddie scaring you! Shall we take Eddie dinosaur out of bed?’
‘No. Me like Eddie.’
‘What’s scary then?’
‘Other dinosaur. Me sleep in mummy daddy bed.’
I gave up. It was too late for this toddler logic.
Two days later I was desperately trying to get him back into his own bed. Refusing to accept this dinosaur nonsense, I wondered if the cot-bed itself was the problem, the bars seeming like some kind of toddler prison in the middle of the night.
‘Shall we turn your bed into a grown up bed like Mummy and Daddy’s?’ I asked. ‘We can get rid of the sides and buy some nice new bedding.’
‘Okay’ Came the muted reply.
‘And you can choose the new sheets. We could get animals? Or stripes? Or football? What would you like?’
‘Dinosaurs!’ came a far more enthusiastic reply.
And that was it – two nights of refusing to sleep in his own bed because he was scared of dinosaurs were solved by the simple promise of decorating his bed with… dinosaurs. Content with the deal he drifted off peacefully, clutching tight to Eddie.
I shook my head at the ridiculous logic of it all, but after a while it got me thinking. How often do we do the same thing as adults? For years I indulged in an on-off relationship, constantly going back to spend more time with the one person in the world I knew could never make me truly happy, nor I him. I spent my university years perpetually recovering from hideous hangovers, swearing never to drink again, only to go back to they bar the moment I felt better.
Nowadays I’m stuck in the same cycle with work. I regularly come home moaning about how tired I am – how fed up, how stressed, how much I need a break – only to sit down and watch programmes about teaching, read articles about education, make notes about lesson ideas very time I see the slightest inspiration, protesting ‘but I love my job’ to anyone who dares to point out the irony.
It’s how we live our lives – we never know what’s good for us, but persist in pursuing what we know is bad for us.
If my son has discovered this already at the age of 2, does he have more of a chance of escaping the cycle? Or is he doomed to repeat my mistakes?
I don’t know, but the fact the he just this second ran up to me screaming ‘Mummy, dinosaur!’ for no apparent reason does not bode well.
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.
Life as a parent can be tough.
It’s a constant juggling act. Like a clown in a circus, you start each day by setting off your spinning plates. You’re so careful. These plates are important. Each one represents something – from a basic necessity to someone’s hopes and dreams. This one’s the cooking, this one’s the cleaning, this ones the bank balance which needs to be able to cope with that horrible day when the boiler breaks while also storing enough money to go on that weekend away you rashly agreed to with the in-laws, this one’s the drop-off and pick-up at the childminder’s, this one’s the one which sorts out family visits and make sure no one feels like they see you less than someone else, this one’s your relationship (which somehow you always forget about until after the others), this one that’s teetering on the edge is your career, and the one with the cracks already starting to show? That’s your social life. To top it all off, half way through balancing these plates you lean forward, glance down and realise you haven’t mopped the floor in so long there are still blueberry stains on the floor from last Tuesday’s breakfast. Oh sod it, let them all fall. I always preferred the trapeze anyway.
It’s been a tough few weeks in our household. From money worries to chicken pox to bereavement, we’ve had it all.
At times it’s been sad and at times it’s been stressful, but overall it’s been mostly…functional. Sometimes, there’s so much going on there’s nothing to do but switch on the autopilot and ride it out. The problem is, how do you know when to switch the autopilot off?
The simple transition from work to home life at the end of day can be a difficult one. Rushing home from the office to get to the childminder’s, it’s easy to feel like you haven’t finished and before you know it the lines are blurring. Still on work mode autopilot you rush through dinner and bedtime, half heartedly serving up rice pudding with one hand while you type email replies with the other. After bedtime, rather than spending quality time with your partner, you collapse in a heap on the sofa moaning about the housework and boring them with minute details about the work you still have left to do when you get in the next morning.
Thankfully, at times like this, when you’re meandering along in a haze, being totally ungrateful for what you have and losing sight completely of what’s important, the great gods of parenting have a habit of reaching out and giving you a good old slap across the face.
I got home from work on Friday tired, grumpy and slightly resentful I couldn’t head to the pub with all my childless colleagues. I was sitting on the floor staring into space while my son waved torn up jigsaw pieces in my general direction when it finally happened. He walked. I was totally unprepared for how completely momentous this simple act was. Obviously I knew it was a big deal but I hadn’t really thought it through. I wasn’t prepared for the total and complete shift that seemed to take place in my world in that split second when he took his first steady and deliberate steps towards me. I went from wallowing in the rivers of self-pity to standing on the top of the world.
So, it turns out that the nonsense I spout to all my students when they’re struggling is true: if something’s not difficult, it’s probably not worth doing. Parenting may be hard work sometimes, but it pays dividends. A glass of rosé down the Rose and Crown could never have the same effect as seeing the little man growing up before my very eyes, and being so ridiculously proud of himself.
I know the whole point of this blog is to be sceptical and scathing and totally un-twee, but for one week I’m afraid I’ve got to give it up and go with optimism…because my lazy git of a son has finally gotten up off his backside and starting walking. And it’s bloody brilliant!