Monday, 29 June 2009

The Girl Is Mine

It’s 9.22 on Monday morning and already the weight of accumulative small failings is too heavy a burden for my delicate parental ego. So far the list of things that, with nothing but childcare and domestic duties to concern me, I have still been unable to perform satisfactorily, includes: not enough bread for both toast and packed lunches; five disgusting choices of cereal; homework too hard to complete while cleaning teeth; sun cream too runny for four-year-old self application; recycled cotton school bag lost and capital punishment guaranteed for a plastic-bag option; wrong top brought downstairs for eight-year-old daughter.

This last one is the most serious, and I suspect highlights the common thread running through all my other failings. I need to stop showing my kids how much I care about the little things. I’ve made it too easy for them to grind me down by picking out their own socks.

We had some friends over for supper a few weeks ago and, after struggling to put the kids to bed, I came down full of indignation about how rude and difficult my daughter was being. She was too hot to sleep, and rather than take my sensible advise of less clothes and no covers, she chose to sleep upright with three pillows and a sparkly cushion to cool her down.

The list of horrific things that can happen to a small girl trying to sleep upright is long and ugly, and obviously I informed her of each painful option, covering myself for the ‘I told you so’ conversation that would come later when she was sobbing with repentance in my arms. After hearing the whole story, my friend was unmoved. Wouldn’t she lie down if she was uncomfortable? Wouldn’t I rather have a glass of wine?

But then I wouldn’t have passed on any advice. What about my needs? And I wouldn’t be able to sit downstairs actually feeling how comfortable she was, and know that her duvet would be in exactly the right position when she reached for it in the cooler hours of the morning.

It’s empathetic control beyond the realms of sanity. And I don’t do it with the boys, or at least not as much. At four they don’t get it quite so wrong, maybe. Clearly I’m the one behaving badly, and I need to back down, back off and stop barking. The chasm between super-strict mother and menopausal best friend is a tough one to rattle around in, and the truth is that no-one can make an eight-year-old girl happy unless you invite her friends for tea.

But it’s not really about control. I don’t think I get it right all the time at all. More likely, I’m terrified my daughter will get it wrong in all the same places I did, and will look back and wish she’d known at eight how to be that bit more savvy. Living vicariously through your daughter and trying to train her to be the confident, cool teenager you probably weren’t – now there’s a new one… I’m sure we weren’t the only mother and daughter listening to Thriller and practising eyeliner application all weekend. 1982: RIP.

Monday, 22 June 2009

The Learning Curve

Someone suggested recently that I should be clearer from the start of things what it is I’m hoping to say by the end. Good advice, but sadly I find it almost impossible to explain what I’m actually trying to say in a few well-constructed sentences, choosing instead to reiterate main themes, highlight key facts while introducing several underlying trends and include a bullet-point summery before reaching the climatic closing paragraph.

More problematic is that I also employ this style in conversation, and can then spend several hours after a particularly rambling exchange in complete disbelief that I still haven’t learnt how to chat. Or at least just copy the style of the person I’m talking to.

But a thing I have recently learnt is that I don’t learn from experience. And I now have enough experience to know that this is a fact. In the early hours of Sunday morning I fell off a garden chair at a friend’s birthday party on to my face, literally. I woke up later on Sunday with a black eye, an unsightly graze across my cheek and a split lip – along with really painful knees, presumably from crawling across the patio to find a stable object to use to haul myself upright. Mortifying.

This was a social chatting scenario I was nervous about. The party was hosted by someone I love, and attended by people I can only ever avoid until the school bell rings at 9.10am the next day. It was a party I wanted to attend as an adult. Instead, I drank a vat of Caipirinha and fell on my face.

I know that not learning about alcohol is sort of the exact point of alcohol. But the whole sorry incident represents the fact that, although I spend most of my waking life worrying about how to learn from my mistakes and not constantly fall on my face, metaphorically, I still do it. Definitely more than most I’m sure.

So this week I’m going to work on restraint. I was re-writing some copy this morning for a client, and when I emailed it back I included a covering letter, explaining that it was ‘a little chattier and more emotional’ than the original. Which I instinctively wanted to follow with the words ‘a bit like me’. Brilliantly, I didn’t, which I’m taking as an early indicator of having learnt something. Two steps forward, one huge plunge onto the patio backwards.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Man Drawer

Sometimes I feel that, although I am the one spending most time in our house, I am also the one with least space to call my own. This concerns me in a purely physical sense, although Ms Woolf would turn in her grave to see the intellectual truth too. Our decision to have children was undoubtedly the point where my husband and I waved goodbye to our hand-held skip through the meadows of equal opportunity and started along the narrow walkway of gender definition. On the whole, he earns, I mother. And while I do have the time and inclination to do other less fluid-based jobs now the children are at school, the ‘room of one’s own’ I once treasured is now somewhere I mainly hoover or store unseasonal clothes.

Of course, the question of intellectual space is the most complicated part of the whole having-it-all thing. It might be pushing the boundaries of human capability, but it is possible to have a job, a family, a perfectly hoovered home and babysitter every fortnight. What it doesn’t leave much space for is that Lloyd Loom sofa for me, Virginia and my half-written best-seller.

I used to think it was a question of time, but everyone I know outside of their teens who has time for themselves spends most of it complaining about being lonely and bored.

Now I think it’s much more about how you approach the things you have got time, inclination and desire to do – finding a way to make daily life more self-fulfilling. I’m not suggesting that housework is creative, and I know that if I hoovered less, I could work more. Or read more. But actually I get a horribly large sense of happiness from my home, and in a strange way the domestic routines that should get in the way of my independence and creativity are an integral part of what makes me happy, and therefore more capable and, hopefully, successful.

My present situation is decidedly more 1950s housewife than I ever anticipated, but I think I’m enjoying it mainly because the older I get the longer life becomes. I don’t need to achieve by Friday.

And so it’s the literal aspect of space that concerns me more these days. I seem to loan space in my own house. The kitchen is only mine until 8pm when my husband’s real culinary creativity starts, the cat always sleeps on my side of the bed, particularly when she’s moulting, and even my laptop regularly disappears to play a vital role in a game of schools or libraries. But recently I heard a phrase that, even in my fuzzy post-feminist existence, made me tut loudly. The ‘Man Drawer’, so called by some middle-class, middle-England, middle-funny comedian and now a term in common use according to The Sun. It’s the drawer of things with no other home: batteries, lighters, visitors’ parking vouchers, lip balm, screwdrivers and plastic cereal packet toys for show-and-tell.

If I can’t open the only useful drawer in the house without asking my husband for permission, I might as well just go back to work.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Leaking Shower

Our shower has been out of action for three months. This is following its third re-build and consequential make-overs on the kitchen below after it fell through the floor and relocated itself in the sink. Twice. Clearly there’s something wrong that a new set of tiles and a slick of grout can’t fix. It’s an internal job, and will require a plumber, a new floor and some days of washing the children in a bucket. Maybe even a portaloo.

The situation has had unpredictable effects on the flow of our family life. My husband has taken to bathing every morning, in a leisurely way no parent should be able to achieve before 8.30am. It removes him completely from the pre-school frenzy, and adds an additional 15 minutes to my time-critical schedule that frankly I don’t have. The smell of relaxing muscle soak bath oil is fast becoming the smell of marriage guidance.

On the plus side, I have joined the local gym and regularly pop in for a power-shower after the school drop-off. For a small monthly fee, my new shower room is cleaned for me, fresh towels are offered daily, I can make unlimited use of the tea and coffee facilities and my social status has been raised to ‘healthy’ without the loss of a single pound or minute on the treadmill.

But despite this, the problem remains. Why haven’t I just arranged for the shower to be fixed? The cost is a pain, and I could think of several hundred things more worthy of my (husband’s) hard-earned money. And the work will be hard to live around, and the mess will need cleaning up. First-world problems.

So if I’m honest, it comes down to putting in that initial phone call to the plumber. Putting the wheels in motion. Having to construct an explanatory opening sentence, that will then lead to a conversation, and then a plan to come into my home and start the job. When life is in motion around you and at various stages of activity and completion, adding another task to the wheel is easy. When you’re static, starting anything is a monumental upheaval. I’m paralysed with inactivity. In fact, I haven’t called anyone in weeks. I’m going to start with the plumber.