Monday, 28 September 2009

Nothing trivial I hope?

A friend of mine was updating me this weekend on the progress of her American niece who’s just started High School. Being 15, she has to come home on the school bus, unlike almost everyone else in the school who has turned 16 and owns a car. In America, significant age markers are sensibly spaced. Unlike in Britain, where coming of age to legally drive, drink Southern Comfort and take the most important academic exams of your life happens within 12 months – something generally considered nothing more than a happy coincidence.

Anyway, the bus is called the Looser Cruiser, for obvious reasons of puerile High School amusement, and the previously status-happy niece is now living in a state of permanent mortification.

I also learned last week that the older brother of a child in my daughter’s class had been bullied persistently since the day he started at our lovely Ofsted-perfect primary school. ‘Until the day he left,’ according to his mum. Which was July, so it’s still all a little raw. And more than a little shocking.

I was bullied at school, fairly mercilessly for a fairly short time, and even in my world of perpetual self-criticism, I’m not really sure to this day why it was me. I was neither the prettiest or the cleverest, or the quietest or the strangest. I did however have a habit of thrusting my sleeves up over my elbows – regardless of the weather and in a slightly obsessive manner possibly – and this seemed to be the reasonable focus of months of unwanted threatening, lurking and hair-pulling behaviour. Funny what bothers a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls.

Bullying continued for me into the work place, but this time as a time-honoured extension of the women’s-magazine interview process. Surviving two years as the most junior female on the all-female staff of a weekly mag – when everyone else was old, face-lifted and snagging their cashmere on the way back down the ladder – was all part of a natural selection process that starts with The Lady and ends with Vogue. Unless you take a break for children, or fresh air.

And so it all goes down as good character-building stuff, lessons to learn from, reasons to drink, and amusing anecdotes to add to the after-dinner chatter. But suddenly now there’s my kids? How can I just leave them all day in a world where wearing the wrong coloured socks might be enough to turn them into victims of endless persecution?

I feel already as pained by the injustice of the bullying one of them will inevitably suffer as I do the inevitability that one of them will be the cause of another child’s pain. I know about girls, and I see the way they’re already skirting around the periphery of behind-the-hand whispering and three’s-a-crowd play dates. And even the four-year-old boys have got clear ideas about who they will and won’t entertain, based on truths unperceivable to even the most observant mother. They’re honing their skills right in front of us, and it’s going to be a long journey back to character-building.

Gentle bullying, teasing maybe, is a common thread in many of my most precious adult friendships. It’s the easiest way of saying ‘I love you’ to someone you’re not sleeping with, to show that you’re completely candid and irreverent about the weaknesses that make them special. But no form of bullying is without its pit-falls, and I have always been suspicious of the Eleanor Roosevelt school of self-belief, where no-one can hurt you or make you feel inferior unless you let them. It’s not true, not even with a decent therapist. No-one will stay hurt or inferior if they’re picked up and cuddled.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Happy (and) in bed?

My husband and I have a little game that we play in bed. I’m not clever enough yet to write blog-listings teasers, so that’s probably not as exciting as it sounds. But we do have a name for our game: ‘The Gin and Tonic Question.’ It’s very easy to play, mainly because it involves absolutely no action or reaction, and everyone’s a winner. The basic premise is to illustrate how happy you are to be lying in bed by naming your minimum price for getting up, getting dressed and – using only public transport – getting to a specific bar in Soho for at least one gin and tonic.

I say it’s a measure of happiness; since having children has taken our out-of-bed time in significantly different directions, it’s really an indication of gender. My husband will usually refuse to head back into town for less than £2,000, while I, having spent the day waiting for the evening, will often price myself no higher than the free gin. The tonic is negotiable, I’ll bring my purse.

I know happiness is subjective but I am a happy person. There’s even a scale of distance named after me. If I say something’s just down the road, or round the corner, that’s a good 20 minutes in the car to even the marginally less optimistic. But I still fall in love with my husband on a regular basis – even after 9 years 67 days, a stolen wedding dress (so not over that), two bloated pregnancies, three resulting children and a cat that we’re all allergic to. My life is good: I have amazing friends, I make money from doing what I love, and I think the pillar-box red tiles on our bathroom floor are inspired.

So it’s with real pain that I admit to having hit a bit of a wall. For the first autumn in hazy memory, I’m finding it really hard to get back into my London skin after the summer holidays. And I can see it in other people around me too. Resuming normal life is proving difficult, even by the end of September.

Maybe the problem is that I’ve just been too happy this summer. How’s that for Polly Anna? Gin-fuelled trips to Soho aside, it’s a truly wonderful thing finding yourself living the moment you knew would be one of your most content. And this is mine: Walking back to our holiday home in its French valley of sunflowers and chateaus, along a dusty track through a tiny vineyard, following behind my husband who’s carrying a bottle of 10-year-old local Pineau in one hand and holding the grubby fingers of his four-year-old son in the other, holiday hat on head, shoulders light and nothing but that evening’s dinner menu on his mind.

And then we’re home. And I’m suddenly in a world of anger and frustration because the ironing board hasn’t been packed away, or one of my children doesn’t have their shoes on by 9am. I have to find a way of using this memory to that get me through the damp, domestic winter months, and not use it to excuse countless sideways glances at the EasyJet winter-getaways site.

Alternatively, we just never leave the capital again, bring our reality back into a neat little box of daily contentment. I have a friend who was on holiday as a teenager with her single mum – a trip abroad that had no doubt taken months of planning and saving to provide – and as they walked around a gorgeous square one balmy evening she said dreamily, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we walked around that corner and we were back in England with all my mates.’

Monday, 14 September 2009

Beating the Baddies

There’s been a bit of a recurring theme in our family conversations this summer regarding the existence of baddies. I’m not really sure how it all started, although I have always had a pathological fear of haunted houses, so it might just be in the genes. With the youngest members of the family, concern has been based around the literal concept of goodies versus baddies, with the undeniable existence of specific people who only do bad things leading to some of my all-time favourite kid questions: ‘Why don’t baddies carry bigger nets?’, ‘Can all baddies drive cars without lids?’ and ‘Will you go to prison for eating toast from a bowl?’ (The latter is one of up to twenty questions a day regarding the finer details of the British justice system.)

My daughter’s understanding of evil has become more sophisticated, mainly thanks to Harry Potter and the Ginger Friend With One Expression. Even at eight years old, she understands that the baddies being so deftly levitated by young Harry are just metaphors for the real evil out in the real world. She doesn’t go to bed worrying whether her Latin pronunciation is clear enough to defeat werewolves and dementors. But she has started to ask for a detailed schedule of our evening plans, so she knows the exact time the house alarm will be going on and she's fully protected from the lunatics of north London. (Don’t be silly darling, not lunatics, not in north London…)

My own personal dealings with baddies have been in the form of demons, more specifically the expulsion of some. And not before time either. I don’t know why, but for some reason this summer I have been released from a whole host of demons – some irritating but playful, others most certainly from the depths of the Slytherin commonroom. For example, ever since falling on my face in a shameful alcoholic slump I have definitely stopped being so concerned about the 'shame' of the morning after. Self-preservation may have increased, self-analysis has significantly fallen. I am approaching my twentieth year of legal drinking and I still have friends. It can’t all be sympathy.

More interestingly (I hope), I have stopped trying to fit bad people into the good-shaped holes in my life. I have spent my life worrying about whether people like me, sometimes to a near psychotic degree. And now, this summer, I have realised that not all of these people are worth the pain.

My theory is this: We grow up, become young adults and start to pretend baddies don’t exist anymore, make excuses, shut our eyes, and take personal responsibility for all the bad stuff that surrounds us. But then suddenly our bright, insightful children start pointing directly at the baddies, who they can see as clear as day, and we are forced to accept their existence again. But this time it’s easy to defeat them, because we’re old enough not to be scared anymore. And we have very loud house alarms.

I have no intention of being confrontational about this. Accepting that there are people who I have tried very hard to like but who, it turns out, are pretty bad, is a very private victory. And they’ll certainly never know. There’s no way they would give up time to read this and show an interest in my life, but guess what, I don't care. Honestly.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Waitrose Effect

When my twin boys were tiny, and opportunities for any emotion other than ‘impending doom’ or ‘actual doom’ were equally as tiny, I discovered I could change the course of a whole day with a trip to Waitrose. While the journey from home to store was often fraught with danger and disease (to a certain extent…) once inside the nicest supermarket in the world I was safe and ready for action. And swiftly it came.

As I waited, exhausted and broken, the scent of identical twin babies would waft through the air conditioning, drawing shoppers to me and my enormous double trolley. I was unmissable and they were unstoppable.

Things would kick off with a few accidental of smiles of genuine pleasure. People love it when life matches, and seeing the effect my identical babies were having would lift my spirits enough to start progressing slowly along the first aisle. Next would come a positive exclamation; ‘Oh, look, twins!’ This would be the tipping point for several gangs of elderly ladies to come forward eagerly for a closer look and maybe even an indulgent sniff.

In aisle three I’d catch the eye of a slightly more restrained 50-something lady who would give me a gentle smile and tell me I was doing a fabulous job and my babies were completely beautiful. And by the time I reached the fine wines, the staff would be commenting on my ‘incredible’ post-pregnancy figure and telling me how they’d always wanted twins and how I was the luckiest person they knew. And by then I knew they were entirely right.

I tell you this because I was in Waitrose today, and found the melancholy slightly overwhelming. My babies have just started school, and I am just me again.

My children are all desperate to age. They embrace every new sign of growth and achievement in their lives with such hunger. They constantly want to do more, to know more. But the truth is I have travelled so far from the person I was before they came that I don’t quite know how to cope with their independence. I wait for subtle signs of interest so I know which direction to encourage them in, but I have to manage my expectations to fit in around their already clearly defined understanding of themselves.

Unexpectedly, the selflessness I now have to maintain as a parent is more complete than when I gave up my job, my social life and all the hours in the day to wash bottles and change nappies. Then it was physical, now it’s emotional. I have been assimilated to motherhood for the long haul. And willingly so. There are a few moments each day when the vast freefall of a future without career signposts and monthly appraisals makes me light headed. But I simply don’t see my future in the way I used to, however much I might regret that. It’s not about having no ambition. It’s about finding an ambition that fits in with an overwhelming desire to be at the school gates by 3.30. Which is part of the melancholy of Waitrose. This new ambition also needs to provide a new way of getting attention.