This morning, while other mums were no doubt whispering sweet nothings to their little charges in a bid to ready them for the first day back at school, I was yelling at mine to pick up their toys from all around the house, and threatening to make them late if they didn’t stop moaning and start tidying.
We made up, of course. And before we left the house a tender-hearted exchange took place, in which I likened my children’s vehement disdain for tidying their toys to my dislike of doing laundry.
“If we want to have clean clothes instead of stinky ones then washing, drying, ironing, folding and putting away our clothes is just a dull thing I have to do,” I said, momentarily dazzled by the fleeting brilliance of my off-the-cuff analogy.
“Can you imagine what would happen if I rolled on the floor moaning about how much I hate laundry, instead of getting your school uniform washed and ready? Tidying away the toys and Lego and dressing up clothes when you’ve finished playing with them is just something you have to do if you want the joy of having those things.”
That seemed to go over well but when the school run was finally finished, with its maddeningly unending list of vital things to remember to bring with us, I sank into the driver’s seat of my car, deflated. (Incidentally why does it seem that you have to take enough things for a week’s holiday with you on the first day back at school? And we haven’t even begun with the reading books or homework etc…)
I hate to think of my boys feeling flat at school because the morning started badly, and when the house is finally silent and there’s no-one here to argue with, I chide myself for my bad form on the first day of school. (But then my darling husband comes to my defence, pointing out that I had to contend with one child climbing out of the window (yes indeed) and running around outside like a whirling dervish when he was supposed to be picking up Lego, and another child who hurled a spoon across the breakfast table in a fit of self-conscious rage. These things would surely test even the most zen of mothers.)
I run through all the things I know about how to deal with inevitable challenging moments in parenthood. Having written about all manner of parenting issues for various clients I am well versed in everything from how to incorporate elements of non-violent communication (NVC) into my parenting repertoire, to what various leading child psychologists might have to say about why my children behave the way they do.
And yet. None of that really helps in the heat of the moment when you just feel like you’re losing it.
And afterwards, when the moment is consigned to the past and all you can do is vow not to repeat the experience, nothing much helps you move on. I email a friend in the hope of finding an ally when I really should be working, then I begin a frantic effort to spring clean the house, as if purging it of two months’ worth of school-holiday-induced family detritus will somehow right the wrongs of my earlier short-temperedness. I start cleaning out the cupboard under the stairs without even thinking about it, as if overcome by an inner neat freak, hell bent on stamping out every molecule of dust, sand and disobedience. Like that will change the way I feel inside. I even contemplate cleaning out the car, and my wider family (who often suffer the misfortunate of having a lift in it) will testify that something has to be really up before I deign to spend a precious hour on that dreaded task.
All too late I realised I hadn’t managed to take those cute ‘first day back at school’ photos that I had in mind either – and then it occurs to me that being honest might be much more valid. Admitting that I forgot to take those photos because I was too busy losing my mind over Lego doesn’t feel good, but it’s the truth.
And laying bare your truth, however shabby or shameful, can be just as life-affirming as taking snaps that paint the picture of the perfect family life we all aspire to. Maybe more so.
Flawed and sorry isn’t exactly the look I was going for this morning when I was getting dressed for the first school run of the new academic year but it’s authentic, and sometimes that’s more important than aping an ideal.
Today, I’m not that shiny, happy mum who proudly beams for the camera between two bright-eyed boys.
But that’s ok.
I might be her tomorrow. As long as everyone picks up their Lego and nobody climbs out of any windows.