Back to school blues

Fotopedia.com Stefano Costanzo

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.

Harsh.

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.

I love September

Flickr: in da mood

I love September. I always have. And not just because it provides the perfect excuse to buy my favourite fripperies like new shoes and notebooks.

There’s just something about the changing of the season at this time of year that speaks life to me.

Of course, I yearn – like everyone – for summer to arrive, and all the more so since moving to the coast, where winter can seem interminable. I love the long-awaited unfurling of summer and that milestone moment when you pause as you leave the house to shrug off a layer, tentatively trusting; a seasonal leap of faith.

But, for me, none of that compares to the easy contentment that September brings. I feel it on that first Autumnal day when there’s an unmistakable cold snap in the air. It’s a wistful feeling at first – you pull on a pair of warm socks for the first time in month; an act of submission – a silent acknowledgement that summer is over. She always leaves without warning while your attention is diverted, gone before you even have the chance to ready yourself for her departure. I think summer hates goodbyes.

Some mourn the ending of the summer and stand in her wake for days, struggling to adjust, wishing she’d lingered just a little longer. But I wrap myself in Autumn, letting it nestle around my shoulders like the proverbial security blanket. Summer leaves me feeling listless; strange. So much pressure to relax. But September permissions me to indulge in my natural state of unceasing activity. Autumn is for picking apples, making jam, and serving hot buttered scones beside the fire. September is synonymous with doing.

I love the sounds of Autumn first thing in the morning, and waking to the chill of a window left open just enough to let them in. A car door slams and the muffled strains of music on the radio dance into life as the engine wakes. Tyres crunch on gravel and every note in the this Autumn morning symphony is possessed of hope. And purpose.

The new shoes and stationery are emblems in themselves of a season of new focus, and energy renewed by summer’s fleeting kiss.

So, to butcher a phrase, don’t cry because summer’s over. Smile because it happened. Then wrap yourself in September’s cosy arms.

Speaking without words

All day I felt constrained and compromised.

My words are harsh. My tone is unforgiving, and my heart cold.

I am disdainful and exasperated. Those things make a person ugly.

I act in an unlovely manner and if the guilt doesn’t weigh me down, the worry that I might never figure this stuff out certainly does.

The feeling I hate most in all the world is that sense, lodged deep in my solar plexus, that I am somehow betraying my boys in these moments.

They lark around choosing to upend their cereal bowls and flick milk at one another at the exact moment that I nip to the bathroom. It’s the second time this week. I am tired – so tired – of repeating things that they should already know.

Please don’t get down from the table until you’ve finished. Do not mess around with the milk. Stop saying that. Leave him alone. Ignore him. Please sit down. Of course you have to finish it. No, there’s already sugar on it. Where are you going? Sit back down.

But in the darkness of a little boy’s bedroom I breath more deeply than I have for hours.

I slide underneath the duvet cover – adorned with farmyard animals – making a mental note to replace it with something a little more befitting a boy who is growing up so fast. But it reminds me that he’s still so little really.

He scoots over wordlessly, making room for me with a wholehearted welcome.

An arm is flung around me and we settle into a silent rhythm, inhaling and exhaling in perfect synchronicity – our first moment of agreement all day long.

His head nestles into my neck and he breathes me in so deeply that I almost feel I might vanish.

How peculiar that I say so much throughout the day – the vast majority of which appears to go utterly unheard – and yet our close proximity seems to ‘say’ a million things I don’t have words for.

My silent presence brings peace and calm; the likes of which my words can never seem to conjure, no matter how I try.

He whispers secret words to that effect into my ear, and every frayed and floating fibre of my being falls back into its rightful place, stilled.

I resolve to speak less and to say so much more – without uttering a word.

Who am I?

I forgot my password to this place. I tried several permutations – different usernames – all the while racking my brains and trying to remember who I am. Computer said no every single time until suddenly – success! And I smiled, and wished that knowing who you are could always come so easily with nothing more than a little bit of patient persistence.

 

A different perspective

From the sidelines, I watch him suddenly shining in the swimming pool.

After a faltering start he glides through the water with a captivating confidence and my heart swells, willing him to glance in my direction so that I can acknowledge how proud he makes me in this moment.

At that very second he reaches the edge of the pool and I watch with bated breath. He whips off his goggles and whirls around. Is he searching for me? Our eyes meet and I’m surprised electricity doesn’t bounce across the surface of the water. Our expressions are a mirror image. We say nothing but know exactly what each other’s thinking.

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We sit beside each other in the darkness, waiting for the film to start. On his lap is a pile of sugary treats. Suddenly he scrutinises me, his face full of expectation. “Where’s yours?” he says, and I smile and stroke his cheek, explaining that I’m fine. Next, a bag of beloved Jelly Beans is thrust before my face, and he’s so insistent that I ‘take some, a handful, please’ that I know he’ll be offended if I don’t.

The film bores me to tears and at one point I contemplate teaching my boys the art of voting with your feet. I whisper something by way of effort to gauge his interest. He’s rapt, or at least he pretends to be, so I pretend to love it to.

Later we discuss the movie’s merits with Dada. “It was good, wasn’t it,” I say, keen not to rain on their parade.

He shoots me a withering look. “She hated it,” he says, and I laugh out loud.

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Crazy little brother makes him play this game all the way home from the movies. It’s called What Would You Rather Be.

A pig or a horse?

(He says a horse, without hesitation.)

A pig with food or a horse with no food?

(Horse with no food. Such is his commitment to his passion.)

A golf club or a sock that belongs to someone with a smelly foot?

(Golf club. Duh.)

Who do you love most, Best Friend or Mum?

(Exasperated sigh. Don’t be ridiculous. Mama, OBVIOUSLY.)

Best Friend or me?

(Pause. *Thinks* Hmm. You.)

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In what must be screen overload we are snuggled four to a bed, watching Batman Begins. They delight in telling me that it’s a 12. It’s practically a boast. I stick my fingers in my ears and look at Dada witheringly, who pretends not to notice.

He’s wearing pyjamas two sizes too small just because he loves them so. The fabric is thin and bobbled and he smells like swimming pool and jelly beans.

I hand him a glass of milk, urging ‘two hands please’ but I accidentally spill a drop on him. He teases me and I start laughing, and he threatens to spill more milk unless I stop.

He leans his head on me, snuggling in, and I wish I had the power to pause time.

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In being a writer I make choices all the time. What to hide, what to reveal. Where does story-telling end and exploitation begin?

You, the reader, sees so little, really. You don’t see the easy bits, this bond. You’ll never know the words I whisper into tiny ears every single night, nor which part he likes having tickled – the same bit my grandfather would stroke on me when I cuddled up beside him on the sofa.

My bent, my natural truth strays always to the edges. The darker places always draw me in. But I don’t always remember that those are the best places to see the light.

Nothing hurts me more than to think that I might be over-sharing – that writing my dark edges might in some way jeopardise other people’s. I suppose every writer has to walk this path. That, or betray themself by putting down the pen.

Glancing at him, I wonder what pearl of wisdom he might share, were he old enough to understand.

Suddenly, I see exactly what he’d say. How big his heart is, and what forgiveness he so readily extends. He’d get it, I think, and  would be at pains to tell me so.

You’re my hero, I say over him, and in his sleep, he smiles.

You are loved

I was driving along the coast road this morning when a dog bounded into the road just a few metres away from me.

Time froze, as the cliche goes. I braked hard. Hard enough that the seatbelt lock mechanism activated, and I remember feeling surprised by the sudden sense of being pinned to my seat as I steered frantically to avoid the dog, who just seemed to keep running directly into the path of my car.

I don’t know how I didn’t hit that dog, or crash my car in my effort to avoid it. I ended up on the wrong side of the road and by the time I lifted my eyes from the steering wheel to check for oncoming traffic I was already in tears.

The dog was nowhere to be seen.

Later I joked about how relieved I was that my last words to my kids that morning had been light-hearted ones, and how fortunate it was that it happened on a day when we had, at least, parted on laughing terms.

My kids are convinced the rogue beast was Sirius Black from Harry Potter, in the form of his dog, Snuffles, which also made me laugh later, too.

But before I started laughing about any of this, I found myself sitting in a car park trying to compose myself, listening to Doreen Lawrence (the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence) on the radio. She was being interviewed on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and she spoke about the couple who found Stephen lying in the street, bleeding to death. The woman held his head in her hands and whispered in the ear of the dying boy, a stranger: ‘You are loved, you are loved.’

I was already a dithering wreck but when Doreen began talking about what that meant to her, I was in pieces. She described how we take children for granted and tend to believe they’ll always be there, but that when you lose a child you find yourself wondering if they really knew how much you loved them, and wishing that you had only told them more.

I don’t have a pithy conclusion to wrap this up but I plan to be much more vocal in telling my kids how much they are loved.

Britain in a Day

Did you watch Britain in a Day on BBC 2 last night?

Wasn’t it astonishing?

Crafted from over 750 hours of footage and more than 11,500 clips submitted via YouTube – all shot by amateurs on a single day – the Beeb’s blurb says it’s a 90-minute documentary which offers ‘remarkable insight into the lives, loves, fears and hopes of people living in Britain today’.

“On Saturday 12 November 2011 an eclectic range of British people turned the camera on themselves, capturing the entertaining and mundane, the exciting and unusual, the poignant and the everyday. The result tells the fascinating story of the British public in their own words.”

Jonathan Freedland, writing  in The Guardian today, touches on the fact that 2012 is a big year for Britain. “It is a time-capsule year, like 1851 and 1951, one of those moments of national projection and introspection, when we deliver a collective statement on who we think we are. But what, exactly, are we saying?”

I’m not sure I can answer that, but it’s a long time since I’ve watched anything on TV that could be described as spell-binding, and this most certainly was.

I love Freedland’s point that some viewers will have written it off as little more than  a sentimental, extended John Lewis ad, designed to get us all weeping into our soft furnishings. But to see it that way is to miss so much. It was wildly discomfiting in parts, and blatantly bonkers in others, and I agree with the critics who’ve said that the emphasis on this being a distinctly British film is just plain bizarre.

But none of that matters to me. What does is the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and at the end I couldn’t shake a sacred sense that I’d seen something exceptional. Something life-affirming and yet not sugar-coated.

Watch the dying man who weeps at his daughter’s wedding, held in the hospital chapel so that he could attend, and tell me that doesn’t move you to see your life and relationships in a new light.

Or watch the young father desperately trying to eke out an early-morning moment alone for meditation, only to be interrupted mere seconds later by his two little girls, creeping into frame, their minds clearly not set on silence. I winced in recognition, and marvelled at his capacity to give up his meditation to be in the moment.

Or listen to the bubbly young woman feeding her pet rabbit, admitting that it’s a substitute of sorts for the child she’d much prefer. She sheds a tear and describes her need to mother something, and the next scene is of an exuberant child – full of joy and unfettered – running on a beach. I can’t watch that as a parent without a palpable, throaty ‘thank you’ rising up involuntarily for the kids I take for granted. They squabble, they never flush the toilet and they can’t brush their teeth without smearing toothpaste in the strangest places around the bathroom, but this film recalibrated my perspective and reminded me that parenthood is precious – and a privilege.

Watch the man bursting with anticipation as he waits for his weekly Skype date with his son who lives thousands of miles away. When the connection breaks unexpectedly and his face falls, you feel for an awful moment what it’s like to be a long-distance father.

Is it all maudlin or vacuously sentimental?

Only if you’ve got a heart of stone.

Words for love

Here’s a curious thing: in making my living from the thing I love doing, I find I’ve stopped doing it for love. 

I rarely write at all these days, except for money, but no commission fee can compare to the richness that I used to feel when writing was an end in itself.

In pursuing writing as a means to an end – that end being payment of my rent – I seem to have lost touch with myself. When I don’t write for love then everything around me seems to grow less lovely too, myself included.

So, to shake things up, here are some words that serve no real purpose beyond the benefit to my soul that comes from having dug them out.

Sitting outside – in my brown garden chair on our newly gravelled driveway – making myself a little dose of Vitamin D and feeling uproariously incongruous, I notice that my hands look old. Marvelling that they’re the very same hands I had when I was seven, I remembering staring at them then, lying in bed, holding them aloft above my head and wondering what they would look like when I grew old.

Outside. The breeze soothes me. It’s a calming influence. The wind is different on the coast. Warm but still insistent. I love the thought that no matter what happens or does not happen today, the wind will still be here tomorrow. The leaves on the wisteria are dancing in a frenzy, like over-excited children in fidget mode, incapable of being still.

When the children are not here, I miss them. When they’re here, I wish for five minutes’ peace.

I sometimes worry that five minutes peace has become a euphemism in our house for ‘go away’.

Far away I hear a child shouting ‘Daddy!’ and I resist the urge to jump in the car and go to see if they’re all alright.

When I read, I breathe better. Putting down my book, I inhale deeply, startled by the sensation of cold air filling my dusty lungs, surprised that I have forgotten how good it feels to breathe.

He always tells me we’ll miss these days. All too soon. One day the house will seem too quiet, he says. I raise an eyebrow disdainfully. He grins.

‘But at least all the rooms will stay tidy.’

‘Really,’ I say, mischievously. ‘So you won’t be here then either?’

There’s this thing that happens with long-term love. Things go unsaid. But when you push against that tide of slow-creep indifference, the thrill can be more palpable than any temptation to illicit love. We say things that surprise each other, and in so doing we breathe one another back to life.

Outside, with the soothing presence of the wind, I feel unfettered.

Abruptly, they all come home and my reverie is ended.

Bless

The kids are counting out coppers and dreaming of the day when they’ll have saved enough money for an expensive piece of Star Wars lego.

“But when you buy something on the computer, do you actually have to pay for it?” asks the five year old.

His brother rolls his eyes and says yes, with a sigh.

“But who do you give your money to?” persists the five year old.

*Pause*

The seven-year-old comes running to check this with me. I explain how debit cards work, and suggest that they could give me their money once they’ve saved enough, and then I could order it online, using my debit card.

I’m presented with a yellow plastic bowl of two pence pieces.

“There’s seven pounds in here. It won’t take very long till I have forty-five!”

My heart aches.

Learning to love Wild Things

I’m writing a feature for a newspaper about author Maurice Sendak, who died last week, and about how my children helped me learn to love his strange, discomfiting stories.

Were it not for their enthusiasm for dark, disturbing tales of Wild Things and boys falling out of bed and being baked into cakes, I would have missed out on the weird and wonderful world Sendak created.

Thanks, boys.

Now listen to this – Sendak himself reading Where The Wild Things Are. Just wonderful.