Thursday, 31 January 2013

Great Expectations

My children have not turned out how I intended. Yes, I read all the books. I nodded along to features on perfect parenting and honed my prejudices against mothers who fell short of my ideals. Yet things went awry within weeks of my eldest's birth and it's been downhill all the way since then. I'd resolved, you see, on rearing children who:

Owned only three toys, all of hand-crafted wood, plus a single teddy bear.
Ate the green twirly things excavated from my garden with gratitude and with cutlery.
Begged the Hoover off me to fine-tune their bedrooms.
Thought an iPod was a hybrid vegetable.
Turned their private desks into a homework hub.
Greeted the Sunday faithful with smiling enquiries after their health.

Instead, my children:

Single-handedly turned Fisher-Price into a global empire and would sink Noah's Ark with their menagerie of stuffed animals.
Eat only fish-fingers and chipolatas - with their fingers.
Beg a step ladder off me to surmount the impenetrable chaos of their bedrooms.
Devise secret pockets in their pyjamas so they can sleep with their iPods.
Turn their private desks into a make-up counter/racing circuit.
Drag me off mid-conversation with the verger.

But - now I come to think of it, I haven't turned out how I intended. I'd resolved, you see, on being a mother who:

Baked cakes every Saturday with my babies.
Served up home-cooked gourmet dinners after school.
Allowed the living room be turned into a pirate ship.
Deflected unsuitable behaviour with gentle pointers.
Sewed their school uniforms from organic cotton.
Was always ready with a cuddle and a Jammy Dodger (home-made).

Instead, I:

Plant my babies every Saturday with their iPods while I blog.
Scratch factory proteins from the freezer floor at dinner times.
Flinch over a displaced cushion in the living room.
Crush unsuitable behaviour with baleful threats.
Am called in mid-winter by the school because they've been sent in without coats.
Call out absent-minded endearments while hunched over Twitter with a Digestive (Tesco Value).

Briefly these realisations trouble me. Would I have become the Perfect Parent if my children had been more biddable - or would my children have become more biddable if I had been the Perfect Parent? Then the remedy strikes me. I fling away all those books and line the cat litter tay with the articles on perfect parenting. I gain comfort from all those other mothers who fall short of my ideals and I reach a new resolution: my kids and I are healthy, contented and lice-free and for as long as this happy situation lasts I'll allow us all to do what comes naturally. I wonder, though, how much used iPods would fetch on eBay?

Have you and your children turned out the way you intended?

Monday, 28 January 2013


This picture is the prompt for the latest 100 Word Challenge over at Julia's Place. Now if I were one of those figures on that flimsy protruberance I would be worrying like heck that the architect had got his calculations right. And maybe that's why the picture made me think of death - or more particularly of an interview I heard yesterday with the guitarist Wilko Johnson who has been given ten months to live.  The man sounded positively jubilant as he recounted how the imminence of his end has liberated him from the preoccupations that blinker us all.

Eyes trained on the chasm of the future tend to be blind to the Now. A tracery of branches, the smile of a child are eclipsed by mortgage angst and to-do lists.  
But the dying man is clear-sighted. 'Every cold breeze against your cheek, every brick in the road makes you feel alive,' he says. 'There is this marvellous feeling of freedom. Why didn't I work out before that it's just the moment you're in that matters!' 
And we, oppressed by wider horizons, should maybe tread more savouringly and not wait for death to teach us how to live.  

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Marriage Guidance

The secret to surviving middle age, says a survey, is a good marriage, a good breakfast and a puppy. The Vicar and I have spent 13 years-worth of contented evenings side by side under our tartan rugs; I never confront a day without sultana bran inside me and, although I can't vouch for the power of a pup, I seem to be plodding reliably through middle-age, so I assume two cats can count.

But there is more to marriage than this. It has, finds a different survey, an enhancing effect on men's bodies and women's minds. And men who wish to push those enhanced bodies into antiquity, while steering clear of Alzheimers, should, according to a third poll, select wives who are younger than them and clever to boot. So far so good. I'm a year younger than the Vicar and, unlike him, I've mastered the purpose of all the attachments on our vacuum cleaner, so I am most probably clever. He can pace the Seven Sisters without a stroke and my mind has undoubtedly flourished on a dinner-time diet of parish gossip. So yes, all in all, I can recommend marriage.

But, while there is an industry of manuals to guide women through motherhood, few exist on the subject of man-handling and I am concerned that inexperienced women will take the plunge oblivious to the facts of life. For matrimony, my dears, is a state full of mysteries and the more you know about these, the sooner you'll accept that there are, er, certain differences between the male and female sex. It's for your enlightenment, therefore, that I am prepared to bare all here:

A husband who strews his dirty laundry on the bedroom floor is time-pressed; a time-pressed wife who asks him to put it in the laundry basket is a nag.

A husband will grab a towel (usually his wife's) when he steps out of the shower and will, due to time pressure (see above), abandon it sodden on the marital bed (always on his wife's side).

A husband has a hound-like impulse to trail his presence round the house, usually in the form of    empty loo roll tubes, unhung bath mats, strewn food wrappers and an unemptied plugful of that night's supper after washing up.

A husband who minds the children for a day is granting a favour. A wife who minds the children for the day is fulfilling a duty.

A wife's Hoovering can rouse a husband from his afternoon nap, yet he is deaf to the night-time yells of a vomiting child.

When a wife can't get the car/kettle/DVD player to work it's because she's a woman. When the husband is equally ineffectual it's because it's broken. 

What have I left out? Share your experience here, ladies. And gents, since doubtless it works both ways, what should grooms-to-be be told about women?

Monday, 21 January 2013

A Fast Woman

On Sunday the extreme weather meant I had to find a daring new approach to parish rounds.

I'd long suspected that beneath my church hat lurked a Hell's Angel and, after decades of demureness, I decided it was time to take blameless parishioners for a ride.

High on speed, I eliminated all, even the church verger, who stood in my path...

..and resolved to show the world I was a woman with balls.

My ruthlessness, though, proved to be my downfall:

So now I am resigned to life in the slow lane. But I have bought a racy new hat to live it in!

This week's challenge at Julia's Place requires us to add 100 words to the words the extreme weather meant. But, naturally, I was going to write about the snow anyway...

Thursday, 17 January 2013

How to be a Domestic Goddess

Since Christmas I've felt shiftless. I've peered into the cobwebbed corners of my soul to pinpoint the malaise. True, it's a dismal feeling, after months of anticipation, to know that I've ridden the Santa Express through the local garden centre for the last time this winter. It was upsetting to hoof our friendly Christmas tree onto the cold pavement on Twelfth Night and I am being persecuted by boxes of Ferraro Rocher, which multiply unpalatably across the vicarage as fast as I offload them.

But these private pains don't give me my answer. Then, suddenly, I find it in a bottle of Fairy Liquid. I am shiftless because, when Christmas faded out, so did the sustaining mounds of washing up. No sane person enjoys the scabbed dishes from a family supper, but the dramatic aftermath of a banquet is one of the pleasures of the festive season.

You can put on Act III of a grand opera (you can rely on everyone melodiously dying in Act III), shut the door, snaffle choice leftovers and, safe in the knowledge that noone will come near the kitchen until the last teaspoon has been rinsed, sink into rare luxury of reverie. There's a hypnotic rhythm in reaching, dunking, sponging and rinsing. A satisfaction in imposing order on chaos with the flick of a Marigold and a skill in assembling towering sculptures of crockery on the draining rack.

Above all, there is something about a pair of Marigolds that gives one a sense of invincible purpose. When, in my yellow gauntlets, I watch TV from the sofa it proclaims to the family that I'm not idling, I'm in transit between chores. The suds on the pages of my novel are testament to the fact that I am in restless pursuit of family welfare and noone dares begrudge an afternoon kip to a woman sheathed in damp rubber.

But now my Marigolds, integral part of my Christmas wardrobe, lie limply over the mixer tap and I am a woman without purpose or justified solitude in the kitchen. It's been three weeks since Tosca last flung herself from the castle ramparts.

Suddenly, though, I am enlightened. I don't need the detritus of a dozen diners to validate myself. Hastily I don gloves and pinnie. I'm wearing them while Tweeting in the armchair when the Vicar comes in. 'I'll do the bedtime story tonight,' he says. 'You look as though you've been hard at it all afternoon.' He bustles off to the children's bedrooms and I dart out of my chair and put Madam Butterfly, Act III, on the stereo.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Suffer Little Children

I try to cultivate an air of pious decorum in church. My woolly layers, a vital buffer against the chill of the pew, imply solid respectability. My hat conceals the twelve months since I last visited a hairdresser and my expression of rapt enlightenment, rehearsed in the shaving mirror, disguises my internal warfare over the pea-green jeans in the Boden catalogue during the parish notices.

The advent of children has not aided my endeavours, however. Since the moment of my son's baptism when my daughter slashed the silence with: 'Mummy hit me!' it's been downhill all the way. 'Baby's fallen in Jesus pond!' cried my son, panicked, as, one Sunday, a proud father filmed another solemn gathering round a font.

The passing of the years would instil in them due reverence, I thought. Tirelessly in Sunday School I turned loo roll tubes into saints and conjured flocks of sheep from Whiskas boxes to prompt their spiritual awakening. But a decade on, my resolve to be a Pillar of Righteousness remains undermined by my companions.

The Angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary was interrupted by my 10 year-old during one of the readings in the packed carol service this Christmas. 'What's a virgin?' she hissed.

Today's service, though, passed with unusual dignity. My daughter, seraphic in her server's alb, made angry gestures from the altar over my latest hat and my son wrestled his full bladder into submission with Gangnam-style motions during the Eucharistic Prayer, but I preserved an air of implacable prayerfulness. Until the final hymn. The faithful on the other side of the circle of pews were staring. I glanced at my son. He'd stuffed a roll of pew sheets down his jumper and was posing like Dolly Parton. 'Come down O love divine,' I warbled frantically, but as the last organ notes faded, my son's voice was the only one still audible: 'From now on, Mum,  you've got to call me Mr Boobies!'

Monday, 7 January 2013

Social Butterfly

I never was one for parties. Higher heels and shorter skirts would enhance my social appetite, my mother told me, but parties surveyed from stilettos seemed to me the same cacophonous Babel as parties endured in the tweed twin set the churchwarden had outgrown.

My tentative opinions on coir-based composts and Primark polyknits packed no punch amid such fevered networking. I judged my impact on the number of handshakes I received, on the number of glazed eyes and, once, on a Valentine's proposition which turned out to be from an octogenarian with a urinary tract disorder whom I'd steered to the Gents.

Nowadays, however, social gatherings have acquired new meaning. My insights into vacuum cleaners and Bourbon Creams and my passing pleasantries to strangers are validated by a mark out of 100. At the end of a month of small talk I can measure my success with a Klout score.

Where once monologues about my daily routines would have cleared a room, they now collect a gratifying tally of followers - a gallery of smiling faces agog for the latest on my blocked drains. Doubt still creeps in, of course, but Progress allows me to check my stats to reassure myself that enough of those smiling faces are tuning in daily. This is not enough, though. They might be the sort who gaze glassy-eyed over my left shoulder while I'm in full flow, waiting for a more inviting opportunity. Therefore the sum total of replies in my comments box is essential evidence that I'm being heard and, in case some of my audience are speechless with awe, I get to install a device to record the number of people who 'like' my dronings.

All these numbers are agreeable proof that I am a Person of Consequence. The wallflower that was once me now dares inform a gathering of hundreds what I'm planning for supper. I can commiserate with strangers over their collapsed arches and flirt with folk ten years younger while anchored comfortingly in my fleecy slippers.

Nope, I no longer need high heels and short skirts to stand tall. I don't even need to leave the house. In fact, I dare not leave the house. What if a witticism occurred to me while I was lunching with friends and I was without the means to share it on Twitter? What if my Klout score tumbled because I was weekending away without my laptop? If a follower deserts me I need to be there on the spot to work out what I might have said wrong and to attract speedy replacements with an anecdote about my son's mischief with the loo brush.

It's a heady experience being a social triumph, but it's an exhausting one. Sometimes I mourn the days when socialising simply required me to skulk against a back wall with a cocktail sausage. But there's no going back. When, a few months ago, I mingled among flesh and blood in a party hall I recited my best tweets as an ice breaker and awaited encouraging interactions. But by the end of the evening I had no validating score show for it, besides one new follower and he, it transpired, was pursuing me to hand over the umbrella I'd left on his chair.

But guess what! When I told Twitter that a stranger had accosted me waving a long furled object dozens were agog. My Klout rating soared half a point and and four blondes and ladder supplier followed me. From now on, therefore,  I'll wow the crowds from my armchair and save myself a fortune on evening wear and Ferraro Rocher. And so, dear cyber friends, please comment, retweet, follow and 'like' me so that I can tell my mother that she must overlook my M&S Footgloves because, although I'm inevitably in when she calls me,  I'm now a social butterfly!

What do you think? Is the fact we can 'quantify' our social success among strangers a giant step for mankind or should we all get out more?

Thursday, 3 January 2013

An Unnatural Mother

For three days I have been liberated.

I had left my handbag at the wrong end of London and so, without a purse, I was spared the exhausting compulsion to traipse round the sales.
I had mislaid my mobile in the under-stairs cupboard and so was sheltered from inconvenient phone calls.
My 10-year-old had lost my hairbrush and since my comb was 60 miles away in said handbag I was excused the bore of daily grooming.
And I was without my children.

'I've never left my children for a single night,' said the lady on the bus. 'I couldn't bear to think of anyone else doing their breakfasts and bedtimes.' We marvelled at each other like two opposing zoological species. 'I must,' I replied brightly, 'be an unnatural mother!'

Unnaturalness, the lady on the bus doesn't realise, has many advantages. It allowed the Vicar and me to walk 20 miles of cliff tops without whinging impediments. It granted us a nightly pint in a Tudor pub, unimpeded novel reading in mid-afternoon and the glorious novelty of silence. Why, it even inspired in me a Great Thought, although with my notebook trapped in my lost handbag it escaped me before I could write it down.

Above all unnaturalness brought me closer to my babies. During our unaccustomed lie-ins I realised I missed them. During my 10-year-old's unfettered browses round high streets with her indulgent grandmother, she realised she missed me.

Upon our reunion, I resolved to mark the New Year with unswerving patience. I vowed to rejoice daily in the priceless gifts that are my babies. 2013 would witness in me the type of mother who would cross continents for a goodnight kiss and defer ducal invitations to feed them Weetabix.

And, for twenty minutes, I was as good as my word. I read them a story, applauded their Lego theatricals and allowed them supper on a tray. Then the bickering began. Memories of the briefly-sampled silence haunted me and suddenly it occurred to me that it's the lady on the bus that's unnatural, not me. There is no greater joy than having children - but why is it so much easier to appreciate this from 60 miles away?

Are you an unnatural parent?