Monday, 30 September 2013

How to Build a Character

Scout Camp, we're told, is character building. And I can certainly vouch for this as my 11-year old's two nights roughing it have imported numerous new virtues into our vicarage:

Self-sacrifice: I missed my firstborn after depositing her in the Friday darkness with her sleeping bag and hold-all of Hollister tops. Her empty bed pained me in the mornings and I had, forlornly, to sing solo along to Adele songs on Youtube without her at my side.

Humility: as, hastily, I subdued my uncool glee at the reunion upon clocking my daughter's warning scowl.

Patience: as I listened with beaming attentiveness to a half-hour, high-speed account of who fancied whom on campus while, armed with a Post-it note of scrawled directions, I wrestled the A10 into submission.

Courage: as I squared up to the damp, muddy menace that was her dirty laundry bag.

Forbearance: as, all evening, I withstood the howls and recriminations of an adventurer who had achieved one hour's sleep the previous night.

Devotion: as, come the release of bedtime, she begged to me climb under the duvet with her for a half hour cuddle and my sassy tweenager became a little girl who had missed her mummy.

How have your childrens' absences improved you?

Thursday, 26 September 2013


I am regarded as an airhead. The scantiest mishap is used as corroboration against me. There was that time, for instance when I found I'd carefully soaped a block of butter in the washing up bowl (this was not my fault: the Vicar had slipped it into the butter dish while it waited in the queue of dirty dinner plates). The time when I decanted a hot tray of oven chips into the laundry basket (perfectly excusable; oven and washing machine sit side by side); the time I sent my son to school with an unfilled sandwich, poured orange juice into the cafetiere and the occasion last night when I poached two eggs in a waterless pan. 'Couldn't you smell the burning?' asked the Vicar incredulous.

It's true that if I had properly marshalled my faculties I would not have left the car keys in the door all weekend or opened smalltalk with the Bishop with an account of a neighbour's breast implants. And it affects me as much as my family when I visit Budgens to buy bread and forget to buy bread.

What my detractors don't realise is that these confusions are the result of a furious intellect. Like all mothers I have the mental scope of an oligarth. While assembling the school lunch boxes I am simultaneously clocking the number of baked beans left in the tin in the fridge, assessing the rain clouds bulging over the sheets on the washing line, mentally scanning my wardrobe to effect the transformation of the 8-year-old into a Tudor peasant for school history day and conjuring opinions for the Vicar on the 'theology of place'.

When, on frigid mornings, the school rings to complain that my children have arrived without coats I point out that my brain has spent the dawn hours tussling the opaque login of Parentpay, diagnosing the brown growth blooming on the kitchen vinyl, outsmarting the patient-proof telephone menu introduced by our local surgery and improvising an emergency definition of an isosceles triangle.

A mind sagging beneath a burden of digits - the children's current shoe size,  three month's worth of impending birthdays, the eleven-year-old's next hospital date, the Vicar's blood pressure readings and the latest price-per-litre at the three local petrol stations - cannot be expected to focus reliably on domestic trivia. I am explaining this to the 11-year-old who has found her sock drawer full of mens' Y-fronts. 'You wouldn't even remember to put your shoes on to walk to school if I didn't remind you,' I tell her, and I have a brief, awed vision of how the household would disintegrate without me to mastermind it.

Then a familiar stench silences me. I've confused the oven knob with the grill and the smoke alarm joins in the wails of anguish at the charred lumps that were to be our supper.

Are there any other airheads out there? If so, congregate companiably here and tell me your finest moments.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

How Survive a Children's Party - the Expert's Guide

I've always assumed that children would be content to celebrate themselves with the sort of pleasures I favour for my own parties - a shimmy on the trampoline, pass-the-parcel and a sagging sponge improvised in the vicarage oven. And, until last year, the formula seemed foolproof. Now, though, a pack of crayons swaddled in back copies of The Guardian and my unpredictable baking are deemed a social handicap. The kids and their classmates require the hire of doughnut cafes, paint ball pitches and ice rinks to mark the passing years. This has its advantages; no more scraping vomit from the skirting boards and no more multi-packs of cheese strings colonising my lager shelf. It's easy, however, to assume that your large cheque absolves you from the risks of other people's children en masse. Don't be fooled. Each time your child gains a year you are likely to age by three more, whether or not you farm the festivities out to professionals. But there are precautions you can take to minimise the impact on flesh and sanity and, here, following recent, raw experience, I've listed some of the most essential:

  • Don't don white trousers for the occasion then spend the morning performing essential autumn tasks in the compost heap. And recruit someone wearing darker clothing to operate the defective plunger on the cafetiere.

  • Don't leave nine children alone in bedroom with a flour-filled ball of half perished rubber.

  • Don't wait until you are half way to the station with said flour-coated children before discovering that you've left your 8-year-old locked in the empty house.

  • Dispatch your husband to the pub on arrival to prevent marital wear and tear. 

  • Don't fling yourself onto the ice rink if you are a middle-aged matron who has forgotten the braking procedure. 

  • Assume the air of a blameless passer-by when five of the girls in your charge lock themselves in the Gents.

  • Try to avoid locking yourself in the Gents when a towering ten-year-old hangs off your neck and propositions you. 

  • Endeavour to be an invisible presence when your charges press the emergency button on the station platform. 

  • When losing someone else's child on the train home ensure that it's a service that contains empathetic ticket inspectors (thank you again Ugo and Immi!)

  • Make sure that there's a bucket of lager and an aspirin supply waiting at home. 

  • Persuade your child to accept an Amazon voucher in lieu of a party next year (but secretly book your own skating celebration because the children are the only impediment to birthday parties). 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Monster Mother

'You deserve a sock in your eye because you're so HORRIBLE!' screams the 10-year old, dislodging my contact lens with well-aimed footwear.

I have never had any delusions about my character. 'Mediocre' wrote my history teacher. 'Lunatic' says my brother. But it takes offspring to divulge the full extent of ones defects.

I never realised the depths of my egotism until my daughter pointed out the damage wholemeal bread and the mile-long walk to school is doing to her sense of Being. 'You are totally selfish!' she says.
I never understood my callousness until my son blamed me for the pooches with killer eyes that cross his path on Sunday strolls. 'You are evil!' he shrieks.
And my horribleness had not hit home until Sunday lunch when I deferred permission for the 10-year-old to browse body art on my laptop while we finished our sausages.

I extract sock fibres from my left eyeball and reflect on motherhood. Storybooks tell of serene, selfless, irresistible women whose children kneel lovingly at their side to recite their bedtime prayers. My manual on raising girls invites readers to imagine their daughters as adults radiant with graces instilled by their mother's fine example. The reality is that motherhood has turned me into a monster.

I am a despot because I extinguish my twosome with 8.30pm bedtimes and hold vindictive views on iPhones and body piercings.
I am a thief because I spirit cherished T-shirts to the washing machine and a torturer because I enforce peas.
Most unforgivable of all I am an embarrassment because I wear floor-length waterproofing in rain storms and have never patronised Dominos Pizza.

This revelation of my true nature is dismaying, but I hadn't reckoned on the forgiving nature of children. There is a scream as the 10-year-old spills UHU on her new leggings and I rise instantly to the occasion. Without thought for my own sanity I brave the stormy weeping and seize the injured garment. And with endurance that awes me I assault the stain with improvised nail polish remover.

The 10-year-old, studying her almost-restored treasure, embraces this hint of my redemption:
'The best thing about mums,' she muses, 'is that they can always make things better.'

Has motherhood ruined your character?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Being Indispensible

Vocabulary in our vicarage is limited. If a bishop strays by, we may muster dialogue on theological ethics and we are capable of whole sentences on Haagen Dazs ice cream flavours. But mostly the family gets by on a catch-all three-letter word: mum.

It serves as an expletive: 'M@!*M!! (You made me drop my iPod!)
As an SOS: 'Muuumm! (There's a ghost under my mattress...)
As an imperative: 'MUMMM!' (Come and get Barbie's hair out of the plug hole)
As a warning: 'Mu-um!' (Don't dare wear that corduroy to school)
As a prevarication: 'Ask Mum...' (...why you should iron your nightie for your wedding night)

It is a privilege to be indispensible. But privileges can be wearing. The word is a prefix to almost every communication. And it is a prefix I am obliged laboriously to acknowledge before these communications can proceed, even if I am alone in the room with the speaker.

'I've changed my sneeze. Do you like it?'

'Are you a mum?'

Lately, I've made attempts to ban this most irritating of words. 'Just say what you want to say!' I bark as it cuts across my efforts to conquer the oven timer. In retaliation the children have upped the ante.


'I say, Mum...'

When they are dispatched on a five-day holiday camp, that wretched sound is silenced. I indulge in leisurely pursuit of my deadlines, my assistance unsought and my approval uncalled for. I am briefly expendable and the novelty is beguiling.

Then: 'Mum!!' shrill two voices across the school hall as I arrive at the end to collect them. I realise that the three-letter word has a meaning that I'd missed and the sound of it suddenly enchants me. Those childless days were revitalising, but I've missed being indispensible.

On the drive home I resolve to be unstintingly maternal and to deserve that cherished sobriquet. Then the 10-year-old fears she has forgotten her stuffed elephant. I glance in the rear view mirror and brace myself for the onslaught. When it comes, it conveys rage, grief and recrimination in a single slaying syllable: