Showing posts from 2013


Prayers can be answered in disconcerting ways. Progress can be more harrowing than stasis. Our Advent hope was for my mother to wake from her coma. And, one day, she opened an eye. But the eye  fixed on us unseeingly and unnerved us so thoroughly that the 9-year-old now needs a nightlight to guard him from the ghost of Grandma. We longed for words. And one day they came. But the words are frightening. My mother thought the 11-year-old was Boudicca. She reckons fellow patients are Russian spies and the nurses Machiavellian conspirators. The woman who was planning the redecoration of her kitchen that night she walked home from work now clings to my neck and implores me to release her from a prison cell. I sometimes wish again for the coma for, in that peaceful figure, I could imagine my familiar mother waking. I try to comprehend how a vivacious career woman can, through the inattention of a stranger, be transformed in a second into this. And yet I know that we are lucky. It is the h


My mother was returning from work. She called my father to ask him to record The Archers and she started walking from the station. Then, a few hundred yards from home, she stepped onto the zebra crossing. It was a doctor who hit her - outside the hospital where he worked. Her shredded clothes have been returned to us in a carrier. Her handbag now sits in its usual place on the hall chair, the shoes she was wearing packed inside by police. There is her favourite sheep mug on the draining rack and parcels she had ordered for Christmas arriving in the post. She is absent, yet the house is full of her. We can think of nothing else and yet we forget. My father finds himself putting her towel to warm on the radiator for morning like he always does and nearly calls from the bottom of the stairs to ask if she wants tea before bed. I used to tune out sometimes when she chattered. Now I bend over her, listening raptly each time her lips move. 'Suffering' was the first word I heard h


When I tried to imagine a future without my mother in it I pictured a short illness or a long decline. I never considered a zebra crossing on a dark night and a car that didn't brake in time. My mother was planning our Christmas stockings and her spring tulips. Now she is in a coma. And my mother, who used to listen raptly to every trivial detail we told her, lies unheeding when we talk. They say the hearing is the last thing to go. So I tell her that I'm wearing lipstick like she always begged me to; that I've dead-headed her pansies and burnt the supper I was trying to cook my father. I want her to nag me about sterilising my dishcloths and taking my Vitamin C. I want her to tell me, like she always does, that she will make things be all right. But I realise, as I gaze at the battered body in which my mother somewhere hides, that we are blessed. 'All I can, while I can,' she always told us. And she has never failed. Whether or not she returns to us, it'

Self-Confidence and How to Lose It

Self-confidence, I always thought, is one of the gifts of middle age. Through my timid teens and twenties I looked forward to the day when I could stride forth in my polyknits, oblivious to public opinion. And that day almost dawned. No longer do I delay pressing the button on pelican crossings in case drivers are inconvenienced by stopping for me. I am equal to ordering dinner guests to leave by 10.30pm so I can get to bed on time and am comfortable bearing a bumper pack of loo roll up the street from the Co-op. There was a fatal flaw in my theory, however. With middle age come children and there is nothing like an adolescent daughter to make you see yourself in your true colours. 'Have you thought that it could be YOUR fault?' cries the 11-year-old when I ask her to stop shouting. I pause to reflect and I realise that, yes, I am sadly culpable as a mother. It is my fault that my scarf doesn't match my red beret, thus inflicting needless humiliation on the walk to scho

Shrunken Horizons

I was offered a free smartphone last week by a company I was planning to write depressing things about. It took ten minutes of emails to persuade the press office that, my incorruptible virtue aside, I have no desire to own one. Why should I want to be pursued by emails and tweets, while minding my own business in a garden centre, when I have a £10 handset that lies reliably dormant in the depths of my handbag? Then a box from another PR arrived for me at the office. My misgivings about bribes and freebies instantly fled. Painfully I tumbled from the moral high ground for inside, swaddled in festive paper, were three large bottles of washing up liquid. 'I think,' said an older colleague, watching my excitement, 'that you need to throw everything in your life up in the air and start again.' I packed my booty reverently in my briefcase and I reflected on the shrunken horizons of middle age. There was a time when it would have required a date with the Vicar to induce t

Middle-Class Stress

It has been a wearing week and we are all assembled in the marital bed trying to muster energy for the morning. The Vicar announces that we need to decide on our summer holiday destination so that the prospect of relaxation can coax him through the parish toil. Tiredly I set down my tea and brace myself. The Vicar likes hot sun and piazza cafes; I like cool cloud and wilderness. The 11-year-old prioritises high-street shopping; the 9-year-old adjusts his preferences to whatever will curry favour with the Vicar and me and most provoke his sister. Me (hoping for an easy life): 'I liked Cornwall last year.' The Vicar: 'The sea's too cold in Cornwall and it will rain all week.' Me (still hoping for an easy life): 'You liked the gite we had in Brittany this summer.' The 11-year-old (rearing up from beneath the duvet): 'No, New York! Why have we always got to go to the same places?' The Vicar: 'You've been to France twice in your life. I fanc

Birthday Blues

I assumed, having survived my 11-year-old's birthday party last month with the temporary mislaying of only two children, that I was an expert in the subject. I knew, for instance, that the combination of of nine guests, a flour-filled ball, white jeans and the London Transport system was a risky one and so, to celebrate my son this week, we decided on two guests and the family Skoda. But once again I had failed to think ahead and so here, for your instruction, dear readers, is the next chapter of my party survival guide for pressed parents. Before embarking on an outing to the local soft play centre - or indeed, any physical activity involving small boys - ensure that you: Clear your diary for the rest of the week to accommodate twice daily trips to the Fracture Clinic. Start collecting pound coins several weeks in advance to feed the ticket machines in the hospital car park. My experience suggests £20 in loose change is required in a 36 hour period. Fill yourself up guiltle

Fast Living

The family service is beginning and, scanning the pews from behind my hymnal, I realise that the Sunday School teachers have forgotten to turn up again. Hastily I pluck up a pew sheet and skim through the gospel reading. It turns out it's All Saints Day. Luckily the introit hymn is a long one and grants me the duration of five verses to decide how to instruct an infant audience on the Lord's Chosen. Unluckily the only saint that springs to mind is the one who had her breasts cut off and flourished on a platter. I do not feel equal to improvising mammaries with the only equipment I have to hand - three biros, a packet of tissues, a pen knife and a tube of peppermints excavated from the bottom of my handbag. The hymn ends and the Vicar dispatches the Sunday School to the church hall and I bellow insights into meekness, humility and gentleness above the din of my small charges who are chasing each other shriekingly over the furniture. Despite a golden radiance, achieved by a g

Domestic Mysteries

Last week, with the single press of a button, I managed to dye an entire laundry cycle, including half the Vicar's underclothes, bright pink. As I burrowed frantically through the under-sink cupboard for the bleach I'd just bought, and found instead five half-filled bottles of white spirit, which I have never knowingly owned, I realised that domestic life is full of mysteries that defy science. There's the inexplicable fact, for instance, that the molluscs of Middlesex choose to commit mass suicide in my tiny kitchen drain - and the related conundrum that, despite the combined IQ of my family far eclipsing my own, only I am deemed capable of scraping out the slug stew that causes the sink to drain over the patio. I would be grateful, therefore, if the world's great minds would leave off fiddling with the Higgs boson and find an explanation for why... Each time you halve the contents of your laundry basket it doubles. No matter how many bottom sheets you buy, the


There is little that I would not do for my children. I would scale bridges if it shielded them from harm... I would hurl myself from an aeroplane... Climb to the highest tree tops... Wrestle warriors... And battle freezing rapids... I would even, if it came to it, endure public humiliation... My children, alas, are less resolute and both balk at overcoming fearsome challenges for my sake.  My son is powerless to take on the chaos in his bedroom... My daughter flees in the face of the washing up...  And neither has the stamina to confront a vegetable... But today... weeks of sleepnessness have shrunk my temper. The cats flee before me and the Vicar, wounded by unaccustomed sharpness, seeks refuge in his study. I berate the children for their failings and shut myself in the sitting room for a sulk. As the door inches open I ready myself for battle. And in come two wary figures. One drapes me

Dressing Down

'You cannot do this to me!' shrieks the 11-year-old. I reverse out from under the bed and find her brandishing a hairy brown banner. On closer inspection, it turns out to be my favourite Sunday skirt. My daughter sees the sentiment in my face and blanches. 'Mum,' she says in more patient tones. 'I'm doing this for you. I'm putting it in this pile here.' I am performing the solemn annual ritual of retrieving my winter wear from under the guest bed and stowing my summer clothes in its place. Ordinarily this is a task I enjoy. Summertime I find stressful with its pressure to haul a bronzed and hairless body round beaches and barbecue parties. I have to start my annual hunt for the iron when my summer cottons emerge from hibernation. In winter I can vanish comfortably into wool which, even after a season in a zipper bag, hangs in biddable clumps without need of intervention. This year, however, my daughter has appointed herself supervisor of the proceedi

Family Time

It is Sunday lunch in the vicarage. Because it is the one meal in the week that the whole family eats together, the table is laid in the dining room with place mats and matching crockery and a lighted candle beside the ketchup bottle. The Vicar says grace, we take our seats and conversation begins. The 11-year-old, 'What planet are you from, Mum! Potatoes aren't vegetables, they're carbs!' Me: 'Trust me, they're vegetables.' The 11-year-old: 'How can you say that something that just pops out of the ground is a vegetable! It's a carb.' The Vicar (diplomatically): 'They don't just pop out of the ground. Mum worked very hard digging them up.' The 8-year-old: 'Who do you think's the prettiest girl in this room?' The Vicar (diplomatically): 'Both of them!' The 11-year-old: 'What? You're saying mum's pretty! She's middle-aged!' The 8-year-old (singing): 'Mama do the hump, do the hump hump

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 th


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 f

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 tak

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, selfl

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. 'Mum?' 'Yes?' 'I've changed my sneeze. D

Put on the Spot

'What does it mean to have a w**k?' asks the ten-year-old carryingly as we enter a peaceful country tea room. 'It means to have a walk,' says my brother quickly. Our mother, reared in wartime Bristol when provincial slang was out of synch with modern pleasures, routinely suggests a nice little w**k after lunch. 'We can't let her think that,' I hiss, fearing the implications of our lengthy morning walks to school. We both turn to the Vicar who is masticating placidly on a scone. 'It means,' he says, 'to, um, touch yourself...' 'We can't let her think that either,' I say, mindful of the ten-year-old's obsessive fiddling with her hair. Luckily I recall a piece of intelligence passed on by a parishioner during casual conversation in the vicarage garden. 'We all,' I repeat doubtfully, 'have a 'happy spot'...' 'In our house it's the sofa,' says my brother. The ten-year-old is looking

How to Pack

It baffles me the panic people get into when faced with holiday packing. There is indeed a science to it, but it's a science that's easily mastered and I, who have been studying it for a quarter of a century, can now clothe four for a fortnight in less than an hour. Things that seem obvious to me, however, have clearly been missed by most of my acquaintance, so here, for the benefit of all, is my cut-out-and-keep guide to holiday preparations. 1: Locate the cat bed that, three times a year, doubles up as a suitcase. It's advisable to give it a vacuum for moustachioed thermals can cause discomfort. 2: Extract from the dirty linen basket all the must-have wardrobe items that you forgot to wash before departure. This operation should be undertaken discreetly.  3: Fling said items plus all other necessities in a pile. For best results this pile can be begun the night before to give you more time to appraise it. 4: Remove from the pile approximately a t

Time Out

'Bet you're looking forward to the summer break!' says the lady in The Co-op. I smile with improvised serenity and sag under the weight of the lager I'm stockpiling. This last weekend of term has given me a foretaste of the six weeks ahead. Idyllically we grouped in the garden, my children and I. The sun was shining, the barbecue smoking and the hammock swaying under the apple trees. And my ten-year-old: threw stones at her brother and broke his front tooth. cracked the back of his head with a carefully-aimed swingball swipe. jabbed a streak of mascara into her left eyeball. warbled of lust and bondage outside the vestry wall. The eight-year-old: flattened his sister's limited-edition Lucozade bottle tipped her skull-first out of the hammock. piled a stash of illicit sweet wrappers under my geraniums. made resonant remarks about female biology as parishioners passed the garden gate en route to the Sunday service. I, meanwhile, have spent my weekend m

Facing the Music

My daughter has always held tyrannical opinions on in-car entertainment. In the early days she would clamour for her Sing-along Nursery Rhymes cassette when Desert Island Discs was about to begin. She has vetoed my Dolly Parton collection in case pedestrians should hear when the windows are down and today, as Aled Jones wafts us along the M25 with my favourite funeral hymns, she insists that he is extinguished so she can make her own music. 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me!' she bellows from the back seat. My shrill of horror intrigues her. 'What's so bad?' she asks, genuinely baffled. Intuition tells me that this is one for the Vicar, lying prone in the passenger seat beside me. 'Say something!' I hiss, but the Vicar is evidently formulating his next sermon for he doesn't seem to hear. I am just improvising an answer involving circus ring masters and fairground rides when I glance in the rear view mirror and noti

Finding Fulfilment

I have long held the suspicion that I am not fully woman. My make-up basket consists of two lipsticks, a jar of Vaseline and a pair of illuminating tweezers, lately donated by a concerned friend. I would far sooner browse manure blends at our local aggregates depot than try on diamonds at Asprey. My secret giddy pleasure is removing the lavatory cistern and watching the ballcock rise and fall and any fashion catalogues that make it to the vicarage are employed to wedge the truncated marital mattress in place along with two four-packs of Heinz Beans. A survey has now confirmed my fear. The sisterhood, it reveals, spends £13,000 in a lifetime on beauty products in order to feel better about itself. Plucked eyebrows, a manicure, perfectly styled hair and new underwear are among the twenty favourite methods to promote self love, according to the Ready to Glow campaign. And hairless legs are essential. With dismay I realise that my life lacks all of these. It's been eighteen months


I am driving my 10 year-old to her weekly gymnastics class. We are not in harmony. She is berating me for refusing to allow her an iPhone. I am berating her for spurning the supper I'd painstakingly incinerated for her. As we draw up at the leisure centre I have decided, not for the first time, that I am not cut out for motherhood. She stumps off to the gymnastics hall; I join a slumped row of mothers on the floor of the viewing gallery. I am nursing wounded feelings and read a novel instead of watching my firstborn with the raptness she expects of me. Later I look up. She and her class partner are performing backwards rolls. Her partner rotates clumsily and doesn't get up again. Teachers bend over her, cajoling her to stand, but she lies there, head bent to the floor, legs twisted under her, and she doesn't respond. I think she's malingering and watch with amused exasperation as she ignores all overtures. A group of lifeguards are summoned from the pool. They too try


I do most of my mothering on a wing and a prayer. Only come evening do I forage the fridge in hopes of stray proteins for supper. Homework is a high-speed frenzy over breakfast bowls and my tartan sofa rug has had to stand in for most fancy-dress costumes required by school. I have, however, always been braced for puberty. Patience and humour were to be my guides. I would extract the Usborne book with the frightening diagrams that I'd hidden behind my archive of Gardener's World and talk my daughter through feminine biology. I would shop companionably with her for her first bra and I would defuse adolescent tantrums with a kiss. Now, though, our once quiet vicarage is bedevilled by puberty and I have lost control. The Vicar watches papal masses at top volume on Youtube to drown out the shouting beyond his study door. Fights are needlessly picked, recriminations slung up and down the stairs and the sulks can cloud an entire afternoon. Yes, my behaviour has deteriorated dism

Father's Day

It is the family service. For once the eight-year-old goes unprotestingly to Sunday School so I can sit in my pew with dignity unimpeded by a small boy building himself a bust out of rolled-up service sheets or rehearsing Gangnam-style manoeuvres in the nave. The Vicar, majestic in vestments, preaches of love, faith and hopefulness and I watch the faces of the faithful raptly absorbing his wisdom. I wonder, not for the first time, how it must feel to be a revered father-figure to such a throng and, furtively, I suppress a length of loo roll trailing from my sleeve so as to look worthy of him. The Sunday School troops back into church. The children are clutching glittered cards for Father's Day. The Vicar, all dignified benevolence, invites them to read out their tributes and, to my surprise, the eight-year-old, ordinarily silenced by an audience, is first up to the microphone. I beam proudly as he regards his daddy and musters his courage. 'My Dad,' he begins, 'is v

To Catch a Thief

My name is Anna and I am a kleptomaniac. 'Where,' shouts the Vicar, 'have you put my swimming trunks?' 'Where,' shouts the 8yo, 'have you hidden my school tie?' 'You're dead meat, ' bawls my daughter, 'if you've lost that over-the-knee sock with the bow on.' Guiltily I survey the empty banister where the clerical trunks usually hang and wonder if I have, through some unconscious compulsion, spirited them off to my potting shed. I survey the scrunched uniform shed by my son at last night's bath time and try to recall if I hijacked the tie. And I climb inside the family duvet covers in search of said sock because I remember putting it in the washing machine and I don't remember taking it out again. Marriage and motherhood have exposed my criminal underside. And the volume of items that go  missing is shaming. Most of the Vicar's socks are without partners, the remote control for the DVD has not been seen since an


Our family has gained a garrulous new member. She spends her days in my 10-year-old's room and is unprepossessing in looks and character. From the bed she holds forth on her world view which is as jaundiced as her complexion, for Tweety is a creature of vigorous and vociferous prejudices. She deplores my M&S wardrobe (she demands Hollister) and shouts over Radio 4 (she wants Heart FM). Tweety is contemptuous of Sunday Mass (she desires shopping malls), appalled by green vegetables (her diet is restricted to pastrami sticks) and is militant about washing up and pocket money (she requires £20 a week with extra for the Superdrug make-up counter). 'It's not me, it's Tweety!' protests my 10-year-old when shrieks of derision greet the family Skoda. Life has become clamourous since Tweety was won at an Easter tombola, and yet, united in disapproval, my daughter and I live in vastly improved harmony. And so I too have decided to acquire a friend who will fearl


Today the Vicar conducted his mother's funeral. As a priest he followed her coffin reciting the promise of resurrection. As a son he spoke of how she would wipe his face with a spit-moistened hankie and accommodate his aversion to greens. And as priest and son he stood with his hand on the coffin and committed his mother to the hereafter. I gazed at the wooden box that contained the woman who had borne and raised and nurtured and enervated him and I tried to fathom four decades of maternity nailed inside. Then I thought of myself similarly extinguished one day in a casket of pine. And now, suddenly, the mopping of spattered ketchup, the quelling of childish brawls, the tedium of times-tables and the hours on school sports fields seem sacred rituals. Motherhood is a privilege I too often take for granted. And, equally often, I fear I don't measure up. But, as the Vicar recalls his boyhood, I realise that it does not require glamorous heroics or conspicuous sacrifices. It'


The prompt for this week's 100-word challenge at Julia's Place is Parting is such sweet sorrow . Yesterday we heard that my mother-in-law had suffered a brain haemorrhage. She is in a coma and will not live.  Parting is such sweet sorrow. So they say. But where, I wonder, is the sweetness? Where, in the body on the bed, is the person that once vitalised it? Where is the lifetime of memories? What happens to the  hopes and the hates and the secrets when a mind closes down? Back at home on his piano, the Vicar is painstakingly mastering the tune that evokes a boyhood outing with his mother and, as the chords float upstairs, I realise that there is indeed a bitter sweetness to parting, for loss, with painful potency, defines the forgotten power of love.

Real Men

Spiders, it seems, are the secret to machismo. Women, asked by pollsters what vital ingredient marks out a real man, were in broad agreement: real men are unfazed by wildlife in the bathtub. They also support their local football team, drive their own car and earn more than their wives. So finds the stain removal firm, Dr Beckmann which commissioned the survey on household heroes. Quite why a stain removal firm wishes to plumb machismo is a mystery to me, but I could have saved them the trouble, for there is nothing I don't know about manliness. Why, I even possess many of the essential attributes myself. A real man, ladies, is someone who: fearlessly, when a menacing midnight sound wakes the household, plunges through the darkness and, without thought for his own wellbeing, swabs the pool of childish vomit on the landing.  grabs a knife in an emergency and, with a skilfully improvised stew, succours his defeated wife and little ones. with muscled vigour that brooks no diss

Mod Cons

I'm not a great believer in labour-saving devices. I evicted my husband's microwave when I moved into the vicarage. I rely on the remaining intact pages of my road map rather than entrust myself to a satnav. I've never owned a tumble-dryer and I would be clueless about loading a dishwasher. There are, in my view, few domestic challenges that can't be overcome by a dustpan and brush and a pair of Marigolds. I am, however, thrilled with my dual-function washing machine: whenever it drains a cycle, it washes the kitchen floor. Muddy paw prints and cemented cornflakes no longer crust my vinyl. Desiccated peas have been washed out from under the fridge and the mysterious scabs round the cooker feet have been dissolved by Fairy non-biological. Admittedly there are drawbacks. Lately the machine's thoroughness has turned the kitchen into a boating lake. Yesterday's copy of The Guardian is no longer adequate defence. I've had to restrict my laundering to Mondays

Artistic Sensibility

We are in a small gallery devoted to an artist I have never heard of. Gazing from the walls are rows of voluptuously lipped pre-Raphaelite women united by a common problem: keeping their robes decorously in place. I am resigned to the will of our host and embark on a dutiful examination of the brushstrokes. The children are less resigned and demand to know when we are leaving. Then, while I am studying a damsel whose curves are inadequate mooring for her gown, I realise I can no longer hear my brood. Hastily I glance round. They are moving slowly from picture to picture gazing raptly at each. They even seem to be making notes. 'They're doing well,' beams an elderly room warden. 'So nice to see children enjoying art.' I beam back, torn between pride and perplexity. I start to hope that our occasional dashes to the National Gallery to use the loos on London shopping trips have instilled in my twosome a sense of artistic integrity. I decide to replace our desiccate

The Art of Joy

Katetakes5 is celebrating the fact that her son rates David Bowie above One Direction. Heady with pride she wants the rest of us to teach our children that some pleasures are superior to adolescent hollering. I've never knowingly heard a song by One Direction. Come to think of it, I can't call to mind anything by David Bowie either. Anyone with pretence to taste and intellect knows that Doris Day outstrips all of them. It's therefore no trouble at all for me to teach my children five things that are better than a boy band: Stream wading. This was my birthday treat last year and this. There is an entrancing pleasure to clambering into a stream as far down as possible and paddling up it as far up as possible, defying the hidden gullies and submerged traffic cones and dangling en passant from tumbled trees. The patterns of water whirling round wellies, secret flowers on steep banks and the occasional fleeing rodent give the sense, unequalled on dry land, of being embedded

In Search of Self

'You know I have an attitude problem,' says the 10-year-old. There's a hint of pride in her voice. 'Yes,' I reply warily. 'Well everyone in Year 5 and 6 has one too. It's something you get when you're ten.' Impertinence, I realise, is the latest playground must-have, along with a Juicy Couture school bag, Ralph Lauren underpants and an iPod Touch. Anyone with dreams of status has rehearsed the curled lip and the cocked hip with which to repulse all adult utterances. They've mugged up on fashionable conversation openers: 'You're dead, Mum!'/ 'You just don't geddit!'/'You wanna ruin my life!'. They've jettisoned puerile pleasures: bedtime stories/family time and devoted themselves to the things that really matter: self-adhesive nail extensions, New Look fashions, Jesse J and Instagram. The shadowed eyes, for which I've blamed hormones, are down to the strain of this transition. I've been distracted


There's an emotion that assails you when your child draws its first breath and that emotion remains steadfast for as long as you draw your own. The feeling powers you through those hectic months of bonding, through the first wrench of schooldays and through the turmoil of teens. It requires of you sacrifices that your childless self would have quailed at and conjures spectres that appal you in the night hours. This feeling is inevitable, indestructible and all-consuming. It's called guilt. There is no remedy, although you'll convince yourself that every other parent has found one. When you feed your kids sausages, you know that every other mother is serving organic ragout. When you terrorise them for tardiness on school days, you know that every other mother is cheerfully diffusing tension with a sing-along. Other mothers never shout at their children, never feed them cheese strings, never leave their bed sheets on for five weeks and never harry them from the house so t