No Internal Dialogue…

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

This is a “thought bubble”. It is an illustration depicting thought. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know where you are with your children.  Yesterday, I went to the hairdresser and had my hair coloured and cut.  My new appearance generated a favourable response from the mothers at school, from my friends and from my husband (once I had pointed out that I had done something to my hair – I couldn’t expect him to notice without prompting).  My youngest child just stared at my head as if I had suddenly grown an extra ear or nose, no comment made but I felt the disapproval.  My middle child didn’t notice any change at all, he was much more concerned with some never-ending explanation of why he had got one thing wrong in his maths test.  My eldest child was more observant and didn’t hold back.  “Don’t like it” he said, “preferred it as it was”. I suppose I should be grateful that he a) noticed and b) didn’t use one of his incomprehensible descriptors like “sick” (although would have quite liked “epic” as I have noticed everything is “epic” for him except me).

It got me thinking about filters.  Children are largely devoid of filters.  Thinking before speaking is a skill which is mostly definitely learned and not inherent. One of the delights of being a stay-at-home mother (let’s face it there have be to some bonuses to a grossly under-appreciated job) is never quite knowing what your child is going to say next and just how inappropriate it can be at the most inopportune moment.   This ranges from the excruciatingly embarrassing – “Mummy, why has that woman got a moustache?”whilst standing approximately three feet away and pointing directly,to the downright bizarre such as when my son asked me in a crowded supermarket whether babies were born out of a mother’s mouth…I didn’t really know where to go with that one except to comment that he was on the right lines with orifices but wrong location!

Generally speaking, however, we can laugh off whatever our children say – admittedly when my daughter asks me whether I want a glass of wine with my breakfast in front of a whole hotel dining room it can be hard (have to resort to the ‘I’m a mother = functioning alcoholic’ line). For adults without filters, there is less excuse but it seems to be a remarkably common condition – I call it “no internal dialogue”. We all know people like that and somehow when an adult tells you how it is – especially with regard to personal appearance – it is not quite as endearing as a five year old child.

Not that long ago, I turned up to meet someone for the first time wearing my gym kit – (for regular readers, I had actually been exercising as opposed to just wearing…) – this person on introduction to me said “who’s been eating all the chocolates then?” (frankly, gob-smackingly awful on its own and BTW before you picture me as morbidly obese, I think my friends would agree that this was not really a fair description).  He followed up this little gem, when realising that perhaps he had said something at best inappropriate at worst downright rude, with the immortal line, “I’m so sorry, I thought you were pregnant” (which I most definitely am not). As you can imagine the meeting was nothing short of excruciating after that – although I have to admit to enjoying watching him squirm.

So let’s enjoy all the wonderful, bizarre, sometimes inappropriate things our children come out with and for those of you without any “internal dialogue”, engage brain before mouth.

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Perceptions

English: Beko Washing Machine. Türkçe: Beko Ça...

English: Beko Washing Machine. Türkçe: Beko Çamaşır Makinesi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I was in any doubt as to what my children think of me then my daughter has put me entirely straight on the matter.  Aged 4 she has become rather obsessed with the bigger questions in life – how do we die? When do we die?  Where do we go when we die?  I have tried my best to answer her questions in a way she would understand, reassuring her without looking totally clueless.  However, it would appear that her concerns were slightly more mundane – nodding sagely as I told her about the ins and outs of Heaven, she asked “when you die, who will do the laundry?”  If ever a question could bring one crashing down to earth from the contemplation of the esoteric delights of Heaven, then this is it.  My daughter sees me as a washing machine.  Her concerns about me dying are not about losing a loved one but rather focused on who will ensure she has a clean school uniform for Monday.

I would like to say that my sons who are older (and therefore supposedly wiser) can appreciate the finer points of who I am.  This is not the case.  My elder son seems to think that I do nothing all day and his regular accusation is “Mum, you don’t do anything for us”.  I can honestly say that there is hardly anything that I can imagine that my son could say that annoys me more than that particular accusation.  It is guaranteed to send me into a rant about the usual “you don’t know how lucky you are” stuff and an endless list of examples of my activity on his behalf. Rant over, I always ask myself why on earth I felt it necessary to justify my existence to a 9 year old…but I can’t stop myself. My extreme reaction to his statement always bemuses him and my humiliation is complete when he says “it’s ok, mum, no need to get all stressed, I didn’t mean it”.

My middle son is trying to get his head around the fact that I did have a career before I accepted this long-term, badly paid, hideously long hours position of mother.  He asked what I did before I had children and when I told him that I had worked in an office like his father does now, he looked incredulous.  He asked me what my job is now, “Cleaner, taxi driver, cook, children’s social diary co-ordinator” I replied. Incredulous look again. “But when do you do all those jobs?  Do you do them when we are in bed?” he asked. Clearly my description of my current job status did not ring any bells with him at all and I am slightly concerned that he now thinks that when he is tucked up in bed, I am busy driving around the county with a 2 way radio, taxi-ing random people from here to there before returning to cook 40 covers in a restaurant and finishing off with a few hours cleaning. Perception that I was working those sort of hours would at least explain why my daughter recently asked me if I had been 100 years old yet.

Does it bother me that my children perceive me like this?  No, not really, after all this is what I do at the moment, at this stage in our lives. Yes, it would be nice if just once a week, one child picked up a wet towel abandoned on the floor after a bath, folded it and put it back on the towel rail in the bathroom – but I know this is just a pipe dream. Yes, it would be nice if just once a month, one child attempted the highly difficult and dangerous task of placing a plate in the dishwasher – but I know this is beyond all expectations.

What does bother me a little bit more is my own perception of myself as only the sum of these things.  2014 needs to be the year when I put this to rest and strike off “professional procrastinator” from my CV.  Of course I shall continue to be a fairly average cleaner, taxi driver etc for my children, but also this year is my year to start something for myself.  This blog was the start of it for me – this writing lark, and now I’ve got to get out there and do something with it….if only to see the incredulous look on my children’s faces if I do something that surprises them, something that falls outside of my usual job remit!

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Spoilt for choice

Gola

Gola (Photo credit: masochismtango)

Choice, choice and more choice.  Options, options and more options. Life is so complicated nowadays it is a wonder that we are not all completely paralysed with fear of making the wrong choices in even the most simplest areas of our life – what to have for breakfast, what TV channel to watch or what fruit to eat as a snack.  Back in the seventies life was (relatively) simple: take the three things I have just mentioned – breakfast was cereal and/or toast (or croissant on high days and holidays); there were only three TV channels (until the major excitement of Channel 4) and there were only three fruits – apple, orange, banana (and occasionally the very exotic pear) – end of.  Nowadays we have to choose between a million types of potential breakfast items (my daughter almost persuaded me this morning that a sugar-covered donut would be OK on the grounds that it is bread-like and had jam inside); there are so many TV channels that flicking through them all takes the same time as watching the omnibus edition of EastEnders and as for fruit…my children think it is perfectly normal to have mango, kiwi, pomegranate, pineapple and pawpaw and the only person who still eats good old apples and bananas in my household is me.

Although people my age may find the choice available nowadays quite bamboozling, it is perfectly ordinary for our children.  If I were to present my children, for example, with the choice between an apple and a banana, they would almost certainly say “is that it?” They expect choice, they demand choice.  This was very starkly demonstrated to me a while ago when I took a large group of boys aged 7 to a restaurant.  All the boys chose their drinks – variations of coca cola, orange juice and apple juice – until one boy who seemed to have difficulty deciding on what to drink.  I read him the options from the extensive menu and without hesitation he said “No, I don’t want any of those, I think I’ll have an elderflower pressé” – jaw-dropping – without batting an eyelid he rejected a fairly comprehensive list of drinks for a completely different drink which by anyone’s standards sounds slightly strange coming from a 7 year old’s mouth.  Needless to say this child will never be coming for a play date in my house in case he discovers that we only have the clearly inferior “Ribena” on offer.

Take shoes as another example.  When I was young, footwear was very simple  – girls wore flat Mothercare sandals (and I mean flat, totally pancake flat) in the summer, t-bar shoes in the winter (a very lucky few, whom I envied greatly, were allowed patent) and Dunlop Green Flash for sport.  This morning I have been trying to buy my son some trainers – it has so far taken me the best part of an hour online without resolution as I have waded through hundreds upon hundreds of trainers – astro, cross-trainer, running blah, blah, blah. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as a plain simple trainer – in fact you can get any sort of trainer as long as it is not plain and simple.  Of course, neon, flashing, air-pocketed, ankle-supporting, breathable trainers also come at a high price – criminally high price.

Choice has permeated through every single fibre of our lives. Man’s best friend – the dog.  In my childhood, dogs basically came in sizes and colours and if you wanted to get technical they did officially have a breed name. My first dog was quite big and black and white and my second dog was small and brown.  Not today, oh no, no, no. It would be very very amateur to describe dogs by mere colour and size.  Today we have so many new breeds that one could be forgiven for thinking that someone somewhere is having a real  laugh at our expense, creating such preposterous breed names as cockapoo, spanador, labradoodle, shepadoodle and spoodle…..

Ok so I know you are thinking “here she goes again on one of her rants”…but I do actually, unusually for me, have a serious point to make. Not only do I think that all is this choice is frankly bad for our children and contributes greatly to the highly pressurised society in which we live where simplicity doesn’t appear to be an option, but if you stand back for a moment and consider what we have and what so many other people do not have, this level of choice seems at best ridiculous if not totally grotesque.  How wrong is it that we are wasting our lives worrying about whether to have rye bread, pitta bread, multigrain bread, half and half bread when half the world’s population has nothing to eat at all? How wrong is it that a 7 year old is asking for an elderflower pressé when half the world’s population does not have clean drinking water? I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel deeply uneasy and really very uncomfortable.  Our children are not just spoilt for choice, they are spoilt – full stop.  It’s easy to say but I don’t think it is easy to rectify –  some may think that all this choice signifies progress but I am not sure, if anything it is widening the gap between those who have and those who have not and I find this very worrying for future generations.  What do you think?

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Mad Science

Mad scientist

Mad scientist (Photo credit: BWJones)

You know how the saying goes…if you fall off a horse, you’ve got to get straight back on again.  Well, it’s taken me 2 years but I have held another “Mad Science” party for my son’s birthday and I have survived.

Two years ago, this would never have seemed possible.  That party – twelve 7 year old boys in my house (first huge error), one mad scientist and two shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents – ended with me bursting into tears of sheer relief when they all left and only narrowly avoiding an extended stay in The Priory.  The only word I can think to describe that party is apocalyptic – “Lord of the Flies” South-West London style.

It was a seminal moment in my child-rearing – the moment at which we lost total control.  The boys were in charge and it wasn’t pretty. I genuinely think I suffered with a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after that party.  One thing was certain – never ever ever would I hold a child’s birthday party in my house again.  I have kept to that.  The other thing I thought was certain – never ever would I wish to hear the words “mad” and “science” in the same sentence let alone combined with the word “party”. Somehow my resolve weakened on this.

That brings me to today – “Mad Science” party 2.  Not content with twelve 7 year olds, this time I upped the stakes and we had twenty four 7 year olds (all boys), one mad scientist (female) and four potentially shell-shocked, utterly horrified parents (yes, this time, I shared the annual burden of the birthday party).  Before the party, as I contemplated my idiocy in agreeing to endure another two hours of utter hell, I tried to work out what sort of person would choose to endure such a party again at a significant financial cost with absolutely no visible upside.  Clearly, I am a lunatic.

Well I survived and you know what….it wasn’t actually that bad.  Admittedly the memory is already fading at the edges thanks to the indecently large glass of wine that I am currently attacking like some sort of slightly deranged, dehydrated dipsomaniac.  The mad scientist certainly earned her money this afternoon and I am fairly sure she is reconsidering her career choice (she’s just completing her teacher training) after 2 hours with 24 boys, a load of goo, dry ice, bunsen burners, potentially lethal chemicals and a non-launching rocket.  I am also certain that being a mad scientist and spending 2 hours trying to control a roomful of crazed 7 year olds must be one of the most effective forms of contraception on the market.

I know I probably shouldn’t say this but I don’t believe I’m alone – children’s birthday parties are an ordeal, something to be endured, an annual burden.  But they are a necessary rite of passage and I remember (just) the excitement I felt in the build-up to my birthday parties when I was a child. Of course I wouldn’t want to deny my children that excitement and celebration.

Two things bug me though: firstly, children’s parties were simple affairs when I was a child – some games, home-made cake and a party bag full of nothing much.  Nowadays, we are expected to shell-out hundreds of pounds on entertainers or hold our parties in ever more exotic venues, buy in the cake (gone are the days when an 8 inch round with chocolate buttons on it sufficed; no, now kids expect an entire football pitch replete with favourite team and realistic-looking icing turf) and a party bag brimming with the latest must-have toys.

Secondly, “thank you” would go a long way. Not from the kids at the party – they were all very polite; from my own children.  After every party we hold for our children, the conversation goes like this: me: “Did you enjoy your party?”, child: “Yup”, me: “Do you have anything to say?”, child – silence, me: “It would be really nice if you said thank you after all the effort we’ve made”, child “thank you”, me “not now, before would have been good…”

Time to collapse in a post-party heap.  Ticked that box for another year.  Conquered my fear of “Mad Science” parties.  Yes, it has been a good day on the whole.

Your Cabin Crew Will Now Point Out Your Nearest Exits…

airplane in sky

airplane in sky (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Hello, anyone there…?  I’m back.  Have you missed me? Deafening silence…

You probably haven’t noticed but I’ve been away for the last couple of weeks and haven’t been blogging.  Before you get out the bunting, throw street parties and issue special edition stamps to celebrate my return, I don’t want any fuss, any fanfare – I’m a very modest, unassuming person after all – but it would be nice if someone had missed my blogging/whinging/musings about nothing very much at all.

I don’t think it would be fair of me to bang on endlessly about white sand beaches, azure seas, cocktails and all the other holiday clichés.  There all true.  I don’t want to alienate my readers – particularly British readers who have endured the most vile of winters. So instead I thought I would share with you a couple of observations about the ordeal which is “travelling” – that time of huge stress which prefaces the white sand beaches, azure seas etc. I don’t know, maybe you are a cool, calm and collected sort of traveller…not me, despite my best attempts, travelling is always rather an ordeal, a case of the end result justifying the means.

Packing is a skill I still have not mastered after 40 years. It doesn’t seem to be particularly intellectually taxing or require any particular dexterity or co-ordination – I just can’t do it well.

I usually get off to a pretty good, controlled sort of start but as the deadline for departure approaches my packing becomes frenzied, bordering on manic .  I start packing things I could not possibly have any use for, just in case…for example, on this holiday I took not one but two full first aid kits.  Why?  Good question.  What is the likelihood of me needing the entire contents of two full first aid kits on one 10 day holiday? Remote but as I said, just in case…On this holiday I took enough Calpol to administer to an entire children’s hospital – enough to give each of my 3 children a 4-6 hourly dose for the entire 10 days and still only use 1/4 of my supplies – overcatering, perhaps, but just in case…On this holiday, I took 4 jumpers and 4 cardigans, to a place where the temperature at 3am never dips below about 24 degrees.  Why?  Expecting a freak snow storm in the Indian Ocean?  You never know, just in case…

I can only think that this extreme level of preparedness harks from my Brownie Guide days, motto “Be Prepared”.  If only I had known then how much excess baggage this would mean I would be forced to take every time I go away, then I might have reconsidered my promise “To do my best” etc and turned my back on the Brownies while I still could.  So those of you with daughters, consider carefully the potential long term effects of introducing your offspring to the Guiding Movement.

Airports make me behave in a very out-of-character fashion.  I am not a mad shopper normally – I like shopping as much as the next woman but for some bizarre reason airports turning me into some sort of supermarket sweep shopping freak. I feel like I am in a shopping version of “Countdown” – up against the clock, flight leaves in 45 minutes, got to shop, got to shop, got to shop…I find myself considering purchases that I would never even look at the other side of security – a combination, I guess, of tax-free, holiday fever and that old chestnut, preparedness – what if I can’t buy ‘X’ “over there” – ‘X’ usually being something that I would never ever have use for in this country so I have no idea why I feel it might be of use on a 10 day holiday somewhere else.

Finally, time to get on the plane.  Why, please tell me, do people queue at the gate to get on to the plane?  It makes me want to scream – “Weirdos, your seats are pre-allocated, no need to queue at this point.  We’re all going to get on eventually”. I guess this might be a peculiarly British feature – queueing being part of our national identity?

The days of fervently praying that you don’t get the seat next to the crying child are unfortunately a thing of the past for me.  I always get the seat next to the crying child…my child. The first 10 minutes on a plane (assuming you are turning right like me when you get on) are spent apologising…apologising to the poor person who despite their fervent prayers is sitting next to you and your screaming child, apologising to the person sitting in the aisle seat in advance for the number of times you are going to have to climb over them during the flight, apologising for practically knocking a fellow passenger out when attempting to put your bags in the overhead locker, then apologising again for having to climb over the person sitting in the aisle seat in order to reopen the overhead locker and get out the particular Peppa Pig book that your daughter wants right now and only now.

You take off – not before you’ve watched the safety demonstration avidly – as if you have never seen it before.  For me this is complete superstition – I could pass the British Airways safety demonstration test (if there is such a thing) word perfect – but I have this horrible niggle that if I don’t watch it, then this will be the time that I have to perform a complicated passing of the life jacket strings around my waist, securing them in a knot, fully inflating my life jacket (after I have gone down the emergency chute, having removed my high heels (?)), then using the little tube to top up the air before blowing pathetically on my little whistle  (in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean???).  I’m afraid I am also always that person who surreptitiously kicks under the seat just to check my life jacket is there. Goes back to the Brownies again, “Be Prepared”.

Then off you go.  Within 3 minutes of take-off, at least one of my children has already asked me twice “Are we nearly there yet?”. Thank Goodness for inflight entertainment.  I swear my two boys, once settled in front of the screen, did not blink or utter a word for the next 12 hours. I don’t care whether that is bad mothering – flying doesn’t count, anything goes on a plane, survival is all that matters.

Destination reached – fanatical peering out of the plane windows to assess the weather.  Unbelievable, after 12 hours in the air – it’s raining…yes, we’ve travelled several thousand miles, endured so much…to step out into the identical weather we left in the UK, just warmer. Welcome to Paradise…

Those Two Old Friends – Anxiety and Fear

After Dark: Fear

After Dark: Fear (Photo credit: the_exploratorium)

Let me introduce you to two of my closest, long-standing and most loyal “friends”: fear and anxiety. We’ve been “friends” for so many years, I’ve lost count. Like all friendships we have had our ups and downs – sometimes almost unbearably close, other times we have been apart for lengthy periods of time.  In their absence, I have thrived, come out from their shadow.  As comfortable as I think I feel in their presence, fortunately I do have a wide group of other friends which counter their hold over me: humour, a sense of fun (and the ridiculous), determination and happiness.

I know there are millions of us out there who count these two amongst our nearest and (not so) dearest.  Over the years, I have come to understand that it is these two which actually allow me to experience and appreciate their opposites in sharp relief. They have certainly shaped me, but will never define me.  They have given me the ability to empathise with, sympathise with and understand others.  I am a more rounded person because of them.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, I guess, because usually my writing is observational and light-hearted but not everything I observe is like this, life is more complicated, and partly in response to an article I read in The Times at the weekend about how you can deal with a child who worries incessantly, who is anxious, unable to relax.  Not only did I recognise myself as that child, but also similar traits in my own children – particularly my eldest.  It got me thinking…is this a trait peculiar to eldest children?  Does that burden of responsibility that the eldest feels from such an early age allow a burgeoning relationship with anxiety and fear which to different degrees stay with you through childhood and adulthood?

I am not just talking about obvious childhood fears, like monsters under the bed (although needless to say I had an veritable zoo under my bed as a child – snakes, sharks, lions, tigers – you name it, they were there – along with the whole cast of Ghostbusters).  No, I am talking about those more intangible fears – fear of failure, fear of not living up to expectation (largely self-afflicted), fear of the unknown, fear about taking risks.

In my experience, the second child, without the burden of forging the way like the eldest, feels a sense of freedom from responsibility and a freedom to take risks, throw caution to the wind, unencumbered by fear and anxiety.  This is, of course, not to say that fear and anxiety are solely the preserve of the eldest child but in my experience, the eldest is far more cautious and less willing to take risks, more concerned about failure and the “what ifs”.

It will come as no surprise then to you that I am the eldest of three children. My greatest wish for my children is that they do not allow my old “friends”, fear and anxiety, to determine their path in life. To that end, I try very hard not to allow my “friends” to stay in my house very often, especially when the kids are around.

Just because something is familiar, it does not mean it is healthy or not to be challenged.  The old adage of “familiarity breeds contempt” is certainly true as far as my old “friends” are concerned and I am finding as I get older (and wiser?) that I am moving away from this circle of “friends” and embracing my new friends – happiness, laughter and joy – much more.  Now, I’m 40, I am also ready to discover new friendships – success (as I see it) and fulfilment of potential.

I have realised over the year, that just because these two hanger-ons are familiar, that does not equate with being comfortable.  Fear and anxiety are largely self-fabricated and built on no real foundations, just years of being allowed to co-exist.  There is no real substance to them, you can just push them away if you really try. Fear and anxiety in a small measure are part of the human condition but you shouldn’t let them be your “friends”.  Real friends make you feel good about yourself, boost you, laugh with you, cry with you and support you.  Fear and anxiety are impostors – see them for what they really are.  Stand up to them and watch them fade.  Well, that’s my experience and that’s what I shall be telling my children.

Parlez-vous anglais?

French flag

French flag (Photo credit: Nebel)

8 years – that is how many years I learnt French at school. I got an A in my French O’Level. How have I started every conversation on my holiday in France so far? “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame parlez-vous anglais?”

It is utterly pathetic – no other word covers it. Can you imagine a French man or woman approaching me in England and saying “Good morning, do you speak French?” They’d be laughed out of town! So why is it deemed acceptable for me to expect someone to speak a foreign language in their home country just because my grasp of their language is so utterly feeble?

My memory of French speaking at school is confined to passing the dreaded 5 minute French oral component of the French O’Level. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that my 8 years of learning to speak French came down in the final analysis to the moment in my exam when I discovered whether the role play in my French oral would be buying tickets at a railway station or doing the weekly shop in the supermarket.

The emphasis in schools at this time was not on speaking a language but on reading/writing a language. I’ve lost count of the number of fictional French pen pals I wrote letters to over the years in my French lessons. Suffice to say that in my opinion the emphasis was all wrong. What is the point of being able to write a beautiful letter in exquisite French if you can only do an impression of a mute when actually faced with a Frenchman.

It is of course shameful that we, as a nation, have always expected others to speak English and therefore consider language learning as nothing more than a pleasant pastime, nothing to take too seriously as we can always speak English loudly and slowly (and patronisingly) and be understood.

Are things changing nowadays in our schools and more importantly in our national psyche? I can only hope so. My children are exposed to so many more languages than I was in their curriculum – both my sons are currently learning Mandarin – well, this term at least. I really hope that this does not amount to lip service to a variety of languages but results in a generation of children who do not expect English to be spoken by everyone around the world but who feel comfortable expressing themselves in other languages. After all how can you really understand other cultures without some comprehension of the main communication tool – language?

The world is a much smaller place now and the Internet has provided a whole new universal language and also wonderful opportunities for our children to communicate with others across cultural barriers. At school my sons recently skyped with a class of similarly aged children in a Chinese school – what a fantastic communication experience that beats hands down the endless contrived role plays of my language learning experience of the 1980s.