Saturday, 21 February 2009

sticks and stones

In the process of writing this account of stay-at-home motherhood I have recently become familiar with a number of new terms.

Since Snooks’ birth I have diligently avoided books on parenting in the belief that no-one else would know better than I what was right for my child. I have also not read many newspapers, simply because they tend to get shredded by my curious offspring faster than I can read.

However,a quick perusal through the recent writings of women of the press, like myself, I learned some new terms, Dummy Mummy, Yummy Mummy and Slummy Mummy.

In the simple 70s, when it all began, when my mum was a mum, being a mother seemed to mean a bit of Watch With Mother, trips to the swimming baths on Saturday and fish-fingers and chips with Doctor Who.

It looked pretty easy and for most women marked the end of their career, or certainly a major change in it.

Now we are faced with many options, none of which is perfect and yet everybody strives for and expects perfection.

Yummy Mummies, I understand, are the ones whose aim is to have a child without letting it impact in any way on their lives. Their bodies, their clothes, their make up, their relationships, their social lives and their careers are all unchanged by this slight bump in the road. They are applauded for resuming their former lives as if nothing had happened.

Dummy Mummies, I learned this week, are those whose life centres around their children, who can talk of nothing else, who cannot listen to a friend talking on a subject other than motherhood and who pity and patronise women who choose not to have children. The name, I assume, implies the stupidity of these women while punning on the image of them as human dummies – an inanimate object whose only purpose is to suckle their child.

From where I am standing, which I hope is in neither of these reductive camps, I fear that we women, in the fight to be emancipated, have burdened ourselves with a Herculean task; to be mothers and hunter/gatherers at the same time.

Sure, for some, it is not matter of choice. But many women choose to pay someone else to look after their child so that they can go back to fight the unequal fight in the workplace to prove that they are what… independent…intelligent … free?

It took me a long time to learn that if I want one thing, something else is going to have to give. It is an enticing goal to be the perfect mother and brilliant high achiever at the same time but not, I fear, a realistic one.

When the Engineer and I decided to have a baby, it was on condition that I would give up work to care for it at home. We had both arrived independently at the same conclusion as a result of our own very different experience, that a child needed its mother.

After staying at home with my three older siblings my mother was desperate to go back to work by the time I came along, and did so part time leaving me for a few hours a week in the care of an assortment of trusted neighbours.

No great harm came to me, unless you count the fact that I remember her leaving and I remember how it felt not knowing if she was ever coming back. And the feeling that she did not want to be with me has lasted to this day.

And if you don’t care what I say then read it in Sue Gerhardt’s excellent book, Why Love Matters. Can anyone really believe that a child is better off being looked after by someone who might, if they are lucky, like them, rather than their own parent? Seriously. And is that trade-off really worth the odd skiing holiday and your highlights redone?

So I gave up my career (for now), my financial independence (isn’t this dependence on a spouse just what we used to call trust?) and my freedom to go out (I’ve been out, a lot) to do the most important job there is, unpaid, unsung (except by the Engineer) and invisible to the world.

Living on one income is hard, but much harder is the intensity of a 24-hour connection with another, very demanding human being. We are not emotionally prepared for this in our drug-numbed society. We shy away from this intimacy. No wonder so many women go back to work.

What this woman wants is some serious discussion about what should be done to help and encourage women to look after their own children; more financial, social and emotional support for parents at home with children.

But most of all I would like not to be belittled for trying to do the best for my son. I believe that having children is a gift, not a right to be exercised to meet our own needs. Having brought my baby into the world - a world which does not need any more children– I owe him my time and attention.

And if you don’t like the sound of that, then you heard it from Larkin first - ‘don’t have any kids yourself’.

Monday, 16 February 2009


I am angry. I have put up with this for 40 years and now something has got to be said.

Dogs. What is it with this country and its love of dogs? I know one of us is suffering from blind devoted loyalty and I don’t think it is our four-legged friends. Well, you can count me out.

Yes, you guessed, I have a terror of dogs, a legacy of the wild hounds which freely roamed the northern suburb in which I grew up.

And yes, we were a cat family, so I come from that side of the divide though I eventually had to defect from the feline fellowship when my allergy to them darn near killed me. (It only took 16 years for my parents to finally accept that it really was me or the cat, after a particularly nasty asthma attack left me unconscious. I think the on-call GP had words).

But I have tried to love dogs , to forgive them for their naughty 70s brothers who chased every child who dared to ride a bike in the street, who terrorised even their own families so that children had to wait outside while the mad pet was pacified enough to let them in and who, worst of all, shat on my Dad’s lawn.

I have patted dogs owned by friends, with whom I have become suitably acquainted to merit such trust (I may or may not trust the friend but absolutely have to trust the dog before such exchanges) and have even come to smile fondly at those on leads, occasionally venturing into a fantasy about Snooks and I one day taking some pooch out for a run by the sea, ears flapping as we bound down the beach …

To this end, I have encouraged Snooks to enjoy dogs, or rather tried to discourage him from inheriting my bad attitude to them, by carrying a woolly mutt sent by his aunt at his birth and christened Barney (ironically after his late grandfather who wanted to shoot all dogs on sight: the lawn, remember) around in the pram as we take our twice daily constitutionals.

However, recently my resolve has weakened in the face of the persistent bad dog behaviour Snooks and I have suffered over the last 11 months.

So it has come to this. I have two plans.

Plan A was hatched last summer when Snooks and his pals were old enough to lie on a picnic rug surrounded by their mothers, but not old enough to sit up, so therefore, vulnerable to anything at ground level.

On one of the, too infrequent summer days, when we got the chance to sit outside with our children for an hour or two on the local common, we were treated to a visit by someone’s errant pet who ran straight onto the rug on which the babies were lying, sniffed around them and our food before being listlessly called away by a woman in Wellington boots.

In response to our alarm and request that she get the animal off our patch as soon as possible she replied, as is often the case ‘Oh, he is very friendly.’

Dog owners, whether your dog is friendly or not is something you may know, but we, the rest of the world, don’t. Also it may be friendly but it is not clean. So keep it away from us and our children.

And I have another question. Why I want to know, do public parks have a part fenced off for humans, where no dogs are allowed rather than a bit fenced off for dogs, leaving the rest of the park for taxpayers and children to roam, free from assault and dogshit?

Plan A therefore was this. I would take one of Snooks’ dirty nappies, which in those days were many, break into the house of such a dog walker, and as she and her family were about to sit down to lunch, smear its contents across the dining table, telling them, as I did, how friendly Snooks is (which indeed, he is).

You think that is a bit too cranky? Wait until you hear Plan B.

Plan B was formed last week when Snooks and I were taking in the wonderful changes to the common winter had brought, enjoying a quiet sandwich as we contemplated the ducks, geese, swans and moorhens navigating the ice on the frozen duck pond. Snooks was fascinated by the birdies walking on water, skidding across the ice for the bread we were throwing from our bag.

Just then I noticed a wolf heading full tilt across the common towards us. Mmmm. You don’t believe me do you? You think I am dogophobe, a hysteric with wild canine imaginings. Wait for it.

When it reached us and stood panting a foot away from Snooks, who, squealing with delight and strapped into his buggy at eye and jaw level, was quite simply fresh meat, I could see all too clearly its blue eyes, large pointy ears and what big teeth you’ve got, grandma.

No doubt it is, allegedly, some tame version of a wolf, which some idiot has decided to welcome into their home and call Patch, but a dog is a dog is a wolf in my story book.

Luckily, or so I thought, two policemen happened to be ambling across the common at the time, vaguely in my direction. They had seen the beast running, heard the owner pointlessly calling it and saw it arrive at our feet, but were apparently not concerned.

By now I was on my feet and did something no amount of money or promises of brief celebrity would ever have made me do in any other circumstances. I stepped towards the dog, putting myself between it and my child, gambling that my guts were a less tasty offering than Snooks’ throat.

At the same time I called over my shoulder to the bobbies to please get the thing or its owner on a very short leash, sharpish.

They were not park police, they told me, and from a safe distance observed that the owner had been trying to call it back for the last ten minutes.

Baring my own teeth a little I remarked that that in itself would seem to demonstrate a lack of control over the beast which was now menacing my infant.

“Is it right,” I asked, “ that a mother and child should not be able to enjoy the park in peace because someone has no control over their dog?”

It is a question I have been wanting to ask someone for the last 40 years.

“The park is for everyone,” the smaller and further away of the coppers replied. I think I probably presented more of a danger to him than the dog did at that moment.

However before I had a chance to breach the peace, Patch, obviously tired with all the chat, let out a long low growl.

This is the second time in my life that I have gone weak at the knees (The first, for the record, and as it is Valentine’s Day today, was when the Engineer proposed. But then we were at 10,000ft so it could have been lack of oxygen) and I think I might have wailed a little.

Big copper stepped towards it and warily waved it in the general direction of its owner, still snarling.

As it seems that the law holds no protection for our children from dangerous dogs - it was later that week that another baby was killed by a pet Staffordshire owned by its grandmother - I came up with plan B, which was to toss pieces of poisoned meat in the direction of any dog that comes, unleashed, too close to me or my child.

Sound harsh?

Ok, so I won’t do it. But I do question a law which allows people to use dangerous animals for ‘protection’ in case someone looks at them the wrong way down the Arndale.

I told you I was angry.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

snow. whatever.

It came as a surprise, how unimpressed Snooks was with snow.

I suppose it could be that he has now seen snow four times in his short 11 months on earth, an average once every three months. That’s a lot. Maybe he thinks he has landed in Alaska, or better still, Narnia.

He has tasted it, been held out of the back door in it wearing only his pyjamas (the Engineer’s idea of a life experience) and, during this last fall, crawled over to touch it, recoiling and turning his back on the glistening landscape to carry on where he left off unpacking the CDs from the CD shelf.

And why should he like it? It is just weather and I don’t tend to haul him out of his cot and run to the window with him to shout ‘Look, clouds!’

However we want children to like snow because, as the Engineer has oft observed, the good thing about having children is the excuse it provides to relive your own childhood, or at least, your fantastical recollection of it.

So like hundreds of other parents last Monday we headed for the nearest open space, dressed like Uncle Bulgaria, pushing our unwilling offspring into the blizzard for the betterment of his personality.

I felt in part responsible for the snow, in a proud sort of way, as it was my birthday the night the snow fell. The same has happened in previous years and it has started to feel personal. I love snow, I do. So that’s good. But I should just apologise to all those people who went out in their cars, against all advice (Why? Why do people do this?) and got stranded.

Motherhood has added a new dimension to contemplation of the elements, however, which I had not anticipated.

During our summer jaunt to the Med where the Engineer and I used to enjoy reading in the sun and late quiet dinners, I found myself instead in a state of heightened vigilance. Was the sun out, was it pointing this way, was Snooks asleep or unconscious from dehydration?

And so it was, that as we drove the short distance to the restaurant my love had chosen to celebrate the eve of my birthday, the question entered my head, ‘How would I keep Snooks alive if we broke down and could not start the engine and so had no heat for a long time?’

I was not sure how this could happen, particularly on a five minute journey through south London. However, instincts pay no heed to time and geography.

Plus, for the occasion, I was, for once, not dressed as Uncle Bulgaria, but was wearing girly suede birthday shoes, a flimsy organza skirt and a thin velvet coat – not the gear for trudging the frozen wasteland, searching for light and warmth with a shivering babe pressed to one’s breast.

There is no blanket in the car, I cursed to myself. I can’t protect him.

Out of interest I decided to put it to the Engineer, just in case it turned out he had some hunter/gatherer plan for such an eventuality.

“What would I do if we were stranded in the snow and I had no way of keeping Snooks warm?” I said.

“Shoot a caribou and climb inside,” he answered, without a breath.

We were pulling into the car park of the restaurant, so there was little time to ask the many questions this answer raised.

“I don’t even know what a caribou is,” I started.

“Me neither.”

Fortunately we managed to make the treacherous return journey a few hours later without incident, though it did involve a detour to Sainsburys to buy a missing birthday cake.

“Get a peach crumble,” the Engineer offered, as I stepped out of the warm car onto the store’s slithery tarmac car park in my delicate shoes and thin coat.

I have also never heard of peach crumble and added this to my mental file of ‘Strange Kiwi Ways’ as I hunted down a chocolate cake big enough to hold 44 candles.

By the time we got home Snooks had fallen asleep and the Engineer employed his great talent for removing 18 layers of clothing from a sleeping child and getting him into pyjamas and a cot without waking him up, while I gazed at the drift building up at our back door … and hoped we were stranded.

We could live on chocolate cake for the next few days at least.