Monday, 27 July 2009

future perfect

It is one of those irritating things that people do with babies - to predict their occupation.

These career forecasts are usually based on the flimsiest of evidence – he can hold a crayon; an artist! He likes aeroplanes; a pilot!

But I confess, I am the worst for this. I do it all the time and in that moment, I seriously consider whether this is the right direction for Snooks. At 16 months, I think he should be keeping his options open.

Perhaps it is all part of being a parent – the desire to find the perfect path and steer our young ones along it. But it’s a fool’s errand. Not to mention, deeply unfair on the child.

I try to keep this in mind as the image of Snooks on stage at the Albert Hall, bowing to an ecstatic audience, violin and bow in hand, swims before my eyes.

I mentioned this vision once to a friend who actually plays the violin and her response was “God don’t do that to him – make him into the nerd who carries a violin to school every day.”

Then I worried about the dangers of celebrity – the treatment by the press, the detachment from the real world, the awful come down when the star fades - and decided it would be better to be unsung, quietly excelling at something, out of the public eye.

After watching a programme about some guys who followed some fish around the Pacific Ocean for three months waiting for the right moment to film them, I started leaning towards marine biologist – so long as he came home once in a while to see his mama.

Passing strangers also feel free to tell Snooks’ fortune, a number of whom have taken one look at him and announced he is bound for the silver screen. Glossy golden locks and a well-timed smile seem to qualify him for the role.

Another favourite is professional footballer. This probably tops the poll of vox pop forecasts. One woman even went so far as to remark, “Well that’s your pension sorted,” as she watched Snooks dribble her son’s ball across the park.

Snooks’ Godmother, a teacher of many years standing, often bemoans the fact that the many wannabe Beckhams who pass through her hands year after year, could have made very good foremen, had their expectations been a little more realistically managed.

Lucky for Snooks then, that he has parents barely able to name two members of the England team.

And also lucky for him that if you can inherit a sporty gene, it seems you can also carry a desire to know how everything works in your blood – in other words, be a born engineer.

His father, The Engineer, and I discussed whether he could have inherited such a leaning after watching Snooks examine the wheel-base of every buggy he came across, long before he could walk.

Or could we have inadvertently encouraged his technophilia? He did, after all, watch Megastructures once or twice in the first few weeks of his life, when we had all given up on the idea of sleep during the hours of darkness.

More recently he has developed a fascination for motorbikes, something I can definitely say I have not encouraged, having witnessed my mother’s face when my older brother was out late at night on his.

Our journeys to Snooks’ weekly engagements now involve zigzagging across the road to admire parked vehicles of interest on either side. And no, he does not look at the shiny paintwork or the nice leather seat (which are the bits that interest me). I watch his gaze fall lovingly over the cylinders and gearbox, drinking it all in.

Last week, when we finally made it to the local leisure centre’s Toddler Gym, a fabulous space for wheeling hoops and climbing on foam shapes under the supervision of a lovely lady called Alison, I spent half of the morning retrieving Snooks from behind the bouncy castle where he was examining the machinery used to inflate it.

It got worse at the end of the session when Alison gathered us all round for a sing song - all bar Snooks who now wanted to stand on the deflated castle and be told exactly where it had gone.

“He’s going to be an engineer," Alison muttered as we left.

I don’t mind what he does so long as he is happy.

And I finally realise that my parents really did mean that when they said it, all those years ago.

Monday, 20 July 2009

tv or not tv?

It is not exactly a matter of life and death, I know, but the question of what to do about the telly seems to be gaining significance in my world.

You see, I was brought up on a diet of strict BBC, permitted only to fill the gap between my return from school and my mother’s return from work, though this would technically not count as ‘permitted’ as there was simply noone there to object.

Less controversially, telly was allowed after tea (which is dinner for those readers in the south of England) provided any homework had already been done. Never, ever EVER was the television on during a meal.

My mother’s inverted watershed meant no daytime television was allowed at all, which neatly ruled out all the stuff broadcast early on a Saturday morning to give parents a lie in while the kids are in the care of the square baby-sitter.

I can’t complain about that really. I spent most of those mornings on some frozen forgotten sports field anyway, so I would not have been around to tune in, even if the television had not been deemed the cause of the country’s gradual slide into sloppy table manners and creeping mispronunciation of the word ‘controversy.’

It simply meant I had to busk my way through playground chat about Tiswas and Swap Shop both of which I have yet to see, and try to keep calm when, the morning after a sleepover at a friend’s house, we ate breakfast on our knees in front of something called Shang-A-Lang.

Before Snooks was born, I read a newspaper article about a new children’s programme, which was exceptional in its ability to soothe very young children, rather than excite or try to educate them.

The article quoted lots of intelligent, respected voices in praise of the programme for its colour, music, humour and gentleness. It was suitable, they said, even for little babies.

It got me thinking about whether the gogglebox might not deserve its attention-sucking, conversation-killing reputation, but could be quite a useful tool in bringing up a child.

I gave In the Night Garden a trial run before allowing Snooks to see it, recording it and holding a clandestine viewing one night when the Engineer was out. I noticed that the slow pace, the repetition and the retelling of the story at the end meant it was very like reading a story from a book, only with moving pictures. And a proper orchestra playing the music, already. And Derek Jacobi doing the voices. Come on, this is classy.

So, I introduced Snooks to Iggle Piggle when he was around three months old, letting him absorb the colour and music and switching off when he started to turn away.

The programme goes out at 6pm, meant to be the Bedtime Hour but in our house is the Getting the Dinner Ready hour, which provides a perfect wind down at the end of the day for both of us.

These days Snooks sits on the rocking chair I once occupied (wearing my Magic Roundabout t-shirt) for such activities and reels backwards and forwards, yelping and pointing as the action unfolds.

I cook the dinner and follow the story sufficiently to know when Snooks is going to need me to join him in a celebratory whoop that Iggle Piggle has finally got his ball back.

And the Engineer usually returns from work about half way through and accompanies Snooks for the rest of the programme, so that we are all up to speed on the plotlines.

What can be the harm in that?

Well I suppose it is a bit like that other box; knowing it contains something as lovely as In The Night Garden, Snooks now wants to know what else is in there. Mostly, when he gestures to the blank screen, I reach for one of his books on the shelf above it, pretending to misunderstand. But it won’t work for much longer.

Perhaps Pandora’s mum should have just hidden the remote.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

nature nurture

Snooks arrived at one of his regular social slots this week proudly brandishing his latest love – a boy buggy.

Yes I have crossed the toy gender line in spite of the quiet reservation of the Engineer, who blanched when I triumphantly waved the object at him in the Early Learning Centre last week. A sudden run on toy pushchairs in the area had meant that my previous efforts to track one down had failed.

“Do boys have pushchairs?” he whispered, perhaps afraid that the Right-On Mums Brigade were hiding inside the Wendy House and might spring out at any moment.

I had to suppress a smile. This was a serious business. I love how protective he is of Snooks’ masculinity, even at 16 months old. To me it is a given. Snooks could wear pink pompoms and carry a Barbie Doll and he would still be the fiercely raucous little boy that he is.

But it seems that it’s different for Dads.

“Oh yes, very much so. That is why they make them in blue,” I answered, trying to make this sound less silly than it actually is.

I get it, though, and I have bowed to the Engineer’s judgement on previous occasions where he felt our son’s dignity was at stake and where I just saw a little boy being cute.

Aware as I am of the impact of my own upbringing,(see Oh Boy!) I also get that my barometer might not work so well in this climate.

However I am confident that the boy buggy is a Good Thing having watched Snooks hoon about with one in the church halls where they are provided by the many playgroups he attends.

I was also influenced by Steve Biddulph’s observation that boys often miss out on the chance to learn to be caring to others, while girls are automatically handed this role with their first dolly. It may well be that nature provides girls with the instinct to nurture, but maybe we fail to encourage it in our boys.

So, I explain all this to the Engineer, sotto voce for fear of being dragged into the Wendy House by the Right-On Mum’s Brigade myself, and we buy the thing.

Nodding to his father’s fears, I stop short of mentioning the need for the required dolly on whom Snooks could dote, mentally assigning Clairebear, who is currently residing unemployed on our bedding chest, to the job.

At home, Snooks watched attentively as I put his old sunhat on the bear's head explaining how we needed to protect her from the hot sun before he take her for a walk outside. At first, he took a step away to observe from a distance, little hands clasped together, before grabbing the buggy handles and taking off down the hallway. I catch up with him just in time to see him drive the wheels over the bear’s head and race outside.

Other mums have reported mixed results from similar attempts to follow Steve’s advice. After seeing Snooks proudly parading his buggy this week, one friend hurried off to buy a dolly for her son of a similar age. She later told me how, on the way home, she inadvertently dropped it under a truck and then, having retraced her steps and rescued it from the roadside, she proceeded to poke her finger into its eye socket to retrieve a dislocated eyeball, while her curious little boy looked on.

I doubt Steve would be impressed with either of us (though I am not sure he is a big fan of women at all, to be honest) but then I don’t think Snooks will learn everything he needs to know about love from a buggy, any more than I learn all I need to know about motherhood from a book.

My decisions about how to raise Snooks arise out of what I read, what I hear from talking to other parents and what I know from mine and the Engineer’s own experience.

And from this, I know that his ability to love another person depends on his attachment to me now. And for that attachment to be secure he needs to trust me to meet his needs. No toys required.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


A slim magazine published by a major nappy manufacturer plopped through our letterbox this week, addressed to me.

‘Dear Mum’, it began, ‘You are probably getting used to being called mummy now.’

Wrong. Snooks resolutely refuses to name me. I am simply there, at the end of his outstretched arms. He does say quite a few other words though – ball (or balle - see say quoi), boat, bear, cheese, helicopter (actually perkeperkopter – very onomatopoeic) and car.

However, having binned the first 14 months’ of unsolicited mail from this company, including, I gather, quite a few handy coupons which I know it is the destiny of all mothers to collect, this time I read on

Perhaps tiredness had weakened my resolve. A 5.30am to 8.30pm working day can do that to ya. And it is not that I don’t think the nappy makers might have something useful to say, I just hate being forced to read it.

So anyway I started to flick through the pages, noting the subheads – Terrible Tantrums, Do Dads Have Different Rules? – and was hooked.

After tearing out the coupons, I settled down in front of the Wimbledon women’s doubles final, holding Snooks with one hand as he stood atop the coffee table about to step off into thin air and clasping the mag in the other.

(Anyone who doubts women’s ability to multi-task should watch a mother at home with children. Now that’s a transferable skill worth noting.)

It tells me that at 16 months old our Snooks is learning a sense of self, of his own distinct identity. For a long time, Snooks has enjoyed long sessions in front of our full-length bedroom mirror, smiling, crying, walking away and turning round to see himself and cuddling Clairebear. But it would appear only now is he able to understand that the image is himself.

Along with this realisation, I read, comes self-will and the need to express it. Wanting things his way is part of asserting his newfound identity. The fury at being denied therefore (i.e. a tantrum) is understandable. It all makes sense and comes as a relief.

Watching Snooks run from one end of the room to the other to bang both fists on the toy box lid because I would not let him play with the scissors was becoming a rather alarming daily event.

Frustration at not being understood also accounts for the outbursts, the booklet says. Once he can communicate better, this will ease.

Snooks and I already manage some kind of communication though it often arises from a lot of pointing (him) and holding up objects saying ‘this’ (me) until peace is restored. But I do cherish the thought that soon he will be able to talk to me and say what he needs. I am curious to know what is going on inside that lively little brain of his.

Even when we do fight (of course I bring my personality to the party too), we usually manage to reconcile pretty quickly.

I read, with some degree of smugness, that I have already instinctively instituted the recommended hug after a barney, which soothes me just as much as it does the boy. Long before Snooks was born, I vowed to myself that this would be a family which would know how to apologise to each other; there would be no fighting to the death in this house.

Also I was told by one of the many wise women of my acquaintance, when I tearfully confided to her that I had shouted at Snooks, to remember that this was a relationship, like any other. It ebbs and flows. And it grows.

Although signs of Snooks’ very individual personality have long been evident, it is only in recent months that I have begun to fully grasp that he is an entirely separate person from me.

I know this sounds odd but it has been hard to comprehend that he may be quite different to me: he may like beetroot and soft-centred chocolates; he may be more confident than I am; he may be more intelligent, or who knows, he may even be good at art.

Obviously I know objectively that he is his own man and let us not forget the fact that he is at least half Engineer.

But the truth is that this sense, this feeling of separation of self may be a little slower coming for me.

I wonder if the nappy makers have got anything useful to say about that.