Friday, 30 December 2011

making space

I have just dispatched the Engineer and Snooks on a mission designed to keep them out for an hour or two so that I can do this … whatever this is.

It started off as a record for Snooks of his early years so that when he grows older he can see how it all began. Me, I had to guess.

But it has also come to provide a lacuna for me in which to observe and reflect on the tidal wave of my daily life, which is how being Snooks’ mother feels.

I understand that ‘spirited’ toddlers often turn into charming teenagers, the theory being that god only sends you one tsunami per child. The Engineer recently showed me a string on Mumsnet of fraught mothers of untenable three-year-olds delighted to have found each other.

Yesterday as we left a restaurant where we had lunched with a bachelor friend of ours, I commended Snooks on his good behaviour.

I caught the look of astonishment on the friend’s face. Snooks had shouted demands for beans on toast, banged his cutlery on his plate, wolfed his lunch and then vanished up the stairs to the Residents Only lounge just as the main course arrived. He finally settled with a toy tractor prostrate in the doorway where both customers and staff had to step over him to enter and leave the dining room. But for us this was pretty much exemplary behaviour. I know, to some – mainly Jo Frosters and people with daughters – it sounds cowardly. Another person recently told me that I had to ‘break his will’ before revealing that his own will-breaking, paragon-making parenting had been done with the help of a wooden spoon. But the truth is, I don’t expect Snooks to sit quietly at a table while adults eat and talk. I think it would be unnatural for a three- year-old to do so. Consequently, on the whole, we don’t eat in restaurants.

Anyway the mission, which I dreamed up in the early hours as my brain rummaged around trying to create a snow-hole for myself (from tsunami to avalanche – it’s that time of year isn’t it?) comprises two parts; Part One – to take Snooks’ buggy to the dump and hurl it onto a pile of junk. Trust me, it is for the best. It has no brake, it was an emergency charity shop buy when the last one’s brake fell off, and most of all, he hates it. Plus it frees up room in the shed for – you know what – the beloved skateboard which Santa was crazy enough to bring despite warnings about the many broken bones likely to occur as a result. Out with the old (babyish, restrictive, dull) in with the new (grown up, unrestrictive and very, very cool), and all that.

Part Two continued the theme. Clutched in his hand, as I waved them off, was a little brown purse shaped like a dog containing a large chocolate gold coin and a real, slightly battered genuine five pound note. I had to stop Snooks tossing away the real cash as he struggled to get to the chocolate but managed to explain that the readies had been sent to him by a clever kind auntie to spend on something he chose. (The Engineer and I had discussed the likely obstacles to this mission such as wanting to buy a drum kit – his latest obsession - and we had agreed that the purchase should roughly fall within his budget as our responsibility in the current economic climate was to teach him all that stuff about coats and cloth. Plus it is actually more fun that way). So off they went leaving me here in the house alone to reflect on how it all went.

I think he loved it. I am not sure he believes in Santa but went along with the whole thing for our sakes; he shouted out ‘This is a waste of time’ during Christmas Day Mass to which most of the children in the congregation gave a silent Amen; he was as excited about giving his Daddy a present as he was about opening his own; he has walked by the sea twice - once on the south coast and once on the east coast - since Christmas Day and wanted to go in both times; he has gnawed the head of a chocolate Santa but otherwise survived largely on a diet of yoghurt and toast since Christmas Eve and he charmed the Regent Street shoppers with his Santa-hat clad rendition of ‘All I Want for Christmas Is Toys’ during our trip to see the lights.

Not surprisingly the excitement of the build up to Christmas may have somewhat overtaken the reality of day, which after all amounts to some new stuff, some treats to eat and very little sleep, leaving a void where the all the twinkly magic is supposed to be.

But enough about me. Snooks took it all in his stride and is gliding into 2012 with no elbow pads, no buggy and his first taste of financial independence.

Bring it on.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

a christmas story

And so this is Christmas.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to quote the whole song. But we are finally there and it does rather chime with the theme of this post, which has been ringing in my head for a few days now.

It began with a knock at the door (as stories so often do) just as Snooks and I were leaving for our regular afternoon ‘play and tea’ date with his best friend. For ‘play’ read ‘Snooks tormenting the friend for whom his love is so great he cannot find words and so uses pummelling and bear hugs’ and for ‘tea’ read ‘other children eating while Snooks uses free reign of house to explore areas officially off limits, like the shower’. Eating is for sissies.

So we opened the door, arms full, coats on, to find a young woman standing there, well dressed, all in black wringing her gloved hands and clearly very cold.

“Hi, this is so embarrassing and not a way to meet your neighbours but I live at number 171 and ….”

She wanted money. I had never seen her before. The address she gave existed but was too far down the street to be known to me. Her meter had run out. She had two sons at home. She needed the cash until her partner returned that night and she would return it. She had a gadget in her hand, which apparently played some part in the story. I had stopped listening by then as it was academic. I had no way of knowing if she was telling the truth and the chances were, she wasn’t. But she looked cold. I noticed that for a well-spoken, well-dressed woman, she was very thin under her coat and one of the teeth at the front of her mouth was missing. She was doing well to talk without letting it show.

I sighed and looked at Snookie who was in my arms. We were clearly on our way out, which meant she also knew the house was about to be vacated. I sat him down on the stairs and reached for my purse, making sure that I stood between him and the doorway. My greatest fear at that moment was that someone might charge into the house and terrify him.

“What are you doing mummy?” he asked.

“I am giving this lady some money,” I replied.


“Because she says her little boys are cold and she needs it to keep them warm,” I said.

As I turned back to her she smiled and held out her hand to shake mine.

“My name is Rebecca. I will bring it back around 9pm tonight, unless that is too late?”

I shook her hand. She seemed so nice. I really wanted to believe her. I asked who was looking after her sons while she was going door to door. She said one was 15 and very responsible.

On our way to the friend’s house I explained to Snooks what had happened.

“I did not know whether the lady was telling the truth so I decided to trust her,” I told him. “Let us hope I was right.”

By the next morning I felt far more upset than I had expected. I had so wanted Snooks to see that even in London, we can live as a community, instead of in isolated, frightened units.

The woman from the Met to whom I spoke on the phone that morning made no attempt to disguise her scorn.

“You gave her money. She has not committed a crime,” she told me and suggested I knock on number 171 and ask for it back.

I took Snooks with me, hoping that Rebecca might open the door and her 15- year-old responsible son might wish us a Happy Christmas.

Instead a different woman peered around the front door and shook her head. She thought I should try round the corner where some other people of the same racial origin as Rebecca lived.

Last year, on Christmas Eve, Snooks and I were in Starbucks enjoying a hot chocolate and babychino when a rather grimy looking old fella carrying two huge carrier bags of canned food asked if I could help him find a seat. He was blind and wearing a military medal on his coat. I bought him a cup of tea and Snooks and I listened to his stories about the war for a while before wishing him a Happy Christmas and going on our merry way. The thought crossed my mind as we left that he may whip off the dark glasses and drive himself home to a sherry by the fire, but I doubted it.

The Christmas before that, our first with Snooks, our tree was decorated with lights borrowed from a friend whose kindness hauled me out of a disappointment so deep I could not see daylight, after the Engineer’s employment ended without notice, through no fault of his, on the 19th of December just as my dream of a family Christmas was about to come true.

I know it’s all very It’s A Wonderful Life but I can’t help seeing a common thread in these Christmas stories and its one which helped me feel better about Rebecca.

After we left number 171 I explained to Snooks that unfortunately it seemed Rebecca had told us a lie and she did not live there and was not going to give us our money back

“Will the police tell her off for being naughty?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “we are not going to tell them about her. She has been really naughty because she has stolen some money from us. But I think she must have needed it very badly so let’s just hope that one day, when she is feeling better, she will come and find us and give it back. You never know.”

Happy Christmas one and all.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

wondrous star

I knew this day would come – the day when Snooks starts to ask questions to which he really needs an answer and to which I don’t really have one.

I know these questions generally centre around two topics – sex and religion. And that the really important thing is not to laugh or say “Go ask your father.” (Or, as Woody Allen’s father does in Hannah and Her Sisters when he asks him about the coexistence of God and evil, shout, “How do I know why there were Nazis; I can’t even work the can opener!”)

We have not had many in the sex department yet. His gender referencing so far seems to extend only to ‘girls wear pink’ (which is largely true these days) and the possession or not of willies. Other than that he is gender blind. His love, his kisses and his passion for rubbing bare tummies apply to all regardless of age, race, creed, gender or sexual orientation.

But God and especially Jesus have been making their presence felt this week provoking some of those unanswerable questions parents get from their younger children at this time of year.

The best for us came last Sunday as we were invited to accompany some friends to their church carol service - an offer we accepted readily as their open, modern church has a far more child-friendly event than the ones I am used to with the left footers. Also we are very fond of the friends whose two daughters do a great pair of angels in the nativity scene and kindly posed for a photo with Snooks; they gloriously decked out in silvery white dresses, wings and tinsel halos and Snooks in his Parka and a borrowed crown.

All was going well, even when Snooks became so inspired that he stormed the stage, still wearing the crown and parka to throw all his best shapes to Away in a Manger.

No one seemed to mind – silent thanks to these parents whose children had rehearsed the songs only to have their view blocked by our little Mod King – and Snooks was so exhilarated by it all that I thought he might want to sign up there and then.

However, standing back safely between the Engineer and I for a ‘non-dancing’ O Little Town of Bethlehem he turned to me and shouted loudly enough to be heard above the “How Silently How silently …” singing, “Is This True?” in his clearest most incredulous voice.

As I simply guffawed he looked to the Engineer who looked back at me in panic as he asked the same question “Is it true Daddy?”

You may remember my dilemma two years ago when I suffered a complete collapse of faith just before Christmas only to have it restored by Whitney Houston on January 5th as we were taking all the decorations down.

I got away with it that time as Snooks was too young to notice but this year I knew I had to make that leap if all this tinsel and baubles and presents and trees are to have any meaning beyond a winter party and shopkeeper’s heaven. Not to mention that we might be applying for a place at a Catholic primary school next year so we need all the gospel references we can get.

“Oh yes it’s all true,” I shrieked, trying not to sound like a pantomime dame, and beaming confidently at him.

Snooks still looked a bit sceptical but did not let this stop him returning to the stage for the finale where his hip-swinging samba moves came in handy for a Caribbean style carol, which rounded off the service.

Even as we left and I stopped to talk to a mum who had a newish baby in a carrycot beside her, when Snooks asked “Is that Jesus?” and I replied “No he’s called Rudy”, he seemed to take it all in his stride.

By the time his own school ‘show’ came along yesterday he seemed more comfortable with the facts of the nativity (though his version will now always include a knitting scene, as the clickety clack of the needles Mary used to make a blanket for the babe was clearly the bit that captured his interest most) but he did want to know why I did not call him ‘Lord’ just as Jesus was called ‘Lord’ for being so special.

I watched with astonished pride as all the little three-year-old tots sat for half an hour on the stage in front of the flashing cameras of their tearful parents, without a murmur.

Snooks remained mute, despite knowing the songs, taking in the sight of the hushed audience and mouthing the word ‘mummy’ when he caught sight of me, until the very end when he joined in with Away in a Manger, the only number the nursery children had not rehearsed, his teacher later pointed out.

Diminutive and blonde, wearing his red school jumper underneath the white tunic with red tinsel collar, he looked like a Kings chorister in the making – or like my brother, holding the Communion plate, sometime in the later 1960s.

At the end the headmaster walked over and spoke directly to Snooks, clearly asking him a question, to which he firstly employed his right to remain silent in case it incriminate him, and then finally uttered a few words.

From where I was sitting, craning my neck to see around the telephoto lens of the mother in front of me, I could not make out what he was saying.

All I can do is pray that it went along the lines of this: “My name is Snooks O Hara and I can sing like an angel, add up, speak in similes and kick a football pretty well. I will help keep up your SATS and promise not to run in the corridor if you let me in next September.”

Of course we all know it’s down to the catchment area but hey, miracles do happen.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

all that glisters

Today I opened the advent calendar window. I am glad I did as this date marks a number of anniversaries for me – one about food (a year at goal weight), one about drink (10 without alcohol) and one about John Lennon (31 - can you believe it?).

Snooks has already lost interest in the calendar, figuring that anything over One Day To Go is too much to think about. His love affair with numbers goes on all right. Last night I got him to eat a whole bowl of spaghetti by letting him run to the microwave between mouthfuls to read off the time on the clock. The passing of each minute meant another morsel of Hidden Vegetable Bolognese passed his lips affording me the satisfaction only a mother knows at seeing her offspring ingest good homemade nutrition

But his Christmas exuberance has moved on now from counting off days. He’s had the tree buying; he’s had the ice-skating. Now, he’s all about the baubles.

We started off with a few admittedly lacklustre ones dredged up from the Engineer’s past, packed away in musty plastic bags in the shed.

Then the two giant ones purchased by Snooks and I last week added a bit of post-noughties glamour to the place.

But Snooks was still not satisfied. After he deemed the tree ‘horrible’ as the baubles were ‘not shiny enough’, I spent a frantic hour last Sunday morning running around the local shopping centre castigating apathetic shop assistants for their overly tasteful selection of xmas fare.

“What, only hand-painted-with-Victorian-skating-scenes baubles? Only muted grey with a dusting of silver? I want shiny, I want plastic, I want a giant snow-globe containing an angel with the word ‘peace’ written in gold glitter on the base.” (Incidentally, if you also want these things, Homebase is your place).

I returned triumphant, if a little puzzled at why the WHSmith assistant standing amid the tinsel and reindeerorama had answered “I doubt it” when I asked if they sold Christmas decorations, bearing two boxes of gold shiny baubles.

But we were not out of the enchanted faery woods yet. During our festive steam train ride in the dark with stars later that day Snooks launched one of the new baubles at the carriage door (he always carries one or two about his person at this time of year) shattering it into tiny lethal shards, which explained why they were £2 a box and not widely available.

Luckily it missed (and hopefully was not aimed at) Santa Claus who had made a surprise visit to our carriage earlier in the trip, kindly handing Snooks a puppy in a bag (not a real one) and a packet of Smarties. I say kindly as unlike the other lucky recipients further down the train we had not booked in for the Santa Special Experience and so were not exactly entitled to accept his gift. However no amount of guilty conscience could bring the Engineer or I to point out to Santa that we had not paid for his services, as this would, after all, have rather ruined the moment.

I have to hand it to St Nick, my attempts to play down his role in our family Christmas mythology have been severely hampered by this event as Snooks witnessed his parents’ utter astonishment as Santa and his two elves tapped on the carriage window asking to come in.

However as we also later witnessed the trio tiptoeing across the track to make their magical appearance in the grotto inconveniently located on the opposite platform, the balance in favour of reality may once again have been righted. We all concluded that this could not be the real Father Christmas as he, clearly, would have been able to fly across on his sleigh.

By Monday night a further 50 shiny, different coloured, non-breakable baubles had been purchased, threaded, thrown around the house and subsequently hung on the tree making ours the shiniest, baubliest most beautiful Christmas tree ever, according to its creative director.

So all we need now is snow, a party and a skateboard for his world to be complete.

Two out of three are already in motion and the third … well come on Santa.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

count up to Christmas

Snooks started the day with this inevitable question.

“Is it Christmas yet?” he whispered as he clambered into the Engineer’s vacated spot in our bed. It was 7am (a lie in!). I congratulate myself on having dragged together sufficient brain cells to come up with a satisfactory reply, allowing me another 10 seconds sleep, without giving him false hope.

“It is the first day of the countdown to Christmas,” I answered, cunningly employing his current numerophilia to make the long unbearable wait – what we used to call Advent – sound like fun.

Snooks’ yuletide excitement (which, after all, is the real reason we all bother to have children) started with our weekly trip yesterday to the supermarket where the giant foil snowflakes and bells dangling from the ceiling filled him with such glee it almost broke my heart.

In fact such was his desperation to get started on the whole downhill sleigh ride to the 25th that by the time we got home I had not only promised to come up with a Christmas tree, decorations, a party, a snowy train ride in the dark with stars and an ice rink by next Monday but we had also purchased two of largest baubles I have ever seen in my life.

To his great credit, Snooks has said very little about toys, presents or Father Christmas. His fascination so far seems to be with the glitteriness of it all – something I too love about the season.

So as he was tucked into bed last night, clutching the larger of the giant baubles to his chest, I promised him that in the morning he could open the first window of the Advent Calendar to mark that Christmas in our house had officially begun.

I realise it is a little early for some tastes and as I snuggled next to him wondering how the Engineer and I were going to manage to fit the train ride/ice rink/tree buying bonanza into one weekend, I thought back to the Christmases of my childhood where the tree only turned up on Christmas Eve, no letters were written to Santa and woolly stockings were something you wore under your jeans for the freezing walk up the hill on Christmas Day.

Our mother had always explained the late start was so that my brother’s birthday on the 18th would not be lost in the pre-Christmas frenzy but I now wonder if perhaps, as two teachers, my parents just had about as much Christmas cheer as they could take during the day at school and wanted to come home to a tinsel-free zone.

As the Engineer returned from the shower to be informed that he was required to go out the shed and find the advent calendar before breakfast, I explained to Snooks what it meant.

“So each day you get to open a window with a number on it which marks the days leading up to Christmas Day which is the 25th. So today is the 1st – which is number one – which means there are 24 days left ….”

This may sound like an intensely dull way to discuss Christmas with an excited three year old but trust me, this was rocking his world. After weeks and weeks of searching for a carrot/stick system to help Snooks grasp the nettle of socialisation, a list of numbers stuck to the fridge specifying what is and is not allowed seemed to do the trick. So long as he gets to put the colourful magnets on the numbers he’ll do all kinds of sharing stuff.

“So,” he interjected, “it’s not a countdown. It’s a count up to Christmas.”

This is the kid who last week insisted on singing “Happy Birth Night to You” to the Engineer as he correctly observed, it was dark by the time the cake and candles were lit for the big occasion.

Stay with us. We’ve got three weeks of this to go yet.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

motherhood and empathy pie

Snooks walked out of school the other day brandishing an apple.

I say brandishing as this shows you exactly how he was carrying it (like an offensive weapon) and Snooks’ attitude toward all fruit (like an offensive weapon).

Delighted to see him holding such a symbol of life and goodness and well-being (except the whole Eve thing), I swelled with pride.

“Ooh what’s that you’ve got?’ I asked, stupidly, but hoping to draw the eyes of the other mums that they may hear his answer which in my excitement I had thought might spell ‘reward for good behaviour’. Stupid.

“An apple,” said Snooks, a little disconsolately, a touch embarrassed, even.

“I know but why have you got it?” (On I went, ever optimistic)

“The teacher gave it to me.” (Oh joy, oh joy, could it be a toy picked up voluntarily, a friend in need helped, even a song sung or story told for the enjoyment of the class…)

Snooks looked at it, frowned a little and said, matter of factly, “I don’t think she wanted it.”

You have got to love him. All my hopes for his having learned to play the system and get the rewards by following a few simple rules vanished in a flash, but my love for this funny little child flooded in.

Apart from his absolute inability to dissemble in order to win credit for himself, he also honestly cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would want fruit.

And then it dawned on me. Empathy. It is one of the few specific occasions I can remember where Snooks has demonstrated his ability to empathise. He put himself in teach’s shoes and thought about why she had given it away. And the answer was clear. Fruit sucks.

A friend hypothesised the other day about the correlation between children role-playing with toys and games and their ability to empathise. We were not sure which came first, those with natural empathy like to role-play or those encouraged to role play developed empathy. Perhaps a bit of both.

It has become fond family joke chez Snooks that when other children come to play, they cast around the room filled with cars, trucks, planes and tractors and ask: “But where are the people?”

Believe me I have tried. Remember back to the early days when Clairebear was snugged into the boy buggy only to be hurled out and run over with the wheels?

We have held tea parties for all the cuddlies where Snooks has peered into his tiny china cup wondering why there was no real food and drink in this joint.

Then came the era of dressing up where I donated half my vintage wardrobe to a box in his room hoping the more lifelike the clothes, the more likely Snooks would be to take part. But after one or two parades around the house wearing my matador–with-roses hat and a fake moustache, he lost interest. Even when I caved in and bought a commercial pirate costume accompanied by a hat, which frankly I am tempted to wear myself, Snooks refuses to act up.

So this, this faint glimmer of recognition about others, their separateness and their feelings heralds the dawn of a new era.

But it comes at a price. During that same week, I witnessed Snooks in an encounter, which also demonstrated his newfound sensitivity to others, though not in a good way.

He and his new school friend had gone to the local park after school as many do and were joined by another older boy who is a long standing friend of Snooks’ school pal.

I thought I had observed a little hostility from the older one when this combination cropped up accidentally once before but had dismissed it as my hypersensitivity to such things.

However there was no mistaking this one. As the boys scooted and the mums chatted my antennae (do you get that thing, where you just know something before it happens?) twitched when I noticed Snooks was lagging uncharacteristically behind the others. As the group moved on, the older boy turned back and walked towards Snooks, who slowly drew to a halt. Snooks is a little under height for his age and this boy is tall for his, and as I saw him stand and tower over my son, my legs started to take me over in their direction. They were in full view of the park so the boy would have been unwise to use his fists. But he did not need to. Whatever he said caused Snooks to dissolve into heaving sobs and cling around my neck the moment I arrived.

Now Snooks is small but pretty tough and I have seen him pushed, hit and even bitten with barely a flinch. So I was fairly sure this was not a physical threat. This he would have brushed off or offered similar in return. No this was something else.

“Take me home now!” he shouted, wrapping his legs around me.

I knew there was no point in asking the boy what he had said and when I tried to find out from Snooks he begged me not to ask him about it or tell anyone.

Although what I felt like doing was taking this boy to one side and carrying out some Guantanamo-style interrogation on him until he told me what he had said, I decided to grant Snooks his wish to get the hell out of there.

But as we were heading for the gate I noticed the boys returning some balloons they had been playing with to another child who had brought them to the park and remembered that Snooks did not have one.

Out of earshot I gently asked Snooks whether he had wanted a balloon to play with and was that the problem.

“I want to go to the party,” he sobbed sadly into my shoulder.

As we rejoined the mums to say goodbye, the older boy stood behind his looking guiltily up at Snooks.

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” I enunciated clearly to the boy’s mum. “X seems to think someone is having a party but I don’t think that is so, is it?” I asked turning my best steely gaze on the boy. It was a gamble, but I knew the balloons had been brought to the park by a child who was new to the area and did not know anybody. I knew this because his mother had asked me if Snooks would play with him.

“Is there a party?” she asked him.

“No,” he muttered.

“There is no party is there?” I asked him in a way which I hoped said: “You do that to my son again and you have me to deal with,” and we left it at that.

Snooks eventually recovered though it took longer than any other pain he has encountered yet in his life. I did my best to help him through explaining that not everyone would be nice to him and cashing in on the opportunity to remind him how important it was to be kind to others.

Empathy. Like fruit. It sucks.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

fair play

Snooks is having a day off.

He’s had a few days off recently. The realisation that school is a chore for him, even though he has come to accept its inevitability, softened my resolve on this.

Mums seem to split into two camps. One says ‘give ‘em an inch…’ and the other says ‘they are only three’. I leaned towards the former at first, after the painful battle we had to get Snooks to go to school at all, not wanting to have to repeat the nightmare every other week.

But from the slim shreds of information I have gleaned about Snooks’ time inside those four walls the picture I have built up is that he is bored, he plays mostly alone and his high spot is finding a particular car which he plays with pretty much from the moment he arrives until he goes home.

A little concerned at his apparent solitude I asked a member of staff how he was getting on.

“Oh he is doing really well, so well I don’t really notice him anymore,” she said. In other words, he has stopped causing trouble; Good. And he had dropped under the radar; Bad.

It actually made me more sad than when he was rolling around kicking out in fury at having been left there and having to be attended to much of the time. The thought of him biding his time quietly until I came to take him home horrified me.

So that, combined with a bit of a sniffly nose, has earned him a couple of days at home with me. And on these days, this little boy had played happily for hours with and without me, helped to tidy up, eaten his dinner and been, more or less, an exemplary child. More or less.

The experience has reassured me that Snooks is able follow instructions and so is perhaps not suffering a behavioural malady which compels him to reject social contact and all authority.

He just does not want to.

His dilemma seems to be that he wants to play with other children but cannot bear that they don’t play the way he likes. He seems unable to compromise on this, even knowing that the price will be not playing with the friend. And he expresses his frustration at this dilemma physically – throwing stuff, pinching and biting.

One morning this week we ended up at a playgroup for much younger children where one or two toddlers were pottering about in a warm snug hut with three or four toys. There were two paid council childcare staff on hand to play with the tots and support the mums. This is a far cry from the playgroups Snooks and I attended, which were a free-for-all in a church hall where one stern old lady oversaw a scrum for the pile of battered old toys.

We were dropping off a toy borrowed from the Toy Library when Snooks caught sight of a train set and sat down to play with it.

I faced my own dilemma; take him away from the contact with others because he finds it difficult and deprive him of the chance to play in this nice peaceful place, or suck it and see.

Paying the Ayatollah’s ransom it cost for an hour of such exclusive access to the council’s facilities, I sat down to push the car round the track while Snooks made the train go, acting out his favourite ‘near miss at the level crossing’ game over and over again.

However, as often happens when Snooks and I play together in public, another child came over to join in, fatally grabbling the train Snooks was pushing around.

As Snooks grabbed it back and threw a left hook catching the younger boy on the back, a smaller child crawled over and pulled up the track before his mother could stop him. Snooks lost his temper completely and I had to hold him back as he screamed in fury. Both mothers pulled their children away, staring at Snooks with mutterings about ‘having a go when he has finished’.

I let out a big sigh here. I used to regularly rescue Snooks from aggressive older boys at playgroups and feel furious that the mothers of these children did not jump in to stop them hurting him. Now here was mine, lashing out, out of control, unacceptable.

Except. Now I cannot condone the violence. But Snooks was playing with the train and the children came and ruined his game. Is that fair? Would you like it if a stranger walked over to you in the middle of a tennis match, took your racquet and shouted ‘my turn’?

Sure the toys are for sharing but does that necessitate tandem playing? If the children wanted a turn, could their mothers not have asked and explained to them they had to wait. Am I wrong here people?

By the time they did ask Snooks was enraged and indignant about being dragged away from the toy. He, somewhat understandably, refused point blank to share it with anyone.

Also to add to the confusion, we had agreed with the library lady that we would borrow the train set and so in Snooks’ mind it had become, temporarily, his.

After he had calmed down, the library lady cleared the air suggesting that if Snooks shared the train with the others now, he could take it home afterwards.

As he silently resumed playing, ignoring her, the other helper slid across the floor on her belly and lay down next to the track looking up at him.

“Hi, I’m Nicky,” she said.

Within 15 minutes she had persuaded Snooks to: apologise to me for hitting me and ‘making me sad’, exchange names, ages and a high five with her, relinquish the train set and perform a full rendition of the song Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Snooks then voluntarily handed out cars to the two other children, inviting them to come and join him in a new game of sliding them down a track while counting how long it took for each one to get down.

“The single one takes four seconds and the linked one takes five seconds,” he told Nicky.

During this same 15 minutes Nicky and I had also conducted a silently mouthed conversation, which went something like this.

Me: “He loves other children but cannot seem to play with them.”

Her: “He needs to learn to share. What is his nursery’s plan for him and what does his keyworker say?”

Me: “His what now?”

I am précising but she pulled a shock horror face about now.

By the time we left, the other mothers were smiling and had intimated that they thought he was a genius.

Nicky had also told me some stuff; how he could learn to express anger appropriately (by throwing soft toys), how he could learn to protect his personal space while playing (by raising his hand and saying ‘stop’ rather than lashing out); that his problems playing with other kids stemmed from frustration possibly due to his high intelligence (duh) and that I should change nursery.

What I saw is that Snooks knows exactly what is expected of him. He demonstrated for Nicky, who he clearly warmed to, that he could share very well, when he wants to. He just does not want to.

Would a key worker and a proper care plan make any difference to him?

Snooks loves adult attention having had mine almost exclusively for almost four years and would no doubt enjoy his current nursery more, were it available there. It may be that another nursery would provide this.

But is it what he needs?

Friday, 11 November 2011

safety in numbers

I stood with Snooks this morning in our kitchen and counted to a hundred.

This was not, as you may have expected, a calming down exercise, though come to think of it that is not a bad idea.

It was just for fun. It is Snooks’ quintessential idea of a good time and after we had reached the century he shrieked with joy: “Can we do it again?”

Not for the first time I realise that the hundreds of pounds spent on plastic objects piled up in our dining room could have been put to some other use – like a decent haircut or a nice handbag. The annual negotiation with the Engineer about What To Get Him For Christmas held this week with the usual ‘where do we keep it/how do we afford it?’ caveats could have been much shorter. A calculator, in his pocket, under a tenner.

Snooks’ fascination with numbers has grown up gradually and has not, I might add, been especially encouraged by me. Not that I am against his reading off every door number, published telephone number (you would be amazed how many there are in a walk around the block – estate agent boards, taxi firm numbers, trademen’s vans) and digital clock display, just that I try very hard not to be tempted to push him somewhere he might not really want to go.

I can’t deny, it is tempting. When he first showed some football proficiency, dribbling with ease down our hallway and showing a clear left foot preference I could not help but look up local mini soccer teams and make enquiries about at what age professional clubs start looking for young talent.

Then came the verbal flair and the extraordinary phase when he appeared to be talking in French (see Say Quoi) and performed Frere Jacques for his French-speaking cousin and aunt at the ripe old age of two and three months.

But he’s over all that now. Oh yes he’ll still kick a football on the Common with his best friend and can throw a mini rugby ball over the top of a full size rugby post (thanks to the World Cup All Blacks victory last month which sent Snooks and the Engineer running across the road to the nearby rugby pitch in a post-match frenzy of excitement). But today he is all about the numbers.

My approach has been that so long as he asks I will play numbers with him. We add up on scraps of paper wherever we go, we play “guess the missing number” as we walk down the street where the absence or every other number causes him some concern and we even make the shapes of numbers with our bodies, bringing maths and yoga together in a harmony which seems just right. The latter was inspired by Snooks standing before his father and I with his arms crossed in front of himself shouting “Look, a four!”

And it's not just addition and sequences that turn him on. While visiting the Engineer's place of work recently, Snooks' attention was drawn to the cluster of air conditioning units outside the building which I assumed he had stopped to count. I am used to him counting the objects in his surroundings, a trait which my father had all his life. But this one surprised me. As I eavesdropped on his quiet calculations, I realised he was grouping them into sets, carrying out multiplication and addition at the same time.

"So three twos and two twos makes ten," he whispered to himself.
"Blimey, did you hear that?" I whispered in turn to the Engineer.

I admit, I am proud of his ability. I waver between excitement at where it could lead him if nurtured properly and fear about where it might take him if not.

But a quick squizz on mumsnet the other day revealed I am not alone. I discovered there are other ‘mathsy toddlers’ some of whom have continued to enjoy numbers throughout their childhood without incident and some who got bored at the slow pace at school and suffered.

It is early days for Snooks yet. It may be yet another phase. He seems to develop quickly in some areas and slowly in others, so his peers may well catch up before school starts.

His first few years in education will focus, as the curriculum dictates, on social skills, which, shall we say, could use a little work. By the time he starts maths at school he may well have moved on to something else – like music for instance.

Did I mention we have a piano arriving next week?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

you say potato

Snooks delighted an older lady the other day with a rendition of this Gershwin classic while sitting on a beach at Ryde in the Isle of Wight.

He had begun the song and faltered slightly leading her to mistakenly think that he may not remember all the lyrics to such a grown-up number. So she supplied the next line only for him to sing the whole song more or less word, note and intonation perfect.

At the point where the singer (in our collection, Ella Fitz) relents about calling the whole thing off “For we know we need each other so we better call the calling off off” he turned to me and grinned with a knowing beyond his years.

Snooks’ persistent contrariness has driven me to distraction. I have devoted more hours of thought, reading, weeping and talking to this subject than any other in my lifetime. Even the most elusive exes did not take up this much room in my head. He really does Drive Me Crazy.

So the song has become a fond joke between us, a pressure valve when his defiance in the face of every request is about to blow the roof off.

When I find myself sitting with my three year old, engaged in yet another “but you said/but I said” debate over whether he should get down from the table/brush his teeth/wash his hands/ get dressed/ pick up his toys/ go to bed/ stay in bed/ share/ say sorry/ be quiet or just simply listen, I resort to singing the song. It makes us laugh and it makes the point. And he gets it too.

However, it has changed nothing. First people said it was the house move, he would settle down. Then it was being an only (as my adult ‘only’ friend calls her kind) and nursery would sort it.

Occasionally he will comply, temporarily, if my fury has finally gone beyond his idea of fun (though this is quite a long way) but then he soon resumes his campaign which no stickers, no toys, no chocolates and no threats of punishment can weaken.

I do admire his will and as some have said, when they have run out of any other encouraging remarks to make, it will stand him in good stead later on.

But our current battle has taken me to my limits. My latest action is more reading (How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk) some withdrawing from society to save the stress of fighting in front of friends and some reaching out for help – to the same friends who thankfully understand.

Just as I was beginning to feel resentful of Snooks' constant resistance, I read somewhere that children with such great ‘control issues’ need to be able to let go and let the adults be in charge so that they can get on with being a child. It suddenly made me feel sorry for him again. It spoke to my desire to protect him and made me wonder if for some reason he is afraid to let us steer the ship.

Snooks seems to be afraid of very little. He is not keen on heights, he does not like being alone in the dark (who does?) and he’s never been mad about people pretending to be something else (see clowns, entertainers, face painting, fancy dress costumes, children’s television presenters and anyone who feigns interest in him). But other than that he is pretty much invincible.

But could it be that he is afraid that he is not safe with the Engineer and I at the helm?

If so, I don’t think even the great George and Ira can sort that one out

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

reap what you sow

The Engineer learned a valuable lesson recently while bathing young Snooks.

Our boy, sitting up importantly in the bath, held him with a steady gaze and announced “The seacap lurts waiting to take over on Monday.”

The father was, as you can imagine, somewhat perplexed and his confusion was met with repeated and impatient repetitions: “THE SEA CAP LURTS WAITING TO TAKE OVER ON MONDAY.”

The mystery was solved some days later when the boys were watching a film posted on YouTube which had come up during a search they had made on the subject of hovercrafts, Snookie’s then very best favourite form of transport.

Finding we could pull up YouTube on our telly had opened up our viewing to include snips of just about anything you can think of (and many things you can’t) at the push of a button, which had enabled us to show Snooks the Space Shuttle, Daleks, Peter Paul and Mary singing Marvellous Toy and many many more golden moments from our past, which have enriched his present.

So at the peak of his hovercraft frenzy we had all had the pleasure of hours of hovermania available because of other similarly obsessed little boys now old enough to upload their hover footage on line.

However amongst these clips was a short BBC news item about the last voyage of the cross channel hovercraft when, yes you guessed it, the more profitable catamaran took over, apparently on a Monday.

Snooks’ brain had absorbed the news reporter’s script “The Seacat lurks waiting to take over on Monday,” and redelivered it, slightly mangled but with exactly the same intonation, weeks later.

Well this was all rather amusing and harmless enough (with one stark caveat about not leaving You Tube to scroll even on as innocent a search as hovercrafts. Zombies. S'all I’m sayin’) but you never know when and where this total recall trick is going to happen next.

The worst to date came when he and his new best friend with whom he scoots to and from school stopped to watch the workmen building new classrooms and facilities from which the boys will one day hopefully benefit, and Snooks shouted; “’Aven’t you got any work to do, mate?” as the kind foreman came over to greet them.

I of course understood. I could instantly recognise the distinct Richard-Briers-doing-a-working-class-person accent which Snooks had heard a million times on the CD audio book of Benedict Blathwayt’s the Great Big Little Red Train. I knew where Snooks had got it from but I cannot tell you what made him say it at that moment, a moment in which it uncannily had some meaning, which I know he could never have intended. Standing there in his brand new privileged schoolboy sweater addressing the working man as if he owned the land on which he laboured.

Then in similarly apt circumstances he is wont to bellow, “Idiot! Stupid Grandpa car,” at haplessly witless drivers luckily too sealed into their Ford Orions to hear and who would never know that the rudely offensive wordage belongs not to him or even to me, but to the writers of Disney’s fabulous film, Cars and their marvellous creation, its central character Lightning McQueen.

I did eventually have to issue a YouTube warning to the Engineer after his and Snooks’ secret Saturday searches turned up a string on the American sport of drag car racing that has engulfed Snooks’ imagination in a such giant ball of gasoline-and-adrenalin-fuelled fire, which no amount of good children’s literature and healthy walks on the Common seems able to put out.

Snooks and I spent today at home together. We had planned to visit friends in Greenwich but a combination of ill health and bad weather meant a day inside seemed the best for all concerned.

My friend, who I was sad not to see, told me to sit him in front of the telly and rest. I groaned. I can’t do that. It’s not allowed.

“Listen,” she said, “my son’s first full sentence was ‘And that is the last in the present series’ and look how he turned out.” Her son is a 30-something happily married rather rich Oxbridge graduate with at least two properties in capital cities across the globe. He’s nice too.

I settled Snooks in front of repeat episodes of the wonderful Abney and Teal which I noted somewhere around 4pm had not only brightened his mood but had cheered me up considerably too.

As I put him to bed just now, I whispered to him how when I am falling asleep I sometimes think of the best thing that has happened during the day. I suggested maybe he could think about Abney and Teal floating high above the park on their bubble bouncing around near the clouds and floating through the blue, blue sky.

“Or I could think about crashing dragsters,” he whispered back at me, beaming excitedly in the dark.

Friday, 21 October 2011

icarus he ain't

I played a song for Snooks just now before we left for school and we had a little dance in the dining room.

As we walked along the road he sang the line “You’re gonna reach the sky, fly beautiful child” and then exclaimed to me “but persons (sic) can’t fly!” as if Annie Lennox were a bit delusional and needed a few things explaining to her.

It is a brilliant sunny autumn morning. His corn blonde hair is blowing about his face as he scoots along in his little navy duffle coat and his already-too-short school trousers. His cheeks are a bit rosy from the exertion and he is lost in the moment.

I want to say , “Yes you can.” I have found myself here, on the wrong side of sensible parenting, a few times recently. I just don’t want to tell him how the world really is and yet I know, without a doubt, that it is my job to do so.

When he cried into his dinner one evening in the first weeks of school that he never wanted me to go away from him again, I in turn cried down the phone to my oldest friend: “I cannot bear to take him somewhere he just does not want to go and leave him there.”

She, a school-teacher of 20 years’ experience, and Snooks’ godmother, paused for a moment to draw breath.

“I knew I was going to have this trouble with you,” she said. (Longevity and loyalty have earned the right to come out with stuff like that, just about).
“Listen to me. You are going to have to take him to do things he does not want to do over and over again in his life. That is what being a mother is. That is life and you have to show him how to do it.”

My sister, whose credentials include steering her two charges through some of the toughest terrain I have seen, echoed the sentiment.

“Isn’t it about 97 % of what we do – obligation?” she said.

Another friend, the only person I know who has brought Snooks to heel with a simple look and to whom he is quite devoted, told me the same story.

“When I told my mother I did not want to go to school, she said ‘Ok so long as you are happy,’ and so I didn’t go anymore. I was terrified by that.”

Why has it only just occurred to me that being a good mother to Snooks is going to mean showing him the limits of what he can do?

I had hoped to be the person who pointed him in the direction of his dreams, who encouraged his optimism and belief in himself.

Instead I find my script goes more like; “Yes you have to go to school every day for the next 14 years whether you like it or not; no, persons can’t fly and if you have inherited my eyesight you can rule out training as a pilot too.”

The truth is that moments after singing the line, Snooks suddenly turned tearful and said: “But I don’t want to fly.”

Snooks’ aspirations are far more grounded; his greatest wish at the moment is to be grown up enough to own a watch and drive the car.

He also declares that he now loves school. I can see his delight at having overcome the fear and stepped forward.

So I have learned two things: that I can still encourage his optimism while pointing out the realities and that happiness comes from fulfilment rather than doing just as we please.

No need to clip his wings then, but I might just teach him to navigate

Thursday, 13 October 2011

all hallowed out

Call me old-fashioned (come on, I know you want to) but are the unhappy souls of the dead roaming the earth searching for peace the stuff of parties, dress-up and sweeties for the under 4s? Really?

Last year I managed to body swerve Hallowe’en, steering Snookie away from the hollow-eyed ghoul masks and chocolate coffins, lest he ask, as he surely would, “what’s that mummy?”

How do other mothers explain it all to their offspring? “Well you see the nice pointy hat you are wearing? You would have been burned alive without a fair trial if you had done that a few years ago.”

I know I know. I am taking it all a bit too seriously. Just a bit o’ fun, you say. If you have read my previous posts (true stories) you will know about my issues with Santa too. Maybe I am just a mean old killjoy.

But when you grew up where I did with Pendle on the doorstep and you have had enough crossings over in the family to warrant a tab with Charon, you tend to have a fairly healthy respect for the dead … not to mention independent women with a penchant for potions and black cats.

I just don’t like it. Explaining spirits to Snooks, good or evil, is not a task I treat lightly, and the transformation of the religious feasts of All Saints and All Souls into a national fancy dress party strikes me as, well, downright disrespectful.

We have had to touch on the subject once or twice to explain the whereabouts of his grandparents, the absence of whom his increasing socialisation has brought to his attention.

In lady, I described his first encounter with my mother - or a picture of her in my locket – an encounter which ended with me explaining that she was now in ‘heaven’, a concept Snooks seemed to grasp with little trouble.

Or so I thought until one morning, many months later, as he and I were passing the local prison, a prominent blot on our landscape as it sits along a regular route we take between our old home and our new one, I thought it was time to explain its purpose.

“Do you know what that is?” I asked him as he gazed over the wall at the vast imposing building. “It is a prison. It is where people go when they have been very naughty.”

He nodded soberly, adding with suitable gravitas, “and mummies go when they get old.”

My mind swirled around trying to find the source of this astonishing assertion. Heaven/prison. An easy rookie mistake.

“No, no darling that’s not it. That is heaven - quite a different place…” I gabbled along trying desperately to stretch the two places as far apart in his understanding as it is possible to be.

I decided bigging up heaven was the way forward, but had to take care not to oversell the place, also home to both his grandfathers, to the point where he wanted to visit.

I thought we were out of the woods until just before he started at the nursery he now attends for three hours every day, where unfortunately, due to its high pedigree, one’s personal heritage is likely to be explored and judged by both children and parents alike.

He and I were sitting at the lunch table discussing love. I was answering his question about whom I loved, and had reached “… my mummy and my daddy” when he helpfully interjected, head tilted just enough to show the appropriate degree of sombre sympathy, “… and they are in prison.”

Snooks’ language has been a source of much comment in his short life – the early age at which he spoke his first word(‘books’), his perfect polite grammar, his appropriate use of the conditional mood which has been one of his great party pieces to date and now his delightful ability to rhyme and joke with words thanks largely to Dr Seuss.

But no amount of coaching seems to be able to prevent this one superb malapropism from causing our social downfall.

Oh well, at least we won’t get invited to any Hallowe’en parties.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

new era

I left off with the last post about the time we started to look for a new house, a move which has taken until now, almost two years, to fully accomplish.

Today a letter arrived which finally made legal the work we did on the house when we moved in over a year ago. The letter caused the Engineer to hurrah with relief on the phone.

My hurrah happened earlier today when I dropped Mr Snooks off at the preschool where he started four weeks ago and for the first time I did not have to cajole, con or coerce him into going through the door without me.

It has been a long hard road but I think - dare I say this? - we may have turned a corner.

For the Engineer and I it has been a hassle, a bit stressful, rather tiring, a lot of boring letters and some inconvenience when the builders were here.

But for Snooks, his world has changed overnight, twice.

First came the house move, which he appeared to take in his (two year old) stride until about the time the removal vans left.

Then began the daily and more importantly nightly discussions about the whereabouts of our old home, the neighbours whom Snooks had come to know, the Wedgewood blue walls in his old bedroom and even, god help us, the Green Man.

Not his new big boy bed, nor the lovely bright bedroom with the wide open sky view, nor the garden with space to scoot and play football…not even the novelty stable door in the kitchen were a match for our old cramped place.

By night he was visited by a new terror - the Racing Man – and by day he missed his old friend who no longer lived walking distance away. A few times he reproachfully announced that he was going back to live in his old house.

As the money flooded out, the rain poured in where two Polish builders worked flat out to replace the dingy bathroom and build a dining room with a vista of the 100ft garden for which we had bought the property.

But Snooks was not convinced. The snowman we made together in the garden terrified him peering under my Dad’s hat through the new patio doors from the darkness outside.

Even real fireplace access for Father Christmas, which ticked all my boxes for the M&S style festive family scene, was just another source of angst and had to be barricaded up with a giant Mickey Mouse for safety.

By his third birthday in March, as the bulbs a friend had bought as a house-warming present started to shoot, and his big sister had come to stay in the Racing Man’s room, Snooks started to see some potential in the place and requested his party be held there.

And by summer when the garden filled with roses, scarlet geraniums and lavender; when he was allowed to ‘lawn the lawn’ with Daddy and paint the fence with water; when he could sit at breakfast and observe the squirrels, cats, birds, frog, heron and fox who all visit our garden he announced he liked it here.

And then school started.

When he was born, I said I would stay at home with him for as long as was needed. I wanted him to spend his early years with his mother. I could see no point in buying a fabulous Ferrari and paying someone else to drive it, apart from any benefit he might accrue from the deal.

I did not attend nursery. Nor did anyone I know. My oldest brother did not start school full time until he was six – not because Lancashire in the 1960s was ahead of its time and had adopted the Scandinavian compulsory school age of seven, but because my mother said he was not ready.

When Snooks was six months old, I secured a place for him at a local private nursery as an insurance policy in case I became so unhinged by motherhood (which a friend had described to me as ‘solitary confinement with hard labour’) that I was no longer the best person to care for him. But that day never arrived.

So here we are. At three-and-a-half, he is expected by society to know his please and thank yous, to leave the table only with permission, to wipe his own nose and bum, to tidy up after himself, to play with his peers but not touch them uninvited and to eat, sleep and talk when told to.

And to leave his mum’s arms for the limited attention of three unknown adults and the company of 25 little strangers also wanting that attention, without a fight.

It could make you weep, couldn’t it? And believe me, it has.