What they don’t tell you…

There are well documented little bits of advice, readily available and regularly offered to the mum with the child starting school for the first time.  You will find them in newspaper articles, magazines and on the TV in the run up to September. Personally, the best piece of wisdom passed to me was to avoid the temptation to buy uniform a few sizes too big for them to grow into, it will probably not even last a term, let alone a year. A brilliant nugget of knowledge only known to those mums who have already started their journey.

I was also told not to not to arrive too early, linger too much at the gate on the first day, not to cry in front of my daughter even if she was bawling her eyes out and to have a support network waiting for me at home if this might be the case.

What no one tells you, what no one told me, and what I am only now finding out three years into my journey, is the dangers of joining the schools parent’s Facebook page.

Yeah sure, it’s the world we live in now, social media has replaced many face to face moments we used to have, it is the new way to brag, the new way to make digs at our closest friends.  It is the new dating game and as I have found out, the new coffee morning for school mums.  The parent’s Facebook page is where it’s at, the coffee might not be literal but the chat is.  And with the level of courage being minimal, being a ‘keyboard warrior’ is a free for all, say what you want to whom you want minefield, not for the faint hearted but certainly for anyone who lacks the backbone to say what they want, face to face.

It starts well, it is pretty much a secret society and it is only from chatting to the right mum, usually one who has an older child in the school so therefore she is already in the club, that you get ‘the invite’.  It is a sign of making it, acceptance, a nod to your belonging.  It is the keys to the door and the reassuring pat on the back.  And after that, then comes the realisation that you now hold the power, that all the other mums standing next to you outside the reception doors are totally oblivious to this new world.  You can tell them about it, it is YOU who can now say ‘I’ll send you an invite’, you have jumped up a level already.

And as with all new clubs, its starts well, it is a place for reminders and requests. ‘Don’t forget its non-school uniform day on Friday’ and ‘has anyone come home with my Jimmy’s PE bag?’ You go in balls deep, as my husband so succinctly coins it, you answer every question, even if it’s just ‘no, we’ve not got Jimmy’s bag’.  After weeks on liking posts and answering questions, you know it’s time.  It’s time to write your own post.  Your kid came home muttering something about money needing to be in for a school trip the next day. Immediate panic, it’s the first you’ve heard of this.  What trip, what money?? And then you know its time.  You know this is the moment, this is your moment.  ‘Does anyone know if the money for the school trip needs to be in tomorrow?’ you ask nervously.  If the letters could be smaller, they would be.

Then you wait.  Ten minutes goes past and no one replies, not even a like.  That’s it.  You thought you’d made it but you were only a number, you are the Facebook equivalent of rent-a-crowd.  There to boost numbers but not to have any input. Then PING. A notification.  You have been answered, it’s a mum you don’t know and she’s nice to you.  She says she thinks its next Friday, and tells you not to panic.

And there it is, you are in.  You can now post willy nilly, you can join in with the masses on other posts knowing you have the endorsement of the rest of the gang.  But don’t get too comfortable; with acceptance often comes a degree of disappointment.  Without the shroud of the unknown we are often disenchanted.  It’s usually nicer not to know what’s in the beautifully wrapped Christmas present under the tree from Aunt Maud, than realise it is an ornament of two dogs kissing under a lamppost which singlehandedly inspired the ‘neither use nor ornament’ saying.

Because now that the level of mystery is gone, now that you are a recognised profile picture and the need to pussy foot around you has gone, people become complacent and the Facebook gloves come off. For a Facebook mums page is actually nothing more than a home for the snidely, bitchy remarks that you cannot get away with saying in a civilised society. A page for reminders and support my arse. Social media is the excuse for an unrefined gang of bullies to go forth and judge.  It is home to the passive aggressive.  It is home to a select group of mums; often grouped together under the guise of the ‘PTA’, as if this alone gives them the platform to criticise.

And once you realise this, you start to see the gangs and the levels.  There are a number of different areas in which they operate.

The ‘rules are rules’ brigade, showcased beautifully the other day when I put up a post about carrying my tiny puppy into the school, which some jobsworth had taken umbrage to and a reminder of the ‘no dogs in the playground rule’ was put in the newsletter.  Replies to my sarcastic apology on the parents page, suggesting a puppy being carried in a few times surely was not the same as me riding a Rottweiler the size of a small horse through the gates, ranged from ‘there can be no exceptions’ to ‘dogs have never been allowed in’.  I imagine a few keyboards were smashed as they realised they had a good post to comment on.  I like to imagine them with smoke coming from their ears, frantically flicking through the ‘immovable school rules written in 1908, must never be flexed’ book for the correct dog clause (pah!). Husbands will get snapped at, kids ignored as they sink into an hours’ worth of judgement.  Perhaps they text fellow PTA mum ‘have you seen the parents page!!!’ Then bang, up she pops, another one joins in.

As it goes, it wasn’t even aimed at me, there was an incident with another dog who had snapped at a mum.  This just fuelled the ‘there must be one rule for everyone just to keep it black and white’ argument. I suggested as sensible adults, life doesn’t always have to be black and white to which there was uproar and I thought yes, now I see, to you life is one or the other, black or white, bad or good.  There is no room for an in between, or colour.  To look outside the box just muddies the waters. The health and safety brigade of the school playground, if you like.

Then there are the ‘your school needs YOU’ gang.  A select group of mums who generally don’t work (and if they do, blimey do they let you know it CAN BE DONE!) who are constantly asking for help.  With reading. With swimming. With walking to church.  I am not sure, but I do believe if you are allowed to post on behalf of the masses asking for such help, you must first have gone to the same school of veiled, patronising, guilt spreading judgement that those before them have graduated from.  (I believe you might find the odd doctors receptionist there, too).

‘Is anyone available to come and help with robot making this week, I’m in every morning all week as I have managed to move my work around/got care for my other children/put myself out more than you’ is a typical request.  The more tolerant among us will say ‘sorry, I can’t, but thank you soooo much for being soooo much better than me at being a mum’ whilst the more cynical will just ignore this dig at our incompetence. Those that can help can’t simply say ‘yes I can help’, they have to tell us how much rearranging had to be done to make it possible.  Prompting a lot of fluffing from the other helpers ‘thank you better mum, so good of you to shuffle your life accordingly, I know how busy you are.’ Just to really hammer it home how shit the rest of us are.

Such mutual back scratching is all in a day’s work for the jobsworth mum.  I have a school of thought on this that might sound quite shocking, indeed if I said it on the post I would no doubt be blocked for the rest of my child’s school years.  But school is my daughter’s world, it is not mine. I don’t want to be in her school all day, any more than she wants me in her school all day.  Number one, I work. Number two, I have a toddler. When I’m not doing number one, I’m looking after number two. Unlike the shuffle mum, I can’t take a morning off to make a robot.  I would lose my job.

There is nothing worse than mums competing against each other, or judging, or making another mum feel they are letting their child down by not being able to help out in their class. I lie, actually there is something worse than this, and it’s all the above thinly veiled in passive aggressive, sugar coated sarcasm. The ‘if we all just went in for half an hour a week’ troop, the ‘I know we’re all busy, but I managed to find a window’ contingent.

And if you are an intelligent, level headed realist as I like to think I am, you know you can’t write anything even halfway truthful on this type of status.  ‘Listen, you may have the time, your own business, a nanny etc. to be able to be a nuisance at your kids school, but I don’t and can you please stop making me feel like I’m contributing to my daughters entire school failing its OFSTED because I didn’t make a robot/read a book/swim a length with a year 2’ is what I’d like to write. Instead ‘Sorry I’m working’ is the best I can do without feeling the wrath of the PTA.

The best streams of this sort of chat happen on a Friday.  The gang feel more vitriolic, there is two days for the shit storm to die down. You cannot say what you truly want to say on a Tuesday, not with Wednesday morning’s face to face engagements so close.  But what you can be sure of is this.  On the Monday morning, at the gates, all is forgotten.  You will be smiled at, your children will all be playing together nicely and the only ounce of competitiveness will come from who had the best hangover on the Sunday.

And there you have it, the utter contradiction of the PTA mum, first to make you feel crap about letting your child down, but got so shit faced on Saturday night on Waitrose Chablis that she ignored her kids all day on Sunday and wants the world to know about it.

Heart break? Not until a year ago…

In the last twenty odd years I’ve written a lot about heart break.  Never with the intention for it to be read.  I’ve written in diaries, created poems.  I have written about heart break more times than I can remember but it is only now that I know truly what a broken heart feels like.  The diary entries, the poems.  They were about love lost or unrequited.  They were words spoken in hurt and in anger.  They were from the mouth of a girl wishing the drummer boy hadn’t met the other girl, or that the book boy loved her the way she loved him.

I like writing when I’m sad.  My poetry tutor called me a ‘glorious melancholic’. Its not that I find it particularly cathartic and its never with the intention of being read.  I just like the sounds sad words make when they are put together in a sentence.

I thought I had put all the sadness behind me. I found someone who loved me back, who chose me over the other girl and who I loved deeply and purposefully. I presumed the days of writing about heart break were over.  But then my dad died. My handsome, kind dad died and my heart broke in ways that I never knew possible. Palpable, bone shaking, gut wrenching pain that was not confined to the one tiny organ in my body pumping my blood. This heart break reached the tips of my fingers and crawled out of my mouth.  It coursed round my body like a volt of electricity, bleaching the colour from my life and leaving my heart in tiny, unrecognisable fragments at my feet.

I wrote an email to myself on my phone the night my dad died, whilst I was lying in my mums spare room wondering how on earth I would sleep.  I found it a few months ago.  In time honoured tradition, I wrote the hurt out. I am going to paste it on here. I never had any intention of putting it out there but then, no one really reads my blog.  Ironically, the only person who does is the guy who (thankfully and with great sense on his part as he is one of my bestest friends in the world) never loved me back.

If I could go back a year ago yesterday, I’d sit with my dad and thank him for 37 years of his love.  I wasn’t the easiest daughter, he wasn’t the easiest dad.  But I loved him in more ways than I knew and the 362 days he has been gone have been the longest, bleakest days of my life.  I was the luckiest girl in the world, I just didn’t know it until I became the saddest girl in the world.

Friday 17th October 2014

My dad died at 10.24 this morning.  He was 71.  An artist.  Married for 47 years, he had two children and four grandchildren.

Three days ago, I got a call from my sister to say he’d had a stroke.  I’d been asleep for about an hour but it felt like I’d been asleep forever.  I felt a bit miffed that I had to get up.  I guess I’ll always feel guilty that that was my first thought.  I drove to the hospital twenty minutes away, the last two songs on the radio made me cry.  The drums on ‘In the air tonight’ gave me a sense of doom.  Enrique Iglesias telling me he ‘could be my hero, baby’, made me feel the universe was warning me I was about to lose mine.

A and E is a different place when you’re not there for a sprained ankle or food poisoning.  It’s scary and sad and cold.  The room we were left in whilst dad was assessed was away from the main waiting area.  There were two teenage boys in there.  They stared at the wall as we sat, sobbed and waited.

The doctor closed the doors and the two boys, sensing the news perhaps, quietly left. He was to the point.  The bleed on dad’s brain was too severe and too huge to recover from.  He could have a few days but he was very sick, it was more likely a few hours.  I will never forget the sense of disbelief.  My mum seemed so suddenly small and fragile.  The two boys came back in, saw three stranger’s hearts breaking and quietly left again.

My dad had been ill for a long time.  In 1980, after being ill for a few years and varying misdiagnoses, they found a brain tumour the size of a grapefruit.  He was operated on but was left with brain damage and epilepsy.

He struggled with depression and a sense of being half a man I think, he couldn’t drive, or make big decisions or find his way home on his own.  But he had a wonderful life, if wonderful is measured by love and family, and not by career and status.

Some years later he was diagnosed with prostate cancer which he faced and beat.  Then came the lung problems.  His job in a sack factory at aged 17 had ruined his lungs some 50 years later.  Asbestos in the sacks was so bad dad said you could see the fragments of it floating around in the air. He had the lining between his lungs and ribs drained twice in four years but the last few months he had got really breathless.  The consultant said there was nothing left to do but adjust to it.  He would no longer be able to walk up the stairs without being breathless or go on a long walk with mum like they used to.

A life peppered by ill health but he never complained.

And so we were used to this, illness was part of the family.  We were used to hospitals and doctors and side rooms.   But not doors closing.  I think we all knew that this was different.  To be told we wouldn’t be taking him home was almost met with a sense of disbelief, it was not how it usually plays out.

I can still hear the awful noise I made when the doctor left the room, I think I had held my breath for so long that when I opened my mouth I exhaled thirty seven years-worth of love for him.

We were told that whilst he could probably hear us, he wouldn’t really know what had happened, or was going to happen and so we agreed to keep strong, not speak about his impending death in front of him and just simply stay with him.

Hours turned to days turned to nights.  Three days we stayed with him, trying to stay strong, watching his life ebb away.  We held his hands, stroked his hair and gently spoke of the wonderful life we had all shared.  His two sisters and brother visited and went.  We each slept on a camp bed for a few hours at a time.  He defied the doctors who came in and said ‘it won’t be long’.  They didn’t know him, they hadn’t accounted for his heart.  It was big as it was strong and he didn’t go without a fight.

We ate little and drank lots of tea.  We watched tv and read papers, all the while knowing that each second ticking away was one of the last we’d have with him.  I love words, but ‘Palliative’ is now my least favourite word in the world.

I went to bed at about 4 this morning and woke up at 6.30.  The room’s atmosphere had changed.  I knew immediately that he was slipping away.  We sat with him for those last few hours, holding his hands and telling him to go, to stop fighting.  We told him that we’d look after each other and we’d take care of mum.

His breath got so shallow and infrequent that we thought he had gone several times before he actually did.  It’s hard to say whether it was the relief or the sadness that was more palpable.  His life was over but so was the pain of the last three days.  There was a point about twenty four hours ago when I thought I couldn’t take much more, that I thought my heart would possibly snap in two. I was willing him to die, which no doubt I will feel guilty about for the rest of my life. The pain in my throat was constant, my eyes were sore from the salt of my tears, my hand was clammy from clutching his.

And so we said goodbye to him.  We kissed his head and stroked his hair and thanked him for a life that was good and then I walked out of the room, a child without a father.

This morning I watched my dad die.  Now I’m wondering how life can carry on.  I have two small children and a husband I’ve not seen for four days. I miss them but I don’t want to leave my mums house, leave her alone for the first time in fifty odd years.  So I will stay the night in the bunk beds in the grand-children’s room and I will fall asleep to the only slightly audible sound of my mum’s heart breaking in the next room.

—-

Normal service will now resume and soon I shall tell you how Lily has decided Simon Mayo is named as such because Mayonnaise is simply his favourite thing. Therefore on that basis, she is now calling me Emily Wino.  Which, I don’t know, has a certain ring to it.

But for now, I want to feel sad and not pretend to feel happy. I miss him more than I ever thought possible.  He has left a void in our lives which with all the good will in the world, all the love my husband and children give me and the bright and exciting future we have together, can never be filled.  I guess I just have to try to remember that the void is there and try not to fall in it too much.

Wait, wait, let me grab my camera…

Back when Poppy was quite tiny and just starting to toddle, and when Lily was going through a bit of a naughty phase (is it still a phase if its, well, her entire existence?) I walked into the sitting room to find Poppy missing.

Lily was grinning from ear to ear, with a look of glee on her face. Then I heard a little commotion coming from the corner.  There, nestled nicely between Animal Farm and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (a nod towards my degree days, the books I bought, never read then somehow – thanks Google – passed various exams on) was Poppy.  Folded, squished and smiling, like the worlds smallest contortionist, three shelves up and perilously close to being under a million barely read books because the entire thing looked like it could tip with her weight.

I gasped in horror, lily let out a delighted yelp.  I rushed over, fearful of the sudden floor movements threatening the likelihood of the entire bookcase falling and very carefully, so as not to disturb the scene, grabbed my phone.  Couple of pictures later, and having posted it on Facebook with a witty comment, I got Poppy safely down…

Looking back through Facebook, I see this impulse in me is not restricted to just my own kids.  After a bird pooped on my 12 year old niece and made her gag, I wouldn’t let her clean herself up until after I’d taken the pics.  On a similar, poo based theme, when we took Poppy to Knowle Park, famous for its deer, I simply had to capture her sitting, surrounded by deer poop, sulking because we wouldn’t let her play with it.  Obviously, immediately after I got my camera out, I got her the wet wipes.  Then there was the time I walked in to find that they were both escaping from an open window.  Great pictures ensued.  Many Facebook gasps of ‘I hope that was a downstairs window?’ (Of course it was.  If it was an upstairs window I clearly would have taken a better shot from outside)

And that sums up my parenting in so many ways.  Yes, I find them in all sorts of sticky situations, and yes, they will get told off, rescued or liberated.  But not before mummy gets a photo. blog

‘yes darling, of course I can babysit my own children…’

When I got home yesterday, neither my kids nor my husband were anywhere to be seen.  Nor in fact was the washing I’d asked him to hang out. Oh no. Excuse me, there it indeed is, still in the washing machine.

It seems, to my mind, that when a husband takes on the duty of looking after the kids when roles are reversed and the wife needs to earn a crust, that looking after the kids is what they indeed do. And not much else.

My mum was ill last year and I spent a good 3 or 4 days travelling up to London to see her in hospital.  I got various texts from Carl along the lines of ‘Poppy’s in bed, just having some me time’ and, ‘I’m knackered, there’s not as much sitting around as I thought there would be’.  We all giggled at this but then, you wonder, what if I was to only keep the children alive.  How soon we would run out of clean clothes, fresh food, the will to live?

My favourite thing in all the world (apart from Oyster Bay, pastry and country music) is when men label looking after their OWN children as babysitting.  ‘Sorry mate, can’t tonight, the wife’s off out so I’m babysitting!’  Ha!  You’re not babysitting your own kids, you moron, you’re being a dad.  Unless of course, you’re being paid £9 an hour and your wife is dropping you home to your parent’s house afterwards. In which case, me questioning how you define your role is the least of your problems.

My husband is actually pretty brilliant at stuff.  I met him when he was a chef, just before we had children he became a nursery nurse and now he sells art and is a part time fireman.  Some might say, I groomed him. But he is pro-active and a doo-er. If we buy a flat pack chest of drawers, it’s put up that day.  If the grass has grown, he mows it.  If there’s crumbs on the carpet (I hold my hand up now and say I blame my kids but it’s usually me) he hoovers it up. If a picture needs hanging, he hangs it.  But if Poppy does a stonking poo that even disgusts her, he pretends not to have smelt it until my nose hair is melting off and I have to deal with it.

I don’t know what it is, but if I’m there, then they’re apparently my kids.  My husband literally will walk out the front door saying something about going to the tip and disappear for two hours.  Meanwhile, I’m hanging the washing out with a two year old hanging around my ankles wiping snot on my leg and a five year old sulking in her bedroom because he didn’t take her with him.  When he wanders back in, hours later, with a breezy ‘alright?’ I want to punch him square in the face.

I often think about walking out the front door myself, mutter something about food shopping and come back two hours later. But I can’t. I don’t have the gene that says I can leave the house and walk away without knowing a) he’s heard me b) he’s aware he’s now in charge of the children or c) its 12pm, he will give them lunch right?

So men will continue to babysit their own kids and get away with it because well, we let them.

‘Beany toss please, daddy?’

I have left my husband in charge today.  I am at work. Unless my boss is reading this. In which case I’m in the dole queue. Again.

I left the house as Poppy, the little one was asking him for a ‘beany toss’ and crying because it’s not a toss he has heard about before, much rather given.  It’s peanut butter toast to you and me, but most amusing watching the misunderstandings unfold.

I often watch on in amusement, those mothers who’s little darlings babble crap at them and they look at you smugly and say, ‘he’s just asked what time Daddy’s train from Waterloo is in tonight!’  No he hasn’t!  He’s just said ‘choo dadda loo loo’ and you just think its endearing to pretend to have a secret language.

I hold my hand up high and say, 99% of the time, I do not have a clue what my two year old is saying to me.  I seem to miss that mothering gene that so many (claim to?) have, the one where me and my children are fully tuned into each other. I know about beany toss.  That’s easy.  I know its beany toss because she gets the beany-utter out of the cupboard in the mornings and throws it directly at me and laughs. ‘Beany face’ she says, as I cry in the corner, wiping the beany-utter off my glasses.

So as I sit here at work, leisurely drinking my latte from Pret and licking the final bit of bakewell slice off my keyboard, I wonder if Carl has called in the translator yet.  The translator being the five year old, Lily.  Whilst she has about as much of a clue as to what her little sister is saying as I do, it is pretty amusing watching her decipher and repeat.  Much like an odd, ultimately disappointing game of Chinese whispers.

In the end, Poppy will cry because neither of us understand that ‘bababa there bye’ means, ‘can you put the baby in my pushchair and then wave goodbye to us as I am playing a game that involves me leaving lots’.  Lily will cry because she thinks Poppy means, ‘Can you hold the baby please, Lily.’ So she does. And so Poppy will wallop her for not putting the baby in the pushchair.  And I will cry eventually, just because out of all the communications break downs we have, she will not understand my babble means ‘Dear God, I need wine’ and instead she will give me an old bit of beany toss that she will no doubt find stuck to the chair, left over from breakfast.

Why mice?

It’s an odd title of a blog, I grant you.  But it’ll all become clear, now and going forward.

We had been together for five years when I got home from work to find my husband with two small white mice on his lap and a shiny new cage on the floor.  I could have come home after five years together and found far worse than that, so for that I am grateful.

‘Mice?’ I imagine I said.  It’s hard to remember the exact conversation.

‘Yes,’ he might have said, ‘I thought it was about time we got pets.’

‘Why mice?’ I hope I asked.

‘Why not?’ I KNOW he would have said, he has always been belligerent.

It turned out, in a round-about way, that we raised those mice in a vain effort to see how we would fare with kids.  We never agreed this was an experiment, it just became one.

It started well.  They flourished in our care.  Happy little things.  They enjoyed clean beds and fresh food and water.  Every so often they would have cuddles and run behind the fire place to play hide and seek.  (We agreed, if we had kids, not to let them do this.)  Life was good, with our mice.

But you know, they didn’t really do much. The novelty of having two small rodents soon wore thin. Well, wore off altogether if I’m completely honest.  The squeaking, once a cute background noise to our daily life, soon became an irritant.  The volume would go up on the TV or the mice would be put in the spare bedroom. The wheel! At first a source of amusement, a sight to behold, a ‘look at him go’ exclamation, it fast became a noise either of us could bare.  Like the spinning of a washing machine or the jump in a CD, it grated my nerves to shreds.

And the poo! Oh the poo, it never stopped.  Little piles of the damn things in every corner of the cage.   Much like the emptying of a bin, my husband and I would leave it and leave it, hoping the other could bear it no longer.  By the time one of us caved, the bin would be so full there was no hope of getting it outside without it splitting and what would always be something ‘bolognesey’ would spill out all over the floor.

Much like this, that poo piled up until the smell necessitated a full intervention from whomever of us had the strongest stomach.  There was no longer the option to hold the little darlings whilst cage cleaning commenced.  They were so feral at this point we couldn’t risk the injuries. So cage cleaning, whilst mice still in the cage, became de rigueur.

One day, that cage, well it just went quiet.  The poo no longer built up, the smell reached a steady, heady high.  The wheel was eerily still.  The cage looked like a ghost town.  Neither of us could bear to look.  I think we both secretly hoped they’d escaped, found a better life for themselves.  Alas, we found their little stiff bodies, lying side by side like a rodent joint suicide, under the sawdust and poo. Gone to the great big wheel in the sky.

I say all this as if I am proud.  I am not.  Those poor, poor mice. They probably, at varying points in their lives, wished Glaxo Smith Kline had bought them, not us.

So our experiment on mice should have told us to wait a while for kids.  We should have said ‘okay, lets try fish’. We should have admitted there were areas we needed to work on before being responsible for actual human beings.  Imagine then our horror, when days after we buried those two poor mice in an old shoe box in my in-laws garden, I peed on a stick and two lines appeared in the window…

So this blog is an account of my stumble through parenthood.  I am not gushy. I love my two girls and would die for them (only if my husband refused) but nothing is sugar coated.  I walked into world war three this morning; my five year old was rolling on the floor whilst my two year old was holding what I thought was a barbies head in her fist.  We don’t own a barbie.  It was a clump of the 5 yo’s hair. Lots of shouting, crying and brushing over quite a sizeable bald patch ensued. My nerves are in shreds and I haven’t slept for 6 years.

I should have persevered with other rodents.

Welcome!