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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The truth about cats

When I was a child we had two cats. Given I was very young at the time, I cannot remember if we had them both at the same time or if they overlapped or existed in entirely different time frames in our house. One was called Candice Bergen (named after my favourite actress at the time), and the other was Sen, or Arsen Lupurr. I don't recall how we acquired Candy, a beautiful tortoiseshell, but I know we catnapped Sen from his house that was on the same street as the Catholic Church. My mother was convinced the owners had gone away and left him to his own devices. As small children we failed to ask an important question such as: Maybe they have a cat sitter who only comes mornings and evenings? But my mother, not one to leave an animal in distress, was our captain and according to us she knew what she was doing. And plus this was an opportunity to get a pet, who were we to question her methods? So we took Arsen from his yard (the yard of a particularly gothic looking house) and he came to live with us. He was, as it turned out, a very intelligent Burmese. He would miaow and miaow to be let through a door, and if no one responded he would jump up and depress the lever handle to let himself in. It became a party trick when my parents had people round: Sen would miaow and someone would say: I think your cat wants to be let in. And my parents would say: Just wait a bit and see what he does. And after about four miaows Sen would faithfully depress the door handle and haughtily enter the room with a hard done by look on his face.

Later, in old age, both Sen and Candy became incontinent, or maybe they weren't even old and decided to spray in the house. My mother, a fanatically house proud individual, decided it was time for the cat/s to go and live with a nice older couple on a farm. Years later my brother took great delight in telling me that the farm was actually the vet, and he himself took them to be put to sleep. Brothers huh?

For years to come in those half asleep half awake hours in the middle of the night, I would sometimes experience what felt like a cat jumping on my bed and walking over my legs to settle next to me as both our cats had done, and in the morning I would say: "Mommy, Sen visited me last night". A phantom experience of those much loved animals from my early childhood.

We never had cats again. After that it was a series of stray dogs we rescued from the school yard or the street. And my mother never stole a pet again, although she did swap the neighbour his dog for a case of beers. The man had his children on the weekends and had inherited the dog from his ex wife. He was a benignly negligent pet owner, and his small white poodle roamed our street and increasingly spent more and more time at our house. The sweets we children generously shared with her may have had something to do with it. So eventually my mother approached the man and offered him beer in exchange for her and he (all too readily we thought) accepted. And so it came to pass that when I was 12-years-old, Snoopy, an incredibly sweet and intelligent animal became a much loved member of our family and spent many happy years with us before passing away when I was 23. 

Now in my 39th year, I am a cat owner again. I'm learning that they are complex creatures and there are so many parallels with human behaviour, especially that of the overly complicated, high maintenance, sensitive, bipolar, somewhat depressive kinds, it is astounding.

Our older cat was a rescue cat, formerly called 'Wicket' and she is around 5-years-old. The previous owners acquired her from a cat rescue shelter and told us she had spent a lot of her formative life in a cage, which explains why she is genuinely her happiest (a different cat!) when she is outside. Inside, she will never, ever, jump up on the sofa and join you, and she is somewhat nervous. However if you sit outside on the garden bench, she happily jumps up on it and lets you stroke her and exudes happiness and confidence. 

We got her in September of 2013 and she spent the first two weeks hiding inside of our (unlit) fireplaces and under the stove. Eventually bit by bit she came out of her shell, a very slow process made harder by the fact that I have two marauding small children. Had it just been my husband and I, she may have found the mournful tunes of Radiohead disconcerting at first, but would probably have settled a lot sooner in a quiet household. My husband, my daughter, and I are all very fond of animals but no amount of gentle coaxing and reassurance could make this animal trust us, it had to come in her own time.

I frequently had to remind myself that this was not about me, that the rejection was not a failing on my part, but that this animal had had a traumatic past and she needed time to process her new surroundings and to suss me and my family out and come to trust us.  It's still an ongoing process, but bit by bit it's happening. After a few months she would sometimes jump up on the coffee bench we have next to our sofa and allow us to pet her there, so we put a on blanket it, and for a while it became her spot. Then slowly she came to sleep in our bedroom, but never on the bed. And in the evenings she languorously grooms herself, somewhat pornographically at times, and that is also a time she likes being petted. But it is always on her terms, and there are times she does not want you to touch her, and she makes that very obvious with two very large eyes and sometimes a hiss. It's kind of like being friends with someone that blows hot and cold with you and things are very much on their terms. I have also had to accept that she is by choice an outside cat and will never be a lap cat.

Sometimes she joins me on the bed at night when my husband travels, but not when he is home. She has evidently observed what a restless sleeper he is and decided she doesn't want to get injured in her sleep. I, having been injured by his tossing and turning and occasional random arm movements, can attest that this is a wise decision on her part.

So things were going swimmingly well in this vein, and then I went and spoilt it all by getting a kitten. Now if you own cats you will know that they are not pack animals. They have no interest in other cats and are quite happy being solitary. We anthropomorphise and think they would be happier with a friend, but cats are the equivalent of the guy who sits at the bar alone having a drink not because he is lonely, but by choice.

So the question is, why did I get a kitten? I wanted a pet that my children could interact with and enjoy. Our cat has no interest in my children. She will allow my daughter to stroke her sometimes, but the experience is a bit like that person on the school run that sometimes enthusiastically says hello, sometimes blankly ignores you or worse, shoots you a nasty look. My son, forget it, she is wisely afraid of him. To be fair to him he is not a cruel or malicious child, he is simply three going on four and wants to play and fails to realise that sticking a foam Mike the Night sword in the cat's direction is not what she considers a good way to spend her time. I would be lying if I said getting a kitten didn't also have something to do with third child substitution on my part, but that's another story. I thought a kitten could grow up with my children and not be frightened of them, and also that his age would pose less of a threat to my existing cat; That with a kitten, she could very easily maintain her major domo status in the house, and he would defer to her, and maybe, just maybe, she may even try to mother him?

Wrong. Oh so very wrong. And here I put my hands up and say to my friend Alice, and a few others who know about cats, yes yes you were right. They warned me that it doesn't always work like this with cats accepting kittens, especially with rescue animals who like being the only animal in the house. But I was like that young newly married couple who want to start a family and who you advise to enjoy their married life a bit before jumping into the volcano that is parenthood. And they completely ignore you and then a few months later you see them at a function hollow eyed and exhausted and they look at your with pain in their expression which reads: Why didn't I listen to you? Why???

Our kitten, Diego, formerly Delilah until we took him for his first vet checkup, defers to no one. He chases after our older cat, jumps on her, basically scares the shit out of her. She spends her time fleeing from him and looks at me as if to say: 'Why? Why did you do this to me? You knew I was fragile. You knew I needed a safe place to recover and find myself. To gain trust and confidence in myself and others.'  It was like I had thrown her into a room with someone that had previously mugged her and told them to make friends.  

Yup more anthromopormosing, but I don't think I am that far off the mark here.

My friend advised serving them their food in turn, giving the older cat priority, but the kitten used meal times as an opportunity to stalk and jump at my older cat. So much so that like in a Mafia movie, the older cat started eating with her back to the wall. I find it less stressful for her and less opportunity for indigestion if I put the kitten in a room while she eats in peace, and this seems to work. Similarly at night, a time I know she likes to snack and roam the house, the kitten sleeps in my study because I want her to have the reassurance that she can at least move around the house without risk of attack. 

The truth is she hates him, and he terrorises her for fun. It's a bit like an older sister who likes to read and keep little delicate ornaments, and a baby brother who smashes her things and keeps running into her room when she wants to be alone. I try and make a big fuss of her, so she won't feel left out, but her feelings are hurt. And in those first couple of weeks that I introduced them I was genuinely concerned that she might run away, but fortunately, and with the help of 'Dreamies' (her favourite snack), we've managed to avoid that.

The kitten doesn't reserve his terrorising for the older cat. He likes to lay in wait at the bottom of the stairs and attack the ankles and toes of anyone coming or going. This morning he lay in wait for me behind the door of my study as I was entering with his food. Then he jumped up to attack. Not serious actually attacking - but playing. Or unsuspecting dinner guests will experience what feels ten individual sharp needles enter their shin bones and then retract and renter their legs in an upwards trajectory to their thighs as he grimly mountain climbs towards their laps and then on to the table. 

Like small children, small energetic children, none of this is genuine violence or malice on his part. He is learning through play - thousands of years of evolution and instinct have him wired to learn how to jump and climb, and to hunt and kill his prey. Unfortunately, in this role play and in the absence of other kittens, our older cat and our fingers and toes become the unsuspecting prey. He has no cause and effect thinking (you can tell him off and he does it all over again a minute later) and you have to play with him so he can get all that playful violence out of his system otherwise he levels it at you. So we have various toys he likes to chase and jump up for. I genuinely fear for the birds and any wildlife we have in our garden the day this cat eventually gets let out for the first time. He is like a small dark furry Chuck Norris secretly in training and about to be unleashed on the unsuspecting animal and insect world.

But also not unlike small children, when he is not destroying things and attacking you the kitten is extremely loving and affectionate and in need of love and affection. He will curl up on your chest or lap and languorously arrange himself for maximum stoking and purrs so loud it's like he has a small engine inside of him. He sits at my feet while I am writing or painting and looks up at my expectantly so I can put him on my lap where he lays purring or puts his front paws on the desk and watches me paint, sometimes batting the paint brush. One evening we forgot to put him in my study for the night and I woke to find him curled up on the pillow by my husband and I, fast asleep and purring. It is impossible not to feel enormous affection even if you are having to regularly use Savlon on the scratches on your hands and feet.

I'm hoping that once the kitten is less psychotic and settles down (I believe age and eventual neutering help) he and our older cat can have some kind of non violent co existence, but I doubt they will ever be close friends. A bit like someone you really can't bear but at least you can be civil to each other even though you are forcing a smile that actually more closely resembles a grimace as you sip your wine and make small talk about your cats.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The man in the cape

Recently, while waiting for an appointment, I found a small coffee shop and ordered a tea. It was one of those tiny non chain places where the owner sits around chatting with the customers. In a corner sat a man reading a newspaper while tut tutting, who for reasons that would soon become clear, reminded me of the man in the cape in Seinfeld (a guest appearance by Larry David). 

We were the only two people in there apart from the owner, and soon I was part of their conversation which involved Cape Man sharing his cynical misanthropic views on pretty much everything. He didn't like America or Americans because of what he felt was an extremely intrusive and against his rights airport immigration procedure and said the country was filled with gun carrying lunatics. Now I am no fan of the OTT airport immigration procedures myself and I also don't like the idea of people walking around with guns, but I still very much love America, or at least the parts of it that I visit and the friends that I have there. Europe and the French were similarly not spared his scathing cynicism. When I asked him what he did for a living he told me a bit of this and a bit of that, and it sometimes involved selling rugs (carpets not wigs), but was very sketchy about the details. Then he started on about "those fools trying to make contact with life from outer space. Why'd they want to do a thing like that? If there is anything out there the first thing they are going to do is come and take our water."

And for the first time in our conversation I thought: My god, he's right! They totally would take our water. And I started imagining UFO's with giant vacuums in the sky sucking up all the water from our dams and lakes. Which is a reminder of why it's not a good idea to hang out with cynical paranoid people - you start becoming one yourself.

Yesterday I went to the store and bought my daughter a pair of size 6-7 trousers, and the weird thing is they fit. Perhaps not so surprising or weird as she is six and a bit years old, but they seemed so long in the store. It's a reminder of how tall she has become. It's the same thing I have each time I purchase shoes for my children; the shop assistant takes the measurement of their cute little sock clad feet, and then comes back with a few boxes of shoes, and takes what resembles a small boat out of the box and I immediately say: 'Oh no, that looks far too big'. And then it fits. And I think, when did their feet get so big? And then inwardly I kind of freak out because they are growing up so fast and I should be spending even more time with them enjoying all of those cuddles and listening to everything they say before they get to an age when they don't want to talk to me or cuddle me any more. And then in the middle of all those little kids shoes, I kind of have a small panic attack/existential crises. I think I am going to stick to buying shoes on the internet in future - far less stressful.

We recently got a new kitten. We first met him when he was four weeks old and still with his mother, only at that point we, like the owner, assumed he was a she. We had a name picked out and waited the remaining four weeks for our girl cat to be ready. The day we picked 'her' up we took her to the vet who upon closer examination informed me that our girl cat was actually a boy and he had fleas. Within days we had him defleed and despite the initial gender shock, he has become a much loved somewhat crazed member of our family.

It should also be said/cautioned that getting a kitten is a bit like getting an instant toddler without going through the baby stage. They need a lot of affection and policing. Last night we were watching LA Law and we heard this mewling. It sounded like the cats on one of those pet apps my daughter likes to play on my iPad. The ones which have frequent interruptive images of the device being handed to the parent so the parent can purchase even more items for £2.99 - important stuff like makeup or sunglasses for your virtual pet. Given my daughter was supposed to be asleep I went into my study (where the kitten sleeps for now) to investigate. I found him with his neck twisted in a carrier bag handle. He was in extreme distress ergo the weird sound he was making, and like something out of an angst ridden moment in ER we quickly cut him out of it. Rather than licking us with gratitude and having a life affirming moment, he shook himself off and carried on in his normal maniacal manner as though he hadn't just died. Like a human toddler, you think a space is safe and kittens manage to create a near death opportunity.

Yesterday while I was painting, he thought it a good idea to repeatedly walk through my paint palette covering his fur in white, red and blue acrylic, likewise attempting to drink my painting water even though I imagine it tasted horrible. He also chews on the wires attached to my computer, and attempts to remove the peg on the bench leg that holds the glass top of my desk up. Evidently cause and effect thinking and any kind of regard for his personal safety is not in place and will come later. At least I hope so. 

He is also fearless of our resident matriarchal 5-year-old cat. The other evening, for no apparent reason, he decided it was a good idea to launch himself on her back in a sort of Cirque du Soleil move. She got the fright of her life, and belted up to the top of the house to her sanctuary that is our spare/box room. After two weeks there has still not been any kind of happy family moment between them and when she sees him she becomes very still, crouches low, and hisses. He seems to read this as an invitation to run at her, which of course knocks her confidence as she is trying to establish herself as the scary dominant adult and he's not intimidated in the least.

But now I am going to stop talking about my cats, because I could talk about them until the cows come home. It reminds me of when people have a baby and THAT IS ALL THEY TALK ABOUT. And you are sitting there trying desperately to get a word in edgeways to relate your recent traumatic breakup or sofa choice dilemma and the new parent will not entertain the thought that something other than how often their baby poops is important and worth discussing. I was guilty of this myself and am genuinely sorry to all the people I subjected this to.

Last week I attended a makeup session for a sculpture class I missed. Unlike the generic sculpture class I do, I knew this was a life modelling class but was still unprepared for what I was about to see when I walked through the door. The model, a statuesque older man with a long white wispy beard, was sitting buck naked on a chair with his legs wide open, holding a sort of mountain man walking stick in a very proud, Romanesque sort of pose. His legs were opened in my direction so as I came in I looked directly at his crotch. I should have been more non plussed given I am an art student these days, but unsuspectingly happening upon a stranger's scrotum first thing in the morning can be unsettling. I don't think blushed is the right word, but I know my face did something uncontrollably weird and then I sort of awkwardly contorted myself to have a conversation with my sculpture teacher while trying not to look at something that was so evidently in my eye-line. It was one of those moments where by trying to act naturally you come across totally unnaturally. 

I spent the class working on my piece (which was not of the naked man) with what felt like very hot ears. He was a professional life model, and judging by the work the class had done over the last five weeks of him, a very good one at that. 

Later that day I told my mother about my experience and she said, matter of factly: "Well you know, this is the art world, and nudity is quite normal." My mother isn't surprised or shocked by much, which is one of those brilliant things about getting older I suppose. She read my last blog post about her internet dating travails and told me at lunch that I had failed to mention something else which she would tell me after I had eaten. 
Me (after lunch): So what was that internet dating story you wanted to tell me?
My mother: Ah yes, you know that guy I went out for a coffee with? Well he pulled out a hanky from his pocket to blow his nose.
Me: A hanky? (Making a sort of grossed out face) Er, yes?
My mother (making a grossed out face): Yes I know. And I said to him: Hankies? Why not use tissues? They are far more hygienic and you don't have to wash them. And he said quite casually: Oh, no it's fine, I boil them on the stove.

Me: Oh, my god, I would have thrown up
My mother: Yup, that's why I didn't tell you at lunch

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Apr├Ęs Facebook and stuff kids say

Recently my daughter chose a rather inopportune moment to tell some of her girlfriends that she was getting a new kitten. They were at a children's party, and the parents were just about to bring out the cake. Children are always extremely excited by cake, the same way I am about shoes. They don't necessarily eat it, but they like to see what it looks like, touch it, and admire the design or colours the birthday child has chosen. So my daughter was animatedly mid sentence about her new kitten when her friends rushed off to look at the cake, and she burst into tears. "No one is interested in my news, they wouldn't even let me finish telling them about my kitten." She was genuinely distraught.

I had to explain that this was more a case of timing than anything else, and she should perhaps wait until she had their undivided attention to share her news again.  Later that evening I also thought it might be an opportune moment to impart another bit of advice; namely that sometimes people are not always going to be as happy for you as you are for yourself, even people that you consider close friends or family. She looked at me like I was crazy. And in reality it does seem crazy, sad, and unfair but alas, it is true. In fact, you will find as you go through life that there are quite literally a handful of people, which usually but not always include the person that gave birth to you, that you can call with good news and they are genuinely happy and excited for you. More often than not people are not that interested because they are busy with their own lives, or some may feel a twinge of sadness or resentment or jealousy because by an often random dealing of the cards, things are not as good in their own lives. We've all had it happen to us and we've also at one time or another all been the person thinking: "Well bully for you, you're getting a kitten, my parents have told me there is no way in hell we are getting a pet, because my mother is allergic or my father doesn't want cat hair all over his angora sweater." Although I doubt my daughter's friends are saying 'there's no way in hell' - writer's license and all that.

On this subject, a few weeks ago I received an email from someone saying that like me they had also effectively 'quit' using Facebook because they have fallen on hard times and find all the updates about other people's accomplishments, holidays, new cars, the opportunities their children are getting, painful to observe. Unfortunately, as I've observed before, FB can be the veritable salt in the wound in instances like this, albeit not always intentionally.

Separately in answer to some people's questions, life post Facebook has been very productive for me. In the week following me 'quitting' FB, I read three books. Admittedly I was on holiday at the time, but it's still quite an achievement because those precious couple of hours while my husband minds the children would usually consist of being on FB and getting sun burnt. I've also written three blog posts, finished two paintings and am actually on top of my admin. I haven't yet addressed some of my unpacked boxes - let's not push it.

Did I have withdrawal? Initially yes, a bit. More so that I was missing out on something important, but I repeatedly assured myself that if someone really needed me they had the ability to inbox me or better still email or call me. And it was only by chance that I saw my name mentioned in a thread (I was uploading a photo to my page 'School Run Mum' that still has the general FB feed) and I followed it to see there was a reunion party for the advertising agency I used to work at. Dammit, don't these people know I am no longer on FB? That was a very near miss.

At the reunion I had a good time catching up with old colleagues I hadn't seen in 12 years, which involved at least one apology to someone for being an arse to them back in the day. She accepted and apologised for being an arse too. It was a good moment followed by quite a bit of wine and an attempt to smoke a Russian cigarillo. I haven't smoked in 10 years since I decided to have children, and here I was outside in the cold with my old tribe puffing on something quite disgusting. It was a reminder that those days were not very good for my health and also how easy it is to fall back into the old dynamics.

This week I overhead a mother and her son (who was 4 or 5) having the following conversation on the school steps:

Mother: So, tell me again, what do you do if the toilet seat is full of wee?
Boy: Incomprehensible muttering
Mother: No, no no, you go and find another toilet!!! OK? Promise me OK???
Boy: Incomprehensible muttering

My six-year-old daughter went to the toilets by herself for the first time at the London Zoo this weekend. My husband and son waited directly outside for her. When she came out he asked her: "Everything OK?"And she responded with: "No, it was very unhygienic in there and one of the toilets was full of poo." My husband told me the toilet attendant, who was standing outside, looked shocked by what he was hearing. I can only assume he doesn't have children because in my experience they certainly don't hold any punches. 

Last week my almost four-year-old son asked my mother, at the breakfast table, if she had a penis. She responded in the negative and he went on to discuss his and then my husbands' matter of factly. I assured my mother that my husband doesn't actually use the toilet or in fact shower in front of the children any more. My son knows how to use the toilet now so he doesn't need his dad to show him how, and my husband showers early in the morning before the children are awake. But I think my son is getting to an age where he is distinguishing his masculinity from my mine and my daughter's femininity and having a kind of male kinship and sameness with my husband is an important part of this. While I appreciate and respect this I would prefer it if he didn't feel the need to detail my husband's anatomy to my mother at the breakfast table. Having kids is like having your life, and I mean things you wouldn't even discuss with a close friend, publicly broadcast every minute of the day. In a strange and inadvertent twist I appear to have switched one kind of FB for another and it also might explain the occasional inexplicable grin I receive from the teachers when collecting my children in the afternoons. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Contemplating my bottom and other things about getting older

By and large I don't think too much about ageing. But every now and then there is a reminder of it; The creases on my eyelids that don't disappear any more. The fact that I need a bit more makeup to achieve a 'fresh faced' look, which is a joke really, because in all sincerity I haven't seen my face looking fresh since having children etched permeant frown lines and dark circles on my visage. Or the fact that I missed my 10th high school reunion, and then the 20th because I live in another country. And I wonder, 20 years - really? When the hell did that happen?  Or when someone talks about 'back in the 90s' and I instinctively think that was about 10 years ago, and then realise it's actually closer to 25.

We have also been invited to a lot of 40th parties in the last two years, although some friends are pretending that it's not happening, which I can understand. But there are a still a few of them and they tend to be rather drunken. Maybe there's an element of 'This is it! It's all downhill from here. So let's PARTY!!!' Kind of like an end of the world attitude only this is the end of being young. Stupid really because 40 isn't old right? Right? Or perhaps it's just a matter of wanting to face an existential crisis with the aid of an appropriate anaesthetic.

What I most love about getting older is that I know who I am and am far less concerned about who I think I ought to be. There's a kind of peace that comes with this. I'm also largely happy in my skin, apart from my backside some mornings (see below). I know what I like  - in my 20's I was very preoccupied with whether I ought to like things. I'm also not afraid to say what I think and ask for what I want, and I don't avoid confrontation. I won't say I love it, but if something needs to be said or done, I do it. I suppose there's a certain confidence that age and life experience bring to the table. 

What I dislike about getting older is that I worry about things far more. Last night I made dinner with a Japanese vinegar I bought online and suddenly thought: What if it's some maniac pretending to have a company and selling poison in the guise of Japanese vinegar and he wants to kill people who use recipes from Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook? I appreciate this is a pretty detailed and specific paranoid fantasy, but the vinegar was so niche I had to buy it online because I couldn't find it in any of the shops. So I'm not completely crazy.

And then there are the paranoid fears I have for my children - too many to talk about on here. Or that every ailment I get is potentially cancer or the start of it or something horrible that will kill me. I got so many bouts of serious bronchitis as a child and never once worried that my throat would close and I would choke to death in my sleep. I'd also get on a horse, any old horse without knowing much about its temperament, and go riding. Or approach dogs and stick out my hand to pet them without worrying I would get bitten. I don't even want to talk about the rides we hitched as teenagers or friends we drove with that were somewhat under the influence. I appreciate there is a difference between the carefree attitude of children and the dangerous recklessness of teenagers.

These days I also obsessively read the information leaflets in any medicine I am given and then worry I might suffer one of the side effects, even the 1 in 10 000 odds. And trust me, if you are in any way similarly inclined DO NOT GOOGLE your medicine and enter forums. They are full of people with worse case scenarios and you will never ever take another headache tablet in your life even if your head feels as though it will explode. It ruins things, it really does because sometimes you just need to go to bed with a cup of tea and a couple of Ibuprofen and relax rather than worrying you may suffer a stroke or internal bleeding.

This morning I was studying my backside in the bathroom mirror. This is not an exercise in vanity, but more so like wiggling a loose tooth. It's a painful exercise but also strangely compelling. I'm all about facing reality, even if it does resemble two large somewhat sagging globes of cottage cheese. I thought to myself: I'm going to be 40 early next year, is this the best my backside is ever going to be? I remember that episode in 'Sex in the City' where Samantha, for her 40th birthday present to herself, gets some naked photos done. This is probably not a realistic bar to set for oneself, but perhaps it is the last opportunity one has to get it right before that next stage in one's life? I don't know if there is something to be done about the state of my bottom. I could go on a diet, and up my exercise regime (my friend swears by the Tracy Anderson method), or I could not worry about it, buy clothes that accentuate what I have and hide the rest, enjoy eating in restaurants, and probably not wear a bikini ever again. And I appreciate this is how a lot of women start to talk when they are making peace with the inevitable.

And then I think of the Raquel Welch's of the world: A handful (admittedly) of women with money or credit card debt, and access to dieticians, dermatologists, surgeons, personal trainers etcetera - hanging on grimly to their fading youth by their bright red fingernails, or perhaps they aren't? Maybe they are on to something?  Maybe you are never too old to get fit and healthy and be sexy and wear a bandage dress? I think back to my father's mother who was a lovely cuddly woman and very much an old fashioned sort of grandmother in the way she dressed (always dresses - I never ever saw her in trousers), her big bosom, tummy and legs making a lovely lap to sit in. No makeup, comfortable shoes, and a bag of knitting nearby. She led a calm domestic life and there was always a cake in the house for afternoon tea beneath the jacaranda tree on her farm, and a game of gin rummy. And then there's my mother, older by quite a few years than my grandmother would have been at the time I remember her, and she's trim, fit, wearing jeans and trainers and working two nanny/babysitting jobs during the week. I think ageing and one's approach to it is relative and it's also true that some people are also blessed with good genes - robust health, and a youthful attitude.

My mother tried internet dating a few months back with my encouragement. I thought it might be nice for her to meet a gentleman friend to go to the occasional church dance with, watch a movie, dinner etctera. Unfortunately the experience wasn't a positive one. One of the first men she corresponded with turned out to be an Ghanian fraudster who stole pictures off of the internet of a kindly looking English gentleman and created an incredibly intricate fictional life. He skilfully learnt what my mother's interests and concerns were and matched them with his own. Where she loved to dance, he did too, where she had lost a husband, he had lost a wife, etctera. This went on for a few weeks with emails back and forth and my mother growing increasingly enamoured with someone who seemed such a perfect fit. However there was always a reason on his part why they could not meet up - work, family commitments, and then, suddenly, he had to leave for a business trip to Africa for his computing business.

And then he chose his moment to strike: He emailed my mother in a panic stricken tone saying he had had gotten stuck in some far flung African airport, his wallet stollen, could she please wire him a thousand pounds. Followed by an urgent phone call, to the same effect, from someone who didn't sound even vaguely like an ageing waspish English gentleman from Kent and very much like a young African man. The moment she mentioned the need to confer with her daughter first he got panicked and told her that this was strictly between the two of them and she needn't involve me. She stopped all contact and the following morning when I went to report him to the website, we saw his profile had been removed. She never heard from him again. What's sinister and tragic is that this predator was cruising a dating website specifically aimed at older people. I suppose it takes all types to make the world go around. One can only hope he didn't swindle anyone else out of their money.

And then there were the actual dates, unfortunately not much of an improvement. My mother, not one to mince words, has the following to say on her few dating experiences: "Some of them arrived with a walking stick or in need of one, and I thought: 'Yeah right, so you are the same person who told me what a great dancer you are.' Some of them smelt of urine. Others ate with their mouths open with food spitting everywhere. These men are either looking for a purse or a nurse and I plan to be neither."

This is what internet dating appears to looks like for over 60's. 

I still hold out hope that my mother will meet someone who is older but youthful like herself and they will find love over their mutual passions for Julio Iglesias, Latin dance, and Judge Judy reruns, but my mother is less optimistic and seems to have resigned herself to being alone. I'm not sure if this is giving up hope, or perhaps you get to a certain age where your priorities change and the idea of being on your own isn't quite as daunting. For one thing, you have sole command of the remote and can watch as much Judge Judy and Dancing with The Stars as you want. And according to my mother it is a relief not to be accountable to anyone else for her whereabouts and to feel free to come and go as she pleases. I also doubt she feels compelled to examine her bottom in the bathroom mirror these days, but if she does I don't want to know about it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The art of expectation

I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Not because I have a problem with commercial holidays that have no inherent meaning and exist solely to make profit out of people who are told to feel something they aren't exactly sure how to feel, probably because we cannot confine and reduce the complexities of love and meaning into some crappy sentiment the card companies invent. But more so because the whole thing, like Christmas, feels forced and not spontaneous and heart felt. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy guiltlessly eating a box of heart shaped chocolates. I maintain that if someone else gives them to you and you don't buy them yourself, the calories do not count. But why do we need to be told to go out to dinner or for lunch with someone we love and to tell them we love them by buying them an expensive card or bunch of flowers? We should we doing this anyway and we don't need flowers and cards to do it. But maybe the chocolates, yup, those can stay.

Valentines Day is fraught with expectations and it feels like people are setting themselves up for disappointment either way. I haven't actually gone out on Valentine's Day for many years, because my birthday falls on the 12th of February and early on in our relationship I told my husband I'd much rather we go out on that evening and treat is as a kind of two for one business. For one thing restaurant reservations are infinitely easier to come by on the 12th, even last minute ones, and the long stemmed roses (which never open) aren't as ridiculously priced.

But I also find the row after row of couples with the red rose or carnation and bottle of wine on the table with an air of expectation lying thickly between them uncomfortable to witness and don't particularly want to be a part of the conveyor belt nature of it. Again it just feels synthetic and contrived. And if the couple are not married, there is a good chance she is expecting him to propose because that is what the beautiful full page full colour ads in the magazines by De Beers or Tiffany's say you're supposed to do right? I always feel a bit sorry for men in this situation: What if they've just met, or he isn't ready, or he's not sure, or he doesn't have the money for a ring? Even if he shows her a fantastic evening, the only thing she'll remember is that he didn't ask her.

Then there are the couples that are already married, and there is the expectation that some fantastic proclamation of love or poetry will be made – even if the people concerned are not ordinarily poetically inclined, or that a bit of jewellery might be presented. Same scenario as above – if he doesn't have it, she's going to be pissed. A friend of mine says a handbag is also OK, it doesn't have to be jewellery.

I have the same trepidation when it comes to Christmas. The whole thing feels contrived and not particularly spontaneous and again, there are the expectations. Everyone, the adults especially, have an idea of what Christmas is supposed to be, and how they think they will feel on the day, and if you are the host, somehow it is your responsibility to make this happen. You are set up for failure even before you start. And the Christmas lists that go around make me feel uncomfortable. I don't like asking someone to buy me something – it feels wrong. A bit like giving your husband the grocery list on his way out the door. I enjoy being surprised and the idea that someone saw something and knew I would need or love it is a genuine joy. But let's be honest here, how often does that happen with extended family? And the fact that we have to ask what people want or need serves as a reminder that we don't make enough effort during the year to see them and know them – which again makes Christmas feel like a bit of a sham to me. Why do we need a holiday to bring us together?

One Christmas my husband and I decided to host, and we had an argument. And given we don't argue that much, I took this as a bad omen and further proof that Christmas is a dodgy business. The argument was something stupid over when the Christmas meals are served. Historically in my mother's family a large Christmas lunch is served between 12 and 1pm. My great grandmother who lived into her 90s and presided over all of us with a quiet steely matriarchal gaze, not unlike an ancient eagle, was always the guest of honour and would have eaten at 11am if she had her way, but we managed to negotiate the more sociably and digestably acceptable hour of 12. My mother and grandmother before her would ensure everyone had the experience of what it might be like to be a foie gras duck. There was so much food that indigestion was not only standard it was considered a necessary compliment to the chef.

All of this would be followed by an array of puddings and ice-cream until someone would gesture that they were having a heart attack which turned out to be heartburn. Meal time conversation consisted of a lot of shouting that someone didn't know what the hell they were talking about and ought to do x y or z instead. Individually my family are brilliant, but together they assume pack mentality with everyone being an expert on your life except of course you. Gatherings were extremely anxiety provoking, even as a child. And the thing is most of my family members didn't even drink – this was authentic crazy of the non alcoholic variety.

Then at around three or so coffee, tea and cake was served so that that the tiny bit of food in your stomach you'd just about managed to digest could be replaced with more food, and more indigestion. At this point my grandfather and other men in the family would loosen their belts and set about dozing on the sofa while the women and girls in the family would start the dishes with admonishments on the part of my grandmother about how lazy we girls all were and how we should help my mother around the house more. And then we would all go home around 6ish feeling stuffed and a bit cross. About this time I decided that I was going to be a feminist. I didn't know exactly what it was but I didn't think a feminist would be washing the dishes while being told off for being a bad future housewife while my brother, boy cousins and father and uncles sat by dozing or setting the world to rights.

My husband's family on the other hand do a light lunch with lots of small dishes and then a serious evening dinner. They tend to talk a lot about politics, there is some arguing although all terribly intellectual, and there is wine. Everyone gets stuck in with the cleaning up except the person who prepared it as they deserve a break. After that people tend to sit around chatting or reading the papers and then there is a big dinner in the evening with more wine and intellectualising and everyone sleeps over.

As no one was sleeping over at our house that Christmas, which my husband found inconceivable in and of itself, we settled the argument by agreeing that a big midday lunch with cake and tea mid afternoon was the plan, instead of two meals. It was a nice enough day, no arguments or people yelling, or men loosening their belts, and again everyone chipped in with the clearing up. But I couldn't help worrying that my husband and his family had compromised their traditions (and expectations) and it was my fault. Although of course no one actually made me feel that way, it was all good old fashioned self imposed neurotic guilt that existed no where else but inside of my own head.

More recently my husband and I tend to travel to somewhere sunny with the kids and treat Christmas as another day by the pool with the exception of a nice lunch in a restaurant and some presents for the kids. My son who is three is infinitely easier and happier when he can burn of his energy outdoors and not be confined to being indoors day after cold rainy day. We see family either early in December before we leave for our vacation or in January after we return, but it's in bite sized gatherings and without it having the title of 'Christmas Day' hanging over it in large red ominous letters, these get togethers are somehow a lot more enjoyable and less stressful for me.

I was telling all of this to a good friend of mine who is from Italy but lives in London. She looked on with an expression not unlike horror, and I said: “I imagine it's the same for you too right? Right? Its a stressful business.” And she responded with: “Actually, no, my family and I love Christmas, and we all get together in Italy at my parents' house, and my mother makes pain stakingly delicious recipes that have been in our family for many years and take hours to reproduce. And if someone cannot make Christmas it is only for a very serious reason, and one year my uncle didn't come and that really affected the family deeply. It is a very important holiday for all of us.”

Wow. I would be lying if I said this didn't make me feel guilty (Yup guilt again). There I was moaning and complaining about how stressful I find it and here was someone talking about experiencing Christmas in a magical way – where family comes together thoughtfully and meaningfully, and cherishes their history, their shared blood, their ties with one another. And I thought to myself that maybe I have gotten it all wrong – maybe if I just try a little harder, I can make a Christmas like this too. Maybe it is my own expectations that are getting in the way of achieving this. And what if one day my children don't wish to spend Christmas with their father and me? How would this make me feel?

And then I told this story of my friend and her Italian family and their beautiful Christmas (because I was genuinely moved by it) to another friend of mine who is American but lives in London, and she said: “Yeah, well, that sounds great. My family and I drink too much and fight, which is why I've stopped going back to New York for Christmas.”

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Life through the lens of Facebook

So I recently turned 39 and as a birthday present to myself I decided to quit Facebook. Only I didn't actually quit as in delete my account nor have I given up my page School Run Mum. Nope, that would have been too final for an addict like me. I rationalise that on my personal FB account I have so many photographs from over the years, the originals scattered between various SD cards, laptops, iPads, and a series of iPhones, that I am too scared to lose them and haven't yet found the time to save them onto yet another device. I'm far too busy using FB you see. Likewise the funny stuff my kids have said over the years (both born during the Facebook years), which I've recorded in various status updates and which I keep meaning to write down in a book for them to look at one day when they are older or have kids of their own. Then I thought about deactivating my personal FB account which means your stuff stays there but it's like you switch the light off and shut the door for a while. But what if people need me in case of an emergency or worse, an invite to a party? My husband advised against it and suggested instead I download FB Messenger onto my iPhone. He assured me it was a win win situation: I didn't have to delete or deactivate my account and risk losing stuff, I just didn't have to use FB if I didn't want to, but if people needed to contact me they could. *An audible sigh of relief*

I agreed but immediately realised this was a form of denial; My relationship with Facebook is the way some people are with chocolate or beer in the house; they cannot just have a couple, they have to have the whole lot in one sitting. I've used and loved FB for so long - been there since its conception - and I became convinced I'd crack under pressure and start using it again because I know it's there, silently waiting for me to upload a photo or a post, or like a friend's picture, and then someone would comment, I would respond, and I'd be sucked right back in again - more hours whiled away. And what if I missed something really really important? Like the death of an actor or an earthquake? Which leads me to an important note to self: Facebook is NOT a reliable source of world news.

OK, so why exactly am I trying to quit given I use and love it so much? Notice how I said trying because while I think I'm done with my personal page and all the social stuff of FB I am quite keen on getting my page School Run Mum off the ground – I think it might be interesting (see final paragraph). But in terms of using FB in the traditional timeline sense or rather not using it, the most obvious reason is a simple one; it takes up too much of my time. I'm so busy Facebooking about my life and experiences that I'm somehow absent when it comes to being a present and in the moment participant of it. It reminds me of a few years back going and watching Woody Allen and his band perform at the Cafe Carlyle.  Everyone was filming the performance on their phones or cameras or taking pictures (Allen didn't seem to mind, not the way Bobby Short used to apparently) and very few people were just sitting and experiencing the moment without a device in front of their face. It occurred to me that somehow we don't actually just live anymore unless we are doing so through some form of social media or medium.

Before Facebook I was actually a fairly prolific blogger, which you may argue is another form of social media and you may be right. But it is also where I write and this is an important part of who I am and how I process the world I live in. Now I haven't blogged in ages, firstly because I had two small children who were not in school and then because I post FB updates when I have an idea, and subsequently don't sit and spend the time developing it into a piece of writing. Likewise I have a painting I am struggling with and I'm avoiding it and using FB as a way of doing so. My Flicker account (and love of taking pictures) lies dormant, I have piles of unread books, not to mention a myriad of admin and unpacked boxes from when we moved back in September 2013. I recently had to take my child to get vaccinated and couldn't find his red book and realised I haven't seen it since the move. I kept nagging myself with the accusation: 'If you'd sorted through all those boxes instead of mucking about on FB you would have found it by now'. This interior accusatory voice sounded strangely like my mother.

And I'd be lying if I said I didn't sneak a peak on FB when I am hanging out with my kids, even if it is when they are engaged with a game or toy or TV programme and aren't requiring my immediate attention. I read stuff people post, check out the links, look at the youtube clips, respond to stuff, get into the occasional argument in the comments on Slate, the usual stuff. Quite simply I am wasting valuable time on Facebook and I need that time to lead what I think will be a more productive and creative existence. If this still doesn't happen in the absence of FB usage, I may have to accept that perhaps I (and not FB) am to blame for not leading a more productive and creative existence. Always risky not having something or someone to blame for ones shortcomings.

There is also another more ominous aspect of Facebook which bothers me. Perhaps I cannot blame the medium itself, but I think I can blame how we have come to use it, or perhaps how it allows or encourages us to use it, and how it can be an incredibly destructive social force. Last year I read how a man and a woman had gunned down a second woman who was still holding her baby because of a Facebook dispute between the two woman. She died but the baby was found still alive beneath her. It haunts me this story. In a less homicidal and dramatic form I have seen from my own personal experience and those of my friends how Facebook or the use thereof has destroyed a lot of relationships.

You have have a party or have a handful of people over, and someone doesn't get invited and someone else you have invited takes a photo or updates that they are at your house. And the uninvited person/s get seriously pissed and thinks you hate them. This happened to me last year and I was genuinely upset about it for a while imagining all sorts of reasons why I hadn't been invited and inventing scenarios as to what the person who had thrown the gathering had against me. The real reason of course, was that she had nothing against me. The fact is this was not about me – she had some people over and didn't invite me, which is not the same as not inviting me. And the funny thing about all of this is that I am the first person to tell people to get a grip, and that not everything is about them and not everyone is obliged to invite them to every bloody thing. Can you imagine if they did? Your life would be like featuring in a Groundhog Day episode of Cheers.

And then there are the people that never actually invite you to anything, quite possibly because they never actually host anything, but get offended because you don't invite them to something. It's like my son who thinks every Buzz Lightyear (in the store, at the bottom of a stranger's buggy) belongs to him. Likewise biscuits. I don't actually have anything more to say on this subject. It speaks for itself. Or someone posts a photo of you with someones ex husband or ex friend that they've come to hate in an old testament kind of way (but you still rather like this person), and the eejit taking the photo tags you and that leads to another shit storm.

Or you post something and someone disagrees with it in principle and suddenly you are having a terrible personal argument when it all started about your love of the film 'The English Patient' (Homage to Seinfeld here). Staying up until all hours waiting to see what they respond with, and then responding back and then being unable to sleep because of what they may respond with. And sitting at dinner with your husband feeling compelled to check your phone every few minutes to see if there has been yet another response to your response. And if he even thinks of raising an eyebrow you feel justified in almost shouting out: "But honey this important!" And god knows it feels important. This happened to me, although not about 'The English Patient', and a very good and long term friendship very nearly ended for good over what amount to nothing important at all. Not to mention all those hours of lost sleep. 

I honestly think we've created a culture of potential social bedlam of Jerry Springer proportions. Things in the past, that we may have done and lied about like normal people, are now out and in the open on Facebook causing all kinds of offence (imagined and real), hurt, and fallings out. It's quite crazy when you step back and look at it for what it is – highschool. Since when did we have to record our every living breathing moment or opinion and have to be accountable for everything we do and who we hang out with, and since when did people feel entitled to have an opinion on this either way? And why do we care?

I've posted a holiday snap, had a comment to the effect of: 'Well it's alright for some' and then fallen into the trap of apologising with stuff like: 'Well, you know, it's pretty full on with the kids, and my husband has quite an intense job and he travels a lot and it's nice to have some time together as a family.' When instead I should say: 'Yes, I'm on holiday, I'm having a nice fucking time and I don't need to apologise for it'. It serves as an important reminder: Even if you are not someone that likes to crow and make people feel bad about the fact that you have something that they don't - if you look as though you are having a good time and there is Facebook evidence of it, you appear to be rubbing other people's noses in it. There is no escaping it.

Facebook also serves as a shitty substitute for having a meaningful relationship with someone. A really good friend of mine who lived in Germany got very ill and died last year. We were both lazy correspondents to begin with and in recent years had got accustomed to checking in on each other via Facebook as opposed to Skyping or emailing as we used to do. He got ill and was in hospital for a few months before passing away and I had no idea, none, until I got the call that he had died. During the period of his illness his Facebook activity was obviously zero, which meant he didn't feature in my feed, and I just assumed he was taking time out, working on something, and it never ever occurred to me that something might be wrong. I genuinely struggle to deal with this on a day to day basis – the fact that I didn't call him or email him and be there for him in his illness and see him before he died. And I cannot blame Facebook – it's my fault entirely for relying on it alone to facilitate my relationship with him.

Then there are the people who see the handful of things you choose to update about and assume that it represents your life in total. So a holiday snap plus you in Starbucks drinking a coffee plus a new pair of shoes equals a blessed existence of holidays, lazy workless lunches and shopping without any of the stresses and strains of their life. It discounts the fact that like everyone else you may have health concerns, worry about money, have to work at your marriage, have issues with your children's school, or anxiety, trouble sleeping, family problems, all of this stuff that you DON'T POST ABOUT. People who assume Facebook is a reflection of real life need a reality check or therapy. But perhaps what is worse are people that are guilty of consciously promoting this bullshit fantasy about their own lives and maybe Facebook as a medium encourages it?

So I'm taking time off from my personal FB page /timeline maybe indefinitely. I want to write, which I am kind of trying to do here, maybe develop the idea of School Run Mum into something more than a FB page, and I want to finish that bloody painting. And I am determined to sort through all of my unpacked boxes and have a clear out. And I want to really engage with my children rather than say: “Just a second I'm just updating my status.” And I want to call and talk to my friends (or better still see them) and find out how they are rather than relying on their status updates to check in on them. And I don't want to talk about what I am doing all of the time because I don't want people to resent me for it. If I want someone to resent me, I'd much rather we go out, have a drink, and I put my foot in it as I always do. Then they can resent me for a good old fashioned real reason, not because of a picture of me drinking wine where I manage a smile for one tenth of a second which makes it look like I am having the most fabulous time and have no troubles in my life, ever. I also don't want to know which of my friends might be partying without me. I'd much rather they lie to me through omission – the way we've always done it. That way we can all just get on with our lives and everyone will be much happier. I genuinely believe this. Sometimes ignorance is most certainly bliss.

And of course I am going to click the 'Share on Facebook' button right now because I want you to read this, but I'm not going to check it. No I'm not. So don't comment on Facebook if you have something smart to say like: 'Well it's OK for some to fanny about writing blogs.' Not if you want me to read it that is. Drop me a call and let's go out and then you can tell me.

About School Run Mum: A week or so ago I started this FB page after I watched Bill Cunningham New York. Bill takes pictures of real people on the streets of New York wearing interesting and beautiful clothes. It sparked an idea because something that has interested and intrigued me since I started taking my children to school was seeing how some people dress given they have about the same time I do in the mornings, yet manage to come up with something a bit more creative than my own sweater, jeans and deck shoes uniform. It's not about designer stuff or how much you spend on your clothes, but rather seeing the creative way people manage to express their individual style through clothes and accessories, in and amongst the chaos and time limitations of getting children to and from school.

When I initially had the idea and asked some people what they thought, they were unanimously positive and asked 'But where will we see the pictures?' and I honestly couldn't come up with a better idea than FB because it's just so accessible and pretty much most people I know are on it. I also don't have to yell out some long winded or complicated URL after taking a picture of someone but instead just tell them to see it on FB as it's a public page. If you're wondering if this completely and utterly contradicts what I have written in this blog I had the same concern, but this page is not about me personally, it is a creative enterprise and I think it can be very interesting and it's something I am happy to spend some time on. I also worried that maybe people might start making bitchy comments about photos but as I facilitate and regulate the page I am not going to allow that. This project is about finding a beautiful individual moment of creative expression in and amongst the chaos of getting kids ready for school, not a place to bitch and encourage all of the negative stuff I've written about in this blog.

So please send me your photos via the message facility on School Run Mum and simply state which city or town the picture was taken in – no need to tag: Ideally I'd like pictures from around the world: Not just of women or men in big cities, but everywhere. It may be a something as simple yet as beautiful as a pink scarf over a winter coat on a rainy day, or a pair of colourful sandals peaking out at the bottom of a burqa, or an African print top paired with a pair of jeans. If you take a picture of someone else on your school run please do not have their face in it, and no pictures of children ever. Thank you.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The couple that never fights

When you break an arm or a leg and have that cast on for an interminable period,  it is hard to imagine a time when you didn't have it and had the freedom to move your limb around freely. It's what I call being 'in it'.  Likewise those early months and years with children when you are so dog tired you genuinely struggle to have a memory of what it feels like to be well rested or have a day to yourself with nothing at all to do but embark on selfish ventures. They aren't actually selfish, but when you have kids you think of other people who don't have kids and who tell you they spent their Saturday getting a Starbucks followed by a lazy visit to a market, a boozy lunch with a friend, and a party that evening, as incredibly selfish. "Pah! People with no kids," you find yourself saying, "they have no idea. And they got a lie in too, can you imagine?" 

Before children, my husband and I used to argue about very little - to the degree that I thought perhaps our relationship was somehow inauthentic because we didn't even bicker, and I didn't go through periods of hating him either. If bickering, fighting, and hating each other was normal, we were somehow abnormal. I now see that although we are blessed to be incredibly well suited to each other, it was also largely to do with the fact that we had a lot of time on our hands.  Time to ourselves and time together. We'd spend a Saturday waking up whenever - usually late because we had been out the night before. We'd grab brunch (never up early enough to eat breakfast), wonder down Tottenham Court Road (he'd buy a small electronic wire or plug for some or other computer project he was building), I'd go to Boots, or Paperchase, or visit the Vintage clothing store, or pick up some magazines. We'd grab some sushi somewhere for lunch. Head home, pootle around with our projects and then later meet friends or have them round to ours and have a few drinks and dinner, and the whole cycle would repeat itself on Sunday. 

These days it is somewhat different. On a Saturday morning, despite only falling asleep at 10pm or so the night before, one of the children inevitably comes into bed with us around 7.30am (although this is a vast improvement because when they were smaller it was much earlier). One of us gets up and gets the kids some chocolate milk and lets them watch some kids TV while breakfast is prepared. We take it in turns to shower while one of us watches the kids, specifically my son, who has a habit of discovering bottles of things that can be poured over new carpets, trying to put things into electric sockets, throwing heavy toys down the stairs, or muscle his older willowy sister. My husband takes my daughter to her swimming lesson while I do a few errands with my son, we meet up for lunch with the kids, and then we take them to the park or one of the many kids parties that now fill our weekend calendars. Late afternoon and the kids usually demand a movie.  We always foolishly think this will give us an opportunity to sit down for a minute, but actually their movie watching experience involves us getting them a laundry list of drinks and snacks and taking them for toilet visits.  And then at some point my son will get bored of watching the film and will start levelling violence towards his sister who starts moaning because she is trying to watch, and sometimes crying because she is in actual pain. My husband or I have to settle the dispute, my son dutifully gets told off, behaves for five minutes, and then commits another attention seeking misdemeanour, at which point my husband (rain or shine) takes him out of the house again on a token errand. Basically an opportunity for him to have a walk and burn off some of that little boy energy that if not spent in a constructive manner gets turned into aforementioned destructive house trashing / sister bashing energy.  

By the time they return it is early evening, we prepare their dinner, give them a bath, and then it is bed time stories, and sitting outside of their rooms so they don't pop out of bed every 2 minutes and start running wild. One of us does this while the other tidies up the carnage from the day - playdough on the floor, chocolate on the sofas, dishes from dinner, crisps down backs of sofas, 101 tiny toys tidied away etc. By around 9.30pm if we are lucky, we emerge battle wary and exhausted - sometimes they are still awake but we are fed up with sitting on the stairs outside of their room. We might snack on something for dinner, watch a bit of TV. I fall asleep on the sofa, only to be woken at around 11.30pm by my husband who tells me it is time for bed. We collapse into bed and the whole business is repeated the next day, Sunday. These days we do try and play backgammon or a game of pool so we have the illusion of a Saturday night out. And yes, to be fair, we do have sitters occasionally and manage to go out, which is essential. But you've got to get back at a certain time to relieve the sitter, and one of you has to watch how much they drink as someone has to be responsible for the children during the night and of course get up with them the following morning. 

We are no longer that couple that never argue. Although I don't know if we argue as much as I vent and my husband doesn't retaliate because he is smart and emotionally intelligent enough not to take the bait and enter into a stupid pointless exchange. My son will throw something down the stairs and I ask my husband: "Aren't you watching them? I thought you were watching them?!" And he will say: "No I wasn't watching him and you are right I should have been." It ends there. Or I moan about the fact that perfectly clean clothes are chucked into the laundry basket making more laundry for me. My husband: "You are right, I will check next time." Or the bath towels are left on the floor and not hung up on the radiator in the bathroom. "I will hang them up next time." He gets annoyed about the fact that I allow the kids into bed with us (neither of us are really able to sleep when they do). Me: "But honey she was having a bad dream." And he is very tired when get gets home from work but always always takes the kids and baths them and gets them ready for bed but I know he would like me to do it once in a while too instead of fleeing to my study.

All of this exists because when you have small children you don't have a lot of time for yourself and so you start going a bit mad because you need that breathing space to be able to just sit and stare at a wall sometimes. And suddenly it's like you have to account for every breathing minute of your life and none of it is about you anymore - as in just you as an individual. And so you direct your resentment at the one person you feel can take it and who you perceive to be the enemy in all of this - your partner.

It has changed for me dramatically, because my children are now both at school full day, but a couple of months ago my very busy son wasn't and I genuinely struggled with defining myself in and amongst the 24/7 needs of everyone else. I really had to remind myself that my husband and I are on the same side and that as with any joint venture you embark on, and in this case we are talking our children, it's hard work.  My husband gets a change of scene, but that is because he goes to work, and it's not exactly like he is sitting around having a whole bunch of selfish fun either. He is working. And I chose to be a stay at home mother, and I feel very fortunate to have had this option, although it does get pretty intense. And it's not always going to be fun and easy, and you have to stick together and remember why you undertook it in the first place. Also that my husband is still that person I fell in love with and had all that fun selfish free time with, and now we are both 'in it' and the best way to get through it is to help each other, to be kind to each other, to be grateful for the other person's commitment and hard work, and to remember that we are both individually struggling with the fact that our personal freedom has been so dramatically compromised.

Also you know, I want to look after my relationship with my husband, because one day our children will leave the nest and I don't want to be left with some fragmented thing that resembles a marriage with a person I don't really know any more and who I've neglected over the years. It genuinely scares me. And also one of the reasons I say to all of my friends who are new parents: Date Night. Schedule it in and stick to it as you would a doctor's appointment - but do so weekly. It's astounding how fast you can grow apart from someone that was at one point the centre of your universe when you are busy raising children.

As I am fast discovering, what with the kids at school now, and having that longed for breathing space and time to actually write and reflect, this period when your children are little is really very short when you look back. Although as I said in the opening paragraph, it can sometimes feel endless when things are difficult. But as difficult as it can be it is also a process that is in a constant state of flux. And tremendously rewarding when you see how your children are growing, and learning, and developing. When they start cracking jokes or making witty observations, or just that thing where they launch themselves at you with great affection and tell you you are their best friend and they love you. When you start seeing signs of the kind of people; the man, the woman they are going to be one day and you think to yourself with a mixture of trepidation and awe and of course overwhelming love: You know, I think we did OK and I think they are going to be fine. Then, in that moment, all of it, all the good, all the bad, all the stuff that you had to give up, all the stuff that you gained, all that stupid stuff that you argued about, everything that seemed so overwhelming, well, it all kind of weirdly makes sense.