This week we attempted to toilet train our two and a half-year-old son. Toilet training a child is a bit like trying to blow up a balloon. Nothing nothing nothing nothing, and then pffft! it happens. Or in the case of toilet training the 'nothing' refers to: Pee in pants, pee in pants and on carpet, pee in pants and on kitchen floor, pee in pants and cry about wee burning legs, pee in pants and on leather sofa, pee on sister's bedroom chair causing her to lament and announce that such things shouldn't happen because she is the president of her room all the while wearing a revolted expression. The 'pffft!' or rather psssss moment happens when on day four, just when you are thinking the whole thing is a bloody waste of time, you've washed 32 mini boxer shorts and trousers, your child is clearly not ready, and the nursery school that requires him to be 'dry' can go, well, you know what itself, he walks into the room and announces, "Mummy come see, I did it!" and shows you a potty with wee in it. Not only that, but he then carries the potty to the toilet, empties it, and flushes it.
The challenge of potting training is not so much about changing the fact that the child pees or poos in a nappy to doing so in a toilet or potty, although this is of course the end objective. But more so about them gaining awareness of the initial need or sensation of needing to urinate or defecate, and then having the time to get themselves to a toilet or potty to do their business rather than it being a reflexive action. That awareness is what is key, which is why you have to go through that cruel sounding business of them peeing in their pants so many times. It is the discomfort of that procedure that somehow causes the switch whereby they suddenly pause and think 'Hang on a second, I need to wee.' To my husband's credit, he is quite adamant that even if we leave the house we do not regress to nappy use, and instead take out several pairs of trousers and underpants so we can change my son if we need to. We use nappies just ahead of bedtime only, but increasingly these themselves are dry in the morning.
So many of these little microcosmic moments with children act as metaphors for life, learning, and the human condition. Aside from the incredible love one experiences for one's children, it is one of my best things about parenting.
Separately, but not entirely unrelated, I saw my optician some months ago. The man who works the front of house was telling me about his baby. He told me how much he loved being a parent despite the sleepless nights. He didn't have to tell me about those - he looked pale, gaunt, and a bit unhealthy. I conceded it was a wonderful thing and also hard work. He looked at me like he was about to cry and then with a burst, of what I suspected was a bunch of stuff lying beneath the surface, blurted out "Oh my god it's hard, it is so hard. I am so exhausted. And I try and help my wife, but I also have work, and I love my child, but I really really struggle with it you know? And the baby cries a lot." And I said yes, I knew, and it was OK to have ambivalent feelings about being a parent which seemed to give him some relief.
I think a lot of people really struggle with how life changing the experience is. But to admit to, or voice the fact that they struggle, or that they sometimes miss their pre parent life, that they miss being an individual who has the freedom to come and go and make choices without the enormous responsibility (physical and emotional) of having to consider a small person or several small people, feels like committing a kind of blasphemy.
To miss being able to lie in in the mornings, to go out and have a night of excess without worrying that you may have to get up in the night to see to a child, or achingly early the next morning to do the same.To be able to make love without the risk of a child walking in on you. Likewise going to the toilet. To book adventurous holidays where you don't have to worry about it being child friendly. To enjoy getting lost in a strange city. To eat popcorn for dinner instead of having to conjure a nutritious meal that inevitably gets only partially eaten - if at all. To lie at the pool and read a book until your fall asleep. To sit down and write when inspiration takes you, or play a video game, or read a book, without being asked to wipe a bottom or fetch a drink. To have a conversation with your partner when the need arises, as opposed to having to wait until evening when the children are in bed and you are too exhausted. And to be able to have an afternoon nap on the weekends. Ahh yes, the afternoon nap.
I think it's OK to say, you know, I miss this stuff, I really do, and I hate the worry that comes with being a parent - that constant overwhelming worry, which I'm told never stops, even when they are older and greying themselves. And at the same time saying this, acknowledging it, doesn't mean I don't love my children enormously and delight in their company, or that I wish them away.
I think much of the human condition, what makes us unique and interesting, is that we can have these mixed feelings about things. That it doesn't have to be one or the other because if it's the other, well then, I am a terrible person. It is important to embrace one's ambivalence for the sake of one's sanity. Oh yes, and a sense of humour. I am eternally grateful to god, the gods, evolution, science, the universe, the Spiritus Mundi - whatever you choose to believe in that had a hand in our making, for blessing us with the capacity for humour. It is, in my opinion, next to the opposable thumb and oxygen, essential and life sustaining.
I asked a mum of three this week (three under 5's - can you imagine?) how she manages, and she told me matter of frankly, "Wine, a glass of wine in the evenings. It's the only way I can do it." And then we discussed the merits of box wine, and having your tubes tied. She also looked me squarely in the eye and said, "And that thing people tell you about the difference between having two children and three not being so noticeable is a load of bollocks."
So, TV, I am really enjoying the new HBO series, 'Girls.' There is some homage within the programme and comparison in the reviews to the 'Sex and the City' TV series. I used to love SATC but thought the earlier series were better. They were gritty, well written and to a greater extent, certainly more so than the movies, a more realistic representation of life, and how some women think, talk and interact. Later they became, I don't know, some sort of fantasy aspirational world that annoyed me. Girls reminds me a lot of that early SATC stuff - very gritty, and frankly even more cringe worthy and difficult to watch at times. Despite the comparison - I don't entirely feel like I've seen it before, which in this day and age of remake after remake, is saying something. Also the narrative doesn't feel entirely predictable which is another achievement I think.
I recently travelled to South Africa for my cousin's wedding. So there I am at the airport at immigration and the immigration officer, a surly man (immigration officers are always surly, I concede) asks me, "So, you are a South African citizen. Where is your SA passport?" Me: "No, I am a British citizen". Him: "Do not lie to me! You are South African, it is in the system." Me: "It is true I was born here and lived here, but I renounced my South African citizenship back in 2003 by failing to renew my passport and requesting dual citizenship."
For people, like me, who were born in South Africa and are in possession of a SA passport, expired or not, there is some strange rule, that is causing much confusion even for the South African immigration department. It appears that if you are a South African citizen you must travel there on your South African passport, irrespective if you have another passport and are a citizen elsewhere. I believe I got off lightly, because there is risk of arrest for not doing so. But then there is that weird thing about having renounced your citizenship, which is what I cited, which appears to be the loophole. To be honest no one really knows what the hell it's all about and exactly what the rules are - just be forewarned.
He gave me the third degree and a very hard time for renouncing (not consciously but more so through carelessness and ignorance) my SA citizenship, and told me that South Africa would always be my country, that my family and friends were there and that it was my home (wtf???!!!) and I should travel in on my SA passport in future. And I stood there feeling anger rise up inside of me because this man knew nothing about me or my life. And I felt like saying: 'Actually, you know, its not my country any more, I have very few family members still here likewise friends, and it's not my home and it hasn't been for some time. Home is where you make it, where your heart is, and for me this is where my family and my life is, where I earn my living and pay my taxes, and a country that has been good to me. And for me this is England and it has been for the past 15 years. And really all I want to do is come here for a long weekend, see my sisters, see my cousin get married, and spend my British pounds in your country. So for f-sakes, let me in already.'
But of course I didn't, because I needed to get on the other side of him so I could begin my short holiday. So I did what any other self respecting person in that position does, I rose up to my full height and lied: I agreed and said, "Yes, yes, you are quite right, this is home and I do miss it so. I will look into the matter of getting my dual citizenship reinstated asap, and I'll renew my passport." Which seemed to placate him and he waved me through with an undisguised look of repugnance on his face. Once on the other side my sister found the whole thing uproariously funny and said, "Oh, boy, that is funny, but you know what would have been even funnier? If they had given you a cavity search!" Yup, for that I nearly got arrested.
I enjoyed my stay, however brief. But Johannesburg has changed a lot since I lived there 15 years ago, and even from when I visited three years ago. There are people on pretty much every street corner hawking their wares or holding up cardboard signs begging for money - there is tremendous and visible poverty. And every time you park your car, even for 5 minutes, someone asks for money to watch it for you so it doesn't get stolen or damaged - like it's a given that theft or damage is an inevitability. Not that I'm sure it's that easy to steal cars what with the state of the art laser beam shark infested moat technology they have over there, which is, tragically, why hijackings exist I imagine. And for those of you planning a visit thinking your pounds or dollars are going to give you an inexpensive holiday, think again. Inflation means food is pricey as are clothes and gifts. Still, there is fun to be had, and I regret not having a bit more time to catch up with those of my friends who have not scattered to the four corners of the world.
I recently sold my DSM IV - that is the bible of psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists - and translates to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I purchased it back in university, back at a time in my life when I genuinely intended to become a psychologist. Later I started doing my masters degree, but things happened, well, life happened, and I didn't continue with it. My mother fervently believes I missed a beat and should go back to it. But I think I am genuinely OK with the fact that it's not something I want to do with my life any more - ergo the exodus of textbooks via eBay from my collection.
A friend of mine has been selling his textbooks too (an unrelated subject) - another shutting of a door on something he thought, at some point in his life, he was going to do. I asked him how he felt about letting go of that chapter, and he said he found the experience strangely liberating, and I know what he means. Sometimes you hold on to this stuff from year to year despite you and your life changing. Like it somehow, I don't know, means something and would be an irreversible tragic loss if you were to give it up. And in reality it can just be clutter in your life, emotionally and spatially, and you need to move on and look to the future.
A few of my friends have been or are about to turn 40 and there's a lot of talk of the 'This is not where I thought I would be' variety going on. I'm not entirely sure where I thought I would be at 40. As a child I remember loving a TV programme called 'Hart to Hart' - a husband and wife team, who along with their faithful dog and butler, had thrilling adventures mostly with them stumbling upon mysteries and crimes that needed solving, while living a fabulous millionaire's lifestyle of course. She also had great big auburn hair and a to die for wardrobe. I had no desire to play house and certainly no interest in having children - so I aspired to this jet set crime solving future. Later, when I became a teenager, I seriously doubted I'd ever find anyone to match my cynicism and love of Yoko Ono, and imagined myself in the future being single, driving an old Chevy (???), and living in an apartment exactly like the character Brontë's in 'Green Card'. I'd most likely be a writer or director, and have very interesting friends and fabulous affairs with brooding men in black polo neck jumpers, but never a husband.
And fast forward, not quite to 40, and I have a wonderfully good humoured and not in the least bit brooding husband (who occasionally wears black polo neck jumpers) and two lovely funny children, and I'm a stay at home mother and a not quite published writer. A friend of mine who writes, occasionally asks me how I feel about not quite writing and being a stay at home mother, like she's expecting me to say how frustrated and unhappy I am about it all, but strangely enough, I'm not. I get days when I want to write and I cannot (see earlier paragraphs) and I feel annoyed and I have fantasies of living in the Brontë flat, but mostly I'm actually enjoying what I do now. Raising my children and trying to give them a good start in life and a happy childhood; a job which is hard work, fun, frustrating, wonderful, exhausting, and all that mixed bag stuff being a parent involves. And when the time is right the other stuff will happen. In the mean time it's all part of the material.