As I get older and my friends and contemporaries take on more responsibility in their jobs and lives, the one thing I realise is that everyone is winging it. This discovery is as frightening as it is reassuring. When we are young, we think our parents know everything. Now, as a parent to two young boys, I realise that my parents, like me, knew nothing. They were, as I am now, winging it.
With motherhood comes the realisation that you haven’t got a clue what you’re supposed to do. How can I, who is still working out who I am, teach two small boys who they are? How can I make these sweet little people into strong, independent, kind, compassionate, well rounded individuals? How can I ensure that I don’t mess it up?
Answer = you can’t. You can only learn from your mistakes. There are no guarantees. There is no right or wrong way. There is only the advice my mother used to give me going into exams – ‘Just do your best, that’s all anyone can ask.’
The difference between the experience of baby number one and baby number two is simply this – you stop kidding yourself that you’re ever going to be the perfect parent and realise that getting through the day without broken furniture, broken bones and broken sleep is a miracle in itself.
When your first child is born, you gaze into its little red face and promise to cherish and nurture them forever. You take them home to their beautifully decorated nursery and lay them down in freshly laundered sheets and play them Mozart on the specially designed cot mobile that you ordered from the ‘my baby’s going to be a world leader.com website’.
When your second child is born, you stagger home, put them in the hall in their car seat and lavish the first child with gifts and attention in case they feel left out or usurped and have one of their epic tantrums. In the meantime, you forget entirely about the new baby until they roar for food.
Getting the baby into a routine.
Routine is what all new mothers become obsessed with. We all want a baby that sleeps through the night. Suddenly, you find yourself in competition with other new Mums over sleep patterns. Everyone rushes out to buy baby books that promise to have your child in a routine within weeks of its birth. These books cause women the world over to have nervous breakdowns trying to force their children into draconian regimes that looking back now I can see as absolutely ludicrous….Ah the wisdom of hindsight! And yet, as a brand new mother, I duly went out and bought these ‘bibles’ for babies. I studied them with intense concentration and a highlighter pen. According to the authors my, child would be sleeping thought the night within six weeks. I tried to follow these ridiculous routines and almost went out of my mind. Eventually I realised that the person I had to listen to, was my baby and not a bunch of ‘uber-nannies’ who seemed to believe that children were robots.
When my second child arrived, I fed him when he roared, I changed his nappy when it needed changing and I let him sleep when he was tired. Life was a lot simpler.
When your first child is being weaned from milk to solids, you buy cook books by glossy haired American women with big teeth called Annabelle. You study the recipes with the concentration of a rocket scientist, highlighting all the most nutritious ones. Suddenly, leeks, celery and lentils become part of your shopping list. You stay up until all hours, steaming, simmering and pureeing foods that you have never cooked before in your life. You are determined that your baby will have baby purees that provide them with a good source of protein, beta-carotene, folate (no I have no idea what that is either!), fibre and vitamin C.
Every time baby number two opens its mouth, you shove whatever is closest to hand into it – this can involve, chocolate biscuits, crisps, crusts of bread, sugar cubes, car keys, pens or whatever else happens to be lying around.
When your first child is born you refuse to put a soother into their mouth. God forbid! They give children bucked teeth and distort their speech patterns. There is no way your precious child is going to be nicknamed Bugs bunny in school. Listening to them wailing is just part of being a parent.
Before your second child takes its first breath you shove a soother into its mouth. There is barely room for them in the cot, because you have filled it with fifteen soothers in the futile hope that every time they roll over, one will pop voluntarily into their mouth and save you having to get up at night and re-plug them.
When your first child begins to have toddler tantrums, you worry yourself sick. Why? What did I do wrong? Are they sick? In pain? Did I get the words of Incy Wincy Spider wrong? You try to talk to them as they continue to scream into your face. When they throw themselves on the floor of the supermarket because you put raspberry yogurts into the trolley instead of strawberry ones, you go straight home and spend all night researching anger management on the Internet. When they fling a plate of food at you because you can’t find their favourite red spoon, you book an appointment with a neurologist because you think they might be bi-polar.
When your second child thrown their first tantrum – you laugh. When they throw their second, you put them in their cot and leave them there until they calm down… settling down outside their bedroom with a good book, as you now know that this could take from two minutes to two hours.
First day at school
When your eldest is going to school, you buy them a new outfit for the special day. You get up an hour early to make them a nutritious breakfast and to get yourself ready for the big day, changing ten times as you desperately try to get the ‘casual but stylish Mum’ outfit right. You take fifty photos of them before they leave the house. You try not to cry the whole way there and you bawl the whole way home. You collect them early and bombard the teacher with questions and cannot believe that she hasn’t noticed that they are a particularly gifted child and definitely a future world leader.
When your second child goes to school, they wear their siblings hand-me-down outfit. You forget to charge the camera so no pictures can be taken. You throw a raincoat over your pyjamas and try to suppress the feeling of glee as you leave them in and look forward to the first morning you’ve had to yourself in four years. When you pick them up you pray that the teacher won’t tell you they’ve bitten or thumped anyone.
The school gate, AKA the war zone
When your first child is an hour old, you fill in the application forms for the top five schools in your area. You know they’ll probably win a scholarship when the time comes, but just in case you don’t want be without a back up plan. Other mothers assure you that you will have to sell your soul to the devil to get your child into a good school. They warn you that NOBODY can get into certain schools without serious contacts or the financial ability to build a new library, gymnasium or running track.
On your second child you realise that this is twaddle and that as long as they are able to walk and talk they have a good chance of getting into one of the schools in your neighbourhood and that it really doesn’t matter which one.
Your first child’s play date can be traumatic. You don’t really know this woman or her child? Will they be kind to your first born? Will they clap and cheer when your little genius builds a Lego tower like you do? Do they have dangerous toys in the house? Will they allow the children to play outside with no coats on? What kind of snack will the mother give them? Will they, God forbid, allow them to watch television!?!
If anyone is kind enough to ask your second child on a play date you’re giddy with joy. Two hours of calm in your house is such a rare treat. You don’t care if they watch TV, eat sweets and play outside naked.
When it comes to your eldest child’s third birthday, you go all out. You start baking weeks in advance. You do a crash course in cake making and spend days creating a dragon cake that even the mothers ooh and ahh when they see. You decorate the house from top to toe. You invite everyone in the class. Twenty-six screaming children will be no problem, you want your child to be popular and well liked. It takes three days to clean up and the red icing you used for the dragon cake never comes out of your cream carpet, curtains or sofas.
When it comes to your second child’s third birthday, you invite the five friends they mention the most to the local indoor play jungle. You valiantly ignore the smell of urine that permeates the place and try to look positively on the burnt chicken nuggets and soggy chips that make up the birthday dinner. A football cake from Tescos is produced and once the singing is over you go home to a clean house, flop on the couch, put your feet up and sink a bottle of wine.
When your first born begins to question things, you’re thrilled. All gifted children want to understand the ways of the world. You answer every question diligently and if, God forbid, you don’t know the answer because dinosaurs are not your forte, you immediately look it up and provide a detailed response in record time. I found myself constantly calling my nephews to quiz them on why exactly Spiderman would outfight Batman, Hulk, Shadow and the Silver Surfer in a fight?
On your second child you feign deafness or just pure ignorance because you know their thirst for knowledge is insatiable, it’s eight o’clock at night you have no more energy left and frankly you couldn’t give a toss if Spiderman got his head kicked in by all his enemies and his arms ripped off and eaten by an enormous T-Rex.
From cot to bed
When your first child is two, you decide it’s time they slept in their own bed. Besides, you need the cot for the new baby. You go out and buy the nicest bed you can find with an extortionately priced ‘super-safe’ mattress and beautiful bed-linen. When your eldest child comes home, screams all night and refuses point blank to ever sleep in that nasty bed, you go out and buy a second cot.
When your second child is thirteen, you agree to get them a bed.
And so, at this early stage in my experience of parenting I struggle every day to be the best I can be – some days I go to bed happy with myself, most days I go to bed worrying that I have said or done something that will damage them for life. In my experience, parenthood comes packaged with a lifetime of worry and self-flagellation.
So, what’s the upside? An unconditional love and pride that leaves you breathless every time you look at them….
Posted in Short Stories