Life, the Universe and Parenting 

(This was first published in Le News 2 April 2015)

These days I find I’m getting a lot of useful parenting advice from poems like The Prophet and Desiderata; poems I grew up seeing badly framed and hanging in everybody’s guest bathroom. Who knew that one day I’d honestly find them more helpful than most parenting books?

And why? Well, take the example of the latest parenting book that I read. I can’t remember the title but the author is a big proponent of something called ‘Authoritative Parenting’ (not to be confused with the more heavy-handed Authoritarian style, or it’s opposite, the I’ve Completely Bloody Given Up Because Nobody Listens to Me Anyway style). Authoritative parents are loving, nurturing and responsive to their children, but they take no crap; they can be trusted to steer their offspring towards their best possible futures, with a firm hand and a courageous heart. It’s very positive, very motivating, very Captain of Your Own Destiny stuff. So why, you may ask, would someone turn away from this, in favour of inspirational poetry from the 1920s?

Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s because according to The Prophet and Desiderata a) nothing my children do is my fault and b) it’s all going to turn out fine in the end, no matter what else happens. Obviously, these ideas are balm to my neurotic and self-flagellating soul.

I’ve never needed these reassurances quite as badly as I did this last week, when the smaller child had her school concert. Regular readers of this column (my mom; my brother; my husband, sometimes), may remember me writing about a similar concert this time last year, when the child was some sort of bug, and wasn’t entirely engaged with her role. Well, this year, things have changed. It may be that she’s a year older. It may be that this time she got to wear a gold dress and glitter, rather than antennae and fake legs. I don’t know. But this year she took things very seriously: she practised her routines for weeks, and was very excited about the dress rehearsal, which was put on for the school the day before the actual concert.

‘She was great,’ her big sister reported back that afternoon. ‘She remembered her dance steps, and all the song words.’

‘Oh good.’

‘And her dress looked amazing.’

‘Oh good!’

‘But then, right at the end she lifted it over her head and the whole school saw her knickers.’

‘What?’ I cried, aghast. This has happened so many times that I don’t know why I even bother being aghast anymore, but I feel I should make the effort.

‘Darling, please,’ I begged the little flasher. ‘Keep your dress down tomorrow. They’ll be filming.’

‘Okay,’ she assured me, cheerfully.

‘Your dress. Tomorrow. Keep it down!’ I reminded her again that evening.

I even whispered it in her ear as she slept, in the hope that it might penetrate her brain that way. ‘Do not bring disgrace upon your family or your motherland. Your dress … keep it down.’

But the next day as I sat in the darkened auditorium, watching the world’s most clothing-averse child standing there onstage, fiddling with her hemline and blinking up into the bright lights, the only thing that brought me any comfort was reciting Khalil Gibran:

‘She belongs not to me,’ I paraphrased, ‘ I may give her my love but not my thoughts, for she has her own thoughts. Please keep your dress down.’ (Of course Gibran didn’t say that last bit. That was me, and I know it adds nothing to the poem, but I couldn’t help it.)

Is it a terrible thing to admit that your children sometimes shame you? Hah! Show me the parent who has never been embarrassed by their offspring and I’ll show you a child who has never raced, naked and cackling loudly, through a snow-filled parking lot into an upmarket garden centre.

‘She’s not my daughter,’ I explained to startled onlookers, as I corralled my little nudist and bundled her back into the car. ‘She’s actually the daughter of Life’s longing for itself.’

But they didn’t seem to care whose daughter she was, as long as someone got her out of there.

Anyway, The Prophet has assuaged a lot of parental anxiety by telling me to just relax, it’ll be fine. (Of course, ‘Just relax, it’ll be fine’  must be said in prose poetry, by a prose poet. My husband says the same thing all the time but that just makes me cross.)

And the bigger child? Well, she has presented different challenges. For her,  Desiderata has aided me best, especially in those tense moments before leaving the house, when the child would come downstairs and show me the outfit that she’d spent so long – hours! – putting together.

‘She is a child of the Universe,’ I’d tell myself, forcing a smile. ‘No less than the trees and the stars.’

If only the Universe had been a responsible parent. But the Universe just smiled benignly upon her and left the dirty work up to me.

So I was the one to explain why a person cannot go to the shops wearing a swimming ring as a skirt. Or wrapped in a bath towel. Or dressed in the bedlinen.

‘You’re not going out wearing a pillowcase,’ I was forced to say, once. ‘Get back inside!’

‘I’m a mermaid,’ she informed me, waddling to the car as fast as she could. ‘This is my tail!’

Her eccentric dress-sense has even drawn comment from her father, which is quite a feat. Normally, he neither notices nor cares what anyone is wearing. But one sunny day a few years ago, as we promenaded along the Morges waterfront, he suddenly squinted at his firstborn, who was skipping along ahead of us in her favourite candy-striped three-quarter pants, a purple polka-dot shirt and silver high-tops, and observed to me that she was one dancing poodle short of qualifying for a circus job.

‘I think its the little umbrella that really does it,’ he said. ‘Why is she balancing it on her head?’

‘She’s not balancing it. She’s wearing it. The handle is tucked into her ponytail.’

‘We have to do something.’

‘Whether or not it is clear to you,’ I said, invoking Max Ehrmann’s deathless words, ‘no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.’

‘The Universe must be blind.’

Perhaps. But the audience at the school play was not, and few could have missed the moment, seconds before everyone left the stage, when my younger child couldn’t contain herself a moment longer, and flung her skirt over her head.

It was fine, though. Because, the night before, as well as programming the child neuro-linguistically and reciting verse to myself, I had also found the time to dig around in the clean laundry pile, and unearthed the most modest, bloomer-like knickers that the child owns. She might as well have been flashing a pair of board shorts to the world.

Yes, the poetic may inspire you to reach for the stars; but it’s the prosaic that will make sure your butt is covered while you do it.

Playing With Fire 

(This was first published in Le News 13 March 2015)

So, I’ve been reading a lot about dangerous play this last week. Not the Fifty Shades kind. Shame on you, dirty-minded reader. I’m talking about children’s play: specifically the kind that experts call ‘risky’ and parents call ‘incredibly stupid’; the kind of play that involves sharp objects, power tools and fire. (That does sound a bit Fifty Shades, though, doesn’t it? Anyway. Never mind. That’s not what I’m going to talk about here).

The 8-year-old and I have spent the last few months hotly debating the issue of penknife ownership (hers) in respect to wooden furniture ownership (mine). Quite unable to decide, I eventually asked the Internet, who said … yes. Give the child a knife.

In his TED Talk, 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do, Gever Tulley, explains that children learn to assess and manage risks by taking them. If we never let our children flirt with danger, he says, they will never learn how to keep themselves safe.

So, give them a sharp knife and let them use it for whittling. Also, let them play with fire: let them start fires, put things in them and take things out of them. Not only will they learn how to handle fire, but their mastery of this most dangerous element will boost their self esteem.

Throwing a spear, he goes on, develops a range of skills: aim, presumably, but also planning and visualisation. I must say, he lost me a bit here. I have visualisation skills too, and I’m seeing the five-year-old heading off outside, with a teddy under one arm and a spear flung over her shoulder. It’s like that famous evolution picture, ‘The March of Progress,’ except this one is called, ‘Let’s Spend Saturday Afternoon in the Emergency Room. Again’.

Fourth on Tulley’s list of dangerous things is: deconstruct appliances with your child. This doesn’t sound too bad, actually. Deconstruction is the smaller child’s speciality. Her Deconstruction skills are excellent. What we really need to work on are the Putting Back Together skills. Or maybe the Don’t Break it in the First Place skills.

Fifth on Tulley’s list is: let your child drive a car. Because it helps them understand dinosaurs. I’d snort derisively, except I have actually caught one of the children perched on top of the car, pretending it was a dinosaur, so maybe there is wisdom here.

Anyway, I found the idea of risky play interesting enough to ask the Internet more about it, and, it turns out, it’s actually quite A Thing. There are lots of people advocating it, including psychologist Peter Gray, who’s written a number of articles on the Psychology Today website about the importance of risky play.

Climbing high trees, riding bicycles fast, and various types of rough play are all important activities, he says, both physically healthy and absolutely vital for psychological well-being: children who don’t take enough risks in their everyday lives become frustrated, anxious and depressed.

Of course, none of this should involve parents. A child may play with fire, but it probably doesn’t count as a risk if Mother is standing right there with the fire extinguisher cocked and aimed.

Now, this all makes a lot of sense to me: Yes to encouraging mastery! Up with self-esteem! But … I don’t know if I can actually do it. The thing is, once you’ve plucked your child from the jaws of death enough times, you tend to lose faith in their ability to judge anything for themselves. I’ve seen the smaller child put a box over her head and race straight towards the basement stairs. I’ve stopped the bigger child from pushing a Smartie up her nose, as far as it would go. As things currently stand, these are not sensible children. And yes, risky play might well make them sensible but that learning curve … it worries me. Will higher self-esteem correspond to a lower finger count? Will the spark of curiosity burn down the garden shed?

Once a week my children walk home from the bus stop on their own – an activity highly recommended by the Risky Play people, by the way. I stand at the upstairs window and watch them get off the bus (what? Is that not normal parent behaviour?), and every time I think … they’re so small! Two tiny little dolls, moving through a huge world, unprotected. It’s a big ask, that I put them in harm’s way, even if it’ll do them good in the long run.

And besides … what ever would the other mothers say?

Risky Play advocates are fond of harking back to their own childhoods, 40-plus years ago, when parents were too busy working / golfing / drinking cocktails and playing Mahjong to know – or care – where the children were. Children were trusted to look after themselves, and they roamed freely, playing as they liked. Games could be as risky and they wanted them to be.

But this is not how we mothers roll, these days. At least, not the ones I know. The climate has changed. Maybe no one blinked in the 50s/60/70s, if little Minnie fell off her bike, sprained her ankle and limped the 5 kilometers home, in tears. But they’d blink now. Several times.

And even though the inspirational postcards on Facebook keep telling me that I shouldn’t, I do actually care what other people think of me. Being a mother is my main job, right now, and I’d like the other Parenting Professionals to recognise me as being good at it. Yes, yes, I know … raising children is its own reward etc etc. But it’s a very long game and we could all use a little positive affirmation in the short term.

And what’s valued right now, among my peers, is involvement: involvement in every aspect of our small children’s lives, from revising schoolwork with them, to organising play dates, to reading every damn parenting book in the damn library because no matter how hard we try we can never get a handle on what is going on with these children. (Maybe that last one is just me, though.)

Anyway, the point is that we’re all very hands-on, and it’s not going to be easy to prise my hands off when the other mommies are watching. I’ve over-parented purely because I didn’t want someone to think I don’t care about my children. On a walk with a mother who admonished, ‘Don’t run!’ every time her child tried to, I suddenly found myself saying, ‘Be careful,’ randomly, to my own children. I’m not judging the other mom. I’m sure she had her reasons. But I certainly didn’t. I don’t even know what I meant by it – there was absolutely nothing for them to be careful of, and they, very sensibly, ignored me completely.

For all I know the other mother was only saying, ‘Don’t run’ because I was saying, ‘Be careful,’ and there we were, trapped in a cycle of mom-upmanship, and annoying everyone.

Imagine if I’d chosen that moment to pull out a few sharp knives, and handed them over with the instruction to ‘run off and whittle yourselves a nice spear. We can set fire to it later.’

Now that’s what I’d call risky.

The Food of Love 

(This was first published in Le News 26 February 2015)

‘But I didn’t order this,’ the smaller child wailed the other evening, staring at her plate of oven-roasted vegetables with dismay. ‘There’s been some mistake in the kitchen!’

Normally, I’d be very sympathetic. I hate it when restaurants bungle my order.

But we were not in a restaurant, we were at the dining room table, and the child had not ‘ordered’ anything. She was just hoping for yet another serving of the house speciality: pasta, cheese and tomato sauce. It makes her happy to eat it, but I’m finding it somewhat boring to cook.

I tried to amuse myself for a while by thinking of it differently: on Monday, the child was presented with Gruyere Gratin on a Bed of Buttered Noodles; on Wednesday, Rehydrated Farfalle with a Tomato Sugar Reduction topped with Local Artisinal Cheese; and (least successfully) a deconstructed version on Friday – I called it White Cheese Sauce, Three Eggs and a Tomato.

‘They’re all the same ingredients,’ I told her. ‘It just looks different.’

But apparently she wants her pasta, cheese and tomato sauce to look like pasta, cheese and tomato sauce. How very pedestrian. And how frustrating. I only recently learned to cook, and I’m eager to try out my new skills. My husband is a very enthusiastic audience but it’s difficult to focus on his lavish praise when the other diners at the table are making vomiting noises and falling on the floor.

’Stop it!’ I said the other day. ‘You two have no idea what you’re screaming about. Those things in front of you are not ‘funny looking carrots’. Those are assorted heirloom root vegetables, so please show them some respect.’

‘Also, what you ate last night was a tomato tart tatin, not ‘a pizza thingie without ham’. And just in case you think my cooking is all show and no substance, I must tell you, everything in tomorrow night’s dinner – the sardine, the kale, the quinoa – is a Superfood.’

They looked at me blankly, unmoved. Except for a tiny flicker of horror in the small one’s eyes.

‘Sardine?’ she whispered.

‘You don’t even know how lucky you are to be eating real food,’ I went on. ‘At your age I was getting tinned-spaghetti sandwiches on white bread, for lunch, every day.’

‘Actually that sounds nice,’ the bigger child piped up. ‘Could we have that, rather?’

I didn’t only get spaghetti sandwiches. I also regularly opened my school lunchbox to find fried egg sandwiches (exactly what one hopes to find in a container that’s been standing in the African sun for four hours), polony sandwiches and, just to make sure I didn’t miss out on my vitamins, orange squash. Quite honesty, I’m amazed that I grew up with any bones or teeth at all. The madness is, I would have fainted with happiness if someone had given me … I don’t know … Moroccan lamb, and couscous with sultanas and apricots. My children regularly get the lamb et al, but would infinitely prefer a polony sandwich.

But I may have found a way to make all of us happy: molecular gastronomy! I found a collection of recipes online, and there’s something in it for everyone. I get to do weird and complicated things in the kitchen, and the children get their favourite meals, presented in exciting new ways: just show me the child who can resist a plate of bacon-infused agar agar spaghetti with frozen parmesan air and a tomato juice foam!

Moms On Mars 

(This was first published in Le News 19 February 2015)

Dear organisers of the Mars One Mission (M.O.M.)

It has recently come to my attention that you are planning to establish a human settlement on Mars, and I would really, really like to volunteer to be a part of it.

You may wonder why I – a very tired 40-something mother of two small children – am so keen to go. I don’t fit the profile of ‘explorer’, it’s true. But adventure is in my genetic make-up. I share the pioneering spirit that led so many of my ancestors to leave England and head to Australia; and then when that didn’t work out, leave Australia and head to South Africa; and then when that didn’t work out, leave South Africa and head back to England and Australia …

Anyway, it’s that: yearning for adventure, love of travel … and I won’t lie to you, M.O.M., it’s also the thought of spending some time alone on an uninhabited planet. Everyone is so obsessed with that saying, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’. But, as I prefer to think of it, in space, you can’t hear anyone else scream, either. Or meow, or squeak. Or sing the first verse of I Love My Spotty Socks eighteen times in a row, and expect you to applaud with the same level of enthusiasm every single time.

There are some other compelling reasons, too: the Martian year is almost twice as long as an Earth year, which means I will age more slowly; and Mars’ gravity is 38% of Earth’s,  which means that I would be approaching my goal weight there.

M.O.M., I want to go. I really do. I’ve already started preparing myself, by watching every movie about Mars and space exploration that I can get my hands on, and they’ve been very helpful.  For example, I know better than to volunteer for the first or second waves of the mission: the first wave will inexplicably disappear, and the second wave will go in search of them, only to find that they have a) been eaten by space monsters b) been turned into zombies or c) slipped through a portal into Hell. Only one member of the second wave will survive to tell the story, and they will most likely be infected with Zombie Disease, or incubating an alien baby anyway, so their days are numbered. Subsequent waves seem to be fine, unless Sigourney Weaver is among the crew, in which case I’m getting off the spaceship. That woman is a magnet for trouble.

Speaking of getting off the spaceship: I would like to assure you that your ‘one-way’ policy is no problem. On your website, you state that the spaceships won’t go back to Earth, and that the Mars settlers are pretty much stuck up there. I have no intention of staying forever – it’s just a little break I’m after – but I’m happy to make my own way home. After all, it’s not like outer space is quite the ‘final frontier’ that it used to be, is it? Everyone and their Hello Kitty doll has been up there now; someone jumped down from there a while ago; soon, everywhere you look, there will be people landing on comets and chasing asteroids. I’m pretty sure I can catch a ride back to Earth.

Oh M.O.M., this mission is perfect for me! I read your requirements and I fit them to a T: I’m mature (44 and maturing daily); interesting (I’ve just finished listening to an audiobook about opera, so I’ll have lots to talk about with the other colonists); I like space (I love it, actually. The more the better.)

You also specify on your website that, ‘No particular academic or professional background is considered a prerequisite for selection.’ This is wonderful news, as those are my qualifications exactly!

Goodbye for now, M.O.M., but I hope to see more of you in the future, and I eagerly await your reply to this letter.

Yours, very sincerely

Robyn Goss

It’s Not Easy, Being Green

(This was first published in Le News 12 February 2015)

‘Just look at this horrible mess!’ bellowed the bigger child the other day. ‘Who did this?’

At first I thought she may be referring to the post-breakfast fallout under the dining room table … but no. Apparently I’m still the only one who notices that. Or cares about it. Or cleans it up.

What the child was referring to was an artist’s impression of the North Pacific Trash Vortex, a massive island of plastic garbage floating just off the west coast of America.

‘It’s not mine,’ I said, employing the same tactic that the children use whenever I point at something on the floor and demand to know who it belongs to.

But, of course, some of it is mine. Maybe not the plastic in that particular garbage patch. But all my plastic is out there somewhere: the Barbie dolls and little tea sets that I played with as a child; just about everything I wore in the ’80s; and the disposable pens! Oh my goodness, how many used-up pens have I been responsible for jettisoning into the vortex, in my life?

The picture that so infuriated the child is in one of her library books, recently acquired and all similarly-themed, around environmental issues. One of them is called 50 Ways to Save the Earth but I think it should actually be called 50 Things That You Can Blame Your Parents For because it feels like every time she opens that book, she gets more upset with me and the havoc that my generation has wreaked on the planet.

‘Yoghurt?’ I’ll say, peering into the sticky mess at the bottom of her school bag. ‘Seriously?’

‘An oil spill near a marine sanctuary?’ she counters, holding up a photo of Deepwater Horizon. ‘Seriously?’

A simple enquiry, such as, ‘Where are your gym shoes, child?’ is met with a chilly, ‘Where is the ozone layer, mother?’

The other day I was subjected to a ten-minute lecture about how bad my car is for the environment and how, come summer, I needed to buy myself a bicycle.

Anyway, it’s all for the best: because of her, we’re adopting a sea turtle through the WWF (oh, how the smaller child’s eyes lit up at the thought of how much fun bath time would be … before she realised it was a virtual adoption only); we’re recycling even more (how is that possible, I wondered, until Pinterest pointed out that I could use all our old corks to make a lovely wine-scented doormat. Genius! How welcoming is that?); and the child has thoughtfully put together a care package to send to the needy. True, it’s made up almost entirely of her little sister’s clothes and shoes, but still. She means well.

And then, last week, as the big bad wind tried to huff and puff our house away, we curled up on the couch and watched The Living Planet.

‘Hmm,’ the child said, thoughtfully, after a while. ‘Parts of the Earth actually seem to be doing okay. Maybe things aren’t so bad.’

‘People are the problem,’ her little sister chimed in. ‘Sloths are nice.’

I couldn’t agree more.

Wolf Moons and Alpha Pups

(This was first published in Le News 5 February 2015)

Did you know that the first full moon of the year was once known as the Wolf Moon? I picked this snippet up online and shared it with my older child one cold January night, as we had a magical mommy-daughter moment, holding hands and looking up at that moon. Perhaps I should have chosen my location more carefully, though: we were walking across a dark, empty parking lot at the time, and the setting may have worked against me. Instead of saying, ‘Gosh, how interesting,’ or ‘please tell me more,’ (she never does say these things to me but I live in hope), the  child looked at me blankly for a moment and then screamed as if she’d just seen a shark.

‘Wolves!’ she shrieked. ‘Eek!’

‘No,’ I said quickly. ‘I’m wrong! I think that was in North America. And we’re in Europe. Silly me! Here, it was just called the Hunger Moon.’

But surprisingly, the juxtaposition of the concepts ‘hungry’ and ‘wolf’ did not bring her any comfort. Instead, she climbed me like a tree, wrapped her arms around my head and wouldn’t let go until we were in the car with all the doors locked.

‘There aren’t any wolves around here,’ I assured her as I prised her fingers out of my eyes.  So, of course, the very next day we bumped into two, in Geneva. Okay, technically they were Czechoslovakian Wolfdogs, but still. That’s more wolf than I thought I’d see on the Quai du Mont Blanc on a Sunday morning. The pup was adorable but the adult … I’m sure he has a lovely personality, but he was looking at my smaller child as if she were a juicy pork chop, so we didn’t hang about to make friends.

Not long after that, the children became obsessed with werewolves, and kept on seeing them at the windows.

I tried to help them overcome this fear in a number of ways. First of all, I tried straightforward, sensible dismissal (‘There’s no such thing as werewolves’) which got me two blank stares and then two piercing shrieks of, ‘Look! A werewolf at the window!’

Then I tried the scholarly approach. ‘Girls,’ I explained. ‘The werewolf myth is an analogy for masculinity: think of the increased body hair and the great physical strength that a ‘normal’, ‘civilised’ man gains when, through the bite of the magical wolf, he is forced to acknowledge his extreme, wild masculine self.’

More blank stares and then the smaller child burst into noisy tears. ‘Daddy’s hairy and he’s not a werewolf.’

‘Look!’ cried her sister, by way of distraction. ‘There’s a werewolf at the window!’ and they both ran off screaming. Again.

The third time that this happened, it became clear to me that they didn’t actually want my weak attempts to comfort them. What they really wanted was to run around screaming. And they weren’t even that scared.

This was confirmed one night when I overheard them chatting as they lay reading in bed (my bed, obviously, because nobody in this house sleeps where they’re supposed to).

‘What will we do if there ever really is a werewolf at the window?’ asked the bigger, more anxious child.

The small one didn’t even look up from her book. ‘I’ll kick it to death. Don’t worry about that.’

‘Yes,’ her sister said, ‘good idea. Then we can skin it, and dye its fur purple, and use it for a carpet.’

Come werewolf, or wolfdog or whatever there is out there, under the hungry Wolf Moon, those little alpha pups will be just fine.

Of Pinterest, Feral Children and the Kruger National Park

(This was first published in Le News 29 January 2015)

Ever since the bigger child turned 8 and is now ‘practically a teenager’, we’ve been clashing over what she is and isn’t allowed to do.

‘You’re, like, totally controlling,’ she told me a few days ago.

‘No I’m not. And speak properly. And stand up straight.’

‘You’re also overprotective. What do you ever let me do that’s dangerous?’

‘Well,’ I replied, casting my mind back over the previous few months. ‘I often turn a blind eye when you don’t eat all your vegetables. And that’s pretty risky behaviour!’

Her response involved a lot of eye rolling, some hip-jutting and ten minutes alone time to reconsider the tone in which we talk to our mothers. But I had to admit, she was right. I have been overprotective and controlling, and I blame Pinterest.

Pinterest (which I love, by the way), is full of good things, including a whole lot of ideas about things to do for your children.

‘Ooh,’ I squealed when I first happened upon these wonderful boards. ‘100 ideas to make snow play more fun! I need that! Also, 200 indoor activities for a rainy day! And birthday party ideas! Cakes! Bento box lunches! Oh my goodness, this will make me the best over-involved parent ever!’

But my joy was short lived. Once I followed a few of these boards back to their parenting -website sources, I realised that I was completely out of my league. They are no ordinary parents, the ones who come up with these ideas. No. They are Super Parents, who are home schooling five children at a time, who use nap hours to prepare sensory baths and themed rice bins for tactile enrichment, and who run marathons every weekend. And still manage to update their websites.

‘What the hell?’ I cried, eventually. ‘I can’t do all of this! There must be another way!’

And there is! It’s called Free Range Parenting, and I recently read several very interesting articles about it. Children, suggest the articles, don’t need parents overseeing their every move, like hovering helicopters; and they don’t need masses of expensive toys. Instead, they should be allowed to use their imaginations to direct their own play, while their poor mothers put their feet up and have a nice little G&T. Well, no, no one actually said that last bit, but it feels like the spirit of the thing.

So on Tuesday, when we got home from school, I presented the children with a giant cardboard box and no helpful suggestions whatsoever, and left them to it.

I was gone … I don’t know … five minutes. How long does it take to make a cup of tea and snaffle three biscuits from the cookie jar? Anyway. That was all the time it took for the children to go from Free Range to completely Feral; for the bigger child to put the cardboard box on top of two skateboards, to put her little sister inside the box and to aim the whole lot towards the basement staircase.

For the life of her, she couldn’t understand what all my shouting was about.

She would’ve been fine,’ she reassured me. ‘I was going to give her the broom to use as a brake.’

So anyway, after all of this experimentation, I finally think I’ve come up with a parenting style that takes something good from all the others, but is uniquely mine. I call it Letting Them Run Free But Under Constant Surveillance and With Frequent Helicopter Involvement, Like They Do With the Animals in the Kruger Park.

Catchy, isn’t it? And it’s coming soon, to a Pinterest board near you!

Morning Mood

(This was first published in Le News 22 January 2015)

What’s the music of your morning? These days, mine is far less ‘Morning Mood’ and more ‘Ride of the Valkyries’; less sipping herbal tea as I watch the sun peer pinkly over the Alps, and more hefty contributions to the Swear Jar as I run around trying to get everybody ready and out of the door.

6:30: My alarm goes off and immediately, every animal in the house wakes up and starts clamouring for breakfast: the goldfish leaps like a dolphin, the Guinea Pigs pipe loudly from the basement and the cat quickly becomes completely hysterical. This, despite the fact that they all have food right in front of them! Goldfish-nibbly things, pellets, dry food.

Luckily, no human member of the family is disturbed by the cacophony. Because we wouldn’t want them to have to wake up early, would we?

6:35: I get up and head into the kitchen, stepping over the cat, who is now lying on the stairs, miming death from starvation. I feed the damn cat. And the damn Guinea Pigs. Then I start making human breakfast.

6:45: Wake up the bigger child, who immediately presents me with my task list for the day (‘I dreamed I had a play date with 15 of my best friends. Could you organise that for me?’).

Wake the smaller child.

‘I hardly slept a wink,’ she informs me acidly. This is a total lie. She snored like a chainsaw all night.

7:00: I put breakfast on the table. The smaller child rejects her porridge, on the grounds that she is a vegetarian.

7:05: I put the days’s paraphernalia into a big pile of backpacks, water bottles, violins, recorders, library books, pottery aprons, coats and gloves, and tell the children take what they need. It’s like the cornucopia scene in The Hunger Games, but without the weapons.

7:10: The smaller child finally relaxes her vegetarian principles enough to lick the honey off the porridge. Which is something, I suppose.

7:15: I start issuing the Morning Instructions. These are the same instructions that I issue every school morning, but which apparently still need to be issued: Take your plates to the sink! Get dressed! Brush your teeth! Do not kick your sister. Get your foot off her face right now! Pack your school bags!

7:20: I catch and refocus the smaller child, who is running around the lounge naked, with her stockings on her head, singing ‘Roar’. She has yet to see Katy Perry in a video, but I think she’s captured her spirit really well.

7:25: I go upstairs to refocus the bigger child, who has completely lost interest in getting ready and has instead embarked on her most ambitious art project yet. Picasso could not have been more outraged, had he been interrupted in the middle of Guernica and told to go and brush his teeth.

7:35: I lift the bigger child’s school bag, immediately get a hernia and have to spend valuable minutes unpacking her fifteen-volume collection of Ivy and Bean books, despite her protests that she will now ‘have nothing to read on the bus’.

7:40: I push the children towards the door, bags in hand. A minute later I find them both standing in the hall, staring at the door handle.

‘Open it!’ I shout, and they do.

It’s clear that, in the event of a zombie apocalypse / escaped zoo-tiger / Big Bad Wolf scenario, they will both be eaten unless I’m around to shout, ‘Run!’

8:00: That’s it. It’s over. They’re on the bus. And I can finally sit down, sip my chamomile tea and wait for the sun to peer pinkly over the Alps … steal across the garden and into my lounge … lighting up the school bags, backpacks and violin case that sit, forlornly, in the middle of the floor.


(This was first published in Le News 15 January 2015)

I know what they mean, about children keeping you young: every day, I’m sounding more and more like a toddler. ‘My shoes,’ I find myself saying, firmly, pointing to the object in question. ‘My bed. My phone. Mine!’

It started innocuously enough: one bored afternoon the older child nicked a pair of my shoes to dress up in, and ‘be Mommy’. It was cute. At first. Until she got into character and started windmilling her arms and screaming hysterically, ‘Get off the furniture! Clean that mess up! You’re spilling orange juice everywhere! You children are driving me crazy!’

‘That’s enough.’ I said. ‘Hand back the shoes.’

But the damage was done. The perimeter defense had been breached and suddenly it was open season on my stuff. The next thing I knew, both children were wearing my lipstick and talking about how they’d like to redecorate ‘our bedroom’.

And my new wardrobe … it may have started out as a place to keep my clothes (my clothes! Mine!), but it was hardly built before it had become a dinosaur sauna (top shelf), a Furby nest (middle shelf) and a sanctuary for angry little girls (bottom shelf). I opened it to put something away, and found the smaller child in there, wrapped in a pink shawl and spitting vitriol.

‘Is this because, after three hours of drawing fairies with you, I left to make myself a cup of tea?’ I asked.

‘Which is more important?’ she shrieked. ‘A cup of tea or your tiny little baby?’

Well, she’s not actually a tiny little baby, and the shelf was already starting to buckle, so I turfed her out, along with the dinosaurs and the Furby.

‘My wardrobe,’ I said. ‘And, while we’re on the subject, that bed over there belongs to Daddy and me, and when I climb into it at night, I don’t want to find you or your stegosaurus in it.’

Both children stared at me in slack-jawed disbelief.

‘But … that’s our bed,’ the smaller one said. ‘We bought it with our pocket money.’ ‘What? No, you didn’t!’

‘Yes we did. Last Saturday.’

‘You can’t take our stuff,’ said the bigger one. ‘Imagine if we just came in here and took something of yours!’

‘Like my bed.’

‘Yes! No, wait …’

The real problem isn’t even possession – I don’t mind if they occasionally borrow my stuff. It’s that they break everything. If, as Kahlil Gibran says, children are ‘living arrows’, shot from our parent-bows into the future … well, my children are more like living trebuchet projectiles, destroying everything in their path. The small one, in particular, just has to touch something for it to fall apart. She’s like King Midas, except she doesn’t turn whatever she touches into gold; she turns it into a pile of smoking rubble.

‘I just picked up the bowl,’ she’ll say, amazed, standing amid the spaghetti explosion that was, a minute before, her supper. In her presence, glasses of milk fling themselves off tables, door handles detach and zips rip.

I don’t know how it happens. The child does, though: it’s the work of the Messy Elves, and they have a lot to answer for around here.

‘Messy Elves,’ the child will assure me, as we stand looking at the upturned toy boxes.

‘Them again,’ she’ll say, surveying the flooded bathroom.

So when I found three of my scarves in the child’s clothes’ drawer, well … we all knew who was responsible.

‘The Messy Elves made me do it,’ she assured me. ‘They said, Go-o-o into Mommy’s ro-o-o-m and take the sca-a-a-rves … it was like they were controlling me.’

‘What you really mean is that you sneaked into my wardrobe – again – and took my stuff. Again.’  

‘Anyway,’ she concluded cheerfully. ‘I have them now, so can I keep them?’

Because in our house, possession – whether by elf or by stealth – is indeed nine-tenths of the law.


(This was first published in Le News 8 January 2015)

‘Guess what kind of doggie I am,’ yapped the smaller child, before lying down on the floor and throwing some kind of fit.

‘A rabid one?’ I ventured, as she tried to bite my feet.

It wasn’t the right answer. She was actually being a Chihuahua. One without a sense of humour, apparently.

Poor child. We’ve never owned a dog, so she has nothing to model her canine-behaviour on but a) a fluffy pink battery-operated toy poodle that does backflips and barks hysterically and b) a friend’s lovable but frequently psychotic Jack Russell.

I have to find her some better (quieter! Calmer!) examples because the child’s one New Year’s resolution is, ‘to be a doggie, more’. I’m fully behind this: as a dog, the child is obedient, friendly and eager-to-please; as a little girl … well, not so much.

In any case, I am always fully behind any New Year’s resolution that anyone makes, just on principle. (Just a quick note here, to my husband … I’m always fully behind any New Year’s resolutions that anyone makes for themselves. I am not behind resolutions that people make for other people. A husband, for his wife, for example. That is just Not On).

As I was saying. I’m a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions. I love them so much that I have some on my current list that have been with me for over 20 years: things like, Lose 10 kgs and Run a marathon. I put these resolutions on my list in the mid-80s and I’ve never had reason to take them off.

Also on the list are a bunch of things that are so old I don’t even want to do them anymore (Go skydiving again; finish knitting the beige pullover I started in 1979) but I can’t take them off because I haven’t done them.

In truth, like many people who make resolutions, I don’t stick to most of them. But I like making them. It shows willing. And there have been some happy successes: my main resolution on New Year’s day 2007 was Have a baby, and I definitely followed through on that one. True, I was already nine months pregnant and due to give birth in a few days time but still …

My husband thinks that all this is crazy and refuses to participate (except to offer helpful suggestions to my list), but this year the little girls just threw themselves into the spirit of the thing.

While the smaller one was howling at the moon and eating her dinner off the floor, the bigger one disappeared up to her room, emerging half an hour later with a sheaf of papers.

‘My list of resolutions,’ she said, thrusting it at me. I was very impressed at first, but when I read it, I realised that it was actually more of a to-do list for me: Have breakfast in bed (Mom to make); Visit Pompeii (Mom to take); Go on safari in South Africa with my twenty best friends (Mom to organise). 

And, because I am such a fan of New Year’s resolutions – and such a fan of the child – of course I will make, take and organise. I’ll get right onto it … just as soon as I’ve lost 10 kgs and run a marathon.