How children make traitors of us all

A few weeks ago the younger child brought home another piece of classroom Art, consisting of an unpainted Pringles tin, which was glued to a piece of paper, which was glued to a cornflakes box.

“It’s a robot,” she told me, dumping it on the dining room table, where it sat for a few days and was dutifully admired by her father and me. Several times, loudly, as her artist’s ego demanded.

Then, after a week, I thought it was time to move it on to the Big Art Gallery in the Sky. Also known as, the recycle bin. Final exhibition space of several other pieces, including Yellow Felt Pen Squiggle, Glue and Glitter Dump, and Messy Collage of Nothing Recognisable.

Anyway, the plan was to move the sculpture from the dining room table to the kitchen dresser for a few days, and then, when it was safely out of mind, chuck it. Once it’s in the recycling it’s perfectly safe because the day is yet to come when Roxanne throws anything in the bin instead of hiding it under the ottoman or behind the TV cabinet.

Or so I thought.

One otherwise peaceful afternoon in the kitchen, while I stood at the sink mainlining coffee, I turned around to find my little Duchamp pointing into the recycle bin.

“What,” she demanded, tiny bottom lip aquiver, “is that doing there?”

Her opus. Crammed headfirst, between a clutch of empty toilet rolls and an ice cream carton.

I thought quickly. My options were:

1. Admit that I threw it away on purpose, and explain gently that it was really just a fine motor control exercise at school and is of no artistic merit whatsoever.

2. Lie and say that I threw it away by mistake. Because it’s hard to tell the difference between it and the pile of cardboard rubbish from whence it sprang.

3. Blame her father.

“Oh no,” I said, hauling the crushed thing out and putting it the right way up (I think). “What on earth is that doing in there? Darling, Daddy must have made a terrible mistake. He didn’t know it was your robot! He would never have thrown it away on purpose.”

Her father suffered some verbal abuse in absentia but by the time he came home she’d forgotten about it. And before I even had a chance to feel guilty about heaping blame on an innocent head, it was my turn.

You forgot to give us towels,” the children informed me, after an afternoon at the local pool.

This surprised me, because I wasn’t even in the house when the swimming bag was packed.

“We all had to share one towel and Daddy said it was because you forgot ours.”

“Really?” I said, shooting my husband a look. “How unbelievably silly of me. I must try to do better next time.”

So we’re even.

For now.



Get your toes out of my soup

Sometime last month I read something by someone about how having a baby was not going to change her life. Do I sound a bit vague? Sorry. I read a lot of crap online and some of it is very interesting but I struggle to remember the details for longer than ten seconds. By the time I’m a third of the way through an article, I’ve forgotten the whole thing. Let me try again.

At some point in the last few weeks I read an opinion piece about how having children should not spell the end of parental ambition and achievement. The writer of the piece was (obviously) as yet unblessed in the infant department, and I found her naïveté touching. It took me right back to those sweet days of my own innocence, when I thought that having daughters would be more like Little Women and less like volunteering in a chimp sanctuary. I know all parents have been there. We all once believed that our children would fit into our lives with only a few small adjustments. Never mind all the evidence to the contrary, our children wouldn’t dictate our routines, would eat what we gave them, would never roll up and down the floor in the passport control queue at O.R. Tambo airport and scream, ‘Help help I’m being kidnapped,’ every time we tried to pick them up. For example.

Parenthood was a shock for me, and I went into it quite well prepared, I thought, having raised several kittens to happy, healthy adulthood. ‘How much harder can it be?’ I asked a friend, who just narrowed her eyes at me and bided her time. She didn’t have long to wait. My God. I won’t go into details, because all parents have been there too – that Other Place. The Place of New Babies. The place where you go out with your clothes inside out and often back to front, and are just very pleased that you managed to get out of the house at all. And doubly pleased that you’re also dressed. Yes, we’ve all been there and I, for one, was very happy to leave. The babies grow a bit, sleep a bit more, scream a bit less. And after a while it all starts to feel normal again. You feel normal. But you’re not, and you probably never will be again.

I realised this the night I heard my husband say to someone, in a perfectly reasonable voice, ‘Get your toes out of my soup, please.’

‘What the hell?’ I thought, and went to investigate.

He had the baby on his lap while he ate dinner – alone, because I was busy wandering around the house with my clothes on backwards – and the baby was making every effort to get her small feet into his bowl of corn chowder.

I really felt for my husband, then. I haven’t known him all of his life but I can pretty much guarantee that he has never had to say anything quite that insane before. But in this parallel universe we call Parenting, we’re always saying mad stuff like that. And it only gets worse as the children get older.

So here, for your entertainment and in descending order, are the top ten most bizarre things I’ve found myself saying, since becoming a mother.

10. ‘Actually, I don’t think these Hello Kitty panties do belong to Daddy. I think they belong to you, and you should pick them up off the floor.’

The smaller child is fond of shifting blame wherever she can, and the only thing keeping me from branding her an outright liar is that she convinces herself completely. I voiced some disbelief only the other day, when she tearfully claimed that another little girl, who looked just like her, tricked me into handing over all her sweets. She was devastated: at the perfidy of her doppelgänger; at the suspicious mind of her mother; at the sight of her own empty little hands. It was tragic.

9. ‘I’m not surprised she doesn’t want to be your friend. I wouldn’t want to be your friend either, if you stuck your finger in my eye. Twice.’

The small one again, showcasing her amazing people skills. Every time she enters a playground, I feel I should go up to the other parents and apologise in advance because there surely will be An Incident. Because someone looked at her funny, someone ignored her, someone had the audacity to try and get on the 6 metre long jungle gym while she was on it. She’s wonderful with animals though, so I suppose that’s something.

8. ‘Are you seriously telling me that you threw every single piece of clothing in your entire wardrobe out of the window into the tree?’

I don’t know why I was asking. I already knew the answer. The answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

7. ‘Baby Bloomers is not a real baby. She’s an apple pip. So I’m sorry she fell out of your basket but I am not crawling around looking for her on a pavement, in the rain.’

The girls had apples at a hotel breakfast somewhere, ate the apples and kept the pips … which morphed into pseudobabies faster than you can say, ‘Fuck you and your feminist principles, Mother, but we have an inbuilt need to nurture and if you’re not going to buy us baby dolls, then we’ll damn well nurture fruit.’

Just by the way, this girl stuff is so ingrained, I can’t believe it. Some fool gave my eldest daughter a pack of plastic toy soldiers one Christmas. She had them chatting away happily to one another in sweet little voices in seconds. And in a desperate attempt to play his games sometimes, my husband gave her one of those plastic parachutists, with the parachute and strings. She immediately put it on her head as a bonnet.

Yes. My child will happily toss all her clothes out the window and wear a parachutist on her head.

6. ‘I’m not being unfair. There’s no six year old on the planet who’s allowed to read A Clockwork Orange. So just put it back on my bookshelf, okay?’

Suddenly Jess can read independently, and she is drawn to my bookshelves as a moth to a flame. As happy as it makes me to see my child walk past with The Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins tucked under her arm, some of the other books are a problem. The Exorcist, for one. My husband’s inexplicable Irvine Welsh collection, for another. I even have to be careful what I read when she’s around because she reads over my shoulder. And I have to very careful what I write. Especially on Skype, to her father. Especially in the early evening when my patience is stretched to its limit.

Jesus Christ, I Skyped him only last week. When are you coming home?????

Surely I’ve been punished enough???

Roxy has been screaming at me for at least 40 minutes. And I mean SCREAMING.

Drop everything. Rescue me.

Fuck, now she’s coming back to finish me off.

Why is she doing this? Does she hate me? Is this because I didn’t breastfeed her long enough?

‘B … r … e … a … s …’ came a little voice behind me, carefully sounding out each letter.

5. ‘I know you’re a puppy but the other people in the shop don’t. So you need to get up off the floor. And stop calling me ‘owner’.

Ah yes. The dog days. When the little one truly wanted nothing else in the world but to be canine. A follower of the Lee Strasberg school of acting, she gets so deeply in character that when I tramped on her fingers (because she was on all fours, right under my feet), she yelped and then howled instead of crying.

This immersion in the role has occasionally worked in my favour. Like when I was trying to get both children up a hill in some small Tuscan village, on my own. Halfway up the little one balked. No more, she declared, and she would not budge. So I grabbed a stick, invoked her puppy alter ego and played Fetch all the way up the hill. True story. She, of course, got a tummy bug from being in such close contact with a well-trodden floor and Italian Child Protection Services are probably still trying to track us down. But I’ll take that one as a victory.

4. ‘Daddy can’t see where he’s going if you stick your fingers in his eyes.’

To the child riding on her father’s shoulders, slowly gouging his eyeballs out. Are we the only parents so damaged by our children? And I don’t mean psychologically, although that will come. I mean everyday bumps, bashes and kneecappings. I am constantly being crashed into, whacked by flailing limbs, elbowed, trodden on. I think one of them may have cracked my cheekbone with her head, a few years ago. They don’t mean to hurt. I think. But could it be the unconscious working-out of their anger that Mommy wouldn’t let them jump on the couch, or Daddy wouldn’t read a fourth bedtime story?

Last night the little one climbed into my bed in the early hours, apparently specifically to pee all over me, before going back to her own bed again. Tell me there’s not something in that.

3. ‘What do you mean, you cleaned the bathroom floor with my toothbrush? When?’

The minute I leave the room, everything I own is up for grabs. I’ve found my bras in the downstairs toy box, my jewellery on the teddy bears and my shoes in the garden. The older one wafted past a few weeks ago, reeking of Chanel. When I called her back to explain herself, I found myself face to face with a midget Zsa Zsa Gabor: black-rimmed eyes, blue lids, pink lips.

‘That’s weird,’ I thought, because I don’t own make up.

2. ‘There is no such thing as a man-eating butterfly! Stop screaming, right now!’

The children are ninnies. They shriek whenever they see a moth and a daddy longlegs gets them absolutely hysterical. But of course, given half a chance, they’ll march up to the first slavering rottweiler they see in the park and coo all over it.

Anyway, another problem with Jess reading independently is that I don’t have a chance to put things in context for them. So a while ago they were flipping through an entymology book (to scare themselves silly), saw a photo of a monarch butterfly and Jess read that it’s poisonous. So the next time some poor gentle Swiss butterfly with a tiny spot of orange on it came fluttering by, both children ran upstairs shrieking at the top of their lungs. In the short journey upstairs, poisonous became deadly, and deadly became man-eating. They were not at all interested in my explanation that it was a) only mildly toxic b) if you ate it and c) you were the size of a frog. Unfortunate to mention frogs. That reminded them of the one that we once saw for twenty seconds in the garden, two summers ago. And they were off screaming again.

I’m so looking forward to our upcoming holiday in the wilds of Limpopo, with golden orb spiders out back, stick insects all over the dinner table and geckos in the bath. It’ll be full of challenges for us all.

And … at number one …

1. ‘Well, I hope now you understand why you can’t dance Gangnam Style while you’re on the toilet.’

Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?