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.