Together in Electric Dreams

(First published in Le News edition 19, 20-26 March 2014)

I think you’re too attached to that thing,’ my husband noted the other day, gesturing towards my computer.

Who?’ I asked, cradling it protectively. ‘Do you mean Precious? What makes you say that?’

You haven’t made eye contact with me or the children in over a week.’

It’s true. But who can blame me? My computer is the perfect partner.

Our affair started a few years ago when my family left South Africa and moved into a small, sad hotel room in France. It rained almost every day of the month we were there, and I would’ve gone mad had it not been for my computer. It became our entertainment centre, playing DVDs and music non-stop; we used it to Skype family back home; we played games on it; and I spent a lot of time Googling things like, ‘what to do with small children when you’re trapped in a foreign country, it’s raining and you have no car.’

Normally one might turn to one’s spouse at a time like that but seeing as he was the one who’d made off with the car, he wasn’t in my good books. So I fell in love with the computer, and we’ve been going from strength to strength ever since. I adore my Precious and, I’m thrilled to say, my Precious adores me right back. Seriously. Every day, in a hundred little ways, my computer shows me how much it cares.

What’s on your mind?’ Facebook asks me gently, every time I look at it. Nobody around here ever asks me that, unless I’m sighing a lot or lying down on the floor.

And Spotify is so thoughtful. It sends me little messages like, ‘You played Barry Manilow’s Copacabana over a hundred times last week. You might also like James Blunt.’ I’m so touched by that kind of attention that I don’t even feel the need to explain that it was actually the four-year-old, who is obsessed with the song’s clever juxtaposition of tragedy with disco.

Coursera will happily spend night after night with me talking about the poetry of Gertrude Stein without ever once threatening suicide or trying to steer the conversation to rugby.

Google answers all my questions immediately, never feigning deafness or telling me to ‘just hold on until this penalty shot is taken’.

Pinterest understands my tastes and picks out nice things for me to wear, Audible reads me to sleep and, if my heart desires something, Amazon hops to it immediately, to find it for me.

All in all, I’m getting more attention from my computer than I am from anyone else in this house. I was in bed with a fever for four days last week before one of the children thought to offer me a glass of water. And even then, they were only trying to revive me long enough to go downstairs and put the television on for them.

Worse, neither husband nor children noticed my new haircut which, thanks to a small misunderstanding between myself and the hairdresser, has left me almost functionally bald and with much larger ears than I intended.

But that’s okay because love is blind. And, as long as I don’t do anything silly like activate the Photo Booth app … so is my Precious.    

Of Androids and Electric Guinea Pigs

(First published in Le News edition 18, 13-19 March 2014)

This summer I’m going to replace all the pets with robots. This fabulous idea came to me when I was reading an article about something called a ‘Robo Fish’. Apparently it was the toy to get last Christmas, with over 15 million sold. They’re brightly coloured toy fish that swim around when you put them in water and stop swimming when you take them out. My initial response was, ‘Isn’t that what real fish do?’ But no. These fish start swimming again when you put them back in water, which is very much not what real fish do.

Anyway, the reason I like them so much is that you don’t need to feed them.

The second my feet hit the floor in the morning, everything in the house starts clamouring for food. If my life has a soundtrack, it’s made up of meows, squeaks and the sound of a fat goldfish breaching like Shamu. It’s not as if I didn’t feed them all just before bedtime: fresh water and dry food for the cat; fresh water, hay and vegetables for the Guinea Pigs; flakes for the fish. I can understand them being keen for breakfast, but the performance the cat puts on is worthy of a part in Les Misérables.

And after I’ve put food into them, I have to deal with what comes out the other side. I change cat litter, sweep up pellets, wash out filters and rinse aquarium pebbles … it’s never ending.

So when the children started begging for a dog, I just started laughing hysterically. But then I remembered a friend surveying the post-dinner fallout under my dining room table and saying, ‘You should get a dog. They double as vacuum cleaners.’ And I thought, why not do it the other way round? Why not get a vacuum cleaner and let it double as a dog? Seriously. I’m going to get a Roomba, stick googly eyes on it and tell the children that it’s alive. This is not going to strain their credulity at all – they’ve convinced themselves that my car is alive and they hold long conversations with it almost every morning, so a cute, googly-eyed little vacuum-puppy will be no problem. They can feed it scraps of food and watch it suck them up; they can put a lead on it and take it for walks around the patio … it’s genius.

Then I’m going to swap the Guinea Pigs for Furbies. I know Furbies don’t do much but, quite honestly, neither do the Guinea Pigs. Unless you think that the world is suffering from a surfeit of hay and we urgently need it converted into mounds of little poo pellets. Then the Guinea Pigs are doing an ace job.

I’d also like a drone of my own, to play me music all day and occasionally fly over to the school with whatever piece of gym equipment the children have forgotten.

And the cat … well, I think I’ll have to keep her. The only robot cat I’ve seen is some bloody terrifying thing called a WildCat. I have no idea what the makers intend to use it for but I can assure you, it’s not as a pet: it has no head, it sounds like a chainsaw and it gallops along at over 25 kilometres per hour. It’ll scare the Furbies out of their wits.

And then, when I’ve filled the house with robots, all ready to do my bidding? Well. The children had better look lively. The latest incarnation of ASIMO the android can look at whoever is speaking to him and answer them politely – skills the seven-year-old is still struggling with – and is capable of carrying a drinks tray into the lounge every evening at six o’clock! 

All the World’s a Movie Set …

(First published in Le News edition 17, 6-12 March 2014)

The recent excitement about the Academy Awards has got me thinking – if our lives were movies, what genre would they be? It’d be really useful to know exactly what you’re starring in, right? Because you can make all sorts of decisions based on that. Should you investigate the strange noise in the basement (Adventure) or should you run the other way (Thriller)? Will your new neighbour come after you to win your heart (Romance) or come after you with a chainsaw (Slasher)? Should you carry on with French lessons (Mystery) or has Switzerland doffed its immigration cap at you (Weepie)?

As I sat in the lounge the other night, listening to the unearthly thumps and wails coming from upstairs – the usual sounds of my children falling asleep – I thought, maybe my genre is Supernatural Horror. Only last week the smaller child was shrieking, vomiting and levitating a metre off the floor. Of course, in her case it wasn’t a sign of demonic possession; it was a sign that she wanted to wear the pink tutu that I’d just put in the wash. And the gory little handprints that keep appearing on the walls are only jam, not blood. Although they’re so sticky that nothing short of Holy Water is ever going to get them off.

Perhaps, then, my genre is Adventure. See the Mommy Housewife stash her bullwhip in her handbag and venture into The Supermarket. Watch her carefully weighing the precious Golden Mango in one hand against the pile of Francs in the other, before braving the icy stare of the terrifying Manicured Checkout Lady …

Or maybe it’s Disaster. I like holidays and, in the movies, holidays always lead to disaster: cruise ships sink; aeroplanes are sucked into the Bermuda Triangle; people picnicking in the countryside are attacked by killer bees or giant mutant ants. But no one is ever shown coming home from two weeks away to find that they left a load of dirty plates in the dishwasher. Not disastrous enough for a big audience, I suppose, although goodness knows it nearly killed me.

Aha!’, I thought, as a small, angry face appeared at the lounge window. ‘It must be Science Fiction!’ But it wasn’t an alien. Just the cat, which someone had shut outside by mistake.

I’m not sure how to rate my movie, either. It’s mostly Family Viewing but does contain some Mature Themes (‘That bit where the mother tries to do yoga again after sitting at a computer for 10 years … ouch!’) and has Scenes that Some Viewers May Find Distressing (‘Did you see the part where the father collapses into bed and impales himself on a toy triceratops?’). There is also quite a lot of Strong Language and some Violence (when there aren’t enough cherry tomatoes to go around, the Guinea Pigs can get quite huffy with one another).

So I really don’t know what genre my life falls into. However often it makes me want to scream and run away, it isn’t Horror. It’s too small-scale to qualify for Adventure or Disaster. It’s definitely not Drama because nothing ever happens. Nor is it a RomCom because there’s precious little Rom and the Com isn’t that funny. And, despite the fact that a lot of it is boring and incomprehensible, it’s not well-composed enough to be Art.

I suppose, for now, I’ll just have to call it Reality.

 

 

 

Life is Nothing Like a Lifestyle Blog

(First published in Le News edition 16, 27 February – 5 March 2014)

I love lifestyle blogs. I’ve spent hours poring over the lives of strangers: looking at photos of their furniture, pictures they’ve taken of interesting trees, close-ups of their dinner, served in charmingly mismatched tableware.

In fact, I love these blogs so much that I thought my family should start one. We live in a beautiful place. We love to cook. Our trees are also interesting. Our tableware is mismatched.

So one day, when the freezing rain was blowing in sideways and we were bored, we embarked on our first project: making apple turnovers and hot, spiced cider, and photographing the process.

It was a horrible experience and it went something like this: 

Photo 1: Spiced Cider. Lay out a pot, a jug of apple juice, cinnamon sticks, a clove-studded orange and several little bowls of spices. Take photo. Put everything into the pot and simmer.

Photo 2: Ingredients for Apple Turnovers. On a wooden chopping board, assemble a ball of pastry dough, two apples, a pile of raisins and a little bowl of honey.

Photo 3: Adorable, Pudgy Little Child-Hands Chopping Apples. Give children safety knives and instruct them to chop away. Take one photo then send them to wash their hands again (‘This time get all the paint off’) and trim their nails.

Photo 4: Rolling out Pastry. Give some pastry to each child. A noisy fight breaks out over who gets to use the rolling pin first, and one child hits the other on the head with a wooden spoon. Send them to Timeout for five minutes.

Check on the cider. Pour a small taster mug, with a tiny bit of rum.

Bring the children back. Catch the smaller child in the act of eating a fistful of raw pastry. Admonish and threaten.

Photo 5: Spooning Chopped Apple and Raisins onto Pastry Sheets. Go into the kitchen to check on the cider. Come back to find half the apple-raisin mix gone. Interrogate the children, who deny everything through chipmunk-cheeks.

Send both to Timeout for ten minutes. Top up the mug of cider. Add a tot of rum.

Photo 6: Spooning Honey onto Apple-Raisin Mix. Give children two little glass bowls of honey and two teaspoons.

Send everybody to Timeout for fifteen minutes. Wipe down honey-covered table and chairs. Wash honey out of bigger child’s hair. Catch and wash cat.

Photo 7: Folded Apple Turnover, Ready for the Oven. The pastry rips as we fold it over and the mix leaks out.

Pat everything back into shape and patch the rips with extra pastry. The turnovers bear no resemblance to any known bakery product but we’ve come too far to give up now.

Pour another mug of spiced cider, with two tots of rum. Put the damn turnovers in the damn oven.

Photo 8: The End Result. The turnovers come out of the oven. One has exploded.

Arrange mangled pastries on plates and children at the table. Go into the kitchen to pour two mugs of cider. Come back to find small finger holes poked deeply into both pastries.

Take the last photo. The turnovers look horrible, no one is smiling and it’s getting dark. In fact, the end result looks like a depressed version of The Potato Eaters.

Well, that was it. That night, as I drank the last of the rum, I deleted the photos from my camera. Perhaps there are some lifestyles that just should not be blogged about.

The Battleship and the Speedboat

 

(First published in Le News edition 15, 20-26 February 2014)

The Good Witch of the North once said, “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”

As much as I like the sound of that, I’m not convinced. Physically I’m in great shape, having played competitive netball in primary school. But I must admit, I’m already starting to miss my once-firm young mind. Because my mental elastic is gone; my brain is baggy. And nowhere is this more evident than in my relations with my seven-year-old.

My mind, like a battleship, needs a lot of time and effort to change direction. I like to focus on one thing, and just keep going. My daughter, on the other hand, has a speedboat mind: it’s fast, it’s agile and it makes a lot of noise.

A few weeks ago I stood in the dairy aisle of the supermarket, my battleship brain pondering the mysteries of organic butter and whether it really is CHF 7 a kilo better than normal butter, when my daughter’s sharp little voice broke into my thought.

Mom, how many teeth does a turtle have?”

I don’t know,” I said, dragging my mind out of the butter. “I need to think about that.”

Teeth on a turtle. I tried to picture Crush, the turtle in Finding Nemo. Hadn’t he smiled a few times? Had there been teeth?

When we got to the vegetable section of the supermarket, she asked, “Mom, what exactly happened at Pompei? And who wrote Mary Poppins?”

In the bread aisle, “What’s the name of the Egyptian king who isn’t Tutankhamun? Can I ride my scooter on the highway? What’s the most endangered animal on earth?”

In the checkout queue, “How do you say ‘my little sister stole my boots’ in French?”

Well,” I said, as I loaded the groceries into the car. “I’m not sure they have any. I think they have a sort of beak.”

What?”

Turtles. I don’t think they have any teeth.”

I’m not talking about that any more!” she shouted, almost hysterical with impatience. “I’ve just asked you if I can invite everyone I know for a sleepover this weekend.”

I can’t keep up, honestly. If I followed every single thing she said, my brain would overload and I’d go mad.

I tried just vaguely muttering, “Yes, darling” for a while because that works very well on my husband, but the child soon caught onto that and tried to compromise me.

You said I could!” she wailed one night, as we wrestled over the goldfish tank.

I did not!”

Yes you did! We were driving home and I said, ‘Can I put the goldfish in the bath with me?’ and you said, ‘Yes, darling’.”

I haven’t solved the problem of my speedboat child but at least I know how to rebuild my damaged self-esteem: the four-year-old still thinks I’m wonderful. Her mind is like an inflatable dinghy, bobbing awestruck in my wake.

Mommy,” she breathed in wonder the other day, “how did you know I wanted to read a book about dinosaurs?”

I did not point out that dinosaurs are all she ever wants to read about. I just shrugged nonchalantly and said, “It must be because I’m so clever.”

Her eyes filled with admiration. “Will I be as clever as you when I grow up?”

I thought of her speedboat sister, and how she was also once a dinghy. And how I was once a speedboat. It’s the Regatta of Life.

No,” I said. “You’ll be much cleverer.”

 

Of Snow, Skiing and Seven-Year-Olds

(First published in Le News edition 14, 13-19 February 2014)

I think I ski better than you,’ my daughter told me the other day.

‘What makes you say that?’ I asked, attempting to discreetly remove the icicle that had jammed up my left nostril a few moments earlier, when I ploughed into a snow drift.

‘You fall down more than I do.’

It’s true. I attribute it to spending the first forty years of my life somewhere very hot and very flat. But I’m trying hard to overcome that early hurdle and, when we arrived in Switzerland, I went all out to set an enthusiastic example for the children.

‘How much fun is this?’ I whooped through gritted teeth, as we snowploughed down mountainsides.

‘Was that great or what?’ I trilled at the bottom, hoping my rictus of fear would pass for an endorphin-drenched smile.

And it worked – on the seven-year-old, at any rate. She loves skiing and she’s good at it. But unfortunately I never fell for my own propaganda, and skiing still gives me the horrors. So why on earth I agreed to go down a blue slope with the child last weekend, I have no idea.

‘You have been on a chair lift before, right?’ I asked, as we stood waiting in line for one of those wretched chariots of death.

She looked bored. ‘Lots of times.’

‘Just make sure you don’t lean forward on the bar,’ I warned, keeping an anxious eye on the progress of the chair. ‘And lift your skis when you get to the top. And tuck your scarf into your jacket so it doesn’t catch on anything. And definitely don’t fall over when you get off because I can’t help you.’

‘I’m not going to fall over. And I don’t need help.’

‘Also, don’t get in front of me. I can’t steer that well and my braking is unreliable,’ I went on, positioning my skis properly and bracing myself for the speed-waddle to the chair’s runway.

She wasn’t even listening. She was facing the wrong way, helmet unbuckled, poking icicles off a railing with her ski pole.

‘What’re you doing?’ I panicked. ‘Why aren’t you getting into position for the chair?’

‘Mom,’ she sighed. ‘We’re not even at the front of the queue yet.’

Well, we made it to the top with no mishaps, and the child hopped off the chair and pointed herself straight at what looked like a precipice.

‘I’ll be fine,’ I called after her. ‘See you at the bottom.’

And as I lay there in front of the lift, trying to disentangle my skis from my poles, I thought, this is what parenting is, isn’t it? Giving them wings so they can fly away; putting an enormous amount of time, money and emotional effort into growing them up so that one day they’ll leave you behind, in a crumpled heap, with everyone pointing at you. 

‘I do ski better than you,’ she said again, when I met her at the bottom, but this time the look on her little face told me that she felt the same way about this fact as I did: proud and anxious, in equal measure.

‘That may be true,’ I said. ‘But you’re still my baby. When we get to the car would you like me to take your boots off and make you some hot chocolate?’

‘Yes, Mama.’

And after she helped me back onto my feet, that’s exactly what I did. 

Of Couches, Clocks and Children

(A shorter version of this was first published in Le News edition 13, 6 – 12 February 2014)

‘Goodness me,’ I said the other day (or words to that effect). ‘We have to redecorate!’

It’s not that our current decor doesn’t reflect my husband and me. It’s that it reflects us all too well: like the couch, our springy bits are gone and we’re getting saggy in the middle; and like our Swiss cuckoo clock, I too have been cruelly overwound by a small child and fundamentally changed by the experience. 

But this realisation sparked something of an identity crisis. Who are we actually, design-wise? How can a couple be sure, after years of not thinking about it, that their palettes don’t clash? What if they’re not aligned? What if he heads off in a Farmhouse direction and  she goes Coastal? What if she decides she’s Mid-Century Scandi Modernist and he doesn’t even know what that means? 

‘Well,’ advised my friend Suchira From India, who dabbles in this sort of thing, ‘first of all, you each have to find your unique style.’ 

‘Mine’s in the laundry, under a pile of socks.’ 

She gave me a look. ‘How would you describe the current style of your home?’ 

‘Predominantly Ikea with strong accents of Preschooler. Mostly in crayon, on the dining room chairs.’  

Again, the look. ‘Try and visualise your ideal home. What would you like to see in front of you every day when you walk into your lounge?’ 

‘George Clooney doing the ironing.’ 

After a sharp rebuke and a few more probing questions, she said my decorating personality was French Country, mostly because when absolutely pressed to choose, I said I preferred toile to plaid. 

I did a quick Google image search and I must say, French Country is gorgeous: all distressed wood, eggshell blue and jars of hydrangeas everywhere. One website described it as ‘rustic and inviting’, which sounds perfect for me because that’s how I’ve always thought of my husband.   

But after a few giddy hours on Pinterest, I realised I would have to let that dream go. French Country doesn’t fit with the things I already have and love, such as my African fabric collection and my children. It seems that French Country children play with vintage teddies, wooden rocking horses and the occasional chalkboard. Maybe a white porcelain tea set. There’s nothing pink and plastic in their rooms. No Barbies. And certainly no big battery-operated Tyrannosaurus Rexes that roar into life in the early hours of the morning for no reason, eyes glowing red and claws scraping on floorboards. Nothing like that, in a French Country style home. 

In fact, there was nothing like that in any of the decor styles I looked up. Nor were there Guinea Pig cages in the middle of the lounge, board games all over the ottoman or piles of books on every stair. And I speak from bitter experience when I say none of those are going anywhere, no matter how much I shout.      

So it looks as if we’ll stick with what we’ve got: an acquiescent couch, an approximate cuckoo clock and, on every surface, reminders of our children. 

It may not be in any of the design books … but it’s ours. 

Supersize My Pie Chart

(First published in Le News edition 12, 30 January – 5 February 2014)

According to www.death-clock.org, I’m going to live to be 79, that being the average life expectancy for a non-smoking woman with my Body Mass Index, living in Switzerland and drinking (ahem) two units of alcohol a week.

Some people may think this kind of thing is morbid but I find it incentivising. ‘Goodness me,’ I thought (or words to that effect). ‘Only 13 000 days left to make my mark on the world. I need to get my act together because my novel isn’t going to write itself, now is it?’ (But … might it, actually? No, of course not. I knew that.)

So, to that end, I sat down last week to create a time management pie chart. I struggle to get excited about anything called a ‘chart’ but pie is very nice, so it worked well. I started by listing everything I need to do each week and the time it all takes, so I could allocate it a slice of the Time Pie. It makes for pretty disturbing reading, I can tell you. For example:

  • General housewife stuff: carting children around, cleaning the house, picking the same damn clothes up off the same damn floor. Every. Single. Day. 22 hours a week.
  • Planning for, shopping and cooking meals that are a) balanced, b) nutritious on a macro and micro level, c) tasty, d) appealing to everyone in the house, using food that is seasonal, local and affordable. Cannot contain trans fats, salt, sugar or anything identifiable as a vegetable. 12 hours.
  • Skiing lessons. 1 1/2 hours. This includes the one hour lesson and the thirty minutes spent sitting in the car afterwards, waiting until my shattered nerves are steady enough to drive home.
  • French lessons and real world practice. 7 hours. ‘Real world practice’ refers to the frequent pantomiming that I have to do in front of shop assistants because, although my French lessons are helping me with greetings and introductions, I haven’t yet learned how to say things like, ‘Do you have an ointment for head lice and is it safe for four year olds?’.
  • Organising children’s swimming lessons, skiing lessons and playdates. Overseeing their free play, which may sound free but which absolutely must include gross and fine motor co ordination activities, pushing and pulling actions, lifting, messy play, climbing and balancing. Interminable.
  • Overseeing homework. Reading with the bigger child. Doing pre-reading activities with the smaller one. Playing board games together to develop maths skills. Baking together to develop science skills. Hosing down house after science skills have been developed quite enough for one day. Time without end.

Also to be factored in:

  • Quality time spent with a) children, b) husband c) cat d) guinea pigs e) alone, locked in the bedroom, shrieking, ‘what more do you want from me?’ every time someone knocks on the door.
  • Sightseeing. We live in this beautiful place and I don’t want our only memory of it to be the A1 and the school parking lot.

Well, it took some work – I had to supersize my pie chart three times and subdivide the slices – but I finally have something I think I can work with. No activity can last longer than ten minutes and I’ve had to cut back to three hour’s sleep a night, but everything is fitted in there.

Success is just around the corner. 

Of Suitcases and Sandcastles

(First published in Le News edition 11, 23-29 January 2014)

The day we came back from our Christmas holiday in South Africa, I opened my toiletry bag and a bucket’s worth of beach sand fell out onto the bathroom floor.

‘Oh, said the smaller child, eyeing it sadly. ‘It was a sandcastle when I put it in there.’

She wasn’t the only one who had issues with her luggage.

‘Why do we need seven packets of powdered jelly and three litres of Dettol?’ my husband had asked, surveying our suitcases the night before we flew back to Europe.

‘I can’t get them in Switzerland,’ I answered.

‘And the nine notebooks? Can’t you find paper in Switzerland?’

‘These feel nicer to write in than other books.’

‘And all those giant balls of red wool? Can you explain those?’

‘I could. But as you can see, I’m busy trying to fit a plaster mould of an impala’s hoof print into this suitcase,’ I replied patiently.

He looked forlornly at the pile of bags that he was going to have to drag through three airports and two train stations.

‘Why can’t we just smuggle in wine and biltong like any other South African?’

Frankly, given his heritage, I expected more from him. His father: now there’s a man who isn’t afraid of baggage. He has distributed to the corners of the earth, among other things, a beaded wire sheep (large), a decorative baobab tree (small but inconveniently shaped) and a bolt of shweshwe fabric (starched and completely unyielding). And my mother-in-law is no suitcase slouch either; the last Christmas cake she brought over was so enormous that we enjoyed a slice with tea every day for months.

Anyway, I pointed out to my shirking husband, I wasn’t the only one to blame for those bulging suitcases. With a joyful disregard for Lufthansa’s weight limitations, our South African friends and family showered us with gifts, including 18 books, two bath towels, a full set of table linen and a music box. And a violin.

All of this was in addition to a ridiculously large toy monkey that the bigger child never leaves home without, and all the heavy jackets and snow boots we’d need back in Switzerland.

My husband did lug it all home, albeit with very bad grace. And I’m pleased to report that last week he was proven wrong by my dear friends, the ladies of the High Mileage Nordic Walking Club: it turns out that I was, in fact, not the only person bringing home what he so unkindly termed ‘random crap’.

Laura From England flew back with thirty plastic Disney plates, and the entire M&S lingerie department. Sandy The Other South African imported several boxes of beeswax lip balm.

‘It’s the only one that isn’t addictive,’ she told us. ‘I can’t live without it!’

But it was Elsa from Germany who surprised us the most. She brought a month’s supply of Lindt chocolates. Back to Switzerland.

‘You do realise …’ I began.

‘Yes, yes, I know. I can get it here. But … it’s not the same.’

And that’s the truth of it. No matter how it may look to the customs officials, it’s not really the jelly / baobab tree / five kilogrammes of mosaic tiles that matters so much. It’s what it represents: home; something familiar; something we loved and didn’t want to leave behind. Just like my daughter, sitting with her friends under a hot South African sky and stuffing sandcastles into my suitcase.

 

Fantasy Families

(First published in Le News edition 10, 16-22 January 2014)

Since becoming a parent, there are a few things I’ve had to wave goodbye to: my size 8 jeans and late night tequila parties come immediately to mind (motherhood has made the hips more robust but weakened the constitution dramatically). Also, I’ve had to give up my fantasy of perfect family life. No matter that the fantasy was based primarily on a montage of mother-child photos from margarine ads. It was deeply held and painful to part with. But real children are nothing like the margarine children, and I am clearly no model mother. For example:

Fantasy 1: The smaller child must dress up as an alien for school. Her costume, hand made by me, is adorable and convincingly alien. She earns recognition from her peers, her self esteem is boosted and she knows she is loved and prioritised in our house.

Reality: I forget all about the costume until the day before dress-up. We’re busy that afternoon, so by the time I think about it again it’s 10 p.m. and I’m too exhausted to hand-make anything except a glass of wine.

The next morning the child runs into school, late, with a badly cut out alien mask. There’s black felt pen smudged everywhere and, in an attempt at antennae, I’ve tied some little water balloons over the ears. The result looks more like Kali the Goddess of Destruction than an alien. This is entirely in keeping with the smaller child’s character, but it’s not what the school asked for.

Fantasy 2: On winter afternoons we come home from school to a pot of vegetable soup, before going back outside for a forest walk. We collect dead leaves and twigs to make a collage because we’re creative, in touch with the world around us and we walk 10 000 steps a day.

Reality: The smaller child refuses to eat my vegetable soup because it has vegetables in it. The bigger child starts motivating strongly to watch a DVD.

‘No,’ I insist. ‘We’re going for a walk.’

After some shouting the bigger one gives in but the smaller one does not. I have to catch her and force her into her boots, gloves and scarf. She threatens to tell the police that I’m making her go outside ‘in the freeze’.

I finally get them both outside and march them up to the forest, where we collect handfuls of dead foliage. Back home they fling off their jackets and glue some sticks to a piece of paper. It takes about three minutes and they’re clearly just doing it to humour me.

They watch Tangled while I wipe up puddles of glue, and pick bits of crushed leaf out of their gloves.

Fantasy 3: I’m a caring and thoughtful home chef, who always dishes up something healthy but appealing to the youthful palate. I gently shape their table manners as we make conversation and bond deeply over good food.

Reality: I’m a short order cook who stands at the stove while the children shout instructions from the dining room: ‘More cheese!’; ‘I’m taking out everything that’s a vegetable’; ‘I’m really thirsty’. Then they pour a cupful of tomato sauce on everything, without tasting it first. The entire dinner conversation consists of my husband endlessly repeating his mealtime mantras: ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’, ‘You’re going to knock that over’ and ‘Eat nicely’’.

After dinner I clean up a sea of tomato sauce and juice. I make a quiche out of the pile of rejected vegetables and feed it to my husband the next day.

He thinks it’s delicious.

It may not be the dream … but it’ll do.