07 February, 2014 / Parenting

‘Of course, our Daniel’s studying law. At OXFORD’

Well, that’s the prelims over, and the real exams are hurtling toward us, and after that – that’s IT.

The future. It’s what people mean when they casually ask, ‘So what do your kids want to do?’

Er, what do they want to do? What most teenagers do, I suppose. Hang out with friends, scoff gargantuan amounts of food and then, when the kitchen’s been cleaned, ask if there’s anything at all in the house to eat. They want to watch movies. Lie in. Poke at their phones and channel hop, while we wait, patiently, to watch our own box set. Isn’t that what being a teenager is all about?

Only, that’s not what they mean at all.

When people ask, ‘What do they want to do?’, they’re actually saying, ‘So, what kind of futures are they mapping out for themselves?’ And I always want to reply, ‘D’you think anyone actually talks to me?’ Instead, I usually mutter a few things they’ve mentioned, casually and in passing – but it’s never enough. And so the enquirer turns to my kids, and no one says much and it’s all horribly awkward. Things were much simpler when they were little, and they’d say, ‘I want to be a pirate/astronaut’ and look all excited and happy. Everyone was satisfied with an answer like that.

I remember this stage of my own life and it still makes me feel a bit ill…

At 17 years old, for want of something to say, I’d blab that I wanted to be an illustrator. Then, when I failed to get into art college, everyone had to act all sorry and suggest alternative careers. To cheer me up, Mum suggested I apply for a job as a cleaner at a hospital. I don’t know which department I wandered into in my shy and nervous state, but it was clearly the wrong one as, instead of being interviewed, I was handed a small kidney-shaped bowl and asked to go into a cubicle and wee in it.

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘if I’m going to be working with sick people, maybe they need to check I don’t have any diseases.’ I sat there and tried and tried to wee – nothing. Not  a drop. What a failure I was, being turned down for art school and now, to top it all, I couldn’t even pee in a bowl.

I think teenagers tend to be surer about what they don’t want to do.

Eg, like having to wear a suit and tie and trot off to an office every day. ‘That’ll never happen to me,’ they think, because no sets out wanting to do that, do they? No one, at 16 years old, announces, ‘I can see myself working for Standard Life.’ There’s nothing wrong with such a career choice, of course – it’s just, they tend to imagine rather more, um, exciting prospects for themselves. Working in call centres, or for insurance companies and banks, is for parents – ie, ancient people. ‘It nearly killed me,’ my friend’s son announced, somewhat over-dramatically, after completing five days’ work experience at a solicitors’ firm.

Last summer, we had a family weekend in London.  As the five of us strolled along the South Bank, we happened to glance into a huge office block where people were beavering away. ‘Ugh,’ snorted one of my kids, ‘imagine doing that every day.’ I wanted to say, ‘D’you know what that place is? It’s IBM! Don’t you think that might be a pretty interesting company to work for?’ I managed not to, though, because I’d made a rule to stop harping on about jobs and prospects and futures.

Here are more things it’s best not to say to a teenager who may, or may not, be contemplating the path they wish to follow in life.

  • Don’t worry – not everyone’s academically minded.
  • Have you thought of applying for something with the council?
  • Or dog-walking?
  • I think I read that McDonald’s have a good training scheme.
  • Did I tell you our Daniel’s studying law? At OXFORD?
  • When I was your age… (then proceed to witter on for 800 years)
  • Poor you, following in your highly-successful brother’s/sister’s footsteps!
  • Don’t you have ANY idea of what you want to do?
  • There are no jobs out there. None at all. 

02 February, 2014 / General

How I became a dog person


Dragging us out of the house again


Our Jack, ruler of the house

Everyone wanted a dog and I kept saying no.

I was the family killjoy, not because I was worried about everything being chewed and weed on and strewn with hair (our house was pretty wrecked-looking anyway) but due to… the colossal responsibility. We’d come through the full-on child-rearing years, so why would I want to take on the care and feeding of another living thing? One that demanded walks, in all weathers? One that would reward our efforts by mating with cushions and occasionally puking on rugs? I saw myself mopping up emissions and tramping through gales, capillaries bursting all over my face, clutching little plastic bags of warm poo.

To be honest, it didn’t appeal massively….

And then one night Jimmy and I sat up late, drinking wine, and I thought… would it really be so bad? We took the kids on a ‘mystery trip’ – to West Calder, our nearest Dog’s Trust. The adorable pooches on the website turned out to be ferocious things, snapping and snarling and leaping at the bars of their kennels. Clearly, the loveable hound we’d pictured didn’t live here. We tried the Glasgow branch next – and this, in contrast, was an orphanage for the adorable. There were loads we’d have happily taken home. We chose Jack, a nervy and skinny collie cross who’d been picked up roaming the badlands of Motherwell.  

If I’m honest, his first few months with us weren’t quite what I’d imagined…

We loved him to bits, but Christ, he was a barker – terrified of tractors (we get a lot of those around here), motorbikes and, crucially, other dogs. I called Dog’s Trust, who were brilliant at giving advice – we’d already had the ‘adoption’ talk, with a man called George who’d drawn ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ on a whiteboard. Blimey! I’d thought it was all about walking and throwing them the odd biscuit.

It’s all about security, George explained. Encourage a dog to feel safe and secure and the rest will follow.

And it did. Three years on, Jack’s not only a brilliant dog; he’s also shown us that, really, any houseful of teenagers will benefit from a hound pottering about the place. I wish I’d done it years ago. Here’s why…

A dog makes us more pleasant to be around

With three kids and full-time job, I’m used to being busy. When I’m not, I get twitchy and start on at people for leaving towels on the floor and cartons of milk sitting about until they go sour and lumpy. With a dog, you don’t have time to be a miserable harpy. There’s always tons to do. And, even if there isn’t, you can sit and tease out his matted dreadlocky bits, an oddly soothing activity.

They don’t mock us

One of my teenagers’ favourite activities is to laugh at my inability to function with dignity in the modern world. They pee themselves laughing whenever I use the word ‘think’, when referencing technology – ie, ‘For some reason, my spellcheck suddenly thinks I’m in the Czech Republic.’ It’s fine, I mean I can take a ribbing – but occasionally it does irk a bit. I mean, no one wants to be the laughing stock all the time.

Luckily, a dog never mocks you. It doesn’t sneer at your haircut or groan in protest when you use the word ‘groovy’ or ‘cool.’ It doesn’t find you embarrassing or refuse to be seen in public with you. All it wants is to lie on the best chair and lick your face.

When we come home, they rush to greet us

They don’t glance up from the sofa and say, ‘Did you remember to get Nutella?’ Or, ‘When will tea be ready?’ before you’ve even taken off your coat. As the brilliant Nora Ephron put it, ‘When your children are teenagers it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.’ She’s right. A dog is guaranteed to bound to the door, tail revolving with delight. It’s nice to feel needed again, even if, really, they just want food.  

We’re allowed to roll on the carpet like idiots

Little kids love playing rough-and-tumble, but as they grow older they tend to flinch when you enter the room, let alone try make physical contact. When you do hug them – if they grudgingly allow it – it’s like putting your arms around a fridge. With a dog, the sillier and more tactile you are, the more they’ll love it, so you can now direct all that pent-up affection towards your pet. You can also put on a silly voice, and even refer to yourself ‘Mummy’ – ie, mother of dog. Teenagers find this unsettling which, to be honest, makes me want to do it all the more.

They force us out of the house

A dog does have to go out, at least twice a day and accompanied by a human. And that’s fine. I’ve met a whole load of dog people through walking Jack, as well as shifting half a stone, mostly off my butt. I also walk with friends every morning before sitting at the laptop for a mammoth writing session. It acts as a sort of ‘commute’ – ie, that segment of the day in between chivvying everyone off to school, and getting down to business. It clears the head and fills the lungs with fresh air – it’s exercise and socialising, all in one. I still mutter to myself while working, but since having Jack, slightly less so.

A dog makes you feel good about yourself

Whenever I feel bad for nagging my teenagers about messy rooms, or always needing money, I remind myself that I got them a dog which means I am Not A Bad Person. Also, Jack might still be sitting in that big glass-fronted kennel, looking forlorn, if we hadn’t brought him home and attended to his Hierarchy of Needs.

They offer us all the best bits of having a baby

Eg, being cute and sweet and enjoying sitting on your lap. You also get to miss out all the tedious baby-related stuff, like attending toddler groups where no one talks to you apart from to tick you off for setting up the soft play area incorrectly. You don’t have to worry about being judged on your pet’s appearance, and dog owners – unlike parents of the very young – tend not to boast, ‘He’s already reading proper novels and seems to have a real aptitude for the bassoon.’ So really, it’s all good.

Also, and here’s a major plus – Jack hasn’t even tried to mate with us, not even once. He seems to prefer lying in a corner and chewing on an old blanket which is preferable, really, at our stage of life.

15 April, 2013 / General

So, did YOU lose it during the Easter hols?

And, if you did, how did you react? For me, one of the hardest aspects of parenting is knowing how best to react when someone does something annoying. Shrug it off, deciding that a small misdemeanour isn’t worth mentioning? Or launch into a full-scale telling off, with some kind of consequence?

For instance, say one of my kids has been asked to wash up. An hour later, I find dirty dishes still lying in the sink, all stinky with a film of scum on top. Then another of my kids loses the tenner I gave him to go to town with. Do I come down hard on one, or both, or no one at all?  ‘All you can do is what feels right at the time,’ says my friend Adele. Fine, but isn’t there a more… scientific way of approaching this? Until someone enlightens me, I’ve decided to make up some guidelines of my own.

1. Best not to start anything when I’m premenstrual and can end up bubbling with fury when someone bites their toast in an annoying way. I’m better off just smiling benignly, as if the goings-on in my household are actually nothing to do with me.

2. Never allow other people to influence how angry I should be. ‘You never used to behave like that!’ my mother use to shriek, whenever my then pre-school boys used to squirt poster paint all over the kitchen table. ‘She’s right,’ I’d think. ‘I should be FURIOUS.’ So, in about 0.5 seconds, I’d go from being calm and rational to completely banshee-like – all because I’d absorbed my mum’s response, and reacted accordingly.

3. Never rake up misdemeanours from the past. Tempting thought it may be, there is nothing to be gained from barking, ‘I’m still annoyed about the time you smashed a hole in the garden wall.’ I should add that this happened in 2002. Get over yourself, woman, I think is the gist here.

4. Remember that overreacting only leads to me to handing out money to make up for being so horrible. So it’s expensive too.

5. If I get it wrong, I will be big enough to apologise.

6. Keep things in proportion. Whenever I’m stressed out, I’ll try to mentally fast-forward to being an older, wiser woman with kids not of sixteen, but of thirty-six, with grown-up lives of their own. A friend says that, when she does this, small misdemeanours suddenly seem unimportant. Of course, by the time they are that age, I will hopefully be too sozzled on sherry to worry about anything.

7. Finally, I shall try to remember that, on the occasions when I’ve really lost it, I have always felt like a complete ninny.

23 January, 2013 / General

Dear parent/guardian, due to severe weather conditions school will not open today


There’s a phrase to curdle the blood of any home worker. What should you do? One friend didn’t answer her phone when the school office called to say they were closing early. Reassuring herself that her offspring would be ‘fine’, she got on with her work, trying to blot out the sounds of hoards of kids having fun-filled snowball fights in the streets. Turned out my friend’s children were the only ones left in school, and had sat all doleful in an unheated classroom as the boiler had broken.

When my own children were younger, and the announcement arrived that precisely three flakes of snow had forced the entire county to shut down, we’d usually go sledging. There was no alternative but to ‘go with it’ – it was fun, and I miss those days when my children were not ashamed to be seen whizzing down a snowy hillside with me. If I had a pile of work to get through, I’d sit up and do it when everyone else was asleep – but that’s when I was younger and more sprightly. Although my first novel was written entirely at night, I can no longer cobble together a coherent sentence after 9 pm. I suffered a short-lived bout of insomnia a couple of weeks ago, and spent pretty much all of my daylight hours burning dinners, forgetting appointments and alternating between shouting and crying. So, sleep is kind of necessary these days.

If it was too foul outside for sledging, then I’d resort to the unmentionable and plonk my kids in front of the TV. I know – the very word ‘plonk’ says it all. I should have been drawing, painting, playing interminable games of Monopoly. But sadly, I also needed to earn a living, snow or no snow. Anyway, we scrambled through somehow. It was easier in summer, when school closed for some reason, like a teacher strike – I’d just chuck them in the garden with a packet of biscuits. No lasting harm seems to have been done.

Now they’re all big, rangy teenagers, a snow closure shouldn’t really make much difference to my working day. They don’t need me fussing around with mugs of hot chocolate and plates of toast – only, now, I want to do it. I even buy marshmallows and squirty cream, dammit. I want to hang out in the kitchen, gleefully agreeing that the snow is showing no sign of stopping, and that school will probably be closed tomorrow too. It feels special – like a bonus day together. Only trouble is, I’m getting the distinct impression that my children would actually love me to bugger off back to my workroom and leave them alone.

10 January, 2013 / General

Really handy things about living with teens

I live in a houseful of teenagers. One is twelve (she’s a girl so that counts as a teenager) and the other two are almost sixteen. When they were younger, when my shoulder bag was crammed with breadsticks, raisins and all the other joyless snacks I insisted on carting around (whilst I feasted on a bar of Green & Black’s – yum yum), people would always tell me to savour the moment. ‘You’ll miss these days when they’re gone,’ they’d tell me. ‘Children are adorable, while teenagers – well, they’re not so much.’ They – by whom I mean acquaintances with older offspring – would then detail the perils of living with people who are old enough to roam the streets by themselves, but still can’t wash up effectively.

They drink, smoke and stay out all night, they warned me. All they want is money and lifts, and you’ll never be able to relax in the evening with a glass of wine, because you’ll have to drive to some godforsaken place to pick them up from a party. And, when you do – at midnight – they’ll look disgusted at the very sight of you.

While I don’t want to jinx things by reporting that none of the above has happened to us, I’d like to redress the balance by mentioning a few of the lovely aspects of having teens in the house. Truly – I wouldn’t swap these hormonally-charged days for the nappy/potty/reading-Letterland-books-until-I-was-literally-sobbing stage.

While my teenagers are not, admittedly, especially talented in the hoovering department, there are loads of great things about having them around.

1. Play equipment
When your kids are older, you can take delight in the fact that, not only have you survived your stint as a hands-on parent, but you have done so WITHOUT HAVING A BLOODY CLIMBING FRAME IN THE GARDEN. Ditto swing, slide or trampoline which, judging by friends’ experiences, exist only to be splattered with bird poo and wet leaves.

2. Picture books
Miss your cuddly toddler? Instead, celebrate the fact that you no longer have to read that terrible story about a lost puppy who befriends a slipper. Of course, there are tons of wonderful children’s picture books around, but the fact is, children are likely to fixate on the most terrible story, with no discernable plot, demanding it night after night until the only option is to pronounce it ‘lost.’

3. Fairness
Teenagers are no longer obsessed with what’s ‘fair.’ For what felt years – decades, even – my kids squabbled over the most ludicrous things – like who’d been given the ‘best’ piece of toast, or had the biggest verruca. While teens may take a mild interest in the goings-on in each other’s lives, they are no longer obsessed with who’s Mum’s ‘favourite’ – because, in their eyes, the less parental involvement they have to endure, the better.

4. Vegetables
Hurrah! You longer have to nag them about eating vegetables. Frankly, it would feel ridiculous to beg a towering hairy person – who could be legally married within a year – to ‘eat those yummy green beans.’ So you give up, trying to set a good example by chomping greenery – while they tuck happily into their slimy noodles.

5. Peaceful driving
Whereas once the car reverberated with small people shouting and spraying Ribena and crisp crumbs about, now everyone has their headphones plugged in and sits in silence. I can drive for hours without anyone uttering a word. It’s ruddy marvellous. No, hang on, what am I saying? It’s horrible! Lonely and miserable, like I’m some nameless chauffeur they can’t be bothered to pass the time of day with. Maybe they’re paying me back for not getting a climbing frame.