‘Your kids are out of control,’ the man barked. ‘It’s a disgrace!’
I’d taken my twin sons to an aquarium. A star attraction was the moving pavement, which took you along a tunnel through a giant tank of sharks. Actually, no – the real star attraction was the big red button that stopped the pavement moving. Of course my sons pressed it. What else would they do? They were seven years old. The button was irresistible.
An angry man marched towards us and threatened to report us to the staff. My cheeks burned and I sensed tears welling up behind my eyes. Naturally, angry man’s children were behaving beautifully, filling in the worksheets he’d probably printed out for them – they didn’t seem to have even noticed the big button.
It’s normal for kids to get up to hi-jinx in public places – and, fortunately, most people are understanding. However, we all encounter the odd individual – a member of the ‘your kids are out of control!’ brigade – who seem to believe that a child’s every move can be controlled by a parent, as if they were mini robots instead of unpredictable human beings.
How often have you heard a disapproving adult muttering, ‘Well, I blame the parents?’ Give us a break, people! We are trying our best, usually on a pitiful amount of sleep.
It’s amazing how intolerant strangers can be when they witness a child being mischievous. Recently, I was asked to take part in a radio talk show, on which the subject was a certain cafe in Essex, whose owner had decided to ban children – ‘so they can’t spoil the experience for everyone else.’
How terribly life-sapping, I thought, to be denied the chance to just sit and have a coffee that you hadn’t made yourself – and which, crucially, hadn’t been re-heated in the microwave five times. Some callers agreed that the no-kids ruling was rather ungenerous, and I remembered how grateful I’d be whenever I found a welcoming coffee shop, where I could sit with my young children and enjoy a hot drink and a slice of cake. Simple pleasures indeed!
However, according to the vast majority of listeners who phoned into that show, that cafe owner was quite right. ‘I don’t want to be surrounded by screaming kids!’ thundered one man. Perhaps he was the same man who barked at me for ‘letting’ my sons press the red button? As a home-based writer, I regularly take my laptop to cafes to get out of the house. In the twenty-one years I have been freelance, I have never once had my ‘experience’ ruined by rowdy children.
Oh, I know kids can be noisy and sometimes you just want a proper adult night out – but we were talking about a cafe, not a Michelin-starred restaurant. ‘The trouble is,’ the man wittered on, ‘kids are allowed to run amok these days. Mine never did that.’
Yes they did, Mister Perfect. You’ve just blotted it out.
I am on holiday and loving Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing. I know I’m late to this, and that this debut novel has attracted huge praise, and I can see why. I have it in paperback at home but happened to find a well-thumbed copy on the well-stocked bookshelf in the little house we’re staying at in Deia, Majorca.
What a book! I have shied away from reading it as the protagonist, Maud, is an elderly lady with some form of dementia – like my mum. Too upsetting, I thought, but it’s not at all, due to Healey’s wonderful writing.
Somehow, she manages to channel the confused and meandering thoughts of a person for whom the world is becoming an increasingly frustrating place. She injects humour and writes with such credibility about why someone with such a condition might try to piece together snippets of rational thought and logic, aided by pockets stuffed with hand-written notes.
I’m seeing much of myself in Helen, Maud’s daughter, who is clearly at the end of her tether a lot of the time, particularly when her mother insists that her much-loved friend Elizabeth is missing, that something terrible must have happened to her, and that she herself has been burgled. My mother imagined numerous burglaries and, like Maud in the novel, visited the police station time and time again. She was insistent that silverware and her broken spectacles had been stolen. I am loathe to liken a person with dementia to a small child but I found myself trying to be patient, just as I had when one of my three children had refused to eat something I’d cooked, or to settle down to sleep at bedtime. I’d coax and cajole and, occasionally, I’d lose it.
In Elizabeth is Missing, Maud repeatedly goes out wandering, despite being told not to – often to try to find her ‘missing’ friend – and smashes a cup in a restaurant in frustration. Mum’s insistence that people had broken in her house began to drive me to distraction. Our extremely kind GP came to her house and, together, we tried to talk to Mum about how her doors were locked at night and how on earth would anyone have broken in?
‘They’ve been again!’ she insisted. ‘D’you think I’m a liar?’
‘Mum, please believe me, no one has broken in. You didn’t actually have any silver and, look, here’s the handbag you said they took.’
‘They broke in. I saw their faces. Why won’t you believe me?’
I felt my emotions bubbling up and, to my shame, kicked her waste paper basket across her living room. Bits of paper flew everywhere. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Mum was terrified and burst into tears, and I did too. Who hasn’t thought, ‘I’m a terrible parent’ after shouting at a child? There’s the, ‘I am a terrible daughter’ version too – someone who yells at an elderly lady who has a clearly frightening mental illness. I hurried home and dived on a bottle of sauvignon in the fridge.
I am loving reading Elizabeth is Missing because Helen’s frustrations come across clearly and are utterly understandable. I’d love to report that, in the four years since Mum’s diagnosis, I have been a model of calmness and understanding – but it wouldn’t be true.
Mum’s condition is now more advanced than Maud’s. She lives in a wonderful care home and I am no longer the daughter who visits daily with meals and reminders for her to stop buying litre bottles of Irn Bru or multiple purchases of toner from the Clinque counter in John Lewis. I no longer have to deal with the crashing waves of guilt that followed any losing of the plot on my part (e.g., the waste paper basket incident).
I am so glad I picked up Elizabeth is Missing as it reminds anyone with a loved one with dementia that we are not only daughters, sons or carers, but human beings too. Yes, sometimes we lose it and behave in ways that are perhaps not ideal. But we try, we do our best at that precise moment, and that’s all we can do.
05 May, 2014 / Family
I wasn’t overjoyed when my 14 year-old daughter said she wanted to stop eating meat – and only have fish – soon followed by not wanting much fish at all. But then I thought, this is okay, I’ve wanted to do this for ages. Our two sons (aged 17) are confirmed carnivores and it’s been meat, meat, meat all the way for as long as I can remember. Whopping amounts of beef and chicken and lamb – it’s vastly expensive, and also feels a bit… unnecessary. Too heavy and fleshy and animally. So instead of moaning about all the extra work daughter’s meals would entail, I decided to go with it and join her and it’s been fine. Things may be more challenging if, or rather, when – she is a teenage girl after all – she goes fully veggie. But maybe I’ll join her in that too.
We’ve been scoffing loads of curries. My favourite Indian cookbook is by Rick Stein, accompanying his brilliant series – here’s Jimmy making daughter something spicy with peppers and haloumi (instead of paneer) which was SCRUMPTIOUS. If I’m cooking, I’ll generally knock up a chicken/lamb curry for the boys and a veggie one for daughter. It’s a tiny bit of extra work, but when you think about it, making any curry tends to involve raking around for about half a day to find all the blasted spices and then grating and chopping and destroying the whole kitchen and using every implement you have. So you might as well make two – or even three – curries rather than just the one. And of course, most freeze brilliantly so you can eat another day without grating more bleedin’ ginger.
Also – the wonderful Jack Monroe’s carrot and cumin burgers (from her cookbook, A Girl Called Jack, but the recipe is everywhere), which daughter makes for herself. They’re easy, delicious and – according to Jack – work out at 9p per burger. Although ours are frisbee-sized, compared to her dainty ones. Anyway, they beat their meaty counterparts hands down, I reckon.
We’ve also plundered Leon: Fast Vegetarian – it’s modern and fresh and doesn’t make you feel as you’ve been propelled back to Crank’s, circa 1983, in the days when veggie food was terribly farty and made you want to sleep, fartily, for a week. Daughter has made a yum butternut squash stew, and a sort of posh beans on toast thing, with an egg draped on top. The book recommends a kind of bean we didn’t have, so daughter used Heinz baked beans with the overly sugary sauce washed off (a Jack Monroe tip).
Fish-wise – as we still have fish about three times a week – a sort of spaghetti puttanesca-with-tuna is easy as pie (why do people say this? Pie recipes ramble on for page after page!) for teens to make. Another fave is a big slab of salmon dribbled with fish sauce, honey, a few flecks of chili and lime or lemon juice, all wrapped in a greaseproof paper parcel and baked.
This, too, is gleaned from a Leon book. I’m a little obsessed with Leon cookbooks. Everyone’s so jolly and you get the impression that no one looks at the clock and thinks, ‘Christ, teatime already, I really can’t be fagged cooking tonight.’ And there are always faded old photos of the contributors having big family holidays in the Dordogne in the 70s and we only went to Scotland or Wales. I used to dream about being propelled into a Famous Five story and now – Christ, I must be old – I want to live in a Leon cookbook.
Anyway, back to our food thing here in our un-Leon world. It’s early days, I know, and true dyed-in-the-wool vegetarians might mock my excitement over our tentative steps towards a new way of eating. But daughter’s happy, as am I. I’m more energetic, my skin’s looking better and I haven’t felt remotely deprived.
Also, after 17 years of trying to control what my kids eat, it’s immensely refreshing to throw in the towel and say, ‘Okay then – you decide.’ We’ve been poring over websites and cookbooks and it’s been a lovely thing. Any edging-towards-veggie tips gratefully received.
28 March, 2014 / Family
Here’s my mum, Margery. I’ll be giving her flowers, Philomena on DVD (which she loved at the cinema) and we’ll go to Dawyck Gardens for tea and cakes. As for me, I’ve been banging on about, ‘Oh, I hope I get this or that’ for Mother’s Day. But it’s occurred to me that it’s not really about presents. It’s more about what the day doesn’t involve, than the acquisition of chocolate or perfume or any manner of lovely gifts (although naturally, anything my adult-sized children should choose to give me will be snatched, greedily, in amazed delight).
No, when I think about what Mother’s Day should entail, I keep coming back to: as little as possible. Unsurprisingly, a recent survey revealed that, after a trip out with the family, what women want most is a day free of cooking and chores. I know – it hardly reeks of glamour and thrills. But it’s true: I really don’t want to be expected to peel a potato on Sunday. Or sluice out the kitchen bin, or have anything to do with the big stinky pipe at the back of the loo.
Nor do I want anyone to ask, ‘Do we have any butter?’ Normally, I’d say, ‘I think so – look in the fridge’ (just in case I might have cunningly hidden it in the bathroom cabinet). But on Mother’s day, should the butter question should arise, I shall feign deafness or, more likely, reply, ‘I have no idea.’ And I’ll look baffled as if unsure of what butter actually is.
Here are more things a mother doesn’t want to hear on the day which by rights, belongs entirely to her…
- ‘Why is it Mother’s Day? What about children’s day?’
- ‘The washing machine’s making that awful grinding noise again.’
- ‘I think one of your bra under-wires has burst out in the washing machine. Again.’
- ‘I didn’t do anything.’
- ‘Dad’s pizzas are brilliant. Yours are, um…’ (wanders off with bleak expression)
- ‘There’s poo on my trainers.’
- ‘I think I have nits…’
- ‘There’s a party tonight. It’s down this country lane, er… I’m sure we’ll find it.’
- ‘That’s my charger’
- ‘Has Dad’s guitar always had that hole in it?’
- ‘You shrunk my Fred Perry top. It was £55.’ (holds out hand)
- ‘Oh my God! Blood’s pouring out!’
By the way, I don’t want my family to take the no treats thing too literally. I mean, I won’t shout, ‘Take it away!’ if something home-made and delicious were to be placed before me, with a glass of chilled wine. And if they decide to, you know, take me out for lunch or something, then of course I’ll be pleased to go.
Just, you know, in case anyone’s wondering.
19 March, 2014 / Family
‘At this stage in our lives,’ my friend Sarah said cheerfully, ‘loads of couples split up.’ She pointed out that our kids don’t really need us any more (apart from to ferry them around and give them money). ‘So,’ she concluded, ‘not that I’m talking about you of course – but lots of couples decide there’s no reason to stay married.’
To me, this seems wasteful. You’ve weathered those baby and toddler years, without sleep or proper nutrition. You’ve bickered over whose turn it is to stand in the park for three hours, in the pouring rain, and spent romantic evenings sand-blasting dried Weetabix off the high chair. Surely you’re now due some fun together? Deciding to split up now would be mad. If we were going to do it, it would have made a whole more sense when we were ashen with sleep deprivation, and never went out, and when I was still blaming him for impregnating me. Why divorce now, when we can do whatever we want?
Well, that’s not going to happen. I may be jinxing things by even writing about this, but I have a plan, and it feels very exciting. Here it is.
Staying together when the kids leave: my strategy
– Talk to each other. Admittedly, this can be scary: what if the only thing we can think of to say is, ‘Did you put
the bin out?’ We may have to practice getting the conversation flowing again. Alcohol will help.
-Try to be rational. Looking back, when our twin boys were babies I wasn’t quite myself. Jimmy only had to make an innocent remark for me to fly off the handle or run upstairs screaming. ‘This is a nice ham salad,’ he once had the audacity to remark – my cue to throw a velour sleepsuit at his head and start sobbing (my reasoning being that a ham salad couldn’t really be ‘nice’, and that his comment was really a criticism of my domestic abilities). Thankfully, we are now living in more rational times, and should therefore get along better. Plus, most argument triggers are child-related: who’s being too strict/soft, why don’t they help more in the house and whose fault is it that they don’t, etc. Remove teenagers from the equation and what is there left to fall out about?
– Get the heck out of the house. Although we haven’t needed a babysitter for years, we still tend to forget that we can go out, pretty much whenever we want. We need to remember that teenagers are capably of cooking, putting a wash on, walking the dog and taking themselves off to bed. No one needs to be tucked in. And J and I no longer need to be perpetually on call.
And that, I think, is the crux of it: we were only together for two years before I got pregnant, and it feels like there’s a whole lot of catching up to do. Cinema, restaurants, fancy bars and weekends away… there’s so much we can do, the choice is boggling. My only worry is that, by the time we’ve decided, everywhere will be shut.