‘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.
26 June, 2015 / Parenting
University looms. Our twin sons are counting the days until they can flee the nest. One has chosen Glasgow, while his brother is heading for Edinburgh: they are going their separate ways. I’m not surprised. While Jimmy and I have rarely thought of them as ‘the twins’, they have put up with being a pair for 18 years.
Naturally, it hasn’t been all bad. They were playmates as children, taking delight in the pranks which caused my hair to turn grey and their dad’s to fall out. Loneliness has never been a factor for them. Yet spending so much time together can’t have been easy either. Imagine being married to someone, with whom you are also expected to work and socialise. Imagine people constantly exclaiming, ‘Wow – you’re really quite different people!’
Our boys have always sat side by side at the dinner table and in the car. They’ve been taken out to buy school uniforms together and been in many of the same classes at school. Occasionally, friends have sent them shared birthday cards – a massive faux pas in their book – and, of course, larger presents (eg, the wooden fort) were bought for them to play with together. Until secondary school they shared a bedroom and on holidays they’d be squished up together in a tiny tent. Who wouldn’t be a little sick of seeing that other person’s face?
As an only child myself, I can’t quite imagine how it feels to have a sibling – let alone a twin. But I’m sure it’s pretty annoying to have a relative refer to you as ‘that one’ or ‘the other one’, or to attract your attention by calling out, ‘Boys!’ when only one of you is present.
I can understand their fierce desire for independence – not just from us, tedious Mum and Dad who nag about untidy bedrooms and staying out too late – but from each other too. To be able to reinvent yourself as an individual is a wonderful thing. I vividly remember the day I left home, in 1982, when my parents dropped me off at a bedsit in Dundee where I was starting a new job. The fact that I would be living on the east coast of Scotland – while my parents were on the west – felt about right. Suddenly finding myself alone felt thrilling and slightly scary. It also occurred to me, as Mum and Dad drove away, that now – within reason – I could do, and be, anything I wanted.
Before our boys picked their courses, certain friends suggested that we should encourage them to choose the same uni and buy a flat for them to share. Never mind that we don’t have the cash for investing in property. Imagine being forced to be flatmates with your twin! They have bickered over who finished the last of the milkshake for long enough. They deserve a break from all that – and from each other.
Although Jimmy and I have tried to make each of our sons feel like their own person, there’s a limit to how much a time-pressed parent can do. Friends with triplets used to make a point of taking each daughter out individually for some one-to-one time. I was in awe at how they managed it. Jimmy and I tried this too – but, realistically, it was so much easier to go out en mass. Perhaps a better mother than me would have read each child their own bedtime story – but, realistically, who has the time or the energy for that? They were lucky if I managed to get through The Elves and the Shoemaker without conking out and dribbling on their pillow.
While I’m sad at the thought of our boys leaving us, I can understand their keenness to be viewed as individuals and not just one of a pair. So I’ll put on a big, brave smile as we set out to buy two duvets/pillows/starter packs of crockery. I’ll comfort myself with the thought that, while we haven’t been perfect parents, we’ve just done our best. And now they no longer need us.
It’s fine, of course it is. What am I, one of those mothers who hates the idea of her kids growing up? No… I just seem to have something in my eye.
17 January, 2015 / Parenting
Small children may be a handful but at least you know where they are. Even when they’re toddling, you can move faster than they can. As they want to be with you pretty much all of the time, you’re never hit with that wave of horror (‘Oh my God, where is he?’ Answer: on you).
Then… everything changes and there comes a point at which they don’t want us around at all. They want to go out without us while we stay at home, doing our tedious grown-up stuff. My sons were nine when this happened: a bit young to be playing out alone, you might think, but we live in a sleepy country town with few obvious hazards. Apart from one falling-off-a-bike incident (broken arm) and being whacked in the face with a hockey stick (smashed tooth), all the numerous dashes to A&E have been caused by incidents at home.
Yet we’re still scared of the great outdoors when our kids are small. It doesn’t make any sense. If you consider the hazards in your average home – oven, iron, fireplace, booze, all of which can be horribly dangerous if handled without due care – then playing in the park is as close to a haven of safety as you can possibly get.
In my childhood West Yorkshire village I played out with no parent hovering nearby from the age of four. Friends and I would force entry into a derelict textile mill and charge about on the rotting wooden floors. There was a metal trough – it can’t have been more than a foot wide – which spanned a gorge and was ideal for running across. We swam in a dam and cycled for miles and nothing terrible happened. Okay, a man flashed at me once (old-style, with raincoat, from a hillside). ‘I saw the front of a man!’ I yelled, pelting into my house. Mum just gave me a curious look and carried on stirring the pot on the stove. I think she suspected I was making it up.
When the teenage years hit, I wanted to be as far away from my parents as humanly possible. My own kids are the same. ‘They’re allergic to us,’ a friend complained, when we were discussing our kids’ unwillingness to come along on family days out – and of course it’s hurtful at first. Normal, though. And let’s be realistic: yes, it would be quite sweet to go Edinburgh Zoo with my almost eighteen-year old twin sons. But I’d be unable to shake off the suspicion that they were regarding the trip as ironic, in a sort of, ‘Can’t wait to Tweet about this – my day at the zoo with Mum and Dad! Haha!’ kind of way. And they’d force us to stand there smiling in front of some baboons and take our picture and all their friends would laugh at it.
Even if that didn’t happen, I’d suspect they’d only come along to humour us. I don’t want to be patronised at the zoo, thank you very much. I get plenty of that at home: ‘Mum’s come to the point where she’d quite like an iPod. She’s saying how handy it would be to have all her music on a little portable device. She’s like someone in the first ever iPod focus group! HAHA.’
Anyway the baboon scenario is hypothetical because the only way I’ll persuade any children of mine to come to the zoo with me is if I adopt some younger ones. And since my offspring nearly peed themselves at my ‘massive’ forehead – they’d never seen my fringe pulled back before – I’ve decided I’ve had quite enough cheek off kids. So off they go, every weekend – to Glasgow and Edinburgh, our nearest cities, both an hour’s journey away. This started when they were 15. I fretted madly at first: was this too young to be in a big, scary city with a bunch of similarly giddy adolescents? Then I asked myself: what was I scared of exactly? What could possibly happen to them in Top Man?
As the years crept on, my sons started going on ‘camp-outs’, a favoured teenage activity in these rural parts. The idea is, a bunch of friends head off into the wilds for the night with food, guitars, a tent and sleeping bags and return, looking like corpses that have been dragged through dung, at around 9.30 am next day. I’m not foolish enough to believe that they lounge around practising the knot-work skills they learnt at Scouts. And of course I was iffy about it at first. But at 16 they needed their space.
Last year, at 17, my boys announced that they were going on a week’s holiday to Paris together. I felt no more than a small tingle of nerves as they set off for their flight. Next it was our turn. My husband Jimmy and I went to the South of France for a week, leaving our boys home alone (our youngest child had been taken on holiday by a friend’s family). We were aware that two teenagers together are possibly capable of getting up to more hi-jinx than a singleton left alone. But then, a singleton wouldn’t be alone for long: word would get out and friends would converge and it wouldn’t be your house any more, it would be the Chelsea Hotel.
On our return, our sons vowed that they hadn’t had a party. But there was a ragged crack in the bathroom door and I kept finding the odd New Look stiletto lying about. It was only a ‘gathering’, I was told. Worrying. But not half as scary as that first time they went to the park.
19 July, 2014 / Parenting
Facebook’s been full of school photos this week. Parents whose children have just left primary school have been posting pics of their children – sweet pictures showing big smiles. It struck me that, during the primary years, those regulation school photos (mottled grey/blue background, hair neatly combed) are fine, usually. It’s in secondary school that the whole business becomes something else entirely.
Take this: Exhibit A. It’s my husband Jimmy, aged about five, with neat side parting and finger waves (his dad was a barber). It’s a lovely picture, I think. I like it so much, I persuaded him to use it on our wedding invitation.
Then there’s this: Exhibit B. That’s me at about seven, girlie swot in the school library in a polo neck sweater. I wasn’t embarrassed that Mum had sewn braid around the neck. In fact, I’d probably asked her to do it.
Then we come to Exhibit C when I’m about 13. I’m no longer happily parked behind a table of books. I am a seething mass of hormones and mortification. There’s so much wrong with this picture I don’t know where to start.
By that point I had decided that my nose was so large, I had better do something to detract attention from it – hence the two low pigtails, which I hoped would make it look smaller. I’m not quite sure how that was supposed to work, but it was a trick I believe I’d read in Jackie magazine (big pigtails = smaller nose, in comparison!). I’m also caught in a half-blink, and my fringe was obviously cut by my mum, possibly during a power cut using those round-ended scissors that small children use to cut paper.
As a final touch, in the actual photo, inky blots are visible on the hand I’ve raised, as if waving feebly at the photographer.
We keep reading how under stress teenagers are these days, with social media and the relentless pressure to be as skinny as Cara Delevigne. Okay, I didn’t have that to contend with. This picture was taken around 1978. Cara had yet to be born. And I never aspired to look like one of the models in my favourite magazine. But at least today’s teens are allowed to go to proper hairdressers and would surely remember to wash their hands before having a photo taken.
Come to think of it, it’s been years since I have been offered a school photo ‘for approval’ from my kids’ school. Either the school has stopped doing them or my offspring have decided to not bring them home. Perhaps I’m a bad parent because I never think to ask. Back in the day, though, my own mum would ask, ‘Have your school photos arrived yet?’ and she’d snatch them from me, all excited.
I remember her looking at this one in particular. ‘Oh,’ was all she said.
09 July, 2014 / Parenting
My kids’ school just had a talk about university applications. It was all about this course and that course and all I could think was, How can this be? That my boys will soon be applying for college or uni and washing their own pants?
It only seems like last week that I was shepherding them home from the park, dripping and filthy and attracting those ‘Look at those poor, sodden children!’ type looks. I walked through the park yesterday for the first time in about eight years. It’s been completely gentrified with a renovated paddling pool and loads of shiny new play equipment. In our day there’d been a burnt-out climbing frame and a stinky little hut full of fag butts.
But actually, I’m enjoying the fact that they’re older. The whole uni/college thing is thrilling to me because I didn’t go. I left school at seventeen – the age my boys are now – and, thanks to my dad spotting a tiny recruitment ad in our local paper, applied for a job as a trainee journalist at DC Thomson in Dundee, publishers of Jackie magazine.
Is anything more thrilling than leaving home? I was desperate to get the hell out. Having applied for art school, and failed to gain a place due to being pretty crappy at drawing, I realised how lucky I was to get a job of any description, let alone one on the magazine I’d loved since I was thirteen. The next three years were spent writing about blusher and how to make ‘Dave’ notice you. I lived in a bedsit, then flatshares, surviving on toast and beer, mostly. It was like being a student, without the lectures – the average age in the Jackie office was about nineteen.
Jimmy and I gave our boys a taste of independent living recently, and left them home alone for a week. We’d asked them if they wanted to come on holiday with us (our daughter had been whisked off to Spain by her friend’s family) and they replied with a resounding ‘NO THANKS.’ Then they proceeded to organise a ‘gathering’. Yes, I was worried about returning home to be greeted by inebriated teenagers and scowling police. But, desperate for a break, we set off.
Friends moan about not being ‘needed’ any more, and feeling redundant, but these days I think, what are you on about? Who wants to be needed every minute of the day? I’ve had seventeen years of being on hand, attending to my offspring’s every needs, and my reserves of patience and dutifulness have all run out – peeling the top off a pot of Petit Filous would break me now. Anyway, Jimmy and I had a marvellous time, doing the stuff we love to do – chatting, eating, looking at art, quaffing a bottle of rose over a salad nicoise at lunchtime. And we came home to a tidy house and no evidence of excessive partying.
My chilli plants had been watered. There was milk in the fridge. One of my boys reported that he’d made a Caesar salad – yes, an actual salad, with leaves. ‘Next time,’ he said, ‘you might as well go away for two weeks.’