28 March, 2014 / Family

On Mother’s Day please hold your domestic-related questions…

motherHere’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.  

24 March, 2014 / Parenting

Things I’ve said no to

I was dog-walking with a friend this morning when I mentioned applying for my sons’ provisional driving licenses. ‘They’ll have to wait until I’m paid,’ I added, as I’m at that time – not of the month, a freelance writer’s earnings are far more haphazard than that – but the time when I seem to respond to every request with, ‘Yes, fine – but you’ll have to wait till I’m paid for that.’

‘You mean you’re paying for their licenses?’ my friend asked, looking shocked. Well, yes, they are still at school full-time – but her remark did make me think, am I being overindulgent? I paid for my own license and all my lessons and test – but then, I was 25 and hadn’t lived with my parents for eight years. It would have seemed mad to phone up and say, ‘Mum, Dad – any chance of footing the bill?’ They’d have assumed I’d got myself into terrible bother, or rolled their eyes and said, ‘See – told you she’s not coping.’

In some ways, though, maybe it was better that I stood on my own two feet from a pretty young age. Jimmy goes one better, telling me that at 11 years old he was running around, doing the shopping for three different aunties which took him the whole of Saturday. He’d also build the fire and make the house all toasty for his parents coming home from work – that’s after digging over the veg patch and re-pointing the house. What did our offspring do at that age? Come in, throw down an array of bags and coats and flop in front of the telly. Sometimes, I like doing stuff for the kids: ironing a shirt, or picking up a requested item from the shops. But, while it makes me feel pleasingly motherly, I do wonder if I’m a bit soft.

That’s why I started to think about all the things I haven’t done – the things I’ve said no to, with no negotiation. That made me feel a whole lot better about the provisional license thing. Tough love, I think you call it… well, toughish

‘No you’re not…’

  • Getting an exotic pet. I’ve been bombarded with requests for bearded dragons and snakes (what is about scaly things in tanks?). When my friend Annie allowed her son to get a dragon, she was rewarded with a bite on the hand. It’s not that I have disallowed all pets; we’ve had fish which resided in a murky tank, and two rabbits, neither of which lived to pensionable age. And we have a dog, Jack, who we don’t really regard as a pet at all – he’s elevated above pet status. But honestly – I don’t think I could sleep, knowing we had a reptile in the house.
  • Having your ears pierced at seven. My daughter was about 11 when she had hers done. I know this still seems terribly young – but, believe me, holding out until then took every ounce of mental strength I possessed. As she was old enough to take care of her ears, with all the cleaning etc, I (sort of) felt it was okay. Although one friend did ask, ‘So you’re fine about your little girl having her lobes punctured?’ 
  • Buying everything out of Hollister. The brand seemed to have a moment a year or so ago, and I was nagged about buying very ordinary items from there at vastly inflated prices. You’re probably aware that Hollister stores are pitch black inside, and staffed by impossibly beautiful people. So I refused to go in, saying that I wasn’t prepared to humiliate myself by standing on some model’s foot. Also, without special night vision, you can’t possible tell what colour anything is.  
  • Inviting the whole class to a party. In fact, hosting any kind of lavish kids’ party at all. Entertainers, limos, live pumas bursting out of cakes – there’s no need for any of it. All kids care about is lots of rubbishy food and friends to run around with. As long as you don’t offer rice cakes, or become too dictatorial over the games, everything will go swimmingly. I think the trick is not to start offering very much in the way of entertainment, then you’re not expected to up the ante every year.

I was trying to think of more things I’ve said no to – but I ground to a rather premature halt. Which probably suggests that I am a pushover, and that my friend was absolutely right. 

20 March, 2014 / General

I am a disgusting beauty hoarder

beauty1I’ll admit it: I’m a beauty hoarder. Anything given to me, or tried and not liked, is stashed in the glass-fronted cabinet in our bathroom.  And there it remains – dozens of tubs of bacteria multiplying in gunk. I feel sick just looking at it all. 

There are lipsticks from when I worked as a beauty editor on a magazine – in the 80s. They pre-date mobile phones and the Internet. There are mascaras from Thatcher’s era. I don’t use them, obviously, but can’t bear to throw them away – because I hate waste. Time, then, for the Big Beauty Purge. 

I am also addicted to things in mini sizes, the assumption being, ‘This’ll be handy for travelling.’ Fine if it’s quality stuff, but we are hardly talking Cowshed here. Why am I hanging onto 13 tiny bottles of unbranded shampoo and a Novotel soap? Why do I thieve hotel toiletries at all, as if fearing some global shampoo shortage? Plus, there are hotel shower caps, shoe shine cloths and mini sewing kits. If something’s there, I have to grab it. There’s also a body lotion fixation going on. Like most women in their forties I don’t relish the prospect of withering to a crisp. But still…. four tubs of body butter, all but one smelling decidedly off?  

I find a metallic (actually glittery) lotion purchased at around the time Madonna was married to Sean Penn. There are bath salts purloined from a Cornish holiday house when my daughter was a toddler (she is nearly 14). I remember them being bright yellow. They are now beige. Then there’s make-up: eye liners worn down to stumps and lip palettes that smell of old ladies’ drawers – and not in a good way.

It’s great, though – the sorting I mean. It feels purposeful and cathartic. I’m ruthless in my binning of the stale and the hideous, and discover forgotten treasures along the way. I’ve found perfectly good Boots No 7 and Neal’s Yard cleansers, a bevy of quality serums and enough decent moisturisers (Lancôme and Guerlain – how could I have misplaced these?) to keep me going all year. So, instead of blundering around in beauty halls, buying stuff I don’t need, I’ll now know exactly what I have at home.

Post-purge, life already feels more streamlined. I can sit on the loo without having to avert my eyes from the chaos behind the glass doors, and I can actually find the goodies I love, rather than raking through manky old tosh. I now have the beauty cupboard of a proper grown-up, and I could kiss it. 


19 March, 2014 / Family

Let’s stick together

stick1‘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?

Sarah reckons we’re in a ‘danger zone’ now because the glue that held us together – ie, our offspring – will soon disappear. Off to college they’ll go, leaving J and I miserably sipping sherry and occasionally rousing ourselves for a game of whist.

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.

16 March, 2014 / Parenting

The small matter of the rest of their lives…

livesWell, 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. 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. 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 is studying law? At OXFORD?
  • When I was your age… (then proceed to blab 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.