House rules.

We don’t have that many rules in our house. I don’t want the kids to grow up in some sort of military academy, and besides, I’m not sure I can be bothered to enforce that many rules. But the number of times that I have found myself shouting

‘we don’t have many rules in this house, but you do need to follow the few we have otherwise WE ARE ALL DOOMED!’,

lately is sort of undermining that whole policy. Why can’t kids just listen? And what are the chances of me shipping them out to boarding school/relatives (I’m looking at you there, Uncle Andy and Auntie Weezer*….)

*not her real name.

These are the basics.

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They mostly relate to eating vaguely nicely and not killing each other. Oh, and putting shoes away. Because, frankly, sometimes I feel like all I do is put shoes away.ALL DAY LONG.

They don’t even have that many shoes (except for Tilly. She inherits any too-small shoes, and she is like a mini Imelda Marcos,) but we’ll gloss over that fact, because, actually, she is not that bad at putting shoes away. But the other two, good bloody grief. They’re like shoe-shedding missiles on a mission to clutter up the living room/hall/playroom/stairs.

Tilly makes up for being quite good about shoes by generally ignoring anything I say, and shouting over other people when she feels the urge to give one of her long and extremely hard to follow state-of-the-nation-style address. She also gets changed approximately 14 times a day, (although she frequently eats meals naked) and doesn’t put any of her clothes away. No one remembers to put their dirty clothes in the washing basket (in fact, Will still says ‘but I don’t know where it is!’ even though it hasn’t moved in 4 years,) and if you ask them to set the table, they dump a load of cutlery in the middle and pour the cat a glass of water.

This is all despite the fact that we were reassured by all three of their teachers at parents’ evening last week that they were ‘beautifully behaved, very polite, and a pleasure to have in the classroom.’

The cat has taught Polly to hiss, which she now does whenever I ask her to do something. This is clearly charming, although not as charming as kicking her siblings when she thinks no one is watching, or Will belching the alphabet. When we are not listening closely enough to her long speeches, Tilly lets herself out and visits our elderly neighbour, who is too deaf to hear much of the monologue, but is too polite to interrupt. No one puts their bikes away. In short, my discipline policy has fallen apart entirely. If I were to be Ofsted-ed (terrifying thought) I would get totally failing, or whatever the rating is that makes parents flee from the catchment area as if they’ve been set on fire.

Today, on the way home from school, Polly said a swear word VERY loudly, as we were casually walking down a road full of retired people, with one of Will’s very polite friends.

When I stared at her in astonishment, she said  ‘WHAT? H(child shall remain nameless) said it in the playground! It’s not that bad!’

WTF?

I’m updating the bloody rules. No swearing.

Of course this blog is entirely undermined by the print that I chose for the living room. It says, in very bold type

DO NOT CONFORM.

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A good space…

map of Granary square

There’s this place, near King’s Cross station.

Right by the canal.

Granary square. There are no cars, instead there are fountains, cafes, lots of people on bikes, bookshops on boats, and an ice cream barge.

There’s a gallery of illustration, there is a nice restaurant. There are big steps leading down to the canal covered in pretend grass that you can sit on and watch the runners go along the canal path.

It’s pretty much my favourite place to go in London at the moment, and it’s just a five minute walk from St Pancras station.

For me, the reason it’s such a treat is the fact that you feel like you have all that space away from traffic; to eat, to drink, to cycle through the fountains, to just hang out – right in the middle of this frenetic bit of London. It’s a great mix of old and new landscaping: the buildings are Victorian, the canal is the Industrial Revolution’s finest; the cafes and galleries, the fountains and the steps to sit on, the vans and cargo bikes selling coffee are all brand-spanking new. The newness and the oldness sit together beautifully; the canal which was once a pre-car essential connection between London and the north is now a focal point for people to sit beside, run alongside and watch. In our super-connected modern world, it’s these kind of places that I think are integral to community cohesion, to provide a place for friends to meet and for people to be alongside, and connect with other people. It feels like a dreamily futuristic, post-car landscape. It’s so easy for cities to be full of noise and things and people on the move, but no space to just be.

There was a really interesting article about the aims of the development in the Observer last weekend (here) about the aims and achievements of the development. It had “to feel like a piece of London, be a public bit of London,  to have an influence beyond its boundaries and to achieve “a social mix”

Social mix is a hard thing to gauge when you only hang out there occasionally, certainly the parents I’ve met there whilst the kids have been racing up and down the steps, running in the fountains and generally lounging in the square have been posher-kinds of parents, but when your kids are in their underwear and soaking wet, it’s not like that matters everso much. The great and the good of north London didn’t bat an eyelid between them when Tilly slid down the stair rails in just a t shirt and knickers. It would be nice to think that it will attract anyone who fancies a bit of space to wander in a city full of people in a hurry, places to be and crowds of tourists – no matter what their social background. I certainly think it feels like a part of London, and it feels very much like a place that belongs to the public. Its influence has definitely stretched beyond its boundaries. Ever since I first visited, I’ve been trying to figure out how Bedford can get itself a place like this.

I can completely recommend it for hanging out with the kids, picnicking. and running in the fountains. Take a change of clothes for anyone who might be tempted to run through the fountains, visit the gallery, try drinking a cocktail in a can (just my classy suggestion there) on the steps by the canal if you’re there for a long summer/autumn evening. Take a book. Take a bike. Take the train to hang out in the city and sit outside.

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On the top floor of the Camden local authority building, there is a piece of art that says ‘not for one but for all.’

I think that if anything, that sums up what this place is all about. And it’s kind of magical.

 

The right to a voice

I’m writing this in response to something awful that happened to a writer who I’ve come to really enjoy reading, who has announced today that she’s saying goodbye to her blog. What happened was that she wrote a piece about how she intends to bring her son up as a feminist. Good for her. Good for him.

But some people really, really objected to this.
They called her terrible things.
They were rude and ignorant, and they were abusive.
They accused her of child abuse, which leads me to think they have never thought for a second what ‘abuse’ actually means.

I still don’t understand why people fear the word feminism. It’s not a cult, a fascist regime or a rabid desire to overthrow all men. It’s just the belief that women should be treated equally. And that means many things, including changing the way that gender role models are presented in the media. Which means that you make decisions about what you think is suitable for your children to watch, wear, and do. So that girls don’t grow up thinking they are supposed to turn into princesses with waist length hair and be rescued, and boys don’t think that girls need or want to be rescued all of the time. It means not letting boys grow up thinking they need huge muscles and a season ticket to Arsenal to be a boy. Feminism means many things that many people have written about eloquently and well (Hadley Freeman’s How to be Awesome should be required reading in schools, I think.)

It made me so sad, and so angry, that this has happened. For people who just like to shout down anything that isn’t exactly what they believe, for people who just shout without thinking, to silence a voice that is kind and funny, and endlessly reassuring. It’s sad, sure, but not unusual, I know. Trolling, anonymous or otherwise, is a huge issue at the moment.

My blog (which I’ve sadly neglected somewhat of late) very quickly became my voice. When you are a mum, at home with small children, which I was for a very long time, it’s easy to feel that no one is listening to you. Because usually, no one is. Small children are adept at selective deafness, and if you try to tell them that they need to do anything they might object to – washing their hands, putting the Lego away, getting dressed in something that is not a Buzz Lightyear costume – they tend to pretend they heard nothing. (Or throw themselves to the floor and scream. It depends on the child, very much.)
I still frequently shout, at home, ‘WHY DOES NO ONE EVER LISTEN TO ME?!’

No response, obviously.

But sometimes you will write something, and someone hears. And it means something, and that is very, very powerful. Mummy bloggers are often dismissed as being a bit silly. But these women, with their opinions, their writing and their thinking out loud are creating a community, and a place to be heard. A place for women who are spending years of their lives bringing up children, struggling with the monotony, the sleep deprivation, the boredom and the nagging feeling that you should always be doing something else, and the trying to do the right thing. It’s a role that has always been overlooked or diminished, and yet it is so important.

The blogging community has become a place for women who want to talk about their everyday lives with other people who listen, and who understand. Whether you work and have babies, or stay at home all day with them, the issues are often the same. It’s sad, it’s clever and it’s often laugh out loud funny. It’s supportive. Sometimes it’s airing a frustration about CBeebies, (Postman Pat, special delivery service. Sometimes you really have to ask other parents ‘am I seeing the same thing as you? Is he really that SHIT at his job?!’) Sometimes it’s about friendship, and strength.
Sometimes it’s writing about how you feel, post-birth, about your body. Sometimes it’s about the fact that you want to stop worrying about developmental milestones but you can’t. bloody. stop it. (My advice? Have a third child. Seriously. I’m not even sure I know where Matilda’s red book is any more.)

And sometimes, it is about raising your child in the way you believe is right.

If you want to read something wonderful about the community that social media and blogging creates, read this.

Good luck K. I know you haven’t stopped writing for ever, but I hope you’ll be blogging again soon.

Goodbye Mrs Kumar.

Tomorrow, our school is shut. In an education version of a state funeral,  Castle Lower has come to a rare standstill. No smells of hot dinners cooking swirling across the playground, no tag, no playing on the tyres, no assembly, and no nursery. Tomorrow is the funeral of Mrs Kumar, and no one is going to school.

Mrs Kumar was, for 26 years, the heart of the school, which sounds like a saccharine, clichéd kind of thing to say, except that it is completely true. Mrs Kumar was usually the first person you met when you came to sign your tiny, wriggly three year old up for nursery – often their first step into the big wide world of school. She was kind, and gentle and warm  – it was all ‘my darlings! look at YOU! ‘  This is exactly what any parent facing the prospect of handing their little bundle of joy and snot over to school wants – resentfully or joyfully – if you’re going to hand them over, then what could be better than to put them in the hands of a lady who was, clearly, the world’s best mum.

But the thing about Mrs Kumar was that she was FUN. She was forever laughing, a proper, wicked laugh that made you think of secrets and funny stories shared over a bottle of wine at the pub. She smiled, she hugged the kids all the time, and she was genuinely excited about all of the moments of tiny ecstasy that go along with children that age. ‘You zipped your coat up all by YOURSELF! Isn’t that BRILLIANT!’ And it was just genuine, she wasn’t playing along. Who would, with 60 odd kids trooping through the nursery over a day? If you’re not enthralled by the tiny victories of three and four year olds, you wouldn’t work with them day in, day out for 26 years. It would be like an awful punishment.

Mrs Kumar was no Miss Honey from Matilda – she was kind and soft and endlessly patient, but she had none of that insipid niceness or patronising tone that you might associate with lovely nursery school teachers. Mrs Kumar was crazy about the kids she looked after  – and she always seemed as if she was having a total blast at work. The nursery staff were frequently roaring with laughter; the kids giggling along. I remember seeing her at the school quiz night, in absolute hysterics most of the evening. She didn’t so much light up the room as set fire to the whole bloody place.

One of my favourite memories of Mrs Kumar is of Polly’s sports day at nursery, when Mrs Kumar and her great friend and colleague Mrs Fensome had decided to get in on the fun. None of this ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ thing, they had t-shirts (pink, obviously – Mrs Fensome loves chocolate, and Mrs Kumar loves pink, that’s what the children tell me, like it’s the absolute truth) made with TEAM FENSOME and TEAM KUMAR on. They cheered their teams of enthusiastic prechoolers on whilst bellowing at each other that there was cheating on the opposite side, and getting the kids and parents to yell their teams on to victory. Not in a scary, competitive way, just so you knew that they were having a brilliant time, and that this was not just another sports day; this was important.

Mrs Kumar was lovely to each of my children, all of whom joined her nursery class – one bright as a button and keen, one too terrified to speak to her for two terms, and one diva who asked Mrs Kumar to show her how to do a side ponytail. She was lovely to all three of them, sensing that they each needed a different side of her and giving them that plus a broad smile or a quick cuddle as they turned up each day in various states of urchin-ness. I know she did this for so many children – my friends’ children, and also for my sister, who was one of the first years of nursery at Castle, and who remembers Mrs Kumar as a young nursery teacher, lovely as ever. Everyone has a story of how Mrs Kumar made the nursery years special, or fun, or just how she told them not to worry – she’d seen a million worse tantrums/leg bruises/children incapable of speaking at three. It’s just totally normal, she’d say. Nothing to worry about. God how we all need to hear that sometimes.

She always made the effort to get to know kids – for her, it wasn’t about the progress, the school, or the parents, it was always about the child. Your child. Every child. In the cut-throat world of modern education, where stats and SATS scores are so often confused with the point, teachers like Mrs Kumar are a rare and precious reminder of the actual point of primary education: to nurture and inspire children, to make them feel like they belong.

A day off school midweek is an often-dreamt-of treat, but not tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll all feel like we’ve lost a little something, that school will go on, but never quite be the same.

The last time I saw Mrs Kumar was almost exactly a year ago at the Riverside Grill, out to a birthday tea with her family to celebrate her son’s birthday. She came over to say hi, and to tell the children that they were all getting so tall, and that they looked as happy as ever. She looked well, and told us how she couldn’t believe that her children were getting so grown up too. We laughed about how children you once carried about all day grew to be taller than you ‘and better at computers’ – she added. We were talking in that way that parents do, all the time, being both fascinated and horrified; watching life pass in your childrens’ growing up. She grinned and she waved and she was gone – back to have her dinner with her kids and her husband. We waved and we didn’t know that would be the last time. I guess I would have said thank you, if I had known.

Thank you for being Mrs Kumar. Wise and kind and vivacious: the best fun you ever had in nursery school.

 

 

 

The keys.

It was the first day of a new term today.

A new morning after a long summer holiday, with hot and sticky days in the town and blustery days on the beach; the first time we saw lightening in a cloud was this summer, huddled on the back step in Norfolk, watching the storm above the sea.

The usual morning chaos returned this morning, with the novelty of it bring the first week back ensuring we were up at a more reasonable hour than in July, with shinier shoes and neater hair.

I ushered the children- freshly uniformed and keen- out of the door and down the road, chatting and listening to their excited nervousness. I was thinking about my day ahead too.

And then I remembred. I had forgotten my keys. Again! Just like Sunday. I stopped, bag in hand, children cluttering up behind me on the pavement. Never mind. No time to go back!

I could see them, still on the side in the living room. Un-jangling.

Attempts to contact R failed. Later he said:

Stop forgetting your keys.

Yes, well. I should. I might. I’ll try to.
But in reality, I won’t. I will always be the key-forgetter, the paper-loser, the one who never quite remembers things.

I can leave the house with three children, three lunch boxes, three PE bags, flasks and book bags. I can remember phone numbers from old houses and irrelevant postcodes, lines of poetry and the lyrics to entire East17 albums. I will remember birthdays of people I never see anymore, recipes, the final scene from Hamlet, but I will always forget my keys.

Sometimes, the smallest of things can undo you.

On acceptance, bodies and backhanded compliments.

Occasionally, the need to say something vaguely controversial takes hold of me, and I simply cannot rest until I have shouted that ‘No I don’t bloody well like champagne, I can’t stand Holiday by Madonna and I’ve never watched Back to the Future!’

It’s all relative, obviously.

So here we go. In many ways, I like my post-babies body better than I liked my pre-baby body. Yes, even with the teabag boob-thing. (This phenomenon was brilliantly summed-up by my new favourite blogger, Steph at Sisterhood (and all that), which you should all definitely read.) That’s not the general line women are supposed to take. We’re supposed to resent them, these flabbier bodies that have betrayed us. We’re supposed to loathe them so much that we diet our way back into our skinny jeans and flick through the before and after shots of surgical procedures aimed at ‘reclaiming your pre-birth body’.

I’m not saying that I look amazing or anything, although I do actually quite like having less in the boob area than before. I was never entirely happy with my pre-childbearing years slightly Jordan-esque chest. The fact that I could now, if I wanted, wear a polo neck, or a halterneck dress, or that I can buy pretty underwear rather than the firm scaffolding type is liberating. My body has changed and grown, and is not the same, but I don’t resent it at all.

Ultimately, the way that I feel about my post-baby body is not about aesthetics at all. It’s about me relaxing, and letting go of a long-held belief that somehow, I should aspire to the bodies of those girls who were in FHM & Maxim and all over everywhere when I was 16. That accidental aspiration has gone the way of the ones I had when I was younger about being able to do the splits, or a no-handed cartwheel, or finding Narnia.

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I have never, ever looked anything like this. (I do still love S Club though.)

Even though I never wanted to be those girls, and while I could see that there were more interesting things to aspire to than titillating 16 year old boys in a gingham bikini, I must have just absorbed those images and subconsciously held them up as a thin-yet-perky ideal. Luckily, images of Kelly Brook and various Hollyoaks girls no longer haunt my brain, and the relief is astonishing.

It’s like I had never really appreciated how much pressure there is to have this ‘perfect’ body until I had gone beyond the point of feeling that it might be expected of me. Having shrugged off the pressure, I found myself suddenly much more at ease with what I have now, which clearly, is not exactly supermodel standard, but I can honestly say now that I’m OK with that. It just no longer seems to be so important to have a perfectly flat stomach, or a hip bone with only the smallest amount of flesh around it, in fact, I can’t really remember why it seemed so important at the time. There’s more to life than adorable abs and an enviable cleavage, and it is sad to think that it took me having kids to discover the truth of that.

This is a funny and true story though: during an extremely long and insanely painful labour with Polly, a midwife said to me in a disparaging tone ‘you’ve not really got child-bearing hips there,’ and I (off my face on gas and air) considered it the best back-handed compliment of all time. It was clearly meant as a comment on my inability to get a move on with having the damn baby – the labour ward was busy at the time and my little hips were keeping other mothers-to-be waiting, but I was delighted that she had basically called me skinny. In labour. The general ridiculousness of this state of affairs has amused and disgusted me a bit ever since.)

So whenever people sigh, and say that all this fuss about how the media portrays women is not that important in the scheme of things, that magazines in themselves don’t cause eating disorders, or that of course fashion models need to be that thin to show off the clothes; that it doesn’t really make much difference whether Barbie is thin and blonde and busty or not, I think well. I think it does matter, actually, and all of those tiny things added together make this overwhelming sense of a certain body type that even young women determined not to be influenced by all of that just absorb. Just by living, and looking, and reading, and seeing, we are all being told that that is what is expected. That really, this tiny waist and perfectly pert boobs are what you should be aiming for.

Like pretty much everyone else I know with small children, the soundtrack to our summer has been massively influenced by the film Frozen. And every time I hear my girls shouting along to the words of Let it Go – I am proud. I hope that they feel whenever they yell ‘that perfect girl is gone’ that the way ahead is not perfection, but acceptance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t want to be your hero…

There are some songs that become instant classics, and this is one of them. I heard this for the first time last night, and I already can’t get it out of my head. Right now, we’re surrounded by Lego, building cities and magical creatures, and ignoring the fact that the remains of breakfast are still on the table, uncleared. The kids are in their PJs, I’m pottering about, drinking coffee and writing, and we’re all singing along to this, which is from the soundtrack to Boyhood. I hope that when we play this song in the future, we remember these long summer holiday mornings, which are not always fraught and sweaty, but sometimes peaceful and sweet.

Happy summer holidays!