Sunday, 27 March 2011

Hasta la Vista, Nostalgia!

In the past few days there've been some definite signs that Spring has truly arrived, and no, I don't mean the warm air or the nodding daffodils, I'm talking about bloody sand all over my bloody house.  It's amazing how far a three year old can track the stuff, and it turns up in the most irritating places, its regular removal becoming your number one mundane and thankless task for the next six months, until the wheel of the year turns, and you can start repetitively and ineffectively hoovering up its Winter counterpart, glitter, instead.

Yesterday, in between bouts of sand clearance, I launched a sunshine induced and uncharacteristic attack on my two daughters respective wardrobes, sorting out summer clothes from various chaotic boxes and cupboards and drawers.  Like all such jobs, in order to try and complete it I had to do two things - set the three year old on a lunatic project (how many layers of trousers can you get on?) and allow the baby to play with various marginally dangerous items (plastic bags, pointy things, tin foil).   It didn't get finished.

I felt a curious mix of optimism and sorrow as I dug my eldest daughter's little sun dresses out of hiding, ready to be worn again by the baby, and stored newborn vests for the second, and who knows, possibly the last time.  There always seems to be something rather poignant about old baby clothes, that seemed so big when you bought them, and now look like handkerchiefs next to your sinewy and hectic toddler.  It can be hard to put them away.

But do you know what?  Lean in here, because I have a bit of a confession to make...I'm glad my baby's first year is nearly over. 'It goes so quickly doesn't it?', people constantly say, and I know what they mean, but to be honest, for me, the first year with a baby is a bit of a long slow struggle, interspersed with some quite lovely moments, rather than vice versa.  I think it is the lack of communication that I find the hardest: here is this tiny vulnerable soul who is utterly dependent on you for their needs - but they can't tell you what they are, you have to guess.  Exhausted from lack of sleep and lack of time to yourself, you battle on, trying to read their signals, trying to give them comfort, trying to be a good enough mummy.  Much as I love babies, in particular my own, I closed the lid on the box of sleepsuits yesterday with one overriding emotion: relief. 

Of course I know I will live to regret these words.  There is bound to be a time in my future life when I conclude that the very best and most desirable thing to have is a newborn baby.  I will look back on these years and get positively dewy eyed at the thought of all those magical moments: my little one gently breastfeeding as the birds sing their dawn chorus, long and picturesque walks at sunset to soothe my baby to sleep, laughing gaily with my partner at the hilarity of eating supper one handed every night for six months...yes I can already begin to imagine how Nostalgia will cast a rose tinted glow over the whole experience: tears and desperation forgotten, history completely re-written. 

I'm already familiar with the powerful and impressive makeover job that Nostalgia can do, having observed it recently going to work on my Twenties with more vigour, enthusiasm and cheap trimmings than Linda Barker.  Already my life before children has been transformed in my memory into a collection of cool bars, warm love affairs and hot city nights.  Nostalgia convinces me that it was all fun fun fun, and glosses reassuringly over the loneliness, insecurity, and episodes of depression.  Not to mention the hangovers.  But I only have to catch a whiff of cigarette smoke on a summer evening and I'm sighing with longing for that lost decade.

It makes me feel rather fearful actually, if I project myself into the future, and try to imagine what will undoubtedly be the biggest nostalgia hit of my life: looking back on this time I'm living right now.  Because, once the first year is over, and the baby gets bigger, stops wailing for no fathomable reason, and starts to give me the positive feedback that every human craves, I'm in heaven.  At every mother's meeting we air the usual complaints:  too much housework, not enough sleep, too much selflessness, not enough freedom.  And yet it's painful to contemplate how much I am going to miss this time, and these small and adorable creatures, once it is finally over and they have disappeared forever into their adult guise.

Yesterday my three year old and I danced around the kitchen to Paul Simon, and then both collapsed in an arm chair as the music played on.  She curled up in my arms, as I sang along: 'Oh my mama loves me, She loves me, She gets down on her knees and hugs me, She loves me like a rock, She rocks me like the rock of ages and loves me'.  That night when I put her to bed I snuggled up with her as usual and held her as she fell asleep.  As she drifted off she suddenly murmured to me, 'I love you as a stone my mummy'.  These are the moments that don't need the brush of Nostalgia to make them exquisite, right then and there, no retrospect needed, it was pure bliss.  Even if the pillow was a bit sandy.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Girly Pink

Wellies.  Yes I realise this might seem an unlikely place to start.  But I'm all fired up about them.  I know, I know, it might seem trivial.  But bear with me.  Because, sometimes, the microcosmic detail reflects a macrocosmic problem.  And this is one such occasion.  Let me explain.

Wellies.  I just popped into the children's welly aisle in a well known supermarket to chuck a pair in my trolley along with the six pack of pinot grigio I had actually gone in there for in the first place.  My daughter's number one recreational activity at the moment is puddle jumping, mine is taking the edge off the day with two glasses of chilled white before going to bed at 8.30pm: everyone's a winner.

So here was the choice: pink background with dark pink stars, pink Charlie and Lola, pink and purple with rabbits, or, and this is the one that really got to me, pink with a picture of a princess, and trimmed with the words 'Waiting for my Prince'.  So, I turned the air blue with a few post-feminist mutterings, and checked out the boy's selection.  The usual suspects: dinosaurs, aliens, monsters, trucks.  A good example of one of those moments in life when 'having a choice' doesn't really mean you have a choice.  I left with just the wine.

Being the mother of two girls I see a lot of pink.  Somedays I look at my daughters and realise they are dressed entirely in varying shades of the colour from top to toe. It is absolutely unavoidable, no matter what your principles.  Go to any high street shop or supermarket, for any item, from socks to sunglasses, and you are barely offered any other option.   And it's not just the colours, it's the 'motifs' too: little kittens with diamante tiaras, miniature handbags, 'daddy's little princesses'.  The world of toys fares no better, and I even got the same treatment myself recently when I was being talked through the various handset options for a mobile phone upgrade; the salesman suggested, 'How about this one, in girly pink?'.  Reader, I savaged him.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the notion of 'pink for a girl' is a fairly new one.  Up until the 1940's it was blue for girls, and prior to the twenties, there was no tradition in our culture of associating a colour with either sex.  Looking back on my own childhood, I don't remember ever owning anything pink.  Photos of myself pushing guinea pigs around in toy buggies are in existence, but the buggy has red stripes, and I'm wearing blue dungarees and a green shirt.  For very special occasions I seem to have preferred a natty little number made of brown velvet trimmed in cream with what looks like an old doily.  But no pink.

It's not so much the colour that I have a problem with; it's what it stands for.  The whole notion of the 'pink princess', the idea that my fabulous and intelligent daughters should, before they have even started school, be being given the message that being a girl is about pleasing men and having nice accessories, makes me seethe, particularly as it runs so counter to my daily efforts to encourage them to have interests, ambitions and horizons even broader than my own.  Last summer my then two year old had to pick a prize from a selection at the fairground.  The prizes were split into sections for boys and girls.  For boys, the 'active' - pop guns, trucks, bows and arrows, juggling balls; for my daughter, the 'passive' - hair brushes, dress-up dolls, tea sets, mirrors.  Finally she chose a pink mobile phone.  Clearly a Chinese export, it bore the typically baffling and mistranslated slogan, 'Benign Girl'.  For me, that just summed it all up.

So how did it come to this?  It does seem strange that the Zeitgeist is spewing out 'pink and girly' items in this way when my mother's generation worked so hard to free us from a life spent playing kitchens and doing our hair.  But after every revolution, they say, is a lost generation, and I can't help wondering if we aren't all fumbling around a bit right now, making a good show of knowing what we're doing, but secretly feeling a bit muddled.  I guess it's not surprising.  We thought we could 'have it all', but actually we find ourselves having to make difficult choices between the dazzling careers we spent our first three decades building for ourselves, and being with our small children who we prize more highly than stardust.  Our menfolk must feel equally confused, landed as they are with educated and feisty women who make them participate in housekeeping and childcare in a way that would have been unthinkable or even humiliating to their fathers and grandfathers.

With all the pieces of the gender puzzle chucked around so chaotically, perhaps we are searching to find some sort of order, clarity and simplicity.  Maybe there is something reassuring about the predictability of our colour coded world.  Perhaps we need the comfort of things being reduced to 'pink and blue'; we might not be able to find our way through our relationships, careers and psyche's, but at least we know where we are in Mothercare.

Of course this doesn't make it right, especially not for our dearest daughters, striding out into the brave new world of the twenty first century clad in pink with the slogan 'Passive Princess' stamped across their developing chests.  What can be done to help them find their way?  First and foremost we need to show them that there are many many more exciting things to do than waiting for princes, who tend to be unreliable anyway.  Other than that I'm short of suggestions.  For now, I will ponder solutions as I finish my pinot, and head to bed.  There's a hard days childcare ahead of me tomorrow, and a mountain of laundry.  And most of it, for now at least, is girly pink.

There is more reading and thinking to be done via the campaign Pink Stinks at

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Operation Stack

Today, in our house, Operation Stack is in place.  We borrowed this code name from the Kent Police.  They use it to refer to the system of parking lorries on the M40 when the Channel Tunnel is closed.   For us it describes the days when all normal activities need to be halted due to a family member being so tired that they cannot perform the simplest of tasks without crying, yelling, or lying on the kitchen floor beating their fists on the lino.  Sometimes, this is the three year old, but more often than not, it's me.

When Operation Stack is declared, it's an acknowledgement that no forward progress is going to be made, and that therefore it is better for all concerned if we just park up between Junctions 11 and 12 and stop trying.  We light the fire, we put the telly on, we wait for clearance.  And things just, well, stack.  Stacks of laundry, dishes, paperwork, toys; there is an unmistakable sense of 'stackedness' everywhere you look, and from the overflowing nappy bin to the worrying layer of fuzz at the bottom of the fridge, all must pull over to the slow lane, listen to Ken Bruce, eat crisps, and stare into the middle distance.

In fact I've noticed an element of Operation Stack has crept into my life on a day to day basis ever since I had my first baby three years ago.  To give you an example, when I was pregnant for the first time I saved up a big box of filing to do 'after i'd had the baby'.  It still sits untouched on my landing, and winks irritatingly at me every time I walk past, like the lonely old bloke in the nightclub who thinks you're going home with him for sure.  But, like the lonely old bloke, it's never the lonely old box's lucky day.  It's in the stack.

It's not just mundane tasks that are waiting on the M40 either.  I just found myself confidently using the word 'nightclub' as if I actually frequent such places; for all I know, they are not even referred to as nightclubs these days, and calling them such probably flags me up as a sad hasbeen before I've even tried to gain entry to one.  If I did, they would probably turn me away at the door for being unable to name anyone in the Top 40, and having knickers older than Rihanna.  Hang about, maybe Rihanna is in the Top 40...that is, if there still exists such a thing as a Top 40...? Oh dear.

My knowledge of popular culture, my social life, my career, my size-ten-i-can-wear-anything figure, my awareness of current affairs, (something is going on in Libya...I can't be more specific as my toddler does not like what she refers to as 'Grown Up Beebies'), my lovely collection of pre-breastfeeding bras, (from a time when I was less, ahem, 'stacked'), a large pile of unread books bought or given to me since 2008, regular removal of unwanted body hair, plans to learn the squeezebox, and the ability to hold a conversation about topics that don't relate to my children; all this and much much more is waiting patiently at the roadside in my metaphorical lorry park. 

With so many things ground to a halt, looking after small children can leave you feeling as if nothing - from the making of beds to your personal dreams - is being achieved, and it's frustrating. Childcare involves endless acts of unselfishness, and our generation, who had at least a decade of careers, money and personal liberty before becoming parents, are not very accustomed to such a life of compromise and sacrifice.  We were told we could 'Have It All'; but I have to say this glamorous sounding promise rings a bit hollow most days for me, when the peak of my ambitions - usually unfulfilled - is to use the loo unaccompanied.

But there's nothing like hanging out with a three year old to teach you to enjoy the journey and not be too bothered about the destination.  A five hundred yard trip up the road to post a letter can take an hour as you pause to marvel at every pebble, plant, piece of litter and plane trail in the sky.  Their endless curiosity and wonder at every detail brings the mundane back to life for us jaded adults and reminds us to, as they said in the 60's, 'Be Here Now'.  Being stuck in a lorry cab in Kent would be a great adventure for my daughter, who would invent an endless succession of games, songs and explorations and as always not give a fig about time, deadlines, ambitions, plans, or indeed even remember where she was trying to get to.   And so, for now, I try to follow her lead, and relearn the lost art of 'being' instead of 'doing'.  The M40, I'm surprised to report, is a beautiful place.