Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The embarrassing hat

I have bought an embarrasssing hat. It is pink and fluffy, as embarrassing hats should be, and looks ridiculous. I am probably as embarrassing as I found my parents wearing their own embarrassing hats to pick me up from school. I wonder if my daughter will remember it with as much fondness as I now remember those furry Russian numbers and brightly coloured berets.

She has her own embarrassing hats too of course. She has a lion one and a cow one and a cat one and a penguin one, though my current favourite is a hat that makes her head look like a strawberry. No doubt one day she'll look at the photos and cringe. But it won't put her off - one day, I have little doubt, she'll look at her kids and think about her role as a parent and think to herself, what I need, what I must buy, what I absolutely must put on my head, is an embarrassing hat. It's a parenting rite of passage.

Monday, 27 February 2012

An antelope before bed

About ten years ago, young and cool and living a single London life, I shared a flat with my best mate. Oh who am I kidding, there's nothing cool about cheap wine and nightbuses, but we were young and we were single and we did have a flat in (a crap bit of) London. And we went out all the time. Parties and receptions and performances and dinners. It rarely stopped. And I remember I once said to my flatmate, this is great this being young and cool with a thriving social life, but you know, I also like watching nature documentaries and I don't ever do that anymore. 

And she said, ah, but remember when you have settled down and have a family all you will do is sit down in front of the telly and watch nature documentaries. And I said yes, I suppose so. 

But so far, turns out we were wrong. For starters, neither of us anticipated that our partners might not want to watch the same as us. But mainly we just never could have guessed that after an exhausting day, after bathtime and bedtime, after cooking dinner and exchanging hellos with the ones we love, after putting the washing on and opening the post and tidying away the day's toys, there just isn't the time to fit a single lion killing an antelope in before bed. 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A half remembered monster - The Marrog and me

It's funny the poems and quotes and scraps of information that stick in your head from childhood. I used to joke that I only learned three things in school. Now I try to think of the three however it turns out this past year of sleep deprivation has made me forget two of them, so I am down to just one which is how farts move across the room, also known as Brownian motion. It's actually a useful piece of knowledge, but not perhaps what we would hope to be the sum of our schooling.

But I learned more than that of course. Some of my accumulated knowledge I have already passed on to the baby, whispering facts in her ear as I carried her around the parks this summer. The difference between the leaves of a chestnut tree and an oak tree, and conkers and acorns, for example, and that blossom is a precursor to fruit, and pink skies at night are a shepherd's delight, though thinking about it this information may all come from my mum whispering in my ear rather than my schooling.

But there was a anthology of poetry, two anthologies in fact, that we used to use in infant school. I remember little about them except one had a green cover and one a blue cover. And there was one poem in them that used to tickle me. All I could remember about it was it was about a monster of some sort who sat at the back of the class making mischief and no one would believe it was there, but with this scanty knowledge I failed to find it online or in any of my own anthologies, when I tried to find it a few years ago.

Then a couple of weeks ago a friend was telling me about her son who recently learned to read and who read, the other day, a poem from one of her books, called The Marrog. I kept quiet when she told me but I knew, just knew, this was the monster I had been looking for. A search for the poem confirmed it and you know what, it gives me as much joy now as I know it did then.

I had grand plans when I was pregnant, and before, that I would read my baby a daily poem, not for her benefit - I am not concerned about hothousing her in this way - but for my own, as a means to rediscover poetry. I wanted to remember goblins at markets and people not waving but drowning and highwaymen and corners of fields that are forever England. But as I think all new mums find out soon enough, public lectures at art galleries and writing that novel just do not happen and that having a baby does not fit in around your life, but your life squeezes in around theirs.

Nevertheless I try to share some things with the baby - I tell her when a favourite song comes on the radio, I read her sentences from books that I find particularly beautiful. Who knows which lines she will one day remember. But one day, when she is an adult, a chance conversation may lead to her rediscovering something she too loved in the past and then forgot, and she may take as much joy as I have in my own refinding of The Marrog, and that thought itself fills me with great happiness.

(I have tried to contact the estate of R C Scriven to get permission to reproduce this but have not received any reply, so will keep this here until told I am unable to.)

The Marrog
by R. C. Scriven

My desk’s at the back of the class
And nobody nobody knows
I’m a Marrog from Mars
With a body of brass
And seventeen fingers and toes.
Wouldn’t they shriek if they knew
I’ve three eyes at the back of my head
And my hair is bright purple
My nose is deep blue
And my teeth are half yellow, half red ?
My five arms are silver with knives on them sharper than spears.
I could go back right now if I liked -
And return in a million light years.
I could gobble them all for
I’m seven foot tall
And I’m breathing green flames from my ears.
Wouldn’t they yell if they knew
If they guessed that a Marrog was here?
Ha-ha they haven’t a clue -
Or wouldn’t they tremble with fear!
“Look, look, a Marrog!”
They’d all scrum and shout.
The blackboard would fall and the ceiling would crack
And the teacher would faint, I suppose.
But I grin to myself, sitting right at the back
And Nobody nobody knows.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Protecting Our Children - could be any one of us

One of the things that struck me while watching the BBC2 documentary Protecting Our Children about the child protection team at Bristol City Council, is just how the fact any one of us is not in the same situation as the families shown is about luck as much as any great moral qualities we may possess.

I know that if our lives spiralled into chaos, if we openly took drugs, if we lost our jobs and couldn't pay the bills, if I was in an abusive relationship, if my child seemed neglected, if the house was covered in faeces,then there's a vast network of friends, families and neighbours who would step in, probably before it even became a big enough problem for social services to be involved.

But without this I think any one of us would be at risk. All it might take would be for a few delicately balanced details wobble - a job to be lost, a massive bill to be paid, depression to set in - and a whole spiral of other problems could start. After all, the mothers in this series were on the whole keen to do the best for their children, but had got themselves into a situation they didn't know how to rescue (bar the mother who seemed to put her relationship with a known sex offender before the safety of her child).

This was in direct opposition to the fathers who seemed to care much less about sorting their lives out for their children. Though the mothers didn't always manage it, they wanted to. In fact there's surely a post to be written there about the portrayal of men in the current crop of documentaries, from the hapless clowns that make up most the dads on One Born Every Minute to those on society's margins in Protecting Our Children.

All I could think last night as the final part of the series screened was how lucky we are that those lives shown are not our lives, and how sad we were for the children, but for the parents also, who through luck of the being born draw, clearly did not have the love, the support or the life skills needed to get their lives on track.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

I shall talk about my child

I'm conscious, when being out with people who do not have children, to try not to be "baby this and baby that" in my conversation (that, after all, is what this blog is for), and I am aware that people without children often moan about people who do talk about their kids.

But I've been giving this some thought and I've decided to stop being so accommodating in my topics of conversation. After all, having a child is the biggest thing in my life. It impacts on all that I do and how I participate in the world. These people who moan about parents talking about their kids - do they moan about pet owners the same way? After all I've had two conversations about other people's pets this week. What if I spoke about a holiday, or a new car, or buying a house? This, I suspect, would be considered 'normal' conversation. If I were buying a houe and having difficulties, ground down by estate agents and surveyors and gazumping and gazundering, I would be pretty peeved to meet a friend for a drink and not be asked about it and sympathised with and and made to laugh about it and given advice and generally engaging with it. Well guess what? A child is much more important than that.

So I've decided - I shall stop making the effort to keep it in and I shall talk about my baby. And those who don't like it will just have to tolerate it the way you might listen to me talk about a failed romance while internally rolling your eyes and thinking I'm a sap, or a work situation where you think I'm unreasonable, or a novel I like that you think is crap.

Except of course when I'm with other parents - after all, we're the ones who most need a good chat about wine, or travel, or culture, or anything other than babies.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Creating vintage memories

They can't have come out that many times in the 18 years I lived at home - 18 at most it is fair to assume - but my family's Christmas cake decorations hold a special place in my heart. They are the plastic tress and reindeer and huskies and robins familiar to many of us 1970s or 1980s children.

The Christmas just gone, my mum and I invented a new tradition. She made two Christmas cakes and covered them with marzipan and my daughter and I turned up for the fun bit - to decorate them. And in a supreme act of generosity my mum went for a minimalist snowflake and penguin look and I was allowed to borrow the family decorations. Modern day snowflakes, Santa and penguins - check. Huskies - check. Reindeer - check. Trees - check. Robin - check. Metallic edible balls - check.

I hope we can repeat this every year - the three generations of us enjoying a flurry or royal icing and cheeky licks of the palette knife - but next year I won't need to borrow the decorations. I have found a wonderful website selling vintage style decorations and have just put in my order for reindeer, trees and holly.

There is something a bit silly about buying new decorations to look old. I wonder whether my daughter should be allowed to have the chubbier faced santas and cartoony model penguins that are popular in the shops now in order to create her own memories of a 21st century Christmas cake, rather than be forced to replicate my memories as her own. But any concerns I have about this disappear quickly when I think of the wonderful magical Christmas forest complete with herd of reindeer that I intend to create next year. And if she's very good then when I am making the cakes and she and her children come over to decorate them, she may just be allowed to borrow them herself.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The comfort of strangers

Like many young children on the cusp of toddlerdom, my daughter likes to interact with strangers on buses and trains. Usually getting a smile from them will suffice. A wave is a bonus. A quick game of peepo makes her day.

To this end she has a number of tricks. She will make eye contact with strangers. If this doesn't work she will laugh at them. If this doesn't work she will wave at them or pull their coat or touch their hand. Or blow a raspberry or warble a song or throw her toy at them. She is very good at getting attention.

The demographic of our daily journeys, often staying local and travelling by bus, means she usually tries this out on other parents or older people. They are often keen to reward her efforts. And of course it is most embarrassing, and enjoyable, when she picks on an attractive young man, though I also took great joy in watching a spotty awkward young teen boy play with her for about ten minutes the other day, clearly giving each other great pleasure and, I hope, confidence. It is slightly awkward when she picks on an aggressive looking wannabe gangster. Yet they all fall for it. From schoolgirl to down-and-out, from office worker to ticket inspector, people always return her efforts with some form of interaction.

Until they didn't. Is thirteen months less cute than twelve months? Last week she twice pulled out all the stops to have this interaction, and twice failed, eventually looking at me in wonder as if to ask why. Better to explain it now I guess, then to have to tell her several years into the future that however much you try the cute boys won't always want to play with you. And at some point of course we will want her to stop being so open and friendly to strangers and to start being on her guard a little.

Yet still, as these folk looked straight ahead, read their books, listened to their iPods, fidgeted and did anything other than look at my wondrous daughter, my heart did break a little.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A lot proud, a little sad

Last week we had a momentous moment (is that tautologous?). At a playgroup, as we sat in a circle singing some songs, my daughter, 13 months old, knew the actions to a song that I hadn't taught her.

Now I know that is what parents do - our job is to equip our children to explore, to become independent, to have experiences of their own, to acquire knowledge we do not have and to return home to condescend and patronise us. But as my daughter moved her hands in a physical interpretation of the word 'twinkle' as we sang about a diamond-like star, she looked at me as if to say 'ha, I know something you don't and what's more you didn't know I knew it', and I had to admit I hadn't thought it would happen quite so soon. And I was both very proud and a little bit sad.

One of my friends, a very wise woman, says the best way to think about it is as an invisible umbilical cord, or piece of elastic, that will forever be between you and your child. As they grow up it stretches and each time it stretches some more it hurts a little until you get used to the sensation. But you will forever be connected and you will always bounce back to each other, before bouncing off again.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Awkward questions

I love the story of Noah's Ark. Like Jonah and the Whale, it has all the elements of a great story - good and evil, a malevolent power, danger and animals. Since our baby was teeny we have sung her variants of The Animals Went in Two by Two, partly because it was one of the only songs we knew the words to before we went to playgroups and singing sessions and learnt or relearnt many more, partly because the repetition works wonders, and partly because it has all the elements of a great song - animals, numbers, divine retribution, optimism.

I bought Lucy Cousins' (of Maisie Mouse fame) beautifully illustrated retelling of the story this week. The pictures, as you would expect from Cousins, are lovely. A bonus is they show both puffins and penguins allowing me to teach the baby the difference, something we've been struggling with.

I do have friends though whose athiesm means they shy away from such songs and stories. It's a shame because surely Bible stories are amongst the best in the world. But it's also misguided. I want children who, if they are athiests, decide to be so through rationalism rather than ignorance. What's more, if they don't have a working knowledge of the Old and New Testaments then so much of Western culture will be closed to them, from the works of Milton and Philip Pullman to Ghost The Musical and the power ballads of Belinda Carlisle.

True, the book raises concepts I may struggle to explain to the baby in future - Who is this being called God? What did the rest of the people do that was really so bad? Why are sea creatures shown going into the ark? But so do most of our other books, from Meg and Mog (What is a witch?) to The Tiger Who Came To Tea (Why didn't they just tell the tiger to share?). And in some ways the questions arising from Noah are likely to be easier. After all, "some people believe in a supreme being who made the world and decides what happens" is almost easier to believe than "some people, when a talking Tiger knocks on their door, let's it come in and help itself to all the food in the house."

(Lucy Cousins incidentally has also retold and illustrated some classic fairy tales in a book called Yummy. Don't tell the baby - I've bought it for her for next Christmas.)

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Teeny Tchaicovsky and Baby Bizet

Our copy of Baby Brains by Simon James arrived today. It's a great story about Mr and Mrs Brains who hothouse their baby in the womb and consequently their baby, when born, is a genius, giving Doogie Howser a run for his money. He's so clever in fact that when recruited by scientists to go to space he does so, only to realise when there that "I want my mummy".

I love the book, and also Jez Alborough's Hug which I wrote about here, because not only does it remind me how much my baby needs me, but how much I need my mum too. When we were in hospital post-birth, by day five all I could think myself was "I want my mummy". She arrived to sobs. "Your baby needs a cuddle" I told her. "Which one?" she asked. It was me of course. While a cuddle from grandma is always nice, I had the baby's cuddle needs covered. It was me who needed the cuddle.

But I also love it because I've been watching in disbelief as the north London mums around me sign up to expensive classes to help their babies develop - Mini Mozart, Teeny Tchaicovsky, Baby Bizet, that kind of thing. (Only two of those are made up). Not only are they expensive, but I don't believe that kind of class at this kind of age makes a jot of difference to how clever the child becomes.

Several months ago I won a series of sessions of Baby Sensory. I only went to one because I couldn't bear the pseudo science when the teacher told us to wave pompoms in front of our children's faces to develop their eyes. And then charged everyone for a cup of tea on top of the £7.50 for the session. All the way home I just couldn't bear thinking about those poor blind pompom-less children. "Don't worry mum," said my (genius) baby, "I'll sit in my buggy watching traffic instead, and sneak a peak at the telly when you think I'm snoozing, and stare at the shadows the trees make in the park. I promise to learn to see mum, rest assured." Phew.

Two friends have invited me to a session called Classics this week - concerts for babies. They might read this blog and I want them to know I am very grateful for the invite and to please continue to invite me to things, and it does sound like a lovely way to pass the morning. But it costs £10. For a baby session! The website however says the £10 is for the adult and babies go in free. Maybe I should do as my husband suggests and send her in alone while I wait outside.

Anyway I think instead of going to classes people should stay at home and read Baby Brains. And then they should read it to their babies. Unless of course their babies can read it alone.