Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Sting

So I'm driving along, having just come out of a meeting, towards the end of last week. I hear the phone go, and when I have a moment look to see who the caller is.

It's the children's school.

The only reason the school calls me is if something bad has happened. I brace myself, and listen to the message. "Your son has been stung by a bee. Could you come into the school and take out the sting, as we're not allowed to do it."

What? What? So you're able to take my son and teach him, feed him, demand that he go to the toilet on time, tell him off for not paying attention, let him play in the enormous playground, tell his friends off for being rowdy, tell me off for somehow not teaching him at home enough... but you're unable to administer basic first aid if he is stung?

I go to the school. My son is sitting on his tiny chair, whey-faced, blotchy with shock, clutching a bear, and streaked with tears. He sees me and goes completely to pieces. He is utterly terrified by the ordeal of having waited for me. The sting is clearly visible, hanging from his grubby neck.

Teacher and teaching assistant are, to be fair, as frustrated as I am, protesting that they are simply forbidden to deal with such things.... although it's not entirely clear why. Health and safety gone mad? The possibility that they might hurt the child more by dealing with the problem? That they themselves might be hurt by the flailing arm of a protesting mite? Not really sure there.

I ask for tweezers to extract it with. They haven't got any... wait a minute, the teacher has a pair the children play with... she produces a savage-looking pair with a sharp protrusion between the two prongs. It serves no visible purpose, but could spike anyone who picked the tweezers up. This the children are allowed to play with? But you don't extract bee stings?

I point out that I have never performed this operation. We try to scrape son off the ceiling of his own fears, which takes so long that all the children are running back in after break. I suggest politely that we adjourn to the medical room. There, after further tears, I pluck the offending sting, which will have done more damage to the poor bee than it did to my son, from his neck, and the crisis abates, like the air coming out of a balloon.

I must needs stay and read with son, cosset and comfort him in his hour of need. I think ruefully of the book review I am late with, of the party planning I had on the go, of the book I am supposed to be writing. And I put my finger under the line and start sounding out.

Do I need to spell out the reason for this post? I am infuriated on several counts — not with individual teaching staff, I hasten to qualify, but with the systemic failure this incident highlights:

1. Don't leave a child in pain and shock while you call his mother. Treat the problem.
2. Don't just automatically call the mother. He has a father.
3. Don't waste my time. I am the parent, I parent. You are the teacher. You teach -- and you are in loco parentis. It is a contract.
4. Don't make me feel somehow guilty for saying any of this. I love my son, but how can I love being forced into such a ridiculous position. And why do I need to be?

Friday, 11 May 2012


I was chatting to two good friends over the weekend. First of all the talk turned to the rudeness of dinner guests who RSVP, not with food allergies, but with whole shopping lists of foods they just don't happen to like. In one priceless example, a woman wrote back to one of my friends saying, "if you're thinking of a creamy pudding, I'll pass".

After we'd stopped laughing about this, one of my friends said, "oh, and can I do a straw poll on sheet washing? How often do you do yours?"

It was perhaps sad in the first place that she wouldn't have thought of asking my husband this question, or perhaps it's just a capitulation to the apparently inevitable.

But setting that aside, the point behind her question was her consternation at finding out that mums at her children's school wash their family's sheets every week.

It wasn't that this made my friend feel sluttish. Far from it. My friend runs a highly successful marketing consultancy. Washing sheets has to be a low priority — her husband also works, and isn't going to be feeding the washing machine in his leisure hours.

Sheet washing is the contemporary Lysistrata — the brilliant Aristophanes play analysing men's attitudes to women, in which they go on strike and withhold sexual favours in a bid to end the Peloponnesian Wars.

My friend was horrified at the utter waste of energy, both the women's, but also the environment's. We are depleting mothers and Mother Nature with our pointlessly pristine sheets. Nowadays, women seem to make themselves slaves to each other — after all, men absolutely don't care about sheets, it's just other women with their ready judgements that do.

So not washing your sheets too often is not just a green action, but a feminist action.

Stop the washing.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What does the sick child teach us?

This week, my son has been iller than I've seen him for a while.

It's been a strange journey, which began with a headache at the weekend. It cleared up, so we went to visit a friend, but on the journey, he seemed to subside in the back of the car like a wilting leek. By the time we arrived at our friend's, he was sleepy, feverish and complaining of a stiff neck.

The mention of the neck sent us ricocheting to the local A & E, suddenly envisioning meningitis, undiagnosed and fatal. They declared the problem to be an ear infection, and sent us packing with Amoxycillin and ear drops.

I left the hospital, and took him for a treaty snack in a cafe. Whereupon he vomited vast amounts of pink liquid all over the floor, against the bin, up my sleeve, down his coat. Everyone in the cafe froze into a waxworks rictus of horror, pity and concern.

This was the prelude to a couple of days of mystifying fever, projectile vomiting, further agonizing trips to the GP, re-diagnoses (not ear but throat infection, apparently), and changes of prescription. By today, Wednesday, the child has:

1. Eardrops
2. Paracetemol suppositories
3. Anti-nausea medicine
4. Antibiotic

I think that's every orifice covered.

And ice cream. The moment I realised he had turned the corner, after not eating for 48 hours, was when he asked for ice cream.

Now he's watching wall to wall TV, and guzzling pistachios and peanuts.

And what of the mother (and indeed the rest of the family) during this time? A lot of the time I felt dizzy, tense, and driven to run up and down the stairs carrying washing, medicine, clean bowls and wet cloths. I printed out instructions and timings to myself on doling out medicine. I couldn't sleep at night, couldn't focus on any one activity. I started baking, and cooked new recipes for no good reason. I cleaned the house. I checked my messages, email, diary and to do list compulsively — my inbox was clean as a whistle, yet I hadn't accomplished anything. I struggled to work out ways to leave son at home while I collected daughter from school. I forced my husband to give up on an evening in the cricket nets, booked SIX MONTHS PREVIOUSLY, to come home and cover for me. I found myself telling my life story to one of my French language tutees.

Now that the worst has passed, I have become aware of two contradictory pains in caring for my nearly-6-year-old son.

On the one hand, it felt just as it did when there was a newborn in the house, that relentless prowling, the inability to settle, the frenetic focus on minute details.

On the other, I looked at my house, cleaner and clearer than it's been in a decade, toys all neatly put away, and not played with during the day.

I realise that I am looking at the future. One day clearing up and putting away, a perfectly neat and tidy house, seeing the wood for the absence of trees, will be a sign that my babies have grown up and left.

In the moment of my son's infantilizing need of me, he has also signalled his future independence of me.