Saturday, 23 February 2013

Family days

Yesterday I took the children to Tate Britain for a Family Day.

They had given over some five of the rooms to art activities for children: a cardboard city, costumes imprinted with famous artworks which children could use to act out playlets, a musical section with amplified instruments, and a room filled with building blocks.

The place was mayhem. The cafe was manned by just one server, and the queue was round the block.

In a side room, parties of buggies, babies and toddlers were camped out. The scene resembled a refugee camp. On the opposite wall was a series of Gilbert and George tapestries. They looked like vast pencil sketches, and featured the two men sauntering through Constable country. Printed in capitals along the bottom was a message which, paraphrased, reads: 'Art is a way of contemplating life, love and nature, and makes things better for Gilbert and George'. It was a lovely tease: is Art only for the initiated? Is there always a risk of solipsism in the artist? Is the power of Art a loosely guarded secret there for the unravelling if only we choose to look? As I watched, a gallery worker swooped down on a toddler who had got herself behind the wire and was reaching grubby paws up to the tapestry.

Cardboard City was in a dimly lit vestibule, illuminated from side projectors to look kaleidoscopic. It had originally been hundreds of cardboard boxes. Over the course of the Family Day, these were dismantled, flattened and shredded into a thousand pieces. Lolly sticks and tissue paper made amazingly good binding agents, and the place was a sea of kids armouring themselves with cardboard and having fights.

The dressing up room was dominated by a stage, miked up and and covered with clackers, klaxons, bells and recorders. A huge screen was wedged in one corner. Kids were putting on the imprinted oilcloth costumes, which made them all look like mini Elephant men. Then they took to the stage and made incomprehensible noises, which were filmed and screened live. My friend looked at a solitary woman sitting sketching and said, "she didn't choose the best day to come to the Tate, did she?"

The set ups were mainly in rooms filled floor to ceiling with art from the 1800s onwards. Everywhere you looked, flying three-year olds were sailing within inches of priceless artworks. Sticky fingers were hanging on gamely to century-old frames. The noise boomed off the walls. My friend and I conducted a Whistler-stop tour, wistfully telling each other we'd come back, and that somehow we were adding a postmodern twist to the Turners: if he'd tried to capture speed and movement, we were adding relativity to the viewing experience as we ran past, fielding six year olds.

We stuck it out for around two hours, then left for a similarly fraught and harrowing field trip home on the tube, punctuated with rice crackers and exhortations to keep feet off the seats, under the disapproving eye of passengers.

My conclusion? What on earth was the Tate thinking? There really are some places in which children should neither be seen nor heard. Whoever decided that outreach work meant putting a festival in a confined space filled with artworks in order to justify lottery funding is insane.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Have a break. Have a breakdown.

What the hell just happened?

Oh I know, it was Half Term.

Somehow I quite often seem to blog about holidays when they are about to be over, when I am at an ebb so low you can see the the mid-Atlantic ridge of my soul.

What is it about these energy-sapping, will-defying, hope-unplugging weeks?

On paper I was good to go. My military precision planning had ensured:

  • food supplies in the house
  • a diary neatly stocked with things to do
  • a weekend at my mother's (always a good way to use up several days, while knowing that there will be a soothing caress and a gin at the end of each one — did my mother bargain on having to mother me until her mid-seventies?)
  • playdates
  • library
  • cinema
  • cultural exploration
  • shopping
  • a sleepover
  • special time with each child
  • menus planned for the week
  • a night out pour la mère
  • packed lunch goodies
  • and I was even able to do a bit of teaching and dance. 

What a domestic goddess, I hear you cry, cheering me on in my maternal triumph.

Hmmm. The actual lived experience of the last seven days has been somewhat different from its planned version. Let me count the ways.

1. Husband working from home

Now, my lovely husband appears in these chronicles from time to time, and I observe that it is usually when I am cross with him. What's he done this time, poor man? Nothing much. He worked from home this week. He actually made the majority of the dinners. He quite often made me a cup of coffee in the mornings. He cleaned the bathroom last weekend when I was at my mother's, drinking gin and moaning. What more could I ask for?

It's hard to put my finger on it, when put on the spot in this way by my own conscience. My feeling, however (supported by diary evidence), is that I did everything else. I planned the wondrous exploits the children and I embarked on; I made all those packed lunches; I kept the heroic washing cycle turning (why is wash day now every day, instead of Monday, as it was before the invention of the washing machine?); I cheered on, told off, picked up, dusted down, listened to, organized, played with (to a certain extent, let's not exaggerate), shouted at, read to, smiled at and photographed the children.

Perhaps it's what I did not do that makes me even crosser. I did not do my own work. I did not read. I did not phone a friend. I did not ask husband to share the childcare load.

Now, whose fault is that?

2. Exhaustion

I feel so old whenever the kids are on holiday. During term time, I feel pretty fit these days. But when those surging beasts are running around me, screeching, from 8am until 9.30pm, demanding, showing, begging, accusing, hitting, jumping, oblivious, eating, refusing… I realize that being an Older Mother is a truth rather than an insult. Gosh, we really do get older.

3. The Gift Shop

We loved HMS Belfast. It was thrilling, but sobering, to stand in Y Turret, with the smell of cordite and smoke filling our lungs. The tour of the ship is moving and thought-provoking. It's spooky to be on a ship that has participated in wartime battles.

But the tour ended, predictably enough, in a gift shop. Selling a bunch of tut with pretty much nothing to do with the ship. My son fastened onto a £6 plastic aeroplane. When I said that I wasn't going to buy anything, and made him go outside, he threw the world's biggest tantrum, running away, screaming, hitting me, sobbing uncontrollably, excoriating my meanness. I held fast. The day, for me, was wrecked. For him, a yoghurt and some TV cured all ill.

Don't guilt me into paying over the odds to go and see stuff, and then pressurize me into paying even more money for rubbish.

 4. My worsening mental state

Now, I know that holidays are tough. I know that I need breaks. I thought I had sorted all that stuff, and made sure I wasn't doing too much (after all, the happiness of my dear children depends on my own happiness). 

Yet despite all my forethought, I have still come to the end of the week thinking that my own children are spoilt, demanding brats. Yes, I know this sounds terribly harsh. Yes, I realize that their brains are simply physically not mature enough for them to hold commands in their heads without endless repetition. Yes, I know that kindness and patience get better results than shouting. Yes, I can see I'm "just tired". 

When, however, you watch your flesh and blood pushing, hitting, turning their noses up, moaning at having to tidy up their rooms, refusing to do even a few minutes of writing homework, never offering to lay the table, etc etc, you are, as a mother (or at least I am), assailed with a double whammy: (a) why are they so selfish? (b) it must be my fault. 

N.B. Ask me in three days time when they are back at school, and I will tell you that my children are beautiful, considerate, largely well-mannered, hardworking and well-organized. 

Just get me to the finish line. 

Friday, 15 February 2013

Lisping, thumb sucking and growing up

My beautiful daughter has always sucked her thumb. She found out how to do it just days after her inordinately long birthing ordeal, and fastened herself to a tiny triangular comforter, christened Flossie by her father.

This creature has travelled all over the world, greying and fraying on her way. She has been lost for months at a time on several occasions. Flossie has become so central to the mental health of this family that when we moved back to the UK from Australia, and Flossie was not to be found, we returned feeling as though a part of ourselves had been left behind. We were triumphant when she emerged serene and intact, six months later, from an old handbag, which had been co-opted by my daughter. We were complete.

Recently my daughter has been teased at school (not in a bullying way, just out of thoughtlessness) because she cannot quite say her 's' clearly. We have never really noticed it, but once the thoughtless boy had drawn it to our attention, it quickly assumed monstrous proportions in our minds. Not least because the interweb describes lisping as a 'speech disorder', and gloomily tells me that unless it's treated before the age of 4, my child will be stuck with it for life.

Another helpful internet page informs me that one of the principal causes of a lisp is… thumb sucking.

So at one fell swoop, my child is being teased, she has a speech disorder, it has been caused by the one thing which guarantees her security in a turbulent world, and I am a bad mother because I have both allowed this grotesque habit to persist unchecked, and indeed been so negligent as not to notice the defect in the first place.

My daughter was prostrate with grief. She accused me wildly, "but you were allowed to suck your thumb as long as you wanted. It isn't fair! Flossie's part of me!"

With dread reluctance, I have, for the time being, taken upon myself yet another bad cop role: that of forbidder of the thumb. Along with compulsory maths, hair washing, and table manners. We now walk to school with the poor child grimacing and whistling, trying to practise sounding her 's' like steam escaping from a kettle.

What is the right thing to do? I feel she should be allowed to derive comfort from sucking her thumb as long as she likes, as I was. The issue is that while I suffered no ill effects, she apparently has, so is it still right to let her perpetuate the cause of the problem? The great underlying force is that she has to grow up whether she wants to or not. Change will come. Boys will tease. She'll never get a job reading the news. What opportunities am I denying her by not banning the thumb?

The defiant part of me feels she should just damn well do what she wants, and tell the teaser to mind his own beeswax. He's hardly God's gift himself.