Not Having it All

imagesC5LBIXZ1Recently, my husband came home with the happy news that he has been promoted at work, with an accompanying pay rise. I am genuinely very happy for him and glad to see his undoubted ability rewarded. It’s good for me too, obviously. He has never been anything less than extremely generous and entirely fair.

It made me think, though, about how things have changed for me. I’ve certainly made some poor career choices in my time, but I also feel compelled to have a small foot-stamp about how hard I have found it to be a mother and a professional and to try to justify to myself why I’ve failed at combining the two.

When we met seventeen years ago, I was in my late twenties and was his equal in career terms. We were both educated at a prestigious university and had both gone on to professional roles in our twenties, after elongated periods of study. I was a qualified solicitor working at a City law firm, with all the earning potential that came with that. I was buying my own flat in London, I wore suits and heels to work, I hung out at upmarket wine bars after work, drinking white wine spritzers and eating marinated olives and artisan bread with witty, public school educated colleagues.

I never quite felt I belonged though and hadn’t yet gained the wisdom to know that very many people think that whilst putting up a convincing facade. As a northern, state school educated girl, I was never quite able to shake the feeling that I wasn’t measuring up to the elite. I knew I could not justify the extortionate hourly rate that my work was charged at, even as a junior solicitor, and found billing clients excruciating and intolerable. I had also had time to take a good look around at the women of the private, city centre law firms. There were plenty of bright, thrusting young women trainees. Plenty of youngish, recently qualified female solicitors. And then only a few senior women, only one of whom had children. I already knew that having a family was important to me and so I sought a way out of the commercial world and found myself working as a lawyer in the Civil Service.

A few years down the line, I had my first baby. I was entirely happy to be at home with him for a year’s maternity leave and dreaded going back to work. However, the Civil Service was a great employer to have and it was no difficulty to negotiate a return to a three day a week role. I do recall, though, that on my first day back at work, I got telephoned by the nursery where I had reluctantly placed my son to say that I would have to go and pick him up as he had conjunctivitis. With no family in the area to call upon, I made my excuses to my boss and left. In retrospect, I am astonished that it did not occur to me to ring my husband, who had dutifully gone in to his job every day of my maternity leave and who could have made his excuses more reasonably than I could, but it did not occur to me and I cringe now at the impression I must have given.

Less than a year after going back to work, I became pregnant with my second child and, together, my husband and I made the decision to move out of London. Whilst he applied for jobs around the country, I worked into my pregnancy until we moved to a strange city when I was seven and a half months pregnant.

I think that, had we stayed in London, I would have returned to my well paid, part time Civil Service job. I suppose, having had my daughter, I should then have looked for a job in our new home town, but I was exhausted looking after a toddler and a newborn. Although I can see that it would have been the ‘right’ thing to do, to continue a professional career, it felt completely impossible to me at the time. Having left London, I had no job to go back to and I knew no-one who could help me get my foot on a strange ladder.

Then, when my daughter was seventeen months old, I became pregnant with my third child and that made any vague thoughts about working go completely out of the window. It was all I could do to get through the day with three children under the age of five. If I’m being honest, I really didn’t want to work and no longer felt capable of it. Sure, I felt guilty about not doing so, but not guilty enough that I was going to do anything about it.

But as the children grew up a bit, I felt lost and ashamed at what I perceived to be my lack of status. I didn’t readily tell new people I met what I had done before, as the reaction I got when I did was astonishment that I was content to be a stay at home mother.   I looked jealously at the many grandparents hanging out in the school playground, making working life that bit easier for my friends and felt a complete failure.

When my youngest child started nursery at the age of three, I volunteered at a local advice centre. I got offered some paid work there after a while and so I did that. Then I fell into the job I am still in, working part time for a charity. I couldn’t see a way to work longer or harder with all the other boring, repetitive things that needed to be done. Not just the obvious cooking and washing and driving to activities, but let’s not forget the constant thinking about food, the daily stream of letters and emails from schools, the buying of replacement clothes, uniforms and kits, the planning and organising of birthday parties, the buying of the many birthday presents for other peoples’ birthday parties, the Christmas shopping, the Christmas cards, the homework, the play dates, the dentist appointments, the travelling hundreds of miles to visit distant grandparents.

In many ways, I have a great job which I am fortunate to have. It is interesting and worthwhile and I work directly with the vulnerable in our society. I work school hours and have a good deal of flexibility to manage school assemblies, vomiting bugs, Inset days and all the other difficulties of the working parent. However, I am paid considerably less than I was in the 1990s. I have not had a pay rise, not even inflationary, in the three years I have worked there and I have no prospects for promotion. From earning a similar amount to my husband, I now earn a fraction and it feels unjust. I work hard as a part timer, as do my (predominantly female with children) colleagues.  I don’t even take a lunch break, as I finish at 3pm and have to race against the clock to make it to the school gate on time. My husband, on the other hand, regularly goes for a swim in his lunch hour.

I have found it hard to reconcile myself to a parallel universe I can imagine for myself. What could my life be now, if only I could have been the kind of person who made the effort to go back to work after a second child, who perhaps thought more carefully about the impact of a third child, who did not suffer the catastrophic, disabling lack of confidence after years out of the workplace, who had seized opportunities at the right time, without taking the easy option, who had been happy to consider a nanny?

I see now, too late, that the time to push yourself in your career is probably through your thirties and forties; that the time when children are actually easiest to combine with a career (although it doesn’t feel like it at the time) is when they are young enough to go to nursery and preschool; that once they go to school, things get a whole lot more complicated with childcare after school and in the school holidays – especially if your children are in different schools, with different holidays, as mine currently are: that when they become teenagers, they can need you just as much as they did when they were toddlers.

And yet, if I am expected to work until I am 67, what on earth am I supposed to do with the rest of my working years? My skills are out of date and jobs which I am interested in will not consider part time or job share opportunities (I have tried). I could retrain of course, but the prospect of having to fight for my space, competing with those young enough to be my children, ruffles my feathers.   I could carry on doing what I am doing – working in a worthwhile but undervalued part time job, mopping up the Government’s public sector cuts and volunteering in my spare time.   Or I could come up with a miraculous solution to my first world problem, which hasn’t yet occurred to me. What I will definitely be doing is talking to all my children, boys and girl, about their career choices and their views on how they might achieve a meaningful work/life balance (with my support) for themselves and their future spouses.

My conclusion is that, contrary to the message I was given in my all girls grammar school in the 1980s, I can’t have it all. Some people seem to manage it, and hats off to them, but I’m not one of them. I’m going to try to stop feeling guilty about it and focus on the many positives. I recognise that I am very fortunate to be a co-parent with a financially sound partner, which has allowed me to work part time. I know there are very many women, and men, working full time and still doing everything else as well who would love to be in my position. And most importantly, I’ve had the invaluable opportunity to spend lots of time with my fabulous children, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in my parallel, high achieving fantasy world.

 

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Sorry for breaking your greenhouse again

greenhouse

Sorry for breaking your greenhouse again

This was the opening sentence of no.2 son’s short letter of apology.

One of the great appeals of our house is that the garden backs on to an allotment, meaning we are not overlooked. It also means that nobody has the pleasure of watching the regular games of back garden football. They would probably make for a frustrating spectator experience as they are frequently halted as we either wait for next door neighbours to return balls that have landed in their gardens, or for us to trot around to the allotment to search for balls amongst rhubarb, potato plants and nettles.

But a ball, struck with a shallow trajectory, that leaves the garden at its north-west corner has a distinctive consequence. Four times in under 18 months, the ball has headed in that direction and as soon as it has disappeared, there has been the sound of glass fragmenting under the impact of football.

The first occasion was no.1 son’s birthday party. A well struck shot was deflected by a defender’s head. The sudden shatter sent the boys running indoors.

The second and third times happened while I was at work. We took preventative steps. For a while the goal was moved to the house end of the garden. Then, we moved it back to the allotment end, but in the south-west corner where a skied drive couldn’t damage a gardener’s greenhouse. The only exception was when no.2 son wanted some goalkeeping practice. I would trust myself to keep the ball down and let him dive around on the newer grass in the other corner.

And so, last night’s football ended with no.2 son in goal, and the net in front of the fence that shielded the greenhouse. This morning, instructed to work with his sister on cleaning out the guinea pigs, no.2 son took a shot, saw it skim off the cross-bar, skip over the fence and CRASH.

After the first smash, I left an apology note with my phone number in the damaged greenhouse. A few days later, I had a voicemail, telling me not to worry. By note, I reiterated my apology and offer to pay for repairs on the second occasion, but heard nothing. Third time around, before I could get involved, the boys, collecting another ball from the allotment, met the gardener on the allotment. He shouted at them and they ran. That ball was never returned. The gardener must be getting very annoyed.

This morning, I stepped into the garden and no.2 son said he had to tell me something. The cross-bar had been to blame. I sent him indoors to write an apology note and together, hand-in-hand, we walked to the allotment.

Two gardeners were standing beside the patch on the other side of our fence. No.2 son thought he recognised one. The men turned to us as we approached.

“Are you the gentleman, whose greenhouse we keep smashing?” I asked of the older man.

“Yes. It’s beyond a joke. It’s four times now.”

As I sought to get in an apology or four, he beckoned us towards the greenhouse. “It’s wrecking my seeds. The cold’s getting in and killing them. And,” turning to no.2 son, “you can’t be much of a footballer, if you can’t keep the ball down.” He winked at me.

We sighed and shuffled our feet looking at the damage and the collection of broken panes from previous smashes. The gardener waved away my offers to pay for the damage, “It’s the seedlings I’m losing. I’m not bothered about the cost of the glass.” We discussed whether netting above my fence would help – he thought not. I fought off the temptation to suggest he use non-smash plastic panes on his greenhouse roof.

As we left, reassured of each other’s humanity, he reached into a compost bin and pulled out the ball. Handing it back to no.2 son, he explained that he had given away one ball (smash number 3) to a boy on the allotment who said it was his.

No.2 son pulled out of his pocket his hand written apology note. After the ‘I’m sorry’ statement, the gardener would read, “the ball hit the cross-bar and bounced over the fence,” and be left to infer that no.2 son is a very fine footballer and not really to blame at all.

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Filed under play time, young shoulders

Fear of injury

batting

How fast are they bowling?

I’m frightened.

What if I get hit?

I don’t want to bat.

Questions and assertions, hushed and rushed. No.1 son and I are playing our second senior cricket match together. A well-built, ginger haired bowler has got me out caught and, following me, our middle order batting collapses. No.1 son has to pad-up in the changing room amidst angry, disappointed teammates who’ve been caught, bowled and generally humbled far too quickly.

I take him outside for some warm-up hits. “I’m frightened,” he insists. I side-step the statement and coax, reassure, boost, set him little targets but offer him no way out.

What sort of a father shepherds his 13 year old son on to face something the boy fears will hurt him? It’s just a game. Am I, like so many dads of sporty sons, projecting my hopes onto him? Is his fear an embarrassment to me at my cricket club? What entitles me, without using these words to him, to call on his bravery?

Thirteen years into the world of parenting, an environment I find perplexingly confusing, uncertainty abounding, I finally find myself in a place of clarity; where I possess deep knowledge. I know three things directly pertinent to this moment:
1) I know club cricket, particularly at this lowly third eleven level. It exists to blood (figuratively, of course) youngsters and allow the old or barely competent adult players a chance to live a few dreams. And this match is now so far out of our team’s reach that the opposition have time to ease up when a sub-five foot tall 13 year old comes in to bat.
2) I know no.1 son’s cricket. I coach his club team and I’ve seen him bat courageously against fast bowlers of his age. And I’ve seen his technique refined during a stint with the county coaches, so am confident he has the wherewithal to counter today’s bowling.
3) I know no.1 son’s attitude to risk. He has a very understandable aversion to challenges. He likes familiarity and control. Last autumn, we drove to a different town for his first practice session with the county coaches. By the time we parked in the school, he was begging me not to make him go. Gradually, I nudged him towards the sports hall and then he was gone. Two hours later and he was back, his pre-session wobble wiped from memory, happy and daring to be critical of the other boys’ cricket ability.

I also know that fear of injury, in fact the very real risk of being harmed, is part of the deal we strike when we play sport. We seek the exhilaration of performance, success or simply movement. We risk disappointment, defeat and physical damage. I doubt I have ever walked out to bat, hopeful of experiencing that commanding feeling of scoring runs, without the thought nagging away that the ball could hurt me. But with cricket, the sport I know well, I can rationalise it. With football, too. That’s not the case for me, though, with all sports.

For no.1 son’s eleventh birthday, Mother in the Middle decided that the prudent financial constraints of party planning should be loosened. It was no.1 son’s last with his junior school friends. We took eight boys to a factory basement that had been converted into a go-karting track.

With a brief induction and donning of safety gear, the boys began driving around the tight subterranean circuit. After a few practice laps, they began racing. I found the spectating experience excruciating. There were bumps and shunts that sent their bodies jerking. On and on they drove, finding tighter lines and pushing themselves closer to the tyre walls and each others’ cars. No.1 son was as enthralled as his pals. Long before the session ended, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cope with a child pursuing motorsport.

Pen PitstopA few weeks ago, this thought recurred when no.2 son and the 1&onlyD went quad-biking with friends. I empathised with the couple of kids, too cautious to open up the bike’s throttle, who needed pushing up the steeper slopes. Those weren’t my kids. Mine became Penelope Pitstop and Mutley for that afternoon.

Back at the cricket ground, my warm-up with no.1 son is going well. He’s striking the ball crisply, while moaning that I don’t throw the ball as fast as the bowling. I leave him when my stint as umpire arrives. It’s not long before he, too, is in the middle. The opposition are cruising to an easy victory. The ginger haired quick bowler is rested and two slow bowlers are in action.

The fielders crowd around our shortest batsman. They’re cocky, expecting little from one so small. Second ball, he clips the ball past square leg, leaving a fielder sprawling and gathering a run. The field adjusts, players taking a few steps back, the banter drops. No.1 son defends well. I can see he’s enjoying himself. Two batting partners, older but not wiser, give their wickets away. The last pair are batting. No.1 son tries an ambitious shot, is bowled and the match is over.

The opposition shake hands or tap him on the helmet. Condescending, it looks, but that’s not how it’s meant. He’s unscathed, doesn’t mention being frightened now. But I know it will be there next time, and probably every time he plays, whether he chooses to mention it to me or not.

Postscript

As a treat, in between two days of secondary school entrance exams for the 1&onlyD, we take the kids to Jump Nation. Mother in the Middle has been there before and explains that she found it hard to watch: kids bouncing on trampolines in all directions – accidents waiting to happen.

Forty-five minutes into their hour long session and we look up from the cafe to see a Jump Nation steward carrying the 1&onlyD to the side. Mother in the Middle’s fear of her kids getting injured has been realised. The 1&onlyD has sprained her ankle. The swift and expert 1st aid minimise the damage, but still Mother has to carry daughter piggy-back to her exam table the next morning.

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‘Are ye Hearts or Hibs?’

englandscotlandfootballAll the debate about the referendum on Scottish Independence recently has made me think about my early childhood in Scotland, in the early 1970s.

One of my first memories is coming down the slide at my nursery school in Edinburgh. I was maybe three or four and I was definitely wearing an orange pinafore and matching hairband, of which I was very proud. I was confronted at the bottom of the slide by a small knot of scary boys who pulled me to one side, encircled me and demanded menacingly ‘are ye Hearts or Hibs?’. It was as if they were speaking a foreign language, I had not the slightest inkling of what they were talking. I remember trying to say I didn’t know, I couldn’t choose. I was scared and nervous as instinctively I must have registered the importance of the question to the questioners. Eventually I think I half-heartedly plumped for ‘Hearts’, it being the only word I recognised, whereupon several of the small inquisitors threw up their hands in despair and walked off in a huff. It was not for another thirty years or so, when I recounted the tale to my husband, that it was explained to me that this was about football and the intensity with which (some) small boys (and girls) approach it. Perhaps the boys in my nursery school thought I had shown some slight promise as someone who could be recruited into the ranks of the Heart of Midlothian or Hibernian supporters, but my evident lack of partisanship made me a disappointing potential ally and I was thereafter left to my own devices by them.

Forty years on, I am living in Manchester, with two devoted football fans of my own in the shape of my sons and one daughter who also anchors memories by remembering not always what happened, or where, but by what she was wearing at the time. ‘Was that the time I wore my yellow summer dress?’ she asked recently, as I reminded her about a wedding we attended when she was four. ‘Ah yes, the butterfly leggings…’ she mused, when discussing a trip to London.

Being in Manchester, of course, means that many of the local children are either avowed Manchester City fans, or Manchester United fans and the rivalry appears to start young and hold fast. My younger son, now aged eight, plumped for City at a very young age to follow his older brother with the helpful coincidence of it being a bit of a purple patch for the Club, so that ‘his’ team were amongst the most successful. He identifies so strongly with the team that he is genuinely and wholeheartedly distraught when they do not perform to his exacting standards and roams around the house randomly kicking sofas and sulking at a draw, let alone a loss. It is not enough, either, that his team succeeds – his enemy must fail and United’s losses are greeted with dances of delight.

A recent school trip to visit the local Old Trafford ground was met with jutting jaw and disgusted silence. Unprecedentedly, the school trip spending money I had pressed into his warm palm in the playground in the morning was returned to me, unspent, in the afternoon. He just couldn’t bring himself to buy anything with United on it, he explained. Not even the sweets. Even a few of the parents appeared to feel the same, with ill-tempered mutterings in the playground about the kids being ‘indoctrinated’ into United, how it wasn’t fair to make City fans go to the home of their fiercest rivals.

I can’t help feeling, in this week of pondering what it means to be British, that the business of football supporting is all, well, a bit un-British. Aren’t we supposed to be famous for supporting the underdog? For coping manfully with defeat after defeat, supportively cheering on our hapless, hopeless teams in the rain and wind and snow, with nothing but a pie and a pint to look forward to? Or does that only apply to our most local teams, or our national team, or our children’s teams? What I see, as someone on the periphery of football fandom in Manchester, is a state of the art stadium, shiny, expensive, mostly foreign players and vastly overpriced shirts and accessories without which a small fan’s life simply isn’t worth living. The live City games – yes, I have been to two now – are undeniably exciting, gladiatorial affairs which I have enjoyed immensely, not least because City won and I did not have to contend with the profound disappointment of my sons on the way home. When I talk to my sons about those matches, they can recall in great detail who scored, from which end and in what minute, who assisted the goals, who was substituted for whom. I remember the chanting and cheering, the feeling of being part of something huge and exciting and watching my children’s flushed, excited cheeks. My daughter remembers that she wore her black wool coat, her fluffy white scarf and the earmuffs she got for Christmas. And that it was fun.

I have really not intentionally encouraged or facilitated my children into such stereotypical roles, but I cannot deny that they fall into them pretty neatly. On the subject of supporting a team, my daughter certainly does appear to feel a degree of disappointment if, say, someone she wants to win on a TV programme is not triumphant. There is, however, a world of difference between her temporary, mild upset expostulating some unfair bias amongst the judging panel of Strictly or Tumble and the existential despair which comes over my younger son when City lose. My older son does not appear to feel quite the depth of despair of his younger brother, so maybe it is something which can be grown out of (although when I see the obligatory Match of the Day shot of men crying in the stands when their team gets relegated at the end of a season, I somehow doubt it.)

I wonder if those small Edinburgh boys are still in their separate Hearts and Hibs camps now that they must be, like me, in their mid-forties? I feel sure that they are: a true fan stays true after all. What I don’t know, though, is whether they will be in the Yes or No camp for the Referendum. Are they going to vote to make me a foreigner in the country I was born in, where my mother was born and died, where my father and sister live, just as they once ignored me for my lack of allegiance to Hibs? I hope not. All I know is that I feel fifty per cent English, fifty per cent Scottish, one hundred per cent British and zero per cent Hearts, Hibs, City or United.

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Filed under Competition, individual development, winning and losing

Boyhood

boyhood-posterTwo weeks after my mother’s death, I went to see Richard Linklater’s film ‘Boyhood’ with two close friends. The kind of friends who don’t mind me not talking but slumping down in a cinema with tears periodically streaming down my face, the inevitability of the passage of time playing out in front of us, as the boy in the title grows from a six year old to an eighteen year old.

As the mother of two sons, the film initially made me think about my boys and identify strongly with the protagonist and his mother, as she also ages. Yes, my boy(s) would do or feel that I thought countless times as Mason Junior was by turns shy, charming or reckless. And my heart bled for the character of the mother, especially at the end of the film as her son drove off to college and she was left exhausted in the kitchen, after years of having to cope with managing the day to day, crying ‘I thought there would be more’.

However, when I thought about the film later, I wondered why I hadn’t really considered my daughter during the film. Was it just because the film was mainly about Mason – the others, including his sister, being bit players in his story? Yes, that was probably part of it. But I also wonder if I have also bought into the received wisdom that sons grow up and leave you, but daughters stay with you – as the saying goes, ‘a son is yours until he marries, a daughter’s yours for life’. Was I more affected by the scene of Mason driving happily away in the sunshine to his new life, because I anticipate my sons doing just that, without a backward glance, in a way that my daughter will not? Perhaps it is because I have a teenage son, who I can see engineering his own separation from me already, a developmental stage which my daughter has not yet reached?

Just this week, there was another headline in the newspapers, asserting that you need to have daughters if you expect anybody to look after you in old age. Sons just aren’t going to cut it. I have been asked many times by elderly people in the course of my work whether I have any daughters and when I say yes, one daughter and two sons, they pat my hand and say ‘you needn’t worry then, love, your girl will see you right’.

I sincerely hope that all my children will want to be in close contact with me as they grow up and when they are adults and not merely consider me as a duty to be contacted. I also hope that my daughter in particular seizes every opportunity that comes her way and does not fall prey to any stereotypes about being the ‘caring’ one. Yet, as the mother now to one teenager, with one pre-teen waiting hotly in the wings, I can acknowledge that hoping for enthusiastic continued contact with all my children during the next couple of decades may be unrealistic.

I talked to my teenage son about the film, trying to use it as a device to keep the lines of communication open with him. I explained how the boy in the film grows up and away from his family and how it makes clear that at times he found them embarrassing. Trying to enforce a meaningful conversation on my reluctant son as he sat texting and avoiding eye contact, I stressed that I wanted him to know that I hoped he would always talk to me in private, even if I understood he may start to find it embarrassing to do so in front of others (we have had recent conversations about him only grunting to me when I ask him a question in front of one of his friends). ‘In the future?’ he said, somewhat incredulous – ‘mum, you’ve been overwhelmingly embarrassing for ages already’. Taken aback, I asked for more details. How long had I been embarrassing? ‘As long as I have been aware of the concept of embarrassment’, he answered adding, rather unnecessarily ‘and I think I learned that quite young’. He found me the most embarrassing person in the world, he said. And then, with a flash of the future heart breaker, he stopped texting just long enough to put his hand on mine and say ‘but I love you the best of everyone in the world too’.

After this conversation, I asked my ten year old daughter whether she found me embarrassing. ‘Not really’ she said. ‘Maybe sometimes when you sing, but I don’t really mind’. Undaunted, I asked the same of my eight year old son. ‘Never’ he stated loyally, jumping onto my knee, adding that he loves me so much that he wants to live with me forever. A sliding scale of embarrassment, neatly correlating with the age of the potential embarrassee, it would seem.

I feel confident that my eight year old will not be sitting on my knee asking to live with me forever in five years’ time, but he will still be the same person in five years’ time, just him in his thirteen year old form. One thing I found very moving about ‘Boyhood’ was that it was impossible at the end of the film not to see the face of the six year old boy in the face of the eighteen year old young man – the making manifest in front of our eyes that our experiences and emotions stay with us, even if we choose to put them on the back burner for a while. My older son may tell me that I am overwhelmingly embarrassing now, but when I look at his face, I shall choose to see the toddler who would not leave my side and the nine year old who clutched my hand on the way to school and kissed me goodbye in the playground (in front of his friends). The fact that he would not allow this to happen now as he grows towards independence must not be allowed to negate the fact that it happened and it is part of the fabric of his makeup. It is a part, too, of my experience of mothering him, a bank of goodwill which I sometimes need to draw on to compensate for teenage apathy and antagonism. When my younger son chooses to hurl himself at me and demand kisses and cuddles, I will accept them gladly, because I see that they may not last much longer.

I recall feeling when my children were very small that they were part of me, quite literally part of my flesh. With that visceral sense of belonging, came a sense of ownership. As they grow up, it is a painful realisation that they are not mine at all. Quite obviously, they are their own people and I would be failing as a mother if I could not accept and celebrate that. Whilst I feel so close to them at times that I feel I do know what they are thinking and how they are feeling, I cannot know that for sure and this is increasingly the case. Secrets are starting, doors are shutting, friends are being made without my control or knowledge, texts are being exchanged about my unreasonableness. All as it should be, no doubt. So do I even have the right to write about them? Is it in any way appropriate to appropriate our exchanges for my writing? It is a fine line and one which I am keen not to overstep. I hope I can reflect upon my relationship with them only in so far as I can see the relevance to me as a parent, to inform and validate my own experiences as a mother. Whilst I would have had few qualms about writing about my baby’s first steps, or infant dancing lesson, for example, it is quite another to dare to plunder their lives as they grow up for my own purposes and I am struggling to tread the line sensitively and meaningfully.

There is a scene in Boyhood where Mason’s High School teacher tells him that he is special, that he’s ‘got something’. Then he points out that he has a classroom of students who may also be special and who are definitely more focussed on success. When my mother died recently, it made me feel special, for all the wrong reasons. I feel illuminated by grief, special in my sadness and trauma and alone in the world, as though nobody could be feeling as I did. But then I look around and see many people I know who have also lost a parent and who must therefore also have been through that emotional maelstrom. Each time I gave birth, I felt singled out by the amazing thing that had happened to me – I had done something extraordinary, and survived! Then I looked around at all the other people who have done exactly the same or, heroically, taken the amazing step of adopting a child. The fact that my experiences are not unique should not negate my feelings of uniqueness, in being a mother or in being bereaved, but I hope will allow me to show compassion and understanding to others who are going through the business of living, growing up and dying.

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by | August 25, 2014 · 7:27 pm

Summer tournaments

summer tournament

The school summer holidays are almost completely free of organised junior football (1).  The tradition that keeps the holidays only almost completely free is the summer tournament.

No.2 son took part in one such event on the first Saturday of the holidays. We drove 30 minutes to another town in the county, where a primary school was hosting eight under eight teams.

The logistics of exiting the cars of eight under seven teams’ families, whose tournament had just ended, and welcoming no.2 son’s age group was exercising a team of hi-vis toting stewards. I confused the parking situation by dropping no.2 son there and leaving before his matches were underway. I had the 1&onlyD with me and had decided an afternoon at her younger brother’s football tournament was a cruel and unnatural way of spending her first day of holiday.

It’s not the first time I have given short-measure to one of these events. And the experience of that occasion has coloured my view of all of these tournaments.

It was six years ago and no.1 son was the competitor. I had spent the previous night at a friend’s stag party and so was forgiven the 8am start (registration by 9am) to get to a park overlooked by a professional football stadium in the Pennines. Mother in the Middle took that shift, accompanied by two pre-schoolers. I was to join later.

As I lay in bed that morning, drifting in and out of a hung-over doze, I was faintly aware of the rain being blown against the bedroom windows. If I had thought about it, I would have remembered that my party shoes were by the front door, soaked from my staggering home in the wet early hours.

Waking around midday, I listened to a voicemail from Mother in the Middle: ‘When was I coming? It was impossible to be there much longer with the kids.’

I set off. Wet and blowy in our suburb became gales and downpours as I headed up into the Pennines. I found the car park by the stadium and headed towards the field. Kids being returned to cars were crying – sore losers, I thought. The walk from the car park’s edge to the playing area took in three terraces separated by steep grassed slopes. On each slope, heading downward, were people falling and sliding to the bottom. The same was happening to those people trying to scale the slopes. Families with pushchairs found them bogged in mud or were dragging them like sledges up hill.

The teams that take these events seriously, pitch gazebos – optimistically, as shelter from the sun. On this summer’s day, adults were clinging to gazebos to stop them from being blown somersaulting across the field. The crying I had heard in the car park wasn’t the response of kids to an unfavourable result, but the entirely reasonable reaction to being drenched and blown around. Few were dressed for the weather and those that came better prepared had already changed in, then out, of a succession of tops that were quickly soaked.

And still the football went on. The PA system had been abandoned and so the organisers sent runners around the field to announce fixtures. One of the curious aspects of this day was that there was hardly a single pushy Dad urging his progeny to the Final. Most parents were working out, given a few tactical defeats, how quickly they could leave.

I remember helping Mother in the Middle back up the treacherous terraces to the car park with the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. Back at the field, I hunkered down to watch the last action of no.1 son’s tournament. This consisted mostly of one team kicking the ball into the wind and finding it blown back past them and the other team hoisting the ball for wind-assisted goal kicks.

This year’s tournament was different in many ways but, again, I arrived back in time for the final matches of the tournament. No.2 son’s team were boasting an unbeaten record which they secured across all seven matches. He was expecting a trophy to mark this achievement. There was a trophy, but it was awarded imaginatively to the ‘most helpful’ team. Bags of sweets were handed out to all the players and no.2 son was content with that as his reward. I was just relieved that no.2 son had remained protected, not from hail and gale, but from the conventional climactic threats of the summer tournament: sunburn and dehydration.

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Footnote 1: I’ve argued elsewhere why summer without football is a good thing for other junior sports to thrive and would be even better if extended a month or two before the holidays start.

 

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Scared stiff

American-Staffordshire-Terrier-2We were about to race from the edge of the woods back to the grandparents’ house when no.2 son paused to tie his shoe laces. A characteristic time wasting trick of a footballer, but unlike him to want to either delay a race or address his untied trainers without being instructed. He stayed crouched down until he could see a man with two dogs move out of sight to the left of some houses at the foot of the field we were going to run down. Unnerved by the dogs’ presence, even in the distance, no.2 son asked not to race.

We walked down the field, with his hand holding mine, until we reached the track that ran around the cluster of houses, with our destination at the end. We headed to the right and no.2 son sped ahead. Suddenly, from a gap between two properties the dogs reappeared and bounded, barking towards the boy. He squealed and froze, trapped for an instant by two large dogs against a hawthorn hedge. The owner called the dogs away leaving no.2 son unharmed, but shaken.

“I’m scared stiff,” he offered in unnecessary explanation.

No.2 son is the boldest, most physically forward of my children. In football, he’ll tackle adults many times his size. He relishes thrills at funfairs that his older brother shrinks from. He rough-houses with more vigour than his siblings. On our adventure holiday, he was the one stepping forward to try the new challenge.

But dogs are different. So total is his aversion to them that they influence his attitude to any trip from the house. Despite his size, strength and the number of balls that disappear over the fence, he only wants to play football in the garden. On the occasions that I have lured him to the park, he’s on edge. When he spots a dog, he veers away from it, stops playing and nags to go home. The initial source of this phobia is not clear; nor is the cure.

When we pass dogs in the park, or the street and he turns rigid with anxiety, I make a point of demonstrating that the dog’s not interested in him. Any chase or toothy attention is focused on a squirrel, its owner’s tennis ball, or another dog’s bottom. Over time, I have hoped that the sheer number of dogs that come close but ultimately ignore, and certainly don’t harm him, would erode the fear. But he’s not listening to me. He turns his head to keep an eye on the dog, making sure it doesn’t approach him from behind.  And my tactic was dealt a blow this summer.

His older brother was making his senior cricket debut and the two younger children and I turned up to catch some of this occasion. No.2 son and I were kicking a ball about on the boundary when there was the sound of a doggy altercation on the road behind the pavilion. A few minutes later, a bull terrier ran though the gate and onto the ground. It ran in a wide arc across the playing area and back towards the players and spectators in front of the pavilion. I helped catch it and bundle it out of the gate.

No.2 son had retreated to join the small crowd and was still there when the dog reappeared, pushing itself under the gate. Again it bothered the players before zooming in on the knot of people by the pavilion. No.2 son backed away from the speeding dog but somehow collided with it. For a second time I grabbed it by the collar and dragged it out of the gate. The dog wanted to stay, but wasn’t aggressive as I pulled it off the ground. An owner, had one been in sight, would probably have apologised: “He just wants to play.”

In front of the pavilion, no.2 son was being consoled. I explained to those concerned that I thought he was just shaken because of his fear of dogs. Inside the pavilion, the lad complained his knee hurt. There was no bite mark, not even a scratch or a bruise.

He limped about for the rest of the day and again the next. When a second full day went by without him even asking to play football, Mother in the Middle took him to the GP. The injury – a tendon strain – was relatively minor, but the incident has firmly cemented in his brain the conviction that dogs are out to harm him.

Postscript: when telling this story at a family gathering, I was told that a professional goalkeeper’s career had been ended when a stray dog ran onto the pitch, clattered into him and shattered his knee. Click here for the video of the incident.

I had viewed no.2 son’s experience as a freak – such extreme bad fortune that a dog running around the wide expanse of a cricket field should collide with the leg of the child with the most engrained fear of the animal. Perhaps, though, what is worthy of note is no.2 son’s good fortune not to have been more seriously injured.

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