The Cardigan

WIN_20141120_133852 I was with my mother when she bought the cardigan, about a year before she died. We went on a ‘girls shopping trip’ – my mother, my daughter and I, to the Trafford Centre. I had planned it carefully, to take account of her limited mobility combined with her refusal to acknowledge her physical limitations.  So we parked directly outside one of the main entrances in a disabled parking place, using her newly (and begrudgingly) acquired blue badge and only took in one shop.

The cardigan caught my mother’s eye almost immediately. Baby soft cashmere, with coloured stripes over a gentle cream background. Her fingers stroked it, feeling its softness, but she moved on after checking the price and then shortly afterwards said that she would have to sit down. My daughter and I dashed around the shop whilst she sat, fulfilling our ostensible purpose of finding a swimming costume that my mother could buy for my daughter.

When we arrived back at the bench, she glanced quickly back in the direction of the cardigan and commented casually ‘I could just try it on here I suppose?’. It was duly fetched and she tried it on at her seat. We looked around for a mirror and saw one on the wall about ten metres away. She stood up slowly, finding her balance and set off on the short walk to the mirror with her characteristic lurching start as she launched herself on her mission.

As she glanced in the mirror, I saw her appraise herself from the front and then, very briefly, turned to at a side angle, whereupon she grimaced at her bent and broken back and commented that she couldn’t get used to seeing herself look that way.

I was despatched to pay for the cardigan for her and my mother and daughter sat together back on the bench whilst I dashed through the shopping centre to buy us all ice creams. My mother always prided herself on being an ice cream connoisseur and I can remember very many occasions when ice creams purchased at various venues around the country fell below her exacting standards. But this day, she gave a nod of satisfaction and pronounced ‘now that is a good ice cream’ and I felt proud and happy at the resounding success of the trip.

The cardigan remained a big hit with my mother, quickly becoming a wardrobe staple. Light enough to be worn the rest of that summer, warm enough to be of use during the Scottish winter, and gentle on increasingly tormented bones and skin.

And a year on, it was one of the few items of clothing which came to the hospice with her. As she fell asleep whilst we watched the Wimbledon final together on her television in her room during my first visit, I laid it over her. When we took her out in the wheelchair into the hospice garden on my last visit, it was light and soft, tucked around her shoulders.

So after she had gone and my father invited me and my sisters to ‘claim’ any items of clothing which held significance for us, I asked for the striped cashmere cardigan. My father brought it to my house in a plastic bag, tied at the handles. As I opened it, the sweet, characteristic smell of the hospice seeped out and overwhelmed me and I quickly resealed the bag, unable to open it again for a few weeks. When I did, the same thing happened. I decided I had two options: keep it in the bag forever, or wash it and wear it.

I decided on the latter. So far, I have only put it on once or twice, in the house.   This year, I found myself back at the same shopping centre on Remembrance Sunday, delivering my youngest child to a birthday party. After dropping him off, I took my place amongst the crowds gathering to watch the television pictures transmitted from the Cenotaph in London on the big screen. As the poignant strains of Elgar filled the hall, followed by the cannon and then the silence, I was undone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by grief. I was not crying for the soldiers or the families, or for my ancestors affected by wars. I was crying for my mother, a war baby, and I was crying for myself and the renewed shock of realising what bereavement feels like. It’s the little things, like the cardigan. And it’s the big things, like knowing you will never see them again.

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Eleven

cake popsMy only daughter is celebrating her eleventh birthday this week. Sometimes, I wish I could freeze her now, at this perfection. At this wonderful pause between young child and teen.

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that before though. I have wanted to stop her getting older so many times – aged four, proudly wearing her pink ballet leotard and matching crossover jumper; aged six, her face covered in chocolate cake mix licking out the bowl; aged nine, teaching her little brother how to make a daisy chain. And countless other moments in between. But I’m glad now that I wasn’t able to stop time when I wanted to. If I had, I wouldn’t have got to know her now, with everything that makes up being eleven.

Eleven has honed a fabulous sense of humour, sharp wit and sense of the absurd. About eighteen months ago, we went out for a pub lunch and she and I visited the ladies’ toilets there. With a painted wall in front of me, and a door painted the same colour into the toilets to my left, I mistook the wall for the door and pushed against the unyielding concrete to try to open the ‘door’, baffled at my sudden weakness. My daughter was vastly amused by my ineptitude and spent the next few days periodically doubled up in mirth at my expense, gleefully recounting the tale to anyone who would listen. A year and a half on, if she sees a similar wall/door configuration, she will silently approach it and push on it, eyebrow raised quizzically in my direction. Recently, she went to the toilet, alone, in a restaurant and came back commenting casually, ‘there was one of those walls Mummy, so I pushed on it, just to amuse myself’.  I believe her.

Eleven has a strong, lithe, skinny body and is still reassuringly unselfconscious about it. Her ethereal, freckled beauty and pale, somewhat frail, appearance belies a considerable strength and agility. She is committed to her gymnastics classes, spending four hours a week with like-minded girls perfecting backward walkovers, back-flicks and flips, jumping into splits and shinning up ropes. At home or out and about, she will spontaneously throw a cartwheel when entering a room or walking along the road. She even tried to put her own stamp on the family cricket obsession – bowling with an integrated cartwheel manoeuvre.  I delight in her body confidence and hope that her current focus on what she can do with her body will continue through the hormonal years which are knocking increasingly loudly at the door.

Eleven is also making her perception of femininity felt in a house of brothers, embracing nail varnish and hairstyles with a reasonable amount of dedication. It is not done in a vain way, though, but rather as a way of expressing her personality. She tries to tease her long hair into a giant bow, for example, or paint each of her nails a different colour just because she likes the colours. But she does not do it merely to look pretty (although I am sure that is part of it). She does it for the challenge of learning a new skill, like a complicated plaiting arrangement, or because it delights her to match the exact shade of nail varnish to her fluffy socks, or her duvet cover.

Eleven is developing a consciousness of how to present herself to the world, of what she sees as the need to be ‘into’ things as a way of marking her presence in her peer group. She uses Pinterest and has pages for hairstyles, for cakes and for animals. Not just any old animals though – only the especially small, furry, cute ones. Her favourite picture? A photo-shopped creation of guinea pigs wearing fluffy jumpers riding bikes. She appears to have made it a self-defining characteristic at the moment that she will only like something if it is somehow in miniature. She loves tiny dogs (preferably wearing something fluffy, preferably being carried in a bag with its nose peeking over the top), tiny (pet) rodents of all varieties, miniature pens, pencils, rubbers in the shape of a miniature flip-flop, pointlessly tiny post-it notes. Even miniature bananas were spotted on a supermarket shop. She does not normally like bananas but she squealed and wanted them because they were ‘so cute’. She then ate one and declared it to taste acceptably different to the normal giant variety (it didn’t). She also insisted that we bought miniature custard pots for her custard loving older brother.   Aged thirteen, he railed at their pointlessness and ate four in one go. For her birthday party, she wants miniature cake pops, not a big cake.

Eleven can be breathtakingly thoughtful and mature. Two short months after my mother’s, her grandmother’s, death from cancer this year, I held a fund-raising coffee morning whilst the children were at school. Before we set off for school, she ran upstairs, found her pocket money and came down placing a two pound coin in my empty collection tin. She came and gave me a hug and whispered ‘something to get you started’. Along with this sensitivity is a startling and impressive amount of emotional resilience. She absorbs body blows, like realising that she and her best friend will be attending different secondary schools next year, rationalises them and moves on. She has already developed the ability that feels like an adult’s ability to express her upset, find her own way of dealing with it and recover.

Eleven is kind and caring to her brothers and is an especially wonderful big sister who has a particularly devoted little brother.   They will still play happily together and, being roughly the same height, delight in trying to find new ways to lift each other and devise dance/gymnastics moves, with her in charge. This often involves her being carried by him, as she is considerably lighter than he is and I expect she will not be (marginally) taller for very much longer.

Eleven is a very busy little thing with a packed weekly programme of violin, piano and recorder lessons, gymnastics and art classes. I periodically urge her to give something up and not exhaust herself, but she cannot and will not choose what she could possibly stop doing. We still read together, ploughing through the books of my girlhood and she seems to genuinely like the world of Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden.

Eleven does not yet appear to be embarrassed by me in public and will also almost always still hold my hand on the way to and from school and kiss me goodbye. I really don’t want that bit to stop but I know that change must be somewhere around the corner, as we hurtle our way through the last of her primary school years.

I know that I not only love my daughter, I like her enormously and enjoy her company. I can’t wait to see how she grows up.

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Little big boy, big little boy

202As the youngest sibling of a precocious brother and sister, the age gap separating no.2 son from our other children can seem greater than that of their birth dates. Yet, his closeness to his sister and ability to compete physically with his brother can also concertina those years and months. Eight years old and capable of being the little boy and the big lad.

Shopping with Mother in the Middle at the start of the week, no.2 son saw a teddy bear as tall as he is. He played with the oversized ted in the shop and declared he wanted it for Christmas. For the next few days, no.2 son would observe that big ted could be having breakfast with him, keeping him warm at night or sharing the joke in “You’ve been framed” reruns. A little boy craving a tactile toy.

Monday night at football training, no.2 son put in his usual shift. Running, tackling, passing – with an appetite for the ball and presence on the pitch that was rewarded with ‘Man of Training’ award for the third time already this season. With that accolade came the appointment as captain, signified with an arm band, for Saturday’s cup match. Not merely a big boy, but ‘Man of training’.

Twice in the week, I was on duty with the kids in the morning and walked the younger pair to school. No.2 son required, as he always has, reminders to and beyond the point of nagging to get himself dressed and equipped for school. Once out of the door, his hand finds mine. And so we walk, clasping paws, for the three-quarters of a mile to school, inside the gate and across the playground. A little boy whose need for the security of hand-holding remains stronger than any self-conscious anxiety about how that might look to his peers.

On Wednesday evening, I drove into Manchester with the two boys. As we approached our parking spot, we saw unofficial bonfires and ad hoc fireworks lit the sky. Stepping out of the car, there was a volley of bangs. No.2 son grabbed my hand, and dragged me in a direction away from the noise. I pointed the way we had to walk to the Etihad Stadium and he gave me a fearful look. We set off, his hand clinging to mine and pulling whenever he started at the sound of an explosion.

At the stadium concourse, Manchester City, the club with money to burn, held a dramatic firework display, which was too much for no.2 son. We retreated to the club shop and then to our seats inside, where the little boy recovered with a bag of sweets and watched his team lose its Champions League fixture.

Friday night brought indoor cricket. We arrived promptly and the hall needed reorganising before we could play. I set about moving benches and handed a ball to no.2 son, asking him to play with his teammates. Having cleared the hall, my attention returned to the team. No.2 son had organised a warm-up where each player took a turn fielding and catching the ball fed to them by my big boy.

Bowling first, no.2 son was disappointed with his effort. This, he explained to me later, motivated him to bat ‘properly’. For the first time, I see him guide and coax the ball, feet moving fluently, weight transferring to give enough momentum to the bat swing. Gone are the wild swishes and unbalanced swipes. He accumulated a run or more a ball and completed his overs without being dismissed.

I am umpiring at square leg, squatting on a gym bench, chatting with the county cricket coach. No.2 son, his innings over, pushes past the county coach and levers himself onto my lap. The mature, sensible cricketer reverts to the little boy in need of parental physical contact.

The following morning, Saturday, no.2 son and I walk – holding hands, of course – to the playing field for the cup match. At the ground, I tie the laces of his football boots, give him a tap and away he dashes to join his team. He starts the match in the position he has decided is his favourite – centre midfield. Under early pressure, prompted by the coach, he instructs his teammates where to defend at a corner. The match settles into a rhythm – one that no.2 son is doing more than anyone else to syncopate. He intercepts, tackles, dribbles, covers teammates, slips balls into their path and when the ball breaks to him on the edge of the area, he side foots it into the far top corner of the net. That it stays the only goal of a tight first half, owes much to his sprawling goal line block to a shot that has beaten his keeper.

The second half continues with no.2 son and his team driving forward and being caught by the opposition breaking fast. He intercepts one of their attacks, weaves past a couple of players before passing the ball wide. Seconds later the ball is returned to him in the penalty area. A clean strike sends the ball past the keeper. With a two goal lead, no.2 son is rotated off the pitch. The opponents rally, pull a goal back and the coach sends no.2 son back on the field with instructions heard on our side of the pitch: “Protect the lead”. Tackling and running hard, he plays his part.

Captain, goalscorer, midfield rock, recipient of the touchline dads’ plaudits and Man of the Match. I ruffle his hair and we walk across the field and back home – holding hands, of course.

We end our week of teddy bear envy, firework fear, cricket maturity, football achievement in the park. We have a kickabout, (pausing as no.2 son stands frozen by the presence of dogs) enjoying taking turns lashing shots at each other in goal. As the sun gives up on the day, the big boy’s biggest fun is had in the playground, being rotated on the hamster wheel and bounced on the see-saw.

Our youngest child is growing up at his own pace, which is both thrillingly quickly and reassuringly slowly.

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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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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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Filed under parenting, young shoulders

‘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