The Eccles Cake

Eccles CakesWhen I first met her, Lilian visited her husband Bert twice a week.   It was an hour each way on the bus – an hour and a half if she was unlucky with the traffic or if there was a match on.  She told me she used to go every day when he first went into the Home three years ago, then every other day for a while, but she couldn’t keep it up.

You can go every day, she said, when they still know who you are, when they pin their whole day around your visit and you see their face at the window, watching for you coming.    A year ago, Bert’s face would still light up when he saw her, she told me, even after five children together, sixty odd years of marriage and several years of gradually advancing dementia.  Even when she started to realise that she could no longer manage to look after him in their own house and had to speak to the social workers about a care home, he still knew who she was, whilst his grip on everything else was slipping away.  When he climbed out through the bedroom window of their housing association bungalow, gave her the slip when he was supposed to be having a nap and was found three hours later wandering around the local shops with no idea of where he was or who he was, he still remembered that there was a Lilian.  When he had some trial days at a day centre to give Lilian some respite and he cried in anguish, not understanding why he was there, he still called out for Lilian.  Her face, her name, was the last thing to go.

Now, when she went to the Home on her twice weekly visits, Bert seemed to have no idea who she was.  I took her there myself to visit him a few times, over the course of a year or two.  I saw how he stared uncomprehendingly at Lilian from his milky blue eyes, showing no flicker of recognition as he passed his gaze from my face to hers and back again.  I saw how he shoved her away, snarling ‘no’ at her with primal aggression, when she proprietorially smoothed his hair from his eyes or brushed crumbs from his jumper, loving gestures welcomed for over half a century, but now seemingly unendurable to him.  I saw how he pushed his octogenarian wife to one side and tried to fondle the young nurses instead – and her sad smile as she pulled him away, telling him not to be a numpty and embarrass the poor things.

I also saw something else on our visits, something extraordinary.  I witnessed their twice weekly Eccles cake ritual.  They had always been a favourite teatime treat of his, she told me, right from when they married when she was seventeen and he was twenty two.  He didn’t eat well in the Home and was now a painfully thin shadow of the plump, jolly man he used to be.  The food wasn’t great but, more importantly, dementia had robbed him of his appetite, of any sensation of hunger or satiety or pleasure in food.  Apparently apart from Eccles cakes, that is.

So every time she did her shopping, Lilian put some Eccles cakes in her basket.  And just before she set off for the bus stop to visit Bert, she would put two in the microwave and heat them to the very brink of explosion (‘so they go burning just like them McDonald’s apple thingymebobs‘).  Then, placed one on top of the other and sealed in a small circular plastic pot (bought especially for the purpose), they would go into her bag and, if needs be, double up as a hand warmer on her long bus journey.

On arriving at the Home, she would go straight to Bert’s room.  He had a small single room: a bed, with side rails and a sensor pad next to it on the floor befitting his high falls risk; a wardrobe; a small chest of drawers (full of incontinence products); and one hard-backed chair.  First, she would remove the silver framed ten year old photograph of the two of them (him looking plumper, her looking thinner) with their children and grandchildren from his chest of drawers, drag the chest to the centre of the room and take from her bag a small white lace table cloth, draping it ceremoniously over the top.  Next, she would borrow a second chair from an adjacent room and place it at the makeshift table.  Then she would search out her husband – who was invariably to be found either sleeping in an armchair in the day room or shuffling relentlessly up and down, up and down the carpeted hallways.  Finally, the still-warm cakes would be removed from their utilitarian pot and one placed on a delicate china plate (hidden in his wardrobe between visits) in front of him.

They would then dine a deux together in silence.  He ate every last scrap of his Eccles cake, methodically and with immense concentration.  They each had a cup of tea in front of them – hers in one of the serviceable, visitors’ mugs; his in a spouted plastic beaker, like a giant toddler.   When he had finished his cake, he would look at Lilian, smile beatifically and then get up and recommence his compulsive march along the corridors, resisting any attempts for further interactions with her.  She would disassemble the tearoom she had created, washing the plate and storing it in the top of his wardrobe, putting the cloth back in her bag to be taken home and washed for next time.

A few months after my last visit with Lilian, Bert died.  It got to the point where he couldn’t swallow properly any more, she told me, so she had to stop taking the Eccles cakes.   She still went to visit him on the bus, increasing the frequency of her trips again as his health declined further and further.  When he was finally bed-bound and no longer had the strength to resist it, she liked to sit and hold his hand whilst he slept.  There were no more smiles and no more words, but a comfort in the peace and closeness.

Lilian still does her own shopping, but she no longer puts Eccles cakes in her basket.  She always preferred an eclair, she says, and besides, she couldn’t eat one without Bert.

I learned a lot from Lilian. I learned that ordinary people with seemingly ordinary lives can be extraordinary and immensely humbling.  And that heroines need not be nubile, young, kick-boxing action figures, but can be white-haired, stoical pensioners sitting patiently with a shopping bag on a bus in a grey northern city.

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Mother’s Day

Before I had children, I paid scant attention to Mother’s Day.  I loftily dismissed it as commercial claptrap and as just a way for the card companies and florists to drum up some business.  I always sent a card to my mother, but more because I thought she would feel left out if I did not than because I felt it was a meaningful thing to do.

After I had children, I changed my view somewhat, realising that there was something very lovely about being acknowledged and celebrated as somebody’s mother and I made a point of sending a (slightly less ironic) card and of ringing my mother on the day.   I even managed to laugh along when, on the first Mother’s Day after my first child was born, my husband presented me with a card and gift from our baby son.  It was unlike him to buy into Mother’s Day – he did not even send his own mother a card – so I was surprised and delighted.  Slightly less delighted, though, when I opened the present to find a bottle of washing up liquid, as an ironic recreation of his first Mother’s Day gift to his own mother in the early 1970s, a story which I had previously scoffed at.

This year, I am facing another first – my first Mother’s Day without a mother.  It is the latest in a year of first withouts, hot on the heels of the first Christmas and first birthday.   I have never been more conscious of banners in supermarkets exhorting me to treat my mum or emails from companies suggesting thoughtful purchases that my mother would love.  Even a week before the day, my Facebook page is filling up with news of treats planned for others’ mothers.

Technology, it seems, will also not accept my mother is dead.  I get email reminders that it’s been a while since I played Words with Friends with her – why not start a game?  I forget that I stored my parents’ home telephone number under my mother’s name in my iphone and that I haven’t changed it, meaning that a rare telephone call to my mobile from my father several months after her death suddenly lights up the screen with my  mother’s photograph and gives me a swift, heart stopping belief that she is actually somehow calling me from beyond the grave.

I have been asking myself, if she was still here, what would I want to say to her?  She wasn’t the sentimental sort, so it wouldn’t be anything soppy.  I’ve decided it would be a mixture of the big things and the little things.
Eight things I would choose to say to her to mark the eight months she has been gone:

1. You know the way you used to love getting places in just the very nick of time, not a minute too early?  Well, you were nearly late for your own funeral, it would have really entertained you.  As we sat in the funeral car following the hearse containing your coffin, heaped high with your favourite yellow roses, we all started to panic slightly that the driver’s stately, appropriate progress through the Scottish countryside was not going to get us to the crematorium on time.  Urgent messages started to be exchanged between the sisters in the funeral car and the sister waiting at the crematorium.  But we swept up to the entrance exactly on time, not a minute, not even a second, early.  I think you would have found it immensely satisfying.
2. my first son, your fourth grandchild, now speaks with a deep voice and has a little moustache.  He was already taller than you; now he’s nearly taller than me too.
3. Strictly was a bit rubbish this year, after all.  Ditto the second series of Broadchurch.
4. we are all getting on with each other and all of us are making a lot of effort.  We are looking after Dad and he is coping.  He has been to visit all of us and he even came out to watch the children at the swimming pool.
5. I wear the ring you left me every day.  It makes me think of that rainy day of ring shopping in County Longford, after which we sat in the pub watching Andy Murray lose at Wimbledon and of how you were so appalled at his teary reaction.  You felt it was not how a Scottish man should behave in public.
6. My daughter passed all her grammar school exams and remembered your cautionary tale about not turning over two pages at once, as you did in the 1950s,  before she went in.
7. I’m sorry that I did not realise how much you held everything together in the family until it was too late.  I wish I could tell you what a great job you did with that.  Your influence is still strong and manifests itself in the little things.  Everyone in this house knows what ‘Grandma towels’ are.
8. Thank you for the tablet and Scotch pancake recipes.  They still go down really well.

Happy Mother’s Day.


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Foul, foul

IMG_0798The picture shows no.2 son’s right leg. He has showered after a game of under 9 football. Five bruises and scrapes are splattered across the top of his shin and knee.

His team lost 3-0 in a tight match to a slightly better side. The opposition played some fluent football and switched decisively from defence to attack when they won the ball in their own half. Another feature of their play was fouling.

When one of no.2 son’s teammates dribbled around or accelerated away from an opponent, they received a kick to their shins or a tap on the ankle. No.2 son’s game features strong and tricky running with the ball. He regularly gets tripped by defenders deceived by his speed of foot. We bought him new shinpads with ankle attachments for added protection as a Christmas present.

At this weekend’s match, the trips weren’t from defenders trying to take the ball from him. They came from players he had already taken the ball past, whose aim was to stop him. The bruises shown on the photo came from something else: knee-high challenges as no.2 son ran at their defence.

Driving home after a match, it’s fairly common for the boys to complain that the other side were ‘foulers’. I might nod, or point out that his side plays physically, too. And the point of this piece is not to brand this other team as thugs (they come from a club with a good reputation and I find it very unlikely that this approach was inculcated by the coaches).

But today I agreed when no.2 son said the other team were ‘foulers’. And I think the referee would have done so too. He whistled for almost every foul, giving a string of free kicks, as players were helped up and limped away from the challenges.

Despite the referee’s diligence, the fouls kept coming. The question I pose is what could be done to stem the flow, not just punctuate it.

Understandably, referees are not expected to punish a junior footballer for a foul, in the way an adult would be: first offence – name taken and shown the yellow card; second time – dismissal. The bureaucracy of name taking and cards isn’t appropriate for a game children play for exercise, development and fun. But the fun needs to be there for both teams.

Readers who spend time around junior sport, here are some questions about how persistent foul play by children should be handled.

How would you expect this situation to be handled? A quiet word to the boys doing the kicking of opponents’ ankles? A conversation in one of the breaks of play with the coach? A request that a particular player is given a ‘time out’? An after-match report to club or league officials?

What do you do if you see one of your players repeatedly fouling the opposition? Do you bring the youngster off and have a quiet word? Do you address the issue with the whole team after the game or at the next training session? Do you raise it with the parents as a conduct issue?

If your players are on the receiving end, would you communicate your concern to the other coach during the match? Would you leave it until after the game and approach the other coach, or refer it to club or league officials?

It’s not our place to intervene during a match, but what would you expect of the referee and of your coach?

Junior footballers
Would you want something done during the game or afterwards? Do you accept it as part of the game or does it make you less likely to want to play?

Please share your answers and opinions.


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Time, time, time, see what’s become of me

1554_HourglassSandTimer-3Minute_1A   I turn 45 this month. It’s time to accept that I am no longer a vague ‘early forties’, but definitely in the mid forties zone.   In middle age.  It is, after all, halfway to 90. Suddenly, people turning 40 seem really young and people turning 50, an age which used to feel positively geriatric, feel in the same general ball-park as me.

I have every hope and expectation of making it to 90 and of making the most of the second half of my life.  I also have the mid-lifer’s increasing awareness of the fragility of life, of the random bad luck that can befall some and not others, of the health crises that can descend without warning. I have in the last year seen not only the unfairness of my mother barely limping past 70 before reaching her allotted time, but also encountered very many older, impoverished and disabled people through my work, living lives of quiet desperation and heroism. Some, the victims of shocking misfortune – being born with spina bifida AND being knocked down by a car; doggedly continuing to care for a husband who, through dementia, has become incontinent, abusive and oblivious to the identify of his wife of 60 years; being a severely disabled older person, a double amputee AND being financially abused by the very relatives who are purporting to look after you; being a mid-nineties mother still caring for a mid-seventies learning disabled child.

I have an increasing awareness of wanting to make the most of whatever I have left, to make it all count, but also of how quickly the days, weeks and years are slipping by and how powerless I am to stop time’s march. How can it be that five years have already passed since I reached forty? How can nearly a quarter of a century have gone by since I left university? I have never forgotten a conversation I had with a very drunk man who appeared to be in late middle age, in a pub in Queens Square in London in 1994, who gripped my arm as he earnestly exhorted me to make the most of my time as ‘life passes you by, it just passes you by’.   At the time, my friend and I giggled at the attentions of the old soak and made a swift, clattering exit in our high heels and skirt suits.   Now, I understand him. I still don’t feel as old as he looked, but I understand him and I would love to step back in time and tell him so and apologise for dismissing him. Likewise, my indomitable, tiny grandmother, who finally accepted, at the age of 91, that perhaps it was no longer wise for her to climb a stepladder to change a lightbulb. I will never forget her wry smile as she told me that the trouble was, she still felt seventeen inside and could not accept that her body did not agree with her mind.

Suddenly, it is also not just me who has leapt forward in time, but my children too. They are no longer babies, but fully formed, sentient beings beginning to forge their own paths through life. My oldest child has a newly acquired, deepened voice and breadth of shoulder, catching me unawares as I see him out of the corner of my eye as a man in waiting. It is shocking to see him suddenly at eye level and to know that soon he will be looking down on me.   My youngest child, so long a baby, has lengthened and straightened – chubby cheeks turning (almost) sleek and chiselled, chubby thighs turning coltish and awkward.

With the passage of time has also come a change to the way my day to day time is ordered. When the children were younger, there was a long period of time when my life felt ruled by the clock. The painfully early starts, the breakfast by seven/lunch by twelve/tea by five/bath by six thirty/bed by seven thirty treadmill of keeping them fed, watered, clean and safe. The rainy days with a toddler, when the day could stretch ahead emptily, with all planned activities and reserves of energy exhausted by 9am, the day already three or four hours old by that stage. The painful early starts still happen with my ‘baby’, but it’s so much easier when they have learned to read and you have bought them electronic devices and can send them away again for an hour, safe in the knowledge that they are not going to hurl themselves down the stairs or pull the kettle on their heads.

The bed time routine still happens, but has now become elastic and never ending. The process may start at a similar time as in my treadmill years, but will then last several hours, through bathing, reading, homework, trumpet practice, sit ups (the teenager), more reading, hair styling (the daughter usually but not exclusively), and will not limp to a conclusion until the protesting teenager is dragged away from the television and ordered to bed sometime around 10pm, followed a short time later by his mother.   I can now potter about, as the children do their thing around the house. I still need to be there, am never off duty, but am also not always required as an active participant and I am not always quite sure what to do with myself. My time is not my own, as I am an on-call negotiator and arbitrator, required to respond to the cries of ‘it’s so unfair’ or ‘it’s my go’ or ‘he’s just so annoying!’, never sure when or for how long my services will be needed, but there are portions of time where I realise I am being left alone.

I find myself feeling nostalgic for the baby days, when I was their everything during their waking hours and then for those times when I had tucked them up, safe and warm with a bellyful of milk, and my evening was my own (choosing to forget that there was very often screaming and/or puking, and that I was so wracked with tiredness that I just sat and stared into middle distance, rather than using my time meaningfully listening to radio plays or reading fine literature).

What I would dearly love to do is have a day swap. Give me, say, a day in 2006, the lost year, when I had three children under five and from which I am left with just a fog of inchoate memories. Let me hold them, play with them, stroke their beautiful soft faces (because they would let me do it then).  Let them fall asleep on me and let me regulate my breathing and centre myself to their soft ins and outs. Let me hold their pudgy paws and take them for a walk, read them sweet, simple tales and sing their favourite songs. I’ve got more energy now, I would do it really well! And I miss them as babies now that I can recognise that their babyhoods have definitely gone. Let me also talk to myself nine years ago, tell the 2006 me that it’s ok, they will be ok and I will cope (apart from that one awful day when I nearly dipped the baby’s feet in boiling water when wearing him in a forward facing sling whilst cooking pasta, jiggling him up and down to try to stop him screaming whilst having a wailing toddler daughter wrapped around my leg and with a furious four year old son kicking next to me on the floor. Apart from that day).

And I would give a 2015 day to the struggling 2006 woman and show her that they are growing up beautifully, that they are bright and bonny and make me laugh every single day and that we are all growing older and wiser together.


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Injured (playing with the kids)

226“So, how did you injure your shoulder?” the physio asked, eyeing my back, perhaps looking for clues.

“Playing tennis last August. I don’t play often.”

The bright light of that summer morning in St Andrew’s reappeared. No.1 son and I hitting balls back and forth. I was careful to direct the ball back to him, to keep the rally going. But soon, he was dinking little drop shots that, however hard I dashed and far I stretched, I just couldn’t reach. I was goaded, you see. My response was to up the tempo with some booming serves. That put an end to the cheeky drop shots and, three months on, had me seeking the attention of a physio.

“Just tennis? You did nothing else to it?” The physio began digging her thumb in amongst the tendons and joints of my upper back.

“Eh, yeah. No. Oww.”

“It won’t hurt for long,” she reassured me, with talon poised for another incision.

Rising to the challenge of a contest with a child is a common fault of adult men – and one that keeps the physiotherapy profession busy. I like to think we are infected by the carefree spirit of the child, and forget the limitation of our bodies. Less generously, we’re showing off. Dave, the ‘funny falling down man,’ as my kids know him, was guilty of this.

Dave visits us from the States while on business. He comes equipped and attired for meetings and strategizing: pure wool suit, Italian shoes and man bag.

On a wet day five years ago, he joined us on a trip out to burn off the kids’ surplus energy. While I kicked balls and played chase with the kids, Dave watched, apologising for the unsuitability of his clothing. Eventually, I declared there was time for just one more race. As we lined up, Dave appeared amongst the racers. On the G of ‘Go’ he hurtled forward. Closing in on the finishing line, he tried to ease up, but his leather soled shoes found no traction on the wet ground. He skidded, tripped and flipped head over heels, landing four or five meters past the finishing line on his shoulder. The kids howled with laughter. Dave struggled to his feet, clasping his shoulder.

At home, we sponged the mud and grass stains from Dave’s suit and dosed him up on pain-killers. Over night his shoulder seized up and I had to help dress him before he left for work. He struggled through his week of meetings. It took a course of intensive physiotherapy in the States for mobility to be restored. Even now, he claims there is a lump on his shoulder – a reminder of the dangers of competing with kids.

My physio had asked me: “Just tennis? You did nothing else to it?”

“Eh, yeah. No. Oww.”

And another image of that week in St Andrews flashed into my mind. Not the tennis court on a bright morning, but a patch of grass by the East Sands. The 1&onlyD and I waiting for Mother in the Middle. The 1&onlyD performing handstands and then turning cartwheels. I was asked to award marks for precision and flourish.

“Nine… Nine… Ten!”

“Go on, Daddy. Your go.”

“Five… Six… Six. Now try a round-off [cartwheel with a two-footed landing].”

“Four.. five”


Just the tennis, then. Not showing-off or being over-competitive – that would be dangerous for a man of my age.


2 March 2015 – edited and revised.


Filed under injury, play time

Penalty pants points

gym judgesSitting on mats beside the trampoline at the gymnastics club championships, we had a clear view of the floor exercise. Girls took turns flipping, skipping and rolling to music. Seated across the floor from us was the judge, clipboard balanced on knee, pen in hand. She gave a slight nod as each girl saluted her at the start of the routine. Her eyes followed the movements, flicking down to her clipboard as she made brief notes, then back up to take in the performance. And a final gentle nod as the girl turned her way and bowed before leaving the floor. The judge’s face expressing earnestness and concentration.

It was the turn of the daughter of the mother sitting in front of us. In her first year of gymnastics, but with eight years of dancing experience, her routine was simple but graceful. As the girl completed a cartwheel in the middle of the floor, from our vantage, she stood for a moment with the judge directly in the background. The judge’s serious mien snapped suddenly into a look of Frankie Howerd-style camp outrage. We had seen the expression and laughed. We had also seen what had elicited the abrupt loss of the judge’s calm, objective visage.

frankie howerdThe gymnast had tugged the bottom of her leotard down over the top of her legs. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she had incurred a penalty pants point.

The average person carries out a minor adjustment to their undergarments, at least four times each hour* – more often if active. But in the world of gymnastics, any such gesture of self-consciousness means a points deduction. It’s not just the pants: flicking of the hair is cracked down on just as hard. But it’s the penalty pants point that is so at odds with the need to get girls involved in physical activity – currently popularised by Sport England’s, This Girl Can campaign.

At the annual club competition, the girls are instructed to wear their leotards bare-legged. I understand the need for the outlines of the gymnast’s body to be clearly visible as maintaining the correct the angle of limbs to trunk is part of the control they seek to achieve. Loose clothing could also impede the gymnast and potentially endanger her. I just don’t understand why so much flesh should have to be shown. Leggings would enable the competitor’s form to be assessed, without them feeling self-conscious about their bare lower half, which causes the nervous tugging at leotards. Male gymnasts, it’s worth noting, wear shorts or even long trousers.

This Girl Can has a genuinely laudable aim: “it is here to inspire women to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.” Gymnasts in a competition are, of course, offering themselves up to judgement. I don’t feel any great respect for a judgement that places such an onus on a pre-teen or teenage girl’s ability to resist the temptation to pull her leotard down over her bare legs.

* Made up statistic.



Filed under sport gives us..

The Unexpected Consequences of Having Sporty Children

photoWhen I was a pre-teen and young teenager, the kind of age my own children are now, I liked nothing better than curling up with a good book or doing some sewing. I happily ploughed through the works of the Bronte sisters (fondly imagining I was one of them), Noel Streatfield, Jane Austen and their like, then spent time emulating my grandmother, making patchwork bags and cushions. Sedentary, contemplative, solitary pursuits. Sport for me was something to be endured and the best I could hope for was to get through PE lessons unscathed and escape humiliation, whether it be on the hockey field or – shamefully – cross country running in nothing more than an airtex t-shirt and a pair of sturdy gym knickers, as was the requirement at my northern grammar school in the early 1980s.

Fast forward thirty odd years and I have three pretty sporty children and do my best to encourage and support them in their interests. This has several expected consequences: my children get a lot of exercise and are reasonably fit and strong; the house and garden are littered with bats, balls and sundry pieces of kit; and they (and my husband and I) spend a lot of weekday evenings and time at the weekend driving to and freezing at various training sessions or matches.   However, I have recently also noticed a number of more unexpected consequences, showing how sport has invaded every aspect of my life. For example, the contents of my email in-box. It is full, not with meaningful emails from friends, but with contact from various sports retailers and team coaches. I get at least daily emails from Sports Direct, UK Soccershop and the Grip Guy (whoever he is), regardless of how often I try to unsubscribe, as a result of buying a seemingly endless supply of kit, boots, skins and leotards from them online.

These purchases are not just for replenishing worn out or grown out of gear, but also because the lot of buying Christmas and birthday presents for the children generally falls to me. Not just for presents from me, either, but also from grand-parents and other relatives who kindly give me money to buy the children presents ‘as you know best what they want’. What my sons generally want, several times a year, is football boots. Fancy, branded football boots, with the latest bright colours and designs, not the plain black affordable ones that I would buy if left to my own devices (and funds).

This also means that I have an intimate acquaintance with local sports shops and spend what feels like a wholly disproportionate amount of my free time in these appalling, soul-sapping venues. Hours are lost in vainly trying to attract the attention of some poor, bored, unhelpful teenager on minimum wage to ask him or her to get stock down from the ludicrously high height at which they are stored or in waiting as they saunter off to search the out of sight stock room for differently sized football boots.   Afternoons slip by as I try to show an interest in the design of a ‘swoosh’ or the brilliance of a boot’s white shine (without muttering under my breath ‘two minutes on Saturday and you may as well have got the black ones, they’ll be so muddy’). Trying also not to show my disgust at the prices companies – particularly football clubs – charge for branded merchandise marketed at young children. Trying very hard not to rain on their parade when the children have saved all their birthday money, for example, and want to spend it all on one current season football shirt at a cost of £50 or £60, with a hefty extra charge for getting their own or a favourite player’s name printed on the back. It’s their money, after all, and I absolutely do not want to make them feel bad about something that obviously means so much to them, but it makes me so angry that the clubs can continue to get away with it knowing that the children set so much store by getting the shirts and fitting in. To voice my concerns too vociferously makes me into the bad guy, so I now try to button my lip and hope that as they get older they might come to appreciate my point of view.

Another unexpected change in my life is around food. I have hungry, growing, sporty children who have inherited their father’s slight build and fast metabolism and I yearn – quite rightly – to feed them up. I really do try every day with the healthy stuff but, as they are fussy and I am weak, they also have a regular supply of biscuits, crisps, cakes, doughnuts etc which they burn off immediately. Not so for me, alas. An unintended consequence for me of having sporty children is the difficulty in remembering I am not a marathon running mother, but a sedentary forty something who does not need to curb-load for the school run and the office job.  It is also difficult to remember that just being really, really cold at the end of watching a match in biting January winds does not justify a stack of buttered toast in the same way as actually playing in that match.   Before I married, I had largely empty cupboards and a fridge containing, usually, rotting salad and a hard lump of old cheese with which to manage my poor willpower around food.   I have now swung to the opposite extreme of a bulging fridge and cupboards full of crisps and biscuits, but with little change in my willpower.

As a non-sporty person, I can sometimes feel like an alien in my family.   I do try to take an interest but feel I never quite pull it off. Take the terminology, for example. I have spent very many hours trying to perfect the relevance and timing of the ‘well in!’ cry at a football match. Usually I ask for clarification, sotto voce of sympathetic companions, ‘was that a well-in situation?’. If I’m feeling confident, I might try it out loud, only to meet with a disgusted shake of the head from whichever son is spectating with me and not participating, showing that I have failed again. Recently I really thought I had been paying attention and was eager to show off my knowledge, commenting breezily ‘good nutmegging there!’.   Pitch side, I got the sorrowful shake of the head; later on, my teenager pulled me to one side to explain, quite kindly, that the only acceptable thing to have said would have been an understated ‘nice meg’. To use ‘nutmegging’ as an expression had caused acute embarrassment and marked me out as a. ancient and b. someone who didn’t understand the game. Guilty on both counts, obviously.

When it became clear that my children were sporty, it gave me a lot of pleasure to watch them enjoying themselves. However, what I did not expect as they began to kick balls or walk along the beam was the level of fear I would start to feel as a spectator as they got older, faster and more proficient. I try not to, but I gasp at near collisions, wince at tackles, shriek at falls off beams and bars. I have seen other people’s children breaking bones and know how little separates a brave tackle from a recklessly incurred injury; how easily grasping the bars from a flight through the air can turn into a near miss as little fingers fail by a crucial whisker to make a firm connection. Sometimes I can hardly bear to watch at all and yet with churning insides and adrenaline coursing through my veins try to appear cheery and nonchalant, knowing that my fear could be contagious and not wishing to spoil it for them. I am hugely relieved that, at the moment, none of them seem interested in rugby (but remain worried by my younger son’s gleeful watching of free running videos on You Tube).

There are other side effects of how my children’s interests have infiltrated my life that I notice from time to time. The fact that, eight years or so since my older son started playing football, I have now acquired without realising it an encyclopaedic knowledge of parks and backstreet recreational grounds in my borough, which would otherwise be hidden to me. The fact that I have a nose trained to sniff out the smell of screwed up football kit rotting in corners of my car and house and intimate working knowledge of the nylon wash setting on my washing machine. The fact that we are developing a family tradition of a trip en masse to a New Year Premiership match.

The most important thing it has taught me, however, is the need to respect my children as individuals. I never would have predicted that I would have children whose interests were so different to mine. I never would have thought that being solemnly invited by my beautiful, trusting eight year old son to take the final, crucial decision between the shiny orange boots and the brilliant white boots would feel like having a sacred privilege bestowed upon me. I would not have thought that there could be as much poetry in watching my boys run at full pelt across a muddy field in the rain, wind in their hair and laughs at their lips, or in seeing my daughter’s face light up with joy after landing a backwards walkover on the beam, as there ever was in reading Wuthering Heights.


Filed under individual development, parenting