When these life updates (and indeed my children) were still in their early infancy, I regularly used to jinx myself by writing prematurely about them passing certain milestones. Not the starting walking, starting talking sorts of milestones, but the ones that make your life as a parent easier: the sleeping through the night, potty-training sorts of milestones. No sooner would I have written about “turning a corner” with the sleep deprivation or “successfully mastering” getting a toddler to the toilet on time for a wee (“no more peeling down sodden trousers, which seem to stick to wet legs like glue”) then the kids would almost gleefully do a total u-turn and start pooing behind the sofa or waking up at hourly intervals throughout the night.
(Actually neither of them ever did a poo where a poo should not have been, for which I am eternally grateful.)
Anyway, I jinxed myself again this week by drafting this post and joyfully announcing that my youngest turning four seems to have worked a charm on him in terms of sleep and temperament:
“No longer does it require” (I typed) “the skills of an FBI negotiator to get him into the bedroom in the evening and we have managed to reduce the seven or eight bedtime stories he requires to be read to him in order to calm down enough to actually sleep to a more comfortable three. The best thing, though, is that he has stopped being woken in the morning by the intense need to use the toilet. (Lucky him! Wish I could say the same for myself.) For the past year, at least, we have been woken early by the faint sounds of him calling out, always the same song: “I need a weeeeee weeeeee.” Inexplicably, he says this in a broad West Midlands accent, but that is a whole other story. But it has been our alarm call for longer than we can remember and now, all of a sudden, it has stopped.”
So after drafting that little passage, recording for posterity that lovely nugget of memory, what do you think happened? I’ll tell you. On the first night post-draft, he woke up while the owls were still hooting. He then climbed into our bed – this has never happened – and proceeded to spit-whisper things into our ears until six-thirty, at which point he started a brand new song:
“I’m huuuuuuungry! I want breakfast! I’m huuuuuuuuuungry!”
On the second night post-boast, which was last night, he decided to have an almighty breakdown right before bedtime, getting so cross about a Transformers video that he turned puce, and then got up at 5.45am, which is why I am sitting in the kitchen editing this post at 6.35am. (Managed to lie in bed in a semi-doze for a while, boy clamped around me like a koala.)
The funny thing is, however, that the next part of my draft included the following:
“But I will miss, in a strange way, that first light call of I need a weeee weeee. Especially said in that mystery accent, for which we have absolutely no explanation for. With every passing milestone, I realise that I’m needed a bit less – or at least I’m needed in a different way.”
HA. HA. HA. How weird we are, as a species. We look back on the “baby years” and think we miss them, but we forget about the absolute torture that is sleep deprivation. We’re told by others “not to wish time to go faster” or “wait until they’ve left home, then you’ll realise that you should have appreciated each moment more!” but those people in turn have mainly remembered the highlights and not the feeling of relentless exhaustion. We’re programmed to remember the best bits in order, I expect, to survive. So that elders can look wisely down on the younger generation and say, with complete credibility, “oh you’ll be great – the baby years are just the best. How wonderful.”
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that the baby years aren’t the best, or great, or an absolute gift. Just that there are really shitty bits and it’s fine to mention them. I feel as though when you write anything online now, about anything at all, there needs to be this huge disclaimer to make sure everyone knows that you are above all grateful and thankful. Anything that could remotely be considered a moan is met with derision from the Gratitude Police who don’t seem to realise that there is a joy in reading about things you relate to, whether it’s an article about those annoying people who cut their nails on the train or a silly Instagram post about someone’s kids smearing poo on a freshly-decorated wall.
“Why did you even have kids if them smearing poo on the wall annoys you? Some people would kill to have the opportunity to have children and let them smear poo on the wall.”
“You should feel lucky you’re even on a train! How dare you complain about inconsiderate commuters when so many don’t have a job to commute to? Absolutely tone deaf.”
You can see this sort of comment all the time online now, beneath Instagram posts, on newspaper articles. It’s as though some people have totally lost all grip on any sort of humour, satire, tongue-in-cheek-ness or even just the ability to recognise that you can share an observation, or a part of your life, without it needing calibrating or putting into some kind of hierarchy of perceived suffering level. If you’re writing about how you bought a pack of Jammy Dodgers, waited all day for a chance to eat them alone and then opened them to find they were mouldy, you don’t need to be told how lucky you are to even be able to buy Jammy Dodgers in the first place.
My arthritis makes my arms ache from the moment I wake up until halfway through the night. Comments: “Well, be grateful you even have an arm!” Louise78_Unicorn
We were hijacked on flight 653 to Hamburg and I thought I’d never see my family again… Comments: “So not only is this Times journalist able to take a (probably #gifted!) flight, when the rest of us are unable to travel, he now expects sympathy for an event he escaped from unscathed. Millions don’t.”
When did we lose our nose for nuance, our deftness at sniffing out context and our basic skill for reading something in the way it was intended? Why can’t people just have a moan about trivial things, like Jammy Dodgers, or even non-trivial things, like tiredness or illness or the stress of home-schooling, without it having to be subjected to a comparison contest? It’s not Top Trumps! Top Trumps, The Misery Edition.
Parenting is a particularly tricky one to write about because we are expected to love our children unconditionally, which we do, but many seem to think that this also equates to having to love everything they do unconditionally. I love my kids so much that it makes me clench my jaw and sometimes I think I’ve broken a molar; but do I love it when they are both whining when I’m on a conference call, working on me in a sort of emotional pincer-move so that I agree to let them play a game on the iPad? No. My annoyance doesn’t diminish my love for my children and it seems strange that it always feels necessary to pre-empt any kind of “real life” observation with a whole stream of background and fact to give it context. Surely it’s evident from the style and the tone of the writing?
Well. That went off on a tangent. It’s because I have time to spare – I’m writing this in the early morning rather than at five minutes to midnight. See what absolute masterpieces I produce when I get a bit of time to do things? (Disclaimer: irony.)
I feel as though this month’s update wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the fact that the Lockdown of Horrors (because this one has surely been the grimmest one to date?) is about to become a lot less stressful for those with school age kids. A few more days and they are back in the classroom. It almost seems like an alien concept, now – I don’t even know whether my kids have shoes that fit. They live in wellies or mismatched socks.
And there are whole swathes of ancient manuscript I could write about life in lockdown with two small children but for some reason it doesn’t interest me. Writing it, I mean. I think I’ve been on complete autopilot for the past two months and I’m neither proud or ashamed of the way we’ve made our way through the schools closure – I was a rubbish homeschool teacher, so we did pretty badly at that, and I didn’t organise any of the “fun activities” I saw other people doing online, like mud kitchens or garden obstacle courses or crafting or making puppets out of toilet roll holders. But on the other hand everyone got fed and to bed on time and went on a daily walk and did a bit of reading and had an afternoon movie session (slept through most of them, with my head nodding forward like a nonagenarian) and still cheered when it was the weekend and had a cake on Fairy Cake Friday and pancakes on a Saturday.
Both children have grown by what looks like about half a foot since Christmas and they are still smiling, so I doubt that they will even remember the era they fondly know as “the germs”. They’ve each only ever had two full terms at school or nursery (Autumn term 2019 and 2020!) and so really they don’t know any better, I suppose.
I was thinking about this the other day, how Mr AMR and I were so totally bowled over in that first term in late 2019, when one had started school and the other had started nursery, and we had the entire day to ourselves. I just kept pottering around, muttering “I can just get on with my work now. I could just work! Or lie down. I could lie down now and nobody could stop me! Or I could work. Or both.”
Which is exactly what I’m going to do when the schools go back next week. I’m going to mutter-potter and do a lot of work from a lying down position. Good for getting ideas and planning them out, I find. If you don’t fall asleep…
After twelve weeks of complete isolation I decided to go to the post office to do some urgent returns. (I actually had to send back some clothes I had ordered and never unboxed. Because who needs clothes in a lockdown? Not I, apparently. Apart from a few special occasions, I’ve almost worn the same two outfits on rotation; the first a dress that looks like a sack, the second a pair of shorts that have taken on the actual shape of my arse, so that when I remove them they stand up proud upon the rug, and an old t-shirt that has holes in the armpits. For chillier moments, both outfits have been worn beneath the world’s ugliest cardigan.)
So I went to the post office, which is buried deep within a village shop so tiny, and so crammed full with shelves and carousels and whatnot, that it’s almost impossible to walk through it without touching anything. Which doesn’t bode well for social distancing compliance. And I have to admit I was concerned about my visit, having heard tales of people completely ignoring all distancing guidelines now that we’re allowed to fire up the BBQ and – er – play golf; what would I be confronted with? In my mind, the world had gone rogue whilst I was locked inside – it would be a Mad Max scenario, with modified sand buggies revving around the country lanes, rams’ horns stuck to the bumpers and post-apocalyptic flesh-eating zombies hanging out of the open windows.
It was fine though. At the start, at least. There was a “queueing system” outside of the shop door, so I casually merged myself into it, trying desperately to look like someone who had been outside of their house before. For some reason my legs didn’t quite work properly – they felt like cotton reels threaded onto pieces of elastic, which I think was nerves, but nevertheless made me look like a newly-born Pinocchio.
Unfortunately, abiding by the two metres rule meant that I had to position myself almost in the middle of the road, for there was no place to stand to the left or right of the queue that was prominent or obvious enough to signal my presence to queue newcomers. Queuecomers. And that’s important, isn’t it? In a country where we are borderline obsessed with queue etiquette, it’s essential that everybody – everybody – knows that you are, in fact, in said queue. This is usually conveyed with a nod and a smile and a small, pointless, forwards or backwards movement, just a very slight one, to draw attention to your presence.
In this case, there was nobody in line after me – yet! – but still, I had to stand my ground. There’s an art to queuing, after all, and one of the finest skills is ensuring that everyone who joins the queue after you knows exactly where you rank. But here was my first testing quandary/moral dilemma: to stand in the road, or risk weakening my queue presence by tucking myself into the nook-in-the-wall where the drainpipe runs down? To lose queue-face, or to be flattened by a DPD van?
The choice is yours!
In the end I opted for a bit of a compromise, darting in and out of the road like a demented badger. It was confusing for the drivers. I had more than one beep. A few motorists tried to wave me across, which meant I had to do the universal sign language for “NO! I’M NOT CROSSING!”
One mimed exchange was so painful that I just gave in and crossed the road, only to almost be hit by a fast-moving bike when I did an about to turn and crossed back again, such was my haste not to lose my earned place in the queue.
I lived to tell the tale, thankfully: it was inside the shop that everything went to pieces. I just didn’t have any experience in this social distancing thing – quite literally no experience at all. I hadn’t built up any etiquette, I hadn’t seen social distancing techniques in action: it was all entirely foreign to me. A new language. And so I entered the shop almost apologetically, creeping in an exaggerated, comedy burglar knee-lift knee-lift toe-point hop! kind of way. Bear in mind I was wearing a silk kerchief as a face mask and eyeshadow on only one eye and that I hadn’t properly arranged my nipples beneath my top so that one was about four inches higher than the other: I was quite the picture.
(Does anyone else now have to arrange their nipples to ensure levelness? It’s a right faff! If I just juggle them into position, you can guarantee that one nip will be far higher than the other, looking like a peanut has been stowed away for safe keeping. Gone are the days when they both just fell into place, like delicately-balanced teardrops.)
So in I went, my tote containing the parcels slung over my back like a swag bag, trying to greet the shopkeeper and post office man with just the joy in my eyes. Difficult to do. And then I got to the counter and it was as though a giant stopper had been removed from my brain, because the talking started. It started and I just couldn’t stop.
“I have some parcel returns! How are you? This is weird isn’t it? What happens to the protective screen once you don’t need it anymore, it would make great secondary glazing hahaha! So how many people a day come in do you think, I just need proof of postage for that one, thankfully they pay for the returns otherwise I’d be bankrupt because I pretty much do all my shopping online now, I expect most people do, which is good in some ways but not great in others. Alexa Chung was in here the other day wasn’t she? Did you serve her or do you know who she is, what is she doing here, everyone says you’re the man to ask because you know all the gossip!”
Honestly. The phrase verbal diarrhoea doesn’t even cover it. It was dysentery. Thank God for the protective screens, that’s all I can say. Even with the perspex barrier in place the shop volunteers (yes, they volunteer to serve morons like me, the mind boggles) were ducking beneath the counter, such was the ferocity of my stream of absolute crap.
“Please pop the parcel on the scales,” said the post office volunteer, which put an end to my impromptu monologue. There was a moment of awkward silence as he printed out the labels and busied himself with sticking them to the jiffy bag but then, scandal, a second customer entered the shop! Ignoring the queueing system and the one-in-one-out rule! They just marched straight up to the counter beside me and plonked down a loaf of bread.
How could I have been prepared for such a flouting of the guidelines? I’d prepared myself so well. Tied a silken scarf around my face like a luxury goods version of Butch Cassidy, queued outside on the road, to my absolute peril, and now – just as casual as you like – I was faced with a potential super-spreader. What’s the protocol for that then?
My parcel-returning finished, I was presented with the challenge of exiting the shop without going closer to the perpetrator than the prescribed two metres. Seeing as though the entire shop is around four metres square, I saw that it was impossible. It was like one of those Mensa puzzles they give to particularly bright children at primary school (just me? Oh lol! Sorry!) where you have to move the pieces about to get the square to the exit. Or something.
Anyway, the woman with the bread wasn’t bothered about distancing herself whatsoever and had started a conversation about deer hounds, so I was forced to plan my escape around her. But then the worst thing of all happened: she decided to use the post office counter! WHERE I WAS ALREADY STANDING!
“Excuse me,” she smiled. “If you’ve finished, I’ll just slide on over.”
Well this was a conundrum. The sliding over part sounded vaguely terrifying, but the bigger problem was where to put my body. I couldn’t very well disappear myself and there was no clear path past the super-sliding spreader – even without social distancing the passing of the two ships would have been tight.
She began her slide. What to do? Crash backwards through the bank of freshly baked goods? Send the Bakewells scattering, the sausage rolls tumbling from their pastry pyramid? Or should I Klinsmann-dive sideways over the tower of eggs and the boxes of potatoes? Neither option was favourable – it was the sort of evasive action you’d take if you were about to be steamrollered by an out of control lorry. Overkill, it could be labelled.
I settled, instead, for panic. I manically sidestepped one way and then the other, waving my hands in the air, looking for all the world like a crab on amphetamines. A bandit crab, complete with face mask, absolutely off its shellfishy tits, dancing to a song only it could hear.
The slider-spreader pressed herself closer to the counter, possibly out of sheer terror and I managed to side-crab my way past the baked goods and out towards the door. Another customer was about to enter, again flagrant disregard for the rules, but backed out with a look of surprise and horror as they saw the human bandit-crab side-lunging towards the exit. One eyeshadow’d, wonky-nipped, neckerchief slipping to reveal a mean, anxious mouth: small children wept, a border terrier whimpered, a man parking his bicycle stealthily hooked his leg back over the saddle and pedalled away to safety.
Haven’t been in to the shops again, obviously. You? How’s your lockdown going?
Oh, the dreaded PMT week has worked its way around again and I am trying to keep a lid on my symptoms, this month, rather than barking rabidly at members of my family and occasionally frothing at the mouth.
Last month’s PMT, at its peak intensity, saw me pacing up and down the driveway in the rain, inexplicably grasping a garden trowel and devising ways I could get revenge on my husband for something he had done but that I couldn’t quite remember. It could have been anything – the world is my disgruntlement oyster when I’m on the hormone highway to the Red Roof Inn.
At the moment he’s hiding from me, maybe watching Pointless, which in itself incenses me to an almost vessel-bursting degree. Because when I have PMT and I have to work I don’t like anyone to be a) having fun or b) relaxing. I prefer it if everyone sits in absolute silence, staring morosely into thin air and telepathically beaming me sympathy vibes.
Except that my three and four year-old couldn’t care less about my PMT or brain-strike (MUMMY LISTEN TO ME! MY (note: imaginary) FISH HAS A SLICE MISSING FROM HER TAIL! CALL THE DOCTOR!”
“It would be a vet,” I say, “and I don’t think vets do home visits for fish that they can’t see.”
Oh, all of my energies have to be ploughed into being civil. My head pounds, the blood races around my arms and legs and sends them at once buzzy and at the same time desperately fatigued, as though I have flu. I feel panicked, at this time of the month – out of control. It’s the same sensation I get as when I’m dreaming that I’m falling through space, free-falling, the feeling of weightlessness tainted with pure dread that happens just before I startle myself awake. I wouldn’t be great even without responsibilities, in PMT week, but now that I’m in a giant pressure cooker of continuous domestic duties and unceasing child-borne demands and –
“MUMMY! YOU HAVE TO GET THE VET FOR LAYLA THE FISH AND ALSO I NEED A POO. GET THE VET NOW, MUMMY, HERE’S YOUR PHONE.”
My nerves are jangled. My iPhone almost slips to the floor but is caught, ham-fisted, and passed to me covered in Nutella. All of my senses are heightened. I feel as though my skin has been thinned and that all of my nerve endings are more exposed. A door slam makes me jump, the sound of someone starting a hedge strimmer two fields away makes me want to pull on my wellies and march over and demand silence.
I’m surprised that the family haven’t crafted some sort of giant snake-holding stick, to keep me at arm’s length. With a loop at the end of a long pole so that that they could snare me and I could sit collared at the kitchen table, angrily sipping my camomile tea and darting my forked tongue at them.
I always thought that the standard “brain fog, excruciating 24 hour headache and water retention” variety of PMT was bad enough, but lockdown PMT is like experiencing all of the aforementioned things whilst being chased by a swarm of angry bees around a shop selling expensive crockery. Wearing an itchy woollen suit that’s too tight around the torso.
Have you experienced Lockdown PMT yet? How was that for you? I am busy sketching out an Escape Cupboard for next time, seeing as though it’s quite likely we could still be in the same socio-domestic situation. I’m going to line it with all the empty egg boxes I’ve been collecting, but not filling because my chickens have decided they don’t like laying eggs this year, so that the walls are soundproofed. And then I’m going to put in one of those shitty little mini fridges that make more noise than a Boeing 747 jet engine and fill the mini fridge with cans of Coca Cola and bars of Dairy Milk. I’m then going to steal the family iPad, download every single episode of Friends and lock myself in the cupboard for six days.
When they open the door to retrieve me I shall be a spotty mess, gurning from the sugar overloads and subsequent lows, but at least nobody will have heard me scream…