An English friend living in our city told me today how shocked her husband was, shortly after their arrival, when they were visited by two young Kiwi female relatives who had just been to an open-air concert. "Did you enjoy it?" he asked. "Oh yes, but the rain really made my thong rub, it was killing me," she explained. His eyes widened and she had to wait until the young ladies left to explain to him that down this end of the Pacific Ocean thongs meant a type of light summer footwear. As opposed to, oh for heavens sake, go and google it, Kiwi readers. This blog is quite explicit enough already.
I'm getting better at remembering that togs are swimwear, not a duvet layer, a park can be where you put a car. But sometimes it is not the differences but the similarities that strike one. I am often taken aback as I hear EXACTLY the same well-worn phrase as in the UK. Some, like the phrase in the title, were used incessantly as I walked the Cambridge streets with my proud new bundle, seven years and a bit ago. At the time I was touched and delighted by the number of old ladies (and men, to be fair) who wanted to observe with me how magical my life suddenly was. "Enjoy these precious years," they would say as they looked into my pram, after a slight double-take when they saw how skinny and small my premmie baby was. "They are so special. You have to enjoy every minute. Every minute, I tell you." And I would nod in agreement, and think how wonderful it was that they were sharing their wisdom with me, and promise myself that I would be one of the few mothers who saw the full magic of parenthood, and that I would enjoy every second of childrearing, until they grew up and left home, to the sound of classical music and nostalgic glimpses back to a perfect childhood. This, I now recognise, is of course as likely to happen as my ever feeling comfortable on a chair whilst wearing one of those Northern Hemisphere thongs.
I had a flashback to these conversations when I heard the phrase again. It was as I left a toddler group. On the way out, I said casually to one of the elderly helpers what a nice time I had had. "I really look forward to this," I said truthfully, "it is the one time of the week when I can really focus on enjoying my youngest." Her eyes lit up, and I realised my mistake. "Oh well," she said, putting on her good-advice-to-young-mothers voice, "It's so important to do that. Because you know, you don't get this time again."
No, I am aware that I won't get this time again. I am also aware that I need to clean my teeth, and brush my hair. Funnily enough, having spent the last seven years doing increasingly hectic and demanding mothering, I am fully aware that early childhood is a magical time. I have just spent a wholesome half hour snuffling into my little one's curly hair, watching with awe and adoration how his little fingers curl around my hand. And even more beautiful, I have been watching him communicate with me, the early words coming out of his mouth with a clarity that may sound muffled to others, but is simply beautiful after the years of verbal dyspraxia with his elder brother. I have been relaxing in his company, the way it is hard to do with three small children. And the reason why I have been focusing on that, Old Lady, is that I ALREADY KNOW I WON'T GET THIS TIME AGAIN, and I ALREADY KNOW IT'S IMPORTANT TO ENJOY MY CHILDREN, because that is how I have retained my sanity over the past six or seven years.
Frankly, Old Lady, I probably know more about learning to enjoy children than you do, unless you happened also to have three or more children with additional needs. I know an awful lot about turning away from the piles of depressing paperwork, spelling out their needs, delays and difficulties in rigid black and white: putting the computer screen away where I have been working on the support application, walking into their bedroom and consciously knowing that if I am not to cope I need to forget about the professionals' dire prognostications, I need to put aside the depressing facts and acknowledge how intangibly beautiful my children are. I know about standing, just standing, breathing in the silence of Child A B or C's quiet, steady life-essence, thanking my Maker for sending me these sons and praying desperately that I will have the strength and wisdom to cope with them. I have stroked their cheeks as they lay asleep, reminding myself that today was difficult, but that the day before was easier, and tomorrow will be different again. And that even today was not all difficult, there was that beautiful smile and the fun in the garden. I can DO this enjoying my children thing, I can do it till the cows come home, I am BRILLIANT at seeing the glory trailing from heaven in my children's eyes. I don't need a lecture on it from an elderly woman who rather wishes she hadn't been so stressed about the housework when her kids were small and is making up by trying to guilt-trip the younger generation. You may think that enjoying your children is some nugget of parenting wisdom that only the really wise and incredibly intuitive mothers know, but actually, let me tell you, it's normal. Most parents enjoy their children hugely. When they don't feel like killing them.
Because the thing, Old Lady, is that my children - and many others, like them or with more challenging behaviour, more severe difficulties - are very hard work too, and when you tell me to remember that I won't get this time again, you may not realise quite what hard work this time is. It isn't about sleepless nights with a new baby, or sore breasts whilst you learn to feed. It's about the sleepless nights with a seven and four year old, and bruises on your legs from being kicked so much. You don't forget to enjoy your children because you are obsessing about housework. You occasionally lose sight of the stars in their eyes because they have been so disruptive and difficult that you are worried about keeping them and yourself safe. Yes, I know I won't get this time again. But tomorrow won't be worse, it will be different. My children will develop, as they should, and hopefully they will catch up with their peers. I look forward to this day. Is that wrong of me? And you know, when I remember my children when they were younger, I don't, by and large, get all dewy-eyed and nostalgic. I think "oh thank GOD this one is now talking and no longer has to express his frustrations by kamikaze stair-jumping," and "dear Lord the child sits still, he sits still and reads a book, he is capable of occupying himself in an intelligent thoughtful way, Hosanna, I thought this would never come."
You see, Old Lady, you think you are being helpful and supportive. But actually, you are being the opposite. It's not supportive to suggest that all a child with SN needs is love, because actually what that child needs is truckloads of financial resources and intelligent, wise, professional and family engagement. Similarly, it isn't supportive to suggest that what I need is a bit of positive thinking, magical enjoying-the-moment thinking, because if that was what I needed I wouldn't have left the children with a state-funded carer this afternoon, because even the Department of Health acknowledges that they are jolly hard work and what I need is a break. This is exactly the kind of comment that rubs raw on the skin of my emotions, like the Kiwi thongs that the young ladies wore to that concert. The kind that sounds as if you should feel better for hearing it "Wow! Thank you so MUCH! Five minutes ago I felt like killing myself, but actually you are right! I SHOULD enjoy the moment! Hallelujah!" but actually makes me, for one, feel worse. Because even if, at that moment like today, I AM enjoying my children hugely, that statement has an uncanny way of making me feel guilty for not enjoying them more, right this second.
"Oh my God what if she is right? This minute, right now, I was thinking about Pak and Save and whether I could get back in time to get some bread. Why am I, slave to the domestic treadmill, thinking about shopping? Why am I not dancing down the road singing "Hallelujiah I'm a Mum"? And what about the Playdough, haven't got that out for months? In fact, why don't I MAKE my own playdough? I wanted children hugely, why am I not showing my gratitude by running my own home-made playdough club? What is the meaning of motherhood anyway? Am I really a mother at all? Help I am unworthy. I am doing this parenting lark all wrong. I dunno, is it too late to opt for adoption?" You see, Old Lady, your comment just rubs me up the wrong way, like an ill-fitting, one of those Northern Hemisphere things.
The thing is, Old Lady, is that that kind of statement is the parenting equivalent of saying "It's raining today, you know you must remember it's raining today, don't forget it's raining, all right?" to a woman who is dripping wet. It's true, it's self-evidently true, but that woman doesn't need a weather report reminder, she needs an umbrella. Look. I know it's been a while since you were actually DOING this mothering business, so let me remind you of something important. Parenting Hallelujahs are kind of quiet, private, personal moments. They are kind of lowkey, cosy, comforting, like putting a pair of comfy thongs on your feet. You can't explain the feeling of a pair of really comfy shoes, but you know what they feel like. Interestingly, my father said that was how he felt upon meeting my mother for the first time. He said that to her, too. Amazingly enough, she still married him.
Where was I? Oh yes, these magical parenting moments. The thing is, they come upon you unexpectedly, when you see a child sharing a toy, or hear from preschool that he's starting to share in other children's games. You do not feel more grateful for having your children when you are reminded to enjoy them, any more than you feel more grateful as a child to have Brussel sprouts when you are reminded of the starving in Africa. Human nature doesn't work that way. And no, Old Lady, of course I am aware that you didn't know the exact details of my circumstances, although you have a general idea. But that's the point, isn't it? You shouldn't generalise, predict, patronise, sermonise. You should just say something nice and sensible, like "So glad you're enjoying him. I adored my children too. Can I help you carry that bag?"
Of course I don't say any of this, because I am aware I am overtired, overly militant and oversensitive. And after all, she is only trying to be nice. And also because I am mindful that if I did, she would probably stalk off with a face that looked as if she indeed did have a painfully rubbing English thong.