Beauty and the Beast

The five year old stumbled upon the unimportant fact that the meaning of her name is ‘beauty’.
Jumping back half a decade, the name was chosen purely on its phonological appeal rather than the vain hope of spawning the future Miss World.
Her mouth turns up perceptibly at the corners as she coyly declares, ‘I’m not THAT beautiful’ – implying a decidedly immodest certainty of her own aesthetic qualities. To be fair, the five year old, in my not entirely objective opinion is quite a cute kid (but show me a mother who doesn’t think that of her own child) – for starters she has dimples that would give Cheryl Cole’s serious contention.
Nonetheless, how does one go about teaching a five year old that beauty is just a ball and chain cultural concept devised by anti-feminists to control womankind? Incidentally I don’t really believe that but you get my point.
I pause before venturing casually, “Being beautiful isn’t important you know – what’s more important is being a kind person who respects other people and works hard.” Yes, I could tell I wasn’t selling it even to myself.
Without missing a beat, five year old retorts, “Yes it is important. Belle is beautiful and she gets to marry the prince and live in a castle. She wears beautiful dresses and is really happy.” I’m coming round to her thinking.
But I mustn’t let her descend into a vacant, vacuous epitome of vanity, so I persevere, “Yes, BUT Belle worked hard and read lots of books AND she was incredibly kind. In fact, if she hadn’t shown kindness to the Beast, who clearly wasn’t beautiful, then she wouldn’t have got the prince/ castle/ dress package deal at the end.” Ha. I silently punch the air in triumph. Then because I’m on a roll I launch into a lecture on the pitfalls of superficiality.
Five year old’s eyes have glazed over by the time I wrap it up and I wonder whether she’s digesting the moral code.
“I still want to be beautiful like the princesses and not ugly like the ugly sisters,” she quips with a conclusive tone. And of course she’s right – in her world it’s black and white – the beautiful princesses are blessed with beauty in and out while the baddies are equally offensive in character as to the eye. In our disenchanted grown up reality, there are multiple (fifty ha ha) shades of grey. Disney has a lot to answer for.

Twiddling Thumbs

It’s been exactly one week since I remembered what silence sounds like. A week to the day the 2 year old officially started pre-school and the 4 year old was upgraded from pre-school to the fully fledged version. Albeit the silence is just for a precious 3 hours 3 times a week, I now appreciate that it is more than golden – it is priceless! The tapping of the keyboard actually resonates round the room – I never knew that. Thoughts can run without interruption and toilet trips can finally be taken alone.
But at the same time, their voices echo continually in my subconscious and in the stillness of their rooms resound the patter of their little feet. I think of the 4 year old, brave and bubbly (and often defiant). The 2 year old, full of love and laughter (and more often than not, selfish and possessive). And how incomprehensibly and comprehensively I miss them…
Then too soon, my brief respite is over and they are home, shrieking, arguing, wrestling, playing. Silence has taken cover away from the line of fire in a war zone. But I don’t mind too much because I know it will be back soon and there will come a day when it comes back and never leaves, when the children are grown up and gone. And I don’t want that day to ever come.
But for now it begs the question: aside from the groundhog day style drudgery of washing up, laundry, tidying, cooking and gym sessions to ward off mid-life spare tyre-dom, how best to fill that time?

The Intrepid Explorer

Golden Boy has started cruising. If this conjures up images of him cruising with his homies in an approximation of a scene from ‘Pimp My Ride’, I assure you it is nothing remotely like that. Rather, he is making his first tentative steps at navigating his way across any room using the furniture to forge a route and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

I am thrilled at his newfound foray into the realm of independence; not least because of the sigh of relief my back is breathing at not having to heave his almost twelve month’s of body weight around in his every waking hour. This is offset slightly by the extra hours spent hunched over retrieving toys and other paraphernalia from nooks and crannies in the house I was previously unaware existed.

Secretly and shamefully, however, I am somewhat wistful for my baby boy. As he takes each more confident step away from me, I feel increasingly redundant. Soon (well, probably not that soon given he is yet to turn one) I will be a discarded crutch with about as much remaining use as firewood.

There are days where, though I never resent my children, I resent the drudgery that now consumes my life as a result of choosing to have children. That is, until my ingratitude slaps me in the face and thoughts of the friend with two failed rounds of IVF under her belt drown me with guilt.

It strikes me that being a mother is a bit Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde – we can’t stand the relentless requests and being on call 24/7, tethered by the ball and chain of our children. Yet equally unbearable is the thought of becoming surplus to their requirements. It’s like the proverbial rock and hard place and I am officially stuck.

Tiger tiger burning bright… here to give your child a fright

This article was first published on 20 January 2011 on

Oh how this media circus surrounding Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, or more specifically, her child rearing philosophy, must be helping her Amazon stats!
Being inadvertently the offspring of a ‘Tiger Mother’ (of sorts – she was coincidentally born in the Year of the Tiger but that’s by the by), has instigated innocent inquiries by the truckload at the nursery gates regarding my stance on the issue. With narrow-eyed  suspicion, the underlying question is, ‘Am I a closet control freak with borderline child abuse tendencies? And if so, may I please retract last week’s invite for a playdate’.
My reply would make a politician proud; discretely adopting a different angle to cater to the appropriate audience. Say, in response to mum who still co-sleeps with her as yet un-toilet trained three year old, I laugh off Ms Chua’s philosophy as just an exaggeration of any conceivable reality. But in the spotlight of mum who has slept with a copy of her Gina Ford bible under her pillow since her pregnancy tested positive and is not altogether against the theory of corporal punishment, I am willing to concede Ms Chua has me wondering how best to utilise her technique with my own children.
In the aftermath of the consumerism that epitomises Christmas, my two year old was dutifully making a mountain of Thank You cards. A few cards in and probably already bored at the tedium of drawing a big smiley face under the stick-on googly eyes, she rebelliously scrawled and defaced the next card. Not quite as severe as Ms Chua’s throwing it back in her face and declaring it ‘rubbish’ approach, I did deem it substandard and suitable only for some distant relation, too distant to judge her (me) on my, ahem, her, artistic abilities.
As we resumed the card-making production line, I wondered whether any unintentional criticism is an assault on my daughter’s self-esteem and rather, should I err on the side of caution and deem her every effort worthy of a Turner Prize. Because that is invariably the way of the modern western world: confidence is boosted to the point of delusion. How else does Simon Cowell ensure a steady stream of willing fools convinced of their X factor status?
The dirty truth is that I do want the best for my babies. Who can argue with that? Growing up, my Tigress of a mother ranted relentlessly about the importance of doing myself justice in life. I strived to be the best (refused to partake if I wasn’t haha) and achieved straight As (pre the A* era) throughout my school years .  While I may not have engaged in the fun of my friends smoking, snogging and downing Diamond White behind the bike sheds, I don’t feel remotely deprived.
I don’t condone ruling with a rod of iron and whipping children into high achieving automatons but, being a mother myself now (Tigress status to be confirmed), I do believe in encouraging our future generations to be the best within their ability. There is a risk that in this age of plenty we lose sight of instilling an appreciation for opportunities taken for granted, encouraging a squandering mentality.
Ms Chua may well engender the Marmite love it or hate it response in the manner of a Gina Ford technique for our older offspring but as Gina fans know, there is method in her madness!

Gender confusion

Babybel has started speaking. Well, strictly speaking, not fluent adult-speak per se but rather reiterating any of a dozen words she has mastered in a loud and sometimes nonsensical fashion. Most of her words begin with the letter ‘b’ curiously – bear, ball, bus, bike, balloon, boy – though she has a tendency to drop the b when saying (ba)nana.

She is now en route to deciphering the difference between ‘boy’ and ‘girl (initially all children were indiscriminately labelled ‘boy’), though I am yet to be convinced that her correct labelling is not simply a byproduct of inordinately good guesswork mixed with a good observation of hairstyles (ponytails and/or hairclips = girl; inverse = boy).

This morning as we walked less than a foot behind a woman veering on the hirsute side of humanity, Babybel stretched out her arm, finger pointed, and armed with the confidence of unwavering certainty, declared ‘Man!’ Hoping against hope that the (wo)man was either hard of hearing or at least deaf to the English language, I tried to quieten the over-excited Babybel. Instead, she assumed it was me who was hard of hearing and embarked on a repetitious and really quite loud monologue consisting solely of the word ‘man’, in the manner of a dysfunctional record player.

Grimacing as the woman turned round, I realised Babybel might be more perceptive than I gave her credit for.

Shanghai Blues

Call me a fool for not only entertaining the notion but embarking on the nightmare of flying solo with a 1 year old Baby-Bel on a 12 hour plane journey (followed inexorably, 5 days later, by an even longer 13 hour flight back). Mr A tells me it defies belief that I declined the offer of alcoholic beverages throughout the period of confinement – apparently he would have drunk the cabin dry in order to survive the ordeal.

I recall craving the numbing effects of a vat of wine only once – at the point when we took our seats and having barely clicked closed the seat belt, with Baby-Bel squirming and screaming reluctance at relinquishing her freedom, the occupant of our neighbouring seat had already summoned over cabin crew to demand a change of seat. Crimson-faced and unable to appease a deliberately delinquent equally red-faced Baby-Bel, it was tempting just to disembark and face the prospect of staying long term in Shanghai just to avoid the flight home. As it turned out, our neighbour took his preferred choice to downgrade a cabin class rather than sit alongside us.

Take off and landing aside, the flights though wrist-slashingly arduous, were actually not intolerable. Tears were remarkably few and fellow passengers (and even the pilot) commented on Baby-Bel’s good behaviour – gold stars all round. Providing 10 hours of uninterrupted entertainment for a small child in a confined space is a task few I know would voluntarily choose to undertake. But the few hours when she slept allowed me the privilege to at least pretend to be like all the others around me – transfixed by a small flickering screen of questionable picture quality, while wrapped in a statically charged polyester blanket, eating food that would on land be deemed unfit for the family dog.

Notwithstanding the drama and trauma of what some have described as self inflicted torture, I am wondering if indeed I don’t prefer that turbulence to my current surrounding state of calm. I have realised that life is not worth living without a challenge, adventure, seeing and being. It has been so long – too long – that the default easy option of habitual comfort and fear of rocking the ritualised baby routine has morphed into lazy listlessness. So much so that blindness to the beyond had set in and settled.   

The mini adventure Baby-Bel and I embarked on was worth every tedious airborne minute. Because that is the other thing that dawned on me as I stared blankly at my flickering screen and prodded at my dodgy tray of airline delicacies with a plastic fork: life is meaningless without people we love. The world is a big place – as I’m sure Francis Drake would attest to. Family and friends are scattered too far. To those in Shanghai – you know who you are – we wish you were closer. We miss you.

Multi-tasking – who says women are no good at it?

While juggling with a 9 pack of loo roll falling out the back of the buggy; a screaming Baby-Bel engaged in a wrestling match with her rain cover; MiL (mother in law) on the phone making arrangements for a 90th birthday celebration and shopping bags in both hands, I came face to face with the ultimate insult. A cashier with clearly little else to occupy her time summoned me over (yes – she actually said, ‘Come over here’, in the assumed persona of a strict school marm). 

For a scary second I thought I was experiencing the beginning of the process of prosecution for shop lifting – the thought closely following was that I don’t have child care so who will assume the role of slave to Baby-Bel while I am undergoing my persecution by the law. But no – a swift rewind and fast forward of my previous 30 minutes reveals no need to panic – every item is paid and accounted for. We didn’t break anything or sneakily put back on the shelves any crushed/ torn/ nibbled at items. 

So what does she want? Instinct tells me to run – the last time anyone issued a summons like that was at school and it spelt inevitable trouble ahead. Obviously, I can’t confess to having been on the receiving end of it but witnessing it aplenty is enough to make me shift uncomfortably. Curiosity gets the better of me. Plus it’s hard to make a quick getaway with a laden down buggy in tow, like a morose mule. I’m still puzzled. She gestures to the packet of batteries Baby-Bel has developed an inseparable attachment to over the last few minutes. Relieved, I’m about to tell her they’ve been paid for as the receipt will testify. But before I even get started, she says threateningly, ‘Take that packet of batteries away from your child – she might eat them’. 

I am positively affronted by her implication that I am irresponsible, stupid, or lacking in concern for my own child – or indeed all three. Stunned by the brazen and uninvited assault on my maternal abilities I mumble something apologetic and stumble to snatch the offending item from Baby-Bel’s grasp. Needless to say, she starts screaming even louder than earlier and I make my hasty retreat towards a walk of shame out the door. 

The fact is the batteries were fully encased in their packaging and I never let her out of my sight AND my child is not one prone to sticking indiscriminate objects into her mouth. Though I admit it’s unlikely to be a contender in ELC’s top toy hitlist any time soon.

It occurs to me that being a parent leaves one in the position of a sitting target for uninvited criticism and comment from any coincidental passerby. Indeed my child rearing skills may leave a lot to be desired but show me a perfect parent and I’ll eat that 8 pack of Duracell myself.