I thank God every September when the kids go back to school. I adore my sons, and am one of those pathetic, doting, shmaltzy mothers who brandishes photographs of them at every opportunity. But even given my incorrigible, embarrassing attachment to my children as if they were the only ones in the whole wide world, by the end of a three month holiday with him them am ready (oh so very, very, very ready) to give them back into the care of the state for five hours a day.
My first official school summer holiday with my first son made it painfully clear to me how lacking I am as a parent. It seemed that manners and discipline are qualities that he has picked up in school and not from me. I needed him back there so that my threats to institutionalise him (“The police will come and put you in prison if you do that again!” and “It’ll fall off if you keep doing that!” Fear and guilt are two under-used techniques in child-rearing these days) do not fall entirely on deaf ears. It had been a summer of indulgence; Nintendo DS games, long days in front of the telly, eating what you want when you want.
Like most parents of my generation I am great at issuing threats but have absolutely no follow through. Not a meal goes by when I did not remind him that soon, very soon, he would have to start eating proper food like a big boy and not simply bits of battered miscellaneous protein fashioned into funny shapes and doused in ketchup. Not a bedtime went by when I did’t remind him that soon, very soon, he would have to start brushing his teeth/let me wash his hair like a big boy because if he didn’t… what? I won’t feed him? I’d put him in a straight jacket and force a toothbrush down his throat? Drown him in bathwater and shampoo? Put him into a children’s home? No. I’d say it again and again and again until he’d stop paying any attention to my hollow threats. Only he’d started doing it when he was only six.
I was, at least, not deluded enough to believe that my life was difficult with one child. It would be a cheek to believe, or certainly express, that a single child is hard work. But it nonetheless seems, if not fashionable, then at least acceptable to moan about one’s children. I know people with two kids who complain constantly that they are “killed out” running them here and there, cooking for them, cleaning up after them… so much that you imagine they are rather troublesome houseguests rather than beloved offspring. However, I spare a particular kind of pity for those “career mothers” who decide to go for the “fertile, fecund, fabulously organised at 40” badge of baby number three. Six months later you see them looking hunted in Tesco’s negotiating a loaded double-baby seat trolley blowing their bastard husband’s salary on Tesco Finest ready meals because he’s refusing to do the night-feeds third time around.
Most of our mothers coped with four-plus and no help. And we ate what was put in front of us and came out of it with decent manners. Having said that, they were the ones who fought for and got us the contraception pill.