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Date night

Pick a card. Any card. My husband looks apprehensive as I fan out the pack in front of him. What will it be this week? Cocktails? Watching the moon rise? Painting each other with chocolate spread? I pray silently that whatever it is won’t be too complicated or messy.

 

We’re trying out the latest craze for tired, middle-aged parents: date night cards. I bought my husband a pack as a Valentines Day present, with the idea that we should be spending more quality time with each other. Each week we draw a card that outlines what we should do on Saturday night, in the vanishingly small gap between when the kids fall asleep and when we crawl into bed with exhaustion.

 

The experience has, so far, been mixed.

 

My husband regards them as a slightly annoying prelude to sex. But at least they generally lead to sex so he is putting up with them for the time being. I am going with it because I would do literally anything – even stand outside in the cold waiting for the fricking moon to come up – to avoid more evenings where we end up talking about scheduling and house insurance.  

 

My friend F does an almost professional job with her set of cards. She posts super cute pictures of herself and hubby mixing tequila sunrises and cooking candlelit dinners, making the rest of us jealous. Another friend hasn’t got as far as cracking open the cards yet, as her terrified husband – who has clearly been tipped off about this by someone – has hidden them on top of the spare room wardrobe.

 

We’re somewhere in the middle. The cards feel like they have been written for a much younger, childless couple, with unlimited time and energy. And no sense of cynicism. Take this suggestion:

 

“Sunset-o-rama: Make a plan to watch a sunset from a scenic location you have never visited before. You could turn this into an ongoing project, seeking out sunsets in interesting places. Start a scrapbook of your conquests.”

 

Are you kidding me? A scrapbook? Of interesting locations? Never mind the fact that the date has to take place IN OUR HOUSE while the children are asleep and in winter the sun sets at around 5pm. You want us to make a collage various sunsets we have seen? I haven’t even managed to get my youngest child’s baby pictures into a photo album, and she’s now seven. The last thing we need is another ongoing project.

 

And this was one of the more realistic ones. Other suggestions have included renting a tandem bike, trying a trapeze class and renting a convertible sports car.

 

We’ve tried to adapt the suggestions into things that can be done, quietly, in the living room. To be honest, they mostly involve sitting on the sofa having a vaguely themed drink. For the sunset one we put grenadine in a vodka and orange and called it a “Vodka Sunset”. For the boating date we drank rum. For the camping date we put our wine in travel mugs. I am not sure it is exactly getting us out of our comfort zone, but at least these dates don’t require paying for a babysitter. Or a convertible.

 

This is kind of the problem in a nutshell. I can think of half a dozen ways of being super romantic with my other half, without the help of cards, but they mostly involve magicking the children out of the picture for the day, and not being so frazzled by things like scraping slime off the rug and helping the children construct a scale model of Tenochtitlan out of cereal boxes for a school project.

 

Mind you, a couple dates have been not too bad. Hand massage night was good, although my husband was disappointed when it turned out to involve actually massaging each other’s palms with scented oil, not the thing he first assumed. He was happier with strip poker night, which worked out well for him as I’m not very good at card games. Note to self: turn up the central heating a notch before doing that one again.   

 

We could write our own cards of course. One friend did this with her husband. She got a jar and a stack of blank cards and each of them wrote date ideas on them. Except it turns out he’s written “blow job” on every one of his. They are still negotiating that one out.

 

The most feared date in the working mother’s calendar – World Book Day

Ah World Book Day. One of the most feared dates in the working mother’s calendar. I saw the first post about this, from a friend about two months ago: “Remember, it is coming in March! Mark your calendar!”

And over the past week, the low-level anxiety has built up to a frenzy – yesterday my Facebook feed was full of nothing but angst about costumes. 

One friend wailed: “I hate world book day I can’t wait for it to be gone so much stress trying to find bloody outfits it’s actually making me hate books !!!!”

Today, the feed was full of triumphant photos and the schoolyard was full of Alice in Wonderlands, Robin Hoods, Hungry Caterpillars, Gruffaloes and Harry Potters. Those without children will have no idea what has gone on behind the scenes to achieve that.

For those that don’t sew there was the angst of how to create a costume. For those of us that do sew there was the inevitable argument with our children wailing: “But why do I have to go in in a HOMEMADE costume? Why can’t we just buy a costume off eBay like everybody else?”

“Because I don’t want to spend £20 on a piece of flimsy nylon shit that will fall apart before you even get to school,” is not considered a valid argument by my daughter who is in the full-on lemming phase of life and wants to do everything exactly the same as her friends.

Deciding which character your child will be is at least a three-week-long negotiation, as unpredictable and delicate as talks over the Iranian nuclear deal. This year, I decided to do some ground-work: I had found an Alice in Wonderland outfit in a charity shop six months ago for the youngest child. We then started reading the Lewis Carroll classic to her at regular intervals, upping the frequency in the run up to March so that she would “spontaneously” decide on Alice as her character…

And then, costume decided, you hold your breath and hope your child does not change their mind at the last minute and have a big tantrum over their outfit leaving you sewing cat ears onto a headband as an improvised Puss in Boots costume at 11 pm, which is what happened last year.

Yesterday, on the way back home from school pick-up more than one mother was heard to be hissing from between her teeth “We are not discussing this any more. You can’t change your mind now, the costume is MADE.”

There are other issues as well. This year, the children were asked to bring in a book that they would like to swap with someone. My 5-year-old was in tears because she does not want to swap any of her books, she loves them all. Finally she found one that she was willing to give away.

“This one is really boring,” she said, stuffing it into her bag. Luckily I checked what it was.

It was a book called “What is God” which aims to explain the concept of spirituality to children in a way that is not tied to any religious denomination. In a school that has a surprisingly large dose of Christian teaching despite not being officially a church school, this was potential political tinder. Wars have been fought over less.

I could imagine myself getting the reputation for being “that parent” that foists dubious religious pamphlets on other people’s children. I tried gently to suggest that this might not be the most appropriate one to swap, wondering how best to explain the concepts of agnosticism and religious tolerance to a 5-year-old. Thanks for that, World Book Day.

And at the end of all of this palaver, have we read any more books? Not really.

Don’t get me wrong. I love books. We are a family that loves books. But I could think of so many better ways to celebrate books than this dress-up malarkey. Two years ago the school had a wonderful idea and asked everyone to donate a book to the school library which badly needed restocking. I’d love for that to happen again.

Or we could fund more interventions into schools where children are not learning to read properly. Around 16 per cent of adults in the UK are functionally illiterate according to the National Literacy Trust. Or we could petition the government to stop closing libraries around the country – the library in our town, for example, runs partly on the back of volunteers who keep it open when there is no money for salaried staff. Nearly 200 libraries in the UK have closed since April 2012 according to the list on this site: http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com/about-public-libraries-news/news-topics.

So celebrate World Book Day in style. Go to a bookshop. Go to a library. Read a bloody book.

#metoo #butnotmydaughter

It was the call you never want to receive from your child’s school.

“First let me reassure you that your daughter is fine…”

It was  a heart-stopping moment, right there in the middle of the working day, as I stepped out of the meeting room cradling my phone to take the call. You know there is a ‘but’ coming.  Why would she not be fine?

“…but I wanted to ask you if it would be ok for your daughter to speak to the police.”

Thud. The police? What?

There had been an incident as my daughter and her friend walked to school. A man in a car had pulled up alongside them on the street. Something was said. It was a little unclear from the girls’ accounts what that was exactly. That is how these things often go – the retelling is jumbled and confused. Was it half-imagined? Afterwards it is easy to convince yourself that it was all a misunderstanding. That is why these kinds of incidents are seldom reported, and even less often believed.

Maybe the man didn’t beckon the two girls from the car. Maybe he did. But something was said that spooked the girls enough to make them run. A friend’s mother called the police, who were now proposing to come interview the girls at school.

My mind was racing. Was this some paedophile cruising for his next victim? My daughter looks her age – 11. She is drowning in her new school uniform. She has the barest hint of breasts, but you can’t tell from under the enormous blazer. She still looks like a child.

“She’s so young for something like that to happen,” said a friend as we talked about it later. But it does happen this young. This is the kind of age it starts. For some of the unluckiest girls it starts even younger than that, but definitely by the time you are on the cusp of puberty a girl can expect to start being hit by sexual harassment.

I remember how, age 11, I was flashed by a man down at the local shopping mall. It was my first sight of an erect male penis. I had seen them small and flaccid before on my brother and various male cousins, but this was a simply bizarre sight. My first thought was that he had somehow fastened an enormous red salami onto his belly.

My second thought – which came much later, once the surprise had worn off – was that I was never going to be able to have sex if it involved dealing with something that looked like that. I would die of laughter first. That thought stayed with me for many years afterwards and may have had something to do with the fact that I lost my virginity relatively late.

The incident with my daughter depressed me. Luckily nothing much had happened this time. But as a woman I know that this is just the start of a lifetime of fending all all kinds of harassment. A wall of shit is coming towards her: the parties where some boy will pin her into a position she finds uncomfortable, the catcalls from builders, the bosses too free with their hands, the dates that won’t take no for an answer. The number of women posting under the #metoo hashtag has shown, pretty conclusively, how often harassment happens. At US college campuses one in five women suffer some kind of sexual assault. In the UK one in five women between the ages of 16 and 59 has experienced sexual violence.

I have a horribly helpless feeling because I can’t protect her from all that, and I don’t quite know what to tell her. This is harder than those first conversations that we had about sex a few years ago. That was just awkward. This is different – it is telling her about a world that is stacked against her, that wants to hurt her.

On a practical level, I’ve told her about putting her keys in her fist so she can rake them across someone’s face, and about kicking them in the balls.

“Go for the eyes with those keys and scream as loud as you can. This is one of those times when you don’t have to worry about hurting someone,” I told her.

But what about the rest? It is harder to explain that many encounters, like this one, will be ambiguous. Some of them won’t be taken seriously by the police. They may be passed off as “just a joke”, her feelings of fear dismissed. Her side of the story will not necessarily be  believed. As she grows into a more womanly shape she will be written off as a slut or frigid, depending on how these encounters go. She will be made to wonder if it was all her own fault, told that she was “asking for it”. I don’t quite know how to tell her about that. I wish I didn’t have to.

Why I am thinking of committing a crime

I am thinking about committing a crime. Just a small crime, nothing that would really hurt anyone. Like maybe selling an alcoholic beverage to a 17-and-a-half-year-old. Or importing some Polish potatoes to the UK without notifying the authorities (I kid you not, this is a genuine law, which came into effect in 2004).

Actually, when I started looking into the idea of lawbreaking a whole list weird and archaic legal rules came up. For instance, it is illegal to wear armour in Parliament, to handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances or to be drunk in charge of cattle. I suspect there is an  interesting story behind each one of those making it onto the statute books.

Taken all together – with the possible exception of the potato one – they sound like a recipe for a legendary stag weekend, potentially the plot for the British version of The Hangover. In fact, I am pretty sure that hordes of blokes in Bournemouth, all wearing tutus and T-shirts saying “Dave’s Stag Weekend”, break all of these laws every single weekend during the run-up to the summer wedding season.

But I digress. Why am I turning to a life of crime, you might ask. Because, very soon, I can. I am less than ten days away from becoming British. My application for British citizenship has been accepted by the Home Office and I now need only attend a short oath-swearing ceremony at the local council office and it will all be official.

It has been a bittersweet decision and a nine-month process. I asked British friends how they thought I ought to celebrate the occasion. Suggestions included: wearing a knotted hankie on my head, queueing for something, eating fish and chips, or pie and mash, or peas and gravy (very much depending on the geography of the person making the suggestion)  drinking tea, gin and tonic, Pimms or bitter, complaining about the weather, failing to complain about poor service at restaurants, burning on the first sunny day of the year, eating charred sausages at a wet barbeque while making hopeful  comments about the rain “starting to ease off a bit”. Which all sound great.

But I have decided that the best celebration will be to exercise my new-found right to commit a crime without fear of being deported from the country. It is funny, there is a lot of talk in the tabloid press about foreigners coming to the UK to commit crimes, like some latter-day version of the pillaging Viking hordes. But the reality is that when you are a foreign national in someone else’s country you have a very big incentive not to commit a crime, because if you do, you can, fairly easily be chucked out. When you’ve settled in a country, have family, property and a life there, it’s not an insignificant threat. Even when you get permanent residence in the UK, that stipulation is there – commit a crime and they take your right to stay in the country.

Now I am not saying the UK should roll out a red carpet for foreign offenders, but it is just one of those differences that is there. Once upon a time British criminals did get transported to Australia, but they can’t do that anymore. British felons they are stuck with.

It is all part of that thing they call “being a guest in someone else’s country”. Guests are supposed to be on their best behaviour, remember pleases and thank yous and make sure not to overstay their welcome. But being a guest is also exhausting. If you live over 20 years in a country, a what point do you get to kick off your shoes and fall asleep on the sofa after dinner?

Deciding to become British was not an easy decision for me. It was a sensible, grown-up, considering-all-the-pros-and-cons decision.  I want to make the most of my newly acquired benefits. So I am off to scour the coast for a beached whale or sturgeon and then fail to notify Her Majesty the Queen about it. I might be prosecuted for it – but I am not going to be deprived of my life and family as a result.

Failing that (and to be honest, more likely)  I am going to get drunk in a pub. Believe it or not, that is actually illegal (look it up). Lord love this insane country.

The hamster is fine, thank you

The phone rings while I am at work. “This is Lucy from Pets at Home. Just checking to see how your hamster is settling in.”

I suppress a sigh. This is the third time someone from the company has called – usually in the middle of my working day – to asked our hamster’s health.

About three weeks ago we bought a hamster as a birthday present for my seven-year-old daughter.

I’ll say this for the Pets at Home people – they appear to be very interested in the welfare of the animals. Before we were allowed to buy the hamster we had to listen to a lecture on the perils of various hamster ailments and show them a picture of the cage we had prepared for her at home.

The hamster actually has a palatial cage. As novice hamster owners we read a lot of online reviews and advice when searching for a cage. Many of the cages we looked at had comments underneath from enraged animal lovers along the lines of: “It is cruel to keep a hamster in a cage this small. People who buy this cage SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO KEEP ANIMALS AT ALL!!!” So we looked at slightly bigger cages and it was the same thing: “People who put animals in a cage this small SHOULD BE PUT IN A CAGE THEMSELVES!!!!” So we looked at even bigger cages, and still the hamster rights brigade was there, suggesting that anyone even thinking of buying  these cages SHOULD HAVE THEIR GENITALS RIPPED OUT WITH PLIERS!!!. So in the end we bought the largest cage on the market, the only one that didn’t come with a litany of cruelty warnings. It is the size of a toddler bed and barely fits into our house.

I was quite proud showing the pet shop guy the picture of it.

“Look, it even has a penthouse at the top. Two sleep pods. A hamster toilet with special hamster litter. It’s the hamster equivalent of a mansion.”

The Pets at Home man looked unimpressed. “It looks ok,” he said. I wondered for a moment if he was one of the people writing those SHOUTY CAP comments under pictures of hamster cages. But at least we were allowed to take the hamster home.

The hamster was equally unimpressed with the cage. It ignored the specially designed sleep pods and holed up in the small plastic “penthouse” section on top of the cage, dragging all of its food and bedding up there. If I had realised it was going to spend 99 per cent of its time in a space the size of a margarine tub, I might have reconsidered the cage we bought.

Then the phone calls began. Not just one but several calls from the pet shop staff.  “Just want to see how the hamster is settling in.” I am not sure if the staff are just keen, or whether there is something about us that has put our hamster on the “at risk” register.

Now, I DO want the hamster to be happy and healthy, and I am not advocating a return to the bad old days when you could put little Fluffy down the waste disposal unit and no one would care. But I am also struck by the fact that none of the humans in our household is getting this kind of aftercare.

My middle child, for example,  is still recovering from an operation on his ear – and we’ve not received anything like this number of follow-up calls from the hospital. Even when my children were newborns they received less attention than this from the health visitor.

I think about all the things occupying my brain capacity at the moment. The still-bandaged ear. My oldest starting secondary school and the whole family still adjusting to the new routine. A relative dying, brutally, of cancer. A full load at work. The au pair’s dental problem, the leaking washing machine and the mysterious problem with the cold water supply that the water company needs to come and fix. In fact, the only reason I have answered my phone in the middle of a work meeting is because I hoped it was the plumber.

Yes, Lucy, the frickin hamster is just fine.  It is doing better than most of the family, to be honest. It gets its meals delivered and never has to clean up after itself. It does not have to share its toilet with children who have no concept of privacy and a poor aim with urine. Frankly, if the hamster is not interested in using the rest of its cage, I am thinking of moving in there with it.

And even if the hamster wasn’t completely on top form, Lucy, it is pretty far down my priority list right now.

But I don’t say any of this to Lucy, worried that it would land me on some list of deranged people who SHOULD NOT OWN HAMSTERS!!! and I will get even more calls.

“The hamster is doing really well, thank you”, I say, in what I hope is a responsible pet-owner sort of voice. I only add the expletives in my own head.  

#meetoo #butnotmydaughter

 

It was the call you never want to receive from your child’s school.

“First let me reassure you that your daughter is fine…”

It was  a heart-stopping moment, right there in the middle of the working day, as I stepped out of the meeting room cradling my phone to take the call. You know there is a ‘but’ coming.  Why would she not be fine?

“…but I wanted to ask you if it would be ok for your daughter to speak to the police.”

Thud. The police? What?

There had been an incident as my daughter and her friend walked to school. A man in a car had pulled up alongside them on the street. Something was said. It was a little unclear from the girls’ accounts what that was exactly. That is how these things often go – the retelling is jumbled and confused. Was it half-imagined? Afterwards it is easy to convince yourself that it was all a misunderstanding. That is why these kinds of incidents are seldom reported, and even less often believed.

Maybe the man didn’t beckon the two girls from the car. Maybe he did. But something was said that spooked the girls enough to make them run. A friend’s mother called the police, who were now proposing to come interview the girls at school.

My mind was racing. Was this some paedophile cruising for his next victim? My daughter looks her age – 11. She is drowning in her new school uniform. She has the barest hint of breasts, but you can’t tell from under the enormous blazer. She still looks like a child.

“She’s so young for something like that to happen,” said a friend as we talked about it later. But it does happen this young. This is the kind of age it starts. For some of the unluckiest girls it starts even younger than that, but definitely by the time you are on the cusp of puberty a girl can expect to start being hit by sexual harassment.

I remember how, age 11, I was flashed by a man down at the local shopping mall. It was my first sight of an erect male penis. I had seen them small and flaccid before on my brother and various male cousins, but this was a simply bizarre sight. My first thought was that he had somehow fastened an enormous red salami onto his belly.

My second thought – which came much later, once the surprise had worn off – was that I was never going to be able to have sex if it involved dealing with something that looked like that. I would die of laughter first. That thought stayed with me for many years afterwards and may have had something to do with the fact that I lost my virginity relatively late.

The incident with my daughter depressed me. Luckily nothing much had happened this time. But as a woman I know that this is just the start of a lifetime of fending all all kinds of harassment. A wall of shit is coming towards her: the parties where some boy will pin her into a position she finds uncomfortable, the catcalls from builders, the bosses too free with their hands, the dates that won’t take no for an answer. The number of women posting under the #metoo hashtag has shown, pretty conclusively, how often harassment happens. At US college campuses one in five women suffer some kind of sexual assault. In the UK one in five women between the ages of 16 and 59 has experienced sexual violence.

I have a horribly helpless feeling because I can’t protect her from all that, and I don’t quite know what to tell her. This is harder than those first conversations that we had about sex a few years ago. That was just awkward. This is different – it is telling her about a world that is stacked against her, that wants to hurt her.

On a practical level, I’ve told her about putting her keys in her fist so she can rake them across someone’s face, and about kicking them in the balls.

“Go for the eyes with those keys and scream as loud as you can. This is one of those times when you don’t have to worry about hurting someone,” I told her.

But what about the rest? It is harder to explain that many encounters, like this one, will be ambiguous. Some of them won’t be taken seriously by the police. They may be passed off as “just a joke”, her feelings of fear dismissed. Her side of the story will not necessarily be  believed. As she grows into a more womanly shape she will be written off as a slut or frigid, depending on how these encounters go. She will be made to wonder if it was all her own fault, told that she was “asking for it”. I don’t quite know how to tell her about that. I wish I didn’t have to.