Too close for comfort

I have a dozen and one things to do this morning, but I can’t settle to any of them. I have pieces to write, emails to send, research and planning to get sorted, but instead I’m sitting at my desk, feathers still ruffled from a stressful and upsetting morning getting the children out to school.

We have a cast-iron routine, that almost works to perfection. Bags are packed and clothes laid out the night before. Things are much easier now that they can all dress themselves, now that the youngest doesn’t want milk from me or need a nappy change right as we’re leaving the house. Yet somehow, we still always seem to leave a minute or two too late, me cross with one or other of them (usually the eldest).

It’s not just mornings, if I’m being honest. My eldest and I are constantly at loggerheads. I’m not quite sure when it happened. He wasn’t an easy baby, but he became a sweet toddler and a fairly delightful preschooler. He is still a lovely boy, and yet he has the ability to drive me to distraction far more than his siblings.

I’ve only recently realised why. He is, character-wise, a carbon copy of me. He is clever but lazy, kind but fundamentally selfish, a dreamer whose attention is only ever half on what is actually happening around him. He will read for hours past his bedtime, even though he knows it will make him tired in the morning. He will leave  his homework till the last possible minute, even though he knows it makes everyone grumpy. He will conveniently forget to do his chores, despite the certainty born of experience that doing so will ultimately create far more work.

The things that I hate in myself, I see in him. The traits I know have caused me the most problems in my life, I can tolerate far less easily than the quirks and foibles of his brother and sister. I want, naturally enough, to smooth his path in life, and I can’t stop myself from wanting to shape his character in the way I wish mine had gone.

I can’t stop myself wanting to, even though I know that it’s not something I either could or should try to do. He’s not my second chance at things, my opportunity to have my time over and get it right. I know that many women see their in their daughters a way of reliving their own past experiences, recreating the good and rejecting the bad, but – perhaps because my own little girl is so different to me – that’s not a major element in our relationship. My youngest, too, is what LM Montgomery would have called a hop out’o kin, and for all that his oversized character sometimes dominates us all, I don’t have any problem in seeing him as his own distinct person.

I suppose that recognising what makes me so impatient with my eldest is a first step in trying to react differently to the behaviour that lights my fuse. How I parent him, though; how I let him make the mistakes I can see coming a mile off and be there in the background to pick him up without an “I told you so!” is going to take much more work.

Dear School

We need to talk.

You do a marvellous job with my children. You inspire and educate and socialise and take them off my hands  for up to six hours each day, five days a week, 39 weeks of the year. They are happy, interested and only rarely come home with nits. I owe you more than I can ever repay.

But.

This dressing up lark has to stop.

So far this term I’ve had to rustle up a Spooky Day costume for the four year old. I’m working on the Christmas requirements (a star, a pirate and a sodding Islander, which sounds worryingly like a character from The Wicker Man). In the spring, there’ll be World Book Day, (when I have to persuade my two younger children that their Disney-inspired polyester horrors don’t really count), something Comic Relief related (I’m still finding bits of deely boppers from six months ago) and the psychological trauma of trying to create a witty, yet touching, scene out of hard-boiled eggs and empty loo rolls.

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It didn’t look like that on Pinterest.

This week is Children in Need, and I’m regretting the years I muttered about having to find something with spots on. This year (and I know that the idea behind this wasn’t yours) the theme is heroes.

The four year old’s a doddle. He’s borrowed one of those alarmingly padded Spiderman costumes which makes him look like I give him steroids and protein shakes for breakfast. He’s even almost reconciled to the fact that it doesn’t confer the ability to throw webs or climb walls. It’s all good.

The other two are in a pleasing state of vagueness. “I’ll go as Catwoman”, says the seven year old airily, batting away such practicalities as the fact that she doesn’t own a single black item of clothing and has never, to my knowledge, seen Catwoman in her life. The eight year old’s contribution has been to helpfully confirm that he’ll go “as a hero”. Right.

Dear school, it’s not you, it’s me. I really do get it, you’re not alone, and you’re in a no-win situation. There are parents who relish the opportunity to create, whose children look unfailingly amazing, and who would howl to the moon if you cut back on the dressing-up. The rest of us, though, look longingly at the easy-wear, easy-wash, uniform sitting forlornly in the drawer. Then we turn sadly away to rattle around in the back of the wardrobe trying to put together something we know will fail miserably, or slope off resentfully to the shops for an overpriced branded onesie.

Outfits for plays are one thing, but the fundraising days are something else altogether. I know, I know, it’s all about Good Causes. You’re helping the children to think about others, and to raise money while doing so. If I’m being honest, the real cause of my complaint is that it’s a chore I could do without. I am rich in children and poor in imagination. Thinking of and creating costumes manages simultaneously to bore and to stress me, and I’m not altogether sure it does so to any purpose.

There’s more to my disquiet than laziness, though. Today, faced with the choice of making a costume which I know in advance will qualify for one of those #NailedIt memes or of spending money on some random tat destined for the bin and probably made by a child in the first place, I can’t help but wonder if this all sends out mixed messages. Giving to charity shouldn’t depend on having fun while doing so. I’m pretty sure the widow didn’t dress as a ninja before toddling off to deposit her mite. More, I can (just about) afford the time and the money, but I know that a lot of parents really, really can’t. Sometimes, charity  begins at home.

They’re children, I know. They (mostly!) like dressing up. I’m not asking you to stop it altogether, just maybe…keep it for special occasions? Once a decade would be great.

Thanks

ps – what the ^%&* does an Islander wear?

 

The Cinderella Syndrome

In three days from now, I’ll be stepping out of my comfort zone and onto a train to London, to go to Mumsnet’s BlogFest. I probably shouldn’t admit here quite how big a deal this is for me. I am a stage in my life where my comfort zone equates roughly to my postcode and a cagoule: familiar, easy, safe. It isn’t that I’m not looking forward to it, but the reality (Trains! People! Oyster cards!) is starting to daunt me a little the closer it draws.

Having booked tickets ages ago, I’ve spent the last week or so  wondering what to wear. I’ve narrowed my outfit down to something warm but lightweight; casual but smart; comfortable to wear and appropriate for everything I’ll be doing over the weekend  - but able to fit into my handbag so as not to require lugging round everywhere with me.

I haven’t quite found it yet.

To my shame, beneath all the practicalities of packing, I know there’s a lurking wish to look good. Months ago, back when I booked my ticket, I was full of plans to lose a stone and have mastered my makeup and undergone a haircut to render my mop somewhat less hedge-like by November. Instead, of course, I’ve spent this last week inhaling biscuits and coming sadly to the realisation that I can afford neither the time nor the money to go to the hairdresser.

It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself that it doesn’t really matter. The people I hope to meet have been talking to a six-year old’s scribble of me for the past three years, after all; it’s a conference for writers and bloggers, not wannabe Miss Worlds (isn’t it?). I’m not going there to size up other people’s appearances, and I’m fairly certain they’re not there to do it to me.

So why am I doing this? Why do I do it, every time there’s a big occasion that requires me to shed the cagoule? Is it just me? It’s not a new development since I left work to be at home, though the bar has undeniably lowered as the number of events requiring consideration of my appearance has decreased. Weddings, nights out, holidays even: I can understand the desire to try to look ones best, but it goes beyond this. It’s not just about finding the perfect pair of jeans or boots that actually fit.

Being scrupulously honest, there’s a feeling that if I get it just right, find that dress/shoes/lipstick/weight, the real me will magically be revealed. There’ll be a wave of a wand transforming kitchen rags to ball gown; an astonished reaction to glasses removed and hair released from its bun tumbling down the back; the glorious f*ck-you moment of walking out of a store, purse unopened, after the snooty staff realise they got you wrong all along. Why, Miss Book...You're beautiful!It is ridiculous. I am nearly forty: a professional woman, a wife, a mother. I may have dreams left in me, but I am as close as dammit to getting there, wherever “there” is. This is the real me, warts and all*, and – consciously, at least – I’m actually happy with it. I’m not waiting to be discovered, much less rescued. Is this just a hangover from stories and books and films where the heroine realises her true destiny as soon as everyone else realises that she’s beautiful? Has that moral got wrapped up in the culture of endless self-improvement that we’re all subject to; the subtle nudging to be continually dissatisfied, continually looking a way to make it all better via judicious use of our credit card?  Or am I just projecting my own insecurities onto everyone else’s happy relationship with the changing room?

I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ll be doing it differently any time soon, try as I might. And I still don’t know what to wear on Saturday.

*I don’t have warts. 

Remembering to forget

We spent a few days of half term in Whitby with my in-laws; staying in a former guesthouse with an improbable number of stairs, eating indecent quantities of fish and chips, and enjoying the unseasonably warm late October weather pottering around on the beach in a manner more befitting the summer holidays.

Being a Geordie, Whitby was never “the seaside” to me, but my husband spent a week there each summer as a child in a B&B run by former farmers from his village; his parents, in turn, having gone there themselves when they were young. So there were, for some of us at least, ghosts of our own pasts among the spirits attending the elaborately dressed Victorian ladies and be-cutlassed pirates cramming the narrow cobbled streets for Hallowe’en’s Goth weekend.

One conversation with my father-in-law about a Fifties day trip led, somehow, onto a story of his own grandmother’s family: a small girl, caught by the hair in mill machinery, and pulled free by two relatives. All three were believed fatally injured until a doctor, viewing them in the morgue, realised that the child was still alive, lying there between the corpses of her mother and older sister.

Perhaps, somewhere, the press coverage of it which my father-in-law remembered hearing spoken of features in a museum exhibit of a Yorkshire town’s industrial heritage; perhaps the story is a footnote in the annals of health and safety progress over the past century or more, but though the consequences of this horror devastated two generations after it, now, those initially involved long dead, it has faded almost out of memory.

The story itself shocked me. How could it not? But so too, initially, did the fact that I hadn’t known of it before. Since then I have been thinking about what we choose to pass on and what we allow to be forgotten; what we choose to remember, and how, and why.

It is the time of year for remembrance. Poppies have been on the lapels of TV presenters for the past week, and are appearing on those around me in the run up to Sunday and 11 November. Friends who have spent half term in London have shared pictures on Twitter and Facebook of the tide of ceramic poppies encircling the Tower of London, while I’ve been using inspiration from others’ crafting how-to’s in order to plan children’s activities for groups I’m involved in.

Haunted as a teenager and young woman by the writing of Vera Brittain and others, and with the knowledge of grandparents who fought and survived in the Second World War, I have always – and, until recently, unquestioningly – worn a poppy. I’ve taken part in Remembrance Day parades at small municipal monuments; bowed my head and wept during the two minutes of silence and the heartbreaking poignancy of the Last Post. So why does the intensifying media focus, the apparent conscription of all into poppy-wearing compliance, feel nigglingly uncomfortable? Is it some perversity of my own that makes me now, treacherously, wonder who is honoured by the little scrap of red paper on my coat or the beautifully curated public displays and commemorations? There have been conflicts since and there are conflicts still which may fail to capture our imagination with the exquisitely brutal juxtaposition of civilisation and barbarity of trench warfare, but which claim lives just as real, just as innocent, just as precious as those slaughtered at the Somme.

What is remembrance for? It can comfort those who were bereaved by their loss. It can honour a sacrifice made willingly to further a greater cause, and the tragedy of those who had no choice. It can, in certain circumstances, allow us to learn from past mistakes;  pledge not to repeat those same mistakes in the future at the cost of yet more lives. But if none of those are achieved, then the act of remembrance feels perilously like distraction; indulgence almost. Are we appropriating a grief that is not truly ours? Are we coming close to glorifying something which, if worthy of glorification, should at least first be fully understood? Is being moved in and of itself worthwhile if it doesn’t move us to anything?

From a day of remembrance, we seem to be edging into a season of it.  Whether this is temporary, due to the fact that we have reached the centenary of the start of WW1,  remains to be seen.  There seem to be other factors, though. I am conscious of a creeping nostalgia, in a world of nebulous and neighbouring threat, for the certainty of defined and apparently ordered enmity. We are no longer actually remembering the First World War, for none of us do; we are recreating, instead, a facsimile of it through our 21st century sensibilities and preoccupations. We can use technology and a new approach to history not only to identify with those involved but to discern an inevitability, form and purpose in a long-past war which those happening right now would show are simply never there.

I can’t mourn the deaths of those long-dead soldiers in my family, any more than my husband could for those women needlessly lost working in a dangerous factory. I can’t mourn someone I never knew. Nonetheless, I will continue to wear a poppy for my own, contradictory, reasons of respect, sorrow and gratitude. I’ll donate, while angry that charity is needed to support those whose service is taken without adequate return. I’ll explain to my children why we stand, silent, in church as the names of those from our parish who have been killed in the two world wars and since are read out by someone who knew many of them. But I hope that we don’t fall into the trap of romanticising the many hundred-years anniversaries between now and November 2018. I hope that we don’t, by concentrating too closely on the horror of the past, allow ourselves the resigned luxury of impotence. We do no justice to those who died by ascribing their death to something uniquely and unavoidably awful, turning our face and our tears resolutely away from the muddle, chaos and death around us now

 

 

The wee-wee dance and other tricks

Dashing round the supermarket this morning, I saw an earlier version of myself in the frozen aisle.

She was wearily comparing packets of fish fingers while simultaneously keeping a near-hysterical one year old from flinging herself out of the trolley and reassuring a thoroughly bored two year old that they would be going home soon, but in the meantime, please, please, could he stop hitting his sister with the stegosaurus?

For all the dozens of items on my to-do list, I suddenly felt like the freest woman on earth, what with my two hours of child-free time to shop and accomplish chores at will. I wouldn’t want to go back to those days now, and yet a tiny part of me envied her for still being the centre of her children’s world, exhausting as that is.

I’m only now realising how short the time is in a child’s life when I know what they want or what they’re thinking, and to have it within my power to  make it all better – or at least to make it seem so. Apart from the very early days, when the answer to what my inconsolable babies wanted seemed to be, after eliminating every other possibility, not actually to be babies at all, I love this all-too-brief phase of being able to read their minds (even if, having read them, there are times when I’d rather not have done).

At some point in the last few months, I made the enormous mistake of convincing my four year old that “Mummies know everything”. I don’t know why that one particular throw-away saying has stuck in his mind whereas others such as “put your shoes on” or “wash your face” seem like wholly novel concepts each morning, but he falls back on it whenever something is lost or he is having a random ponder on what Barnaby in his class’s dad’s pet tortoise is called. I’m no longer allowed to say “I don’t know”, on pain of a prolonged stamping of feet to the untuneful refrain of “but you know EVERYTHINGGGGGGGG”.

Sweetheart, the truth is that I don’t, as you will learn soon enough, but just for now, as far as you are concerned, I know pretty well all there is to know. I know from the train of your conversation what’s happened at nursery that morning, long before you ever tell me. I know when you’ve done something you’d rather I didn’t know about; when you’re worried, or tired, or upset. I even know, before you’ve quite clocked it, when you need the loo, courtesy of that special soft-shoe, knock-knee’d shuffle known in these parts as the wee-wee dance.

I know, or I hope, that they will always need me and that I’ll be able to be there for them. I know how much I still need my own mum, even now at nearly 40, and how lucky I am that she is here. I just know, too, that as they grow up, no matter how good a relationship we have, there will be parts of their lives that they keep hidden from me, secrets they won’t tell, thoughts that will remain unspoken. That’s as it should be, as they learn to navigate life on their own terms.

What else, but to enjoy the all-knowingness (and pretend to the everything-knowingness) for as long as I can?  I’ll miss the wee-wee dance when it’s gone.

 

Are you Experienced?

When I was little (*lights pipe, settles back into rocking chair*) I can’t remember having any experiences that announced themselves as such in advance. I can remember doing things that were out of my brown and orange Seventies suburban everyday: going on a Metro (Tyne and Wear, not Paris), riding in my granddad’s car with the plastic covers still on the seats, going to a supermarket for the first time (more exciting than you might think).

We had little holidays too: nights away in a tent which I persist in recalling as brown and orange though I’ve been told it wasn’t, and a short, memorable, stay in a B&B near Whitby which had water running down the inside of the walls and which required children to be off the premises from breakfast till bedtime.

Hallowe’en was celebrated with bin bags, pillowcases and – for the daring – loo roll; Bonfire Night with some damp sparklers and a sweating, swearing neighbour bent fearfully over an unexploded rocket. Christmas, in my memory, was magical, overheated, but largely domestic, though there was the occasional trip to see Santa at Fenwick.

There just wasn’t anything that we turned up to, booked and paid, in the expectation of being provided with an Experience. Even when my youngest was a baby, nine years ago, I wasn’t aware of there being such a smorgasbord of tastefully planned and seasonally appropriate events throughout the year.

When did it all change?

I have spent this morning, in between work and admin, fretting about the fact that I have left it too late to book the expensive Christmas family days out I decided back in August to have no truck with. There are no tickets left for the Polar Express train ride (£95 standard class, £182 for the full-on film extravaganza). We can’t go and see the magic of a wintery Hogwarts (£93, plus travel and accommodation and add-ons) or spend the day in a local forest with Santa and his elves (£180). And ludicrously, even though I know that we couldn’t have afforded them anyway, I feel like I’ve let my children down. We’ll do something nice (and not requiring of a bank loan) but the bar seems so high that I worry that their childhood memories will be lacklustre things compared to those of their friends: sleekly engineered in technicolor, with commemorative booklets to match.

At the end of each term, school sends home multiple copies of the Primary Times and I sit, with a marker, going through the pages and pages of listings and circling the things we could do to make the holidays more fun (and go more quickly). There are wonderful, carefully planned and produced activities and walks and crafting sessions; museum trails and treasure hunts themed around witches or Easter bunnies or Santa’s fecking elves. We only do a few of them, once cost and logistics and CBA-dom have been factored in, but it’s still got to the point where they are slightly crestfallen if we go somewhere and they don’t get an A4 worksheet and the bribe promise of a sweetie or a badge if they hand it back in at the end. And don’t get me started on the mission creep of birthday parties…

I wonder if, by the time they are adults themselves, my children will be capable of going anywhere if they don’t have a set of Enjoyment Objectives against which to calibrate their day on their return; if they will feel uneasy setting out to have fun without knowing where to direct their complaints if it doesn’t adequately fill the designated memory slot allocated to it. It feels very much, sometimes,  like we’re raising a generation to outsource their leisure…which is possibly not a problem, until there aren’t the funds to do it or the ability to keep it in house.

 

Being there

When I write about my kids, I tend to focus on the humorous bits.

The words they get just wrong enough to be hilarious, the questions that are unwittingly  funny, the situations that would, frankly, make a cat laugh.

My experience of motherhood, told to others, is served with a side order of wry and a chaser of self deprecation.

I make no secret about the times that I yell, or the evenings when I feel that I would give my iPhone for a few moments without interruptions or squabbles. I’m a fully paid up member of the wine o’clock club; will clink virtual gin glasses with others in the same leaky, fragile boat. It’s how we talk to each other about it, after all; with a roll of the eyeballs and a raise of the brows and a fatalistic shrug of shoulders which sometimes feel weighted down with love and care and guilt.

Engrossed in make believe with my four year old earlier, though (having given in at last to his request to play puppy dogs) something made me hear my own voice as if that of a stranger. In my head, though he was being undeniably cute, I was bored to tears with pretending to clip on a lead and take him to the park (aka the bathroom). Out loud, however, I was patient, my words attentive and kind and apparently interested.

We might not be perfect – whatever perfect is – but beyond the bad days and the shouting and the grumpy, short-tempered snappiness of everyday frustrations that stick in our memory and, all too often, dominate our image of ourselves as mothers, are the other bits. The books read over and over and over again. The making sure the cups have juice in twenty seconds after everyone tumbles in through the door. The squeeze of a small hand, or the enthusiastic nodding along to some interminable tale about nothing much that seemed to start two hours ago and looks likely to go on till a week on Tuesday.

We’re more than the sum of what we do. We’re the element in which our children grow, as invisible and essential as air. And we’re good at this, you know. Better – and more important – than we give sometimes allow ourselves to be.

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The half-life of treats

My name is Catherine and I am spoiling my children.

When I say “spoiling”, I don’t mean that I have lost control. I believe in parents being in charge. I believe in saying no. I believe in no sweets before tea, unless it’s a very special occasion; in eating your broccoli whether you like it or not; in bedtimes and manners and moderation.

And yet I’m spoiling my children.

Perhaps it would be more true to say that I haven’t lost control yet. I just feel that my control over what they have, what they see, what they consume is slipping away.

Compared to a lot of their friends, they’re not “spoiled”. They don’t have the same gadgets, the same spending power, the same level of veto over their everyday lives as many of their classmates. They don’t have exotic holidays, they don’t have designer clothes, they don’t even have the same degree of attention. So why do I feel that they have so much that they don’t value it?

Perhaps we’ve overdone the day trips. Perhaps they need a long period of boredom at home to refuel their imaginations rather than taking castles and beaches and parks as so many torture chambers designed to keep them away from what they really want to be doing (which is, obviously, playing on screens).

Perhaps we’ve let them watch too much TV, given in too early to the demands for screen-time and Minecraft and YouTube.

Perhaps we’ve acquiesced too easily to the toys on the birthday and Christmas lists that we knew would bring a morning of excitement and fun, before disappearing into the back of the cupboard or breaking beyond repair.

Before I had children, even when they were tiny, I was adamant that I wouldn’t give in to pester power; determined that they would grow up making the most of small things rather than learning early to take the big ones for granted. At first, it seemed to work: they’d have more fun with a cardboard box than whatever had been inside it;  would spend hours engrossed with sticks or pegs or imaginary friends; would be satisfied with an occasional packet of chocolate buttons.

As they get older, though, I feel that I’m losing. I’m failing in the trade-offof what I think is right with the world in which they live. I might be giving them too much, too soon, but I know what can happen when you lack the social capital to interact with your peers. Principles make poor playmates.

They don’t get everything they want, of course. There are plenty of things they think they’re massively deprived by the lack of that they’ll just have to learn to live without, for financial or other reasons.  There are others, though, that I’d rather they didn’t have but to which I don’t – or can’t – object as strongly, and (not being as joyless as I realise this post sounds) others again that I know will just make them happy.

How do I teach my children to be grateful for what they have, rather than pining over what they don’t?

A problem not shared…

One of the inevitable consequences of spending way too much time on social media is a high level of awareness of awareness days/weeks/months. Tweets or Facebook posts with a particular colour ribbon, or link to variously devastating or heartwarming stories are a significant feature of my timelines. I know, now, much more than I used to about a whole range of illnesses and conditions, which can only be a good thing (apart from the hypochondriac tendency to wonder if I’m spotting some of the early symptoms in myself of my children).

The tweets and posts more often than not, especially over a period of time, tell me things about friends or acquaintances which under other circumstances I would perhaps never have known. They are a glimpse into the lives behind the smile at the school gate or the friendly chatter in the park; an often dark hint at pain or struggle which otherwise would go unseen.

There is no way in which I think that the breaking down of taboos around illnesses – both mental and physical – is anything but positive. The burden of sickness is heavy enough without the additional load of shame and feeling that the suffering should remain unseen. On the grander scale of national public life, hearing about the problems of celebrities and others  can help the rest of us speak more freely to family, friends and colleagues, even if tolerance and acceptance are not as forthcoming as they should be. They can help dispel misplaced ignorance and fear. They can prompt an earlier visit to the doctor which could change or even save a life.

Nevertheless, on the more intimate scale of everyday life, it can create a strange combination of knowing and unknowing. I might act differently – consciously or otherwise – to the friend of a friend I know has ongoing problems with depression than to her neighbour who has never mentioned any. Surely there has always, in any given situation, been the unspoken hierarchy of suffering, sympathy and consideration; but has it become accelerated or even unbalanced in this world of increased, if partial, sharing?

Raising awareness and speaking out are vital, but so too is remembering that they can only ever create a set of known knowns. A problem unshared is a problem still, whether it’s public knowledge or not; some people don’t want to tell, and though chipping away at the factors which mean that is the case is vital, some never will. It’s tempting, especially nowadays when social media means so many of us do consciously craft an image of ourselves, to see what people say about themselves as a kind of full disclosure, but it’s worth remembering that things may remain unsaid, yet sore.

I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes, as I’ve said before, but this one remains true.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle

Boy Wonder

I’ve had a version of this in my drafts pretty much since I started this blog. I wasn’t planning on revisiting it any time soon but a real life conversation earlier today and then a brief Twitter exchange this evening have me wound me up so much on the topic that – weeeeee – off I go on an autorant.

It’s the whole boy thing. Or the girl thing. The pink/blue thing. The nature/nurture thing. I suppose, it’s the wilful blind eye turned to the fact that children (people, really) are an exercise in and-and-and rather than simply either/or.

Little Princess

My youngest child (who happens to be a boy) has brought this book home from nursery for the last two weeks running. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that he doesn’t want to be the youngest anymore (which is a burden he will have to live with). We’ve read it what feels like endless times, but in case you’re not familiar with the work, Little Princess wants (you’ve guessed it) a sister, because a brother will be smelly, rough and have all the wrong toys. She wants a sister, notwithstanding the gentle reminder from the maid, the admiral and, er, the Prime Minister (I wonder if David Cameron will have a word with No3?) that she can be just as smelly, noisy and various-toyed as the boyiest boy of her imagination.

Of course she goes on to have a brother. Of course it all ends happily.

But.

There seem to be a lot of grown-ups who would benefit from reading it too. Grown-ups who treat girl babies as a prize, a lucky escape from the one-step-up-from-bubonic-plague-unwelcomeness of a smelly, noisy, rough boy. Grown-ups who like girls because they are determined that they will be quiet, and affectionate and amenable to dressing up. Grown-ups who know that girls will play nicely whereas boys will blaze a trail of destruction through their parents’ homes and lives. Grown-ups who believe, in short, that girls enhance, while boys, on balance, detract.

It’s not everyone, of course. I’d hope it’s not even the majority, despite the inexorable increase in gendered toys and books and clothes and the rest. It’s a lot, though, and it’s not fair.

It’s not fair to the girls who want to wear a superhero costume and go out to save the world rather than waiting, hair intact, to be rescued. It’s equally unfair to the boys who are afraid of heights and aren’t so keen on the prize awaiting them at the top of the tower anyway. It demands one thing and one thing only of both boys and girls, and makes any form of deviance from that one thing problematic. I don’t want my little girl to be constrained in what she can do, but nor do I want that for her brothers.

Are my children different from each other? Well yes, of course, but not necessarily along “boy/girl” lines. Plus, I only have a sample size of three – and for all my good intentions, I know that I treat them differently and project my own experience and expectations on to them. The theory and debate around gender and socialisation fascinates me, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to add to it.

I just think that we are, too often, unrealistic in our expectations of parenthood and unrealistic in our expectations of what our children will be. We need them, increasingly, to cause as little upheaval as possible, and the image of a cute, biddable daughter seems to fit the bill most nearly.

To the people who want a girl because of that, I want to say: what will you do if she doesn’t match up? What will you do if she wants to run around, and play fight; get covered in mud and wear scruffy clothes? Even if she doesn’t, how do you think she’ll get on with boys in later life if you tell her to expect them to be rough and noisy and train her to notice it whenever she sees it? What are you telling her about those who don’t meet the expected standard of maleness: that they are somehow not real boys, real men?

I think it’s normal and natural to have a sneaking preference for one or the other. That little, guilty,  sinking feeling  when the preference isn’t realised – no matter how much delight there is in the actual, rather than the dream, baby – is no cause for shame either. But if you’re sure that you don’t want a boy because they’re noisy or rough or smelly, or because the clothes or toys that come with him aren’t quite the thing, I’d show you my loving, dreamy, imaginative, boisterous, beautiful boys and ask if you’re absolutely sure.

Or perhaps I’d just introduce you to the Little Princess.

picture from amazon.co.uk