The group was jammed onto a small island of pavement between cafe and street so that we pedestrians had to inch ourselves past them in single file. We’d heard them before we saw them, their deep-pitched yells and whoops rising above the city hubbub. As we got closer, the cause of the commotion revealed itself: a six-foot, stubble-chinned man, lipsticked and bewigged, his straining aquamarine dress hoiked up by his friends to reveal finely-turned legs ending in a pair of lacy lady’s thongs. My daughter’s hand squeezed convulsively around mine, her face raised in mute query as to whether she should laugh, cry or run like hell. As we regrouped, she seemed to have settled on a slightly perplexed version of the former.
“Mummy? Was that….ELSA?”
Whether I like it or not, my children are undeniably sheltered by geography. We live in a suburban sort of humdrum where “daring” is the lollipop man changing into his orange summer gear while there’s still a threat of snow (a period which extends well into June, apparently). There are trips further afield, certainly, but Amsterdam on a Saturday afternoon in May was always going to beat anything they had seen to date.
As it was, Elsa was the only one who caught their attention in Amsterdam itself. They had watched the good-natured, if noisy, stag and “chicken” parties on the ferry with round-eyed amusement, but once we’d got the bus into the city centre, we mooched happily round streets, parks and canals away from the busiest bits; ice cream and pancakes and sausages from a little family delicatessen the most exciting and memorable parts of their day. We held hands in endlessly shifting formations, going where the fancy took us, unhampered by the need to navigate with a pushchair or keep away from all conceivable hazards
It was fun.
I keep wondering if I miss the days of babyhood, wondering if I envy the mothers I see still with babies in their arms, or toddlers demanding immediate attention. We are definitely in the stage of having three children, now: nap times and nappies lie behind us, along with the ever-present awareness of having such very new lives in our charge.
I keep wondering, too, if my standards are slipping, or if they were too high in the first place. I don’t bite back the swear words as much as I ought to anymore and I have made a restless sort of peace with the fact that my children will watch films and TV programmes, listen to music, play games and hear stories that I would rather they didn’t, or at least, not yet.
When they were all very little, we were lucky enough to be able to wrap a bubble around them. They lived in a safe little world of CBeebies and nursery rhymes, friends known from birth, foods and influences and environment alike chosen or rejected on the grounds of wholesomeness, safety and whether or not they were age-appropriate. It’s easy to mock at myself now for doing it, but I’m glad that we did it, glad that they had a little while (much longer, in the case of my eldest, than that of his little brother!) of being utterly sheltered. I know that they are sheltered still, in ways I wish more children could share.
The truth is that although I miss those days a little, I’m glad they’re over. I like being out of the bubble. I like catching my son’s eye and laughing at something verging on the adult. I like going out into the world with my children without constantly screening it for suitability. They may be my children, but they are their own people with their own lives ahead of them too, and they have to find a way to absorb and address the realities of life, not the radio-edit I might prefer for them.
Even if it involves seeing Elsa’s knickers.