15 Things I Want My 7 Year Old Daughter To Know

Our cat eating Barbie

Molly our cat protests at the impossible standard of physical perfection demanded of women which contributes to epidemic cultural body dysmorphia and continued gender inequality…

The Biscuit Thief is turning 7 on… wait for it… 12.12.12. YES she is my magic, alien, mystical baby. In preparation for this milestone, I have been thinking about all the things she is now ready to know:

1. It is awesome that you get yourself dressed for school now, but it’s always good to include pants on the inside of your leggings.

2. An apple is a kind of fruit and a mac is a kind of lightweight coat that keeps the rain off.

3. It is not funny to say “cock” in front of granny even though it appears to make daddy laugh.

4. Barbie is not representative of women. Anywhere. In any way. And the cat was right. (See photo)

5. No, it is not acceptable that, as a woman, you are likely to be paid less than your male counterparts doing the same work. The fight for equality goes on and I’m sorry we still haven’t fixed that for you.

6. The one hour kazoo concert you gave was… unforgettable…and  mummy is REALLY SORRY that she can’t remember where she hid put your kazoo afterwards.

7. Disneyland is closed.

8. The ‘F’word is not ‘fanny’.

9. Shreddies are not really “knitted by nannas”.

10. The Tooth Fairy can do all that stuff because a) she’s magic and b) she’s a woman.

11. The feisty, determined, rule-breaking, wildness in you that is so hard to parent sometimes, is exactly what will make you an awesome adult.

12. It is not going to be possible to meet Rapunzel. She’s a fictional character.

13. There isn’t really such a time as ‘Gin O’Clock’.

14 . Mummy and daddy are not perfect, but we love you very much.

15. Actually, mummy is perfect.

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The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

Dear Girl I Do Not Know: Notes from a field in Yorkshire

The Biscuit ThiefI watch my youngest daughter, the Biscuit Thief as she sleeps in our tent. Her hair, damp with morning dew, smells of last night’s campfire; charcoal, pitch, ash and bread. She breathes softly into the earth while her feet, shaped just like her father’s and blackened with soot, stick out from under the covers.

It’s  a long time since I spent significant amounts of time alone with the Biscuit Thief and I have been hoping this camping trip in Yorkshire will help us bond. In fact, I can’t remember being alone with her since the lonely days following her birth by emergency caesarean when I, numb from painkillers and vacant while a blood-transfusion rioted through my veins, could do little more than stare at her from my hospital bed. I could not feel who she was. I have, if I’m honest, spent the last six years searching for the Biscuit Thief, trying to intuit her; a blind snake belly attempting to sense the rain.

Yesterday, the Biscuit Thief jumped from a tree trunk to catch a branch several feet away. She swung wildly from her natural trapeze, beaming from ear-to-ear as I admired her new-found bravery. She leaped again and again until her hands were raw, her knees were bruised and her elbows greened with grass stains. She watched an owl scoping the dusky fields for twilight mice. She ran wild and free and slept deeply, next to me. We curled around each other like a couple of cashews, two quarter moons entwined.

Today, we returned to London from the wilds of Yorkshire. Returned to the metallic fixtures and melancholy squeak of the local swings, to the tiny space that comprises the Biscuit Thief’s bedroom, and I realize it is just no longer acceptable to me, this shrinking down, this boxing-in of life, of her life.

I know that my Biscuit Thief is in the hollowed-out trunk of the oak, she is in the rocks and clover, the shooting stars and the ankles that ache in the cold morning dew. It is no wonder I find it so hard to find her in the city we call home.

I know so many parents, like me, are torn between the countryside and the city; between the raw and the cooked. What choice have you made and do you regret it?

Birds, Bees, and Especially Swedes

Karlek Boken

The Love Book, Karlek Boken

(Last week, I started a new series of guest posts for the lovely people at KIDSEN, the Scandinavian Children’s Shop in Kensal Rise. Hope you enjoy the first of my Notes from the Kidsen Sofa #1)

Sexing, willydrops, baby-shopping, front-botty-kissy-wissy-sausages, special huggles and ‘it’  are just some of the euphemisms my six-year-old has used to broach the subject of Mr Wibbly Hides His Helmet with me.

I’ve already been through the whole sex education thing once with my eldest daughter, and I can’t believe I have been so disorganised in my child bearing that I have to do the whole thing again, nine years after the first time. The thing is, I can’t remember what I said before, but I know I had to undo a lot of damage done by the cartoon sex education documentary my eldest was shown at school when she was nine. Regaled with horror tales involving petri dishes and super-sperm and told that she would suffer unfathomable pain every month of her life between the ages of 12-50, my daughter came home from school in tears, furious that she was a girl. As she says now, “We were taught about the practicalities of sex, not the pleasure, so it all seemed terrifying and rather violent”.

It seems that sex education is rarely handled well in school, and in the UK, we are still not culturally prepared to be anything other than mortified by our children’s natural developmental curiosity about sex and the questions, oh Cringe-Factor-Ten, THE QUESTIONS that begin at a very early age.

I was chatting about this with the Wise Swedes of NW6, Corina and Ylva from KIDSEN, who promptly pulled out a Swedish classic from behind the counter. It’s called Karlek Boken or ‘The Love Book’ by Pernilla Stalfelt, and they have both used it to openly educate their kids about sex from the age of about six or seven as is common in Sweden. The book is a tour de force illustrations-wise and it was a joy to behold a drawing of a proper, hairy lady muff although there is a worrying depiction of a squirrel and hedgehog around page 19. The best thing EVER was to discover that the Swedish word for ‘willy’ is ‘snopp’ which is now top of my list of affectionate names for the male dangly-sausage (from this alone, you can see why my kids have had issues with my teaching thus far).

What struck me, as I flicked through the pages of Karlek Boken with Ylva translating for me, was how much the book focussed on love rather than the British approach which is centered on the biology and mechanics of sex. There is laughter, love and humour on every page of The Love Book as opposed to, for example, the hideous scientific labeling I had to do of a diagram of a penis and vagina as part of my sex education back in the 18th Century. Oh, I meant, the 1970’s.

Picture the scene. Nine year old me at laminated desk with tongue gripped through teeth. Vas deferens. Arrow. Ruler. Sharpen pencil. Uterus. Arrow. Ruler. Rub out incorrect label. Sharpen pencil. And so it went on. HIDEOUS. And then, the diagram was marked by my clearly affronted teacher (who did not spend four years getting their B.Ed to end up correcting penis drawings) with a cursory red tick. As if they would ever be liberated enough to change it if you got your clitoris and labia labels mixed up! (Maybe this is why so many British men still don’t know where they are?)

It seems to me that the Swedish approach is as much about sensuality as sex. There is a certain cultural appreciation of raw, human experience. It is about the fire of the sauna and the cool water of the natural lake, the wilderness both within and without. The body is a joy, an extension of the soul rather than a shameful source of embarrassing holes that signify WE ALL DO IT! Yes, birds and bees, and especially Swedes.

Clearly, the Swedish are getting something right when it comes to sex education. The country enjoys one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy, with around 7 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2002 compared with the UK which has one of the highest incidences in Europe (26.4 teenage births per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2006). All over Europe, the statistics bear out the fact that it is silence and taboo that makes babies, not sperm and eggs. Although we have sex education in the UK, there is still little teaching about empowerment, the cyclical nature of the female body, the ebb and flow of desire, sex as a loving, sensual act whether it is for the creation of babies or an expression of intimacy between consulting adults, whatever their gender. And yes, there is no reason why teaching about sex should be the job of schools. It makes sense for there to be more of a cooperative approach between parents and teachers, and we really do need to get over ourselves. Some parents aren’t even aware that it is ‘sex education’ time at school and are blindsided and by their children’s natural questions when they come home the day of THE FILM. You cannot change a culture overnight and Britain, of course, is a melting pot of ideas and social taboos, but the statistics prove it; open dialogue works. Yes, it means you will have to say, ‘snopp’ without giggling. Yes, it means you will have to admit that actually, you do it too. If all else fails, just take your kids to a farm during mating season then stop by Kidsen on the way home and ask for a loan of the Karlek Boken.

Have you come across any good books to support teaching your children about sex? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

5 Things to Do This Half Term That Cost Under £1

I’m really looking forward to half term week with my 6 year-old Biscuit-thief, and I’m determined not to watch Cbeebies even once, however much I miss it.

This is my top five list of things we’ll be doing that cost under £1! Yes! These activities cost less than a sausage and yet, are somehow priceless.

1. Do a mind control experiment

I seriously LOVE this experiment and can still remember doing it when I was 7. IT CHANGED MY LIFE and is the best possible way to teach children the power of positive thinking. Literally, mind blowing.

You will need:

  • A packet of cress seeds
  • Some kitchen towel
  • Three trays/old ice cream containers or similar
  • Three labels/stickers
  • Some thoughts
  • Some words

Pad the bottom of each container with kitchen towel then, with a measuring jug, pour equal amounts of water into each tray – just enough to dampen the towel, not soak it. Then, sprinkle roughly the same amount of cress seeds on top of the dampend kitchen towel in each tray.

Make three labels; one that says something nice like “love”, one that says something horrible like “hate” and leave the third blank. Put one label on each tray. Place the trays side-by-side so that they get equal amounts of light and heat.

Now, here’s the important bit: over the next week, encourage your Biscuit-thief to say or think really lovely things towards the LOVE tray. They can say and think equally mean things about the HATE tray and have to ignore the third tray. Every day, they need to pour equal amounts of water into each tray to keep the seeds moist whilst thinking and saying lovely or mean things to the relevant seeds.

You and they will FREAK OUT when, by the end of half term, the LOVE tray of seeds has grown faster with thicker stems than the seeds in the poor little HATE tray. It’s a bizarre, brilliant life lesson courtesy of cress. And watch the penny drop as your sproglets realize the damage they are doing when they call you a smelly fart head.

 2. Colour code the week

On Monday morning, decide with your sproglet what the colour theme of each day will be for example, Monday = Red, Tuesday = Yellow etc. Whatever you do that day, from the clothes you both wear to the food you all eat, there must be an emphasis on that colour.  They can count how many red cars, how many people they see wearing red jumpers etc on that day. The screams when they see a purple car on purple day… you have no idea. Not only will you realize that very few of us can really get away with that pastel orange Top Shop are trying to sell us, it’s also brilliant when the kids get to Friday and realize they have to eat lots of greens. Crafty eh?

3. Play Boredom Bingo

Boredom Bingo

Play Boredom Bingo this half term!

My 6 year-old is never happier than when she has a clipboard and pen in her hand. Maybe she’s going to be a polling officer or telly-offy type person when she grows up. I worry about her love of bureaucracy, it’s as if I’ve taught her NOTHING. Anyway, she makes lists in connection with whatever we’re doing. For example, on a trip to our local corner shop, the Biscuit-thief will make a list of ‘expected sightings’ to tick off like:

  • A woman crying
  • Some dog poo
  • Someone hugging a hoodie
  • An abandoned mattress
  • A really cocky urban fox

Apart from the fact that we REALLY MUST MOVE house, an average trip is transformed from boring milk run to fascinating detective trail. If she spots all five things, she has to shout, “BOREDOM BINGO” at the top of her lungs and wins a kiss from mummy. I really must copyright Boredom Bingo.

4. Make a sculpture from your tears

This is genius because you can turn your nervous breakdown into a science experiment:

You need:

  • A jam jar with a lid
  • Some string
  • A spoon
  • Some water
  • Some salt
  • Some tears

Make a small hole in the lid of the jam jar and put a piece of thickish string through it, tying a knot at the top so it can’t fall through the lid. Fill the jar with warmish water and add a few table spoons of salt. Mix with a spoon and let the salt dissolve. Every time you or your sproglets cry over half term, catch a few of the tears in the jam jar to add to the salt mix. Place the lid with the string onto the jam jar and behold as over the week, the salt clusters around the string to form a gorgeous, crystalline gem. The size of the crystal will depend on how many tears have been shed. BRILLIANT.

5. Celebrate the Jubilee 1977 style

OK, hands up, I’m not a big Jubilee fan. In my book, any women who has been sitting on the throne for 60 years probably needs medical attention and a good dose of Syrup-of- Figs. It’s constitutional constipation! So, I’m bringing an element of 1977 into my house by allowing the Biscuit-thief to cut up a t-shirt and write her favourite rude word on it (‘fou-fou’) so she can wear it for the whole Jubilee day. Also, to avoid the crowds that will be gathering along the river Thames to watch the floating pageant thingy, I will re-enact this at home with some toy plastic boats in the bath tub whilst simultaneously encouraging my daughter to throw all her piggy bank savings out the window.

Ok those are mine, have you got any additions that cost less than a sausage? Whatever you do, enjoy yourselves. Happy half term everyone!

Top 5 Things I Love About Kids

It is with great joy that I have joined Kate Takes 5’s listography  with this post on what I love most about young children.  I could make a top 5 list just out of the things they say, always so true that it hurts ~ such as my youngest’s conviction that M&S stands for ‘Marks and ‘Spensive’ and that the F-word is ‘fou fou.’

The little biscuit thieves certainly take the DULL out of being and aDULLt don’t they? Here it is, my Top 5 things I love about kids:

 1. Hysteria

I love that children’s natural, ‘neutral’ setting would register somewhere between hysteria and OCD in an adult. If I screamed and nearly wet myself every time I saw a puppy or spent two hours readjusting my socks so that the seam didn’t ANNOY ME MUMMY, people would worry, right? Kids go up to 11, and I like that they make me seem calm by comparison.

2. Their dress sense

Leaving my daughters to dress themselves has been one of the great joys of motherhood. My youngest specializes in an ‘all seasons in one go’ look consisting of one leg warmer, a ballet skirt, a woolly jumper two sizes too small (that I’m pretty sure I gave to Oxfam) an empty toilet roll tube on each wrist and a necklace made of tampons.

3. Their slapstick humour 

I love that kids think the body is funny; I adore their raw, bawdy, bottom-worshipping hilarity. Children find being housed in this human form hysterical as  they haven’t grown to resent the restriction of it yet or torment themselves that their body should look like someone else’s. Kids seem amazed that they have a body  at all, and they LOVE the noises it makes.  If you want to make a child laugh, keep it body based and just punch yourself in the face with your own hand. You’ll see what I mean.

4. That they have no sense of occasion

How lovely to be a child and exist in happy bubble land with no sense of occasion.  I will never forget how my two-year-old blew loud raspberries while I read a eulogy for my father at his funeral. My daughter’s mouth farts echoed around the crematorium like swear words at a nunnery and it was brilliant. Her making everyone laugh was more testimony to my dad’s legacy than any of the words I had written.

5. Artwork

I agree with Kate that kid’s artwork is one of the greatest gifts of parenting. And, it’s a gift that JUST KEEPS GIVING, and giving, and giving. My girl is really into sculpture and made this ‘snow scene’ out of salt and her own freakishly sticky spit.

Sara Bran Sculpture

Salt & Spit by Mia Bran

Her portrait of me below really captures my.. essence?

Sara Bran by Mia Bran aged 6

My mum by Mia Bran aged 6

And finally, she has been dabbling in multi media with this performance based installation piece entitled Do Not OPen This Box There’s a Girl In It:

Sara Bran box

How to give mummy a heart attack

Kid’s are brilliant. I rest my case.

An Ode to Nits

In the interest of contributing great poetry to the world here is (drum roll…) my Ode to Nits.

Nit

A nit

nits, oh nits

you itchy little shits

the pain that you cause

is disproportionate to your size

like wisdom teeth and paper cuts

and dust  in your eyes.

(and the Krankies)

if I cannot undo you

maybe I’ll just sue you

for time spent crying in the bath

while you lay eggs and laugh

bastards.