Tribal Motherhood: The Day I Realised I am a Wanker Mum


Organic Camper Van Mum Tribe: Fully Paid Member

The playground is the most tribal place I have ever been, and I’m not talking about the children. The first time you enter a school yard as an adult, you may feel naked and small all over again just like you did as a child. Perhaps, like me, you will come over all foetal and experience flashbacks,  huddling up on a bench, hiding and snotting yourself into the nylon sleeve of a kindly dinner lady while Goliath-sized boys play football two inches from your face.

The thing we don’t anticipate about school when we become parents is that we have to learn, all over again, how to navigate the disorienting waters of playground politics, staffroom statesmanship and results-oriented hysteria. But here’s the thing; it is all much easier if you are part of a clique team. Therefore, all parents are advised to find a playground tribe. These are parents paddling the same kind of canoe in roughly the same direction on vaguely the same river as you.

After a few weeks in the playground, you will start to notice other parents who clearly drink the same amount of caffeine and who are in a similar state of disarray/grooming as you. This is the first sign that they may be a kindred soul. An affinity will develop. You will start to chat and find that you share the same thoughts on what time it is ok to have a V&T (7pm if you must know) and you will begin to rely on each other for support and practical help. Others will join and you will feel that you have found a kind of tribe bonded by shared experience, this journey with your children that lasts for years. It is only in retrospect you will learn that it is more akin to being on a submarine with a bunch of people who, like you, are ever-so-slightly doomed to never resurface. Nevertheless, if you find a parental tribe, however small, cling to them, cling to them like badly flipped pancakes on a suburban kitchen ceiling.

There is an assumed ‘tribe of motherhood’, but actually, there are so many variations, interpretations and individual experiences of bringing children into and up in the world, that giving birth in itself is not a unifying experience. Perhaps the huge disparity between mothering styles and expectations is one of the reasons we still command so little political power. Nowhere are the differences between us more apparent than the playground, the first place you see a lot of mothers in one place after the labour ward if, like me, you studiously avoided hell ‘mother/toddler’ groups.

Hovering near the limescale-ridden playground drinks fountain which acts as an equivalent of the water-cooler at work, you can get a sense of the extraordinary scope of mum tribes. Like a binocularless playground twitcher, you’ll catch sightings of No Stains Mums (aka. OCD mums), Rock n‘ Roll Mums (who miraculously still seem to go out in the evenings), Overly-Attached Mums (child wrapped around each leg, usually on the verge of tears), No Boundaries Mums (their children wrapped around other people’s legs, other people in tears), Organic Camper Van Mums  (weirdly calm – possibly on valium), Perpetually More Exhausted Than Anyone Else Mums (husbands do even less than yours),  On the Verge Mums (their volcanic anger festers like an abscess) and the scariest of all, The Four Mothers of the Apocalypse aka Judgmental Mums (these are the ones you bump into just as you give your child a blue ice cream as a bribe to stop them shouting “cock” at everyone).  You won’t even catch a glimpse of the Mysterious Mums except at the Christmas fair. Sighting of these mothers is rare; they’re like endangered and magnificent snow leopards. They not only work full-time, but are statistically likely to still be doing more housework than their partners.  The list of parent tribes is endless and this doesn’t even include the religious, gender-based and cultural subsets such as Freelance Meedyah Dads, Vicar Flirts and The Women of the Sad Eyes whose  private histories are hidden beneath their many skirts.

I thought I vacillated between the Camper Van and On the Verge tribes until one day,  I realised I am part of a whole other mummy tribe…

It was a beautiful autumn morning; a gorgeous low sun filtered through the trees of my local park where I was walking. The occasional horse chestnut descended into the leaves with a thud, cobwebs glistened, busy London squirrels made winter plans. A pregnant friend called me on my mobile. She was having a serious wobble about the huge life-change ahead of her. “I mean…” she sobbed down the phone. “I mean, I just can’t bear to become one of those middle-class wanker mums pushing their baby around the park in a Bugaboo wearing Birkenstocks, sipping lattes and spending all day pureeing organic vegetables. I mean… I just can’t bear it.”

“Er…no… that won’t happen to you, you’ll be fine,” I said reassuringly, looking down at my powder-blue Birkenstocks. I dropped my mobile back into my handbag which dangled off the handles of an orange Bugaboo, a monstrous four-wheel-drive type of pram that cost more than our car (it was a gift I might add).  I decided not to pop into Gail’s for a latte after all. Instead, I pulled an organic apple from my ‘I Love Kensal Rise’ reusable shopping bag and crunched into it ruefully. So that’s it, I thought, I am a Wanker Mum.

Reward Stickers for Adults: Gummy Little Redeemers

The Averys

The Averys

It is time my friends. Time to pay homage to the couple who made the task of modern parenting/teaching/damage limitation possible. The inventor of the self-adhesive sticker, Mr. R Stanton Avery and his wife, Dorothy Durfee.

The Reward Sticker. Oh, how I have come to love these gummy little redeemers. These precious paper wafers, tools of compliance, delicate as gold leaf, and more loaded with meaning than a communion biscuit. Stickers are dispensed to our children like angel’s kisses by teachers, doctors, and parents alike.  Within our children’s adhesive universe, there is a hierarchy of reward, ranging from the simple gold star to the ultimate, much coveted gummy prize; the large, glittery, puffy sticker, enhanced with foam.

My own relationship with self-adhesives runs thus:

1970-1977 ~ Boundless enthusiasm for ‘sticker collections’ equating, over a lifetime, to roughly £2500 worth 0f bubble gum in order to find 100 stickers.

1980-1984 ~ an odd flirtation with Sticky-Back-Plastic (Every. Single. School. Exercise Book.)

1996-1997 ~ a brief, rave-related bindi wearing phase.

2001- yesterday ~ a Post-It-Note based stationary fetish.

Which brings me to now. It was only yesterday, when the Biscuit Thief came home proudly displaying an “I ate all my lunch today” sticker AND a huge, red, glittery, puffy butterfly one for ‘sitting nicely’, that I thought, I want stickers. I bloody want bloody reward stickers.  I want them plastered on my torso each time I complete a yoga class, I want them daubed across my face when I achieve edible meal provision, I want them glued to my weary eyelids when I have, yet again, kept calm and carried on. I want to be agglutinated, affixed, pasted to within a papery inch of my wretched domestic life with stickers that say “WELL DONE!”

In fact, why stop there: I could give my husband stickers too, ones that say things like, “Today, I have been amazing at not mentioning my wife’s ‘tache.” The Teenage Songbird could have ones that say, “I am not on drugs or pregnant. RESULT!”

It was in 1935 that ‘Stan Avery’  invented the machine that made self-sticking labels. His creation saw the light of day thanks to a $50 investment from a woman called Dorothy Durfee, a school teacher, who became Stan’s wife. Together, Stan and Dorothy ran Kum-Kleen Adhesive Products as equal partners. Today, nearly eighty years on,  I shall construct a small altar to them made out of Avery mini labels and give thanks. Won’t you join me? You’ll get a reward sticker if you do.

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.

The Secret Map of Motherhood

Map of EuropeSome days I am not big enough for this. This unexpected battleground of “Please will you…” and “Eat this…” and “Where is my?” and “Don’t forget to…” and all before 8am.

Some mornings, I plan the whole route in my head; the Overland train to West Hampstead, West Hampstead to St Pancras, then the Eurostar to the solar plexus of Europe, Paris. From there, anywhere. Within hours I could be curled up in the boot of Italy or reading by a fire in a log cabin that overlooks a freshwater lake or dipping my white toes in the Black Sea, salt on my lips. Because some days, that is where motherhood sends me; to a hidden corner of an imaginary map of freedom I hold in my head like the teenage heart holds a kiss.

Some mornings, I plot my escape all the way back from school to my front door. But with each step, the colours of my Ordnance Survey drain away like anaesthesia. I pass a canopy of spider’s webs strung from window sill to boundary wall, a patchwork of flattened paper cups, spittle and shit, and then I am home again. What keeps me coming back to be the punch bag of my daughter’s growing. Is it duty? Is it love? Sometimes, on days when I am not big enough, I am not sure; but I always do, and I always will.

Are We There Yet? When Your Kids Finish School

Graduation DayMy eldest daughter, The Songbird,  finishes school this week, by which I mean she will have completed her ‘formal education’ to age 16.

From now on, it’s up to her whether she continues with her schooling or leaves. Today, she has her last ever PE lesson after which she intends to ignite a lycra/airtex bonfire and may well stick a rounders ball up her teacher’s unmentionables while tomorrow, Songbird will joyously attend her Last Ever Maths Lesson. My eldest daughter and maths have never really got on. It’s been a volatile 12 year relationship that began innocently with ‘sums’ and ended up in quadratic equations via lots of tantrums, tears and shouting. Other than her brief affair with algebra in Year 9, all 2,000 hours of Songbird’s maths education have been hell for all parties concerned. I do think it’s rather a shame that she has got through 12 years of education without ever learning to appreciate how magical numbers can be, but then they don’t teach sacred geometry or harmonic resonance at school. No, I should have taught her that. In fact, if you go the mainstream school route, all magical thinking remains the sole domain of you as a parent it would seem.

As my eldest crawls across the finishing line of ‘formal’ school, I have this awful feeling that there’s a lot more I ‘should’ have done along the way. We’ve kind of tolerated each other, me and school, eyeing each other suspiciously. It’s been an act of silent acquiescence like when you know you have to plant a kiss on a smelly uncle who you don’t really trust. I have danced with my daughter’s educational establishments as if they are an enemy I know I ought to keep close. I am one of those annoying liberal parents who doesn’t believe in homework or government targets, and as for  SAT’s, they can kiss my organically grown ass. Along the way, I often thought about home schooling, but my own brief childhood experience of it has always been a barrier (that’s a whole other blog post!). I also know that I am too selfish to home educate, and if I’m honest, not that brave.

I think perhaps I have an innate distrust of all institutions; school, churches, banks ~ they all make my skin crawl ever-so-slightly. Other than in bras, I just don’t do well with structure. In spite of my ability to sit on the fence of my own ideals, my daughter has carved out her own educational experience, and  has come through the whole thing relatively unscathed. When a school has not delivered what is right for her individually, we’ve moved on to the next one. Three years into her all-girls secondary, The Songbird had had enough, so she found out about another school that better suited her music needs and got herself into it. I’ve always taken her side when it comes to school stuff, confident that I understand my girl better than any teacher ever will, and I’ve always believed it’s about finding a place that suits her rather than trying to squeeze her into someone else’s idea of what constitutes an educated human being. State education in London is pretty much a mess as our schools are at the mercy of ever-changing government whims.  You really do have to hold firm so that your kids don’t become test guinea pigs in someone’s crazy experiment.

There have been terrible low points over the past ten years. There were lots of days when The Songbird begged me not to send her into school and she would clamp around my waist like a limpet and I would have to un-peel her from me with Medea-like coldness. There was a school trip to China that went terribly wrong and Songbird ended-up isolated, quarantined in Beijing for two weeks during the Swine Flu panic.  Then there was the letter she brought home aged 13, that suggested she go to her GP  to get the Pill  so she could organize not to have her period during a school camping trip (I kid you not). In Year 3, there was the boy who kept stabbing her leg with a compass and the school were so afraid of how the perpetrator’s  father might react if confronted that they never addressed the issue.

“He stabs you with a compass because he likes you,” she was told by way of a bizarre lesson in How Men Are.

“Er, NO! He’s a sociopath. When boys like you, they give you half their packed lunch, even the Penguin biscuit,” I countered wisely. Thank God she has me.

And that’s the thing about school, as well has providing all the magical thinking, there will be lots of “lessons” you then have to undo as a parent. If my experience is anything to go by, maths and nutrition are still taught appallingly, and girls are still not educated properly to respect their bodies, their cycles and their power. Plus, most music departments have simply not stood in enough muddy fields to really appreciate bass.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been spectacular school high points too, like meeting really special teachers whose dedication to their role and to my child was heart-warming. There was my daughter’s portrayal of Nancy in Oliver, where her rendition of “As Long as  ‘e Needs Me” was such an awe-inspiring cross between Babs Windsor and Barbara Streisand that she practically raised the asbestos-tiled roof. And there have been the countless times I have welled-up because Songbird has come home from school and done something I have no idea how to do and I have just thought, “Wow! She is so much better a version of a human-being than me”. I feel enormous gratitude to the incredible adults who have made it so.

One minute The Songbird was donning her first acrylic mix sweatshirt, and the next, well…she graduates this week. I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of this bit of my slapdash, let’s-hope-we-get-lucky parenting era. The thing that really gets me is that Songbird is not much younger than I was when I left home and I can already feel the aching chasm of her leaving not just school, but me. Ouch.