My younger son, lover of Verdi, secrecy, biscuits and Mario 3D Land, child with long, pernickety fingers, turned 9 on Friday ("I share a birthday with Frédéric Chopin!" he told me, rather gravely. "And Justin Bieber" snickered his brother, cruelly. Both these facts are true) and we are now in the two month period during which my children's ages are only a year apart and I imagine uneasily that people will be viewing me as sexually incontinent and feckless. WOULD THAT I WERE.
I made a cake that looked like a ghost (and incidentally also quite like me by the end of this week) which I think was a slight improvement on last year's. Do you remember last year's really unfortunate cake that looked like a tapeworm or other dangerous intestinal parasite-slash-sex toy, with jelly snakes that looked a little like penises round the outside? I had managed to scrub it from my consciousness entirely but F reminded me yesterday, reminiscing about how 'chouette' it had been. My children are very forgiving, or very strange. Actually, both. This was the ghost:
I wouldn't have thought a birthday cake could be supposed to look quite so traumatised, but I followed the Australian Women's Weekly decorating instructions to the letter, so I suppose this must be the desired effect. It was quite dry and stodgy, though this was somewhat attenuated by it being composed of 87% buttercream. Not one of my better efforts, in summary. This was combined with: F having no idea what he wanted as a present and us entirely failing to organise a party, so it was a solid catalogue of parental fail. There were Old El Paso fajitas though, because some traditions are sacred and now my scant balding hairpiece smells of MSG, and I got really ratty making 30 fairy cakes for school, and every surface in the house is coated in edible glitter, so all is as it should be.
It feels like I ought to have some insight into being a parent by now after nearly eleven years ("nineteen years!" said their father in wonder as we wrapped F's Incredibly Boring Accountant's Watch. "Yes, but sentences served concurrently" I said waspishly, not meaning it at all), but I still find it bewildering, still get it wrong, still worry constantly. There they are, all big and mysterious and able to do things like have a bank account and do long division with decimal points in and ski down nauseatingly dangerous hillsides and even go over fecking SKI JUMPS (I am not given to worrying about their physical safety much, if at all, It's not one of my neuroses, but watching a video of the pair of them ski jumping did give me a little fizzing jolt of terror). The eldest regularly uses a hoover (is, indeed, far more proficient at this than me). The youngest can give you brusque instructions in Chinese "come in!" "eat carrot" "be quiet!". If I were to abandon them at the Porte de Hal metro station on Wednesday afternoon (I would not do this, although I am sometimes sorely tempted), they could find their own way home, I have tested them on the route, they'd be fine. Recently, the eldest has been taking the dog to the park with his mate Liam. They are revolted by picking up dog shit, but otherwise wholly, astonishingly competent. He can do so many things by himself now, it blows my mind.
What have I done in this time? What have I learnt? I'm still an idiot, a moron, scared of the telephone, still tying myself in psychic knots of my own making, financially incapable and earning less than I did at 21. I know the eldest still worries about me, I feel his big soft brown eyes upon me when something goes wrong, or I'm upset or anxious, and it feels like a failure: you should be able to feel cavalier around your parents, not give a thought to their inner lives and their worries, surely? They should be as solidly reliable as bricks and mortar. I think your vision of your parents' solidity fractures pretty conclusively when you have a baby (if it hasn't before) and the reckless fools at the hospital just let you take it home and you have no idea what on earth you're supposed to do. Then, haltingly, you try and reconstruct that illusion of solidity for this baby you're apparently in charge of, however implausible it seems. I haven't managed that with my eldest, or perhaps I did briefly, and then it fractured over all the times he saw me sad and desperate after mum died and things lurched off the rails. I hope we'll get there again, but I don't know. I think we're better; I'm better. Young pernickety fingers seems a bit more oblivious and that comforts me.
I tell you what I do seem to have learnt, though. You know how when you first have children and people tell you it will go so quickly and you're living through the golden, halcyon days of your life as a parent without even realising it? And you roll your eyes and jiggle your brick-faced angry, sticky toddler on your hip and wipe a little more sick off the neck of your jumper? At the moment, the one thing I feel I do get right is realising. Of course, now it's easier. They are more or less rational, continent, reasonable: I am no longer, basically, negotiating with terrorists with no impulse control. And even so, I'm not saying I don't get bored looking at their scrawly homework or listening to the bing bong beep of Mario and Luigi or refereeing their maddening circular arguments, or picking up their pants tangled inside their trousers thrown behind the rat cage. I'm not some kind of ludicrous Pollyanna, hardly that. Life isn't magical all the way through like a stick of rock. Life is much as it always is - humdrum and uneventful and sporadically filled with small anxieties and big existential dread and the looming fear that I will never make anything of myself, ever - but this bit of it, being with these boys in the most ordinary ways, seems tinted with an unexpected wash of pure joy.
It's just the ordinary stuff, really: try and pin it down and it sounds flat and predictable. The sharp-eyed, dark-hearted observations on teachers and kids and neighbours, the skinny arms snaking casually around my waist, the slightly self-conscious perching on my knee, the jokes, the nerdy obsessions, the exhortations to look at hideous extracts from the Grand Livre de l'Incroyable ("this man is selling advertising space on his chin goitre, maman!"), evenings slumped on the sofa watching boring Come Dine With Me reruns and YouTube clips. The weird momentary passions for food or music and the lasting one for things outlandish and scientific, the wild turns of energy and the soft, floppy stillness when they're tired. How could I not enjoy that? How could I not want to squeeze every drop out of being with them? They are good boys: brilliant, brave and kind and irreverent and thoughtful; everything you could conceivably wish for. I love the ages they are now, love their careful - not bloated, puffed up - pride in the things they do well, love how much affection and reassurance they still want and need however big and tough they are, love the balance of serious and very silly, grown up and babyish, hard and soft.
I don't think I ever expected to enjoy it this much, ever realised that having children could be such very excellent company. I'd say I want this part to stretch out indefinitely, but it's such a fucking adventure watching them get bigger, watching their brains expand and crackle with connections and cognitive leaps and new ideas, watching as they become more separate, have more and more complex lives away from me. I'm a bit awed at the things they can do that I can't: speak other languages, do sport, understand astronomy, pronounce 'rouille'. It's strangely thrilling watching them at the moment: it reminds me of the perhaps six month period when your toddler learns to speak - the incredible way that language, comprehension, communication, develops almost exponentially for a short while.
Of course, I know it won't last. This very process will take them far away from me alarmingly fast and things will become hard again and I will be extravagantly bad at it, and lose my temper and my bearings and we will have to find new ways to be together (and indeed, apart). But somehow, for the last couple of years, that very realisation that this time is finite has made it very very easy just to enjoy them, chin goitres and lost coats and mess and all. Perhaps that's the only thing I've learnt in nearly 11 years (19 served concurrently), and even if it is, I'm pretty OK with that, actually.