Tuesday, 5 March 2013


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.


Paddy said...

Where will you be sending this to be published first? Awesome.

Aspidistra said...

Hi there, thank you, that's beautiful. I have a twenty-month-old and do fear that as he grows he will slip further and further away. I guess there will be an element of that, but love your multi-faceted perspective on the whole process. Your boys are beautiful.

I'm not a regular commenter but have been stalkersishly reading back over your entries from the beginning over the past few days. I think you're very brave.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. It's hard to explain but it means a lot to me.

Salome said...

I think this is one of the best things you've written. And I've been reading for some time.

frau antje said...

The worries never seem to disappear, but the excellent company part can continue to astound, even if someone is taken far away (and someone always is, let's face it, we're not farmers).

Robin said...

Beautiful. I love this because it's not sappy but it's true, and it makes me think of what I have to look forward to (my boys are still toddler/baby).

I've been reading your blog for a few months now, having found you via Irretrievably Broken. I also live in Belgium (Leuven), so am of course always interested in your take on all things Belgian. (What did you write about a while back that had me guffawing in recognition? Trash bags?)

Jo said...

That is a wonderful piece of writing.
Love reading the blog but please, please hurry up with your book.

The Reluctant Launderer said...

I could gobble them up. (And you too, for Giving Me Hope. Only 5 years to go...) Happy birthday to your son, happy ghost-eating to you all, and congrats on raising such fine boys

Anonymous said...

This is such a moving post. (So much so that I almost feel like I'm farting at a wedding when I say that I would dearly love to know the Chinese for "come in!" "eat carrot" and "be quiet!" because You Never Know What Guests You Might Have.)

Lara said...

What a beautiful piece of writing. I've got a baby on the way (after years of trying) and rather than feeling excited and glowing and maternal like I expected to, I've been overwhelmed by the idea that I can't possibly be competent enough for parenthood, now that it's actually impending, particularly when well-meaning mothers ask things like whether I have a "bottle feeding regime" picked out, or whether I'm going to be buying a crib mattress made out of organic coconut fibers. And to make matters more complicated, I'm having a boy, and I know shockingly little about sports, insects, or large pieces of construction equipment.

But thanks to your lovely post, I feel a bit more like it's all going to be OK. Thank you so much for that.

luxiehoney said...

This is such a beautiful and indeed beautifully written post. I'm quite far off kids (I'll have to find someone to go out with me first ha) but I am quite broody and yet all massively terrified at the idea of kids. This post essentially sums all that up! xx

Anonymous said...

One of the most beautiful pieces of writing about parenthood I've seen in a long while - really, really lovely

Kim said...

Lovely, simply lovely, in it's honesty and insight, humour and wisdom. It had me in tears.You write so eloquently about so much of what I feel about being a parent and about my own two lovely and sometimes baffling boys. Thank you for this.

(I have been getting very little work done lately, as after having found you via the fabulous Irretrievably Broken, I have felt compelled to read through your entire blog history, in order. Worth it though!)

Margaret said...

Really beautiful, lovely Waffle. (Are they sitting in a shower stall?) I don't have children, on purpose, but this seems so much like what my non-BS friends try to convey about having kids. And Lara: no
one is ever ready. My super-mature, competent best friend was all serene and cool during her first pregnancy, then went into labor a week early and WAILED all the way to the hospital, "I'm not ready yet! I'm supposed to get another week!"

Lydia said...

Beautiful. This made me tear up.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful writing again! Thanks Waffle for somehow putting it all into words.
They're right you know, when they say you'll look back and it will all have passed in a flash - your life with little children.
Mine are now 24 (and married for 3 years!!), 21 and 18. How did that happen? Probably they will all be up and flatting soon, but I'm so pleased that the younger 2 are still keeping us company so well too.
Heather (NZ)

Dara said...

This was such a wonderful testament to parenthood. "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."
Thank you and happy birthday to your "pernickety fingered boy"!

janerowena said...

That is exactly how I have felt, and you have put it so well. I am currently having to cope with the realisation that my youngest will be leaving home to study shortly, and it is hitting hard, because as you say, they are such good company and a huge hole will be left in my life that phone calls and emails and facebook just won't fill. So we have to make the most of every minute they spend with us. That realisation only hit a few years ago, and I have been far more patient as a result.

Rowan said...

I swear I made my mum make the same cake or something very similar when I was a kid.. good ol' Women's Weekly..

Anonymous said...

I don't have children but it's so clear from this how much you love them. Can I also say how delighted I am to see the Aussie Women's Weekly cake book being put to good use, it was an amazing treat to be able to look through that shortly before your birthday and decide which one you wanted. I would still quite like to do this and I am 30...

Anonymous said...

Lovely! My boy is only 7 months old but that post really touched me.

B said...

I sent this to my Mum. I can't think of a bigger compliment than that.


liz said...

Oh my,

I try and read your posts semi-regularly and love love love your mordant humour and the incredible way you have of describing universal woes in such a colorful manner but this post on parental/child love has touched my heart like no other, you are truly talented, thank you for a beautiful piece of profound writing
ps. I have a lovely 17year old boy and I can feel the sand in the hourglass steadily moving. I'm happy for him and the new adult world of opportunities waiting for him out there and at the same time apprehending the inevitable emptiness it will leave in my life when he goes away.
liz from Paris

NickyB said...

Perfect. I bet they're being right little sods now though.

Em said...

Your boys have got so big! When did that happen?!

A beautiful piece written with such love. They are gorgeous and a testament to you.
My daughter is 16, almost 17 and I am loving this time with her. I can think back to other times too when I actually stopped and realised how much I enjoyed her and her company.
And the moments when arghhh, she is so like her father. :)

Z said...

They have a period when they grow away because they need to find their independent feet. But then they come back. In some ways, I'm closer to my children now than I ever was, and the oldest will be 39 next month.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading this and that you're enjoying them right now. They're at my favourite age. Maybe you'll be a better person than me, more like your commenters who relish their 16-17 year olds, but I find teens heavy going. The youngest is 14 and by far the easiest of the three, but still reduces me regularly to teeth grinding frustration. But now the older kids are 19 and 21 (and have actually had to live & look after themselves independently for a couple of years) they are much nicer, and good company.

LaurenR said...

Oh my. So perfectly, beautifully, wonderfully said. Exactly right.

Hotshots said...

A truly wonderful piece of writing. It's really stuck in my head since I read it yesterday. Surely your biggest success is your kids? You tie yourself up in knots worrying about what you've achieved in life, how much money you're earning, and then go on to speak so lovingly of your wonderful children. Such happy, warm-hearted kids would be any parent's biggest success. Money pays the bills but it will never give you that kind of warmth or satisfaction. As you say, enjoy this time. But also enjoy - and reflect on - your wonderful ability to express in words what the rest of us only feel. What I would give to be able to write like that...

As someone else said, surely time for a book.

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