On Not Getting the Memo

My cute new diary - see, I'm not making this stuff up.
My cute new diary – see, I’m not making this stuff up (I can’t make it be upright).

So, I’ve reached a very troubling realisation in the first week of the new school term, and I plan to take it up with the relevant authorities immediately and right away. What I have realised is this: it is not because I am trying to get past level 13 on Candy Crush (I will get those fucking cherries to the bottom, fuck them) or spending several hours finding the most flattering filter for my new fabulous-on-holiday profile pic (Amaro wins again) that I’m the only Grade One mom in the universe who didn’t get the memo about going to the school the day before to hang a small, fabric bag on the back of my child’s chair and making sure it contains the relevant (marked) stationary. No. It is because there is a conspiracy going on between the teachers and the parents to not give me any info, ever, and it’s really rude to say the least because I’m deurmekaar and stressed out at the best of times.

But I’m onto them now. While it might look like the other parents are just giving each other happy-new-year-how-was-Plett hugs, I know what’s actually going on – they’re like ants. You know how ants put their heads together for a millisecond and then go their separate ways and it looks like they just didn’t see the other one coming but actually they’re exchanging Very Important Information? This is what these wily parents are doing. They’re telling each other things about tackie bags and meetings in code, like aliens, leaving me to be the only doos who doesn’t show up and whose child (in accordance with the new School Tackie Law) isn’t allowed on the jungle gym at break because she doesn’t have the requisite footwear. It’s just not cool, man, being secretive alien ants and leaving me out of the loop. This shit’s got to stop.

But seriously, I’m aiming to be better at knowing what’s going on this year, and to that end I went to CNA yesterday and bought a diary with real pages and a bunch of pens too because I’m over signing homework with a blunt purple crayon which is regularly the only writing instrument this writer can find in her house. And yesterday I sat down with one of those pens and wrote down all the important things I could think of, like my children’s birthdays, and that made me feel reassured because the calendar thing on my iPhone actually just doesn’t work for me. Why must I tell it to alert me? Surely the fact that I’m punching in dates in the first place is testimony to the fact that I won’t remember to remind my phone to alert me? Fuck’s sake. Hence, too many missed things in 2013 than I care to think about.

But, thanks to my nice new diary, this will be the year that I don’t RSVP to parties only to be accosted very early on a Monday morning by an indignant 6-year-old wanting to know why we didn’t show up. This will be the year of not driving hell for leather to the Spar at 7:52am to buy stale cupcakes in primary colours for the 10am cake sale. No – this year I will be like those other, together moms who get up 20 minutes earlier and put Pick n Pay cheese puffs in the oven, and I’m going to serve them on a tray with little bits of shredded lettuce and everything, just watch me. I’m going to show up at meetings on time, and not – like last year – just as all the other parents are filing out of the hall clutching 17 pieces of paper that contain top secret school information which I’ll never be privy to and they’ll take with them to the grave. And I will definitely not forget to fetch my child from aftercare because I had meningitis from drinking Sauvignon Blanc the night before and needed to take a small nap.

2014 is going to herald a whole new me, and I’m excited about these changes. I will be on top of things. I will be that mother other mothers phone when they’re not sure what time ballet is. The one they look towards for guidance when Waltons didn’t deliver the retractable crayons and they’re confused about swimming cap policy. With my diary and a pen in my handbag, I’m appointing myself the new go-to parent, and I’m seriously going to rock. You’ll see. Happy new year, everyone :-)

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On Getting the Crap Mother of the Year Prize – Again

One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.
One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.

So, today two hideous things happened to me today before 8am. The first one was being woken up, pre-alarm on a Monday morning by my six-year-old reminding me that today is Chef’s Day at her school. Chef’s Day is a weekly fund-raising initiative whereby each child has the chance to be the hero by bringing a snack to school (scones, muffins, fruit kebabs) which the other kids have to pay R5 for and the money goes towards school stuff. And the reason why Chef’s Day is happening on a Monday instead of a Friday, as normal, is because this particular mother was so involved in her work and fighting with the traffic department and getting lambasted by internet trolls and making it to boot camp and choosing doors for the new deck that she forgot. Which meant that the other kids were so disappointed they wouldn’t play with her at break time. Ouch. Wow.

So, I put on my gown and rushed blearily to the kitchen frantically thinking of how I could miraculously transform the sad contents of my empty post-weekend fridge and kitchen cupboard into thirty tasty, inventive treats. I had a box of Nomu instant chocolate brownies, but it requires a bunch of eggs and I ate the last two with chakalaka for breakfast yesterday. I bought popcorn at the 7-11 last night, but we’re clean out of sandwich bags. My husband is the pancake pro but again, we are eggless wonders. So, at a loss for inspiration, I apologized profusely to my little girl and promised her that the following day she would take the best Chef’s Day treats ever in the history of Chef’s Day to school, and that I was sure her friends would let her play with them today – while she cried quietly into her Cheerios and I died a thousand deaths.

But wait, that’s not all. The second we walked through the school gates I was accosted by her little friends who wanted to know why we didn’t show up at the fabulously fun birthday party in Camps Bay on Sunday which was just so much fun! The one I had diligently punched into my phone calendar with an alert and everything but obviously had forgotten to save. So just kill me now, why don’t you? And I don’t know how other mothers seem to be so on top of things. It’s not like I sit in an office from nine to five. I work from home which gives me wonderful flexibility, and the time to drive around for an hour on a Tuesday looking for the green felt they need to make a dinosaur habitat/find Monster High Doll costumes/buy eggs. But I struggle. I had no idea of the amount of time, energy and dedication schools require of parents.

I’ll get an urgent SMS on a Wednesday at 5pm to send wool and sequins and feathers to school the next morning because they’re making puppets. Wool? You can still buy wool? I live in Green Point. The birds left centuries ago. Cue: a worried child and a mother having a panic attack. And I wonder if life was so crazy for the previous generation of mothers and we were just too busy being kids and self-involved to notice. My mother-in-law (who I think is secretly a saint parading as a human being) had five children in six years in a small apartment in Denmark with no washing machine, disposable nappies or Mr Delivery. The mind boggles. Then again, she didn’t work outside the home, there was no Shimmy’s Beach Bar and they went on holiday exactly once a year to their little house by the sea. While she can only have worked unbelievably hard and deserves every medal going for getting four boys and a girl through toddlerhood and teenagehood without anyone dying, life must have been somewhat simpler.

I heard an interesting saying the other day which sums up this age pretty well – ‘I’m busy therefore I am.’ How true. I know that if I don’t have something to do for five minutes, I go into a panic and start planning a dinner party for twelve. My father-in-law frequently shakes his head at us and asks why we always have to be going somewhere. Good question. Where are we going? Sometimes I actually catch myself running between my office and the loo. And I’m not bursting, and there’s no fire. It just seems like there isn’t a second in the day to waste. There are too many dinosaur nests and deadlines and party invitations and Chef’s Days to deal with. For me, anyway. In order to do this right sometimes I think you’d have to make it your full-time job. Anyhow. I have promised my daughter that tomorrow she will be taking the yummiest, blingiest, most outrageously fabulous Chef’s Day treats with her to school, and again I will endeavour to get my sh?t together, actually press ‘save’ when I enter dates into my phone and be the kind of mother I want to be. On top of stuff and perfect and not guilty quite so often. I can only try.

On Raising Girls in a Crazy-ass World

I mean. Really.
I mean… really.

Probably my third thought after finding out my first baby was going to be girl (after oh wow, I really am pregnant and hooray! Now I get to use my favourite name!) was about how I was going to protect her from the world we live in – one that doesn’t allow women to be educated; which stones victims of rape; which marries off 10-year-old girls to 50-year-old men. How on earth was I going to raise her to be healthy and grounded amidst all this madness?

And no, I don’t live in Iran or Turkey, but I do live in a place when 9-year-old girls go on diet and want to marry a rich man and look like Miley Cyrus. And it’s kind of degrees of the same thing. So, I had all these plans in my head – I wouldn’t allow her to dress like a princess or watch American teen sitcoms. I would tell her she was clever instead of beautiful, and I would lead by example by having a career, being with a guy who respects me and regularly asking her questions which would keep her critical of the world we live in.

In reality, I managed three out of six. When I saw what her face did when she came across the Cinderella dress at a toy shop in Malmö at the age of two, no amount of stoning could have stopped me spending my last cash on that mad, pink concoction of tulle and bling. And when she wore it, all the time, over pyjamas at night, to school in the morning, her happy little face wasn’t clever, it was beautiful. And I told her so, repeatedly. How can you not?

Now I have two girls, and I don’t let them watch American teen sitcoms and they understand why, and even though I know they watch them at Granny, the important thing is that they know how I feel about it. We talk a lot about the world we live in, and when Sophie says stuff like, ‘boys are better at maths than girls’, we have discussions around how and why and she figures out sooner or later that that’s just a load of hogwash.

But, they are both girly-girls, as am I, and I’ve realized I have to step back and let them be who they are. Because, as any mother will know, your kids are individuals from the moment they are born. You guide and help and facilitate, but if you’re a sorted, clued-up kind of parent, what you’re really doing is giving them the confidence to be who they’ve always been.

My daughters love clothes and accessories and and dressing up. They’re also clever and creative and avid readers and storytellers, and the two kind of feed into each other. And I don’t think their penchant for pink and sequins is going to adversely affect their lives. God knows, a sparkly top doesn’t shut me up for a second. I know they watch me closely, so I’m super mindful of the things I say and do that will impact the way they understand their role as women. I make sure I have days in the week where I deliberately throw on whatever and don’t wear makeup or jewellery or even look in a mirror. So that they understand that this is an okay option, too.

The world has changed and continues to change, even with the inevitable backlash from certain sectors of the populace. I think, for them – especially if they go to university in Scandinavia – the playing-fields will be more level than they were for me, just a few years ago. And where they aren’t my hope is that their self-confidence will be developed enough to see them through, at least most of the time.

We watched this video together yesterday. No matter how many times I see it, it always makes me cry. And what’s more, they totally got it. More than this I can’t really do.

On stumbling through motherhood and getting stuff wrong – a lot.

The fabulous little people I get to hang out with every day. Sophie, 8 and Elisabeth, 6.
The fabulous little people I get to hang out with every day. Sophie, 8 and Elisabeth, 6.

My first ever outing with a newborn baby was to my husband’s family’s holiday house in Karrebaeksminde, Denmark. Apparently I had an ‘easy’ baby, though nothing about caring for a newborn felt easy to me. She barely slept, was constantly hungry and kept filling little nappies with large, mustard-coloured poo bombs. Yes, she was sweet, but the reality of the job horrified me and filled me with a kind of panic and dread nobody seemed to understand. It could be that I’m missing a gene, or maybe other women lie a lot, but really – what is even a little bit enjoyable about a cycle of endless fatigue, breastfeeding and nappy-changing? As far as I’m concerned, nada. I must definitely be missing a gene.

So, when the family started passing her around and oohing and aahing I was thrilled to have some respite. Yes! I thought. Take her, people of the village! Because this lady is fucking exhausted. But then, through some weird baby instinct, she seemed to figure out that the person rocking her was not the person whose uterus she had rented. She went red in the face and started yelling, and to my horror my sister-in-law (who had three children and was a professional) gave her back to me to make her stop. As if I should know how. And I wanted to say, don’t be mad, why are you giving her to me? Find a real mother! But I didn’t because one can’t. And that is how I feel still on bad days when the job of parenting feels overwhelming beyond the singing of it.

When you are constantly improvising (as one is as a parent because god knows they don’t come with a manual) you’re bound to get stuck sometimes. But what I do wonder about is whether other people find it as challenging as I do. And if they do, why don’t they say so? Who are we trying to fool, and is there a large Louboutin voucher at the end of it all? I don’t think so. Mostly I find it hard (if not impossible) to act one way when I feel another, so if good mothering is about martyrdom and fakery, I lose hands-down. I don’t know how to put on a big, game smile when I’m on the verge of a panic attack in Pick n Pay because the girls won’t stop bickering and I didn’t get enough sleep and my husband is overseas and they still don’t have Hellmann’s mayo.

So, I go down on my haunches and grab each one by the arm and tell them in a Rosemary’s Baby voice that if they don’t stop right now I’m delivering them to the nearest orphanage on the way home. And then as I stand at the till clutching my little blue Smart Shopper card and they’re all subdued, I’m consumed with guilt at my badmotherness and we get in the car and I start apologising and explaining how much I love them but that it’s not always easy, this job, and I’m feeling like I can’t cope so if they could please just go a little easy on me today that would be really great. And they do, and they’re amazing like that. And maybe it’s wrong to be this ‘real’ with your kids; maybe you’re supposed to pretend to always be in control and on top of everything. But then maybe it’s also cool that they know you’re human and that you have limits and that sometimes you also feel sad and scared. I don’t know the answer to this.

I guess the best you can do to gage how well or how crap you’re doing is by how your kids seem to feel about life (because for now you are their life, after all). If, for the most part, they’re happy and self-confident, I guess you can’t be failing completely. Sometimes I watch in astonishment as my girls talk to adults with complete self-assuredness (I would never have dared as a child), and I realize that this is probably because I speak to them that way and value their opinions and try hard never to dictate what they should think or feel. I’m crap at some stuff, but what I am good at is letting them be who they are, even if this means wearing bizarre outfits sometimes and saying things I don’t agree with. And maybe, after all, this is wherein the lesson lies – if we were all allowed to be who we really are – including less-than-perfect mothers who feel safe enough to tell it like it is – we’d be a lot better off.

Why it’s imperative to get the hell away from your children every now and then.

Holidaying without our children. See how miserable we don't look.
On holiday without our children. See how miserable we don’t look.

Before Per and I had the girls, we travelled a lot together and had a bunch of fun doing it. We’re perfect travel companions – I talk incessantly and he doesn’t utter a word, and while I have extremely fixed ideas about what I want to see, eat and drink, he doesn’t care and is happy to go with the flow. It’s a travel match made in heaven. But when you have kids, the stuff you like doing together and the things you enjoy most about each other get buried under the morass of things you HAVE to do and ways you HAVE to be to get your children through childhood without anybody dying or getting arrested along the way.

And children, let’s be honest, can be self-centred little bastards who will watch you in the death throes of exhaustion and tactile sensory overload and ask for a glass of juice. They’re sweet as pie and they write you adorable notes but until they reach 35 they simply don’t have the cognitive skills to understand how desperately hard the job is of raising them. And that’s not their fault, they’ll get it eventually, but in the interim, it’s you guys against them and you have to save yourselves.

I have to disagree when people say having a career and raising kids is a balancing act. Balancing act? That sounds like carrying a tray of tequila shots from the bar to your table in stripper heels. This is juggling, people, of the kind that would get you a job with Cirque du Soleil. That guy who balances a thin girl on his feet while handling twenty burning spears? He’s got nothing on you. It’s demented, what we’re expected to accomplish on a daily basis – and, by the by, look amazing while we do it.

And it’s only natural – I mean, this is a battle, mothers of the world – that you and your life partner, The Dude, the one you dug above all others and still (hopefully) would rather collapse into bed with after another day in the trenches will start taking all of these frustrations out on each other, and that your conversations will be about whose turn it is to do stuff and why the other one didn’t do that other stuff they were supposed to do. It’s boring, relentless and it murders the love.

Here’s the thing: before you can say varsity fees, these kids are going to be off on gap years, living in digs, finding weird friends and avoiding you as much as they can get away with. And when this happens all you’re going to have is each other. But it’s really difficult, if not impossible, relating to one another like before because the second you walk through the door of your home you enter parenting mode – it’s the new, default way of being, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it.

Except, that is, to go away for a while. Drag him by the short and curlies if you have to. Get as far away from home and your children as you can manage and you know what? Without even realising it you’ll find yourselves slowly reverting back to the way you were when you were best buddies and in love. You’ll talk about different things, have real conversations again and be reminded of why, amongst all those other people, you chose each other. And at the end of the day the best thing you guys can ever do for your kids is be happy, and together. Try it – you’ll see.

The worst holiday of my life – with pictures

Road trippin'... Sophie, two-and-a-half Road trippin’… Sophie, two-and-a-half

Who – as in, WHO – puts a two-year-old and a newborn baby with a personality disorder into the back of a station-wagon and drives across northern Europe in horizontal rain? And how could this scenario ever, possibly, end well? In my defence, I was newly post-partum and I think hormones and the searing pain of mangled nipples (and mangled other bits) were clouding my judgement to the point that when I saw the photograph of the house on the fjord, all awash with sunlight (they must have taken the pic on the single rain-free day that year) with snow-capped mountains in the background and the water an astonishing aquamarine I did not think, ‘hang on – this house in the mountains would be a very nice vacation spot for two adults who like to read, relax and take walks, but since we now have these dreadfully noisy and demanding young children, no way, José’ – no, I did not. I thought, hell – how bad can it be? Well.

While we knew the distance in kilometers from Malmö, south of Sweden, to the village of Sogndal in Norway, what we didn’t know is that Norwegian roads are roughly four metres in diameter, and that July is the month when all the Germans of the world decide to rent camper-wagons and go and purvey the fjords. So, while we should have arrived at our destination relatively quickly, instead we crawled along, unable to overtake, while the smaller of the dictators screamed blue murder pretty much non-stop. It was a long journey, to say the least. Our only respite came on the ferry when – please understand that these were the days before Madeleine McCann – we locked her in the cabin, asleep (okay, screaming, but eventually she’d wear herself out and nod off) and enjoyed a very nice fish buffet with an ocean view.

Not pining for the fjords - The Sognefjord
Not pining for the fjords – The Sognefjord
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The house on the Sognefjord was every bit as beautiful as the picture promised. One doesn’t say this lightly when one has grown up in Cape Town, but Norway is off-the-charts gorgeous, with its alpine-looking mountains towering over lakes the colour of a Caribbean ocean. But, it must be said, there is the issue of the weather. We stayed for a month while my husband did a locum for a chiropractor couple who’d gone to the States to have their baby, and it was the longest month of my life. Because there is only about half an hour of darkness a night, nobody slept. And in the day, when you needed to be awake to deal with the demands of two bored, cranky babies, a constant, grey drizzle made you want to do nothing but go back to bed forever.

I can write about this with humour now, but honestly, I don’t remember feeling more desperate and suicidal in all my life. Since the house was (literally) on top of a mountain, putting the smaller and more tyrannical of our children into a pram so that she’d be appeased for 30 minutes was tricky. We spent more hours than I care to remember walking up and down this mountain in a perpetual drizzle while I, in a high-pitched Mary Poppins-voice (bordering on hysteria), pointed out ‘interesting’ flowers and insects to my soggy two-year-old who was trying her best, under difficult circumstances, to keep a stiff upper lip. There were times that ‘holiday’ that I lost it, and even writing this, the memory brings tears of shame to my eyes. Sometimes I yelled at the two-year-old when it was the other one who deserved my wrath. I was just so fucking tired. And fat. And miserable. Per went off every day to work in Norwegian (not easy) and tried his best to be with us, but somebody had to bring in the dosh. The days dragged, and every afternoon I sat by the window, Carly Simon on repeat, waiting to see the car turn the corner so that he would be with me and life would feel manageable again.

Per, Sophie and Bride-of-Chucky visiting a glacier
Per, Sophie and Bride of Chucky visiting a glacier
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And there were fun times, too. My mom and dad-in-law drove up from Denmark, and they took the girls for walks and gave me a few moments to gather myself (though even saintly grandma’s patience was tried by the child who refused to shut up for five seconds). For my birthday we boiled king crab and Per made me the best seafood platter I’ve ever eaten in my life. We took road trips on the weekends and were astonished by how every corner we turned revealed landscape more scenic than the last. And we survived with our sanity and our family intact. Now, we look at those pictures and laugh and shake our heads and say, what the fuck were we thinking? But, it’s a holiday we’ll never forget.