As you know, last week I was walking the streets of London. As, it seems, were an awful lot of others. And whilst I wandered round John Lewis looking aimlessly at everything, they were busily and purposefully filling their bags.
‘But it’s not even December yet,’ I grumbled to myself, ‘surely you can’t start Christmas shopping when it’s still only November!’ A dancing Santa on a nearby shelf begged to differ. ‘Ho Ho Ho!’ he chortled happily, patting his tummy and wiggling his bum.
My wander down Oxford Street got me thinking. What, I wondered, should be the top five gifts on every MOB’s list? What amazing paraphernalia would I not be without? What would I want my FOB to be lovingly wrapping up for me this Christmas eve?
Here, sparing no expense and after considerable thought, is my very own gift guide for the Mother of Boys:
1. Octopus sock and pant sorter. It is plastic and looks about as unsexy as they come, but my Octopus makes hanging out the inevitable assortment of socks and boxer shorts a much more satisfying and swifter operation. I got mine from… Ikea.
2. Cheese sliver-slicer. Invented, I think, by some smart Scandinavian, we first came across these years ago when we lived in Germany. Using the sliver-slicer ensures that the extra large lump of cheddar you bought thinking and hoping it would last all week, might actually last you and your boys more than one meal. I got mine from (you guessed it)… Ikea.
3. Welly-rack. The FOB made this much-admired object out of a piece of wood and old bits of broom. The welly-rack means that wellies (big and small) are stored outside, upside down and in argue-free pairs – no mud, no mess, no muddle. You can buy much posher, ready-made versions on Ebay.
4. Hand-held blender. Or ‘the whizzer’ as it’s technically known in our house. I have discovered that if it doesn’t actually look like what it actually is, the boys will eat pretty much anything in soup. Anything, that is, except brussel sprouts. I got mine from… Sainsbury’s.
5. Panasonic bread maker. I know there’s a bit of a food theme here, but every MOB knows that the way to their hearts is through their stomachs. Next to milk, bread is the other must-have we are always running out of. And now that I’ve discovered that milk can be frozen, my bread maker frees me from emergency supermarket sweeps. I got mine from… John Lewis.
My FOB (with the exception of a beautiful necklace he gave me one year) is not renowned for his prowess in the romantic gift department. Before we were even going out, he bought me a rolling pin for my birthday(?!), followed swiftly by a sag bag one Christmas and the next year a bin. Granted, the bin was a Brabantia and we still have it in the kitchen, but…
So, to all the FOBs out there reading this, and most especially mine: by all means take your pick from any or all of the above. But be warned, your MOB may rapidly find a use for that redundant rolling pin. This Festive season why not break the practical present habit of a lifetime, and try adding a little Chanel No. 5 for good MOB-measure? Because, as you know… we’re (definitely) worth it.
PS: Obviously if you’re after the ultimate present for the Mother of Boys, ‘MOB Rule’ can always be pre-ordered pre-publication on Amazon!
So, here I am. Three nights in London, with my husband and without my kids. I’m here for both business and pleasure: a Bloomsbury party for authors with publications coming out in 2013, a meeting with my publicist and lots of coffees with long-lost friends.
The obvious question when I first received the Bloomsbury invitation was ‘Oh my goodness… what shall I wear?’ Living knee-deep in Devon mud does not endow you with a wardrobe fit for drinks and canapés in Bedford Square.
Once I’d resolved that one (I would wear the same outfit I wore to a Bloomsbury bash last year, and from now on that can be my writer’s signature ‘trendy top’), the next obvious question was ‘If I’m off to London, who’s looking after the boys?’
A phone call to the in-laws later and that too was resolved. And so on Wednesday I put my suitcase in the car, revved up the engine and set off for the ‘Big Smoke’ without a backward glance. Only I didn’t, did I?
As a mother (and I can only imagine a father too) leaving your children ‘behind’, albeit in the extremely capable and loving hands of their grandparents, goes against the maternal grain. Even though some days my sons drive me literally up the wall, being away from them, and their lives, feels somehow… well, wrong. I know what they do when, and what they need in their bags to do it. I know every nook and cranny of their little boy lives. How will they cope without their mum?
The other day I was sorting out an old photo album and I found the ‘instructions’ which I’d written for the Grandparents of Boys (GOBs) on our inaugural ‘away from firstborn’ weekend. I started reading, got half way down the first page and stopped. I cringed.
11.00 Put baby in cot on back (black out blinds down, baby monitor on, door slightly ajar). Do not talk to him – leave him to settle himself.
11.30 Wake baby up. Change nappy (environmentally-friendly nappies in cupboard to the left of door – beware ‘willy wash’ – muslin provided for this purpose)
11.40 Play. If he gets upset, sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ and ‘Wind the bobbin up.’ He doesn’t like ‘Incy Wincy’…
And on, and on. Four pages of five-a-day stipulations, strategies for entertaining, minute by minute schedules of every hour of the day. Four pages of rules and recommendations for the loco parentis Grandparents, who have, between them, safely and successfully reared five children of their own. Four pages of literally teaching grandmother how to suck (and probably boil) eggs.
And as the kids grew up, I continued to pen my missives of maternal wisdom – advocating strict bedtime routines and reminding them to remind them to wash. Fish pie on a Friday was always a must. Looking back, I am quite surprised the GOBs continued to be happy to look after the boys. With hindsight however, and based on the odd little snippet our sons have occasionally ‘let slip’, I realise that, entirely understandably, they took my well-meant advice with an extra-large pinch of salt. ‘Yes, it’s all good,’ they’d say on the phone when I’d call in the evening after the official boy-bed-time. ‘They’re all tucked up in bed – everything’s going to plan.’ I was sure I could hear laughter and shrieking in the background, but at the time I put it down to interference on the line.
On Wednesday I left a solitary page on the kitchen table. It read:
School drop off: 08.40; pick up 3.10.
Feisty Fellow has football on Thursday – his kit is in the bag in the hall.
Thanks and have fun. Hannah
So tomorrow when I get home and am greeted by slightly tired boys with chocolate-smudged smiles, when I get back to find all the cake eaten and the fridge still full of veg, I too will smile. Because I know that what’s important is that the boys have had fun. And amazingly they (and the GOBs) have had it, without any instruction from their mum.
Now I am no Imelda Marcos. I like shoes (and especially boots) a lot. Mainly, I suspect, because as my body shape has fluctuated from hot air balloon-like around the births of the boys, to saggy deflated balloon in the subsequent years, the one part of my anatomy which has remained constant are my feet. And therefore shopping for footwear is a lot less depressing than shopping for clothes. So, I like shoes but I don’t love them. I have summer footwear, and winter footwear and of course the MOB-ligatory wellies. And that’s it.
My boys, however, appear to have, nay, need, a plethora of foot apparel for every occasion. They have…
1. 1 pair of school shoes
2. 2 sets of trainers
4. (Mainly unused) plimsolls (it said on the school uniform list you had to have them)
6. Assorted football boots, mostly missing studs
7. Walking boots
8. Sundry slippers
9. 1 started out as ‘good shoes’ but rapidly relegated to ‘old’
Not to mention that pair of sensible shoes which I purchased in the sale and which they absolutely refuse to wear. You know, those.
Our house, and particularly the shoebox where we sling our shoes, is positively ‘oversploding’ (as Feisty Fellow puts it) with footwear. Slightly smelly, definitely scuffed, always muddy, boys’ shoes.
And I wouldn’t mind if they were dinky ones, sweet little sandals or pretty ballet pumps. But no. The boys shoes are huge. Hulking lumps of grey black leather, lurid red football boots with angry-looking studs, Velcro-clad nylon that always smells of sweat.
And I also wouldn’t mind my shoe mountain if the offending items were actually worn, appropriately and willingly. But no.
‘Right boys, we’re going out. Put your shoes on!’
‘Which ones shall I put on mum?’
‘Whichever you like… we’re going into town.’
‘OK. I’ll wear Crocs.’
‘Crocs? But it’s pouring. Your socks will get wet. Wear your trainers.’
‘But I don’t like my trainers, and anyway they’re wet from yesterday.’
‘OK then, your walking boots.’
‘They give me blisters…’
‘Left them at school.’
Give me strength. We leave the house. They’re all wearing wellies.
Today, for the second time in six months, I took eldest Sensible Son shopping for new trainers. I realised, to my horror, that his feet are now bigger than mine. For a split second I was excited at the prospect of pinching his fleetingly worn hand-me-downs. A split second, before I vowed that I would not be the beneficiary of any of his ex-footwear. His second hand soles will be going to his brothers who are less bovvr’d by the state of them and have a less astute sense of smell.
Today I’ve been thinking about inheritance. Not, in case you’re wondering, the kind of inheritance which means you don’t need to worry about paying the mortgage, or makes you the proud owner of Great Aunt Bessie’s socks. No, the hand me downs I have been pondering are more along the lines of what you inherit emotionally.
My Grandmama (of underlined thank you letter fame in ‘About the book’) was a MOB of fine standing. With not just three, but four strapping boys to her name, she had both her house, and her hands, full. Together with my Grandfather (think Father Christmas re-incarnate) they lived a slightly bohemian existence, first as school teachers and later on as youth hostel wardens. They also, obviously, lived in different times.
Their 1940s and 1950s boys were left outside in their prams to ‘exercise their lungs’, walked miles across the fields to catch the bus to their school and were banished from the house sometime after breakfast and only allowed back inside when it got dark. With no television, the wireless was the focus of family life, practising ‘Singing Together’ songs a highlight of the week.
Our 2000 and something sons are – in so many ways – being brought up, in another world.
My feeble attempts at ‘controlled crying’ just made me feel ill, if I park a smidgeon further from school than the usual five minute wander, a rebellion ensues, and on the occasions (many) when I do kick the boys out into the garden, I nevertheless want to know exactly where they are and when they’ll be back. And contemplating life without a TV (albeit with appropriate modern-day screen-rationing in force) is like imagining a Devon cream tea without the clotted cream. I know, I know, utterly ridiculous.
Amidst all the differences however, there are elements of ‘Grandmama’ which still survive. And these elements are known in our house as ‘Grandmama’s Rules.’ Thus:
No. 1: No sticks are allowed inside the house. (I have, in a bid to minimise lunacy, extended this to swords and balls and anything which can be ‘brandished’.)
No. 2: No toys at the table. (Or actually, anything that is not there to be eaten or drunk. Anything else will be fiddled with, faffed with or knocked over. All of which distract from the operation of eating.)
No. 3: Down means out. (If you get down from the table, you’ve obviously finished and therefore you leave the kitchen. This is admittedly a little trickier to police in our open-plan abode.)
No. 4: Do not use the towels as hankies. (I have to accede that this has never had to be implemented. The boys refuse to use a hankie – towel or otherwise – and prefer to sniff, incessantly, uselessly and loudly, instead.)
So, in our house – and I know at least one other household where they have adopted many of the above – Grandmama’s legacy lives on. The fantastic thing about the fact that these are her rules – and not mine – is that I am not to blame for banishing fun. And of course, the other fantastic thing is that the rules can be added to, amended or adapted as the situation requires: the perfect answer to every tricky MOB moment.
Surely an emotional inheritance worth its weight in gold.
There are moments as I mum when I realise that I am doing it all wrong. This is one of those moments.
I am in the car, driving my son and two female friends to after-school swimming. The ‘MOB mobile’, as we affectionately call the 7 seater ‘bus’ I use mainly to ferry small children around town, is full of bodies, bags and … silence.
“So,” I say cheerfully, glancing at my boy in the rear-view mirror, “what did you get up to at school today?”
His face doesn’t register, not even flicker.
“Hello there!” I sing. I have his attention. “What did you get up to at school?”
He gazes into the middle distance, studiously ignoring his inquisitive mother’s stare. “Stuff,” he grunts.
“‘Stuff?’” I repeat. “What kind of ‘stuff’?”
He yawns. “Just, like you know… ‘stuff’.”
“Hmmm,” I acknowledge reluctantly. “And you girls… what did you get up to?”
Half an hour later they both draw breath. I now know every single detail of every single hour, including who did what to whom, where and why. Blimey, I think, rubbing my throbbing temples, maybe having a slightly less forthcoming boy isn’t so bad after all. We arrive at the pool and tumble out.
Later that evening we are back from swimming. I am sitting at the supper table with all three boys.
“So,” I say to the swimmer’s brother, “what did you get up to at school today?”
He opens his mouth, realises it’s full of pasta, and rapidly closes it before I can say a word. Gesturing he’ll respond in a minute, he chews vigorously. Swimming son, however, sensing an opportunity to put in his two’pennyworth, fills the temporary void.
“We did maths today… it was really cool. And then we did PE and then ICT… ” The monologue continues for some minutes whilst his brother tries frantically to get a word in edgeways. ‘Swimmer’ however, is on a roll – he’s centre stage and he’s not getting off. His brother, disgruntled, eventually gives up and angrily stabs pieces of penne with his fork.
Still later that evening, the boys have had a book and are ready for bed. I kiss them goodnight, turn out the light. “Goodnight boys,” I say, “sleep well.” My foot is on the top step, poised to go downstairs.
“Muuumm,” says swimmer son.
“Muuumm, I need to talk to you about something.”
“Now?!” I retort. It’s been a long day and my evening cup of tea is calling.
“About something that happened at school today.”
He sounds so serious, so sensible. I sigh and go back and perch on his bed.
“Right,” I say, settling in, “what is it that you need to talk to me about now?”
We sit in the darkness and I listen as he speaks.
So, I realise now what I’ve been doing wrong. I have been picking far too obvious and easy moments to try to communicate with my sons. What I need to do if I want more than just ‘stuff’, is to either ensure there’s plenty of fraternal competition for airspace when I ask my openers, or embark on a conversation when it’s actually high time for bed.
Then I bet you my MOB mobile they’ll be more than happy to chat.
You know what they say about buses? About how you wait all day and then two come along at once, both vying for your custom? Well, that was me. Last year.
There was I, with three at school boys, scooting towards the big 4-0 and worrying about what I was going to do for the rest of my working life now that my full-time mother job had come to an end, when suddenly the buses turned up.
Bus no. 1 arrived in the form of the FOB and I deciding to up sticks and sons to take over, and adapt, the family business in Devon: the renovation of a beautiful country house as a weddings, accommodation and events venue. If it helps, think Restoration Nightmare on a much smaller scale.
And then, just as we’d boarded that one, bus no. 2 careered round the corner as, to my amazement and delight, Bloomsbury bought ‘MOB Rule’, thus turning my naval gazing hobby into an income-earning book.
So now here I am, juggling book, building project and boys. Unsurprisingly I no longer have the time or energy to worry about what I will do.
Mostly I just about manage to keep my ‘balls’ in the air, but being a ‘home worker’ at half term is, it appears, about as compatible as boys and soap. Take yesterday, for instance.
I was mid-cake-bake when the phone rang.
‘Hello?’ I barked, grasping my mobile with a char-grilled oven glove. The ginger cake was cooked, it just needed to cool.
‘Erm … hello? Is that, err, Hannah?’
Feisty Fellow ignored the phone, pawed at my jeans. ‘Is the cake ready?’ he whined – loudly.
‘Sorry, who did you want to talk to?’ I barked again, removing his fingers from my thigh. ‘I can’t quite hear you.’
‘I … I wanted to talk to … yes, it was Hannah … about holding our wedding with you. I emailed last week – September 2013 – a marquee on the lawn?’
A bell rang vaguely in the recently acquired ‘business section’ of my mainly maternal brain. ‘Ah yes… err – Kirsty, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right.’ She sounded relieved to be recognised at last. ‘Sorry to call you in the evening …’
‘No, don’t worry, it’s fin …’
‘IS THE CAKE READY NOW?’ demanded Feisty Fellow again, jigging up and down.
‘Will you please,’ I hissed, wedging the phone painfully twixt shoulder and ear, whilst attempting to cover the mouthpiece with one hand and cut up cake with the other, ‘wait a minute!’
‘Pardon?’ said my potential booking.
‘Oh, um … sorry, not you … it’s my boys – they’re always starving. You know how it is …’
Silence on the other end of the line. This young and free Bride-to-be, blatantly did not know ‘how it is’.
‘Well, anyway,’ I blustered, dolloping slices of cake onto plastic plates, ‘how can I help?’ I thrust the cake at Feisty Fellow, gestured for him to ‘scoot!’, and took myself and the phone to the relative sanctuary of the study.
Ten minutes later I had finished the call. Viewing arranged, details confirmed, booking, I thought smugly, in the bag. I congratulated myself, on managing to successfully combine the longer-term demands of a burgeoning business with the more immediate ones of my sons.
Smiling broadly I stepped out of the study, round the corner. Stopped – dead.
Three sugar-rush boys were playing a version of British Bulldog in our too-small-sitting room. Cushion feathers flew from improvised weapons of war; they squealed like piglets competing for slop. A saliva-sparkling cake tray sat abandoned, mid-mayhem.
‘What on earth?!’ I muttered taking in the scene. ‘EEE-NOUGH!’ I admonished above their screams; the noise gradually subsided and they collapsed, elated but exhausted, onto the sofa. I sighed, picked up the empty tray and took it to the sink.
Just occasionally, occasionally I wish I’d missed the bus.