Tuesday, 31 August 2010

8. Two Toddlers and a Wedding

We have just got back from a wedding in Dorset.  We were encouraged to bring the girls with us as the Montessori-trained bride had provided mothers (somewhat unusually) with an on-site crèche.

The only problem was that the people who had set up the room with tables and toys were not the same people who were looking after the children.  So toys for every age group were on display, and The Tank went straight over to taste the Play-Doh (first choice was the green colour), whilst Magpie thought she might swallow some little coloured plastic balls.  When both were confiscated, The Tank went to climb up the unmanned steps to the Portaloo and Magpie thought she would taste a rivet taken from a marquee fastening.  This stage of the proceedings (post child-free church service and pre-sit down dinner) was not exactly relaxing.

But I'm not here to tell you about the wedding (eventually we put the girls to sleep in the car, by which point they were beyond exhausted).  I want to share with you my watery epiphany the next morning.  We were staying in a fancy gastro pub with rooms that were beautifully decorated with colonial-style mahongany furniture.  The bathroom (complete with picture-perfect rural views) sported a rectangular, free-standing bath which was perfect for the girls to cruise around standing up.

I let each of the girls have a bath with Big Daddy.

First  it was Magpie's turn.  Now Magpie is a delicate soul with an acute eye for detail (she chases her hands over beaded necklaces and points at light aircraft in the sky), but in the bath she is a splashing banshee, full of the self-confidence that is usually The Tank's trademark.

In contrast, The Tank, so-named for obvious reasons, goes all 'Zen' in water.  She loses her frontline battle carapace and turns into Tai Qi girl, gently making patterns in the air with wet hands, then submerging herself up to her neck and smiling sweetly.

If only water had the ability to change adults' personalities too.  Although  I doubt it would have made Saddam Hussein less of a tyrant, or Madonna more of a Beta female if decisions had been made under the influence of H20 submersion.

But oh, to notice one's toddlers having a complete personality swap (just add warm water) is incredible.  Perhaps another Montessori-trained bride would think of installing a child-friendly Jacuzzi on her Special Day?

7. Twins and a Glass Half Full

Just before the bank holiday, I went to a playgroup in my local park.

It was a warm day and The Tank and Magpie were in good if over-energetic form.  Phoebe was with me, my ad hoc extra pair of hands who I am soon to lose - at least in term-time - as she is going to university.  She appears to be something of a baby whisperer.  My girls, and the other babies she looks after (some twins, some singletons) all adore her.  She never panics, and always has fun in her voice.

There is an outside play area and an indoor pavillion (well, that sounds a bit posher than it is) with two exits, so two pairs of eyes are pretty useful for keeping tag on the girls, as there is an element of a Vaudeville farce involved (one toddler in one door and the other out the other).

Despite having Phoebe's company, I was in a low mood.  Earlier that morning I'd taken Klefti for a check-up at the vet's.  Apparently there was stalemate between the cancer and the steroids.  We popped him on the scales and he was still putting on weight (hurrah, so the fatty food was working), but the tumours had stopped shrinking (so boo! to the steroids).

I imagined that having children would put pet ownership into perspective (oh come on, it's only a dog), but not a bit of it.  I just can't visualise a life without Klefti (nicknames include Roons, a diminuitive of Klefterooney, from our Irish phase, later morphing into Wooney).  For those non-dog owners amongst you, dogs are given very silly nicknames.

In fact, dogs are like children.  If you don't have children, they are your children (look at any pet-owning gay couple for proof).  They certainly were ours until the girls took precedence.  But does having children make losing a dog any easier?  No, it doesn't.  In a way, Klefti was our firstborn, taken in as a stray pup and given a home that he was lucky to find.  Normally, poison is put down in Greek resorts at the end of the holiday season.  So Klefti has already had over eight times the life he would have had in Agios Iannis.  That helps to put things into perspective.  But not just that.

At the playgroup, it was now 'singing time' when toys are put away and a sense of order is restored. We all gathered in a group to sit on small child-friendly chairs.  The Tank got up on her chair backwards,  à la Christine Keeler.  Magpie tried to give a three year-old boy her dropped and half-eaten sandwich.  I noticed that the boy's mother was sitting with her younger son, who was older than my girls.  Or was he?  He was much taller, but had less hair and was uneasy on his feet.  There was something wrong with him.  I've no idea what.

I have a sick dog, but I have healthy children, children I never thought I'd have.  We almost always outlive our dogs, however long we have them.  But to have a damaged child who cannot be mended?  That takes a strength I hope I never need.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

6. A Dog in Toddler's Clothing?

We were late for the Christening, but thank God, nobody minded.  Trying to hold squirming toddlers who are eating the service sheet is not my idea of fun, so we let the girls have a crack around.  But it was like letting wolf cubs loose at a picnic.  The girls released bibles from the safety of shelves; threw sandwiches on the floor, and The Tank ran down the aisle in the hope of pulling the alter cloth down, candles and all. 

The Aftermath was held in our friends' lovely walled garden.  But a peaceful Sunday it was not.  The Tank plunged her hands into soil, causing Big Daddy - who was trying to save his friend's shrub - to rip his trousers on the corner of a metal planter.  Magpie tried to eat gravel (the whole garden was gravel) so I gave her a dummy in the name of safety (being plugged-in is better than choking).

If this wasn't stressful enough, my little 'darlings' emptied two packets of Organix baby snacks - not our own - onto a pristine (Cath Kidson?) picnic rug, and sat on some cheese extracted from a sandwhich just for good measure.

Do I have a point, beyound sharing my children's misbehaviour?  Yes, I do.  I'll get to it in a minute.

Klefti, our eight year-old Greek stray, has returned to being Top Dog in the household.  You know he has lumps.  We hoped it might be a rogue infection.  Benign growths?  No.  He has lymphoma. 

We are a bit choked.  Hard to understand unless you have grown up with dogs and know that a canine personality can be greater than a human's.  I'm no misanthrope, but some people can be very dull.

But not Klefti.  He illuminates a room (or a park) with his big chimp eyes, wide grin, plumy tail and huge humour (like people, some dogs have a sense of humour, and some do not).  But he hasn't been known for his sense of propriety.  I remember when my father was dying, Klefti would put his huge paws on the side of the bed.  Dad would manage a smile, reaching out  to stroke him, the only thing that would cheer him up.

We are keeping Klefti going witth the same steroids that gave Dad a few years.  The drugs shrink the tumours, and special food fattens him up.  So we have him for a bit longer.  But that's not my point.

My point is, the more I get to know the Tank, the more she reminds me of Klefti.  I know I've touched on this before.

Towards the end of the Christening party, I sat down with a glass of Prosecco.  Magpie was having a sensible nap in the buggy.  The Tank was sitting on the picnic rug eating the Organix snack that she'd scattered across it.  Then she got up, and as if she could smell something on the wind, she scurried down the side return with her blonde elfin hair and new pink shoes, wearing a vest but minus a muddy dress, only to forage in a black plastic bag like a creature of dusk; like an adolescent Klefti.

Hands freshly washed, the Tank looked for trouble at the garden table and found it.  She stood on tiptoe and sank her hands - as if making an impression on Hollywood's Walk of Fame - into a homebacked Victoria sponge, delighting in sweet, sticky fingers.  Klefti was once barred from my aunt's house at Christmas for licking the ham and stealing a mince pie. 

That Sunday the Tank, never afraid of anything,  found her nemesis: a Robot vacumm cleaner.  When she pressed the 'on' switch on our  host's gizmo, it 'chased' her and she was dust. 

This reminds me of lighting a smoky fire on a wet, dark night in Ireland.  Whilst Purdey, our Lab, sat at the hearth like the gundog he thinks he is, suddenly Klefti was nowhere.  If Kryptonite is Superman's weakness, smoke is Klefti's.  It's the only thing he is scared of.

Our friends call The Tank 'spirited,' 'tomboyish' and 'brave.'  My mother says her granddaughter's face is electric and that she will grow up to be an athlete.  Who knows?

I only wish, like the mad Zookeeper that I am, that The Tank could grow up with Klefti.  They would make a formidable pair.

Friday, 6 August 2010

5. Twins and the Art of being an Older Mum

I regularly take the girls to a playgroup in a church hall run by the South West London Twin Club.

It's tremendous fun with the mothers I know well, but tedious with newcomers who are either shy, reticent or plain stand-offish. Of course, the fact that I go into conversation like a dog at a butcher's shop doesn't help. Teachers at school told me to 'think before I speak' but will I ever learn?  Let me give you an example.

I might ask a new attendee if she has help with her little duo, and when she slaps me down with yes, three nannies, two chefs, a housekeeper, a gardener and a full-time masseuse now **** off I really should do just that. 

Just sharing the unique challenge and joy of being a twin mum isn’t enough for a life-long friendship if your economic position isn’t in some way comparable. Sad, but true. Of course this is very different if you meet on a desert island with other fish to fry (literally). But not in the smart suburbs of South West London where I grew up and where it definitely doesn’t sound cool to live in a two-bed basement flat with one man, two babies and three dogs (ok and a big garden).  But still, it sounds like penury. Or madness. Or both.

At a recent gathering I (nearly) embarrassed myself beyond redemption. I ambled over to Play Mat Corner where a New Mum was sitting with her prostrate baby boy/girl twins. Next to her was an older woman whom I presumed was her mother.

This is how it went:

ME: Hi, congratulations! I haven’t seen you here before.

NEW MUM: No, (smiling warmly), we haven’t made it here until now.

ME: (Like an old pro) Oh, it does get so much easier, blah, blah, blah.

NEW MUM: We also have a 22 month year old at home.

ME: (Feeling rather less of a pro). Wow! You got back in the saddle quickly!

Now I look more closely at the rather lined, late forty or fiftysomething American sitting next to her.

ME: And you must be...the Mum (of the New Mum).

AMERICAN: Yes, I’m the Mum.

ME: (To myself) She's the Mum!!!  Oh God oh God oh God, thank God.  The waspish woman I just mistook for Grandma is, I realise with the intelligence of an amoeba, the Real Mum. 

I glance over at the young woman who is obviously the nanny.  She is about 25 and needs IVF like George Clooney needs to pay for sex.

The Real Mum must have been rather streamlined with her IVF treatment.  Even my simple brain can work out that she has produced three or more viable embryos, had one implanted the first time (the 22 month year old), and two the second time (ergo this pair of twins).

Could I be more of an idiot? No.

Not knowing when to back off,  I ask the Real Mum if she had a maternity nurse and yes she did, for four months (that works out at about £16k) and has a second nanny who is with the toddler at home.  The tone of her voice suggests that talking to me is...not very interesting.

This woman is the pro.  She has the cool calm of an alpha mum (barrister? trader? biochemist?) who may not control the lines on her face, but she stage manages everything else to perfection, with her surplus frozen embryos, a house full of staff and three children under the age of two.   Good work, woman.

Many twin mums seem to be wealthier than the average London mums.  This is my theory:

Women undergo IVF and often have two embryos implanted – two for the price of one, and all that (a modern consumer obsession). But if you don’t fit the criteria for your healthcare trust, and get lucky courtesy of the NHS (as I did) you may pay for two, three or four rounds of fertility treatment. And if you spend £20k or so, the chances are you can afford to.

Also, chances are that you may be an older mum, for one of three reasons.

1. As so often expressed by the level-headed Daily Mail, you are a Career Woman who, tut-tut, put Work before Love.

2. You didn’t find The One before you were 35 (or, more commonly, The One that Will Do).

3. Childlessness may have plagued you due to the lack of hospitality offered by your womb. An embryo needs a hospitable environment in which to grow.  It does not mean that champagne and strawberries, as provided in a posh tent at Wimbledon, will help (although the fizz may put you in the mood for a shag, which may get you pregnant).  What it does mean is that holistic treatments such as accupuncture and reflexology could help your womb become more receptive to sperm arriving and pitching its manly tent.

In case you were wondering, my problem was a bit of no.2: Big Daddy was fine with the commitment of dog ownership, but less sure about child creation (until his sperm was tested and it came top in class), and a bit of no.3:  have endometriosis which blocks up one’s fallopian tubes, thereby messing up the Sperm Delivery System).

Whatever the reason for a woman seeking medical help, parts of South West London appear to have as many twin buggies as million pound houses. And it’s no coincidence.