My benevolent neglect as a child was directly because my mother had so many kids. One of the reasons that I am such a neurotic packer is because twice as a child I was left to pack my own suitcase and it was a disaster. The first time was when we went – my mother, sisters and I – to Paris (no idea why). I packed my own clothes and, having no idea of the forecast or how to find out what it was going to be like, I didn’t pack a coat or any sweaters or trousers. All I had was a long-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of knee-length khaki shorts. Certainly both of them second-hand, or hand-me-downs. I was absolutely freezing all week long because it was March and in Paris it was about twelve degrees Centigrade, with a bitter wind.
Over my dead body will children of mine go on a holiday and be allowed to pack their own suitcase.
The second time was when I went away with the school to Wiltshire to the ‘Field Centre’, a sort of low bungalow thing with a dorm room and a dining hall, from where you set out to investigate local churches, ruined abbeys and so forth. I had a packing list but didn’t bring with me half the stuff on it, including a hairbrush or a towel – so I had to dry myself after showers on a t-shirt and comb my hair with my fingers. I packed my things in a small blue suitcase that had belonged to my grandmother. The lock – its little key long since lost – was a bit rusty.
Everyone else had cute, reasonably new little suitcases of their own, pink hairbrushes with their name on it, little washbags, towels fluffed up with softener in the tumble drier and
adorable pyjama sets.
My mother is not a bad, neglectful or lazy person; she just had too much to do, too many kids, and not enough help. And I probably insisted on doing it myself, mostly because I didn’t want to bother her or get in the way.
They will have proper birthday parties with going-home bags and a chocolate fudge cake if they want it (not fruit – never fruit!!)
But I’m telling you this: over my dead body will children of mine go on a holiday and be allowed to pack their own suitcase. Or, at least, pack the suitcase unsupervised. They will have
new underwear, new pyjamas, a soft fluffy towel and a hairbrush with their name on it.
My children will have haircuts done at a hairdresser, not by me in the kitchen with a pair of blunt scissors. They will have proper birthday parties with going-home bags and a chocolate fudge cake if they want it (not fruit – never fruit!!), new clothes of their very own, bought especially for them and not hand-me-downs; and their school uniform and games kit will fit. I will sew on their nametapes, not iron them on. I will see to it that the aforementioned games kit is washed and hanging on its own correct peg.
Also, well before the whole matter becomes acutely embarrassing, Kitty will have correctly-fitting crop tops or little bra-lets. Bed sheets will get changed once a week, not just when there is a dirty greyish stripe down the middle, and I’ll replace sheets before they are worn so thin that you put your foot through them.
They’ll have nice bedrooms, decorated properly and hung with pictures, smart bedframes and crazy novelty duvets with fairies or dinosaurs all over them, if that’s what they want. If Kitty wants an entirely pink bedroom, she can have it! And if she changes her mind in six months’ time, that’s fine.
At Christmas we will go and see pantomime and ride in taxis. I will take them and their friends out to restaurants sometimes – Chinese probably – and let
them all order Coca Cola.
I’ll supervise their homework and check it and say ‘No telly until you’ve finished’ and they will have a bath every night and a proper bedtime and I’ll read them a bedtime story. On the
weekend I will make them pancakes. At Christmas we will go and see pantomime and ride in taxis. I will take them and their friends out to restaurants sometimes – Chinese probably – and let
them all order Coca Cola.
But all of this attention requires effort. To properly supervise a child’s life – especially as they become independent and it is easy to believe that they are more competent than they are –
takes time and concentration. I can give two children that attention and still have some life of my own, but I couldn’t do that with three. If I had three children the demands of the youngest would make me so relieved that the eldest could more or less look after itself that it would, indeed, go on sleepovers without a change of underwear, or on a school trip with no consent form or packed lunch.
Some people would say to me that this is just the kind of modern fetishisation of childhood that is fucking the world up. And to that I say you’re wrong. Or, rather, you’re right, but my child is not going to go without the stuff that other kids have. I’m not going to use my children as a protest against capitalism. It’s not fair, it’s not their fault. I want to give them a chance to be normal. If they want to throw off the shackles of commercialism, reject fully my obsession with such bourgeois details and go and live up a tree, I would be proud and delighted.
But I want to give them the chance to blend in, do you see? The chance to go unnoticed, if that’s what they want. And that is more effortful than it might seem on the surface. So, no more kids, thanks.
Still, it bothers me. The whole thing bothers me.
- This extract is taken from Esther Walker’s new book Bad Mother. We’re going to be serialising it over the next few weeks but if you can’t wait for the next instalment, buy and download the whole book here.
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