Take your kids to preschool. Leave them there.
Binging on English-language fiction on the Kindle my mother gave me for my birthday, I come to myself one day to wonder if all the books on it are not, perchance, about disastrous family relationships. In the space of about a week I have read Dear Daughter: A Novel (Elizabeth Little- socialite accused of murdering her mother in a drunken frenzy, cannot recall if it is in fact true, but may well be so since they loathe each other), The Corrections (Jonathon Franzen, decent mid-Western couple fuck up their 3 children comprehensively by doing nothing much except caring what other people think), Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng, Chinese American girl driven to desperation by her parents’ wildly unrealistic expectations of her career path and their selection of her as a clear favourite), and This House of Grief (Helen Garner-true story about the trial of Robert Farquaharson who drove his 3 kids into the dam, got out of the car and left them there).
I am in the middle of Everything I never told you when Maja kicks me out of bed in the middle of the night because she wants Babcia. I can hardly even find it in me to be surprised- of course she knows that I am going to send her to pre-school and ruin her life, or prefer her brother and ruin her life, or prefer her and ruin her life. I am going to hover and force her to do piano lessons, or ignore her manifest talent for the piano and deprive her of a career as a concert pianist. I am going to make her into something she isn’t by forcing her to be whatever my idea of respectable is, or make her into a misfit by wilfully ignoring the overwhelming pinkiness of girlhood. I am going to give her too much junk food or not enough, like my parents did, thereby turning me into the rotten-toothed sugar whore I am today.
This house of grief, the finale in this feel-bad series of guides on how not to parent, is oddly consoling from this point of view. Here, at least, is a thing which most parents don’t do, which it is easy to avoid. Just don’t kill them, I advise myself, and they’re in with a fighting chance.
Summer in Poland isn’t complete without getting in a kayak, and this year I have had a chance to do it twice in two different places.
It’s about 30 degrees and we’re in the park. The council has arranged free kayak use and since we have time on our hands, we take two kayaks out onto the lake. I’m initially unwilling- the sun has made me sluggish, and I don’t feel like making an extra physical effort to wallow in duck shit in the blazing heat.
But when we get down onto the water, a sort of miracle of transformation takes place. The world changes. The roots of trees appear. Willow branches trail around us. The light is different. Under the bridge, there are echoes and shifting golden scales of light. When the ducks take off, we can hear their wings whistle. We sit for a while in the shade of the trees on a little island in the middle of the lake, in the water-muffled silence, rocking slightly.
Marcin and I take off at dusk, leaving the kids with my friend. Janek’s wails fade behind us as we paddle through the soupy green water, down the channel to the lake. A wily old fox shadows our progress along the bank, through the silent yards of holiday houses on the water, looking for something to eat. The rushes sigh and creak. The water drips from our paddles.
On the lake the silver cranes wheel and caterwaul. They perch for a moment in the trees, where we see their noble crane-profiles raised against the darkening sky. Ducks are settling to roost on rocks in the creek mouth (who knew they did that?). I am not fascinated by the birds in some twitcherish, Linnaen way- I have no urge to whip out a notebook and write them on my list of spotted species. I love the chance to witness their secret wild-bird activities, and most of all I love their total obliviousness to us.
Inspired by the fantastic blue milk , I started recording some things which were enjoyable and less enjoyable about the kids at different ages. Since they are starting preschool next week, and I will be back at work, I thought it would be a good time to do it.
- you love to play with language and talk nonsense or make mistakes on purpose, and it’s one of my favourite things to hear you jabbering nonsensically and then laughing like a maniac because you are just so funny.
- you can draw! Googly-eyed faces (most of them seem to have glasses) with legs dangling off them, cars, rivers and kayaks. You got that from your father.
- You aren’t afraid of the water and have recently discovered both waterslides and the possibilities for full immersion. This fearlessness both amazes and terrifies me- I worry you won’t come up from your underwater expeditions.
- You adore your brother and if he disappears for a minute you hunt him down. You like to know where he is at all times.
- You love stories. I promise to tell you one (about a dog in a helicopter, about Dr. Maja rescuing her father from an avalanche, etc) if you will close your eyes and be quiet at bedtime, and you close your eyes so hard you squint. You cannot get enough of these demented narratives.
- you are shy. This worries me especially because it’s time to start pre-school and strangers freak you out so much that you weld yourself to my leg. I’m hoping Janek’s company will help you handle the pre-school jungle.
- your loyalty to your mother is extremely limited. When you shove me away and run to Babcia or Daddy, I feel the terrible wrench of unrequited love. When you tell me ‘I love Babcia and Jasiek loves mummy,’ well, let’s just say I’m not a fan of this division of emotion.
- you sleep with us. I am ready for you to sleep somewhere else.
- you are an expert nagger, and your stamina is always greater than mine. When you follow me around singing ‘mummy, I want a cracker’ over and over, it drives me insane.
- you want to subsist solely on carbohydrates and have been known to lose your shit entirely if your pasta is polluted by the tiniest drop of sauce.
- you love dogs and cats and have a real knack with them. I love watching you approach a dog at the bus stop, squatting down and giving it your hand to sniff before patting it. I love when you come back to report on your success – ‘Mummy, ‘e licked me!’
- you also adore me. You pat my hair and stroke my face and say “Mummy, I want to have you.I love you very much’. This partially compensates for the fact that your sister regularly tells me to get lost.
- you are interested in big kids and approach them at the playground to sit nearby and check out what they are doing. You don’t presume to join in, but watch with great seriousness and focus.
- you have accepted with surprising ease that you can’t eat some things that everyone else does. You even know why –‘mummy, I might scratch.’
- you have developed a proud and manly stand-up weeing technique, and even need to find a tree or fence to do it on. It makes me laugh every time.
Less nice things
- you wear glasses but are still cross-eyed when you take them off and I worry about your vision.
- you also sleep with us. See above.
- you have outbursts of agression directed at Maja- hitting, biting, scratching. Come to think of it, she is happy to retaliate. I’m not a fan of this behaviour, not least because the sound of my own faux- reasonable voice exhorting you to use words to solve your problems irritates me.
- your constant demands to ‘have me’ can make it impossible to do anything but be had.All day long.
- you love wallowing in the sand. As I am developing a growing aversion to this substance as the long, hot summer wears on, the feel of your sandy flesh on mine makes me, quite frankly, shudder.
And that, for now, is all. I resolve to do this a bit more often.
Since we’re leaving tomorrow for 5 days away, I thought it would be a good time to revisit our trip back from Slovakia in July, minutely logged and excruciatingly painful, to dull my excitement a bit. It took us 11 hours to drive 450 kilometres, mainly for reasons which the log will make clear.
9:35- kids demand pretzels
9:50 – poo stop (unproductive)
10:00- the cornflake course begins
10:15- Maja vomits on car seat
10:35- stop for water and another vomit (I want to vomit on the ants)
10:47: start driving again
10:48- I want a sausage. I want more sausage. I want to go back.
10:51-I want to vomit on the grass
11;00- Maja asleep
11:02- stop to look at dam
11:50- wee stop (adults). Maja wakes up.
12:12- I give in and give them the little cars I have bought for emergencies. We have driven 80 km. Still 365 to go.
12:31- on ramp onto motorway has disappeared, along with the motorway itself which is under construction. We are heading back to Slovakia.
12:41:’Mummy, I want poo.’ ‘I too want poo’
12:45: poo turns out to be a vomit. Vomit in the carpark at Mercury Mart and break for watching a digger and tiptruck. We have to break out the best snack to get everyone back in the car. Still haven’t driven 100k.
12:50: Lost in Zywiec in heavy traffic. Kids demanding more best snacks.
13:12: get onto a proper road
13:34: Maja :I need to do a poo. Me: Are you sure it’s not a vomit? Maja: No. A bum poo. A big brown bum poo. On the grass. ( at this point I am flagging and Franki takes over the log).
13:35: Poo stop (unproductive). We have pulled up next to a digger. A mixture of sly distraction and brute force required to get everyone back in the car.
14:00: We are all starving. Stop for lunch
15:30: start driving again.
15:34: I want to do a poo.
15:40: Poo stop (unproductive). I call their bluff and put a nappy on both kids.Still 328 km to go.
15:53: Little vomit on Franki’s sarong.
16:15: Big vomit into a plastic bag. I now have no mercy and we don’t even stop.
16:45: Janek finally falls asleep with a handful of cornflakes (including the hand) in his mouth. Sweet semi-peace. Maja is still on her second cornflake course,.
1701- We are almost at the halfway point. 250 km down, 258 to go.
1815: stop at truck stop so Greg can have a break from driving. Kids wake up.
18:45: set off again.
18:53: I need a poo. No mercy- I say ‘do it in your nappy.’ Nobody does.
1900: I wanna go back to the holiday.
20:15: Almost home. Stop to fill the car which is a rental. Janek goes into the phone booth and refuses to come out.
20:30:set out on the last 5 km. Janek is screaming because he wants to go back to the phone booth. Maja is screaming because she wants to go back to the holiday.
20: 40. Home. Fuck me.
Janek and Maja are almost 32 months old, and they can talk. In two languages. Quite fluently, though sometimes with hilarious grammar. They can form the regular past tense in Polish and English, use some irregular past verbs in English (saw, found) ask grammatical questions (sometimes), tell stories. I am so proud of their English it’s ridiculous, taking full credit for it even though I know I also have my family’s regular visits to thank. They haven’t developed the speed of adult speech but they do have the elision in place, so I often hear them say, in their little bell- like voices, things like Mummy, I want to meet ‘im.
Conversations with them are frequently surreal. Janek wakes up from his nap in an embrace with the magnetic moose my sister brought him from Norway, and begins the following commentary.
Moose no say moo. Cows do a moo. I saw a cow, in the bushes. I’m a cow. MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
And now Maja joins in.
I’m not scared. I saw a cow, outside, on the big bikes. And there were fishes here. (This is all true. In May we went on a bike ride to a monastery in eastern Poland and indeed saw a cow in the bushes and some fishes). I saw a cow’s milk. On the belly button it was coming out. And it’s have to drink a milk.
(This part mystifies me a bit. )
My other favourite thing is to hear them sing songs. After a while I realise that ‘the bear climbed up the hill’, which I had initially attributed to their authorship, is actually the better known children’s hit The bear went over the mountain. Maja sings Ba Ba Black Sheep with the following text:
Baa baa black sheep/ Any any wool? /Yes-a, yes-a three bags full/ One for the Masai (we met one in Dubai airport on our way to Australia, so she knows this word)/ one for the day/ one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
I am so time-rich that I am even contemplating the purchase (or theft) of a special notebook which I will carry with me at all times to record these gems.
It’s August. All my family has gone home, and my work has more or less dried up. Most of the people I want to spend time with are not in Warsaw. Whole vistas of time open up around me in this month, and since I know I will have regular work again in September, it doesn’t bother me at all. This differently- textured time is to be used in different ways to time during the semester- this time is for reading novels, feeling sad, swimming, cooking, throwing things away, running, writing, feeling guilty, running errands, reading glib and useless advice on how to discipline 2 year olds, and even- for the first time in a long time- getting bored. Lots of this time is spent sitting in the sandpit with my Kindle, counting children in my peripheral vision to make sure there are still two of them. I gape into the chestnut trees in the park, pass absent-minded judgment on other parents, realise what I am doing and unjudge them, wonder if I can get away with giving my kids another ice-cream.
I have been waiting to have time like this for a while. During term time, I work like a dog, and generally feel like I am just barely in control of my days. I collapse (literally ) into bed in the evening, in a sort of cocktail of exhaustion, over-excitement and panic that I have to get up again in a few hours. When I wake up I sit bolt upright with an urgent list of things to do reeling through my head, careen through the day, and fall down dead again at the end of it. I know now why people take holidays based on lying around on the beach. I am also coming round to the idea that having a season with minimal obligations is therapeutic, and I thoroughly recommend it.