I took the children to visit my parents in Cork at the weekend. The whole thing was hellish.
My friend the portable DVD player ran out of battery an hour and a half into the train journey to Cork and for the remaining hour and a half I had to entertain the children using only my own mental agility. The train was packed. The children whacked each other; they shouted; they cried; I cringed. I had contemplated not bringing the Princess to Cork at all as she had a nasty cold and had been off from school for a couple of days. During that long journey, I frequently wished that I had not brought her. She announced to the whole carriage in her piercing tones that if we wanted to treat her so badly she was leaving and then flounced off. Several times. She fought with her brothers and whacked them. At home, the Princess has largely foresworn physical violence even when very much provoked, alas, this was not to be the case on tour.
We had timed our trip to Cork to coincide with my mother’s birthday and visits by my brother and sister – the idea being that they would help me to child wrangle. My brother was due to arrive on Saturday morning and the boys and I went to collect him from the airport. Unfortunately, he had given us the time his plane left Dublin not the time it arrived in Cork so the boys and I spent 40 minutes in the car waiting for him to arrive. Tense times. Lunch was late. Further tension and some lying on the floor and screaming. After lunch, my brother, in an effort to atone for his sins, nobly took the boys out to the back garden and played football with them. Unfortunately, due to his exciting social life, he was rather tired and went off for a restorative nap shortly afterwards. My sister meanwhile had been stuck late at work on Friday night and then Saturday slipped away from her and it was afternoon before she was on the road and then she got a flat tyre (in case you ever need to know, the nuts come off anti-clockwise as you look at them) and with one thing and another, she wasn’t going to arrive until Saturday evening. I took the boys to the park. I tried to lure the Princess out of the house also but she wouldn’t come. I knew she would enjoy it once she got there and that it would be good for her but I just didn’t have the energy for cajoling and then shepherding them all to the park so I left her behind telling her that I wanted the bedroom tidy when I got back (which, to be fair, it was). The park went fine actually and by the time we got back, my sister had made it to Cork.
On Saturday night, my sister cooked a birthday dinner for my mother. All very pleasant. At about 10.45 she brought in the birthday cake. The Princess came racing downstairs to partake of the goodies and stayed up until 11 eating chocolate cake. The inner voice which (as someone once said) seldom adds anything to my happiness warned me that no good would come of this. I parcelled her back to bed and decided to let the morrow take care of itself. At 11.30 my sister dropped my brother down town (that social life again) and came back at 11.45 suggesting we should play cards. Weakly, I decided to stay up for one game. It’s funny how quickly one reverts to old roles in these situations: my mother recklessly overbid; my aunt was the sage expert; my father always held the best cards but got slightly carried away by the sight of the ace of trumps and the ace of hearts in his hand; my sister won; I got cast. as ever, as the weakest link in the chain of cards. Gall and wormwood. The errors of others are overlooked as they know the right thing to do but just neglect to concentrate; my errors on the other hand are regarded as showing a startling ignorance of the basics of the game. This must be why I particularly enjoy playing with my husband as he must be one of the world’s worst card players and I shine in his company. Anyhow, with one thing and another, replaying hands and so on, it was well after one o’clock when I extricated myself, glumly handing over cash to my sister. I understand that the others kept going until after my brother came in at 2.30 in the morning.
So, as you can imagine on Sunday morning at 7.45 when the children rose to meet the day, I was not my bright and beautiful best and no one else appeared at all. I heard them tripping down stairs and clumped after them. The three of them were sitting on the sofa in a darkened room staring hopefully at a blank tv screen. Reprehensibly, I turned it on and crawled back to bed without even offering them breakfast. At 10.00 I came back down and they were still watching eagerly. There were howls of protest when I turned it off and the scene rapidly descended into chaos. Then next hour and a half was hideous. Michael lost the plastic lid of his Thomas watch and cried lustily as the household searched for it and only stopped crying when it was restored to him a good half hour after its initial loss was discovered. They all fought like nobody’s business. I carried a howling, flailing Princess to one room and a howling Daniel to another and told them to stay there until I said they could come out. Michael clung to my leg crying piteously “My brudder, let my brudder out.” My mother followed me about saying in the slightly hushed voice she uses when the children are misbehaving “Is there anything I can do?” Much snapping on my part, leading to further unhappiness.
There is a certain inevitable dynamic which plays itself out when I take the children to Cork. I want my parents to see the children at their best; the children appear to have no very clear idea what their best is; I love my mother but we have, ahem, how can I put this, high expectations of each other; finally, and not negligibly, my parents have a stool that doubles as a small ladder – the children like to sit on it, they fight to sit on it at mealtimes and the lucky winner bangs the steps on the floor at regular intervals despite increasingly hysterical requests from me not to do so. My father is one of life’s pessimists and has no expectations of anyone. Though I disapprove of this, I cannot but find it extremely restful when my children are misbehaving and he is quite resigned to it rather than saying in shocked, subdued tones “Do they normally behave like this?” It was also useful, incidentally, when I was learning to drive and he sent me out with gloomy prognostications that I would crash the car. When I actually did crash the car he was quite sanguine on the basis that it was bound to happen.
Throw the following facts into the mix also: my mother loves to feed her family. My children do not love to eat. She asks me anxiously “what will they eat?” I say snappily “If I knew, I would tell you, I am not deliberately keeping this from you.” Unhappiness. It is a grandmother’s prerogative to treat her grandchildren. I know this. However, since my children will not touch anything savoury, we are thrown back on biscuits, sweets, ice creams, waffles. I feel I am constantly saying no to my poor mother as she spells out the food options and the children, of course, knowing that these things are there, whine for them, so I yield. Everyone is happy for five minutes. Then the cycle starts again. Then their teeth fall out and they grow obese.
So, where were we? Oh yes, on Sunday morning. I decided that I just couldn’t take the children to mass with my parents. The children would behave so badly, it would be appalling. We would all die of mortification as they raced up and down the aisles and climbed under the pews and I would have a nervous breakdown trying to keep them silent in their seats. I just couldn’t face it. My mother was horrified. I said tentatively that I might go to the church across the road with my brother later. My brother went out to mass. The children calmed down and I decided to chance it. Unfortunately, my parents have one of these very secure doors where you need a key to get out as well as to get in. Had I thought to provide myself with a key? I had not. So we stayed at the house by ourselves. The children behaved perfectly. They didn’t fight, they played nicely together, they sat down and ate lunch. Then, before any further trouble could break out, we said goodbye, gathered ourselves up and had my brother take us to the train.
The DVD worked intermittently on the train. In one of its off phases, the Princess and Daniel started to fight and she kicked him on his head under the table. There were two very virtuous children sitting opposite us. In a silent rebuke they sat quietly in their chairs for the three hour journey – no toys, no books, just civilised conversation. Meanwhile, it was world war three and a host of cracker crumbs across the aisle. My mother had given them each 2 euros on leaving the house (too scared by me to give them sweets). I thought that this would be good as I could substitute cash, if they lost it (yes, I know, I am weak) but they spent their money on the tea trolley and got change as well as crisps and sweeets. Then they crawled around the floor saying – where’s my 20cents, where’s my 5 cents and so on. At one point Daniel announced “I want to do a wee.” So, I took him off to the bathroom threatening the other two with dire consequences, if they misbehaved in our absence. I stood in the queue on tiptoes which allowed me to see the other pair and when we got to the top, Daniel insisted on going in alone which suited me. As I stood outside, a little voice came from inside “Mummy, can you get me down from the toilet, I’m stuck.” Since he had locked the door this was going to be a challenge so I cajoled him down and there were sounds of great shuffling and heaving inside. When he opened the door, I darted in. Before we washed his hands, I said “did you flush the toilet?” “No, because I didn’t do a wee,” he said. “Why didn’t you do a wee?” I asked. “Because I was only joking that I wanted to do a wee.” Of course. The other two were still alive on our return. Very daringly, I sent the Princess to the restaurant car alone to pick up supplies. I was a little nervous that she might get lost or get overlooked in the queue but she returned bearing a bottle of water triumphantly aloft. I was very proud. But then she started fighting with her brothers again, so I got distracted.
By the time we got back to Dublin, I was fit to be tied. I consigned them all to the care of their father and took public transport home. When I got home, they were reproachful: why had I gone away? Alas, they were also utterly ignorant that they had played a role in my chagrin (Daniel seemed to have the glimmerings of an idea). A lengthy discussion with each of them in turn yielded only the information that they had had a great time in Cork. They appeared to only have the mildest awareness that their behaviour might have been in any way unpleasant: ranging from Michael, who denied everything, to Daniel who conceded some sins and the Princess who said “I hate it when you use your sad voice, can we draw a veil?”
Let us draw a veil. I do wonder what I am doing wrong, though. I appreciate that at ages 6 and 4 responsibility for their poor behaviour is much more mine than their’s. Do they, in fact, not understand what behaviour is expected of them? Do I yield too easily to them? Is it just because there are three of them so close together in age (I can’t help noticing that supernanny spends more of her time with families with twins than would be statistically expected)? There is something about all of them together – there are never problems, if there are only two and it doesn’t matter which two. Will they ever learn to be polite and well-behaved? Sometimes I despair – of course, sometimes I am filled with hope and delighted by them. Just not at the moment. Anyway, one thing I have learnt, I will not be taking the three of them to their grandparents’ house together again, if I can help it.
Now, how was your weekend?