Sunday, 9 March 2008


It's Sunday. In my diary is written: Parks workshop. We're going to learn how to basket weave. That sounds gentle enough, I think, for me. And sounds ideal, in a scout hut, for a Sunday afternoon.

When we arrive, there's only us - me with Shark, Squirrel and Tiger - and a five year old schooled child, Angela, who's with her mum. Leading the workshop is an elderly lady called Flo, with gentle eyes and nimble fingers. She's helped lots of people, she says, as I gaze on the long lines of willow, and warmly reassures me that anyone can basket weave. Give it half an hour, she says, and you can make a fish.

As we're milling about, taking off coats, Angela rearranging chairs, I can feel Angela's mum spy triplets. I watch this moment dawn a hundred times and sometimes it's funny. The watcher's eyes rest on one small face, then their gaze slides over to the other. You can see them map the same child features; positioning eyes, mouth, nose, ears, hair, like replica coordinates in some strange doubled mirror world. Then, suspicious, the watcher's eyes slide off to the third, and then back to the first, and then round again, mouth slightly opened now, frowning, checking positions, looking to see if they're outmanoeuvred by running children. Suddenly: 'Are they triplets?' a involuntary shout, like you might burst out 'Help!' or 'Stop!'

It's my turn then. I nod and smile. I usually hear, 'I don't know how you cope', or 'that must be hard work', which I mind less because it's true. But sometimes, worst of all 'What a nightmare'. They might as well just say, 'God, that's awful, isn't it? You must be locked in a despairing land of the living dead and no escape'.

Today I get the nightmare line. So I bring out my cold, hard, withering stare. And cut dead all hope of further conversation, all hope of that silent female bonding that might come about in meeting eyes and raising eyebrows while hinting to stories of babyhood, or birth, and I say fixedly, with grim eyes, and loud too, so Shark, Squirrel and Tiger can hear me above all others, I say, 'No. My children are a joy'. It is a declaration. I could have my hand placed against my chest or raised above a book, the book that says I will not be worn down, I can stand up and say this, 'They are a joy'. Some days, I even believe in my own saintly pose.

At least today my declaration does cut dead all talk. Because usually I then get back, 'Bet you're glad they're in school'.

When we're assembled and talked through the properties of willow, red, green and yellow, and one called daphnoides that turns smoke blue, Flo asks us to choose our willows for the fish. She turns first to Angela, who cheerfully answers yellow and runs off with a fish to weave. Then Flo turns to Shark.

Now I suspect Shark could shine - perhaps in the right school, with just the right people all about, arranged just so. She'd be Big Fish in Little Pond. She'd do well, be well; the odd snap and bone crunch of an unfortunate small fry on a weekly basis would be enough to keep everything in order. But school. Oh dear. She would have to be separated from Tiger, and Squirrel.

If Shark thinks she is alone, without sisterly support, she weeps. She howls. We have learned to part her from sisters with safeguards and securities: Don't worry, they're here. You can see them. She'll be right back. They're next door. They're out with daddy and will be back at three.

But today, when Flo singles out Shark, looking only at her, inviting no sisterly prompts, allowing no sideways sisterly glances, and asks what colour willow do you like, Shark is suddenly caught off-balance. What colour do I like? What do I say? She turns scarlet and looks at the wall, then at the floor. I cringe. It looks like my heavy-duty Shark is suddenly without self-sense, and alone; something prevents her looking up, meeting eyes, or speaking. At this moment, she needs the close thought or the close proximity of a sisterly body or a sister's prompting whisper. She looks like she might be thinking, I know if I can think my sister's thoughts, if I can hear my sister breathe and say red, I know that I like blue.

Flo, feeling the awkward hesitations, prompts again. And again. Silence. Flo picks up yellow and offers that. Shark's face crumples, and the watchers shift uneasily. At the defence, I leap in and scatter apart the audience, picking up willows of different colours and offering them round. This is the way I know how to do it, and can release Shark, who turns away in a corner, quietly chastened.

Then there's Tiger. Once Shark is gone, she too, suddenly looks lost. And Flo responds to her silence by swiftly forming an outline of a fish and deftly twisting the first lines of willow to form the spine. Flo's fingers look like they are made of willow too. They bend, this way and that, knitting the willow in and out and twisting it around, making the little loops look not like Grit's bent sticks but like wooden cobweb art. And Tiger's face is growing redder and her lips tighter. 'Is it alright?' I say to Tiger, knowing it's gone wrong, hoping Flo will somehow take the point and stop her willow knitting now and pass the fish on. 'Is that alright?' I say again, louder. 'No!' shouts Tiger. 'I didn't want her to do it all and now she's done and there's no point!'

'Flo is trying to get you started' I reason, 'look, now she'll pass the fish to you'. I add the last command, clearly, hoping this is like the polite lady chat which passes back and forth at basket weaving times. Flo obliges and Tiger holds her fish, limp, like it is a diseased thing, her mouth distorted, red face thunderous, hissing. She stomps off to the furthest away table. Flo keeps a watchful eye on her departing figure and I can feel the warmth drain away and the words 'spoiled child' hanging, voiceless.

What Flo doesn't know is that this is normal Tiger. Tiger cannot be 'educated' in any schooled sense. She will spend hours struggling alone with a problem or a puzzle. Attempt to help her at your peril. There is simply no way she can receive any fact or knowledge transmitted to her. She wants to discover it for herself. If I want to show her any type of skill or trick, it has to be with utmost care: I have to show her what to do as if I am not showing at all, and barely aware that she is there. One false move in this casual demonstration, and that's it. Angry, violent Tiger, tearing things up. Snarling, hissing Tiger, breaking things apart.

And finally, at the end of the session, it's Squirrel's turn.

Squirrel is aged 8, but we can call it 13. Since the minute hand ticked the final moment of her 7 years, she has been obnoxious, violent, sneering, rebellious, and determined on the last word, come hell or high waters and she wants yellow willow.

As I try to persuade Flo to part with a massive bundle of yellow willow, trying to be helpful, Squirrel is punching me in the kidneys. I turn round and say 'Stop' which I hope sounds definite. I may as well have said, 'Please continue. Harder'. 'Stop' I say again as she lands me another blow. Then she raises her fists and thumps me in the back. I turn round, abandon all pretence of courtesy with Flo and glower. I'd like this facial gesture, against all evidence, to be the very last of the thing. I want the Force of Glower to send Squirrel kicking and grunting away, go stomping off and hit the furniture. Only she doesn't. She stands in front of me and beats me with her fists. I pick her up and carry her, rigid, ironing board, to the kitchen, where I put her down and tell her she does not come in the room again until she calms down. If you do, I warn, you are grounded for swimming. You are grounded for the museum. You are grounded for French. For gym. For trampoline. Right now, I'd add eating, drinking and sleeping if I could.

Five minutes later she's back, snarling with rage behind me. I gather up our willowed fish and set off at a crack to the car. I've had enough. Angela, who humiliates me with her polite behaviour, holding hands with mother and skipping, is behind. Shark stumbles along, snivelling and crying: her whole world upset once Squirrel starts jack-booting to the door. Tiger is still foul-faced, ignored now by Flo and me. Squirrel, meanwhile, is behind us all, shouting 'I don't care about you! I don't care about you! I don't care about you! I don't care about you!'

I glance back with Flo's good bye and see Angela's mum, watching, with Angela skipping alongside, waving her rainbowed willow fish.

And I didn't say, 'Yes. It is a nightmare, sometimes. And if you really want to know, because let's face it, you do, it was an unplanned explosion of eggs and late age. When three heads were discovered with the first thick slap of gel on my belly, Dig was in Slovakia. I was alone, in shock, and taken to a side room to stare at the wall. When three tiny beings were ripped out early, all alive and one with a wonky leg, my body stopped, closed down, job done. For a week I wasn't alive enough to think I might die. Then when the babies came home my marriage stopped and life stopped and no-one wanted to know any joy that I could manufacture out of nappies and bottles and laundry and no sleep. They wanted to hear only the horror of it all. And so, every time I heard those words 'What a nightmare' I said, through gritted teeth, 'No. They are a joy'. Because if I say it enough times it will be true.

But now look. A nightmare is so evidently true, with a jack-booting Squirrel, a snivelling Shark and a foul-tempered Tiger. Next time, I think, I'll say 'A nightmare? Yes. Some days'.


Michelle said...

If one child can be a nightmare from time to time I don't really see how you can expect to have all fluffy bunnies and absolute pure joy every day with three.

have some hugs anyway xx

grit said...

what i resent is other people's automatic assumption that having triplets is a nightmare ... and i resent it even more when we so publically prove them right.

Gill said...

FWIW I always wanted twins and would have been delighted to have triplets. Yes, it must make life pretty near impossible sometimes, but 3x the joy of one child in the good times. And 3x more good times, no?

Having said that I've got one 13 month-old here who is determined to climb everything in sight and I'm thinking: *How did she manage with 3??* But then again, I had my first three children all within 3.5 years, so I suppose it's kind of similar. Sometimes mad, sometimes joyful.

I'd hate the automatic assumptions too. People are very thoughtless sometimes.

grit said...

hello gill; i don't think any parent could thank a stranger who stands in front of their child and calls them, in their hearing, a nightmare ... and when they look and say it to your entire family, it would make any mother gird up and growl in defence.

foolishly, i want to believe that for this show of motherly loyalty, i could expect some loyalty back, rather than a demonstration of how awful each child, in turn, can be. worse, they seem to be totally wrapped up in some self-reliant, self-defining triplet bubble, unaware of how everyone does see them. they look anti-social, uneducated, and it's pretty hard right then to extol the virtues of home ed.

and the fact that it all took place before a 5-year old schooled child behaving like julie andrews didn't help, quite frankly.

grit said...

hang on, i've read these comments again... joy? joy? if this blog's going to start trading in joy, i'm stopping reading it.

Potty Mummy said...

Yes, but Julie Andrews always struck me as rather boring...

And now I'm off for a nap. Because my two children (of different ages) have worn me out.

There's never a singing nun around when you need one, is there?

Gill said...

LOL, happy happy joy joy..

I guess your three didn't read the 'Contented Triplet' manual? Or learn the song.

The Julie Andrews child won't always be like that, surely. It might be worth keeping in touch and seeing what kind of teenager she grows up to be, because the sweetest children often make the most interesting adolescents, don't you think?

the mother of this lot said...

Well, reading some of your other posts I think you sound like a wonderful mum with lovely kids who just happened to have a bit of an off-day. Unfortunately, they all just had their off-day on the same day, but so what?

Luck of the draw that there was a near-perfect mother and child twosome there to witness it.

Forget about it. I just wish I'd have been there instead - eight girls and two mums - it would have been Flo who needed the lie down!

grit said...

you are very kind motl! i am probably over it now, but unfortunately i have now made for myself a slight problem of self righteousness.

if all else fails i may have to buy myself a box of chocolates and pretend it is from squirrel.

Elizabeth said...

For once--a post that didn't make me smile. Sending many hugs for having had a bad time with the girls, especially in a public forum. I truly don't get how callous people can be about children--especially in front of the kids and the parents. We should go back to the old days--if you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all.

grit said...

i'd like to agree elizabeth, but unfortunately if i subscribed to the 'if you can't say anything nice don't say anything school' i'd rarely open my mouth. ;)

Pig in the Kitchen said...

wow, that was really powerful, and very well written. It's my first visit to your blog...I'll be back for more.
For the record, I wanted to punch Amanda's Mum on your behalf. Can't stand smug Mums.

Allie said...

People just seem to speak without thought, fairly often, don't they? A woman I know once said of my two year old boy, "He's a real thug, isn't he?" So rude! I imagine she was trying to appeal to some sense of solidarity as a 'mothers of boys' - but she just p'd me off royally. I guess this thoughtless woman was trying to do something similar... Rudely...

I have a cousin who has two sets of twins (eighteen months apart) - all boys. They're all lovely lads in their late teens now. 'Tis true that her house was fairly full on when they were younger (many a fish finger to be found in the sofa cushions) but not really much more so than most houses with kids.

Anyway, sorry to hear you had such a crapola trip. Comfort yourself that you will hopefully never meet child or parent again. That's what I do...