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The Fine Art of Mumming

Nobody ever told me that when I became a mother I would have to split my children's grapes.

But this is mere inconvenience. Parenthood brings unsuspected horrors. "That's just peanut butter on his face," I remarked calmly one day as my husband came in the door. It's hard to remember that grunge was not, in fact, the fashion statement of choice. In particular during pregnancy, when sporting that little grubby mark over the abdomen produces so distinguished an effect.

It's endearing the way they announce when you're going into 'good labour'. That's the part when it starts getting really bad, you understand. "I was not in labour," I told my husband afterward. "You were in labour. I was in pain." And then the baby was born and didn't like me, and I wished fervently that she could go back inside. Which was the only thing the two of us would agree on for a long time.

After labour there wasn't much left of my mind. As long as the nurses didn't put a nightgown on the placenta and ship the baby off for medical experiments, I was happy. I did get the joke about why they so delicately draw your husband aside to admire his new progeny. I wonder whether the men ever figure out that this is to keep them from seeing what comes out of us next.

When I regained my equilibrium, I realized that I'd been left with someone who obviously hadn't the faintest idea who I was. At first this was no problem. I told myself that my beloved baby silently understood everything that went on between us. As she grew older and started to dribble, it became increasingly difficult to believe in the secret intelligence of my child.

I soon discovered I was taking care of someone for whom simple eating and sleeping were not primal functions. Everyone thought my daughter Alia was an easy baby.

"She's happy all day," I would reply. "That's twenty-four hours. Yes." Never a tantrum? "Yes, I have one occasionally."

Now, my son Scott was a screamer. Every mother has her own way of dealing with these. I sang opera.

The girl arrived first. It was with Scott that I discovered boys. Men have already discovered boys, of course. Only a man would look at a roly poly bundle of love and call it "Tiger". Women have to learn about boys. It is with a shock of disbelief that a mother realizes her baby is feeling her up while suckling. Girls cuddle to sleep. Boys roll trucks over your body.

Boys are inflexible. My son has a fit every time the skits change on Sesame Street. He gets angry on a merry-go-round because he wants it to go in the other direction. You know the saying, "It takes so little to please a child". Who said that, anyway?

Of course it's the girl who is most insulting. I discovered the influence of American television when, at the age of two, the child started talking about her merca. She had a merca, she told me with great self possession. Sometimes she would point it out to me from the bus, each time at a different location. Her merca had a water park, a playground and non-stop birthday parties. It also had her Other Mother, as she frequently explained to passers by.

"My good mother," she would say. "The one who never says no."

"I want everyone's shoes on," I said one morning, "And I want everyone out the door now."

"Mummy," she said patiently, "You can't have everything you want".

She looked listless one afternoon. "Are you all right, sweetie?" I asked.

"Maybe...a little piece of chocolate," she responded faintly. Barely higher than my knee, she was. And perhaps this was why she did not believe me when I told her how babies were made. I said exactly what I was supposed to say, and she thought I was having her on. My son was older when he was told, and after some consideration concluded that he would never have sex himself. "It would be too umbarrassing," he explained.

Some boys are Bad Kids. Not mine, of course. There was a Bad Kid in my husband's elementary school when he was a boy. Got caught dropping pumpkins on cars from the local overpass. He threw a chain in the electrical generator. Blacked out half the county.

Girls are really different. I remember seeing two little ladies at a birthday party, attired in their best finery, and thinking how much they resembled refined women in evening dress. Except that instead of each saying what a lovely dress the other had, each was saying what a lovely dress she herself had. Which, underneath, was what the women in evening dresses had been saying too.

I've always thought the story of Adam and Eve had the characters mixed up. Imagine a girl and a boy in their situation.

"No, no," the girl would shake her head, "God said we're not supposed to eat from that one."

"Come on, give it a try. Let's see what happens."

"I'm gonna tell."

Fortunately, my husband is not a picky man. When people asked, "What do you want, a boy or a girl?" he would reply cheerfully, "That's right". Then they'd give him funny looks, and he'd pretend not to understand.

There are perks to the job. Mummy's Cut, for the Suffering. All the holiday candy that really isn't good for the children's teeth. This, of course, comes to an end when they learn how to count.

And the thrill of discovering new species. The snuffle nosed frog catcher. The pot bellied channel flipper. Till you find out you're the pot bellied channel flipper.

Looking forward to old age. My husband knows he's getting on because he cruises around with a lecherous gleam in his eye making openly admiring remarks he would never have dared twenty years ago. But he's not looking at members of the opposite sex, he's looking at real estate. As for myself, I'm looking for marbling on the cheesecake. My husband is unfailingly considerate about this concern.

"You're so well trained," I tell him. He's been like this ever since the time he said I was a nine-and-a-half, a mistake he has never been allowed to forget.

"Sincerity will get you nowhere," I warned him.

"Most beautiful of women," he murmured.

Amid the general dilapidation I have discovered organizational skills I never knew I possessed. I took care of two toddlers besides my daughter, before my son was born, and discovered that the time it takes to get around to putting on the third set of shoes and socks is just enough time for the first set of shoes and socks to come off. With two kids, you can just make it to getting the second pair on in time to grab the first pair before it comes off and whisk both children out the door. This is why I didn't have a third child.

As it is, I'm always being checked on by people who never actually take care of children themselves. "Mrs. Louseborough Gooseby hasn't been splitting her son's grapes lately." When they try this on you, remember: they wouldn't be criticizing you if you hadn't come to work in the first place. Not as inspector, you understand, but as chief cook and bottom washer. That job which nobody wants.

The thing about toddlers, in particular, is that they don't know what anything's for. And after a while, neither do you, until you catch yourself putting socks among the silverware and fruit in the closet and decide that you'll do less damage if you take a rest. Toddlers put toast in the VCR. It looks so inviting, after all. They jam the answering machine. I mean, they peanut butter and jam the answering machine.

I have heard myself saying things I never thought would come out of my mouth. "It's not your belly button, it's your sister's belly button. If you want to poke somebody's belly button, poke your own."

And they're fast. I remember going into the kitchen for three seconds and returning to find our new daycare baby, happy as a clam, sitting in the middle of the room wrapped up in audio tape with my daughter, cassette in hand, toddling around and around her. I also remember myself in a restaurant catching my two children at an older age, calmly salting and peppering the baby in the next booth and rapturously watching her sneeze.

They have a unique way of putting things. Scotty stormed into the room one afternoon, a full three feet of justified indignation. "Aya call me a Bad," he declared.

"The very idea! Alia knows better than that," I replied, and then remembered my daughter at the same stage when I had uttered the identical words.

"Aya nose," she had answered solemnly, pointing at the button in the middle of her face. "Mummy nose, Aya nose."

At this age my son was obligingly nonverbal. Which presented no obstacle to his answering the telephone on every possible occasion. He would pick up the receiver and say sociably, "Owow?"

I do not ask for gratitude from my children. I just fear that one day my corpse will be found under a swarm of happy, oblivious toddlers. That playing dead thing just doesn't work.

The latest development is camping which, according to my husband, teaches the whole family to appreciate the luxuries of our daily lives. He has been told that I already appreciate the luxuries of my daily life, and that this is why I spend our camping trips wishing I were at home in the tub.

I am not the woman I was. When you start using your tummy to hold the baby up then you know it's an installment that's here to stay. And I have become reconciled to the slowly dawning horror of realization that our family is numbered among Those People who Trash Real Estate.

One thing I have found truly challenging. The most difficult requirement of all, over and above all others, and necessitating the most immense resources of self control which I can possibly muster. Without a doubt, it's keeping a straight face.

graphic courtesy of Discovery School

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