Little boys - an owner's manual
All-boy families can be testing for mums who had banked on years of Barbies and hair braids
A few days ago, I turned on the radio in my kitchen and caught the middle of a Pat Kenny interview with some guy. "It's just the total lack of freedom." He sounded quite distressed. "The little things people take for granted. Like not being able to walk up to the shop by yourself to buy a paper. Not being able to use the toilet alone. Simple freedom."
Ah, I thought to myself with empathy, as I ironed the school shirts. A first-time Daddy. Poor guy.
Actually, it transpired that the guy had just been let out of prison. Oops. But on reflection, being a stay-at-home parent to pre-schoolers can be a little like a jail sentence.
It was an easy mistake to make. I am currently serving the sixth year of my sentence, although I am up for parole next September when my youngest starts playschool (my sons are six and three).
I can't say I had imagined that motherhood would be like this. I suppose most people underestimate the level of stress associated with 24-hour care of little people. In less than a decade I've gone from yearning for the patter of tiny feet to yearning for the sound of said feet pattering their way out the front door for a couple of hours a few mornings a week.
But of course I hadn't counted on having only boys. As someone with only one brother and one nephew in an extended family of countless girls, I had pictured my mothering days full of dollies and pinkness and mutual hair-braiding. More Barbie and a lot less Ben 10.
In fact, before I had one, I knew nothing about little boys at all. Now, if I were to go on 'Mastermind', my specialist subject would most certainly be The Life and Times of the Rev W Awdry.
Having one boy was, in truth, a lovely surprise. A little wave of blue in the sea of pink of our family photographs. And I like to kick a football as much as the next person.
It was when a second came along that I realised how ill-educated I was for the job. Every other boy I knew had a sister ready and willing (sometimes literally) to slap him down and keep him in check. With no pink person around to referee, boy-on-boy action can actually be quite scary to witness.
Once they started crawling, I spent most of their waking hours on edge, with one hand on my car keys at all times, ready to leg it to the nearest hospital.
Boys are supposed to be physical, of course, but having the responsibility of being the adult in charge of them is exhausting.
When I brought my firstborn home from the hospital, I was informed by a reliable source to expect to have him in A&E at least once before he started school.
This is not an urban myth. Indeed one caring, loving mother of two gorgeous boys I know had to suffer the mortification of a visit from social services. Apparently one visit to casualty too many sets off alarm bells, which is to be commended of course. But the only thing that poor woman was guilty of was having a son with a penchant for running headlong into things.
It's just not the same as caring for girls. The idea of two of my lovely nieces rolling around on the floor punching each other while laughing hysterically is completely implausible.
As far as I am aware, none of my sisters has had to peer into the loo for three days straight hoping to see a bit of Lego protruding from one of their daughters' poos, and fretting about the consequences if it didn't.
I hadn't appreciated how over-anxious I had become until one day at a friend's kid's birthday party. I was watching through the kitchen window at the party of mostly boys out in the garden as they were being dragged around on a plastic sheet by one of the daddies.
They were screeching with laughter as they narrowly avoided colliding with garden furniture and other potentially head-busting items.
"You don't have brothers, do you?" A voice from over my shoulder said gently. I removed my nails from the worktop and turned to see my friend's brother-in-law looking at me knowingly.
I did have one. But he was 10 years older than me and he went to boarding school.
"You need to chill." The tone of his voice was calming, worldly. "Boys need to go mad. This," he gestured out to the garden where one of my sons was being held by his ankles as he screamed with delight, "is totally normal behaviour for boys."
This was a watershed moment for me. I was so grateful. He didn't make me feel stupid. He seemed to understand. It was like having my own personal David Coleman standing before me in my friend's kitchen, full of helpful, useful advice.
"Sure, I set fire to my own brother once."
Well. Okay. Maybe not quite David Coleman, but you get my drift.
From that moment on, I made a genuine effort to back off. To let them tumble and pummel. To gaze proudly on them as they dig up the good roses, looking for worms.
Now I just accept that they will spend most of their daylight hours covered in mud, and am thankful that most of their clothes don't need ironing. I don't make them wear their bicycle helmets anymore when they go out to play in the garden.
I might never fully understand the various boxes of stones, bits of metal and general rubbish (treasure) that appear all over the house, but I no longer question it. And we are all the happier for it. I may have the aura of someone who has just popped a valium most of the time, but I know some of my friends look at me in jealous awe as I can sit and enjoy my Americano while my boys wrestle the "most important bit" of Lego from each other on the floor at my feet.
And I'm sure my husband appreciates not getting the daily 5pm "BRING HOME RED WINE - WE NEED RED WINE" text. Well, not every day at least.
From a biological viewpoint, I have, of course, drawn the long straw. No awkward womanly chats await me. In the short term I may be on the back foot -- baby boys do not, regrettably, come with illustrated diagrams.
But having once being severely chastised by a GP: "You have never pulled back his foreskin to wash under it?" (Er, his what?) I now resort to Google when any little boy problems crop up.
Any future man issues can be addressed by my husband, he being in a far better position than I to advise.
I reckon I am pretty much off the hook. I may have many toe-freezing hours on pitch sidelines ahead of me, but I am also confident of being able to enjoy many Saturdays shopping and lunching in town with my girlfriends while the boys do boy stuff with their Daddy.
Plus there's the thing, the mother and son thing. Not having daughters, I can't really say if it is a myth or a truth of all children, but I reckon that there are a lot of mammies out there sneakily delighted at the knowledge that no other woman will ever compare.
It's started already. Over a bowl of Rice Krispies the other morning, my six-year-old asked me what I thought he would look like when he was older.
"The most handsome man." I was choked. "You will be so gorgeous. All the girls will be running after you."
"Yeah." He thought about it as he munched. "But I'll run faster, won't I Mammy?"
That's my boy.
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