My eldest daughter is 5 years old. It is only by a few months but we have already started having arguments over what she wants to wear. My objection to her stylings, boring as I know it to be, is purely that she must keep warm; other than that, I’m happy for her to wear what she likes. For example, a few weeks ago we went for a trip to the pub with a small and determined (but warm) witch.
At about the same time we rediscovered a leather jacket that had been gifted to her some years back when she was a bit too small for it. It was instantly declared ‘cool’ and I knew from the bottom of my boots that we would not be seeing the back of it for some considerable time. Nevertheless, I am proud of her for putting her own outfits together, mostly because she’s finally dressing herself without bawling at me to do it – hurrah!, but also because a leather jacket is a bit cool, frankly.
The only problem is that being cool in this house often literally means being cold. Why bother dressing up if no one can see your choice of t-shirt? I can see her point, really I can. But the mother in me shudders when I see her little bare shoulders racing about in the autumn air.
I’m also shuddering because I recognise the determination in her and the sweetly misplaced notion of ‘cool’. I remember putting together outfits for my younger self that combined stonewashed appliquéd denim with camouflage. I declared myself ‘trendy’ largely because I’d gathered the notion that people in the fashion industry did pretty much the same thing and then charged loads of money for it (I wasn’t entirely wrong) – whereas I was delivering this to my admiring public for free. My defining notion of cool was anything that didn’t match but that instead clashed horribly. I’m not including any photos of me at this point mainly because I think I’ve destroyed them to save us all from the horror.
Right now, in a five year old, this determination is quite charming and cute. I can guarantee you it’s less so when you’re thirteen with a terrible haircut and massive Sue Pollard glasses (also ‘trendy’ apparently?). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to crush her individualism and I certainly don’t want her to become herd-like in her adherence to the fashions her friends are all wearing. However, going on my own painful experience, I also don’t want her to look entirely sectionable. Unless she grows up and decides that’s her ‘look’ of course (oh God, help, I’m flailing around in my attempts to be understanding!). Anyway, perhaps by starting so young, we can nail a few basics and come to early conclusions that will help in the future. Things like: camouflage does not go with appliquéd stonewash denim. Or: 4-5 competing patterns are probably a bit de trop.
So, we’re warring over some very basic issues though they’re currently very heartfelt. She wants to freeze to death whilst we’re out and I don’t want her to. It’s enough to create floods of tears and snot (not just on her part) which I think everyone will agree is not the perfect beginning to a lovely family daytrip.
We made a decision on where to go for our Sunday afternoon walk and drove to the Wyre Forest just outside Bewdley where we hauled the kids and the dog out of the car. Cool doesn’t include wellies apparently (stick that in your pipe, Kate Moss) so at least one of the party was poorly equipped for the walk. Until she pointed out that the dog didn’t have wellies either, so that made two. The husband had thought ahead and got coffees for us adults whilst we made a quick loo trip and there was a point, about 300 metres into the walk, where I felt quite pleased with our progress. The kids were old enough not to have to haul pushchairs around or worry unduly about poo. The weather was relatively warm and the sun shone through the trees so I could call a truce with our fashionista and not grit my teeth too hard at the lack of a jumper. As I walked along the path, sipping my coffee and smiling at the kids running around in front of me, I allowed myself the tiniest, most infinitesimally small little glint of smugness.
Initially I was still filled up enough with the joys of autumn to smile as the two of them performed a Laurel & Hardy inspired slapstick routine with a branch three times as long as the both of them whilst trying to build a den. I allowed myself a little laugh at the youngest’s outrage as another stick refused to be easily picked up (slightly tempered by the avalanche of tree branches that fell as she finally dislodged it). However, there were hints of a crazy energy building amongst the two of them that flashed and crackled a bit, causing small tiffs and little squeals as we walked along.
With a few dire warnings to behave, we stopped to watch a collection of blokes (a stag group?) being schooled in the basics of tree climbing at the Wyre Forest’s Go Ape centre. Emboldened by a sugar surge from a mini muffin, the eldest saw me crouching down to explain what was happening to the youngest – and launched herself at me. I’m not quite sure what happened next but as I tried to stand up, she accidentally legged me over and I crashed into the forest floor. Loudly.
When I finally got up, far too slowly for it not to have been noticed by virtually everyone in the woods, I discovered that my knee and elbow were hurt almost as much as my pride. I didn’t handle it well and I had to comfort a wailing daughter whilst I limped away to a nearby tree trunk, shedding bark and leaves as I went. There was a tacit agreement between both sides that mud does not look cool. It was a slightly less sunny little group who made their way back to the kids’ play area near to where the walk had started.
Still, there are little silver linings everywhere should you choose to look for them. Shortly after our exit from the woods, I came across a mum friend who asked if we’d had as rubbish a walk with our family as she had had with hers. Yes. Yes, we had. We shared wry smiles and discussed war wounds for a while (you know who you are, fellow traveller!) before we parted company.
My husband was rescuing one of the kids from the top of the climbing frame so I sat back on a bench, aching slightly. This gave me the opportunity to observe not only the smiling, happy families walking into the forest but also the miserable, knackered ones coming back out at the end of the loop. Mums were dragging at least three bikes and a dog behind them. Dads were lugging one child on their shoulders and another under their arms. There was a lot of wailing. I saw one mum and dad tag team dealing with their stropper in the play area who refused to share the swings. The mum came away visibly quaking with barely concealed rage so the dad went to take over and ended up offering their kid an ice cream, crisps, a beer, a whisky even, if only he’d leave the swings and stop screaming.
I had to smile. It wasn’t schadenfreude, I promise. I’d fallen over very publicly and come away with bleeding knees so I was the last person to be smirking at anyone else’s misfortunes. I had just recognised one of the great secrets of parenthood. At the point when you think you couldn’t be more embarrassed and annoyed, when you feel like you’re failing utterly at parenting, just look up, look around you and realise you are not alone. You. Are. Not. Alone. All parents are trying to hold their end up, as it were. They’re showing their best faces to you and me and desperately hoping that we can’t see their child behaving dreadfully. Or perhaps they’ve given up caring if anyone looks or not. Either way, everyone is getting through it as best they can and being literally or metaphorically legged over by their kids. So this is my silver lining that I’m donating to you all: if you look really hard, you can always find someone having a worse time than you.
It’s probably me.