The Diary: Detonating motherhood is more reassuring

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The Independent Online
The other night I had dinner in Boston with two women friends to celebrate my winning of a British literary prize, and as so often happens when women friends of a certain middle age get together - whether they are astronauts or hairdressers or fiction writers - the discussion turned to children. We all had them; we all loved them; we all agreed how restorative it could be to get away from them.

I had just been in England, flown there by my publisher to participate in publicity events surrounding the award. In order to understand my excitement about being: a) in a London hotel (in Notting Hill, no less); b) taken out every day for lunch and dinner; c) treated with kindness and respect, one must understand my normal everyday life, which consists mostly of doing laundry; washing dishes; dispensing unheeded advice about how best to wipe one's own nose: attempting to apply sunblock to squealing bodies fishtailing across the room; prying dried macaroni out of the carpet; and interrupting venomous exchanges over whose crayon is whose.

ONE OF my friends said, "Did you miss the kids?" I decided to be honest - always a risky policy - and admitted that I had not. My friends peered at me, weighing this response. I added plaintively, "It was my Cinderella moment, being in London, and winning a prize. I had room service every morning. I went to Princess Diana's favourite restaurant. I met wonderful writers and editors and publishing people and saw a movie star at a cafe on my way to the ladies. British Airways even upgraded me to business class. And now," I paused to lower my voice, "now I'm home again."

"Dressed in rags and being ordered around by the step-sisters," observed one of my friends.

"It was just that nobody in England even knew I was a mother," I said, feeling I had hit on a real issue. "Nobody looked at me and wondered who was home taking care of my kids. They looked at me and thought, 'Why isn't she home writing another book?' "

"Who did take care of your kids?"

"My sister," I said. "She volunteered."

Our arugula salads finished, we nudged the discussion into different methods of mothering. It is very hard for mothers to speak uncritically of other mothers. When discussing another mother you have two options: either embrace her parenting philosophy fulsomely or try to detonate it. Usually one chooses detonation, which is more reassuring.

One of my friends began describing an acquaintance who believed passionately in giving her children "free rein". She allowed them to pour water on the bedroom floor, if the spirit moved them; she allowed them to bathe fully dressed. She even permitted them to draw all over her with Magic Markers.

My other friend described a mother she knew who plies her children and their friends with cookies and chocolate bars. For her liberality, this mother is lauded as "fun" by every child in the neighbourhood, all of who return moodily to their own homes poisoned by sugar and envy. "My daughter keeps asking why I can't be more like Amber's mother. Who's so much fun."

"WELL THERE'S the other extreme," I offered. "I know someone who won't allow her child to touch plastic - her daughter wears only 100 per cent cotton clothing, eats out of china bowls, has only wooden toys. She's doesn't even drink fruit juice - her mother gives her lukewarm herbal tea."

We sat quietly, perhaps each pondering the timeless mystery of why no mother can get it right, no matter what she does, and why we all, in one way or another, seem to be hunting for a way to make the sheer drudgery of parenthood into a calling, a cause or, in some cases, a terrifying new religion.

By this time our entrees had arrived, and while we ate our seared sea scallops and spinach risotto, I asked what they thought was required to have a "graceful" family life. "Money," they said in unison.

THAT SUBJECT dispatched, we moved on to the perniciousness of parenting magazines. "Have you noticed," said one, narrowing her eyes, "how closely those parenting advice columns resemble marriage advice columns in the Fifties: 'A wife's job is to help her husband leave his workday cares at the door. Girls, slip on a pretty frock before he gets home. Don't burden him with trivial household complaints'."

"Now it's the children you're not supposed to burden," said the other.

"I know women who are homeschooling their kids," said the first friend glumly. "I know someone who grows her own produce and sews clothes for the whole family." We stared pensively at each other. "What's next?" I asked. "Giving birth in the fields?"

After a moment of silence one of my friends asked me to talk about my time in England again. "We want all the highlights. What was the hotel like? Did you really have breakfast in bed every morning?"

"Yes," I said, trying not to sound smug. "And I left towels on the bathroom floor." "Aah," said my friends approvingly.

"Plus the English were so courteous, so civilised. None of the cab drivers yelled at me. One cabbie gave me all sorts of fascinating facts from English history. Did you know that while Henry VIII's body lay in state it exploded?" "Heavens," said my friends.

The check arrived. "This has been such a lovely evening," sighed one, reaching for her handbag. "You'll have to win something else so we can do this again. It's such a break to go out with other adults. What's your next book about, by the way?" "A family," I said.

Suzanne Berne won the 1999 Orange Prize for 'Crime in the Neighbourhood', Penguin, pounds 6.99

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