Persuade partner that he/she needs some quality time with their mum – and that the kids and dog are just longing to see her too
I've just spent the first week of the school holidays lying on my sofa in a quiet house with my feet up, and here's how I did it. Seriously, this is the perfect recipe for a smooth start to the trickiest six weeks of the year.
Find a cast-iron reason to stay at home (I have a book to write, and the deadline mysteriously crept forward four whole months to this Friday), and you're in business. Sure, I had to iron clothes for a full 24 hours before they left, and I showed solidarity by getting up to help pack the car for their 6am getaway to Scotland. It was a small price to pay. I even manage to be purringly sympathetic to my husband when he calls from the log cabin I've rented for them on the west coast to tell me about how he's coping ("it's pissing down with rain and the kids are fighting the entire time") while sipping silently from my glass of chilled white wine.
Get the kids to choose a summer theme – as wacky as they want
"So," says Miranda, 10. "You're saying I can do a project over the summer, and it can be on absolutely anything?" "Yep," I say. "Anything you like." "What," says Miranda, "even poo?" "Absolutely," I say. "The wackier the better."
This approach takes kids by surprise because their life, so far, has been entirely framed by the National Curriculum. Offer them an entirely free rein and they're genuinely astonished. And the subject doesn't matter: if it really captivates or amuses them, they'll stick at it.
Miranda is doing dogs for her project, and Catriona, seven, is doing "toys from the olden days". That's prompted me to organise two cheap days out: first, to Battersea Dogs Home, and I'm praying we won't have to take our lives in our hands in the don't-come-in-here-if-you've-a-heart-condition corridor like last time; and, second, to the more tranquil Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London.
Lie through your teeth about activity courses
I've just signed Miranda and Catriona up for a dance course run by our local council. It's a snip at £24 for both of them for three afternoons. They're looking forward to it, but I've been slightly economical with the truth. Miranda said she'd only go if it was street dance. The organiser said there was some street dance, but quite a bit of high-school musical and cheerleading. I asked if she'd tone down the high-school musical and cheerleading; she said she did follow the kids' wishes. I then announced, with a flourish, that I'd signed them both up for street dance. Now I have 12 hours, the week after next, to call my own.
Steal a pet
You don't really have to steal one. Haven't you noticed, come summer, how your in-box groans with offers of guinea pigs, rabbits, dogs and rattlesnakes to look after while their owners are in Italy, Greece or deepest Peru? OK, I made up the rattlesnakes: but there are definitely pets aplenty to borrow. Now, every mum and dad knows that a full-time pet, however eagerly it was initially welcomed into the domestic fold, soon loses its kid appeal and becomes yet another task on the parental to-do list. Not so the temporary pet: a new species in the family is fawned over for at least a week. A pet requiring plenty of walks is good value. And don't forget to close the rabbit hutch at night, because finding the bones from a fox's feast on the lawn at breakfast is a definite downer, and could count against you for future pet loans.
Rekindle relationships with godparents
Miranda's godfather is overworked and already burdened with three kids of his own: but when I remind him of how devoted Miranda is to him, he's putty in my hands. Would he, I ask, like to take Miranda out for a day – or five – over the summer? It could be such fun, for both of them; so lovely to lay down memories, so precious to kindle a relationship that means such a lot to them both. Hasn't he been promising a trip to see his favourite football team play for at least five years now? There's no time like the present. He's getting back to me with dates.
Hire them out
I've only mentioned Miranda and Catriona so far, but I have two older kids as well – Rosie, 17, and Elinor, 15. But I won't be seeing much of Rosie or Elinor over the summer because I've discovered that I can rent them out to friends with smaller kids who are as desperate as me for childcare now school's out. If I asked Rosie or Elinor to look after their younger siblings for the afternoon they would cut through me with a look of utter disdain, but when I mention that Kate or Sue or Jane down the road wants them to look after their sprogs – and will pay them for the privilege – I don't see them for dust.
Invest in a family membership
The sensible one, of course, is for the National Trust (only £61 annually, with free entry to zillions of snooty old houses where your kids can cause havoc and even, if you choose carefully, deface a priceless Turner or Gainsborough). But why be unimaginative? Join something called the John Muir Trust and you can take part in a conservation work party; join the Alpine Garden Society, and for £29 a year you get free rare seeds by post. If by any chance you're a single parent with six kids you can't beat family membership of the Historic Royal Palaces, which has a special category just for you that's a snip at £55 a year, complete with endless opportunities to practise putting your head on the block like Anne Boleyn.
Take them to your second-nearest library
Kids are bored, bored, bored with their local library. "Mum! I can't believe you're still going on about the library," say mine, when I suggest we might head down for two hours that won't require a shelling-out of cash, and just might spark some thought that goes beyond Zack & Cody. But I've discovered a little wheeze that really does work: we don't go to our nearest library, the place we've known like the back of our hands since they were still in nappies, we go to the second-nearest library which, given a total lack of adventure genes in our family, we've never ventured into. "Hey, mum," says Catriona. "This is a great library. It's much better than the one near home." Bingo. We stay all day.
Bribe, bribe, and bribe again
Face it, as my kids would say, what school holidays are all about is shelling out dosh. One night I dreamt I was being marched at gunpoint to an ATM machine by a particularly merciless gang of thieves. I woke in a cold sweat, only to realise that the ruthless faces behind the masks had been those of my daughters. But if you accept you're going to have to hand over large wodges of cash, then get this: you can attach conditions. OK, let's call a spade a spade: I'm talking bribery. But it really is amazing what miracles can happen when extra pocket money is linked to tidy bedrooms, swept kitchens, returned DVDs – and even ironed clothes.
There's nothing worse than breathing a sigh of relief come the first week of September, only to realise – as you sit reading the newspaper, coffee in hand, for the first time in almost seven weeks – that you've a little knot of sadness somewhere deep inside. At first you can't put your finger on it, but then it comes to you. Another summer is over, your child has edged that bit nearer adulthood, and – ooops – you forgot to enjoy the precious summer.
You fretted endlessly about the cost, the lack of time, the disruption to your job, the messy house. And, of course, it was expensive, and you never had a second, and heaven knows how you've still got a job, and the house is a pigsty: but hey, they're your kids. The whole point is to enjoy them. And the whole point of the holidays is that you get to enjoy them more, and for longer. "Mum," my kids would say if they could hear me now. "You're such a loser!" Well, listen up: a loser I may be, but I don't want to be that much of a loser. So bring it on, summer 2009. Not only am I going to survive but – how's this for a boast? – I think I'm actually going to enjoy it, too.
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