Imperfect Tense

I’m not perfect. There, I’ve said it. The thing is, even as I write that, a tiny voice in the back of my brain mutters “well, you should work harder at it then”. Oh, the voices, the voices.


If I’m honest, I do feel, deep down in the boots of my psyche, in the bit I try to keep locked and sealed but which manages to break out in the pesty minutes before I fall asleep, that not being entirely perfect is some kind of affliction. It may even be catching. I feel pity for those troubled by Not-Entirely-Perfectism. If I were rich, I would start a fund to research cures or treatment or at least palliative care for the condition. Like Dr House walking through a waiting room, I diagnose its flawed symptoms all around me – this darn malady is everywhere, it’s like a plague.

Of course, the sane(ish) part of my mind can acknowledge that I am also a Not Entirely Perfect Person. I am a NEPP. There, I’ve said it again.

I’m not going to start to list the ways in which girls, then women, then mothers in our society are made to feel that being a NEPP is an unforgiveable character flaw, because it’s been done before and better. In fact, I will link to another blogger in a moment who admitted her own NEPPness (NEPPtitude?) last week and inspired my outpouring here. But first to my epiphany...

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about two things. First, that I’m not perfect (that bit isn’t an epiphany) BUT I can accept it (that bit is). Second, other people – close friends, complete strangers and everyone in between - who appear to judge me can all bugger off. En masse: a mass buggering off of unhelpful, judgemental, supercilious, schadenfreude-motivated people who make me feel all discombobulated in public.

My latest blog-crush, MammyWoo, put it perfectly when she said (talking specifically about body issues, but also perfectionism more generally):

“I would prefer the body of (not Jessica rabbit) Jennifer Anniston but hey, she doesn’t have kids, a poodle with the runs or a hectic schedule that involves more poop than scoop does she? (Scoop being cocktails and botox.) So why do I compare myself to these people who mostly are airbrushed?”

And that was my epiphany: people who appear to be perfect have just airbrushed their life.

Reading MammyWoo’s hilarious, harrowing and award-winning (oh yes) blog, led me, via The Mads Awards, to another inspirational site - Imagination Tree.

“Zillions of ideas for creative preschool play” it promises, and delivers so brilliantly that I was initially thrilled by all the new games and projects that we can enjoy... and then, only a couple of beats later, thrown into a state of dejection. How so?

Because I immediately started to worry about why it is that I don’t fill my kids’ days with resourceful, educational, stimulating games that engage their interest, develop new skills and cost nothing because I’ve found ingenious uses for a load of old junk that I’d otherwise throw away? Bah!

But then I read this, written by the Imagination Tree’s author Anna Ranson, who shall henceforth be known as “the blessed Anna”, (on my blog at least):

“We don't rise at dawn to play and craft and bake and sing. In fact we are pretty lazy in the morning altogether. We don't even do activities and crafts for a large percentage of the day, maybe an hour or so squeezed in between play groups, mums meet ups, outings to the park, watching Peppa Pig on repeat and of course the obligatory Sainsbury's shop. We have our fair sure of drawing on the walls, tantrums and pyjama days.”

Forgive me for gushing, but I read this and had a bit of a wobble. A lip wobble, in fact. “Peppa Pig on repeat”? I do that. “Pyjama days”? Check. “Drawing on the walls”? Check. “Tantrums”? If she means by the mum, then – check.

I read the blessed Anna’s incredibly perceptive passage about her non-perfect life with the kids (or is it actually perfect in its own unique way? Discuss...) and felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I actually feel lighter, less encumbered by the weight of my own expectation.

The straw that finally broke the camel’s back came from my neighbour, a child development expert, who was having a coffee and watching my three-year-old Curly Girlie drawing.

Curly Girlie: *whining, huffing, flinging self forward all over table* It’s wrong! I need another paper! Ooooooooo-eeeeeeerrrrrrrrr-HUH!

Neighbour: Wow! She’s giving herself a hard time - she’s really a perfectionist, huh?

And there you go. I thought I was going mad, but turns out it’s genetic. *

* The author would like to point out that this statement in no way implicates any blood relative as a NEPP. Also, no animals were harmed during the production of this blog.

I am Indiana Jo – welcome to my Temple of Doom

Once upon a time, I went to Chad on a press trip. Fascinating country and quite a place of contrasts: one day I hitched a lift on the Finance Minister’s private jet; the next I had to push my own taxi to the petrol station when it broke down.

chad taxi
chad taxi

And then there’s Cameroon Airlines, who were supposed to fly me home to Douala. When it comes to Cameroon Airlines, here’s a word of advice: don’t.

My flight out of Chad was delayed for four days. On the fourth day I was out of cash and there isn’t an ATM in Chad, so I decided to go to the airport and adopt an African approach to waiting, which can be summarised as: sit, wait.

This is much more effective than the Anglo Saxon approach to waiting, which can be summarised as: sit, fidget, check watch, tut, stride about, check watch, question an official, sit, huff, check watch, try to read, get distracted, fidget, sigh, check watch, stride about, get sweaty, buy drink, spill drink on self, swear, sit, develop ulcer, die of frustration.

So I took a seat, parked my suitcase in front of me and noted, with some degree of prescience, that the windows had no glass in them. It was daytime and still light. I drank a cool coke. There were almost certainly insects, but I hadn’t noticed them yet.

A while later it was dusk. The bar was out of cold soft drinks, so I had a tepid coke.  When a bug landed on my bare arm, I shook it off.

Then it was night. The bar was out of all soft drinks, so I had a hot beer. There were so many insects, I only flicked away the ones that landed on exposed skin: the ones on my clothes could stay put.

Later, the bar was out of all drinks and it was African dark outside, but the departures lounge was lit up like a giant accessible moon, and all the insects in all the world streamed in through the open windows. N’djamena airport was like the Temple of Doom – and I was Indiana Jo.

When a door finally opened and the flight was called, I had to scrape an inch-deep layer of insects off the top of my suitcase just to get hold of the handle. Then I boarded the plane and spent the hour-long flight picking grasshoppers out of my hair.

Shame I don’t have a picture – but taking photos in African airports tends to get you arrested and, well, that’s a whole other anecdote. Once upon a time, this kind of thing happened to me - and I loved it. But now? Well... times change.

view from the backseat in a chad taxi

view from the backseat in a chad taxi

I just got back from a holiday in Corsica. Have you been? It’s lovely.

So why couldn’t I relax?

Is it because taking kids to a new place means baby-proofing all over again? The first thing I used to do on arrival in a boutique hotel was trampoline on the bed while simultaneously sniffing the free shampoo. Nowadays, I shoulder open the adjoining doors of our family suite and roll across the floor – SAS style – to recce the place for baby-traps. “OK troops! There’s unsecured stairs at 12 o’clock! Glassware, repeat, GLASSWARE at 6 o’clock! And... my god, there’s a FLOOR-LEVEL MINIBAR! Call for BACKUUUUUP!”

Or is it because I’ve changed? I’ve happily swopped a dugout canoe for a pedaloe: the Finance Minister’s jet for Easyjet: and being covered in insects for... er... not being covered in insects. All of the above are MUCH easier with kids.

I’m sure that my travel-MOJO will return in time. When my daughter has grown out of ‘exploring her boundaries’ by running away as fast as she can towards heavy traffic, and when my son has had enough of ‘investigating the texture of things’ by putting them into his orifices, then we will be adventurous again. Until then, Indiana Jo is hanging up her bullwhip... although, on second thoughts, it could come in useful next time that girl legs it...

What a knee-jerk!

Just as I finally finished reading Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children, and genuinely felt I had made some headway in my battle against shouting, swearing and beating the children with a rolled-up Kindle, I read an article called

“How to Land Your Kid in Therapy”

. Lori Gottlieb, a therapist and mother, writes that trying to make your kids happy all the time only makes them, well, miserable.

Lou Brooks
Lou Brooks


... all that hard work down the drain. I even meditated (ok, only once, and then I got put off because the cooker timer started beeping halfway through and I had to decide whether ignoring it was part of the training or whether I should just get up and take the Quorn cutlet out of the oven). Turns out, contrary to my belief that occasionally losing my rag and yelling a bit would make the kids hate me, it seems that the odd moment of parental bad behaviour can help the kids grow up into independent, effective, balanced adults. In fact, being a perfect role model and doing everything for them will only breed wussy, narcissistic, reassurance-addictive freaks who can’t tell their pampered arses from their spoilt tennis elbows.

Ever prone to a knee-jerk reaction, I have drawn up a rota of bad parenting – child adversity training, if you will – to counteract the moments when I accidentally manage to be loving, attentive and supportive.

On Mondays I will remove all toys from the house. This will teach them to make their own entertainment, and also that life is cruel.

On Tuesdays I will act distant and disinterested. This will make them emotionally resilient and show them that they are, when it comes down it, alone in the world.

On Wednesdays I will not pick them up when they fall. As they lie, face down in the dirt, clutching their grazed knees, they will learn to tolerate discomfort, and also accept that sometimes Mummy can’t be bothered to bend down.

On Thursdays I will ban all forms of play and we will only carry out household tasks in a joyless manner. From this, they will learn that ‘many hands make light work’, but also that life is one long chore with no thanks at the end of the day.

On Fridays I will answer the ‘whys’ with brutal honesty. “Mummy, why does our dog walk funny?” “Because he has crippling arthritis”. “Why does he have crippen-arse-rat?” “Because his body is slowly but inexorably degenerating with every passing day: he’s very slowly dying, like all of us – even you, poppet!”

At the weekends we can relax.

Don’t get me wrong (if you say hello and I take a ride)

In the years since I’ve been an expat, I’ve grown used to being a conspicuous outsider, a source of amusement, a bit of a novelty. My first posting was Cameroon, West Africa, where I went everywhere to a chorus of “Eh! La Blanche!”, which translates as “hey, White Woman!”. Political correctness never caught on in Cameroon.

Then I was in Singapore, where I also stood out from the crowd, mostly by being a head taller than a lot of other women. And now here I am in Switzerland, Winterthur to be exact, where I blend in nicely. No-one gives me a second glance - I’m like a spy in their midst.

Until I open my mouth.

In my personal experience, the Swiss (especially my neighbours) are extremely welcoming, but naturally enough people always prick up their ears when they hear a foreign language being spoken in the vegetable section of Migros. My skin doesn’t single me out any more, but my mother tongue certainly does. In the past, I’ve been able to hide behind tight lips – just a smile of greeting and remembering to say ‘merci vielmals’ instead of ‘danke schön’. But then I had kids and was forced to break my silence.


Which brings me to today, Migros and a toddler having a tantrum over a pumpkin. There was a meltdown next to the papayas and a lot of negotiation, an ultimatum and, finally, a good telling off. So just the usual, really: kid screaming in public; frazzled mum taking deep ragged breaths; and members of said public looking irritated by all the noise.

Except that, for an English speaker in a Swiss German-speaking supermarket, it’s much worse because no-one has a clue what the angry, shrill woman is saying to the weeping, gulping child. Pretty soon, I had drawn a crowd of onlookers, mostly drawn from the white-haired demographic, who gathered around in a slightly menacing way, saying nothing but clearly signalling that they had Social Services on speed-dial on their giant-buttoned mobiles.

When I said in my special low-toned, calming voice, “now, Curly Girlie, you’ve already been allowed to keep the three kumquats that you picked and weighed all by yourself, so can you please put the pumpkin back and maybe we’ll try that another day?”, they translated it as, “listen here, child of mine, you’re nearly three now so it’s time you learnt that Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are cynical inventions of the greeting card industry, now buck up and carry this pumpkin – no, not that little one, the big one over there”.

When I bent down to her level and adopted my no-nonsense tone to say, “I’m going to count to three and I want you to put the pumpkin back, 1, 2, 3...”, what they heard was, “and while I’m at it, the photo of the man I told you was Daddy is actually Face from the A-Team, now I want to hear no more about it. On three, grab this pumpkin, 1, 2, 3...”.

And when I stood back up and started gabbling, loudly and rapidly while waving my hands around a lot, they didn’t realise I was pleading, “this is the third meltdown of the morning, you ran away into the path of a car nearly killing yourself, then you turned over the table in the restaurant with all our food on it and now you’re having a tantrum over a pumpkin and you don’t even like pumpkin! Now let’s take some deep breaths together to calm down and get on with our shopping”, they imagined I was threatening, “look here, useless girl-child with a lower-than-optimal potential earning capacity, just stop making a fuss over this pumpkin-carrying. You already messed up the job I got you in a textile factory, you keep falling out of chimneys and you’re not cute enough to model, so you’ve got to earn your keep somehow. Now quit whining about the heavy pumpkin – I’m putting a crate of beer in your backpack in the next aisle...”

And they say toddlers get frustrated when they can’t express themselves...

Zen and the Art of Toddler Maintenance

I’m currently reading a book about Buddhism and children, and it seems that kids are just really Zen without even trying. They live in the moment – in fact, mine are so young, they’re barely even capable of mulling over the past or fretting about the future. They live in the ‘here’ – so much so that dragging them away from ‘here’ (wherever that may be at any given moment, from staring down a drain outside my house to the best toy shop ever) is nigh on impossible. And they always have a ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – they see the world afresh, because they are fresh. Unlike this stale, crusty old mother who always seems to be saying ‘come on, come on, we can’t stay here, we have to go there’ unless I’m trying to get their shoes on to leave the house, in which case I’ll be saying ‘come away from there, just come over here’. I always have to be somewhere I’m not.

I realised the Zen-ness of the Curly Girlie on Friday at the wonderful farmer’s market in Winterthur. As usual, I had a list and I had a deadline and I had Things To Do. The Curly Girlie had other ideas. Finishing up at a vegetable stall, I turned to see her peering into a grubby, stainless steel box on the pavement.

‘Come away from the bin! It’s all dirty!’

Sensing that she would soon be robbed of her opportunity, she stretched up on tip-toes, the better to see inside, because ‘the bin’ was a good six inches taller than her.

‘Curly Girlie! You’re getting all wet and dirty! We have to go, come on...’

‘Mummy, what is it?’

‘It’s just a bin, darling!’

‘Mummy, what is it?’

‘Oh, for goodness sake, it’s a bin...’ I grabbed her hand.

‘No, Mummy! What is it?’

And I noticed the light inside the bin. An illuminated bin? Surely not – not even in Switzerland, where they polish the rubbish cans. And then I noticed that the top of the ‘bin’ was covered with a piece of glass – filthy and hard to see through, but glass nonetheless. And then I noticed the engraving around the top of the stainless steel – ‘Sodbrunnen erbaut 1500’.

The Curly Girlie was peering down a long well, which had been built by Winti residents in 1500, rediscovered in 1764 and turned into a modest little archaeological display in 2001. It is grubby and – seemingly – forgotten but it even has a light, which the Curly Girlie was working by pressing a tiny white button on the outside of the unit. Needless to say, I hadn’t noticed the button until she showed me.

500 years that well has been there. That didn’t mean much to the present-minded Zen toddler. I must have walked past it 500 times – it’s right on Steinberggasse, for those who know Winti – and never seen it. I’ve probably even thrown a couple of crisp packets and bus tickets in it.

But now we both stood, in the middle of a busy market, apparently peering into a ‘bin’. A couple of other kids came over, and their mums shouted at them, and then another one, and her mother called her back too. What is it? It’s a well, I told them, and the Curly Girlie showed off her Great Discovery – the light switch. Eventually, with a level of exasperation that only a mother of toddlers can reach, the other mums came over and noticed the light, the glass, the well.

The Curly Girlie accepted her place in the natural hierarchy of children and stepped back to let the bigger kids see. Then she spotted a cheese stall and raced off.

Love is...

I love you. Just this afternoon, the Curly Girlie said it to me for the first time ever - a special moment, which was rather undermined by this insight into the fickle thoughts of a toddler:I love you. *pause* Oh! You love Mummy? Yes, I love Mummy. Ah... that’s lovely, and I love you. Yes. Who else do you love? Daddy. Aah... My brother. Aaah... Little Oof-Oof (favourite toy) Aah, of course. Big Oof-Oof (second favourite toy) Ah, yes. Cat. Which cat? Cat. All the cats? Yes. Ah-ha. Light switches. What? Light switches. You love light switches? Yes. And Lady. Which lady? Today lady. *thinking* The lady in the supermarket who gave you some ham? Yes. Hmm. Beads. Beads? And pencils. Right... And glue. OK. And letters. Letters, ok. And the kitchen. I see. So, basically, you love everything you can see right now? Yes. *pause* But most of all, you love Mummy, right? Yes. Well, that’s something.

Scummy Mummy

If anyone asks, I’m FINE. That’s Fed-Up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. I’m joking, of course. On the contrary, since I had my kids I’ve BLOOMED – that is, I count myself Bloody Lucky that I’m only Occasionally Out of My Depth. Turns out I’m not the only one. The BBC ran a story today about a survey on the UK website Netmums that found that two-thirds of mothers tell lies about how well they’re coping with parenthood. Not to their kids, husbands or psychiatrists – oh no – but to each other. Mothers lie to other mothers at the school gate because they feel under pressure to be perfect.

Scummy Mummy
Scummy Mummy

I’m not surprised. A friend once warned me that playgroups may well be the most competitive environment a woman will ever encounter – but at least it’s good preparation for the sheer merciless mum-on-mum brutality of school.

Indeed, I’ve found that other mothers (*) can be judgemental, catty and supercilious. Did I say judgemental? Yes? Well, I’m going to say it again - other mothers can be so judgemental! No wonder we lie to each other all the time, it’s better than being ostracised from the playgroup because you let your toddler eat Haribo or your car doesn’t have ISOFIX or your bra isn’t certified BPA-free.

So, anyway. Netmums reckons we should all be more open and honest about how mediocre we are at parenting, in order to redress the balance and take the pressure off ourselves. To that end, I’m outing my own lies. Here they are:

1. I never swear in front of my kids. No - and one of the first complete phrases to exit the unsullied rosebud lips of my Curly Girlie was NOT ‘Oh, for Fuck’s Sake’. That didn’t happen. 2. Similarly, I never lose my rag and shout. Occasionally, I briefly mislay the rag and become somewhat shrill in a way that might be misconstrued as shouting. But it’s ok, because all my parenting books tell me that toddlers are only testing the boundaries. That’s why, when I briefly mislay my rag, I say shrill-ly “SO HERE YOU ARE! HERE’S MY BLOODY BOUNDARY! GO ON, GIVE IT ANOTHER POKE, IF YOU THINK YOU’RE HARD ENOUGH!” 3. My kids don’t watch much TV. Just because it’s lovely, middle-class, vocabulary-building, manners-promoting, multi-culti Peppa Pig - it’s still TV. 4. I don’t play the kids off against each other. ‘What’s that? Don’t want to eat your dinner? Shall I give it to your little brother then? Oh, oh, careful, don’t stuff it all in at once, you’ll choke...’ 5. I don’t own a Gina Ford book. No, I threw the Satanic book out after someone told me it promoted methods used in Romanian orphanages (you see – judgemental)... Oh alright, I threw it out after it fell apart from being endlessly thumbed and caressed.

I could go on. I won’t – not because I’m averse to boring you, but because I have that sinking feeling that I’m the only one who will expose myself and everyone else will continue being ‘perfect’ while I’m ridiculed and pointed at in the street and my children are taken into care. Use the comments section, if you dare.

(* For the sake of balance, many mothers are nice, but that’s missing the point.)