I’ve had a bad parenting week.
Partially due to the Boy, who pulled his pants down in the playground AGAIN, forcing me to carry through with my ill-conceived threat to write to Santa and tell him ‘No Bionicles for Christmas’. This was Wednesday.
Monday, after spending the morning throwing up (no, I’m not pregnant) and the day at work feeling weak and dizzy, I arrive at After Care deep in brain fog. They look puzzled to see me. ‘F’s not here,’ they say. I panic. ‘Could someone else have picked him up?’ They couldn’t. His father and stepfather are both at work. Where could he be? What could have happened? Then I remember. On Mondays, he plays at a friend’s house after school. More than a little embarrassed, I reassure the worried-looking carer that I know where he is, I’d just forgotten, and head for the friend’s house.
‘You’re early,’ the Mother greets me at the door. ‘Are you okay? You look terrible.’ I feel terrible, and I’m about to feel worse. She pulls me into the ‘good’ sitting room, the one they don’t use, to tell me about her afternoon. Apparently, she’d overhead F saying something about sucking a woman’s breast on the way home and told him that if she ever heard anything like that again, he is no longer welcome at the house. ‘I like F,’ she said. ‘But A is innocent, and I’d like to keep him that way. I let him watch The Blues Brothers, but that’s about it. I don’t mean to judge, but I don’t know where F has picked that up from. Do you? He’s a very advanced reader, so maybe he read it somewhere?’ (Yeah, like all those Playboys I keep in my bottom drawer?!) I apologise, and assure her I will investigate and give F a thorough talking to. ‘I mean, it was one thing when he told A about how babies were made last week,’ she continues. ‘I didn’t really mind that, but … I didn’t really want him to know about it, but what can you do? I did have to put up with him saying penis and vagina all weekend, but … but that was okay, I guess.’ I still remember the look on her face last week when I told her that I’d overhead them having The Talk. I slink off to collect my wayward son.
‘What exactly did you say?’ I ask him as we walk home across the park.
‘I said that Supergirl was the stupidest movie I’d ever seen and A said Supergirl was beautiful. So I asked him if he wanted to suck Supergirl’s breast.’
‘Where did you get that from?’
‘From when you get born,’ he chirps. ‘You know, breastfeeding.’ His stepmother is breastfeeding. I breathe a huge sigh of relief and tell him to never say anything like that again.
Back to Wednesday. Wednesday is the day that A comes to play at our house. He’s a nice kid, and they play well together, but they also like to dob on each other. I have a rule: I don’t want to hear about it unless someone is hurt, someone is in danger or about to get hurt, or something is being wrecked. I find A before I find F.
‘My mum told me I have to tell you every time F says something rude,’ he tells me.
‘Great,’ I say, through clenched teeth.
I read F’s Communication Book outside his classroom. He has spent the afternoon in the office for pulling his pants down. I find his teacher. We talk. I find the vice principal. We talk, while F and A play in the corridor outside her office. I am almost in tears.
‘He keeps doing it because it makes the other children laugh,’ she says. ‘But they don’t laugh so much anymore. They think it’s weird.’ I nod and agree. I tell her what I’ve been doing, and ask her what she suggests. Then she says something that really brings me to the edge of tears.
‘F is a great kid,’ she says. ‘He’s come so far this year. We’ve told him we’re really proud of him. He’s incredibly smart, and sometimes that causes problems. But I love having him around.’
‘Really?’ I say. ‘You do?’
I’ve spent the year worrying that they don’t like him.
I feel slightly better as I walk the boys home. I tell F that if he does it again, I will give all his Bionicles to my mother-in-law’s foster child, J.
‘Who’s that?’ asks A.
‘His cousin,’ I say. It’s what F has taken to calling him, and it’s easier than explaining. I go to the newsagent on the way home and buy glitter glue, textas, paintbrushes. The boys play best when they are drawing together.
I push my bike, loaded with art supplies, through the hot, smoggy park. A lags behind.
F points to the wall along the power station.
‘That’s graffiti,’ he says. ‘S says when he grows up, he wants to write graffiti.’ The boys giggle naughtily. F whispers something.
‘Excuse me,’ says A. ‘F said when he grows up, he wants to sniff vaginas.’
‘WHAT?’ I am furious. I interrogate the boys. I turns out that F said he wanted to sniff bums. Okay, bad, but Andy Griffiths rather than Hugh Hefner territory. A just wanted to say vagina. I growl at them both. I am hot, my throat hurts, my eyes sting, and my arm is sore from pushing the bike for so long.
At the front gate, A taps my arm.
‘Excuse me,’ he says. ‘F said that daisy was stupid.’
I look at him.
‘And stupid is a bad word?’
‘Okay,’ I say. I lock up my bike and entertain thoughts of killing the Mother, who has condemned me to what is already a long and painful afternoon.
I am cutting up honey toast and apples at the kitchen table. A comes to fetch his carton of Ribena, and stays to watch. He is thoughtful.
‘So, if F is rude again, his cousin gets all his Bionicles?’ he asks.
‘Oh.’ He pauses. ‘You know, you could give them to me.’
‘That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think so,’ I say, envisaging even more dobbing in a plot to gain F’s Bionicles. I also envisage the end of the friendship.
‘Oh.’ He takes a slice of apple. ‘You could give half to me, half to his cousin?’
‘Maybe I could have just one?’
I snap. ‘A, if I was to give you F’s Bionicles if he was rude, you’d tell me was rude, wouldn’t you? So, I don’t think it’s a good idea. They’ll go to his cousin. And hopefully, F will be good.’
‘I won’t say he’s rude.’
The Mother is due between 5.30pm and 6pm. At 6.10pm, she hasn’t arrived. I want this to be over. I have a headache with trying to work out who is really being rude, who is making up stories, who actually deserves to be told off, and how to explain that I don’t really care if someone said ‘bloody’. There are just as many complaints about 'innocent' A as about F. Next week, I plan to revert to my rule.
The Mother arrives at 6.30pm, breezily. She has, as usual, brought A’s little brother. The three boys shoot out into the backyard for a light sabre duel. I want her to go. I am too angry and tired to deal with her. The Husband shoots her a look and disappears. He is furious, as is F’s father, about the fuss. They think she is a prude. F’s father actually came out with a killer of a line when I told him how upset she was about the sex ed, and penis and vagina. ‘What would she prefer?’ he said, icily. ‘That A goes around saying prick and cunt?’
The Mother deals with the frosty atmosphere by settling in for the long haul, to show that we are friends and everything is okay. She talks and talks. She follows the boys out the back and comments on the progress of the light sabre duels. She tells me about a meal she made recently, and gives me the recipe, step by step. She asks for lemons from the tree. She tells me that she wants to make lemon butter. She gives me a recipe for lemon butter. She tells me that the great thing to do with lemon butter is to make a pudding. She gives me the recipe. She tells me how nice the lemon tree is, and about her lemon tree, and about her friend’s lemon tree, and what her friend does with lemons, and how her mother propagates fruit trees, and how she herself does it. It is 7pm. She asks me, finally, about the sucking breasts thing. I tell her about the breastfeeding and she is surprised and relieved. She tells me, again, that she wishes A hadn’t been told the facts of life. She tells me, again, that he’s been saying vagina. That she was doing the ironing, and he said ‘Mum, you have a vagina, don’t you?’
At 7.30pm, she finally leaves. At the door, she grabs my arm and asks, ‘Are you doing anything right now?’ I need to cook dinner, serve dinner, bath F, get him into his PJs, put him to bed and read him a story. By 8.30pm. And then I need to write and research an article.
‘A is missing his bike,’ she says. (He left it here last week.) ‘Can you walk him to the park so he can ride it home?’
‘Okay.’ I just want it to all be over. A asks if F can come. I say no, too sharply. I say that F will walk home too slowly and I need to start dinner soon, an edge of resentment in my voice. As we trudge to the end of the driveway, the Mother grabs my arm again.
‘Hey!’ she says. ‘Come here!’ And she gives me a hug. I smile weakly and wave goodbye.
‘Why does F like Bionicles so much?’ asks A.
‘I don’t know.’ I try to be upbeat and friendly, overcompensating. ‘I guess he just does.’
‘I don’t,’ says A. ‘I like superheroes.’ And with that, he climbs onto his bike and pedals off down the hill, me jogging behind.