Listen up!

27 Mar



Last night, at about midnight when I was so knackered I started taking knickers and socks out of the dryer and loading them into the kitchen cupboard along with the cups, my husband asked me how long the marathon was. “28 miles?” I replied, with enough of a waver in my voice to indicate that I wasn’t sure at all.

“I can’t believe you don’t know. Have you been listening to me at all, or taking any notice of my intense training for the last few weeks? Do you take any interest in my life whatsoever, in fact?”

I started taking down the underwear from the shelves. “It’s not that I haven’t been listening. I’m just not sure you’ve ever told me how long the race is and I’m not a runner. I am interested but I’m just too tired to take in everything that you tell me.”

I’m not keen on starting an argument. Most of our rows start around midnight, because it’s the only time we meet to talk. Every other bit of time in the day seems to be interrupted by work, children and the sorting of underwear. We sometimes have to pay a babysitter so we can go to a restaurant and have an ‘away from home’ row before dinner. It gets it out of the way and then we can enjoy our food.

Too tired to argue, I gave in. “You’re right. You’ve probably told me loads of times about the length of the marathon, and who has completed in the fastest time, and how you hope to break you personal best – which, as you will rightly point out, I do not know. I’m a bad listener. I’m sorry. I’ll try to be better but right now I’m going to bed.” And with that, I crawled up the stairs, clutching pairs of pants and socks to my chest.

My husband’s despair at my inablilty to listen to him is a grown-up echo of my middle son’s regular annoyance, often voiced from the top of the landing.

“You’re not listening to me. You never listen to me. I wasn’t asking where my PE kit was. I was asking if you prefer Cybermen or Sontarans.”

I’m not only a bad listener. I completely switch off when my kids yell at me from upstairs. It’s absolutely fine though when I shout up at them. Mothers’ rules are flexible and I’ll be damned if I’m going to climb the stairs everytime I need to know where they’ve hidden the scissors, the TV remote control or my expensive chocolate.

Admittedly this morning, I wasn’t listening to any one of my screaming children, so my son shouldn’t have taken it personally. I was actually trying to conceal a pair of dirty knickers I’d mistakenly waved at the man opposite. I’d been efficiently scooping clothes off bedroom floors in preparation for the cleaner and picked up a pair of my particularly big white ones in a hurry. I’d meant to deposit them immediately in the dirty clothes’ basket.

Unfortunately, like most things, I forgot what I was supposed to be doing and carried them, like a small handbag, downstairs. Minutes later, realising I was waving my knickers like a communist flag at the thankfully half blind neighbour, I ran to the wheelie bin and threw them in. Queue shouts from the children “Mum, mum! Why are you throwing you knickers in the bin?” Like buttered toast’s tendency to land butter side down when dropped, these landed in the already quite full bin crotch side up. Luckily Lambeth refuse team don’t dive into bins. They know that their residents have filthy habits.

“Listen to me” I shout as they start with the “Urghh, that’s horrible. I bet our whole street saw!”

Again, I shout. “LISTEN to me.” I give them the death stare. It’s like the kind equivalent of a Chinese burn, and it seems to work if I time it right. “GET the hell inside and gather your things. We are going to school. And yes, I just threw my knickers in the bin, so no more questions please. Let’s try listening for once.”

It then dawned on me that whilst I am always blamed for being the non listener in the house, nobody ever seems to listen to me. I can repeat things 20 times and they don’t get done. I can talk about things that I find interesting and important at length, and my husband will hardly look up from his iPad. In my family’s eyes I either babble or I nag.

Often the morning starts with me saying something along the lines of: “Did you even hear me when I told you that the baby ate a whole Tampax and its wrapper before breakfast today? I found him with just the string hanging from him mouth. I might have to take him to A&E. Are you not worried? Do you not care? Don’t you? You don’t. Right. OK then. Fine. When we have to take him to the hospital with a blocked windpipe form a heavy flow tampon, you’ll be sorry.” Even though my husband is in the room, his ears are closed for business.

And yet, I am expected to listen everytime one of my family decides to follow me around the house and talk at me. The subject matter can range from beauty (my husband worries about the ingrown hairs on his thighs and my daughter moans that everyone else in her class is allowed to shave their legs) to Dr Who (my son loves to list every character from the 1960s to the present – then he quizzes me on my newly acquired knowledge). My daughter usually starts on a three-act monologue in the morning, pauses to go to school, then starts up again as soon as she burst through the door. If anyone dare interrupt, like me telling her to lay the table, she looks at me, horrified: “I’m talking. You taught me that it’s rude to interrupt. And I bet you’re not listening to anything I’m saying.”

I sometimes wish people talked less, but unfortunately – and I’m all too aware of this – the need to talk is often greater than the desire to listen. And it is important to do both. But talking does not require much thought. You can just open your mouth and the words come out, easy as that. Listening is an art. It’s what counsellors do for a living, and they get paid quite well for it.

And I do listen. Just as I know there are a handful of good friends I can call when crisis hits, I know that I am used as a decent pair of ears when they need to talk. And often listening is fun. The other day, I was standing in my friend’s kitchen and even though the distraction of kids was heavy, she managed to almost finish telling me about an affair that is going on between two teachers at our children’s school. The fact she didn’t get to the clincher is slightly frustrating, but is a bit like leaving the last page of a book to savour. Without the necessary conclusion I am still left with images of fully dressed, not yet carressing adults. In my mind they haven’t even felt each other up in public yet. I’m sure we’ll finish our chat this week, and I’m excited to find out what happens next.

But for now I am reading up on marathons and Doctor Who and parents’ views on depilation and their daughters. I’ll get back to all of my family members and answer their questions. And next time they accuse me of not listening, I’ll say “I listen, but I don’t always answer. I like to give myself time to think.” That should absolve me of all future blame.


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