Sharing the motherload

10 Apr

Playing happy families for once


I’m currently propped up in bed eating smoked salmon on toast, a cup of tea beside me. The crockery has a faint whiff of dog saliva which worries me slightly because I know that my parents’ animals have a tendency to lick the plates when no-one’s looking, but breakfast in bed, courtesy of my husband, is a rarity, so I’m not complaining.

We are on holiday at my parents’ house. My sister, my brother-in-law and their son (my nephew) are here too. Everyone else has dealt with my children this morning because it’s my turn to stay in bed. At 8am, I heard the faint cacophony of young children squabbling being broken up by my sister with the threat of no more Easter eggs. My husband has walked the dogs and learnt how to feed the donkeys apples and pears without having his fingers bitten off – he is a city man through and through and has trouble identifying animals. He recently thought the chocolate bunnies I gave to each of the children were horses. Interestingly, he is relishing his temporary role as country man, and has already stacked kindling for the fire and stoked the wood burner.

When holidays work, I begin to fantasise about living on a commune. Of course, my commune would be the kind where the hot water never runs out, and somebody else is given the job of removing other people’s hair from the plug-hole, but I think I’d quite enjoy the eating together, and sharing the  childcare and chores.

I used to view holidaying with other families as something that sounded lovely, but in practice rarely worked. Perhaps it was my fear of people seeing us for what we really are: quite a chaotic lump of different wants and needs with an inability to do anything quickly or quietly. It’s a bit of a cop out choosing my family to go away with, but a good way to test the water and practice how to get going away en masse right.

I know all too well that holidays have to be well-managed. Too long and the cracks start to appear and the normal every day bickering turns into full-on rowing (my husband once booked a flight home from a holiday in France a week early. He had a great time on his own back in London, whilst me and the kids slogged it out for the final few days.) The wrong mix of people and it turns a bit Lord of the Flies, the kids spearing each other and the parents making pacts to break bonds with their holiday companions once back in their own country.

But luckily my sister and I know each other quite well and haven’t had a fight in 10 years. We are also luckily married to men who have been friends since they were awkward teenagers living in Paris, so they are regularly horrible about each other, which makes them like brothers. Our children get on well, which goes to say that they can manage long stretches of time together and only occasionally try to poke each others eyes out with sticks. My parents don’t see this sudden invasion as a holiday but they are generous and good-humoured about it.

My father usually wakes up early and gives himself an outdoors ‘to do’ list. Yesterday he went to the furthest corner of a very large field and trimmed the grassy edges, with a harness on his back to keep the strimmer steady. He looked like a chubby Ghostbuster, so in a sense he was entertaining the younger children, who watched their grandpa with wonder and awe at the fence.

My mother joins in with the cooking and the gossip and the children. We can all have time for ourselves for once. When the adults outnumber the children, things are so much easier. Tea time at home often involves me picking half eaten fish fingers from a child’s plate and shoving them into my mouth. I’m not hungry – just bored – and have a tendency to eat to combat the monotony of feeding, tidying and wiping down.

Yesterday at 6pm, I was shoving crisps down my throat but they were accompanied by lots of gulpy  fizz (my brother-in-law’s description of anything that is alcoholic and easy to drink).  Everyone was in the kitchen and we were preparing food together (my husband was roasting two chickens and had assumed the role of a thinner, more common Hugh Fernley Whittingstall), chatting and clearing away the children’s tea to make way for our dinner. Getting on with this altogether was not a chore at all. On the contrary, it was enjoyable. With everyone involved – save my father, who was still trussed up in his weird harness in the field, waiting to be called in for dinner – everyone was happy.

When my daughter started being obnoxious (it’s always in the kitchen, and now I totally get the term ‘kitchen sink drama’) my husband threatened her with an early bedtime. My brother-in-law then stepped in and asked if she wanted a game of table-tennis. It was perfect timing, and off they went and spent a good hour hitting a ping-pong ball back and forth. When they returned my daughter was a nicer person, and she apologised. I’d never seen my brother-in-law play the fun older brother before, but then I remembered that my sister was always calling him an over-grown child. Maybe not so perfect for her when she wanted a sensible adult in the house, but amazing to have someone to entertain my hard-to-please daughter who thinks I’m a killjoy and my husband – her father or stepfather depending on her mood – is the spawn of Attila the Hun.

And so the swapping of children and tales and roles will continue for another week. My husband returns to London with my brother-in-law today, because, as I mentioned before we are trying to fine tune the art of happy holidaying. My sister and I will stay back with the children and we have already been informed by our parents that they are giving us a break and taking the kids on a couple of day trips. Amazing, hassle-free childcare and around the clock company. With family like this, I think I’ll keep coming back.

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