Be careful what you wish for

imagesIf you read my blog post last week, you’ll recall that I snobbishly wished my children would care more for the books of Roald Dahl than those of Enid Blyton. Little did I know that my younger daughter’s take on Dahl’s stories would land me in trouble.

I was collecting my 7-year old from school the other day when Miss T, her form teacher, approached me.

“Mrs B, could I have a word please?”

Curious and unsuspecting, I followed Miss T into her classroom, trailed by my daughter.

“We’ve been reading The Twits by Roald Dahl,” Miss T said as she reached for a pile of exercise books on her desk, “and as part of our creative writing class, the children have written their own imaginary backstories.”

And my daughter’s writing was obviously brilliant, I thought to myself smugly, that’s what Miss T wants to show me. Well, not quite. The Twits, which I’ve never read myself, tells the story about the ghastly Mr and Mrs Twit, and the children had been tasked with writing a story that explained how and why Mr Twit had become such a mean person.

Miss T handed me my daughter’s writing exercise and asked me to read. I can’t say it was a literary masterpiece, but it was definitely an interesting read. The reason why Mr Twit was so horrid, my daughter explained, was that as a child he had been very poorly treated by his parents, who had bullied him for years. It wasn’t his fault he’d turned into a mean person, it was all because of his cruel parents.

I looked at Miss T who smiled nervously at me. “It’s quite psychological,” she said.

“Her dad is a psychotherapist,” I replied, “and she takes an interest in his work.”

“Oh really, I didn’t know that.”

I couldn’t quite work out if Miss T was impressed with my daughter’s understanding of psychological processes (probably not) or if there was something more sinister going on here.

“We’re not bullying our daughter at home if that’s what you’re wondering,” I reeled, glaring at my child who stood next to me, silent and with an angelic look on her face.

“Of course not,” Miss T laughed awkwardly. “I just thought it was a rather unusual interpretation of the story,” she added.

Indeed. I wondered what the other children had written: evil fairies casting a spell on Mr Twit?

At home that evening, my husband roared with laughter when I told him the story. “Do you think we bully you?” he asked our daughter in jest.

“Kind of, when you take away my toys,” she answered with a look of exaggerated hurt on her face.

“And why do we take away your toys?” my husband asked, no longer laughing.

“Because I’ve been rude and shouting and not listening to you and mummy” she whispered in feigned embarrassment while looking at us with her huge innocent eyes.

She may not be a literary prodigy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she won an acting award one day.

The Social Services haven’t called on us yet but just to be on the safe side, I’ve put away every book by Roald Dahl we own, and I don’t mind if all we read at night is Enid Blyton.

For the love of books

narrative-794978_640It may not come as a surprise to those who know me that some of the most enduring and most cherished memories of my childhood are about books and reading. Every night before bedtime, my mum or dad would read to me, a ritual that carried on even as I learned to read myself. Together we covered some of the Swedish classics for children; one involving the famous story of a naughty boy and a kind-hearted goose left my dad in tears and too choked up to read on; as well as lots of contemporary stories from Sweden and abroad. Many of my most beloved books I kept, hoping that one day I’d read them to my children who’d surely love them as much as I had.

My offspring were still babies when I started reading to them, and eleven years later, the ritual carries on. Only when we’re on holiday, do they grudgingly agree to share a book between them but usually I’m left reading one book to the youngest, and another to her older sister, and I don’t mind for it is precious time spent with my children. Eventually, the day will come when my daughters no longer want me to read to them, but for now, I’ll keep reading because you’re never too old to be read to.

What about all those books I saved for posterity? Well, I tried reading a few of them to my children, but alas, they don’t always appreciate the books that were so dear to me as a child and vice versa. Part of the reason for this, I’m guessing, is generational – stories that appealed to children in the 1970s, won’t always speak to children born in the new millennium. Another reason is cultural. Although I make an effort to introduce my children to Swedish culture and children’s literature, there’s no escaping the fact that my daughters are very British and some of the references in Swedish books are lost on them.

Fine, I can live with that. Besides, there’s plenty of great British literature that I enjoy reading with my children, not including Harry Potter and all the torturously dull novels by Enid Blyton. There’s Roald Dahl, whose stories no British school child can escape, and there’s the superb His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman, a series that appeals just as much to adults as to pre-teens. And let’s not forget Michael Morpurgo, a national treasure of British children’s literature.

Only, my kids happen to be obsessed with Harry Potter and anything written by Enid Blyton. The older girl is a hard-core Potter fan, and if only the secondary school exams she’s currently studying for had questions not about maths and verbal reasoning but anything Harry Potter, she’d ace her exams. Her younger sister, meanwhile, is hooked on the endless amount of boarding school novels that Enid Blyton produced, and which are so riddled with stereotypes, prejudice and good girls/bad girls, that I almost have an out of body experience while reading.

As for Harry Potter, I’ve finally put my foot down, telling my daughter I refuse to read a single page from those books, the contents of which she knows by heart anyway. And having suffered through the entire series of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s romanticised account of her childhood on the prairie, I’ve learned a lesson: never start your kids on a book series, unless they’re willing to read them themselves.

True, I may come across as something of a book snob if you were to judge me based on the books lining the shelves in my study. But if you look closer, you might discover what my guilty reading pleasure is. I don’t like to admit it lest it dents my intellectual image, but I have an incurable weakness for graphic novels. You know, comics for grownups!

The Curse of the WhatsApp Group

 

First, there was the letter; then someone invented the fax machine, and from there on it was all downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective). Email, text message, and finally, WhatsApp. Somewhere in between, there was Viber as well, but it soon became eclipsed by WhatsApp.

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It took me a while before I joined WhatsApp, but once I did, there was no escaping its clutches. At first, it seemed innocent enough; a convenient app for communicating with others without having to pay. But it didn’t take long before I became part of a WhatsApp group (made up of all the parents in my youngest daughter’s class) and then another and another and another.

The constant tingling sound notifying me of a new message was soon driving me to the brink of insanity, so I tried to mute my account but to no avail. Every single misplaced school uniform item was broadcast on WhatsApp, questions about homework, reminders about the next gym session for parents (a class I never attended by the way), messages of encouragement from my daughter’s self-defence teacher (a lovely young woman) and so on. I seriously considered getting rid of WhatsApp altogether, but then again, it is a useful app for communicating with others, only the communication never ceases. Which brings me to the broader problem, that of constantly being reachable.

For that’s the thing: I don’t always want to be available to others. To be honest, most of the time I just want to be left alone, but on the rare occasion I turn my mobile phone off or deliberately leave it at home when going out, I am bombarded with frantic messages: are you ok? Call me! Where are you? Has something happened? Are you dead?

No, I’m not dead, yes, I’m ok, no, nothing’s happened, I just need a break. As a married mother of two, I constantly have to be available, and it’s exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing track of who I am in the midst of all my motherly and wifely tasks and obligations. I love my kids, and I love my husband, but I am more than a mum and a wife. I am me, whatever that is. And I need the time and space to be just that and nothing else: me.

For the past few years, I’ve had a recurring dream featuring my mother who, dressed in her shabby fox fur from the 70s, declares she’s giving everything up – work, family, friends – for a life free of constraints and obligations. She then climbs into a beat-up Volkswagen minibus and drives off into the sunset. The dream, I’ve now realised, isn’t about my mother; it’s about me. I’m the one who wants to drop everything and just go. I’ll never do it of course, but I dare say I’m not the only mother in the world feeling this way.

In the end, I left one of the WhatsApp groups, the gym one, because I knew I would never attend and frankly I was put off by the sprightly, sporty 30-something mothers trying to convince me that I should join them. One of them helpfully told me, ‘not everyone is young who attends, you know, some are in their fifties, so you’ll be in good company.’ I could have strangled her on the spot. Besides, I’m only 45.

 

The Doctor Will See You Now

caduceus-2730780_640There have been times I’ve jokingly said that if anyone’s going to write a Rough guide to healthcare around the world, it should be me. I’ve seen the inside of many hospitals not only in my native Sweden and here in the UK, but also in the United States, Kenya, Guatemala and Bulgaria.

Although I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been treated less than cordially in these places, some experiences were more noteworthy than others.

My visit to an A&E clinic in the outskirts of Nairobi happened on my first ever trip to the African continent. I was in my early 20s and had flown to Kenya on holiday with my family, when a viral infection I’d probably brought with me from Sweden turned into something more sinister, leaving me coughing and gasping for breath. A doctor was called to our hotel and after a brief examination, he told my parents I urgently needed an x-ray and blood taken. A brief taxi ride later, my mother and I were sat in a windowless room with no furniture aside from rows of plastic chairs and waited to be seen by a doctor. As the only foreign patient in the spartan waiting area, and one that made an awful noise with my constant coughing, I inadvertently caught the attention of other patients who gazed at me with curiosity.

A few years later, I was living in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia for a few months while researching my PhD, when I fainted and hit my head on the stone floor in the communist-style high-rise building where I rented a room. My landlady found me unconscious and called the ambulance which took me to the nearest hospital where I was met by a chain-smoking nurse with thick layers of makeup and a nurse’s uniform so tight and skimpy that I feared the seams would break.

Then there are all the hospital stays I’ve enjoyed on account of my birth defects, strokes, ear problems, etc., most of whom have been here in London where I’ve probably seen at least ten different hospitals, probably more. And in most cases, I’ve had nothing but good things to say about the nurses and doctors who’ve treated me. I’ve seen first-hand the pressure they face, especially in the public health sector, and I can only admire their almost super-human resilience in the face of government cuts and excruciatingly long working hours.

Yes, there have been times I’ve felt objectified and dehumanised as a patient, about which I’ve written before. Not so the last time I paid a visit to the hospital, which was three days ago. I had been called to the endoscopy unit at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) for a gastroscopy (a very uncomfortable procedure which involves having a long tube inserted through the mouth and into the oesophagus), and in a vain attempt at stoicism, I declined the offer of being sedated, opting only for a local anaesthetic throat spray.

As awful as the experience was, the doctor and nurses looking after me were nothing short of fantastic. While waiting for the procedure to begin, Dr Mohamed introduced himself to me by his first name, Besher, and the three nurses, Brenda, Bukoshi and Laila. The atmosphere in the examination room was relaxed, friendly and compassionate, and it made all the difference. Having a gastroscopy is not the most dignified of experiences, but the medical team made every effort to make me as comfortable as possible, always explaining what they were doing and above all, talking to me, not over me.

I left the hospital soon after the procedure was completed, exhausted and with a sore throat from the probe, but feeling deeply grateful to Besher, Brenda, Bukoshi and Laila for doing such a great job with care, kindness and respect. If I ever write a travel guide to the world’s hospitals, there’s no doubt the endoscopy unit at UCLH deserves a place on my “Top 10” list.

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It’s not the ghosts you should fear…

I can’t tell you how relieved I am that Halloween has come and gone and that I don’t need to give it a second thought until next October. My reservations against Halloween aside, by orders from my seven-year-old I dressed up as a mum-witch with long green hair and a pointy black hat. By the end of an evening of marathon-style trick or treating, however, I had lost the fake hair and the hat and felt more like a donkey carrying various coats, bags, discarded costume paraphernalia that the four girls in my care were casting off as the evening wore on. Ironically, a female donkey is commonly referred to as a ‘Jenny’; how fitting.

At least the girls had fun, and I must admit I was impressed with the obscene amount of sweets and chocolate my youngest daughter (also dressed as a witch) managed to accrue for herself. Fearlessly, she approached the most scarily decked out homes of strangers to demand a handful of treats, while the three older girls were slightly more reserved, choosing to hold back until the door had opened and sweets were being proffered.

What of all the costumes? There were children and adults decked out in ‘zombie’ outfits, vampires and witches galore, as well as plenty of Harry Potter-themed costumes and the odd Yoda. Amidst all the gore and scare, one person stood out from the crowd: a barely teenaged boy dressed in what at first looked like a giant beige mushroom, before my eleven-year-old daughter’s friend realised: “OMG, he’s wearing a penis costume!”

But if Halloween is all about scaring people, children in particular, then why go through all that trouble of dressing up when the real world in which we currently live is so much scarier than any ghost, monster or zombie? Girls and boys, it’s not the darkness of night you should fear, for what’s truly frightening are rich white men with unchecked power.

Next year I might just dress up as a giant dick.

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