Child’s Play

Marque 4 whips a book from the shelves to lean on for doing his homework in the sunshine out in the garden. I smile when I see it. Parenting is Child’s Play. Not that I got around to reading it. Not enough time. It’s not working out. This whole leaning on the book on his knee thing. His writing isn’t too hot at the best of times. He’ll get into trouble if he hands this lot in. I provide him with a chair to lean on instead.
‘Maybe we should toss this book over the wall into the neighbour’s garden’ he suggests. It has been as useless for him as it was for me. And they have young kids too. Perhaps they’d have better luck with it. Thoughtful.
‘Well I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so better not. Do you want to know what it’s called?’
‘Parenting is Child’s Play’ and he laughs.
‘That’s so funny. It IS child’s play. Let’s tell the others. Hey guys, parenting is child’s play’ and he cackles on. Better not tell him about the Raising Happy Children for DUMMIES that’s knocking around collecting dust here somewhere too.

We are thankfully out of the stage of looking to the shelves of book-shops for answers to our parenting quandaries. In fairness, he was never in that stage. Use your instincts and best efforts and it’ll be grand is how he sees it. Mother guilt and niggles of doubt not featuring at all in that mind-set. I’d try to imitate him at times, mooching around in a guilt-free zone, trying to care not a jot about the small things. Best efforts and all that. And then I’d hot tail it off to buy a book. He used to laugh, along with my own mother, when I’d purchase a book and spout the latest while breast feeding in a corner.
‘What are you buying those books for?’ my mother repeatedly asked, chortling away. She had Dr Spock or nothing. I think she chose nothing.
‘You should be writing them not buying them’ she’d say, which was vaguely reassuring, even if I’d no intention of ever doing so. You don’t feel quite so gung-ho when you’ve five kids aged 8 and under. Or was it when we had the four kids aged 5 and under. I forget.

Most of the books I’d lurch for in crisis had ‘positive’ or ‘confident’ or ‘happy’ somewhere in the title. Sometimes just purchasing a book had the desired effect. The crisis having slipped on by without the need to turn a page. The book relegated to the bottom of my monstrous bag of reading material to be delved into in snatched moments of quiet time. Given that there’s really no such thing, the bag just got heavier with desired tomes – parenting, philosophy, short stories, creative writing, novels. If a moment did present itself, I’d often spend it wondering which area I should plumb for. Then it would be gone before I’d made up my mind.

I have a keen memory of the ridiculousness of the parenting purchases from one episode. I was in a chair in the corner breast-feeding, two toddler-ish kids playing in the garden and the eldest knocking around (aged 5 ish). Time for a read. What pleasurable experience did I select from my book bag – a happy confident children tome.
‘Mu-um can we da-di-da-di-da…??’ I was so immersed in the book that I was ignoring the child whose happiness and confidence I was concerned about. He was speaking to me. Repeatedly. Some question or other. If I kept reading maybe the questioning would die down a little, go away, and I could continue to absorb these clearly needed parenting tips. And then it struck me. What I was doing. Sidelining the actual child while busy learning how to increase his self-esteem.
I looked up from the book with a smile so wide that it frightened him a little. I think he even took a step back. I snapped the book closed. You have my full attention.
‘Yes, sweetheart?’
‘Can we make some lemonade mummy?’
Building up self-esteem, I had been informed, included looking like you want to spend time with your children and pretending to enjoy making a mess even when you have a hundred other things to be doing. With the baby (2 months) or the toddlers (1 and 3), with the house, or the washing, or the dinner.
‘Yes we can’ I said dumping the book, winding the baby over my shoulder, and heading for the kitchen.
‘We can? Now mummy? Really?’ and his thrilled excitement coupled with a smidgeon of suspicion made me laugh. A little hysterically perhaps. Thinking of all the times I must’ve said ‘No, not now, I’m feeding here and then I have to do this and then I have to do that. Some other time sweetheart’, to a crest fallen face. So we cracked on with the lemonade, me beaming away, scaring him with positivity, and I carry that image with me. Mother absorbed in book telling her how to be with child while blanking the child with all her might. Instincts and best efforts. There’s a lot to be said for it.

We’ve reached a new realm, whether we like it or not. I’ve known this only since last week for certain. Killing the hour between pick ups sees the two of us – marque 5 and myself – meandering around with an occasional trip to a cafe. This is rare individual time which I savour as it will all too soon be gone. One day we were chatting away, diving into hot chocolate and cappuccino, in our own world, dimly aware of the table beside us.


Until marque 5 and the other little boy said hello to one another. The woman with the other boy was there but elsewhere, checking her phone, and so quiet with the boy that I thought she must be a child-minder with very little English. I was wrong. As the two little ones hit it off we sort of had to chat too and she was the mother, who doesn’t usually do the pick up. She said she was ‘trying to give him some one to one time’. It was when she started to quiz me that I knew. She was looking for answers. I looked like someone who might have a few. I was one of those. I never would’ve thought it.
‘But you look so, so, god, calm? How does that work? I thought I was bad with two, five, god – how? What do you do with them, say at the weekend? I suppose, being boys, you just have them doing a load of sport…’ She looked tired and as if she was on the verge of purchasing one of those books for the answers. ‘How?’ It’s tricky now that I seem to have morphed into one of those. The mothers I used to see as well, looking as if they had it all sussed, and I’d wonder. How do they look so focused on the one child, as if they’re actually enjoying themselves, when they have all the others to fret about. How? How are they not just one big ball of stress? How the hell? Now I know the secret. It’s as simple as having older children too and knowing, really knowing, how fast it actually goes. So enjoying it comes easily. But you can’t say that, not to someone who can’t see it yet. They’d secretly wish to throttle you. The trickiness is in treading carefully, engaging while not providing intangible answers, looking like you have no answers yourself. Which you don’t, not really. We’re all just muddling through to the next realm after all. So I didn’t tell her that they’re not sport crazy, even though they are boys, so we don’t have them doing that all weekend. That we let them find out what they’re into and follow their lead. Which has worked well until recently, with art, swimming, guitar, animation, Coderdojo and a smattering of basketball along with out on the road play. It’s come back to bite us now though. This following their lead idea. Marque 1 (13) is showing a frightening interest in motor sport which we have no clue about – except that it’s expensive, potentially dangerous, and there’s travel involved. Maybe we should’ve pushed the traditional sport thing after all. Fools… Perhaps it’s time to run out and buy the sequel: Parenting is Child’s Play -The Teenage Years. And some far off day, fingers well crossed, we’ll be laughing and thinking about throwing that one over the garden wall too.




There’s a recurrent dream I have about not being able to get to them. That they are waiting for me but I do not arrive. I am badly stuck somewhere and will not make it. And there isn’t a thing I can do about it. It’s one of those dreams that wakes you, such is the terror, and you’re in a great mood for the rest of the day. Because it didn’t really happen.

Until it did. Three years ago I was at home with the two youngest. Marque 4 was sick and I was wondering how I was going to collect the others from after school activities with a vomiting child. I was getting a bowl for the car when he arrived home saying he’d collect them, no bother, as he needed the car after for a meeting anyway. Phew. I sat back to relax. Feeding or reading or both. Probably both.

The merry banter could be heard in the driveway. Laughing and joking as I opened the door and he fled off in the car for his meeting. Marque 1 and 2 were standing there, as relaxed as I’d been two minutes ago, lost in whatever the joke was.
‘Where’s marque 3?’
‘Your brother, you know the one. Blond. He does the musical theatre while you’re doing guitar. Where IS HE?’
‘Maybe he’s behind the bush waving to Daddy’.
‘Is he? Was he IN THE CAR AT ALL?’
‘I think so, wait was he, I don’t know’. Poor marque 2, fielding all my questions, the eyes welling up now.
‘He wasn’t’ marque 1 clarifies. And there it was. My nightmare a reality staring me in the face. Or perhaps it was even worse than my nightmare. They had been there and driven off without him. With all the practise of the dreams to date one might think I’d have a plan. Something to drum up just in case. Nope. I froze. Then I cast my gaze around to see who might be blameworthy. But marque 2 had already run with that baton.
‘I can’t believe I left him there, that I didn’t remember him. Maybe he was running after the car…’ Jesus. Time to summon the adult amongst us. I dialled his mobile, but low and behold it went straight to voice-mail. And then I saw that the school was ringing me.
‘We have your son from first class here. He wasn’t collected after his activity and the school closes in ten minutes’.


Ok, ok, think brain, think. Nothing. Not a solution in sight. All I knew was that we live nowhere near the school and we’ve only one car. Which is elsewhere.
‘Could you put him in a taxi and we’ll pay for it when he gets here’ I said, the brain mercifully beginning to engage.
‘No, we can’t release a six year old to a taxi without an adult’ she said, merrily. Far too merrily. I think she was laughing. Jesus.
‘Do you know anyone who lives nearby who might be able to bring him home for you?’ People. Ah yes, people. Lovely charitable people.
‘No’ I said, think brain think, ‘wait a second. He has a grandfather who is not too far off. I’ll see if he is able to. I’ll ring back in a second’.
My father-in-law has helped us out of many mini-scrapes in the past. When cars have broken down and we’re stuck in some godforsaken place and he arrives to save us. Or he gently steers us away from purchasing the house with the gaping flaw that everyone else can see but we’re blind to, so keen are we to get started. Or rescues me from the church after marque 1’s first holy communion – I’m close to keeling over with a pain issue, just out of hospital as I was after the birth of marque 5. Refuge he is. He says he can do it, no bother at all.

I’m standing in the hall wondering what the little face will be like. Will he be ok, or terribly upset, or humiliated, or in need of therapy. Then I notice something. Something with even more terrifying possibilities. The front door has been wide open during all of this palaver.
‘Where’s the baby?’ I say, quietly. Marque 2’s eyes widen and he runs out onto the road, hollering ‘baby, baby, come back, BABY’ much as I should be doing, but this quietness has taken over. I feel that it is time to surrender. To walk out onto the road, get down on my knees, thrust my arms up into the air and beg to be taken away. I’m clearly not cut out for this mother of five lark. One kid abandoned at the school. The baby probably up at the main road by now. Just do it. Take me away.

Marque 1, more action than waste of time reaction, had taken to searching the house. And then came the sweetest words from upstairs. ‘Found him’. Marque 5 had decided, on that very day, at that very moment, to play, for the very first time, hide and bloody go seek. He was thrilled with himself, sitting there in my cupboard, beaming at me. ‘I win, I win’ he said. He’d probably been there for half an hour before we noticed. Feeling less like surrendering myself to the authorities now, I went out to rescue marque 2 from walking around in circles wondering how this day had gone so horribly wrong, and blaming himself for it all.
‘It’s not your fault sweetheart, it’s the parents who should be head counting and knowing where everyone is, not you’ and he’s nodding but not buying it. He knows the truth. The parents are in need of some seriously vigilant back up and somewhere along the way he seems to have been nominated.

Marque 3 clambers out of his grandfather’s car looking chirpy and unscathed, unlike the rest of us.
‘Are you ok, I’m so sorry we left you at the school…’
‘I’m fine Mum. In fact it was fun. They got to meet my grandfather and I got to go in his car, which was nice.’
‘Are you sure? Did you see our car with the guys driving off?’ That image of him watching the car zoom off without him, maybe even running after it, refused to leave me alone.
‘No Mum, we were out late, that’s why Dad didn’t see me.’
Phew, phew, phew. It seems it’ll just be myself and marque 2 heading off for the therapy so.




‘What about the lion’s manes?’ marque 4 enquires as I throw the togs into a bag on a scorcher of a Sunday. We’ve been sweltering away in the garden until we can no longer take it.
‘Don’t worry. I’ve googled it. They’re gone’ I say assuredly. ‘Now get in the car’. There’s been no swimming since we came home from the West despite the tantalisingly good weather. Today is the day. Google throws up a newspaper article stating that our poisonous friends have scarpered – no sightings for on the beaches or in the sea for 5 days. The notices banning swimming have been removed.

Given the scorcher that it is we debate the relative merits of the beaches and plumb for Five Mile Point in Wicklow to escape the certainty of crowds along the Dublin Coast. And then I remember the car situation. On Friday our drive home from school was accompanied by an almighty knocking.
‘What the hell is that?’ I asked the children, figuring theirs would be as good a guess as mine.
‘Maybe there’s a cat stuck under the bonnet’ marque 4 offered. And they all laughed. Marque 2 started to calmly investigate.
‘It’s not there when you accelerate’.
‘Isn’t it?’ I said, accelerating. He was right.
‘What else do you notice?’ I asked wondering if between us we could somehow solve it. Make it go away.
‘People are staring at us’ marque 3 chimed in and true enough it was a stop and stare noise. Some people even turned around to look. Cheek of them. I expected at any moment to hear a thud and to see the engine on the road behind us in the rear view mirror. We clanged and rattled our way into a local mechanic who investigated and diagnosed a completely rotten exhaust section, all the way up to the axel. He recommended we go swiftly to any of the exhaust fitter places. And he didn’t charge a cent for his time. Decency. The exhaust fitter let us know that as our car is a Japanese import with a long wheel base we’d have to order it specifically. It might take some time. Then he said that the whole thing was about to fall off, and asked permission to remove it so it’s not dragging along the road behind us. Sure you can we said. We’ve caused enough of a stir already.

He told us we can drive around without it. But we figure a long drive would be foolish. So on this scorcher we cross our fingers and head to Killiney beach.
‘We’ll never get parking on a day like today’ I say as we sail past the car park at the train station and notice a load of empty spaces. We go around to our favourite small car park – down a tunnel which isn’t much fun if you meet a car on the way out – and he says he’ll leave us off if it’s full and go back to the other one. But there are a handful of spaces which is very unusual – even when the weather isn’t good.

We get down to the beach and it takes a minute for it to register. There are so few people here. Where are all the crowds? The place should be mobbed. What is everyone doing on such a glorious day? It’s late afternoon. Maybe they all got here earlier and couldn’t take the heat. We’re delighted. Free rein fun. They clamber quickly into their togs, the two youngest being first, and they run down to the sea. I follow them down. Marque 4 is running straight in – like he has done all summer in the West – when I see it. Directly in front of him, a few feet from the shore, is an enormous burnt orange mass. He’s making a bee-line for it. I holler for him to stop. He comes back to me and I point it out to him. He agrees that it is indeed one of them. But the size – surely they don’t get that big?


A man is swimming close to where we are standing. By my calculation he is heading horizontally for it and it for him. With the 10 metre long stinging tentacles in mind, I sprint over to him and motion him out of the water.
‘I think I’ve just see a lion’s mane’ I tell him, not wanting to sound too alarmist. I don’t think, I know, and it’s ginormous. Turns out he’s a regular swimmer and has a few tips. He tells me how they stay far out, they don’t come close in to the shore so if the kids stay within their depth they’ll be grand. As he speaks it’s dawning on me that he hasn’t taken my spotting seriously at all. I’m looking like an over protective mother who has seen a clump of seaweed and won’t let her poor children have any fun in the water. I leave him re-iterating what I saw, and how it seemed to be heading in his direction.

We go back up to the others.
‘Google let mummy down’ marque 4 says laughing, thankfully. Not annoyed as he could we have been. He was dying for a swim.
‘Google lied to mummy’, he continues. ‘There’s an enormous lion’s mane right there.’ Marque 2 and 3 along with their Dad go down to spot it too. He ends up chatting to the man with the tips. Suddenly they both have their hands cupped above their eyes looking out, pointing. They can see it too. Apparently the man’s face paled when he saw it, the size of it, so close to where he’d been swimming. He was very keen to thank us. Repeatedly.
‘That could’ve been a very different evening for me if you hadn’t pointed it out, thanks again’. Then comes the choice. Do we head up the beach warning others too. Or do people just want to be left alone to take their own risks? Is there an onus on us to warn? We believe that there is. If it was us we’d want to be told. So he heads off and I watch as he points, and people scan. It’s like a scene from Jaws, all the cupped hands over eyes, the pointing and the swimmers retreating hurriedly from the water in that moment of recognition – that there is indeed a monster amongst us. But then again most of the county seemed to know that already – the sparseness of the crowd a huge clue as to what lay beneath. Maybe it was only the vigilant few googling whether it was safe who turned up today. Fools. I’ll follow the crowd next time. The man with the tips and his companion pack up to leave, waving to us as they pass, and she mouths ‘thanks’. Ah, the sweet rewards of a good day’s work – I wonder if Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council might employ me as chief jelly fish spotter for the rest of the month.

Given the otherwise damp squib of the excursion so far somebody deemed it appropriate to nod her assent to a trip to the all the rage new ice-cream parlour – Scrumdiddly’s.


Part of the hype of the place, it seems, is the street queueing. The longer you queue, the more delicious it gets. Capitalism at its very best. Having been in the former Soviet Union and Cuba – back in my youth – and witnessed real queueing for bare necessities this is a little disquieting. But I don’t let on. Marque 3 throws his hand up in assembly on Monday morning to tell the tale of the near miss with the lion’s mane and the 45 minute queue for ice-cream. Every minute of the wait, he swears, was worth it.




‘If you’re going to spend half an hour chatting to every mum on the way to the car, we’ll never get home’ astute marque 2 remarks as we wend our way through the merry throngs at the end of the second day. There’s something different about the return this year. The collective parental sigh that usually accompanies it is curiously absent. There’s a consensus that it all came to an end too soon. An unpreparedness for the assault of the manic mornings, the lunch boxes, the lost uniform ties, the impending homework gloom. Where I used to feel alone in not wanting the school year to begin, everywhere I turn now there are allies.

My research head tells me to search for the variable. What’s causing this difference? Everyone I talk to reports they had a great summer. Not a ‘grand’ or ‘fine’ one which other years has been case:
‘How was your summer?’
‘Ah grand, grand. I was ready for them to go back though!’ accompanied by a conspiratorial collective laugh of relief. I find none of that this time.
‘How was your summer?’
‘It was great, great’ accompanied by smiles and the addendum that ‘it was over too soon’. They seem to really mean it. The weather. Cha-ching. We have just experienced a real summer, not a typical Irish one. Plenty of sunshine, sporadic mini-heat waves that didn’t keep us waiting until September for their arrival. Yes, there were the weather warnings and torrential rain and flooding. The tail end of a hurricane. Blips in the overall picture. The truth is that we, in Ireland, have just had a super summer weather-wise. Vitamin D levels are soaring at a comfortable high. Nobody wants the party to end. Even the jelly fish agree, graced as we are by the presence of the exotic deadly lion’s mane, which wouldn’t usually bother with our cold summer waters. Marque 4 spotted one lurking in a rock pool along the shore at Seapoint.


He shrieked to warn people. While the no-bathing sign was being heeded, a family with little kids was playing nearby. Buckets and spades and wellie boots, but their little investigative hands could’ve been in for a shock. And then a funny thing happened. Men, women and kids gathered around us to look at the poisonous intruder. Excited banter was exchanged. A mixture of horror and pride. Tales of other spottings and risk takers ignoring the notices and swimming anyway. All in a backdrop of pride about the uncharacteristic summer we’ve just had which has invited these creatures along.

I ignore marque 2’s pleas to curtail the conversational merriment on the way to the car. I just have to make it home on time for marque 1’s late afternoon return from secondary. And I don’t let on that this is how it has been since we left them in on the first morning. Non-stop vitamin D induced conviviality. My jaw might be aching and my ears ringing. But hey. Who knows when we’ll see the like again.