In my halcyon youthful days, when I was responsible for no-one’s digestive tract but my own, I used to fantasise about motherhood.
I guess many of us who choose to be parents want to pass on something of ourselves; to share what we love. Long ago I worked out that my emotional wellbeing nose-dives when I have no creative outlet. Over the years, the more stultifying my day-job, the more I’ve comforted myself with creative projects in the evenings. Spent the day booking someone else’s flights? Time to go home and write a sitcom. Four-hour training session on a software update? Make an artisan hand-printed greetings card (on which to write your resignation letter). Still in my parents’ attic is a huge bag of fabric and polystyrene beads from when, in response to an Ofsted inspection in a short-lived teaching job, I urgently needed to design and make a giant bean-chair.
So, when I dreamed of parenthood, I used to imagine myself smilingly guiding my beloved child through the creation of a sunset collage made from dried pulses; or a life-size papier-mâché reindeer; or some exquisite little trinket artfully decorated with a dainty accent of ribbon or glitter (never both). My cherubic fictitious offspring would look so rapt she could model a T-shirt saying “This is what a Happy Childhood looks like”. My own face would be blissful, benevolent, just a little bovine.
We all know where this is going. In real life trying to help a four-year-old express herself through the medium of egg boxes is abominable. It is dark, sinister and messy: and the mess isn’t just tangible – it’s psychological.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of my daughter’s creations. I adore them. The most unwieldy, shambolic, cardboard fuck-up can move me to tears when she brings it home from pre-school. And they are happy tears – but partly just because I’m relieved that I didn’t have to help her make it myself. When we do craft projects together it’s awful. I’m awful. The problem is the disparity between how I envisage the created object and what its short creator wants it to be. I know I should respect her autonomy. I know this about her, not me. I know that the worst thing an adult can be during any creative activity is directive. I know all this.
But… But she really fucks things up! She does. “Let’s decorate an egg!” I’ll announce brightly, praying that this time it’ll be different. I’ll be different. I lay out glitter, sequins and tissue paper before her eager little fists. “Do whatever you like.” So she empties the sequins onto the floor and sticks the oversized plastic bag they came in – complete with a ripped label showing half a bar code – on top of the egg. Glue oozes from underneath; it drips down the eggcup and onto the table. She puts her elbow into the glue; then onto the pristine tissue paper.
Why am I tense? This is what kids do. It doesn’t matter if she makes a mess. Just let her do it her way.
“Watch what you’re doing!” I hiss. Her arm, tissue paper attached, jerks abruptly off the table, sweeping everything – including lid-less glitter tubes and a gluey egg – onto the floor. Now the egg has caved in on one side. And its glue-slick has picked up floor food and cat fur.
But the tiny artist will never accept defeat. No she does not want to start on a new egg. This one’s fine. Maybe Mummy would like to display Untitled: a study in fish fingers, cellophane and fluff (mixed media) in a prominent space – perhaps the mantelpiece – forever. At this point I leave the room and try to remember my hypnobirthing breathing.
But no longer! Oh no. Because I have a wonderful new strategy. And I’m going to share it with you, you lucky things – oh yes I am. If you’re a ghastly, controlling mother like me and you can’t bear to watch your child add blue, then white, then yellow, then pink, then green then brown and brown and brown and more brown because if you will mix up the paintbrushes that’s what happens, then here’s what to do: make one for yourself. Set up two workstations: two eggs, two canvasses, two pressed-flower birthday cards for Granny. You know you want to. I’ve found that if I indulge my own artistic impulses directly rather than trying to be some sort of creative director to my poor little daughter then we are both happier. She’ll never do it my way. And why should she? Do I want her to learn to be creative or to follow instructions?
So all of the projects here on Still You are for you to do. Anyone can do them whenever or however they want to. But the idea is that they’re quick and straightforward enough that you could complete them while your children are busy with their own simpler version. If, like me, you’re juggling a couple of small kids with paid-work and domestic drudgery, the days of doing fulfilling creative hobbies in the evenings are long gone – but, if you do have a day at home with the kids, make sure that they’re not the only ones having fun. This is a chance to kick down that awful mother-martyr that you really don’t want to turn into. Let the kids express themselves but give yourself a chance to shine too.
Whatever the project, I advise you to give the cheaper, slightly rubbish craft materials to the people most likely to glue them to the windows and keep the good stuff for yourself.