The Art of Noise

When a stranger in the street tells my children to keep the noise down, even I have to admit it’s time to take out the earplugs and start fiddling with the family’s volume control.

I was not as affronted as you might think by the lady’s intervention. Humiliation and acute embarrassment being something of a regular feature these days, I was mainly just grateful that somebody had made the noise stop. As, no doubt, was the rest of the street.

The racket in question was a heated discussion between Harry, six, and me about whether or not he was shouting. (“I started off politely and then I worked up to shouting,” he bellowed). At the same time Alec, four, was pawing at my knees babbling excitedly about a hole that British Gas has just dug in our road while Kit had stopped, rolled up his trousers and was trying to get my attention focused on a tiny cut he’d sustained a week ago. In short, it was chaos. I hadn’t really noticed, because that is the norm in our house.

As we returned home, chastened, I realised that in the last six years my noise tolerance has risen dramatically. Admittedly, having twins who between them cried continually for approximately a year hastened that process and no doubt hardened Harry against the more subtle aspects of communication as he spent his formative years attempting to make himself heard over his brothers’ wails. Alec and Kit learnt from an early age to block each other out and rarely disturbed each other with their crying. One night I went into their room after Alec had been repeatedly howling to find Kit fast asleep with his fists clamped over his ears.

Batman and spiderman

Noisy? Us?

Over the years I have perfected the art of selective deafness –  a common condition amongst parents –  which allows you to function and retain your sanity by blocking out whining, crying and shouting below a certain level.

While most normal people associate white noise with a washing machine, a blank television screen or maybe even a dolphin’s cry, for me, it has become the sound of small voices raised in grumpiness, injustice or tiredness.

I am able to chat pleasantly to a fellow mum, completely ignoring the cacophony of competing voices below me until the level reaches a tipping point (usually when I can’t actually hear the person I’m talking to) at which stage I snap: “Will you be quiet. NOW!” before turning sweetly back to my startled companion and resuming the conversation.

On holiday I blanked it out so successfully that as I read to Alec in his bottom bunk, Harry was actually being strangled by Kit on the top bunk. It was only when his cries turned to splutters that I realised the potentially life threatening nature of his distress and intervened.

Obviously I try not to ignore my children all the time. Although I spend a large portion of the day begging them not to shout and fight, I do also defend their right to shriek and squeal.  Hell, laugh even. They are children, after all.

So when my neighbour requested that the boys relocate from our back garden to the park on the first and possibly only sunny day of last summer I feel my husband was fully justified in pointing her in the direction of our local library. Had they still been yelling at 8pm then maybe she would have had a point. But they were tucked up in bed and our house was silent as it is most nights, which I think buys us quite a lot of daytime shouting tokens.

I don’t pretend to be saintly where other people’s noisy children are concerned either. I was furious when a baby howled through Wreck-It Ralph – only the second film Harry has ever seen at a cinema (that’s if you count Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked) and I was equally dischuffed to be seated next to an eight-month-old at Harry’s first proper classical concert.

Which brings us back to my problem of how to return our noise level to something approaching socially acceptable. It is a point I attempt to discuss with the boys over dinner. Half way through my clearly over-long explanation of why the shouting must stop Harry suddenly leaps from his chair, adopts the pose of a guitar-playing rock star and shouts “Oooo, sexy lay-dee!” before returning to his seat. Alec erupts with laughter and shrieks “Mama Mia!” while Kit resorts to his fallback angry tiger impression for good measure. I pause, waiting for a moment to resume my chat.

I’m still waiting.

That Sinking Feeling

One of the things that no one warns you about when you have children is that one day you will find yourself sitting with a sweat-soaked back beside an over-chlorinated swimming pool watching your beloved son bash a fellow bather with a float – at your expense.

And yes, several lifetimes ago it may have been pleasant to splash and sing ring-a-ring-a-roses with my new baby, but now, six years on, the pool experience has lost its lustre. Or in my case, gained it since I rarely last five minutes in the changing rooms before turning the kind of shiny puce that makes people reach for the nearest defibrillator.

I’ll be honest, in an ideal world I wouldn’t barricade myself into a windowless cell with my three children, strip them to their pants and then attempt to pull a balloon over their heads. I probably wouldn’t choose to follow that up by sitting in an inhumanely hot room wiping sweat from my eyes while gesturing wildly at my ear and mouthing “LISTEN” as my son attempts backstroke while the rest of the class is practicing log turns.

Alec and Kit swimming

Alec and Kit swimming

But hey ho, that’s the sacrifice a swimming mum makes. A sacrifice which I’m convinced actually takes years off your life. (No hard evidence yet, I’m currently amassing proof.)

Of course, this is the one activity that my children have always been enthusiastic about. Last week I had to bribe them to go to the park on a sunny day, but where swimming lessons are concerned, no amount of snow, illness or maternal feet dragging will stand in their way.

I admit that much of the stress is self-imposed. Knowing that only a 20mm plastic partition separates us from half the children’s school peers and their parents does put something of a straightjacket on my usual parenting techniques. And with shouting, threats and crying ruled out, frankly, where’s left to go? (Actually, hissing can work, but not for long.)

The children, naturally, are attune to this slight relaxation in the norm and seize on it mercilessly. As soon as we enter our family cubicle, Harry, six, throws himself on the baby changer and lies there legs akimbo. This serves two purposes – it infuriates Alec and Kit, four, and puts him in a perfect position to aim sneaky kicks when I’m not looking. Plus when he gets bored he can use this as a step to launch himself at the top of the cubicle and look into the one next door. Usually all he can see is Alec or Kit who are peering up from under the same partition. Occasionally they get a more interesting view.

While Harry is being a baby, I get the twins into their swimming gear, wrestle on their wretched hats, retrieve items of clothing from the tops of doors, fend off goggle snapping, take them to the first of approximately 25 toilet stops and steer them to their class. Alec and Kit then spend half an hour fighting and hugging on the side of the pool, interspersed with some light floating and splashing.

Harry and I watch their performance before returning to the cubicle (via the toilets), getting Alec and Kit dressed again while Harry prepares for his class. At this point snacks are consumed (my secret and only weapon). Harry then has his lesson while I read to Alec and Kit in a bid to prevent them from throwing themselves in the water or trapping limbs down the plastic collapsible pool-side seats. I glance up only when I hear the instructor bellow, “put that float down!” and make appropriate hand gestures to a baffled Harry.

In between all this I speculate endlessly about when I can give up the lessons. I haven’t established a hard and fast rule here, but the bar has been mentally lowered over the years. Initially I felt once the boys had got a strong swimming technique I could retire from the scene, now I shall back out once they can all do a width with armbands, or possibly paddling a raft.

Except that obviously I won’t. Like every other harassed and overheated poolside parent guilt keeps me rooted to my damp chair. Children must be able to swim, that’s a given. Mine will be no different – even if their progress does make Neanderthal man’s mastering of table manners look like an overnight sensation.

Until that joyful day, I’ll keep the snack box topped up, perfect my silent disciplinary technique (which involves holding up pictures of beloved toys and drawing a finger menacingly across my throat) and crucially, keep my very own buoyancy aid to hand. Well, one of us needs to stay afloat.

Harry swimming as a tiny baby

Harry swimming as a tiny baby