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

Ducking school trips

Alec and Kit’s first day out with nursery. Mine too. I’ve never been able to go on trips with my eldest son Harry, six, because I’ve always had Alec and Kit, four,  to look after – a fact he is not slow to pick up on.

As he sizes up their picnics, the injustice of the situation hits him.

“They’ve got chocolate mini-cheddars!” Harry shouts. “That’s not fair.” A pause. “That’s not even allowed!”

I assure him that although there is some brown writing on the packet, this does not mean they are chocolate. It’s too late.

“You’ve never been on a school trip with me,” Harry shrieks. “Why do they get to go with you and I don’t?”

“It’s not fair! I’m never going on another trip unless you come with me.” Somewhere a door slams. As his school trip is next week I am doubly guilty at my impending parental no-show. I can’t fault his argument.

Our emotional hurricane passes.  Alec, Kit and I slope off to nursery, praying we are not boarding the coach as Harry and my husband pass on the way to school.

We needn’t have worried. Half an hour later, we parents are still milling around in the playground awaiting our instructions. The teachers emerge and remind us of the rules: No eating or drinking on the coach, no chocolate, fizzy drinks or sweets and toilet breaks at designated times only (slight concern over that one).

We head for the coaches – I spot a few parents dumping banned items in the bin. I am now slightly panicky about our dodgy looking mini-cheddars.

We are off, only half an hour late. Alec and Kit’s teacher, Mr M, walks down the coach checking all is well. “Who’s driving the bus?” asks one little girl worriedly.

Less than five minutes from school and a parent brazenly hands her son a chocolate bar. We nearby law abiders marvel at the audacity of breaking two rules with one action (see above). Mr M is still prowling the aisles and  notices the child’s tell-tale chocolate dribble. The half eaten bar is removed from his mouth. Mum is given stern look and finger wag. Everyone shifts uneasily in their seats. Obviously I won’t be giving the boys chocolate, but surely I can feed myself obesity-inducing rubbish? I resolve to eat my Penguin bar in the toilets later.

With some relief we arrive at the London Wetlands Centre without further confiscations. We deposit lunch boxes in a container and have our first toilet stop. We discover there are two toilets. Half an hour later we are still standing in a queue outside the toilets. We’ve missed the first otter feeding slot and are 10 minutes late for our stint in the playground. A mother who was at the front of the queue is starting to mutter audibly about the slowness of those at the back. Inevitably,  the last child in the queue has had an accident. We nod sympathetically and let off an inner howl as valuable playground time ticks away.

Finally we make it. Highlight of the playground is a telly tubbies-style tunnel with one entrance and, it transpires, six exits. Remaining 10 minutes of playground time is spent rounding up all those missing in the tunnel.

Next is lunch. We find our spot by following a trail of Ribena to a small patch of muddy floor overlooking a boggy lake. It’s the closest we’ve got to wildlife so far.

Later we are met by a wetlands guide who takes us to his yurt to tell us about ducks. He has pictures of food and asks the children to tell him whether it is eaten by ducks or humans. “Who eats this?” he asks, holding up a picture of a pizza. “Harry!” shout back Alec and Kit.

He tries again by asking what animals live at the Wetlands Centre.

Hands shoot up. A confident little boy is chosen.

“Giraffes”, he answers.

We then troop round to the duck pond and each child grabs a handful of pellets to lob at the ducks.

On our way out we pass the otter enclosure. They only come out at feeding time, we are told. It is not feeding time.

Our itinerary says we now have 45 minutes of “free time” which is spent wandering somewhat aimlessly with parents staring zombie-like at the café and children eyeing the giftshop. We loiter in the middle where you can neither eat nor spend money. At 1.50pm we reconvene and are the first group back on the coach. At 2.10pm everyone else arrives.

“We’ve been watching the otters being fed!” a little girl announces as she clambers on board. The front-of-the-toilet-queue mum utters a series of banned words.

The return journey is spent in virtual silence, with children and carers alike either asleep or semi-comatose with exhaustion.

Safely back at nursery, we stagger off the coach.

“What did you do?” asks Harry nonchalantly.

Alec and Kit jump around, desperate to be the first to tell him.

“We fed the ducks!” they shout in unison.