Bringing up children is full of tests, or as I like to refer to them, phases. This is a different way of saying that it’s all really hard work, but some bits are harder than others. At the time, naturally, you think they’re all hard, and each one is harder than the one before. But as my children reach the hitherto undiscovered and unexpectedly halycon ages of four and five, I’m the first to admit that life is much easier than it used to be. On a weekend afternoon, for instance, our parental presence is often barely required at all. They’re off upstairs recreating Beast Quest or My Little Pony and save for shouts of ‘Applejack! We need our cutie marks!’ (best not to ask; I wish I didn’t know ether) in hideous American accents, you’d hardly know they were there. This leaves me free to get on with marking, ironing, tidying the house, actually talking to my husband, or, more usually, procrastinating on facebook or reading my book. This seemed unimaginable in those days when I had to stalk small children around the house in a desperate attempt to thwart their seemingly inexhaustible desire to throw themselves headlong down the stars or eat washing up liquid, or the days when only an episode of ‘In the Night Garden’ or trapping them in their cots allowed me ten minutes for a shower without worrying they’d be unconscious when I got out.
So it turns out that this phase is unexpectedly pleasant and rather less hard work than the ones before. I don’t feel especially grateful (well, some days I do); I mostly feel its a reward for all the hours of backbreaking and, at times, beyond tedious work when they were little. But it also turns out that this age throws at you the most torturous process since they dropped their naps (enough said. It was a terrible, terrible time): learning to read.
My facebook friends are aware of my lack of patience with this process. I really, really want to be better at it. I’m an English teacher for Christ’s sake; I totally get that helping your chid learn to read comes second in importance only to keeping them alive, clothed, loved and fed. I’ve read to them since they were born. I’ve forced my husband to read to them since they were born. If I’ve been a terrible mother that day I comfort myself with a few brownie points and read more than two bedtime stories: it’s a failsafe way of feeling better about myself as a parent. Watched twelve hours of television? Shouted? Been on my phone in that half hour between tea and bedtime when everyone wants to kill themselves? No matter, I’ve read a couple of Mog books. That’ll do to balance it all out. So I really do get the learning to read thing, and how we must support it at home and how we really can’t leave it all to the teachers no matter how much we really, really want to. I just wish it was less awful.
We read over breakfast, because it’s the only time in the day I have the energy to do it. And every single reading session goes like this:
1. Me: (brightly, with requisite enthusiasm) ‘Time to read! Who’s going first?’ Kids squabble, because it’s in the nature of all siblings to want to be first, even when it’s something they don’t want to do. Child 2 usually goes first, because her books are shorter and because If I don’t do it first, I’ll never summon the energy.
2. Child 2: ‘I don’t want to read that book, Mummy. It’s boring.’ Me: (silently agreeing; if Biff and Chip and their sodding magic key ever have another adventure, it’ll be too soon for me) ‘It’s your school book sweetheart – why don’t we just read it and then we can read something else if you like?’ Short argument between myself and child 2, culminating in my trotting out the names of her adored teachers and how they’ll be so disappointed if she can’t read her book.
3. Child 2 reads the first page, swiftly and easily. I think this is purely to lull me into a false sense of security. Every day I have the hope at this point that it’ll be quick and easy and I’ll be moving onto child 1 within the minute.
4. I offer lots of praise and encouragement. She turns the page and procrastinates by talking about when she read the book in class with somebody’s mum. This leads to a rambling, uninteresting story about the desk they sat at in the corridor to read. I look at the clock, because at some point this morning I’ll need to be at work. I think longingly of year 11 and their ability to read.
5. She reads the second page without even looking at it. Her eyes are actually on the ceiling. I grit my teeth and suggest she actually looks at the book, in my sweetest possible tones.
6. She reads the third page, and stops at a word. The words she stops at are always different, but invariably words she’s been reading for ooo, the last six months or so. ‘Can’ is a favourite. I bite back an urge to scream incredulously ‘but you KNOW this word! You’ve been reading it perfectly for MONTHS!’ and suggest that she sounds it out. She looks at me as if I’ve asked her to fly to the moon.
7. She sounds it out. ‘C-o-n- con Mummy!’ Or worse, ‘c-a-n – oh I know, cape!’ I have to sit on my hands.
8. Child 1 intervenes, briskly. ‘Don’t be silly Ells, you know you’ve been reading that for ages. It’s can.’ I would reprimand him for this interference but he says it a lot more nicely than I want to.
9. On page 4, she stops and says she needs to eat her breakfast. I didn’t realise it was possible eat shreddies this slowly. We wait. The clock ticks. I need to be in work in half an hour and I still haven’t dried my hair.
10. Child 1 gets bored of waiting, and reads the page upside down. I don’t stop him because I know, shamefully, that she’ll repeat it word perfectly and it will all take less time. She repeats it perfectly.
11. She reads the next two pages, grudgingly and extremely slowly. Sometimes Mog the toy cat reads the pages for her, squeakily and with far too many pauses. I look at the clock, have a little panic, and wonder if I could pay someone to do this.
12. I remind myself, desperately, that it was equally as awful with child 1 and it was all worth it in the end. Look at him now, he can read.
13. We get to the last page, which she always, always, reads perfectly and triumphantly. Perhaps her relief is as great as mine.
14. Child 1 produces his longest Star Wars book. ‘I want to read all of it Mummy!’ They row about the book he’s chosen – ‘I just don’t like your voice,’ she says. I tell him to start reading and resign myself to arriving to work precisely four minutes before I need to, make-upless, and with wet hair.
15. I google child tutors.
16. I leave the house with a sense of well being and a job well done. They both read, and we’re all still alive. You take what you can get.