Shortly before Mother’s Day last year, I was in Sainsbury’s, arguing with my mother over the phone, and said: “I don’t want to talk about this any more, Mummy!” Everyone around tried to stifle their laughter, but the guy in front of me just couldn’t contain himself, and said, “How old even are you?”, and I said, “47”, with a sort of “What of it? This is a perfectly normal age to call your mum ‘Mummy’, and I am just a normal person, in the shops, having a normal day” and the woman on the till was trying so hard to remain composed that her eyes filled with real tears.
What can I say? It’s a 70s thing. If you missed the window during adolescence to shift from “Mummy” to “Mum”, because you were busy sniffing glue and whatnot, the wind changes and you’re stuck like that. My sister and I say “Mummy”, and, because we know how shameful that is, when we’re in public we call her “the old trout”. Once a year, on Mother’s Day, we stop doing that out of respect, which makes no difference to her because she doesn’t know we do it in the first place. That’s why Mother’s Day, for all the effort Marks & Spencer makes, can never be commercialised, and that’s why it doesn’t change that much from one decade to the next: the genuine way to mark it is with a 24-hour amnesty, where you stop doing the thing your mum hates, even if she doesn’t know about it. That’s why it’s so exhausting and that’s why – thank God – it’s over.
My own offspring have a moratorium on sibling rivalry. You’d think I’d be pleased, right? I’ve been complaining about this for 12 solid years. I’ve read research papers, detailing the exact intervals to expect a clash. Aged one and three, apparently, you can expect a blowup every 11 minutes. This interval steadily increases, so that, by the time they are 36 and 34, they are just texting each other guilt trips and passive aggressive memes every four days. I’ve listened to podcasts in which the exact reason that it’s all the parents’ fault is detailed so sensitively, so perceptively, that you don’t even mind. (It’s all about favouritism, and perceptions thereof, but you knew that. The interesting bit is the taxonomy of preference. There’s the prodigal fallacy, where you prefer your magical firstborn, and the narcissist bias, preferring the one who most resembles you; there are so many potential ways to fail, your best hope is that your failures are so various, they cancel each other out.)
Anyway, the near-constant chorus of sibling grievance comes to an abrupt halt one day a year, like Christmas Day at the Somme, and as their ages creep up, they do better and better impressions of civilised, respectful, loving family members. The 12-year-old still cheated at poker on Sunday, and the 14-year-old still pointed out the impunity of it, but there followed a solemn apology ceremony. When they sat down to eat, they passed things to each other rather than pelting each other with bread rolls like a pair of chimps, and nobody said anything about vegetarianism being stupid, or accused anyone of eating like a squirrel, and after about half a day of this, I was sort of broken-hearted. Is there anything more painful than watching your children behave like adults? Soon that’s what they’ll be. The last time they end a meal with cake in their hair, shouting, may already have passed. Plus, I could see how much it was costing them, this gift of being polite to each other. The price was too high; I couldn’t accept it.
In the end, I told them they didn’t have to be different, that they could fight all day long and they would still be the best thing that ever happened to me, and my son said: “I find that difficult to believe. We’re only people.” And I said: “That is the single dumbest thing you’ve ever said,” while thinking adulthood, praise be, is still some way away.