When Sara Cox found she was grinning more at her pooch than at her progeny, she wondered if it had anything to do with her own childhood.
Illustration by Louise Boulter
It’s a genuine worry that I smile more at my dog than my children. Often I find myself growling at the kids the same mantra – brush your teeth, shoes on, don’t aim for the face – my mush set in a grimace somewhere between Queen Victoria and Miss Trunchbull.
Then I turn to my little terrier Beano and, like the sun coming suddenly from behind a dark cloud, my features defrost as I smile and coochi-coo him warmly.
I’m worried my children will notice. In a masochistic way I’m looking forward to the family occasion (I’m guessing Boxing Day 2022) when the my eldest will tell me a few home truths, having had her tongue legally loosened for the first time by a few glasses of festive fizz. I imagine things that will be mentioned include: always walking about naked during her childhood (at home obviously, I haven’t been arrested in Homebase or anything); making them eat so much fish; fibbing about stuff (“Yeah, the swimming pool is shut; someone nicked the plug, isn’t that awful?”), and me definitely being nicer to the dog than to her and her younger siblings. After she’s filled me in on my failures as a parent she’ll stomp off, only to become even more furious when she notices I’ve hidden the keys to her jet-pack because I don’t want her drink-flying home to her hover-flat (this is the future after all).
As with much of parenting, there are echoes of your own upbringing. My late step-father used to be nicer to our dog Merl than to me and I used to point this out to him. “You talk to the dog more than me,” I’d strop, to which he’d reply, “That’s ‘cos he doesn’t answer back”. To be fair, he had a point.
He’d inherited me initially as a springy uncomplicated seven-year-old who liked swing-ball and being tickled. By 14 I was to him a jigsaw made of a 1000 intricate, delicate and shape-shifting pieces. He didn’t know where to start in working me out so he didn’t really try, which only exacerbated my (I’m ashamed to say) often scornful treatment of him, when deep down I think I just wanted his attention.
A fully paid-up member of the “Daddy’s girl” club, I threw all my effort into lavishing all my love on my dad, conveniently turning a blind eye to my step-dad working as hard as my mum to keep a roof over our heads. To be fair he wasn’t entirely blameless in this; I wouldn’t have been a hard nut to crack if he’d tried to engage a bit more, but he was tired from work, quite an introverted person who relied on a couple of drinks to relax – the only problem was at those moments I rejected him, as I knew his sudden chattiness was due to the booze so therefore not real. Poor bloke, just writing this makes me see he couldn’t win.
I think when confronted with an über parent (usually the dad, who doesn’t live with them), step-parents feel they can’t compete. My husband went through a similar thing with his step-father, which has made him so determined to have a very close, unique relationship with my daughter Lola, completely independent of her dad or me.
Kids can be complicated, especially when they get to the teenage years. (This, I must add, isn’t yet the issue with the precious fruit of my loins.) I fully understand their intricate snags, and that’s why I smile more at the dog; he’s such a simple soul – eager to please, easy to control, while each of my kids have their own little quirks, their demands and their sensitivities. I guess I need to embrace and nurture their little habits. When, for example, I’ve said the phrase “brush your teeth” four times and I’m stood there next to the sink, I shouldn’t get frustrated at being ignored; I should make it more fun. I do that sometimes: I’ve called them in a variety of ways, from loud operatic singing to gruff Cockney cop, mainly for my own amusement but it makes them laugh and at least it defuses the situation.
As their mum I have to try and shape them, a bit like the pottery scene in Ghost, except Whoopie Goldberg isn’t there and the wheel is spinning at triple speed. I’m just trying to mould them into good decent people without them flying off the plate – which at times takes such concentration I forget to smile while I’m doing it.
I'm a lady pie divided between my family, radio chat. a terrier, a gym. Ideal day: drinking strong tea on horseback.