Someone somewhere in that stumbling crowd was smoking a joint. The smell was sweet and strong and loose and all around us girls cavorted in next-to-nothing. We had ventured down from our base on a gentle, grassy slope, where middle-aged women in maxis and wedges were drinking rosé in plastic wine glasses and swaying enthusiastically around their tartan picnic blankets. We had ventured down from that safe place because it was my children's first concert and they had pictured Glastonbury, not Christmas in the Park.
So at their urging I followed them into the mosh pit, where the teenagers pashed and skulled wine from the bottle, and from the look on my children's faces, as enthralled as they were terrified, it might as well have been Sodom and Gomorrah. "Whoa," said the teenagers, "Cool kids, man." And they swung them up on to their shoulders, and my children shouted with joy when they made it on to the big screen, and all the while I bopped nervously behind them, head thrumming with the bass, thinking, what on earth am I doing? Then one of the dancing girls said something that felt so far from the truth that at first I thought I'd misheard and had to ask her to repeat it.
"I said that you're a good mum," she yelled.
At our local pools the big boys with their explosive bombs and flops made it look easy. When it was my turn, though, and I teetered on the edge of the very board I had jumped off a thousand times as a kid, it seemed impossibly high and I almost chickened out. But behind me my children shouted, "You can do it, Mum!" So I did, hitting the surface with all the grace of a deadweight, the water surging around me and up me, my nose burning like hell. I had said that I didn't want to do it, that I'd take them there, watch them do it, but they are relentless and I can be a soft touch. All right, I'd finally given in, one jump, that's it. I knew they'd assumed I'd love it so much; I'd do it again and again. But once off the high dive was more than enough, and as I dragged myself from the pool, a little humiliated, quite regretful, a woman I know called out from where she sat, fully dressed on a lounger. "What a good mother you are," she said.
These summer holidays have presented me with umpteen long and uninterrupted spells with my children. Umpteen occasions on which to find my mothering wanting. When I left them briefly alone because I was desperate for some exercise versus that stonking great sandcastle we built. When I realised they'd spent an entire day moving from one screen to another versus the homemade lemonade stand I helped with. It never tallies up. Bad mother, bad mother, bad mother: the constant refrain.
Neither my husband nor any father I can think of judges his parenting so harshly, but most mothers I know do. Measuring our performance against one another, castigating ourselves, and commending each other. When that young girl at the concert was complimentary, it did not quell the shrill voice inside me that demanded to know what I was doing exposing my children to such revelry. And when the other mother at the pools praised me, all I could think was how a better mother would have committed more fully to the experience, would have jumped with less conditions.
At a barbecue recently, the adults blithely ensconced outside, the children, as far as we knew, merrily playing upstairs, there was an incident. "Come quickly," said the girl who'd been sent to get me. Reluctantly I went, expecting some inconsequential drama and was instead confronted with the sight of my sobbing daughter, 30 or more small, spiky toy balls embedded in her hair, five girls hovering anxiously around her. With sinking heart, when after 10 minutes I had not unravelled a single ball, I sent for reinforcements. "More mums!" Until eventually all four of us were hard at work, disentangling and brushing, maintaining a steady stream of consolation and reassurance, exchanging secret looks of horror, trying to hold in the hysteria, an audience of girls watching and absorbing our mothering in all its flawed glory.