One of the reasons I have been feeling low since the school year kicked off in September (and yes, I realise this has had some incidence on the frequency of posting here at petite anglaise) was that for a few excruciating weeks, I became increasingly convinced that my daughter had been abducted by aliens.
Gone was the cheerful sprite I had entrusted to the care of the beaux-parents while I skipped off to Greece for two blissful weeks with the Boy. Upon my return, I discovered that a tantrum-throwing, insult-hurling stranger had taken Tadpole’s place. She looked like my daughter – the same blonde corkscrew curls, the same grey-blue eyes – but this little imposter had the power to tear my nerves to shreds, to cut me to the quick with harsh words. She awoke in a filthy temper every morning and greeted me with disdain – if not fury – when I trudged down the hill to collect her from school.
“Hello sweetie, did you have a good day?” I would say, my mouth smiling, but my eyes anxious, bracing myself for what was surely to come.
“I DON’T WANT to come home with YOU. I don’t like YOU and I don’t like YOUR HOUSE. I want to stay at SCHOOL!” Tadpole would reply, her mouth surly, her forehead crumpled. For added effect she also experimented variously with folding her arms, squeezing her eyes tightly shut while putting her hands over her ears to effectively shut me out, or clamping her hands tightly around the bench she was sitting on next to the Maîtresse so that I couldn’t prise her free and pick her up.
In response, I tried:
a) talking in wheedling tones about something “really fun” we would do when we got home
b) pulling a chocolate biscuit out of my handbag as bait
c) pretending to leave without her
d) threatening her with “no CBeebies” when she got home if she did not comply
e) trying to pick her up and carry her out of the school
f) looking askance at the Maîtresse to see if she knew of a magic combination of words which would make my daughter miraculously see sense
g) chasing her around the school hall under the amused gazes of all the assembled teaching staff
h) dragging her outside by force, my hand clamped around her right coatsleeve
Once we were outside, the trials were far from over. The rue de Belleville has never seemed so long, nor its gradient so steep as on those days when I had to climb it alongside a little person who insisted on walking in fairy steps, all the while screaming at the top of her lungs that I was not her friend and she wanted to go to daddy’s house, instead. She would frequently sit on doorsteps, or indeed the middle of the pavement and refuse to move while I stood, arms folded, a few metres ahead, trying valiantly to ignore her until she came to her senses.
By the time we got home it was not uncommon for me to shut myself in the bathroom where I would muffle my howls in the dressing gown which hangs on the back of the door.
She’s tired, I said to myself. She’s in a new class, with lots of children she didn’t know last year. She’s testing my limits now that we are reunited again after the holidays. Mr Frog and I compared notes on the phone, and I was a little reassured to hear that Tadpole wasn’t sparing him either. It’s just a phase, we mumbled soothingly. These things always pass. But my confidence in tatters, I found myself reading chapters from parenting books. I started to wonder if it was All My Fault. After all, the Boy had all but moved in since we got back from Greece. And even if Tadpole and he had always got on famously, could this new development have anything to do with it?
And then one day I went into Tadpole’s bedroom to wake her and, for the first time in weeks, she greeted me with a smile. The school run, that morning, was painless. When I kneeled by her side in the school hall, that evening, fishing in my pocket for a chocolate biscuit, she did not protest. A flicker of something mutinous darted across her face, just for a moment, but she seemed to brush the impulse aside, rising to her feet instead, and taking my hand.
Just before bed, as I bent to give her a goodnight kiss, she made her apology. “Mummy, I did do lots of bêtises, but it’s all finished now.”
I pulled her closer. “It made me sad, you know, when you were naughty every day. I didn’t understand what was wrong… But it doesn’t matter now. Let’s just be friends.”
“I love you, you know,” Tadpole said, her mouth so close to my nose that I could smell the toothpaste on her breath. “I love daddy more, because he is big, and you are only middle-sized… But I do love you quite a lot.”
Padding back into my bedroom, I saw a green light by Mr Frog’s name on gmail.
“The aliens have returned our daughter, safe and sound!” I wrote. “Halle-fucking-luja…”