Sometimes I dread taking my two-year-old and five-year-old son to the local café near my flat. They make tasty Korean food and delicious chocolate brownies, but when I go I always wonder - are they going to behave? When I look around at the other parents, I see polite, diffident children eating their pizza or staring up at the silent TV screen that leaves their innocent faces completely mesmerised.
Unfinished second painting of Baba number 2 (oil on canvas, 10x10 inches, part of a series to be completed annually until he turns 18)
We rock up in an obstreperous fashion, I order, my back is turned for one minute and a squabble ensues about the water. I rush over giving them both plastic cups and matching straws of the same thickness - they seem placated. As my eldest pulls out a chair, the little one demands the same seat, I try to keep my cool and say, 'Sit down' in a firm voice with a tone that is not raised but only slightly agitated. My eldest sulks and frowns and starts to whinge and his voice is getting louder. The little one has gone walkabout giving high fives to all the staff and engaging his favourite waiter in two-year-old conversation, which is essentially a load of babble. The waiter plays along, but he has work to do. Then I ask my eldest to get us some forks and hope that they don't bring chop sticks because then the little one will insist on using them and all the food will go on the floor instead of into his mouth. As my eldest retrieves the forks, the little one clocks on and wants to partake in the action, I watch on from afar as my eldest gets exasperated and pushes him out of the way. Oh my God, not fraternal violence in a public place.
I look around and see other boys all seated, not causing any trouble. Leap up from my seat and think, 'It's only forks', I grab about six and give them three each hoping that will placate them and we sit back at our table. By now I want the food to arrive and to leave because our café outing is making me stressed and I can feel my furrowed brow deepening.
Melon juice arrives, I pass it to the little one because I am assuming his big brother will understand that if his sibling doesn't get hold of it first he will scream his head off. My eldest starts to pout and complain, so I grab a cup, guzzle down the water and fill it with some melon juice. I think I have solved the problem but no, 'I wanted to drink from that cup.' What? It's just a cup. Remember though it's all in the details - these nonsensical disputes about nothing and everything.
The food arrives and we all eat from the same bowl, the little one decides he only wants the white rice, not the egg, the carrots or the spinach and lays face down on the chair in protest. My eldest is good when it comes to eating, all that hard work I put in when he was small has paid off, he eats everything including all the healthy stuff. The little one used to eat amazingly well, but now he's become fussy and I have to employ complex strategies to get him to eat his millet and peas; in the café I am helpless, he's in charge. I despair. Then I think of something, 'No cake if you don't eat the carrot.'
'Cake, cake' he begins to scream and all eyes on me, no, of course cake is not his dinner, it's a bribe, but I avoid all the stares and tell him to be quiet and when I do this he screams some more.
When pudding arrives the two of them fight over it, I am lucky if I get a spoonful and the concept of sharing goes out the window.
I try to clear the mess our table has become piled up with plastic cups and too many knives and forks and spoons to count, with a generous smearing of chocolate goo on the table and just as many crumbs on the floor.
Time to go. I am relieved.
Until I see my eldest has decided to ride his scooter in the café as the little one chases him demanding a hug. I want to throttle him, I don't - we leave. I have had enough.
Unfinished fourth painting of Baba Number 1 (oil on canvas, 10x10 inches, part of a series to be completed annually until he turns 18)
The best part of going to the café is the bike ride with the little one strapped in at the back, my eldest riding alongside me. Maybe this is also an opportunity for me to get a trickle of endorphins pumping though my body. Fat chance. The whinging ensues, 'I am tired, I want to go home, now.'
'Can't we cycle for a little bit, it's good for Mummy's brain,' I try to explain.
My eldest starts to squeal with displeasure as my youngest says 'Hello' to every passing stranger.
When I am on my bike though I feel I am no longer under scrutiny, with a cool breeze against my skin parenting is a pleasure. We play a game, saying hello to animals that don't exist, 'Hello monkey' I say with accompanying monkey sounds pointing at the trees.
My excursion comes to an end, I could have stayed in and fed them at home in a controlled environment and spared myself the hassle, the scrutiny, and the accompanying feelings of failure that ensue when your children don't behave in public. But I know it's better to go out then stay in, it's better to keep trying in the hope that there will be other days when they will be kind to one another, share their cake and not fight. Maybe I don't deal with the tantrums in public as well I would like; when your children start screaming you panic and you want to simply disappear. Is it a reflection of bad parenting, or just a stage that all small children go through? Most probably the latter and better not to lose any sleep over it or feel any shame either.
Parents, I would like to think, are doing their best and that's really all you can do - right?