Living Between the Lines,  Remember when

At the school gate

Forced to rest after having major surgery this month, I have watched every episode of Motherland on television. Have you seen it? This sitcom is so representative of school gate life that I can recognise most of the characters in it as though I were standing next to them yesterday. Yesterday being from 1984-1998 if I have the dates right.
I knew the teachers well, I even took my youngest into the classroom aged eight months, for a study the seven year olds were doing on human development, at their teacher’s request. I helped with crafts and read to the children on special occasions, but only when time permitted. This was not very often. My usual excuse was,
“I’m so sorry, I have the little one you see…”
“Oh, bring him/her,”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly but maybe when he/she is older,”
This was as far as my interaction with school went in truth.
I’d be there with the best of them at after school matches, cheering my boys or girls on. I’d go to every play, every church service (Wednesdays 9-10am) in the term. I’d do my bit.

I hasten to add, to anyone supposing I was one of the ‘in crowd’ that I shunned their overtures for the most part. I was more than happy to go my own way with my ‘millions’ of children. (I exaggerate, I had five with the occasional hangers on to pushchair and car.) I was once asked how many of the five were mine and was I a childminder, oh, and did I have any spaces? I said my womb was full, thank you.
Parents accompanied children on numerous school trips to make up the adult numbers– I went on one or two when forced, under protest, with gritted teeth.
Friends of the Primary School, known as FOSPS, did their bit to raise funds. They were stalwart in their endeavours, they canvassed and heckled and beamed at us in the playground as their children, Marcus and Miranda, invariably ran through the flowerbeds and created havoc. They organised events, they tried to rope us bystanders in and we did our best by offering things to sell, sponsoring and dressing our children in outlandish costumes. Now that’s the bit I actually enjoyed, come to think of it. Not the fund raising part of it but the making of the costumes. Whether for a school project, a fund raiser or a disco, I was there with my scraps of fabric and my children.
I have some photos of the result – how about these? The three girls dressed for Victorian day in one and for a fancy dress competition for book day, in which middle daughter wanted to be the BFG and the youngest, Tom Thumb. Not bad from scraps.

Three Victorian Girls
Three Victorian Girls

The birthday parties which grew more competitive every year, I ignored for the most part. My party bag gifts were often home-made (finger puppets were a hit for the 5 year olds). Parties for the under sixes, are the best. The birthday cake was hit and miss but always greeted with amazement, (The treasure chest was my piece de resistance). Sadly, I cannot find a photo of it. See this photo of the Maypole Princess Tree instead…

and this…
Alex's 2nd birthday

My children just had each other on some occasions and on others, they had friends round for tea and games. Traditional parties held true until they were seven when experience had taught me, to invite twelve boys and girls (twelve was the limit) after the age of seven or even at the age of seven, was ‘bloody’ hard work. The girls, being mini teenagers, questioned everything. They didn’t want to play pass the parcel, they were gossiping about whatever it is 7-year-olds gossip about and doing their hair and squealing a lot. Even back then, they wanted Karaoke not the Okey Kokey. The boys ignored all attempts at discipline and preferred to race round the house doing everything one had spent a lot of time teaching one’s own kids not to do, high on ‘e’ numbers that we didn’t know were there.
Fizzy drinks only came out at birthdays in our house.
Beyond the age of seven, things changed. A birthday child was allowed to bring a friend along to the Zoo, Legoland or the Beach. I insisted on one friend rather than two as two would mean there was always the chance two would gang up on one. My strategy was to divide and conquer!
By the time our eldest reached the age of twelve, things had changed again and we were into sleepover and pyjama parties. From then until they grew tired of the idea, we suffered the indignities of hiding upstairs while our one sitting room was given over to a gaggle of girls or boys with sleeping bags who neither slept nor kept quiet all night. The next day, we would be greeted by bleary eyed thirteen-year-olds.
“Tired?” we’d enquire.
“It was great, thank you Mrs Barker,” the teens would say politely while my own would look on in discomfort. Why was I engaging in conversation? How embarrassing! Grumpy with tiredness now, off they’d trot to their beds for a rest.
Some of these children’s parents would have been on the committees and boards and fundraising teams of the school. I knew them by name, I had the odd conversation with them. Individually, they were fine. En masse, I baulked at their efficient, military-like organisation. (But where would we be without them?)
I walked up to the school, on the days when the car was at the garage or it was just a lovely day for a walk. It was a mile and a half away so a three mile walk for me there and back.
The 4x4s were already appearing in the nineties. They’d park on the zig-zag lines outside the school and deposit Tamsin and Tarquin at the gate and we’d all tut tut as we walked by.
“Coming to the wine testing tonight?” they’d trill, tickets on sale now!” as they closed the car door and sped off up the road to their next appointment.
We’d mumble something about being busy or pretend we’d not heard. You learn how to slide under the radar when you are somewhere for fourteen years, (we, being the group of friends I had made over the years who were kind, thoughtful and not at all overbearing.)
I’d walk home in my jeans and T shirt with my offspring trailing behind me, the eldest way behind,
“I don’t want to be seen with you all,” she’d say, mortified that she had so many brothers and sisters. I should have seen it coming. When I had three girls, she turned to me, then three and a half and said,
“Mummy, you are like the old woman in the shoe, you have so many children, you don’t know what to do!”
If driving, I’d jump into my old Peugeot 505 estate with its eight seats, giving a lift to one or maybe two friends on the way. I borrowed the family car a few times. We had an Espace and later, a Previa. It was the Previa that caused consternation in the car park as I pulled out the pram wheels and assembled my second hand, much cherished pram bought for my unexpected but much loved and wanted, youngest child.
“New car?” someone said, “How do you find driving the Previa?”
“Oh, my husband’s, no not new…” I began.
“Don’t you just love it?”
“It’s ok but I find the turning circle nowhere near as tight my Peugeot. It’s ok for a stand-in,” I confessed.
She looked mortally offended. Her smile became a little more fixed, her eyes a little more glittery.
I grabbed bag and baby and deposited all in the pram and summoned my brood.
She did not walk with me to the school.
I pushed the pram back into the car park, now devoid of bags and children but thankfully, still containing baby, (quite a feat given that dad who wanted to throw him up into the air in the playground every day) My heart missed a beat each time J swung my son round and tossed him skyward. I had to watch him sail through the air, baby laughed, baby loved it.
After the second or third incident, I began strapping baby into the pram instead of carrying him. I protested royally if other dad came near,
“He’s tired, he’s sick, he doesn’t like it,” I lied as he made to pick my child up.
This probably wouldn’t happen today.
I prepared to load the pram back into the boot and was just in time to see my earlier inquisitor reverse her brand new Previa out of the parking bay and sail off up the road without looking at me. Oops!
I was a stay-at-home mum so had ample time for the school run, although I wrote and painted and crafted and kept housework to a minimum. I barely had time for a coffee morning, a wine tasting or an afternoon tea.
In the mid-nineties I was being published and I was extraordinarily busy, helping run an online writer’s club as well, preparing for art exhibitions etc.
I would never have had time for FOSPS, nor for trips to the woods. I was happy being with my friends, popping in for a quick coffee, having lunch at the pub at end of term and just doing my own thing.
There were women who worked back then of course. The odd nanny or Grandparent did the school run. Occasionally, the mothers of those children would make it to the school gate. They’d be wearing designer suits, amazing makeup and perfectly coiffured hair. They’d leave a trail of perfume in their wake.
“What are they talking about?” they’d hiss as a FOSP pushed a fund raising pamphlet into their perfectly manicured hands. The earth mothers disapproved and looked askance at them.
“Ignore it,” I’d advise, pushing my own pamphlet into my bag to be binned later (after I had written a cheque for something or other of course)
I must say that I did my own bit for these harassed mothers who I remembered from the days of yore when we stood in the playground together. I collected their children, gave them their tea, and cleaned them up when they messed up. I did this for a friend who ran the playschool.
Now that was a story.
Young D was a timid child. He and my son were best buddies (I think) aged four. It was my job to collect both my own son (the baby) and D on Thursday afternoon from school. That day I diligently waited for the bell and then walked back to the car with children. As we drove into the drive I realised with a sinking feeling that someone was missing. I had left D in the classroom.
“get back in, no don’t all get out, do up your seatbelts…!” I yelled and sped back to the school where the teacher sat smiling, holding D’s hand.
“Oh I knew you’d be back,” she told me, handing him over. I was not so sure. It was pure chance I had realised he wasn’t with me.
D was scared of our Lurcher. D was scared of everything. Steven donned a scary mask (most unsuitable)and frightened him half to death.
I spent those afternoons, placating and cuddling him and telling him it was ok, no one was going to hurt him. Not sure he believed me.
After a particularly traumatic incident in which he fled up the stairs screaming because the dog had stretched and yawned, I decided I had to call it quits.
My friend understood, I think.
We had a fairly relaxed approach to parenting. When my youngest daughter was eleven, she had a couple of friends round for tea. She and the friends went across to the park afterwards. To get there, they had to cross the main road. The road was not very busy in those days and my older children could all cross it comfortably. I checked with the friends that their parents let them cross roads in broad daylight. They both nodded.
When their parents came to collect them, the girls were discussing their trip to the park.
“You crossed the road?” one traumatised father asked.
“It’s fine, it isn’t busy…” I interjected, sensing trouble.
As they left, I clearly heard one say to the other,
“The trouble with this family is no discipline!”
Well, really. How very rude!

I didn’t go out to work again until my youngest was seven. (Not counting the years in which I helped my husband set up and expand his business) At long last, I became one of the mothers who rush home to make it in time for the pickup. I no longer wore jeans and T shirts, I was smartly dressed and swanned in and out of the playground for a while at 3.30pm until the youngest could make his own way home, with a friend.
We had our ups and downs, my son once jumped out of the car and raced back home in protest only to tell me, after numerous such events in a fortnight, that he had sorted it all out. He had been used to me being at home and hadn’t liked me not being there but he now realised that even if I didn’t pick him up, I would be home soon afterwards. Guilty? Of course, I felt guilty!

My own daughters now stand at the school gates. They all work, one can choose her hours (the designer and University lecturer) one sends her son to afterschool and breakfast club and the other has a Nanny for her three. They all have Grandma’s day care when needed. I am happy collecting, dropping off etc. I recognise the characters I would have encountered back then, even today. It never changes. I can spot the doers, the organisers, the hangers on and the ones who try to fly below the radar, with ease.
I am greeted by everyone with smiles because I am Grandma, I am doing a great thing here. I am not asked to join the committee for this or that or inundated with letters and pamphlets and emails as my daughters are, so I have time to stand back and watch.
Such a rich fabric to observe as the various groups form and my daughters’ friends, some of whom used to come to their parties, rush in with baby in pram and toddler tagging behind and realise they have forgotten to bring the sunflower pot back, or to dress their child in costume.
I can smile and be thankful that my time at the school gate may not truly be ended, but it is different.
Thank you Motherland* for reminding me what a rich tapestry, school life weaves.


I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Teresa

    What a lovely nostalgic post and what lovely memories you have (I used to find the baby-being-thrown-in-the-air terrifying too!). I thought when my youngest son went to high school that my school gate days were over, but I am there every day now. It’s great for people watching – and eavesdropping!

    What a cheek that traumatised father had to say what he did! Had to laugh about the offended Previa driver, but it’s so easy to put your foot in it isn’t it.
    I finally got round to watching the first episode of Motherland last night and I recognised some of those mothers too 🙂

    Hope you have a speedy recovery xx

    • Debbie

      Thanks Teresa! As you can see, I have recovered enough to sit with my laptop and catch up on blogs etc. I am just glad those days are behind me and I am now accepted the much put upon Grandma ha ha! No childcare or school drop offs for me for a week weeks of course. baby thrown in the air, is now 26 so he survived 🙂 xx

  • Hilary

    Hi Debbie – wonderfully well written – I need to be back to comment properly … life around here over the world and far away is somewhat different – be back sometime soonish. But good to read you’re feeling somewhat more enabled and healthy to read a few blogs and comment – thank for making it across to mine … see you soon – H xo

  • Hilary

    Hi Debbie – not having kids … this embodied all that I could see happening at the school gates … fun to re-read and to imagine life at school. I was a boarding girl – so of course these things didn’t happen … cheers Hilary

    • Debbie

      Hi Hilary – thanks for both comments! I used to wish I could board though in truth, I’d have miserable since I don’t think the Chalet School Stories were representative of reality. Midnight feasts sounded brilliant though. Glad you can recognise the school gate syndrome for what it is. I have to laugh when I see my children going through the same…keep well and be good to have you back. X

  • Patricia

    I was the mother who parent helped for 200 hours a semester in the classroom as soon as all three were in school. I did not do fundraising or sit on committees during those years. Then when they were older I went back to work at 3 part time jobs. I had to home school on the way as oldest had a gun pointed at her and she refused to go for 3 years. #2 suffered anxiety and wanted to go to a British Boarding school and so we sent her to college 2 years early and #3 had 12 major surgeries which because of infection worries spent 6 weeks away from school each event. I rather miss the long conversations in the parking lots with other parents. I did most days not have a car so I put the youngest on my back and we walked the 45 minutes to primary and then I went back again in the afternoon. I have to say I hated the birthday parties and only rarely did a good job on that front. We always had a friend over and some kind of adventure to share. I send you the good mom award and hope someday I will be the grandmother at the gate – though most folks thought I was #3s grandmother 30 years ago. Took some days off the computer and went to see family in California. Sorry it took me time to get here and I hope you are healing well and on your way to a speedy recovery

    • Debbie

      Thanks for your comments Patricia. What a horrendous experience for your daughter! We parents all manage as best we can don’t we? I am sure I don’t deserve a good mum (mom) award but I appreciate the thought and accept it graciously. I was actually once about to train as a teacher after my fourth child was born, until I tried to work out childcare which was non-existent back in the day. It was the career I had mapped out for myself long ago when I left school but got a place at art college instead. No regrets as I had child number five a couple of years later and began writing from home and getting published in magazine throughout the nineties. The rest, as they say, is history! I am recovering well and enjoying the rest now. It has given me time to upload a book to kindle for one thing. Always a silver lining… 🙂

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