The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENTS -

There is a sen­tence on the chil­dren’s back to school in­for­ma­tion sheet which, I have rea­son to be­lieve, was put there to mock me. All sum­mer, ev­ery time I shuf­fled the pa­pers in my ex­pand­ing in-tray, it caught my eye. In fact, it caught my eye three times, in three dif­fer­ent colours be­cause – lest I have not shouted it from the rooftops enough al­ready – I now have three chil­dren in the same sec­ondary school.

But ap­par­ently, that’s not enough. Un­der the head­ing Fa­cil­i­ties and Equip­ment Fund, par­ents are ad­vised by this per­fid­i­ous sheet that fam­i­lies with one child in the school need to pay €150, fam­i­lies with two should shell out €160, and fam­i­lies with three need to find €180. So far, you might think, so rea­son­able. And then they de­liver it, the punch in the face: “fam­i­lies with four chil­dren or more, €200.”

Who? Who? Who are th­ese fam­i­lies? When the kids re­turned to school last week, I wanted to tag along with them, and loi­ter out­side in the hope of spot­ting a par­ent de­posit­ing four sib­lings from a car – not to con­grat­u­late them for their ef­fi­cient sav­ing on the Fa­cil­i­ties Fund, of course, but to rep­ri­mand them for their Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe ap­proach to fam­ily plan­ning.

For years, I have an­tic­i­pated the time when I would have three chil­dren in one school (their pri­mary school was di­vided into sep­a­rate ju­nior and se­nior di­vi­sions, so I only ever had two at any given time in the same build­ing), and I have imag­ined how I would be re­garded by other par­ents and teach­ers as some sort of lat­ter- day Mrs Walton. “But how does she do it?”, they would all say in awe and ad­mi­ra­tion; “how DOES she do it?”

In­stead of which, if the three mock­ing let­ters in my in-tray are to be be­lieved, they will be say­ing, “could you please stand back, in­spir­ing mother of four or more com­ing through.” Well, I want to shake that woman’s hand. I want to shake it so tight that she needs some sort of ob­scure orthopaedic surgery that will in­volve her mov­ing to Done­gal and tak­ing at least half her chil­dren with her.

The truth is there have been days when the four of us, in a riot of soup and sand­wiches, have laughed till

we cried

In the ab­sence of be­ing shoul­dered around the school hall and hailed as a sort of stu­dent­man­u­fac­tur­ing ma­chine, there so far seems to be hardly any ad­van­tage to hav­ing all the chil­dren in the same school. For open­ers, they have yet to walk to school to­gether (a pic­ture I con­jured up years ago, imag­in­ing some gen­tle josh­ing be­tween af­fec­tion­ate sib­lings on a path made soft with fallen, rus­set leaves). I was on the ra­dio on the day they re­turned to school, and Sean O’Rourke asked if I’d taken lots of pho­tos. I hadn’t, I ad­mit­ted. I hadn’t the heart to tell him that The Teenager had missed the first day be­cause of a long-stand­ing mod­el­ling job; the Boy had left the house in a shout­ing match over the im­por­tance of break­fast (not im­por­tant, ap­par­ently, when you’re 15) and The Youngest had left with­out telling us when she spot­ted her best friend at the gar­den gate.

Short of run­ning after them and snap­ping them from be­hind – tricky since The Model had been col­lected by car an hour ear­lier – there wouldn’t have been much point. At some point be­fore the new uni­forms take on that odd shape of dis­il­lu­sion­ment, we’ll get them to stand to­gether out­side the front door and smile.

But there’s al­ways lunchtime. For the past cou­ple of years, I’ve kept quiet about just how much craic goes on in this kitchen at lunchtime on school days, for fear The Youngest would feel left out. But the truth is that there have been days when the four of us, in a riot of soup and sand­wiches, have laughed till we cried. Now, at last, for half an hour each day, there are five of us; obliged through hunger and tight timeta­bles to sit around the same ta­ble, with only the gen­tle drone of the ra­dio for dis­trac­tion. When school fin­ishes, they wan­der in at dif­fer­ent times and then off into the big­ger worlds that ab­sorb them and make them late – or even ab­sent – for din­ner. And after that, there is tele­vi­sion and mu­sic and Face­book and Snapchat; five peo­ple lead­ing in­de­pen­dent lives un­der the same roof.

But for half an hour each week day, like Sis­ter Sledge, we are fam­ily. Four or more chil­dren? Frankly, they wouldn’t fit in.

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