Raising Civilised Children – Part One: Discipline (#Beingthebadguy#NannyMcPhee#Don’tgettothepointofneedingSupernanny)

Raising a family is a rocky road (and I am not speaking about ice cream. In fact if I were to describe my kin as a flavour of ice cream I’d say we are a Celtic sort of Spumoni – various colours and tastes, with lots of fruit and nuts). Discipline is tough, but essential.

Few self-help texts mention discipline when prattling on about raising happy kids and yet it is the basis of order in a home and in nurturing an internal order in youngsters so vital for maturity. Children need discipline to feel safe. If there are rules they know there is a structure to catch them when they fall. And I don’t mean ‘catch them out.’

The trick is in knowing when to expand the elastic boundaries, keeping your nestlings safe and being astute enough to see when to firm up. I used to refer to holidays as ‘parameter redefining’ opportunities because I have been privileged as a teacher to have this time to re-evaluate who needs more independence and who needs…um… let’s call it ‘guidance’ shall we? (They probably called it ‘Back to the Gulag.’)

  1. Discipline begins with routine.

Nebulous bedtimes, vague threats and blurry promises are the surest way to have insecure children. They may grumble about limits, but youngsters feel safe in the fact there are boundaries and that you are in charge.

When my bairns were little, bedtimes were formal (Well they were until they were old enough to set their own routines.) and followed a pattern of eat, bath, calm down time (!), family prayers and reading in bed. And let’s face it, if they are used to following a certain sequence of activities in the evening and you really need them in bed, you simply start with the first task and things follow along nicely. Devious, hey?

Traditions are also part of a family routine. No matter how poor we were, Fridays were (and still are) pizza nights in our home.  So is Christmas tree decorating (although I am finding the elves increasingly slothful of late). Family meal times are a must around the dinner table (more on that in another blog post) and for us, mass on a Sunday is an ongoing part of the ritual of our lives.

  1. Say ‘No’ and mean it.

The hardest thing to do when you have to return home at supper time, especially if it’s to housework, dinner preparations (and load shedding) is to say ‘No’ to a nipper who knows (and they do! They are psychic like that) when you are at your weakest. It is then he will whine for the chips while you are waiting in the supermarket checkout queue. (Damn all canny marketers who know that too and purposely display all those yummy snacks which are both bad for the cherubs and beyond our pockets!)

             Picture by tommyellis.wordpress.com

And yet stoic adherence to our decisions is what Junior needs from us: a mature adult who has weighed up the issue and made a call. Never mind that your nerves are shot because of having to prostrate yourself obsequiously in front of neurotic, misguided and deranged clients (and/or bosses) and you feel as if you have fallen in front of the taxi proclaiming ‘Game Over’ (There is one driving around in Parklands, I kid you not).

If you say ‘No,’ you must stick to it. ‘No’ must never mean ‘maybe’ either. Because they will pounce on that like the media on a fallen celeb at a press conference. If you oscillate, you are toast.

I used to count to three before ‘encouraging’ my beloved offspring to respond until I realised that the little squirts waited until just after  ‘two’ before skedaddling to make their beds or begin doggy patrol or whatever other heinously cruel chore their mother had ascribed to them. Even the smallest of mitess knows how to work the system.

While I am not a huge fan of James Dobson, he does call his theory ‘dare’ to discipline. So many of us single parents want to be seen as the nice one and, because we see so little of our kids because we are working, or are weekend parents, the temptation is to avoid conflict. But sometimes you have to go there. I remember one infamous encounter with a prepubescent imp who mouthed off at me over dishes, in the presence of his visiting father. His dad, obviously not comfortable with the conflict, put on his coat and took his leave. Not of course without feeling my fury at being left to be the bad guy! Hard though it was, I marched straight back into the scullery and informed he-who-shall-not-be-named that I would not stand for rudeness and that there would be consequences. And there were.

  1. Don’t Threaten what you can’t/won’t do

You are not allowed to kill them so don’t say you will. Tempting though the thought may be to pull out a tongue from an impertinent mouth and tie it around the neglected ears, that feat is probably not humanly possible. And the corollary of being realistic about creative forms of ‘punishment’ is that you must follow through on ensuring consequences happen. If I learnt anything about discipline in the classroom it was that.

Naturally they don’t really know that you are unlikely to twerk in front of their friends, but if you pick those things they have an abhorrent fear of, you might get away with it. But be prepared for that one (there is always one) who will call you on your vow to embarrass them. I practised at home the other day. The Labrador hid her face in horror. Mind you she still didn’t move off my Persian carpet! But I can say no one has put that threat to the test.

The thing is if you have a history of keeping your word, they will remember that. Michael took some convincing on this one and bears the emotional scars of having Mom march in not once, but twice to insist on a more acceptable haircut after visiting the hair salon on his own for a revoltingly trendy cut. He changed barbers after the second occasion, but when I say, Do not shave part of your head,’ he knows what will happen if he does. Caitlin remembers having a playdate cancelled for falsely accusing a sibling of stealing from her. So now I have a reputation of following through. They are not quite sure I wouldn’t twerk. But if I say their cell phone will sojourn in my possession, they are sure it shall.

One should be careful of what one says in frustration however. And let’s face it, we do emit some gems in the heat of the moment. A while back my dramatic daughter mimicked her childhood memory of me saying ‘I. Am. Going. To. Crack!’ (Something I know I threatened often.) Shannon recalls how she pictured me oozing yolk in Humpty Dumptyish self-destruction. What a thing for a small child to be imagining. Mind you, the cynic in me, was mildly surprised that she had been paying attention at all to my rantings.

Apologise if you over-react.

But saying ‘No’ is hard, because we want our children to like us. However sometimes, we have to settle for sullen respect and wait for them to grow up and recognise our wisdom and the strength it took not to choose to be the ‘cool, laissez-faire’ parent who curried favour with them instead of parenting them.

  1. Know when to keep a straight face and when to laugh

As a rule of thumb, it is always a good idea to develop an inscrutable, serious face. I have one child who always giggled nervously when I lined them up ‘tallest to shortest’ (which we don’t do anymore in deference to the older two who have been outstripped in the height stakes). It was so cute to see this tiny redhead, who was seldom the cause of the mayhem, trying hard not to laugh for fear of Mom’s further wrath, and I wanted to chuckle at her discomfort, but I had to glare at her too – because her more devious younger sister and brother would have walked all over me then.  And they tried the charm and cute smiles all the time.

Don’t film your child being cheeky. There is nothing cute about a child backchatting an adult. I hated that youtube clip that did the rounds a while back of a son attempting to reason with his mother, Linda.  Sorry I may be accused of being old fashioned here, but I do believe that she was making a rod for her own back.

Sometimes you have to laugh to show you are human though, but don’t forget Rule #5 then.

  1. Consequences

The problem with youngsters, even teenagers,   is that they don’t have the capacity to anticipate consequences. They can barely see beyond the next text or past the weekend’s party at Giddy Gertie’s house. So teaching them the scientific principle of action-reaction must become part of your teaching at home. I bet you Newton actually learnt this from having to sweep up the mess he made testing whether an egg or a packet of paper would fall faster. Well, he would have if Mother Newton was keen to teach him about consequences.

But chess is a good way to educate our young’uns about what can happen next. The again, it can of course teach them to outthink us so should probably be avoided at all costs.

  1. Be Fair 

One’s offspring are most sensitive to what is fair (nothing really, but don’t tell them that) and are most adept at spotting inconsistencies of treatment among siblings. Chores should be equally distributed and consequences demonstrably consistent.

Quite frankly, Solomon had it easy: he only had to decide who owned a baby. He did not have to draw up a roster for dishwashing or defend the claim that no one is the favourite child.

  1. Forgive and Move on

Always allow them to make amends/ be sorry. NEVER hold a grudge. If you really want to re-hash how angry you were when she borrowed your car sans permission, save it for her 21st – you’ll have an audience then, but more importantly you will have realised that it wasn’t as big a deal as you thought at the time.

Children must be shown that there is NOTHING they can do that will stop you loving them. You must say it. Often. Especially when they have crossed a line. And you must show it. That is arguably one of the most important rules of parenting.

Demonstrate your own penitence when you are wrong. You can do this with dignity and model how you want them to learn to express regret.

  1. Break the Rules Once in a while 

There is a place for unqualified mercy when you let them eat in front of the TV or jump on a bed with them. It becomes a treat and a special memory of fun with mum.


Now before I am bombarded by all the nouveau pc views on how negative it is to start a series of articles on parenting for happy families with ‘discipline,’ let me be very clear that discipline is the framework only for family life. Our progeny need and deserve much more than that.

But that, my dears, is a story for another day.

Raising Civilised Children – Introduction: Happy Families

Remember that card game we used to play called ‘Happy Families,’ where you had to match cards to build a complete nuclear family? Despite the myriad ways in which that game is now appallingly politically incorrect, its core message was: obtain happiness to win – and complete families make for convivial living. Really?

We live in an age of single parent households, for heaven’s sake. In 2013 The South African Institute of Race Relations  reported that only 33% of our children live with both parents, but, as I was always at pains to stress with my own children: we may have had a single parent home, but we did not have to be a broken home and, unlike the card game, we can prevail even in our ‘incompleteness.’

The remnant of that ancient phenomenon ‘the diligent parent’ in me is still drawn to articles entitled ‘5 Ways to have a happier family’ and ‘10 tips for raising teens with no issues.’ (I read a cute one that ran out before the strained writer reached 10 points, so it remained ‘9 strategies for emotionally stable adolescents’) Now far be it for me to knock the conscientious pop psychology of a favourite magazine or negate the zeal of a well-intentioned newly minted counsellor, or, God-forbid, challenge the oeuvre of esteemed academic research, but, seriously, ‘stable adolescents’ is an oxymoron at best and at worst a denial of an integral aspect of human growth: coping with change.  I met a doctor once who asserted quite calmly that teenagers were clinically insane. I wouldn’t go as far as the good doctor, but I have yet to meet a human being without ‘issues’ let alone an adolescent who doesn’t run the gamut of emotions from delirious buoyancy to Gothic angst in one day – unless he is in denial – but I suppose we could all do with being ‘happier.’

What many fail to realise that oftentimes the route to real, profound happiness is not a Brady Bunch adventure or Pollyanna-like family fun. That primrose path leads to overindulgence which borders on believing in the Kardasianesque illusion.

For what it is worth, my next few posts will identify some of my discoveries along my Odyssey as parent, educator and school leader.

They may help you, appal you, or inspire you. Or they’ll just make you laugh at my ineptness and allow you to pat yourself on the back with amused schadenfreude about not being as bad as ‘that woman who thinks she knows what’s what.’


The Family Car

I drive a bus. ‘They’ speak of Mom’s Taxi as if to suggest a vehicle taking in paying customers, but sadly, driving my progeny from ballet to football to eisteddfod or to the endless array of social engagements (that ‘everyone’ is attending and failure to arrive would constitute social suicide) is not a paying job.

Le Moto is a 15 year old Toyota Condor which chugs along quite merrily, thank you, despite being shamelessly neglected by pit crew other than the cursory ministering of petrol jockeys from time to time. Beauty queen she certainly ain’t anymore, having had one too many clashes with a tiresome garage door which used to stick in the winter months, not to mention learner-driver dings and too many close encounters with the grey water at my previous school. But except for a year of menopausal overheating due to a faulty radiator and a bumper which fell off twice (now mercifully secured with cable ties by a passing noble knight), she has not let us down very often. In fact she clocks up quite a speed (well, she would if the speedometer worked) and I have a growing collection of fine photographs which the traffic department keeps kindly sending me to prove it.

When I first managed to purchase my splendid silver wagon, with the help of the children’s Uncle Mark, I heaved a sigh of relief at having the five bairns strapped in and unable to impinge on one another’s personal space, or at least to be far enough away to avoid doing each other grievous bodily harm. Yet still we travelled to the mewling sounds of:

‘Mommeee, Michael’s foot is touching me!’

‘Moooom! He’s breathing too loudly,’ and other such profound discourse.

Another perennial battle is the crying of ’Shotgun’ for the seat of honour besides Mother. For a while I solved that squabble by insisting the winner had to be able to spell ‘hierarchy.’ Now it is eldest in the front. The end.

And naturally Liam (aged three) acquired a crayon to proudly scribble his name on the door; the bonnet became a victim of someone’s really horrible Technology project and sported blue paint until the recycled water used to irrigate the flowers at CBC corroded it, along with the paintwork. Shiny hubcaps bear the scars of a couple of off-road excursions over pavements (I am not renowned for careful driving, the upside of which is that no one argues about wearing seatbelts.) This tendency towards Paris-Dakar motoring has achieved a musical medley of spring sounds over speedbumps, which my family accuse me of taking too literally. They may be right, but everyone loves fairground rides, surely?

Before long of course they started turning 17 and asking to be taught to navigate the streets themselves. Now, I believe you should never teach someone this skill if you gave birth to said learner driver. They turn into sanctimonious law abiding citizens who mutter ‘Fail,’ if you so much as inch over a line at traffic lights. Everyone becomes a critic. And yet they look like chickens on Tik doing all the ‘checks’ which the K53 test requires. No, that’s why God made driving instructors. The end, seriously.

Then they want to drive your car solo. Which is okay, if you don’t watch them pull away into the mist, sans lights and if you ensure you recite maniacal religious mantras while they are gone. What I really can’t stand is getting into my car afterwards and finding the seat is either right on top of the steering wheel (Caitlin) or too far for me (Sean). Not to mention the dog hair and sea sand all over the seats after they have (kindly?) walked the Mad Lab on the beach. And what is with the cheek of changing the radio station?! My car: my music. The absolute end!

Of course they quickly find MyCiti buses a suitable alternative mode of transport again when I say the magic phrase: ‘Petrol money.’  Le Moto is a thirsty gal.

I probably should replace her soon, but that would feel like a betrayal. She’s been the soccer team bus, the friend carrier and a moving van. Like a family pet, this loyal family member has been a part of our history, our adventures and an embrace of our tears (lots of those).

But perhaps I’ll wait until Michael buys new football boots.

My next car will be an Alpha Spider.

Waiting for Godot: Fetching Teens from Parties

There is a reason I like to go to bed. I am old. It is 21h45 on a Friday night. I should be all toasty in my warm, winter sheets-and-down-duvet bed. Or in my pjs at least. Instead I am waiting to fetch a thirteen year old from a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ party.

‘What, pray tell, is a glow-in-the-dark party?’ you may well ask, curious Reader (Other than a night at home with a few close, menopausal friends during load shedding of course.) And why in the dark? They are thirteen! Far too many happy hormones a-hoppin’ I hope the supervising parents are checking around corners.

I hosted a thirteenth birthday once. For Child #1. Which was unfortunate for Children #2 – #5.

It’s a weird age: wannabe cool, and so desperate not to be caught out in some unanticipated ‘uncool’ moment – like holding your mother’s hand, kissing your mother, being with your mother…having a mother. In fact much of your social capital is bound up in how your parents are perceived. And let’s face it that’s stressful to those of us who are not cool, rich or good looking. It’s like the pressure of having to make pre-school Easter bonnets that match up to the creative mommies’ ones all over again. So I guess being fetched by your mother in her fluffy Uggs is social annihilation.

The sneaky mother in me stores up these death-to-teenage-popularity pieces of information to be used just before the piéce de resistance: threatening to twerk in front of their friends, if one is not obeyed. That and taking away electronic devices can reduce beefy adolescents to mute acquiescence.

Timing the collection from a teen party is a matter of supreme skill: too early and you are ignored by your unimpressed offspring; too late and you have embarrassed him. But here’s the crunch: tardiness is not measured by the time on the invitation, but on how much fun said reveller is having and other matters beyond one’s control, such as whether there are any boys left if your son is at a girls’ party and vice versa. Minutes count.

Speaking of the social scene, friends are ranked, you know. But it’s tough to keep up with the social media levels. ‘She’s a close friend because I’m on Snapchat with her’ is the new determiner. ‘Facebook confirmed’ is so yesterday.

Oops it’s nearly time. Gotta go. Hope no one sees my onesie under my coat.


On Being Fifty

Ok so I am nearing 51 now, but who’s counting. My sister is muuuch older: she’s nearly 53.

But here’s the thing – everyone thinks I’m the older one because I have children. And I cannot pretend anymore that it is because I am the serene, mature one, while she is the wild and irresponsible, single one. Nor can I honestly say I look older than I am because I have kids, no matter the temptation to blame them for this ailing body. Sometimes it helps, mind you, to have had a herd of younguns. There are nine years between Sean and Liam, but the mothers  of Liam’s friends assume I am their age, a good ten years younger than I am.

I have had about ten months to consider how I feel about having reached this ‘middle-aged’ milestone (Of course I’m old enough to know what an actual milestone is). Ten months is the usual human gestation period. (Don’t believe the ‘nine months’ myth they tell you) so my fully grown thought is… I am rather bemused by it all.

Not that ambivalence about growing old stops the aging process. And it is inexorable. And undignified. There are weird things that happen to one’s body which tales of the ‘sagging’ shape of one’s fifties do not adequately prepare you for: Like that moment when you look in the mirror at your naked form (not recommended unless you are a fifty-something like Iman or Sharon Stone) and quite pleased with yourself that you have that ‘thigh gap’ thing going that all the magazines speak about, you wonder what it is you can see at the top of your legs. You’re not wearing your glasses naturally because any mirror-gazing after fifty should be done without 20-20 vision. Then it dawns on you – that’s your butt hanging down. The lesson: avoid all reflective surfaces. No, gentle reader, gym is not an option: Far too many looking glasses there.

Then there is your friend to whom you confide that you have decided that short skirts are for younger women, because you can no longer hide the varicose veins (yes, dear offspring, the scars of 50 months of pregnancy). And she speaks about her salami-skinned calves – and you know what she means!

It’s not just the legs though. I remember grabbing my mother’s hand once, upon glimpsing a liver spot on her beautiful pale hand: ‘No, you’ve got old!’ I wailed. Gee that must have made her feel good! I cannot believe I did that. But Karma is a sly bitch and she has come a-visiting to my anatomy now. It doesn’t help that one develops what another pal calls ‘old lady skin,’ that thin, papery and fragile epidermis, which bleeds at the slightest bump. And the grazes look like more liver spots.

And then there are the wrinkles. I always said that I wouldn’t mind such lines (as long as they were laughter lines), not realising that it is really difficult to put on lipstick around your mouth when you must navigate the crevices, not filled by putty-like foundation. But I draw the line (get it?) at wrinkles on my toes. Seriously?! I did not anticipate that.

Coping with the question of whether to colour or embrace the grey is not one I considered in my feckless youth. I assumed that as a redhead, I would simply fade delicately with the advancing years. And fade I have – so much that folk have begun to apologise to me about telling blonde jokes. To make it worse, I have noticed lately that there are far too many grey hairs in my fringe to pull out, lest I go bald. I’m simply ignoring them and pretending they are blonde.

There are other signs of aging that are not about the old fuselage needing panel beating though. I have noticed that a question I am asking at job interviews is whether there is a mandatory retirement age. Such questions never entered my head before. And job-hunting at fifty is no mean feat either. I was born in 1964. That is Baby Boomer territory. I remember the first moon landing for heaven’s sake! Since young teachers entering the profession were born after I graduated I can imagine what some HR suit may think about a dinosaur like me. My solution: I stuck a soft focus photograph on my CV which was just grainy enough to hide the age, but not quite a poorly focussed shot.

And yet I do not want to be younger, because that would negate who I have become and the victories I have won in recent years. I like my life and if that means I have to ask my daughters to do the ‘mutton or lamb’ colosseum gesture from time to time, that’s okay. There is a liberation which comes with knowing and liking yourself as you are, and a sense of adventure in realising that as the children grow up and bring home love interests, the heart of the home is expanding and there are so many more years of family ahead. They do not even notice what I look like… unless I bought something new and snuck it inside without telling them, or nicked it from their cupboards, which sadly I can’t do anymore (the mutton-lamb thing again).

So I’m good. And I try very hard not to remember that Shirley Valentine was 42. But I don’t want a Greek lover. I’m clever – I married a younger man. And I am not fifty-one yet. I am only 50 and 5/6ths.

Coffee Mates

I can’t afford therapy, but thanks to my Friday morning coffee meetings I am relatively normal…okay so there are no obvious ticks or twitches or visible signs of serious disorders.  Coffee with the gals has become the mainstay of my sanity over the last few months: something to look forward to; friends to laugh with; sounding boards for decisions; encouraging audiences as we glow over our children’s triumphs; fellow sufferers to commiserate over those ‘stages’ our offspring pass through and of course tissue providers when we cry some too.

We meet at a coffee shop run by a local church after dropping our teenagers at school, so, in my case at least, there is one day a week on which I don’t do the school run in my slippers. And since we are sans spawn, there is a degree of schadenfreude which prefaces the event from the get-go.

We are served by the genteel Oliver and ebullient Karla who simply bring our cappuccinos (large) straight to our table. It feels like those New York movies where we are known by name – not many regulars can brag about being on Facebook with their waitrons.

Only fellow maters of moody minors can appreciate the liberation our laughter brings, as we remind ourselves it’s NOT us. We are in fact the sane and rational madonnas we knew we were. Of course our children probably assume we spend all our time skindering about them (and we let them), but in fact we have rather eclectic conversations. Several of them.

It’s self-therapy through storytelling as we share confessions, decisions and fears. And we brag about our children (don’t tell them). Sometimes sick or bored progeny join us for breakfast and then feel duty bound to roll their eyes and smile patronisingly at the silliness of their elders. That’s okay because then we can tick off items on a parent’s daily duty list like a) embarrassed children and perhaps even b) grossed out said brood if we are truly on form.

There was one memorable morning that Michelle brought along her dad, who was visiting from up north. The poor man was treated to several sudden bouts of weeping as well as a little maniacal guffawing. He has never been back. Her mother on the other hand plunged right in. It’s clearly a chick thing.

I shall be teaching for six months again next semester and the horror is that I don’t get Fridays off. I may go into decline and require intensive treatment each holiday.

Never doubt the power of caffeine laced with friendship and prayer. We come away lighter, a little more confident, knowing we matter and are much loved. What a gift!

Reflections in a Waiting Room at the Cape Town Maintenance Court  

Maintenance CourtI wrote this way back in 2011 and I offer it as a tribute to all the women who struggle to support their children alone. It is a sad testament to a system bursting at the seams with  the needs of children who have only one parent who provides. (The carpet hasn’t changed btw)

It’s a drab room: the nondescript institutional blue carpeting shows signs of wear. The antechamber is furnished with mismatched office chairs and scratched tables. Two miniature bright plastic tables and a forlorn matching chair lie discarded in a corner, some long ago attempt to make the place child-friendly.

A muted television plays ancient re-runs of African-American sitcoms, bearing no resemblance to the miserable lives of the inhabitants of the room. Someone has chosen to paint the walls a mellow buttercup yellow, but not even that or the cheesy puppy prints randomly placed on the walls, next to forbidding-looking legal documents, outlining court proceedings, can brighten the mood of the silent occupants.

We’re a mixed bunch: young, old; rich, poor, inhabitants of a wide range of Cape Town suburbs and townships. Two women, absorbed in conversation, sit patiently, from time to time staring at the silent comedians on the screen; another dressed in jeans, is on her Blackberry – deleting messages is one way to pass the time here, I think. A young mom (too young) sits besides me, restlessly picking at her clothes. What is her story, I wonder, or that of the mother and her teenage daughter, who are reading Die Son and seem to be the only people in the room who like each other? I smile encouragingly at them in the sisterhood of the betrayed. Their case is called and the mother leaves the room accompanied by an unlikely ex-partner – a wannabe gangsta-type who ‘rolls’ out on sneakers, having spent the previous hour in the room with his eyes closed while listening to earphones, ignoring her and his daughter.

Everyone here has a story – even the angry matron with steely grey hair who loudly demands that we should all complain vehemently about the delays. People shrug and avert their eyes, embarrassed to be so placid. We’re already defeated, our body language seems to say, no fight left in us.

Only the icy hiss of the air conditioner responds.

Then there are the men: one is pacing, decrying ‘Africa’ as the root of all evil (funny that his own delinquency is probably the reason he is here). The defaulters look nervous and jumpy. Two are jiggling their legs anxiously. I feel no sympathy, imagining the tracks their former wives and lovers have paced, agonising over their financial fears. A well-dressed businessman and his blonde wife sign in as defendants. They’re represented by an energetic attorney whose court gown makes him appear to be a marauding crow. They move into an adjoining room, disdaining our company.

I’ve finished my novel; planned my schedule for tomorrow’s work; bored myself with attempts to erase 913 smses one by one and am now pondering the meaning of it all. A woman on TV holds up a tiny baby triumphantly. Out of the corner of my eye I see my ex-husband watching the show and wonder what he’s thinking. Is he remembering the births of our first four children or imagining the arrival of our youngest, whose advent was celebrated only by the nursing staff and my sister. He, of course, was otherwise occupied with the first of several ’loves of his life.’

Yes, I’m biased – bitter from the years of trying to make ends meet while he swanned around sans thought for his offspring. I wonder if he is scared now – I hope so. It feels good to have a compassionate case worker stand up to him to know that someone will speak for my family now; that ‘Hey, I’m sorry I don’t have money for you,’ will no longer be tolerated.

Men pass angrily in and out of the room, unable to bear the silent censure of all the women present. They glare around them as if to dare anyone to suggest that they are guilty. A dark-haired socialite in too-tight black clothing which reveals her underwear, switches off the air conditioner (despite the sign requesting the public to call an official to do so). She crudely suggests that the bureaucrats need the cold air up their derrières more than we need to be cooled. Her vulgarity raises an awkward titter, but only Mr Let’s-Blame-Africa seems to agree. Then the gloom descends again.

The air conditioner springs to life suddenly, responding to some inner thermostat setting. The cold reminds me of the chill inside me. I’m saddened that I feel nothing when I peer at the sociopath I once lay beside at night. There he sits – a man who once told me my career was not as important as his, because he was the breadwinner – now he sits nonchalantly at the far end of the room reading the newspaper discarded by the mother and daughter team.

Our case is called, the maintenance officer mangling the surname. I no longer care; it’s not my name anymore really. He waves me away dismissively when I ask why we are not going before the magistrate. Where’s the prosecutor I assumed would speak for my family? We are ushered into his office where files cover the desk and floor. My heart sinks. We are one of hundreds of ongoing cases. I hear his standard greeting, intoned in a ritualistic monotone and we get down to business.

My earlier hopes that the system would fight for my children are soon dashed. He isn’t reading the thick folder containing the sad tale of my former spouse’s irresponsibility. He asks me to summarise! How can I explain in one sentence the suffering of ten years of broken promises to support the children he avows he loves? The official doesn’t read the expenses sheet I have prepared, or the copy of the divorce decree where a father of five signed up to pay R12 000 a month and then never did (It’s nearly R20 000 a month now with increments); he doesn’t ask what field the paternal post graduate is in, nor explain to him the realities of his crime (yes it’s a crime not to pay maintenance) Why hasn’t this man prepared for this case? He asks the stranger beside me how much he earns.

‘Two thousand,’ is the reply from the man with an MBA.

I gasp at his audacity and state that he just gave up a job worth far more. My hope for justice begins to slip away as the court officer leans across to take the efforts of ‘job-seeking’ and, closing the file, my should-be knight declares that I have no chance of recouping the nearly million rand of unpaid maintenance we are owed, as this ‘soldier for the ill-treated’ tells me ‘He’s unemployed.’

‘Aren’t you going to make him find work, any work,’ I blurt out desperately.

‘He has no chance of earning more,’ my ‘hero’ pronounces. Will you accept R1 500?’

For five children! From a man who is university educated! How can he just not work?! Why can the authorities not force him to take on more than one job?! After all, I work until midnight, bringing home mountains of extra work.

‘Hang on,’ I say, being the only one to speak for the children: ‘Who will help me support my kids? What about his parents?’ I enquire, doing the maintenance officer’s job for him.

‘Oh there are parents?’ he realises (why didn’t he ask?) and re-opens the file. ‘We’ll subpoena them for two months time.’

Now I feel like a heel, extorting money from old people, even though I know it’s the law and my children’s right. Why didn’t he interrogate the children’s father more robustly; why didn’t he challenge the amount the other admits to earning? Perhaps he is in a rhythm of operating, which allows him to process cases as swiftly as possible, but I come away with impotent rage bubbling within me. The children and I are not a case number! We are living, breathing people. So much for Premier Zille’s campaign to bust maintenance defaulters! This one got away with a rap on the knuckles and his parents will be made to pay. And he will go on living off the current fiancée, possibly even marry this one and breed again (she’s young enough and he never had the snip, even when I begged him to) and the system will shrug its over-burdened shoulders in apathy. How many other mothers have felt the same despair as they rode the lift to the ground floor?

Perhaps it’s time for a lawyer (as if I could afford one!); I’m losing my faith that the system will fight for us.

‘How was it?’ I’m asked when I arrive home.

‘Frustrating,’ I euphemise.

‘May I have a haircut?’

‘Could I have a treat for my school outing?’

‘I need an exam pad for exams.’

‘The washing up liquid is finished.’

‘Will you buy me a new asthma pump?’ I’m asked.

‘No there’s only enough for tonight’s electricity. Perhaps in two month’s time…’ I reply.