At what point do I tell my child that life just isn't fair?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Larry and I are feeding the ducks in the park when I spot something out of the corner of my eye. What is that? I squint and peer, and eventually walk over to the plastic bag glistening in the sunlight by the side of the pond. It is full of lamb chops. Raw, sweaty, slightly greenish lamb chops.
 
My stomach heaves and rage rises up in my chest. What kind of beast dumps a bagful of raw lamb chops in a public park? The same kind of beast that rips up the daffodils planted by local schoolchildren. The same kind of beast who lets their horrible slavering Staffie shit all over the children’s playground. The same kind of beast who is still drilling for fossil fuel even though the human race is headed for a slow, hideous extinction. What is wrong with humans? We seem determined to make life unpleasant for ourselves.
 
“What is that?”
 
“It’s nothing, bubs. Somebody has left some meat in the park, that’s all.”
 
“Why?” Larry is going through a “why” phase.
 
“I don’t know. People do strange things. Sometimes they do things that aren’t very nice.”
 
“Why?”
 
I have been wondering when and how to introduce Larry to the idea that people are often complete idiots. Brutal honesty is my new policy. Middle-class mothers spend too much time telling their children to be nice, to share, not to hit anybody, to say please and thank you, not to drop litter in the street, or tease cats, or stomp on worms. I feel we should prepare our offspring a little better for the harsh, selfish, brutal and misguided reality they will inevitably face at some point.
 
Yet, before I can say anything, I feel a tear trickle down my cheek and disappear into the collar of my coat. What is going on? I wipe it away quickly. But then there’s another one, and another, and before I know it I am crying, really proper snotty unstoppable crying.
 
“Mummy, what’s the matter?”
 
“Don’t worry, darling, I’m fine.”
 
But I’m not, that much is obvious because my mouth gapes and I have to cover it with my hand before I start to dribble. The truth is, I haven’t been feeling too good recently. Perhaps it’s because Moe hasn’t been sleeping, or because Curly and I haven’t been getting on, or because I’ve been trying to work too much, or because the house thing fell through and now we’re going to be stuck in our slightly-too-small-flat for evermore. I don’t know. I wish it would all just go away.
 
Larry stares at me, puzzled. He’s lost some of his baby chub and his features are starting to take on the more defined angles of a little boy. The thought that he will one day grow up sends me into another round of ribcageracking sobs.
 
“Hey, you know what?” He scoots over to the buggy where Moe is lying asleep and rummages around until he finds the stained and tattered rag he has been sleeping with since he was a baby. “You need blankie.” 

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear