It's my turn to be a parent helper, help!

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 Photo: Getty Images

It was the most awful dream. First there was an earthquake, then a volcanic eruption, then a mudslide.

I gripped a passing log, desperate to save myself, the children and, inexplicably, an entire wedding party.

I woke up with a yelp, all twisty in the sheets. What the dang had that been all about? Then I remembered: today was the school trip, and I was a parent helper.

Volunteering to chaperone a school trip is not for the faint-hearted. You'll be responsible not only for the welfare of your own child (the one in plaits and an apple raincoat) but the lives of others. There will be busy roads, freezing winds, yoghurts beyond their expiry dates. You must constantly bristle for hazards. The children must eat all their lunch. They must clap at the end of the show. They must go the toilet before they need to go to the toilet. How are you going to remember all this?

On the bus, the grown-ups stood in the aisles while the children squeezed three-to-a-row, chirruping with excitement. We hadn't left the kerb before I felt dehydrated while simultaneously desperate to wee.

This is what comes of having no caring experience before having my own children: panic! I didn't own a dog or a cat, or even a peace lily, when I was single.

Once I tortured an orchid to death, leaving it for six weeks under a slow-dripping tap while I gallivanted off to London.

There's a terrific line in a Joan Rivers documentary where, framed by the spotlights around her back- stage mirror, she says, "I'm an actress, and I play a comedian."

In the same way, I wear responsibility like a costume (when can I take this bloody thing off? It's hot under here!)

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Is it because I can't escape myself, as a parent? The thing is, having kids forces you into a profundity of the kind practised by sequestered monks. Monks rake sand, gaze at mountains and contemplate the rising and falling of futile desires. I'd rather not, thanks, but my children make me live in real time where I have no future, no past. So I suck in that mountain air.

For example George, who is 4, wants me beside him in bed at night. "No talking, George," I say, as a condition of my staying there. Often it takes him just a few minutes to drop off, but one night he's fighting sleep. He planks, then flips onto his tummy. He drums the headboard with his fingers. He dives under his pillow. He puffs out his cheeks. He scissors his legs.

Every so often he subsides and I brighten, because I fancy a Tim Tam. Is he asleep? The wind howls, the fridge hums through the wall. Somewhere, wind chimes clash and tinkle like crazy (Who? Who? Who has wind chimes in Wellington?) and a wet rhododendron slaps against the window. Then he moves.

"Mummy," he whispers.

"Yes?"

A tiny palm slaps over my mouth.

"No talking!" he hisses.

This is parenthood; waiting silently in the dark for your little boy to find sleep. Forget the biscuit; experience the falling away of your futile desire. It has to be enough, living minute-to-minute like this, because if it isn't, then what hope is there for you?

The school trip was briefly washed out. As the children ate inside the Michael Fowler Centre, three mime artists came to entertain them. Three attractive 20-somethings in boiler-suits, delighting the kids by juggling mops and balancing buckets.

How, I wondered, chewing a fruit bun vigorously, do they pay their rent?

Then: Why can't I just enjoy the show, like them? The 5-year-olds were laughing like drains!

On the ride home I straddled the aisle at the back of the bus with the 6-year-olds. (Six is a lifetime from 5; at 6, life begins to disappoint you.) I lashed myself to two seat handles and talked about the route.

"There's the Chinese embassy," I said, brightly.

"They often hang huge red lanterns outside."

"They're not that big," said a boy, dismissively.

"More like this," and he brought his hands close together.

We lurched dramatically around a corner.

"Why don't you let go of the handles?" another boy asked me, and his friends went quiet, hoping something interesting was about to happen.

Nearby, a teacher was talking to a smaller girl who was about to have a birthday.

"What birthday present are you hoping for?" the teacher asked.

The girl smiled, the way only 5-year-olds do.

"Anything," she beamed.

- Sunday Star Times