GROWING PAINS: Styles May Differ, But Mother Love's the Same

"God, you're a terrible mother!" said my British girlfriend on my return to Moscow.

This isn't something my regular readers would care to dispute, but what she meant was that I had deprived my children of the first week of school by lingering in Europe.

The lapse was an unfortunate necessity, and the children and I were actually desperate to get back f a longing that my husband, Kolya, who had spent the long, hot summer working in the sizzling CIS, couldn't quite come to grips with.

On our car trip back to Russia, the kids and I languished reluctantly in Monte Carlo and rushed him through Nice and Cannes. "Tell me," he said eventually. "Just what is it about Ulitsa Krupskaya, Dom 5 that is so very appealing?" This was after our five-year-old Bobby had pulled himself out of a kidney-shaped swimming pool lined with palm trees in the south of France and sagged sadly on the edge, saying simply: "I wish I were back in Moscow."

Well, you have to admit, you either love Moscow or you hate it, and my children love it. As for me, two months with my children f living a nomadic life in t ents, caravans and occasionally, blissfully, in other people's houses f was not a vacation.

A message in the "mothers in Moscow" list (which I initially read as "mother sin Moscow" and subscribed!) describes being a parent as "challenging, permanent work in an often chaotic environment, requiring long hours of drudgery, plenty of travel, strong crisis management, budgeting and culinary skills, plus ability to drive a vehicle under loud and adverse conditions. And it's unpaid. In fact, you pay them."

Now I'm back in Moscow, and I can shift some of the responsibilities to hubby, nannies and school, and also my mother-in-law, who has been happily drumming the "terrible mom" theme into me for a decade.

The truth is we all have our little quirks of motherhood, and under-feeding or under-dressing mine is perhaps no worse than the story my mother-in-law likes to relate about herself: While giving her younger son, Maxim, a bath one evening she saw to her horror that he had vivid red wheals on his back from a whipping." My baby! My darling! Who did this to you?" she shrieked. "Was it your teacher? The other boys? Tell me instantly and I'll go and tear them limb from limb."

"But it was you, Mummy," he said, turning to her. "This morning."

I should perhaps add that despite the regular thrashings they received, Maxim and Kolya are now well-adjusted, happy adults and loving sons. So who are we to judge who's right and who's wrong? When all's said and done, the ultimate reward for all the hassle is to have your children throw themselves at you, smother you in wet kisses and say: "You're the best mummy in the whole wide world!"

Which of course I am.