Saturday, 23 May 2020

To all non-working parents in lockdown

To start with, you were grateful. Profoundly grateful that you wouldn't have to juggle home school/nursery, housework, day-to-day childcare AND a job.  You could focus on the children.  Do all sorts of fun, wholesome activities together, help them learn, help them thrive, help them survive the biggest change to daily life they've ever experienced. You could be there for them.

If you were already a stay-at-home parent, you might have rolled your eyes at the drama some people were making over suddenly having to spend every waking moment with their progeny.  Been there, done that, got the bolognaise spattered t-shirt.  If you were new to being the full-time carer, you may have been glad of the opportunity to spend "quality time" with your sprogs, making up for the hundreds of working hours lost. And for fleeting moments, perhaps even whole hours, that's exactly what it's felt like.  Quality time.

Not always though.  Somewhere, perhaps on Day One, perhaps Day Thirty-Nine, the resentment crept in.  The resentment that your partner gets to hole themselves up in the office / spare bedroom / corner of the kitchen for hours on end and loftily request silence for their Very Important Zoom Call while you struggle to instruct the six-year-old and muzzle the three-year-old and wipe up the eighteenth spillage of the day. Or that they get to leave the house and venture into the outside world to speak with People That Are Not The Bloody Children.  You started simmering with annoyance that you're holding everything together and woking just as hard, perhaps harder than them, but getting zero recognition for it - financial or otherwise.  And when they failed to put that dirty coffee cup in the dishwasher, or thank you for the mediocre dinner you'd just slopped on their plate, the resentment may have bubbled over into a bust up.

Then you felt guilty. Or maybe you've always felt guilty.  Guilty that you're not having to juggle like so many others you know. Guilty that you're not bringing money in. Guilty that your children are not making early applications to university, given all the time you supposedly have to home school them.  Guilty that you want them to return to school, where they may get ill or spread illness.  Guilty that you're choosing to see the injustice and hardship rather than the opportunities and small victories. Guilty that you're blaming those hardships on your partner, and failing to recognise their contribution and the times they do share the load. Guilty, perhaps, that said partner is out helping your community or maybe even saving lives while you stay in your pyjamas. But most of all, you'll feel guilty that you are well, that your children are healthy, that your brother, sister, mother, father and grandparents haven't been picked by this cruel and capricious virus to die by suffocation. Unless they have.  In which case you'll be grieving. And I am so, so sorry.

Life under lockdown is hard for everyone, some far more than others.  For every childless couple happily learning macrame and doing jigsaws, there will be an elderly, diabetic widow on her own, or a serously ill mother trying to look after three kids, or a family in crisis, unsure when the lid will blow off the pressure cooker they now find themselves stewing in.  Many of us, comparatively, have it easy.  I definitely have it easy. Yet I still find it hard enough for minor squabbles over biscuits to bring me to tears. What can we do though?  There is literally nobody else to call on right now, except our similarly overburdened (or at least equally exhausted) partners - and not all of us will even have one of those.  

The truth is, we can meditate, try to chisel out "me time", get outside to exercise, set a routine, focus on the positives, eat more celery or any of the other myriad suggestions made by well-meaning wellness types, but we are still going to struggle because life right now is Not Normal.  If you were a stay-home-parent before, the daily battles and exhaustion will be familiar, just amplified to a nightmarish extent.  If you weren't, the shock may well have made you vow never to spend time with the kids again once this is over.  With no school or nursery or childminders, no babysitters, no grandparents, no play dates, swing parks, play groups or soft play centres, full-time parenting can feel less 24/7 and more 240/70 right now. The cracks are going to show.  You're not alone though.  I see you swearing into the fridge, and randomly screaming at tiny transgressions because you've repressed the scream for so long you can't hold it in any more.  I see you groan when the kids wake you, and cry when they won't go to sleep. I see you haul yourself up from the floor to deal with yet another minor yet infuriating disaster. I see you because I do all these things too, and I know how, when this is all you do, endlessly, without a break, without anyone stepping in to take care of you, for ten weeks, it melts your mind.

We will come out the other side of this eventually.  Schools will reopen, slowly, carefully, contingently.  And there will be chinks of light in the gloom as we cling on to the hope that a second wave won't knock our feet from under us again. This will be over one day, and we will look back and remember with less pain and more pride.  Until then, hang on, stay safe, and be kind - to yourself as well as your family.  To yourself more than anyone in fact.  Because what else, really, can we do?

Monday, 24 September 2018

School Gate Etiquette

So, it has happened. School days are upon us. Duckling officially started in Reception last week, and a minor wet pants incident and general exhaustion aside, so far he seems to be loving it. He even sings the praises of school dinners.

I too am relishing the comparative silence and freedom of just having the one child to look after for most of the week.  There is one thing I'm struggling with though - aside from missing him (just a little bit) - and that's school gate social etiquette.  Given that I'm SAHM these days, I have to get my adult interaction wherever I can find it. School is not like nursery however. Instead of ten or so other Mums waiting outside the gate, making it fairly easy to strike up conversations, there are literally hundreds. It's a scrum, and it's difficult to even spot people I know, let alone talk to them. It doesn't help that I'm inherently shy either.

Take today. I arrived at the school and saw my friend (let's call her Sarah) and her daughter on the other side of the road. She lives west of the school - as do most of the families that go there. I meanwhile live to the east. I waved, she waved, the kids yelled hi at each other and we processed down opposite sides of the road, until we reached the zebra crossing in front of the school. At this point, I had a dilemma. Should I wait for Sarah to cross over, blocking the pavement with my pushchair and causing a build up of impatient parents behind me, or should I just go with the flow and hope I'd catch her outside the classroom? I chose the former, and after Duckling had been kissed, cuddled and dispatched, I looked around for her.  She was over in the corner, chatting to her daughter, who was having a bit of a weep. I hovered for a moment or two, but she didn't look up and I didn't want to interrupt. Then Ducklingette started grizzling, so I decided to start slowly heading for the gate, thinking maybe she'd catch up when she spotted me. She didn't, and before I knew it, I was caught in the flow of departing parents again and was back on the east side of the road with no one to talk to, simultaneously relieved and disappointed that I didn't have to put my morning brain in gear to chat, but also worried that she would find me rude for not having waited for her.

This is a scenario that has played out in various forms with various people over the past week or two and I just don't feel I'm getting it right.  What is the etiquette for chatting to and/or walking back with other parents at drop off / pick up?  If I see a parent I know, should I:

a) walk straight over and engage them in conversation, sticking to them like glue even if that means getting in everyone's way or looking like a lemon when they need to stop to speak to their child / a teacher / another parent?

b) wait for them in a designated place outside school, pounce on them as they appear, follow them down their side of the pavement shouting questions and mishearing responses while weaving single file between a fence and poorly parked cars, then say a hurried farewell and get stuck for five minutes trying to cross back onto the other side of the road to get home.

c) acknowledge them with a wave and a smile but don't bother trying to converse unless both conveniently waiting alongside each other as the kids come out / go in.

d) bypass the whole issue by keeping my head down and pretending to be distracted by the kids.

Currently my method is mostly c (or if I'm honest, d) with one disastrous attempt at b.  I know there are a bunch of Mums (that I sort of know from Duckling's nursery days) who routinely wait for each other, as I see them each morning, standing by the crossing until the whole West Side gang (often including Sarah) is assembled so they can walk back together and have a good old chinwag. I try to smile and wave as I head off east, but they never really acknowledge me as they're usually too busy chatting amongst themselves.  It's not that I'm jealous - OK, I am a bit jealous - I just don't know how to infiltrate their group without looking like a desperate, needy teenager.

I suspect the answer is probably not to. I am RUBBISH at being cool so I'd never fit in with the clique anyway. All it would take would be an admission that I've never watched Strictly (I really haven't) and it would be my secondary school days all over again - the popular girls laughing at me for being such a massive SQUARE. Which they did a lot. Because I was.

So, I think my plan of attack next week is to worry less about offending people and transgressing the unwritten rules of the school gate (as I'm not really sure that anyone knows exactly what they are anyway) and just go with the flow. In the chaos of the school run, you're never going to be able to have a meaningful conversation with anyone anyway (particularly not with a toddler in tow who regularly wants OUT OUT OUT of her pushchair), so unless the opportunity conveniently arises, I'll stick with smiling and waving while I work, ninja style, to get Duckling in and out of his classroom. If I get close enough for long enough to chat, great! If not, well there's always semaphore, or the 21st century equivalent: WhatsApp. LOL 🙋‍♀️

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Do I have the right to feel this way?

How many times have you felt a negative - or even positive - emotion and thought "but I don't have the right to feel this way..."? I experience this a lot, and from various chats I've had with friends, I know I'm not alone.  Whether it's worries about money, partners, kids or our homes, I have lost count of the number of times I've heard the phrase "Still, worse things happen at sea," (or some variation thereof) followed by an apology for "going on about it."

Now this is in part because most of my friends are British, and downplaying emotional experiences is a particularly British trait. Yet I also think the modern middle-class obsession with 'checking your privilege' increasingly plays a role.  While it is undoubtedly important to remember the clean and polished lens through which us more 'socially favoured' types view the world, I also think there is a degree of privilege guilt in action that can lead us to feel unnecessarily bad about feeling bad.  I mean we have lovely lives on balance.  We have no right to feel aggrieved, resentful, sad or disappointed, do we?  Obviously, people still treat us like shit sometimes, and loved ones die, and our kids get ill and we get made redundant...  But if we can still afford to shop in John Lewis from time to time, does any of that really matter? (N.B. yes,it does.)

A similar sense of guilt can plague motherhood.  It started for me in pregnancy.  Having had a couple of previous miscarriages and being a bit circumspect by nature, I frequently felt like I didn't have the right to be excited or hopeful about having a bun in the oven when I was pregnant with Duckling. Yet I also felt awful for not being more grateful and enthusiastic about this baby I was meant to adore from the moment of conception.

The trend then continued after after birth. Resentful at having so little time to yourself? You chose to have kids lady. Frustrated your baby won't sleep through the night? Pff, at least they're not waking every hour like Sarah's, or refusing to nap like Claire's. At least your husband lets you have a twenty minute "lie in" on a Saturday. At least you have a husband. And (the standard riposte to moaning Mums) at least you actually HAVE a baby when so many others who want one do not. What right do you have to complain?

Now trying to be more positive and grateful for what you have is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the cornerstones of cognitive behavioural therapy is the idea that thoughts are not reality and that your mental state can be improved by identifying and diverting harmful thought patterns and substituting them with more positive ones. Yet there is a difference between accepting our THOUGHTS as faulty and rejecting our FEELINGS as unjustified. If a "love yourself", "think positively" or "look on the bright side" attitude is taken to extremes, it can become an internal monologue that perpetually tells us we're ungrateful when we have any kind of negative feeling at all.

Because I am both middle-class, and a mother, I am definitely a victim of that monologue at times. Take bag-gate, a ridiculous and on balance trivial example from my holiday this week with my in-laws. My father-in-law, who is lovely but a tad over solicitous, insisted, every time we went out for the day, on taking my nappy bag off my shoulder as I got the kids out the car and saying, "here, let me carry that for you, you'll have your hands full," before wandering off down the road. Helpful? Well yes, on paper, but it drove me bonkers the whole holiday. I am strong, fit(ish) and in my 30s while he is a septigenarian with a terribly bad back. I have to retrieve baby wipes or snacks or toys from my bag at least every ten minutes so I prefer to have it with me at all times, a fact he seemed oblivious to, even when I pointed it out.  

  • Was my annoyance justified when he was genuinely just trying to help? I fretted over this for some time before eventually deciding a better question would be, "was my reaction justified?".  Had I frustratedly hit my father-in-law over the head with my bag, that would have been entirely unjustified behaviour. Conversely, using him as a pack pony for the rest of the holiday would have been shitty too. As it was, when my attempts at disuasion failed, I let him carry the bag for a while before finding an excuse to reclaim it, which seemed like a reasonable response as it let him feel useful, and relieved me of a burden for a few minutes each day.

So I'm trying not to beat myself up about how I feel, and focus on making sure my reaction is proporionate. Admittedly, it is hard to change my feelings about, err, my inability to change my feelings, but if I can rewire my thoughts a bit by repeating the mantra I use with Duckling: "It's OK to feel how you feel. Just use your WORDS to express it, not your FISTS," then that's a start. I just hope my father-in-law didn't hear me whispering that under my breath all week...

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Am I a "success" now I'm just a stay-at-home Mum?

I saw an old school friend last week who mentioned a young man I'd briefly had a crush on in Year 9. "Any idea what's he doing these days?" she asked. Funnily enough, the "young man" in question, now in his late 30s, had recently befriended me on Facebook, so I did know what he was up to: living somewhere in the Arctic circle, doing climate research. "Wow," she said. "Good thing you never got together or you could be freezing your butt off out there with him right now!"

I laughed: who'd want to be doing anything (literally) that cool, right?! Well, actually I would. Quite a lot. After I got home, I had a bit of a poke about on LinkedIn and Twitter to see what other ex-boyfriends and former crushes were now up to. Turns out they're all busy being awesome. One is deputy headmaster of a posh independent school in London. One is a film director (his dream even when I knew him) for a popular liberal news publication and spends his life in Borneo, Paraguay, Antarctica and other places I will almost certainly never visit. One heads up an EU policy think tank in Brussels. One lives in Berlin and translates books into English for a living. And the last guy I was with before Drake is now a senior director at a national newspaper who happens to volunteer in Greek refugee centres in his spare time. Nothing like a spot of cyber-stalking to depress you.

The point is not that "I married the wrong man". Far from it: Drake leads a pretty travel-heavy lifestyle himself, and I've had the opportunity to visit Germany, Malaysia and the USA thanks to his job. Also, I love him and I really wouldn't have wanted to marry any of the others anyway. I may apparently have a thing for globe-trotting high achievers, but most tend to come with planet-sized egos and notable committment issues sadly.

The point is that at nearly thirty-seven years of age, I haven't done anything anywhere near as cool as all of these clever, successful men. Despite having a degree in French, a Masters in International Development, and working for international charities for thirteen years, I've never travelled overseas for my job (Oxford is as far as I got). I haven't had anything in print (this blog doesn't count) or on film (except a cringey interview on BBC news) and now I'm not even working. My primary achievement today was deftly steering both kids round a pile of dog poo on the way to nursery. The term 'wasted potential' comes to mind.

These men - most of whom I considered intellectual equals - have somehow gone on to live the life I always expected to have. As I sighed at their pictures of sun-drenched European capitals and snowy Nordic forests, I pondered why this was.

Mostly, I think it's my own fault. Despite thinking a bit of adventure might be nice, I never went out of my way to forge a glittering career. I simply didn't want excitement enough to choose anything other than a safe and sensible path. I was relatively senior in my last paid role, but it was a job where I quietly made things happen behind the scenes, rather than loudly broadcasting my grand visions to all and sundry. It suited me and I mostly enjoyed it, but I was never going to set the charity world ablaze. I suppose I'm a level-headed realist (and maybe a bit lazy too). I know earning lots usually means considerable stress and the requirement to take "business" very seriously (I can't), while living abroad involves language barriers and instability and homesickness. I love to travel, my extended family all live in far flung places, and I lived and studied overseas in my youth, but I also have strong family ties here - all the more so now I have a husband and kids. And despite my feminist pretensions, marriage and children were always as important to me as a career.

Is this lack of ambition a personality thing, or a result of societal pressures that seek to quash women's dynamism and persuade them procreation is still the most important thing in life? Probably a bit of both. My personality is undoubtedly shaped by gender norms. I think when nobody expects great things of you, you don't really strive for them as hard. Men know their most important role is to make money and society affords them the freedom to do that however they see fit. In my early twenties, I had that same luxury in theory, but I also knew if I wanted children (which I REALLY did for some reason), I'd have to work on finding a partner too, so I could embark on the suitably long-term relationship that produces them. After a few false starts, I eventually did that, with a man who kept buggering off abroad all the time. Could I have travelled too? Yes, but with my chosen profession, I'd have been in developing countries while he was in developed ones.  We'd never have seen each other. So I held down a steady job in the UK and waited for him to come back and propose. For seven years. Annoying, but ultimately necessary to be with the man I loved and have his babies. Before I knew it, my chance to be free and travel the world had gone...  Excuses excuses.

My recent decision to become a stay-at-home Mum has been driven by this slightly regretful, perhaps even resentful, pragmatism too (and has no doubt enhanced the feeling of failure as I saw what my former paramours were doing). With Drake's far superior salary and tricky working patterns, it was always going to be the most sensible option, and unless I totally screw up my parenting, I know the kids are going to benefit. But let's face it, professional parenthood is just not very exciting. Identifying yourself as "a Mum" is never going to make people go "oooh!" in the same way that telling them you're "a film director" might. Maybe that's the fault of our patriarchal society, or maybe it's just that Mums are ten a penny, while directors are more one in a million. Either way, as much as I love my children and enjoy being with them (mostly, ahem), I don't want raising them to become the only thing I achieve in life.

Yet there are people who spend so long seeing the sights and being successful, that they run out of time to pass on their genes and their passion for the world.  So as we all must do these days, I recognise my privilege too. Wiping bums and hands and noses, isn't quite the same as undertaking pioneering arctic climate science, but it's important in its own way and it won't be forever. I will get my non-Mummy identity back eventually, even if it is linked to a job in Uxbridge rather than Uzbekistan. I also need to remind myself that Social Media can be deeply misleading in how it portrays people's lives.  None of the guys (except one) I cyber-stalked apparently have children - which perhaps explains their more untethered lives - but I have no idea if this is through choice or sad circumstance.  And the one who does, someone I dumped back in 2004 for being a bit too impulsive and overly emotional, is currently divorcing his wife and the mother of his four young kids to shack up with a new young lady from Carshalton, who keeps insensitively blabbing on Facebook about her "incredible new beau". So it could be worse.  I could be him, or heaven forbid, his poor ex-wife. Sometimes having a sensible side is no bad thing at all.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Some weeks are not so wonderful

"So how was your week then?" asks Drake, as he empties out his bag and moves his shoes to the big suitcase.

I shrug. I'm not sure where to begin. What I want to say is, "Awful. I've had less than five hours sleep for five nights in a row. Ducklingette is teething and ill and coughing like a sealion at night. Duckling is coughing too and has been incredibly emotional about everything, particularly you being away. He spent the week having bad dreams and bursting into tears about such tragedies as me brushing his teeth, or changing the TV channel, or eating a bite out of his toast. Both of them want to be in my arms almost permanently and fight each other to get there. My IBS is playing up and I'm in pain and I somehow also have conjunctivitis. I nearly lost an arm getting that massive cabinet we sold down the stairs by myself so the person who bought it could drive it away yesterday. I've also had to pack all our holiday suitcases while the kids conspired to remove every item I put in, ten seconds after packing it. And if I hear "Mummy!!!" screeched at me one more time, I can't guarantee I won't yell "F**k Off," at my own children. I'm amazed I haven't done it already. Then you saunter in, having been away all week, tell me you got SEVEN whole hours sleep on the plane then complain that all the carefully packed and repacked and re-repacked cases will never fit in the car and "do we really need all this stuff for a long weekend? I just went to the other side of the world for a week, hand-luggage only, ha ha ha ha!" Well you didn't take me and two FRICKING CHILDREN with you, did you?! So I'm done. It's your turn. You're going on holiday, with the kids, without me. I'm going back to bed, to sleep, for twelve hours, then I'm going to sit and watch Netflix for the whole long weekend while I drink wine and eat peanuts and unsliced grapes and giant bars of chocolate and all the other things I can't have within sight of the kids. I HAVE HAD ENOUGH."

What I actually said was, "wonderful," and rolled my eyes. Because frankly, I no longer have the energy or brain power to put all my frustrations into words, and even if I could, I'm sick to death of bloody moaning. It won't change Drake's job or his need to travel with that job, nor will it make him truly understand how impossible it can feel at 3am when both children are awake and coughing and crying and wanting to burrow into into you and drain you of every last drop of energy.

Complaining won't make me feel any less burnt out, just as it won't make Drake any less jet lagged. I can't really opt out of the holiday either as I stupidly booked it in my name. So yes. It was "wonderful" darling. Now let's drive three hours through the snot and snow to Norfolk for some -3°C fun in a forest. I'm sure that'll be "wonderful" too.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Taking the plunge into professional parenting

In my mother's (and grandmother's) day, the average woman's path through life was fairly clear cut:
  1. you got some kind of education
  2. you worked for a few years
  3. you got married
  4. you gave up your job to have babies (if you could).
Some women returned to work eventually, often part-time for "pin money" once the kids were all at school, but there was little expectation of pursuing a full, rounded career. Such a circumscribed route may not have been exciting, liberating or even remotely fair, but at least you knew where you stood.

These days, our path through life is less well defined. We expect more, and more is expected of us. For those who choose to have children, paid maternity leave has greatly reduced the necessity to give up work entirely, or conversely, to return to work too soon. Employers are more aware of the benefits of retaining valued female employees and flexible hours are now more common (in some industries at least). Shared parental leave and changing social expectations mean men are increasingly stepping in to share the burden too, all of which are helping more women than ever before to grasp the financial and personal benefits that come from remaining in the work force. Things aren't perfect, but horizons are broader.

So why, in 2018, would a woman still decide to become a Stay-At-Home-Mum (or 'Professional Parent' as a friend prefers to call it)? While I can't speak for every SAHM in this regard, I can speak for me, as I recently handed in my notice and will not be returning to my paid job at the end of my second spell of maternity leave. Giving up work to care for your kids is often portrayed as a "natural" or "obvious" choice for Mums who can afford it (particularly by those from earlier generations) but for me, it was far from a given. Making my decision involved a lot of thought, trade offs between multiple different factors and no certainty that I was necessarily even doing the right thing.


Most contemporary articles about working mothers assume them to be middle class with grand "careers". After all, surely you would only consider leaving your darlings behind if you had a huge passion for your work and/or a strong desire to climb the career ladder? I suspect the main driver for most is more prosaic however - money. No matter your social class money is, more or less, the primary reason we all work. If you can't pay your rent / mortgage / castle upkeep, then there isn't much of a debate to be had. In my case, when we did the sums, we realised we could manage if I stayed at home. Not forever, but for a year or two if we spent conservatively.

Many will say, "what a luxury!", and yes, we are lucky that we had a choice (though I would argue full time baby wrangling is about as far from luxury as you can get). However, in some respects, it was an illusion of choice. Returning to work would have entailed two sets of childcare costs (even when Duckling's at school, I'd still have had to pay a childminder / after school club), plus London commuting fares. Basically, I would have been left with about £750 in my first year - a pitiful return on the time and effort invested. Yes, that £750 would have been mine, to spend as I pleased (mostly on my crazy obsession with kids' clothes and groceries...). I would have felt less patronised by having to accept "housekeeping" money from my husband too. But sometimes pride has to take a backseat to pragmatism. I am still "working" and effectively "being paid" - just not quite in the formal way I once was (and my husband is most definitely NOT my boss).

The Job

Not all jobs are created equal when it comes to kid compatibility. While it is possible to work full-time and even travel for work when you have children (men do it all the time), you do have to have someone else in your life to do all the nursery / school ferrying, tea times, haircuts, doctor visits, swimming lessons etc. And you have to be fine with that other person doing it all too - which, whether because of social conditioning, your child's expectations or the maternal bond, can be really hard as a Mum.

Then there's the issue of 'keeping your hand in'. For some people, it is very difficult to take a break and maintain the appropriate levels of training, skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their particular career - I know someone working in IT (where the pace of technological change is huge) who not only returned, but actively cut their mat leave short because of this. Even in more stable jobs, a break of more than a year can really knock your confidence in your own abilities. This is definitely my biggest concern about being a SAHM - will an employer ever want me again after so long away? For some, the risk is too high.

There is also the matter of job satisfaction. Do you WANT to go back? Many women hate their jobs, and having a baby offers an excellent excuse to escape. When I went on my second spell of maternity leave, I was in my ninth year at very parent-friendly charity. I personally loved my job and the wider organisation I worked for, but I hated the endless commuting and the increasingly vitriolic political infighting within the senior management team I supported - some days they were ruder than my delightful threenager back home. I survived by keeping my head down and refusing to take sides, but from the moment I announced my pregnancy, I was counting down the days until my exit. I hoped by the time I was due to return things would have changed, but by chatting to colleagues, it became clear they hadn't; if anything the atmosphere had grown worse. So I decided to quit.

If I'm being completely honest, I wasn't just pushed by my current work situation though; I was also pulled by my pie-in-the-sky ambitions to be a writer. It's such a cliché (EVERYONE has a novel in them, right?!) but I knew if I didn't take a break from my regular "career" now, I'd probably never get another legitimate excuse to test the freelance writing waters, or to finish the six novels I have on the go. (I might need to stop writing about myself and start churning out more saleable copy before that can happen though. A work in progress during nap times...)

The kids (and my relationship with them)

I love my kids: that is a given. I also know that they love me - Duckling, very sweetly, tells me so all the time (when he's not calling me a 'Rubbish Potty Head'). As a parent, you create your child's equilibrium and help them to find their way in the world. It is a reasonable assumption therefore that spending more time together should benefit them.

Yet I find it very difficult to say "I've given up work because it's much better for the kids". While my gut (and a reasonable body of research) tells me a consistent parental carer encourages security and stability, and that childcare settings can increase stress levels in children, which can in turn cause later poor behaviour, there is also evidence that mixing with other kids in a nursery-type setting improves social and linguistic skills, and that working mothers ultimately provide a better role model - particularly for girls.

On balance, it is probably better for younger children (particularly those under two) to have their Mum or Dad as the primary caregiver for the majority of the time. Particularly for more closely attached, needy kids. Like Duckling. Yet despite knowing this, I still went back to work the first time, albeit part time. So did many other of my Mum friends. To state "being a SAHM is better for the kids," therefore feels like a problematic admission. Did I get it wrong the first time? Did all my friends?

Truth be told, I returned because I needed to. I was not one of those Mums weeping in the toilets on my first day back. Maybe because my darling son had broken me a little bit, I was actually quite elated to be free again, be earning my own money, and have the ability to eat lunch (and a NICE lunch, made by SOMEBODY ELSE), without having handfuls of food lobbed at me.

That doesn't mean I didn't feel guilty leaving Duckling. I was incredibly torn between what I needed (space, mental stimulation and adult company), and what he apparently needed (me, me and only me). I worried constantly that I was damaging him by sending him to a childminder. Even now, I still fret that his continued clinginess is because he can't forget that sense of abandonment when I left him for nine hours a day, three days a week from the age of 11 months to 3 years. Yet I think the space work gave me made me a better, kinder and more patient Mum, and after he'd got over the initial two weeks of sobbing (thankfully just in time to stop me caving in and quitting my job), it made him a little more resilient and sociable too. Today he speaks of his time there fondly, and insists on waving every time we pass the childminder's house, just in case she's looking.

Now Ducklingette is an entirely different kettle of fish. She is generally an easy-going and happy baby, who will potter about by herself for a whole hour without demanding much more than a quick cuddle. I don't love her any more than Duckling, but I do like myself better as a mother when I'm with her because she makes my job pretty straightforward. That will undoubtedly change as she grows up and discovers the word NO (she sort of already has), but the prospect of looking after her full time for another year doesn't make me worry that I will tumble into depression and burn-out. I'm actually quite looking forward to it.

As chilled as she is though, I still didn't want to hand Ducklingette over to someone else to look after when I didn't really need to. She is still very strongly attached to me, and in the middle of a separation anxiety phase that means I can't even pop to the toilet without tears. I know all babies have to learn to detach at some stage, and I feel awful I made Duckling do that before he was really ready, but does that mean I need to inflict the same on Ducklingette, just to be "fair"? That seems a little perverse. It's not like Duckling is now too old to benefit from me being around either - he's starting school in September, and I suspect the security of having me drop him off, pick him up and attend all his assemblies and concerts will help my somewhat sensitive little soul cope a little better with the unknown. So while I wish I could have had the mental strength to give it all up to be there for him 24/7 when he was small, it's still probably better late than never.

The other-half

If you don't have a partner, giving up work entirely is unlikely to be an option. If you do, then their salary is going to be a key factor in deciding how to balance things.

Stay-at-home Dads are everywhere round my way, and had the salary tables been turned in our relationship, my husband may well be looking after the kids as I type. But they aren't. In some ways, I am annoyed that there was so little debate to be had. Being a well-educated graduate and feminist, I felt on principle I should keep working full time, forging a career, insisting Drake scale back his long hours and crazy travel schedule to take on a more equal share of the childcare.

However, we wouldn't have been able to pay our mortgage had I done that. Nor does Drake have the equipment necessary for breastfeeding (and I'm damned if I'm going to give up early or faff about with breast pumps again like I did with Duckling.) I am also less wedded to my career than Drake is; as much as I would like to claim I was on a steady path to some director-level role, I would have needed to have ousted my boss, gained a tonne more financial and HR knowledge and gone full time to go anywhere in my last job, none of which were likely to happen anytime soon.

I also suspect, for all his protestations that he'd like to see more of the kids, Drake wouldn't really WANT to take on full time childcare, because, though he'd never give me the satisfaction of admitting it, he knows from my endless griping that it's bloody hard work. With all the meetings and travel, his job is hard too but I still maintain that a full day at the office is less physically draining and testing of patience than thirty minutes with the children. Which brings me neatly too...

Well-being and metal health

Is being at home with the kid(s) all day, every day, going to drive you crackers? Almost certainly, yes, it is, but do you have the social support and ability to carve out some non-kid time so you can put those crackers back in the packet occasionally?

I do know someone who didn't return to work because they absolutely LOVED being a Mum and couldn't think of anything they'd rather do - if that's you, I salute you. #notme. As noted above, I went back first time in part because I needed to regain a sense of autonomy and stability. With Drake away in Germany all week, I also dreaded becoming isolated. I'm naturally quite shy and a bit of an introvert and I find making friends hard. Nevertheless, I do NEED to get out, talk and socialise from time to time to stay sane. Having spent considerable energy convincing my new NCT acquaintances that I was pleasant, friendly and not too weird, I couldn't face having to do it all over again once they all went back to work. The ready-made social life of the office seemed like a preferable option.

This time around, I've been luckier - several friends have just gone on their second maternity leaves, so will be around for the next twelve months or so, and two others have just become SAHMs too. I still have to put in a conscious effort to organise meet ups and play dates, but it's easier than it was before. Drake is also travelling far less so I have company in the evenings, I get to chat to people at the nursery gate three times a week, plus I have a four-year-old who talks non-stop, and can be surprisingly good company when he's not pitching a fit about spinach or Thunderbirds. I am not lacking for social interaction.

Socially and personally, I am much more comfortable with my identity as a mother now too, and less wedded to that of a "professional". I'm no less tired and in need of personal space than I was first time - I'm just more used to the feeling and better able to cope because the memory of Life Before Children is now far more distant. My kids are my new normal, so accepting the temporary disappearance of paid employment is less of a wrench.

Childcare options

Are there grandparents or other relatives who are keen to look after the kiddo(s) for little or no pay? Can you afford a nanny? What about a good, local childminder or a day nursery?

For me, neither set of grandparents is in a position to be able to offer childcare. Day nurseries are also ultra pricey round my way, and I never felt entirely comfortable leaving Duckling in such a structured, busy environment at such a young age anyway. So for him, we opted for a childminder who cared for a few other kids, some of whom have gone on to be his best friends. I would have happily sent Ducklingette to the same childminder had I decided to return, but sadly she's about to retire. The thought of searching to find someone I liked and trusted as much in a similarly convenient location, who would happily do pick up and drop offs at Duckling's nursery school (he loves it and I don't want to move him) gave me palpitations. It was hard enough to find a suitable minder the first time, so this just added weight to the "stay at home" side of the scales.

Social expectations

Now, I could write a whole separate post on this one - and perhaps one day I will. But essentially, as a woman with children, you feel judged no matter what choice you make.

Going back to work? "Your poor children - they should be with their mother," or "Why would you have kids when you're not prepared to look after them yourself?" or "What kind of woman wouldn't want to spend all her time with her beautiful offspring?" or "Paid employment is a man's domain! We need your unpaid labour to sustain our patriarchal social structures! Get back to the kitchen, skivvy!"

Staying at home? "Cop-out! What a waste of a good education!" or "It's all right for some, with their rich husbands and posh houses, isn't it?!" or "Why aren't you 'leaning in' like women are supposed to these days?" or "Paid employment and ambition are the only recognised markers of success and value in our culture! Women's work is menial, worthless and piss-easy! You should be ashamed! Get back to a desk, layabout!"

Fretting about making a choice and being judged? "You're being stupid - you have to make the right choice for YOU and your kids. Stop worrying about what anyone else thinks you silly woman!"

But I do worry. Not so much because people are "judging me" (they can't judge me any more than I already judge myself) but because I want to do right by society and raise decent, productive members of the human race. That is, after all, the wider aim of reproduction - to keep our species alive and preferably refine it a bit in the process. The problem is that society does not entirely agree how we should do this and what it thus wants of us women. What degree of childhood security and stability are we willing to forgo in the name or female empowerment, personal fulfilment and economic productivity? Is it OK to assume that a mother's care for her child holds no advantage or benefits over, say, a father or nanny's care and rearrange our social structures accordingly? Should we celebrate a mother's role and the sacrifices she makes to ensure her child's welfare or encourage her to sacrifice less and be her own person first and foremost? Tough questions to which I have no clear answers. Society is really no frigging help at all.

Effort and Practicality

Which brings me to the final, rather more mundane, but no less important consideration. Practicality. When you weigh up all of the factors above, is the effort of returning to work actually worth it?

I spent a ridiculous amount of time "working from home" with a feverish, wheezing toddler on my lap during my first year back at work. I felt like a crap employee every time, but I knew I'd feel like an even crapper Mum had I let anyone else look after him (which, even if I'd had someone to help, he'd never have allowed anyway). Given Duckling's continued susceptibility to chest infections, and the recently added issue of a sister who has so far caught everything he's had and more, I KNEW a return to work would mean a return to panicking as I tried to manage 'unforeseen but painfully familiar circumstances' week in, week out. The fact both of them came down with an uber-cold a few days before I had to make my decision probably didn't help either...

The truth is, while it's seen as a virtue to try to 'have it all', it's really fucking hard work: you need a top notch support network, a good dose of luck, masses of energy, exceptional mental stamina and an understanding that there are no guarantees anyone will actually come out of it happier and more fulfilled - not you, nor your kids, nor your partner. In the end, even though I completely recognise there is potentially a huge amount to be gained from staying at work, I just couldn't face the complexity and effort when it wasn't 100% necessary. Perhaps that makes me lazy. I prefer to think it makes me realistic. There is no honour in running yourself into the ground. I WILL go back to work in some capacity - probably when Duckling is at school and Ducklingette starts at nursery, if we don't run out of money before that. I need to do something beyond finger painting and packed-lunch making to prevent total brain / bank-balance atrophy. But for now I am "just a Mum". I don't always feel comfortable admitting it, but you know what? I think it was the right decision. Weirdly, despite the drudgery, bodily fluids and requirement to answer eight hundred baffling questions a day ("Mummy, why is the carpet big?") I'm actually kind of enjoying it. Long may it last.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Never just 'a cold'.

How would you describe 'a cold'? The NHS website infoms me that it is "a mild viral infection of the nose, throat, sinuses and upper airways. It's very common and usually clears up on its own within a week or two." So far, so obvious.

Except the colds that we get in the Duck household often don't fit this definition. Sure, they include your basic snot and cough, but also deliver a host of other fun symptoms that seem to play out over a month or more.

Take the current 'cold' that has just swept through the family. Duckling is on antibiotics after developing a suspected secondary bacterial chest infection three weeks into an otherwise standard snotty cough, just as I thought he'd recovered. This resulted in a 40° temperature for 3 days, a tummy ache and puking incident, and a cough so incessant that I had to use his asthma inhaler round the clock just so he could go longer than 20 seconds between coughing fits. Drake was, and still is, afflicted by very painful sinuses and a snot cascade of Niagra proportions. I meanwhile had minimal snot, and no sore throat but ran a high temperature for five days along with chest issues, shivers, viral conjunctivitis in both eyes and a total loss of my sense of smell and taste for a fortnight. Excellent for the diet at least. Ducklingette was a bit snotty and had a good wheezy chest rattle going on for a week, but avoided the high temperature everyone else had. Until this evening at least... Which suggests that she's either having a relapse, she too has a bacterial infection or she's caught another cold off someone. Given that the symptoms so far are very similar to Duckling's alleged 'secondary infection', I suspect the last one. 

Nearly four weeks all this stuff has been plaguing us. A whole bloody month. I'm knackered and struggling to see any light at the end of this mucous-flooded tunnel. It's not flu - I've had flu and that is AWFUL. But nor is it "just a cold" as most people - and the NHS - would define it. It's more a Cold Plus, or a Cold 2.0 if you will. These uber colds seem to hit at least once each winter. So is this normal? Do we, as a family, just have crappy (for failing to defeat them quickly) / overly enthusiastic (for causing so many crazy symptoms) immune systems? Is it genetics (Duckling almost certainly has the Drake's dodgy lung genes)? Are we all lacking decent nutrition? Are colds evolving to be more virulent than they once were? If so, is it global warming? Or am I just massive hyperchondriac making a big song and dance about perfectly normal, if slightly drawn out illnesses? I mean, we always get better eventually, and Duckling only got hospitalised the once...

I honestly have no clear answer to any of these questions and it annoys me because when you don't know why you're spending weeks at a time being unable to smell a reeking nappy (great for me, less great for Ducklingette) there's nothing much you can do about it. At the very least, it would be good to know the exact virus we all have so I can get a better handle on what to expect in terms of symptoms, severity, duration and treatment, and an idea of what we are all now immune to. For not all cold viruses are created equal - there are over 200 of them, with more emerging all the time, each one has a slightly different profile. It would be great to blot a few off the giant cold bug bingo board.

I thus find it odd that in the modern age nobody has decided it might be helpful to be more precise, and produced a quick test that enables doctors to say (e.g.) "Ah yes, you have Human Rhinovirus C. This one last ages and is likely to cause wheezing, pneumonia and hallucinations of purple rhinos, so do watch out..."  But no such luck.  Why so vague?

Of course I know the answer - a system that identified viral species in every coughing person in the doctor's waiting room would be prohibitively expensive - I'm no biologist but I imagine it is neither a quick nor easy task, for all my wishful thinking. Beyond basic curiosity and my pedantic need for precision, there is not an awful lot of epidemiological use in tracking bugs that rarely cause much damage beyond a crusty nose either.

What would have more value, as I have argued before, would be a Viral v Bacterial test. Doctors often can't reliably diferentiate between colds - caused by viruses - and bacterial infections (though pharmacies were trialling such a thing for sore throats).  For this reason, we have on more than one occasion now had to force antibiotics down Duckling without knowing if they're strictly necessary. This week is a case in point - Ducklingette appears to have caught her new bug off Duckling (same symptoms, just less melodramatic), implying his was viral not bacterial all along. Having had an argument over every single dose of the stupid bloody banana gloop, this is a tad frustrating.

As it is, we, as parents, just have to live with the unpredictability and rely on conversations at the school / nursery gate and Facebook parenting groups to reassure us that six weeks of coughing is absolutely de rigueur for those with the current lurgy du jour.  Because even if we knew what the kids had, the solution will, nine times out of ten, be the standard coldathon drill anyway - be liberal with the cuddles, trust your instincts and try to ignore the urge to shout "really, how are we still in the middle of this?!" every ten minutes. Which is parenthood in a nutshell really, isn't it?