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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Taking on the Christmas Day challenge

This year, as for the past ten years (give or take), Drake and I divided our Christmas Day between his parents and mine. Before Duckling was born, we used to have Christmas lunch at his folks, then head to my parents late afternoon, usually arriving just in time for dessert following their evening Christmas dinner. Since Duckling and Gosling (his cousin) have been on the scene however, we've gone full Vicar of Dibley and have two full Christmas dinners in one day, arriving an hour or two before dinner at my parents to give the kids time to play together. Gaviscon is definitely our friend come Yuletide.

At 22 months, Duckling is still comparatively portable, and not sufficiently caught up in Crimbo mania to be particularly bothered about where he is or what's going on. By next year however, I suspect he'll rather more switched on, and won't be so keen to pack up his presents mid way through the day for yet more forced brussel sprout eating at his other Grandma's. To be honest, upping sticks at 3pm, ramming a range of oversized toys in an already bulging boot and driving 30 miles across South East England is not my idea of a fun either these days (and that's before we get on to the indigestion issues), so I'm definitely ready for a change.

As such, I have tentatively offered to host Christmas at our house next year, for the first time ever. It's a full twelve months away, but I'm already terrified. Our dual family Christmas has been a tradition for so long, I'm not really sure where to start when it comes to stamping my own, grown up identity on the day. Here follows just a few aspects that will need to be considered:

Opening presents. Drake's parents go for the slowly slowly, one at a time, everybody admires each other's gifts and is suitably complementary approach. His Mum and Dad give each other sensible, practical things, like garden twine and golfing shoes, and we get whatever we put on our Christmas list, and not much more. With my family, it's a bit more of a simultaneous wrapping paper rip fest, not least because my Mum always goes a bit mad on the presents and if we took them one at a time, we'd still be opening them some time in February.

Christmas dinner. Drake's mother cooks a small turkey crown (there are only four and a half of us), Paxo stuffing balls, a few roast potatoes, sprouts from the garden, and just about enough carrots to allow for four (five if you're lucky) batons each. My mother serves up a turkey large enough to feed an army, a navy and an air force combined; homemade sausage meat stuffing; bacon roll ups and pigs in blankets; roast potatoes and parsnips; new potatoes; a ham (usually eaten on Boxing Day); five different types of veg; cranberry sauce; bread sauce; and several pints of gravy. Plus a minimum of three desserts. She cooks everything from scratch (though my sister does help with the desserts), and it's always timed to perfection and absolutely bloody amazing. How in the hell I'm ever going to pull off Christmas day to anywhere near her standard, I do not know.

Helping out. Drake's folks tell us in no uncertain terms that we cannot help with the cooking, as we deserve a rest, and it's our time to put our feet up an relax. My Mum tells us we can't help out because she has it all planned, and it's difficult to delegate anything without spoiling the metaphorical broth (a.k.a we'll balls it up). I'm fairly sure I'll be in the latter camp when it's my turn, though I may try to pass it off as the former...

Post dinner activities. We spend the evening of Christmas Eve with Drake's parents, and the evening of Christmas Day with mine. At Drake's, we are plied with alcohol by Drake's Dad (he takes it as a personal failing if we do not have a full drink in our hands at all times) while everyone engages in polite, and increasingly slurred chit chat about people I mostly haven't heard of, and places I haven't been. Then at some time after midnight (we have to 'see Christmas in', however knackered) we all head to bed, after repeated reassurances that we really don't need hot water bottles as it's 16oC outside, thank you, and we really won't be bothered by the heating 'clicking on' at 5am (I have yet to hear the cacophonous din this apparently involves, but we are warned about it every year). At my parents, we collapse on the sofa, switch on a Christmas Day film on which nobody really concentrates, and vegetate until bedtime. Incidentally, at no point are apologies made for the heating, even though it's a blow-air system that sounds like a B52 bomber starting up every time it comes on.

Family relations. Drake's family are all about harmony, peace and avoiding any form of conflict or awkwardness. As such, discussions about religion, politics and psychology are off limits. Drake's mother once famously snapped at his father for fussing over some placemats, but that is honestly the only time I recall any tension whatsoever. My family, well, not quite so calm and collected. Christmas is usually a noisy affair (particularly with two nearly-twos together) with spirited debate welcomed, and at least one falling out over something pretty much guaranteed (most famously when my Dad bought my Mum a bread bin rather than an ice cream maker. Not well received). I don't want to exaggerate - the arguments are never on an Eastenders scale, and mostly we all have decent enough senses of humour to laugh things off and avoid real issues. But passions definitely run higher in my family abode than they do in Drake's.

In summary, it's a choice between moderation and tranquillity, and (moderate) excess and (mild) drama. Given that Drake and I both bring elements from each family, it's probably inevitable that next year's dinner - if I stick to my promise - will be an odd mixture of all of the above. Plus plenty of stress on my part. I can't cook for people without stressing (usually about gravy. It is my nemesis). Whatever we do, the most important thing will be making it memorable (in a good way) for Duckling. I'm pretty sure that doesn't require a million presents, or two dozen perfectly roasted chipolatas. It just needs happyish, probably slightly tipsy parents, the wonder of Santa, lots of fairy lights and a decent cardboard box to play in. If we stick to that I'm sure we can't go wrong.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Guns in America: a short rant

This is not going to be a long post, as what I'm going to say has been said many times before by people far more eloquent and informed than me. As a Brit, it's probably not even a subject I should hold a strong opinion on, but having a husband who has lived in the US for long stretches, and having spent a lot of time out there myself, I do.

The shooting last week in San Bernardino, California, was the 353rd mass shooting in the USA this year. Fourteen people killed, seventeen injured and the legislative response to such a shocking, appalling waste of life?  For the 353rd time this year, nothing, zip, zero. 

The Republican party's blocking of any form of gun control or even more disturbingly, any form of publically funded research into gun crime, highlights not only a casual disregard for human life, but also an apparently intractable issue in the US system of politics. While the two-house congress structure ensures checks and balances, in certain circumstances (e.g. when the opposition party controls one or both houses), it also prevents the US president, allegedly one of the most powerful people on the planet, from acting to protect his citizens.  A majority of Americans back greater gun control, but unfortunately, in the House of Representatives, gun advocates are in the majority, which means that any attempts to introduce legislation to better vet gun owners is voted down, every time.

Many argue that stricter gun control laws will not necessarily change gun death rates in the US much (although a total ban on hand guns almost certainly would), but even a small decrease would be important, as would the symbolic value to both US citizens and those internationally who look on with horror at the total lack of political action towards such routine slaughter.

I am aware of the mythical history around gun possession in the USA, of the constitutional right to bear arms, of the arguments put forward about guns being necessary to stop a dictatorial government rising up and oppressing the people, of the suggestion that the only thing that's going to stop someone with a gun is another person with a gun... Unfortunately, it's all utter bullshit without any foundation in empirical research, or even reasoned argument.  Look at any country in Europe (and many beyond), and you'll see that mass gun ownership is totally unnecessary to maintain peaceful, democratic nations.  The reality is that these beliefs stem not from fact, but from right-wing media generated fear, the glamorisation of guns and the macho culture surrounding them, and the lobbying power of the NRA and major arms manufacturers.

The problem is that mass shootings, which are on the up in the US despite a drop in other forms of violent crime, have become so commonplace now that they have seeped into the common consciousness.  If you are an individual on the edge of sanity, or belong to a culture where violence necessarily begets violence, shooting a bunch of people has become a legitimised response to whatever grievance you may have, and you have numerous past examples to inspire you.  With few restrictions to prevent you obtaining your weapon of choice, it's simply a matter of point and shoot until the bullets run out.

I am all for freedom - freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of belief. Freedom to purchase an assault rifle with, realistically, no other purpose than to shoot a lot of people in a very short space of time seems like a very perverse freedom to me though, given that it robs other people of their freedom to live unafraid, and could very well rob them of their lives.

Drake and I had the option to start a new life in the USA a few years back.  There are many things I love about America (mac 'n' cheese!) and most Americans, like people anywhere, are decent, honest and kind.  Were it not for my family ties, we would have gone.  Now we have a child though, I'm not sure I would consider it, not because I'd worry Duckling would get shot - the risk of that is actually still very small (though given you're thirty times more likely to be murdered with a gun in the USA than the UK, I would worry a little bit more), but because I don't want him to grow up in a country where lethal weapons are so revered by so many, and where guns - which, let's face it, are designed with the sole purpose of injuring/killing - are seen as an unfortunate but necessary tool for living in a civilised society.  Because no society where essentially one mass shooting takes place every day of the year can really be considered civilised; I don't care how good the mac 'n' cheese is.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The comedy stylings of Master Duckling

The last few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster in the Duck household, with Duckling's various illnesses and the hospital admission. Now he's better though, he's making up for all the stress and worry in the best possible way: by making us laugh as only a toddler of one-and-three-quarters can.

Honestly, sometimes my child is pure comedy gold. I know every parent delights in the sweet hilarity of their kids (it's their primary saving grace) but Duckling seems to be on particularly fine form at present. At the risk of sounding rather indulgent, here are a few of my current favourite Ducklingisms:
  • He's taken to seeking out my bras and thrusting them in my direction shouting "bye bye boobies!". Because, you know, logically that IS what happens when you don a brassiere...
  • He's totally in love with sitting in items he's much too big for and spinning around. Like saucepans. And colanders. And the salad spinner. 
  • His wonderful "make do" approach to talking. If he can't say the word, he uses something which roughly fits the bill. Hence the bath is a "puddle", an aeroplane is a "neeow", my brush is a "hair", coins and other small objects are "peas/bees" (hard to tell which) and Peppa Pig is a loud grunting noise. When he can say the word, he often likes to emphasise it by saying it twice too ("go go", "door door", "num num"). He can actually speak in rough sentences, but unless you have your Duckling to English dictionary handy, you're never going to understand what "Marmar go go neenor Mummy" means ("Grandma is going home in her car Mummy" for reference). And, my favourite part, if all else fails, he will just call an object a "deedah": his version of a doodah I believe. 
  • The tongue of concentration. Not even two and already displaying one of the traits (sticking my tongue out while concentrating) I get teased about the most by Drake. I'm very proud.
  • His obsession with the fridge. It's floor level and we have no way of properly locking it, so he's in there every time my back is turned. This mostly causes intense irritation and blueberries all over the floor, but it can be quite amusing too. Like the time he made a train out of all of the condiments. Or stuffed 5 cocktail sausages in his mouth at once just as Grandma arrived, then tried to yell "Heyo Marmar".... Or tried to eat a red onion thinking it was an apple...
  • The moments of sheer surrealism. Yesterday he took his plastic farmyard pig into the bath with him. "Wo dat?" he asked, pointing to the line of nipples on the pig's belly. "They're her nipples" I said. "Like her boobies." "Ooooh, num num!" said Duckling, then pretended to pick off each nipple like a grape and pop it in his mouth, smacking his lips and declaring it to be "mmmmm, nummy". After I'd been handed a few invisible nipples and declared them 'nummy' too, it occurred to me I should possibly be disturbed by all this detachable nipple munching. Thankfully he hasn't tried it on me yet though.
  • His odd clothing-related quirks. For example, he absolutely cannot possibly go to bed without socks on, and will wake up to protest if one falls off in the night. Or his love/hate relationship with hats - wears them when he doesn't need to, rejects them when he does. Or his pathological hatred of his snazzy red and grey hoody top (it's lovely - I honestly have no idea what he has against it).
  • His insistence on shouting "Oh no!" at every instance of mild disaster, even when he has quite obviously been the cause of the disaster concerned. "Oh no!" he cried yesterday, with an expression of mock horror on his face as he rammed his block trolley repeatedly into his Duplo farm, scattering various plastic animals across the living room. "Oh no!" he yelled this morning, as he shoved his poor toy meerkat down the back of the bed for the seventeenth time in a row. "Oh no, oh no!" he screeched in the bath this evening as he emptied his watering can onto my lap...
  • The fact that everything in life must be categorised into "Mummy", "Daddy" and "Me". Three different sized teddy bears? "Mummy bear, Daddy bear, Me bear!" Shoes under the stairs? "Mummy's doos, Daddy's doos, Me doos!", Random cars parked along the street? "Mummy's neenor, Daddy's neenor, Mummy's neenor, Mummy's neenor, Daddy's neenor, ME NEENOR!" Apparently he owns a 2005 Ford Mondeo. Who knew?
Yep, sometimes owning a toddler is utterly brilliant. Surreal, baffling and quite often messy, but brilliant nonetheless.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Returning to normality after a hospital stay

Well, as I stated back in August in my post about the frustrations of looking after a sick child, it was only a matter of time before we ended up in hospital for something. This particular something was a very nasty chest infection of the kind that makes kids breathe as though they're running a marathon and wheeze like an accordion. Poor Duckling didn't really know what had hit him. He'd been ill with a cold, cough and temperature for a couple of weeks, but by the weekend before last, appeared to have made a full recovery. We breathed a sigh of relief, but barely 48 hours of optimal health had passed before another cold hit him and the cough returned. For a day or two it seemed mild, but then a temperature developed again and mild turned into really quite wheezy. We saw the GP who diagnosed bronchiolitis and prescribed an inhaler, and this seemed to help a bit for a day or so, but then quite wheezy turned into really struggling to breathe and after a trip to the out of hours clinic on Sunday, we were sent straight to hospital.

Making the transition into hospital is a comparatively easy affair, apart from the lucky dip involved in sending your husband back for your overnight things (I ended up with one pair of hiking socks and one pair of knee highs but otherwise he did surprisingly well). One word from a doctor and suddenly there isn't any doubt in your mind that hospital is where you have to be. Nothing but your child then matters - not work, not social engagements, not loads of washing, not appropriate underwear. It's quite an out of body experience. Life is lived from one round of observations to the next, and your emotions become inextricably linked to a set of numbers on a chart. On day one, things generally went like this each time a nurse came to do Duckling's "obs":

Respiratory rate: 68 breaths per minute (Oh God, that's not good)
Heart rate: 182 beats per minute (Waaay too fast)
Oxygen saturation levels: 85% (Bad, bad, bad. Can he get brain damage from that?!)
Temperature: 40.1 o C (Holy crap)

By day three, it was more:

Respiratory rate: 48 breaths per minute (Great!)
Heart rate: 154 beats per (Super!)
Oxygen saturation levels: 97% (Hooray!)
Temperature: 37.5 o C (Whoop! We can go home!)

Ours was a ward of wheezers (as one nurse put it). The three other kids in the beds around us all appeared to have very similar illnesses involving fevers, breathing problems and coughs. Their reactions to their illnesses were notably diverse however. Duckling essentially breastfed and slept, breastfed and slept, occasionally perking up enough (when on Calpol) to go for a short toddle, watch a Peppa Pig or have a grumble about the pulse oximeter on his toe. The boy next to Duckling was a month younger than him. His approach was to veer wildly between mania (shaking the bars of his cage cot like a gorilla, wailing, throwing his toys on the floor) and extreme lethargy (collapsing in a heap and sleeping for hours). The girl opposite, who was about four, silently sat in her hospital bed looking serene and pale, like a painting of some Victorian moppet with influenza. In contrast, the little two year old girl next to her slept, then thrashed about, then woke, then coughed, then cried loudly and pitifully on an hourly loop that continued the entire time we were in there. I didn't hear her speak once except to moan "mama" though her tears.

While the children's reactions to their maladies were mixed though, as mothers, our reactions were remarkably uniform. We soothed, we stroked, we cuddled, we reassured, and at some point we all curled up with our little ones on their / our beds to sleep or comfort (or in my case hold the oxygen mask over a fidgety Duckling's face for five hours). Admittedly we weren't in the intensive care unit, but I don't remember once feeling panicked or thinking "help, what should I do?" - I just knew, and everyone else seemed to as well, as though our most basic, innate mothering instincts had been turned up to the max to drown out all other concerns. I was worried about Duckling of course, but for someone who usually worries a lot, I was surprisingly sanguine. Somehow the prospect of him not recovering was just too terrible to contemplate, so I think I unconsciously pushed it out my mind so I could focus on the present.

Caring for a really sick child strips parenting back to its most basic elements; love and care. You don't intellectualise, you just act. Rules, routines, discipline, stimulating creativity, encouraging independence, ensuring healthy eating; the usual framework of parental objectives suddenly isn't required - all you need to do is comfort, listen, and make sure that doctors and nurses are doing the same.

Herein lies the main reason why, as much as I wanted to leave hospital, I've found it quite difficult since coming home to transition back to 'normal' parenting. It has to be done for the sanity of all concerned, but it involves really thinking about what you're doing. You have to say "No" and "Stop" and "That's enough Peppa" and "Why don't you eat some raisins instead?". You can't just run on adrenaline and instinct in the exhausting but simple world of newborn-style "on demand" feeding and cuddles. You have be a conscious parent again, with all special dispensations put away for another day, even though all you want to do is vegetate after your week of stress and sleeplessness and / or hug your little one every time they whimper whispering "thank goodness you're all right."

It doesn't help that Duckling is not impressed at all by the return to normality. He may have been ill, but I think he also rather enjoyed having Mummy with him 24/7, at his beck and call, boobs at the ready. By the end of our stay, he was also delighting in the massive playroom full of cars, planes, trains and a kick ass Wendy House complete with plastic peas in a microwave. When I asked him as we drove home if he liked hospital, he replied "Yeah! Yeah! Me go door door and woo woo Mummy. And bees!" (Yes, I liked going through the door into the Wendy House and playing with the trains Mummy. And the peas!). Home by comparison is boring, and Mummy's refusal to get her boobies out every 10 minutes is not met with good grace and acceptance. At all. I know he's still on antibiotics and probably not feeling 100%, but there's only so much I can take.

Then of course there's the perpetual worry that he's not really quite recovered - he's still coughing, so can I really be sure he's OK without all the measuring and beepy machines? And there's a concern that this could happen again. Hospital is no longer a place where other people go. It is now a known entity where we could very well end up again if Duckling succumbs to another post-cold bacterial infection, or it turns out he has some underlying asthma issues (I hope not, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised). I can't in all honesty describe him as a 'healthy child' who just 'fights things off' anymore, because he's not: we had to intervene in a fairly major way this time, and if we've had to do that once, it's more than possible we'll have to do it again. Part of me wants to wrap him up in cotton wool and never let him out the house again for fear he will get another sniffle, but that's no way to live, and it's not fair to anyone. So, come Tuesday, we'll be back at the childminder's and normality will properly resume. I know this winter is probably not going to be fun or easy illness-wise, but I suppose if I can recapture the art of living in the present that I seemed to uncharacteristically master so well in hospital, we'll get through it somehow. And even if we do end up back in hospital, at least Duckling will be pleased to see the plastic peas.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Interviewing idiocy

I recently had to interview for a new position at work. I was the only candidate and the role had essentially been created with me in mind, so it shouldn't have presented much of a challenge. However, I still found myself exceptionally nervous, which resulted in me rambling my way through the first few questions, choosing a project where everyone ended up deeply unhappy as my example of a "win win" scenario, and rounding things off by tipping water down my front.

In a shock move, they still gave me the job and I'm now having fun trying to manage a team of four rather feisty ladies on three days a week. All good therefore, but the whole rigmarole made me question, not for the first time, how effective traditional interviews actually are in choosing the right candidate. Had I been up against others, there's a very real possibility that my rubbish interview would have scuppered me, even though the job is a great fit with my skill set, and I (and my manager) know I'm going to be good at it.  My problems with interviews (both as an interviewee and interviewer) are as follows:
  • You're testing a candidate's ability to control their nerves first and foremost. To be honest, the people that do this best are either those that don't care about the job and thus have nothing to lose, people with planet sized egos who can't contemplate others not sharing their inflated opinion of themselves, or psychopaths, who don't care what others think of them full stop. Nerves turn competent, modest, bright people into gibbering and / or monosyllabic nitwits, which makes it very hard to judge their true value. Unless you're interviewing for a job that requires impeccable calm under pressure (A&E doctor, fighter pilot, war correspondent etc.) it seems a pity that something as human, normal and transitory as nerves should have such a big impact on your career prospects.
  • Standard interview questions are inane. Everyone knows they're inane, and yet it's like we've signed some weird interview pact whereby we feel we have to ask them or the interview gods (or HR) will punish us. "Can you tell us how you prioritise your time?" Err, I do the most important and urgent things first. That's it. Even though in reality, I tend to start most mornings responding to whatever head-slappingly stupid email I received the night before. "Can you give me an example of how you dealt with a difficult individual?" Well, I had to wrestle a one year old into a nappy, vest, dungarees and socks this morning. I found brute force and bribes worked quite well. "Where do you see yourself in 5 year's time" Easy. On a beach in Bermuda having won the lottery. Doesn't everyone? 
  • When the questions aren't inane, they're impossibly abstract. "Tell me how you develop effective strategies" was a question I had at my recent interview. Where to begin? It entirely depends on the issue you need to address with your strategy. And the resources available. And how you define "strategy". And, err, now I'm thinking about it, what is a strategy exactly anyway?! I think I rambled for five minutes or so before I struck upon something I could just about pass off as a 'strategy' and gave some non-waffley detail. Had they asked me "tell me how you get reports out of people who can't be bothered to write them" I could have given them a concise, fully fleshed out answer because I have to do that all the time. All. The. Sodding. Time.
  • Candidates only get 45 minutes or so to prove their worth in comparison to two / five / twenty five others; they're never judged purely on their own merits (unless they're lucky enough to be the only candidate of course!). This is obvious, but it doesn't make it any less unfair. You could be amazing, but if the questions don't play to your strengths but do to someone else's, or someone who went to the same school as the interviewer comes along, and they hit it off, you don't have a chance, however much you've prepared and however impartial the interviewer might consider themselves to be. I once went for two interviews in one week for two very similar jobs, either of which I would have loved and could have done with my hands tied behind my back. Both told me I did a really great interview, but for the first that I was "over qualified" and for the second that I "lacked experience". Both were meaningless let-you-down-gently excuses, I know, but what it proved was that experience and interview technique are largely arbitrary in and of themselves - someone else had seemed better on the day for whatever reason, and they therefore got the job. 
  • Interviewing doesn't always find you someone decent. I've had colleagues rave about interview candidates who turn out to be utterly useless. I've engaged temps with virtually no interview process who are amazing. Until someone has actually done the job for a while, you just can't tell with 100% accuracy how good they're going to be, however much you bombard them with questions about their approach to time management.
Short of hiring someone for a day to try them out, what would work better than a standard interview though? Truth be told, not a lot if you have to get though a number of candidates and keep things fair, but I think we can tweak the conventions a bit.  A conversational approach is still a lot more enlightening than your standard panel set up. Have a chat. Put the candidate at their ease. Figure out if you could actually work with them, day in, day out. You can absolutely weave some questions in there to test their knowledge and understanding, but if you make it relaxed and two-way, it's actually much easier for them to give good, well-developed answers as they will feel much safer asking you questions to test whether they're responding along the right lines.

Also, set them some small tasks or tests, give them some scenarios to work through, or run a bit of a role play. Make it less artificial and abstract, and more grounded in reality. Sure, you can ask about time management, but you're only ever going to get a stock, rehearsed answer that tells you nothing. So MAKE someone manage their time in front of you! A bit mean, but revealing.

Finally, ask them about themselves. People love to talk about themselves. I always find the last five minutes of an interview, where you enquire what the candidate will be doing for the rest of the day, very revealing. Suddenly they're on safe ground, and you get a proper insight into their personality. I've totally changed my opinion of someone based on that (I thought they were humourless, but turns out they were hilarious! They still didn't get the job though. They spelled our organisation's name wrong in their test.).

That concludes the post.  Thank you for reading.  I'll be in touch.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

A bit of a knackered rant. Sorry.

There are times when I love being a Mum. Then there are the times when I find it utterly soul destroying.  I'm fairly sure that the highs and lows I feel as a parent are no different to the highs and lows I felt with my normal mood swings in my "former life".  Sometimes these were hormonal, sometimes they were triggered by events, and it's no different now, although interestingly, in some respects, I find motherhood has actually evened my mood swings out a bit.  Essentially, my mood now is mostly a kind of perma-knackered, so I don't have the time or energy to really reflect and feel melancholy in the way I did before Duckling, but then nor do I have the time and energy to really relish life either. When I do get a bit down though, it takes a lot less to tip me over into tears, because exhaustion means I'm usually quite close to them most of the time already.

The thing I find hardest is the total lack of a decent break. I've whinged a good few times on here about Drake being away all week, and how tough it is being a single Mum on weekdays (though I am acutely aware that it's nowhere near as tough as being a single Mum ALL the time).  Sometimes I feel like my record on this matter is so broken it doesn't make any kind of meaningful, recognisable sounds any more.  Nevertheless, the need for a break never goes away.  Sometimes it's just a mild niggling itch in the background.  Other times it's all I can do to stop myself screaming "I NEED A BREAK" at my fellow Sainsbury's shoppers before I drop to the floor and sob.  This week, things have been in the latter category.  Duckling's been ill again so I've spent a lot of time trying to work from home with him asleep on my lap / coughing his lungs up down the phone to my colleagues.   Drake's been ill too and had to fly out at 4.30 am this morning (Sunday) because his project is going live.  Essentially therefore, I had a couple of hours on Friday night off (I went out with friends and it was amazing, though Duckling was already screaming for me by the time I returned and then wouldn't go back to sleep), and a few loo trips and a shower on Saturday when I wasn't directly responsible for Duckling (Drake was packing and ironing and sorting car rentals and flights and doing the washing that I seem incapable of finding the time for, and watching football, and pissing about on his iPhone for whole strings of minutes at a time) and that was it.  No more respite / sharing the load (bar the time I'm in work) now until next weekend.  And now I'm ill too.

Boo hoo hoo, poor me, I want to cry in a sarcastic snarl.  I really don't know how lucky I am, do I, with my beautiful son and caring husband and a nice house and a nice life.  And it's true.  I am lucky and I have no right to complain.  That doesn't mean I'm not going to though, because I am still completely, bone achingly knackered.  Duckling has not slept through the night, 7 pm to 7 am, ONCE since birth (5 am is the closest we've come).  We're not talking one wake up a night.  We're talking minimum three if made to stay in his cot all night, and that's if we can actually get him to go back to sleep, which is mostly an impossibility after wake up no. 2. Co-sleeping thus remains a necessity - easier than constantly leaping out of bed, but still less than comfortable or conducive to a decent night's sleep.  I'm not going to go into a rant again about sleep training and how totally bloody ineffective it is as a long-term measure for instilling good sleep habits (the slightest cold or teething issues and we're back to square one, time and time again). I have largely just accepted that Duckling is just not a sleepy baby, and we'll just have to wait for him to sleep through in his own time, probably when I pluck up the courage to survive the screaming that will come with total breastfeeding withdrawal.  Sometimes though, when I think about the fact that I haven't had a single full night's sleep since I was about 6 months' pregnant (so, December 2013 - nearly two years ago), I want to weep.  Going out with my three friends on Friday, who all have younger babies, and were all shocked that Duckling still doesn't sleep through, rather rubbed this in.

Lack of sleep, lack of a break and illness are pretty much the triumvirate when it comes to parental burn out, and I am definitely in that zone today.  Right now, I would give anything for someone to say "we're going to clone you, and let your clone look after your son for 24 hours while you sleep, have a bath, go for a run and watch a couple of box sets."  Because that is the only possible scenario in which I know I could actually relax.  And herein lies the root of why I feel so stressed right now.  With Duckling under the weather, he is ultra, ultra clingy at the moment, so nobody - not Drake, not my Mum, not his childminder - will do except me.  He may tolerate them for a few minutes, maybe even an hour or two if I'm not in easy reach, but that's it.  After that, he just wants me.  And that's lovely, but it's also incredibly draining because as much as I love to be loved, I also need space and the ability to make a sodding piece of toast without a toddler trying to scale my leg to get to my boobies.  Yet I wouldn't be happy leaving him with someone else for purely selfish, relaxation reasons, when I know he will be distraught, and they'll then get stressed too.  So I can't win.  There is no solution to how I feel right now.  There is nobody who can clone me, or more realistically, be a surrogate Mummy for a day.  Furthermore, I already feel like a palm him off too much on others, given my work schedule.  I will have to leave him with my Mum tomorrow, as I have to go into work for an afternoon meeting (I don't usually work on Mondays), and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday he'll be back at the childminder's all day provided he's well again. This will give me some headspace, admittedly, but work doesn't really quite count as relaxation, especially since I've been promoted.  So, all I can do is keep going.  Keep crashing along, bleary eyed and grumpy, in the knowledge that the need to be separate, sleep, have some space and regain some sanity will fade into a dull itch again eventually.  Hopefully before I have a nervous breakdown.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The myth that "complications are rare"

Last week was Baby Loss Awareness week. I planned to write something pertinent then, but struck by yet another Duckling-gifted mystery virus, didn't quite feel up to it in the end. So I'm writing it now, albeit a few days late. As I have mentioned before, I have had two miscarriages, both of which were hard to handle. However, what got me through (after great support from Drake and my family) was the knowledge that, statistically speaking, miscarriage was a comparatively common occurrence. My mother had lost a baby before she had me, so while very upset, I was half way prepared when the sonographer told me there was no heartbeat, or second time around, when I started bleeding.

Unfortunately, not everyone who encounters pregnancy problems has a mother who has been through the same thing. So many people I know (women and men) have been taken by complete surprise when something has gone wrong. And I know a lot of people for whom things have gone wrong.

During my seven years at the organisation I work for, five people have lost babies after 12 weeks (that mythical 'everything will be fine now' cut off point), including one whose baby died shortly after birth due to oxygen deprivation.  Three have had miscarriages (myself included) though I suspect there are many more out there I don't know about. One was so heartbroken by her loss at 42, she decided not to try again. Two can't have kids at all. Admittedly we employ an unusually high number of women of childbearing age, but this still seems a lot.

In my personal life, the list is similar. One friend lost two babies after 20 weeks and decided not to try again. One had a stillbirth at 24 weeks and then a miscarriage, and is currently debating whether she has the mental and emotional strength to try for a third time. Another took over a year to get pregnant, suffered a miscarriage, then took another year to get pregnant again (though she now has a healthy boy, albeit after developing sudden onset eclampsia during the birth). One had a very premature baby who later died. She then had a miscarriage at 16 weeks. She has one healthy son, but at nearly 40, is not trying again. Another has had multiple cycles of IVF and two miscarriages (no baby yet) and a yet another took over 5 years to get pregnant due to endometriosis, though she does now have a healthy little girl. Most recently, one of my best friends had a stillborn girl at 39 weeks, only finding out her baby had died when she went in to be induced. She is now pregnant again with all fingers and toes crossed.

Currently my sister is pregnant with her second baby too. Bar a slightly challenging birth, her first pregnancy went smoothly and her daughter was born happy and healthy. Her current pregnancy is of course not proving so straight forward - her baby was noted to have dextrocardia on her 12 week scan, which essentially means its heart is pointing the wrong way. This may not be a problem if her next scan shows all the baby's organs are reversed (we know its stomach is, but the sonographer couldn't see the others yet) as essentially the body will work normally, just the other way around.  If some organs are not reversed, or are missing altogether, or there's a problem with the heart, the prognosis will be much more serious.

If I really think about close friends and family of my generation with kids, I can only think of one who has completed their family without any serious issues getting pregnant, staying pregnant or giving birth. One. That is honestly it. 

So how can things go wrong so often, without it being more widely acknowledged?  How can so many people go through so much pain and heartache, not just once, but twice, or more times, and have their circumstances considered 'unfortunate but rare'. Part of me feels that I am a bit cursed; that being my friend is ill advised if you want to start a family, or complete it without issue. Rationally, I know that's not the case.  I know so many people who have had problems because all my friends are currently of sprogging age, and having had issues myself, I probably get to hear about more people's baby-related woes than I might do otherwise. More significantly though, the  rate of complications seems high because problems are really NOT that rare.

When you first get pregnant, your chance of miscarriage in the UK is about 20-25%. Of having a premature baby (live birth before 37 weeks) about 7% and of having a stillbirth (loss after 24 weeks), around 0.5%. About 2% of babies are born with birth defects each year too. And this is before we get onto the myriad possible birth complications. We're not talking one in a million risks here, or even one in a thousand. When you start adding up all the things that could go wrong in each and every pregnancy, it paints a pretty scary picture. Whether enough is being done to reduce these statistics is a debate for another day (essentially the answer is 'no' though). My question is why so many women (and men) are so utterly unprepared for an outcome other than a happy, healthy baby? 

There are a lot of reasons. Most obviously, a couple might simply chose not to think about it because, if you're going to remain stress free during pregnancy, you CAN'T be forever pondering the things that could go wrong. It's too painful, and largely fruitless as it won't change the outcome. It may be that couples receive false reassurance from friends, family or medical professionals.  It may be that they're simply uninformed.  They don't have the opportunity or desire to read much, don't know anyone who has lost a baby and have only ever seen pregnancy and birth depicted in a generic 'bump, birth, baby' way in the media (soaps and dramas have a lot to answer for). It could be that they simply don't believe it could happen to them because they're healthy and normal, and how could their healthy, normal body possibly generate a baby or pregnancy that isn't healthy and normal too? I know that's a thought that crossed my mind.

I'm not advocating that we scare all pregnant women by listing all the many things that could go wrong at every midwife appointment.  Sensitivity is vital, but pragmatism and honesty in response to women's questions would help too. Some of us are fragile, and yes, you are more emotionally vulnerable when pregnant (though personally my pregnancy emotions were nothing in comparison to my emotional vulnerability now I've had a child) but most of us are reasonably intelligent, resilient beings who want people - particularly doctors and midwives - to be straight with us. Wider societal recognition would be useful too. A lot of people talk about the 'taboo' of discussing baby loss and pregnancy problems.  I'm not sure it's necessarily taboo (a quick Google will tell you there are A LOT of people talking about it online) but it is very emotive, so no, I don't tend to bring it up in normal conversation because I don't want to make my conversational partner cry (or myself well up for that matter). That doesn't mean we shouldn't be recognising the difficulties women go through to get pregnant, stay pregnant and have a healthy baby though. Better (and more realistic) representation in the media would be a good starting point. Eastenders was widely praised for working with Sands to accurately portray the loss of Shabnam and Kush's baby earlier this year. Many people declared it too sad - because yes, stillbirth is incredibly, incredibly sad - and no doubt for many parents who have lost babies, it would have reawakened deep feelings of grief. If we're not upfront about it though, society remains unaware of how common it is (0.5% equates to 17 stillbirths in the UK every day) and less able to support those who suffer a loss. Knowing you might lose a baby doesn't necessarily make it any easier when it happens (I deliberately hadn't made any plans, bought anything or told anyone except close family when I suffered my losses, which did help me, but this is impossible once you're visibly and openly pregnant), and it doesn't make it fair when it happens, but if those around you are aware and informed, they can be in a better position to help, and not say totally the wrong thing.

I would love not to have so many friends who have had problems. Every time I receive a call or text telling me sad or worrying news, I think "No, please, surely not AGAIN?!" I feel for each and every one of them, and it makes me that bit more terrified of trying for a second baby each time. But I also know that should I go for a second,  and should tragedy strike again, I will not be alone. I can turn to pretty much any one of my friends and share the pain that is inevitable when our attempts to create new life, the very purpose of human existence, are so cruelly crushed. This is why it is so important that people know that complications are not rare. It's not their fault: the human reproductive process is actually massively flawed. But because it is, you are never going to be the only one to be facing the heartbreak that these flaws can bring. Chances are, if you just talk about it openly, you'll find that a surprising number of people will be able to relate to your story in some way. It's not a grim club you ever want to be a part of, but if you're ever in the unfortunate position of having to join, you'll be glad it's there.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Pushchair prejudice

Babies cannot walk, and thus need to be transported by other means. Toddlers, while they can walk, go veeeery slowly, are prone to running into oncoming traffic, getting tired at the drop of a hat and requiring a "Mummy cuddle" all the way home. Human evolution has not been kind to us parents in this respect. Thankfully however, it has given us the intelligence to invent ingenious contraptions to save our aching arms. Slings and baby carriers are the most traditional (and when Duckling was smaller I did use them A LOT as they had a magic calming effect and kept my hands free for doing other stuff). However, they're only practical for long-term use if you have a strong back (mine is knackered now), a single child to care for, and you don't have to carry eight bags of shopping home. Love 'em or hate 'em, in most other scenarios, the pushchair / pram / buggy / stroller / baby carriage or whatever you want to call it is hands down your best option.

Die hard attachment parenting fanatics aside, most modern parents use a pushchair in some form or other at some stage, yet it is still incredibly common to see those parents struggling and failing to push said pushchairs along cluttered aisles, up and down steps and in and out of crowded buses in even comparatively modern urban settings. Why is the humble buggy so badly accommodated? Is it because they didn't have them when most town centres were built? Well no, not really - wheeled baby transportation devices have been around since the 1700s, and popular as the primary form of baby perambulation in the Western world since the early 20th century (thank you Wikipedia). Few town centres are exclusively pre-Victorian, and even older shops and public spaces can often be rearranged a bit to better accommodate pushchairs. Is it because they're much bigger today than they once were? Maybe, if you compare a modern travel system style buggy or a jogger to the ubiquitous fold up Maclarens of the 1980s. But then a) Maclarens are still everywhere even today and b) even the biggest of modern pushchairs are still smaller than the behemoth prams of yesteryear. Is it because planners, shop owners and public transportation officials are enraged by pushchairs generally and ignore them out of spite? More than possible - buggies are, after all, awkward and bulky challenges to health and safety that contain food hurling noise machines. Plus the parents who push them are often sleep deprived, verging on a breakdown and wildly distracted by all the throwing and shouting and as a result steer them like deranged myopic drunkards. I include myself in this description.

If I had to put my money on anything though, I think one of the main reasons pushchairs are so reviled (or at least so grudgingly accommodated) is because they're pushed primarily by women, and contain children. Now I believe in balanced arguments and I don't think it's healthy or accurate to boil everything down to misogyny. The world is more complex than that. I am quite sure that a lot of inaccessibility is genuinely down to poor planning, simple thoughtlessness, old architecture and lack of funding or scope to change things. Nevertheless, there is a lot of dismissive eye rolling reserved for Mums and their charioted offspring. While there are many lovely people out there who do help, when I'm struggling with my buggy, I quite often pick up on a vibe of "bloody woman driver"*, even where the issue is patently not my steering skills (for a change). A bus driver once looked at me like I wanted to bring a bomb onto his bus when I politely enquired if there was room for my pushchair (there was, but he told me no, not unless I folded it. I walked instead). Then there's the clothes shop in my local town that has all their kids stuff upstairs. It does have a lift (JUST big enough for a person and buggy), but this is currently broken. In fact, it's been broken for over three months. How they're selling any baby clothes I don't know - when I asked if there was anywhere non-obtrusive I could leave my pushchair and shopping so I could carry Duckling up the stairs, I was met with a shrug and a "not really...".

To be blunt, as a women, mother or not, your practical concerns are not really a priority. Amusing / eccentric / tedious / laughable / daft, yes, but important and worth spending real money on, not often. You are expected to grin and bear the inconveniences life throws at you, and survive by discretely moaning to your other female friends (totally off topic, but the Guardian's recent report on endometriosis highlights this very well). And mostly that's what we do, particularly in this country, because we're all a bit English and we don't really like to kick up a fuss (unless it's a strongly worded letter. We're quite good at them). As for the child - well nobody really sees children as proper people, particularly when they're of an age where key vocabulary consists of 'cat' 'oops' and 'more', they don't pay any taxes nor have any substantial money of their own to spend. So their legs are less than half the length of an adult's, but make 'em walk, the lazy buggers with their lazy, pandering mothers...

Anyway, the idea for this post began while on holiday, where I had to check whether Boston subways were 'stroller' friendly. Mostly they were (because they were 'handicapped' accessible as it's known over there - more on that in a minute), but I discovered that there had been a plan in 2013 to get parents to fold their buggies on public transportation which had caused a massive outcry (and was subsequently dropped). The transport commissioner declared that the No. 1 complaint he received was about strollers on the bus and the 'T' (subway). I read a lot of comments from people on both sides. Parents rightly questioned how in the hell the Authority expected them to remove their baby from the buggy, collapse it while still hanging on to the baby (and any other kids vying to run in front of the bus / train) and then board the bus / train and stand without causing delays or accidents. On the other side were a whole host of comments along the lines of "Parents who bring strollers onto the subway during peak times are assholes" or "why can't they drive?" or "why don't these women just stay at home with the kids"? Where to begin...

I agree, that pushchairs on public transport are very annoying when they stop you getting on and off, and parents should be mindful of how they park them. Those that aren't are inconsiderate, just as anyone who doesn't think of other people on a crowded bus or train is (e.g. those who put bags on seats, try to get on before you've got off, eat smelly food, have loud phone conversations...). However, many comments went beyond annoyance at the few parents who inconvenience others with their thoughtlessness, to rant about how parents act 'entitled' in general by, apparently, their mere presence in public spaces.  Some certainly do, but such posters seemed oblivious to that the fact that their arguments about non-working women with non-working children not deserving to be on a train among hard working folks such as themselves, rather pinned the 'entitled' badge back on them. Special vitrol was reserved for the 'Yuppie Moms' (the US equivalent of Yummy Mummies I suspect), using 'hummer-sized' strollers, which seemed to be viewed as unnecessary, ostentatious fashion statements. The underlying message, that these women were vacuous airheads only interested in image and over-protecting their precious darlings, was rampant.  I agree, there are some daftly massive pushchairs out there. But bigger chairs do have practical benefits. Unlike my 'umbrella stroller' (which admittedly I do prefer on public transport), my big pushchair (which I categorically DID NOT buy for the brand name) maintains structural integrity when I bump it up a kerb or stupidly hang 5 bags off the back. It can be steered one handed. It can support a baby under nine months. And hold more than a tin of beans in the basket underneath.  And with a bit of adaptation will accommodate more than one child (should I ever be mad enough). And can be pushed over a surface rougher than tarmac. And usually keeps the sun / rain off effectively. And has a height-adjustable handle so both Drake and I can push it comfortably. And allows a snack tray to be fitted to keep Duckling's cake hole occupied in pursuits other than screaming...

Ultimately, the folding rule was rejected after parents voted in the majority against the change, and I'm glad, as travelling (off peak) in Boston would have been far more inconvenient for us and indeed our fellow passengers if we'd had to do the grapple and fold on every train we went on.  To be honest, in Boston access was actually pretty good, and generally, I think it is much better in many places now than it was in say, our parent's generation. So yes, I am being rather complacent I'm sure.  The raised bus stops, access lifts, dedicated spaces and ramps that make our lives easier now are not due to radical Mums with prams however, but wheelchair users.  Accessibility for disabled people is enshrined in legislation, and quite rightly too. Wheelchair users genuinely can't 'collapse' their chair to get on public transport. They can't bump their chairs up steps or balance precariously on escalators. The fact I have to do all of these things on a regular basis highlights how shitty access is for most wheelchair users, and in that respect I have no right to complain.

Buggy pushers are far, far more numerous though, which makes me wonder why we benefit from accessibility measures implemented for wheelchair users, rather than wheelchair users benefiting from the measures long ago put in place for us? Yes, it's because we have far more alternatives than wheelchair users - children are pretty portable really. But I also think it's because we don't make enough of a fuss. We know everyone hates us and our aisle blocker on wheels. We feel faintly apologetic and embarrassed about getting in everyone's way, knowing that before we had kids, we would roll our eyes too at the harassed Mum with the buggy so loaded with bags it wouldn't fit through the door. We want to get in and out as quickly as possible, and not cause any fuss, because, whatever advances there have been in drawing women out of the home, there is still a subtle underlying narrative of "seen and not heard" out there, both for women and children: contain them, control them, don't let them make a fuss (or make a fuss yourself). This comes from men, but it comes from women too, and, as some of the comments on the links above show, often in a far more vocal and critical way.  Women feel freer to criticise other women because it won't be seen as sexist, even though there's still a whiff of ingrained misogyny underlying it all. The worst are the sanctimonious fellow Mums and their "Well when I'm out and about, I balance little Sherbert on my head and strap Calendula to my back so they don't get in anyone's way.  I don't see why other Mum's can't do the same!"  In a recent court case that saw a bus company sued for failing to chuck a woman and baby (in a pushchair) off the bus in order to accommodate a man in a wheelchair, there was a lot of discussion of who should take priority morally and practically - a person in a wheelchair joining the bus or a woman with a baby already on it. Without knowing the exact circumstances it's difficult to definitively argue either way (though lots tried) but what really seemed to annoy people was that the Mum in question made a stand and didn't get off the bus when asked.  For whatever reason, right or wrong, she kicked up a fuss, and this instantly labelled her an obstreperous, 'entitled', oversized pushchair-owning monster.

I am no doubt reading too much into the great pushchair debate. Yet at the same time, I'm sure it's just one small example of a wider societal attitude problem towards mothers and their babies that makes us feel like we have to work to be accepted, rather than the rest of society working to accept us. I'm not about to apologise for owning a pushchair therefore because I need it to transport my baby, and if we're going to eat, and myself and my baby are going to be clothed, I need to get out of the house. Nor am I going to apologise for the probably slightly larger than strictly necessary size of my main pushchair, because aside from getting on buses, it's very practical, and frankly my long term comfort outweighs your brief inconvenience. What I will apologise for is running over your foot, haughty lady in Marks and Spencer, because, even though you did sort of walk directly in front of me without looking, I am a bit shit at steering.  And stopping.  And turning.  And hey, why don't they give you buggy proficiency lessons when you get pregnant?!  Woo, I smell a business opportunity!



*Just to add to this, I did a recent poll of my friends with kids, and all of them said that whenever they go out with their other halves and offspring in a pushchair, it's always the man that ends up pushing. Much like driving in fact.  Not sure if this is chivalry, a need to take charge or a lack of confidence in our perambulation abilities (probably all three for me), but rather telling whatever the case.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lessons in social awkwardness: ignoring people you know

I am a reasonably personable individual, but there are times when I find social interactions unnecessarily hard. I have thought quite a lot about what it is that sends me into a nose dive of social awkwardness and have decided it's generally related to a forced transition from being an introvert (i.e. lost in my own thoughts) to being an extrovert (i.e. talking to other people). Spontaneous small talk (or any form of small talk to be honest) is just not my thing.

Take today's example. I was walking to the childminder's after work when I came up behind someone who looked like one of my NCT friends. I wasn't sure it was her (she was wearing some jazzy purple trousers I just couldn't quite picture her in) but she walked like my friend, and her hair looked like my friend's... As I passed her (she was going slowly and I was running quite late) I took a sideways glance and realised it probably was her. Did I stop and say "Hi!" though? Nope, for some idiotic reason I kept going. I then spent 5 minutes marching on as fast as I could, debating how I could possibly acknowledge that she was behind me, without making it obvious that I had known she was there all along and had snubbed her.

It's not that I don't like this woman - she's lovely and we always have a good old chinwag when we meet up. It wasn't that I was in too much of a rush to talk to her either. I could have spared an extra minute to walk at her pace and have a chat, or I could have just said, "Hi, I'm really sorry, I have to run". It's more that when I am walking to and from work, that is my quiet, reflective time, and I find it really tough to switch to sociable mode. Plus, from my brief glance, I couldn't be 100% sure it definitely was her and I didn't want to randomly stop mid stride and say hi if it wasn't - potentially very embarrassing.

Maybe this inability to switch modes makes me slightly autistic. It almost certainly makes me antisocial and probably quite rude. Yet however much I kick myself for doing it, time and time again I find myself pretending not to see people rather than just stopping and saying hi. My aversion to an awkward social encounter, one with no clearly defined end point or get out clause (particularly when you're in a hurry and walking in the same direction) and ripe with the possibility that, caught off guard, you'll say something stupid, is just too strong. Because, caught off guard, I usually do say something stupid, like "bit chilly today isn't it?" (in December) or I'll forget to enquire about something vital like "how's your Dad doing after his heart attack?" or "are you having a nice birthday?" which will cause more self-admonishment later.

I wish I could tell everyone I've ever ignored not to take offence - that it really isn't you, it's me. Who knows, maybe they actually appreciate me not saying hi, as it means they can pretend not to have seen me either, neither of us has to talk, and we can both go about our days in blissful knowing ignorance. I'm sure this is true for some fellow anti-socialites I know. Furthermore, if I'm being REALLY honest, there possibly is a dash of "I won't disturb them because why would they want to talk to me?" in the mix of my thoughts too. On a largely unconscious level, I believe I'm doing them a favour by sparing them my presence.  Not a sign of healthy self-esteem I'm sure, but as I whinged a couple of weeks back, that's one of the potential downsides of being more self-aware...

Anyway, I made amends eventually today. As I was unlocking the buggy once I reached my childminder's, my friend walked past and I did then shout out a hello and apologise for ignoring her as "I wasn't quite sure it was you" (nearly true). We parted on smiley, friendly terms, and she admitted she had seen me too but had thought I looked busy so didn't want to disturb (I was reading an email on my phone, it's true). I have no real idea how much offence was taken though. I'll probably never know either, because, like me, she's one of those people who will keep on smiling even when you've spilled coffee in their lap. Which I have actually done. Twice. Oh dear, she secretly hates me, doesn't she?

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Ten things to expect when renting a holiday home

The Ducks are currently on holiday (sorry, vacation) in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Not an obvious choice, I know, but it was the furthest place we could think of that would involve sunshine and beaches and balance maximum air mile usage (Drake has a bucket and spade load) with a survivable flight time (seven hours to Boston was only mildly hellish).  Plus the US is really child friendly. As is advisable for any holiday with small children, we're staying in a rented house rather than a hotel. The house is great - traditional shingled exterior, a stone's throw from the beach with a creek out back and a canoe! However, as with every rented house / villa / apartment I've ever stayed in (and I'm going back to my own childhood here), the photos and descriptions on which you make your choice don't quite tell the whole story. Here follows a list of Duck Family holiday home certainties:
  1. You'll be slightly creeped out by the unfamiliar, mildly (sometimes very) shabby interior for the first day or two, and spend a lot of time with your feet tucked under you in case a hand reaches out from under the sofa and grabs your ankles or a bug runs up your trouser leg.
  2. The kitchen will be stocked to the gunnels with a hodge podge of gadgets and gizmos that you don't even recognise, let alone need, but it will be devoid of several essential bits of kit that most people use every day. Our house this year has a crab pot and crab claw crackers (to be fair, we are in Cape Cod, seafood capital of the US), a Nutribullet, a capsule coffee maker with no capsules and no indication of what capsules it takes, three Tupperware tub lids (no actual Tupperware) and six chip 'n' dip bowls. It entirely lacks wooden spoons, a functioning potato peeler, sharp knives, a salad bowl, a proper chopping board, egg cups or any form of spatula.
  3. At some stage, the house will be invaded by unwelcome wildlife. In the past we've shared our home with mice (twice actually), a swarm of harvest spiders, giant centipedes, ants, feral cats and, my favourite, a "ghost", which may or may not have actually been one of the rats that lived in the tree outside rummaging through our bins.  My Dad took us to the best places when we were kids...
  4. There will come a point, usually three or four days in, where you sit out on a lounger at dusk, gin and tonic in hand, surrounded by chirping insects, and you'll say "why the hell do we live in the UK?" Then a moth the size of a sparrow will get stuck in your hair and you'll remember why.
  5. The house will contain at least one fundamental design flaw / oversight that will bug you all week. This year it's the lack of a full length mirror anywhere, and a parasol so small that only one person can sit in the shade at a time.
  6. Your welcome pack will contain local idioms or bad translations that make you laugh out loud. My all time favourite was in France, where the local restaurant guide suggested we eat somewhere with a speciality of "raw cow with truffle soil". I think they meant steak tartare with truffle oil, but we avoided that particular dish anyway, just in case.
  7. Something will break or go wrong at some stage, often following a thunder storm that trips all the fuses. This year, it was a smoke alarm which woke us all up at 6 am due to a flat backup battery, then proceeded to beep intermittently for most of the morning until Drake found a loose wire and plugged the battery back in to charge. What a man!
  8. However "child friendly" the blurb claims it to be, there will be at least one major hazard that you child will seek out within minutes of arrival. Like a sodding great river in the garden... Or the sharp, terracotta tiled steps my sister slipped on the first time she climbed them, necessitating a dash to a Spanish A&E for some chin stitches.
  9. The artwork / décor / furniture will sit somewhere on a scale of "not quite to my taste" to "were they on f**king acid?!". Best ever = the house in Provence with a giant mural of The Cat In The Hat on the bathroom wall. That cat was no prude about folks in the nude... (sorry).
  10. Whatever your initial misgivings, by the end of your stay you will have grown rather fond of the place and won't want to leave. I will almost certainly shed a little tear tomorrow when we go, though we do at least have a few more days in a hotel in Boston to round off the holiday nicely. Cue multiple accidental calls to reception, obsessive knocking on other people's doors and mini shampoo bottles emptied out on the carpet. Give me a rubbish potato peeler any day..

"I go boat in Mummy's doos?  Yes?" (N.B. we did not allow him to go out in the canoe in my shoes.  Or indeed at all...)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Does it pay to be self-aware?

Last week, I found myself drawn into a conversation with a colleague about a self-help book she'd once read on the merits of being "self-aware".  She couldn't remember the name (and a subsequent search of Amazon* didn't help much - there are hundreds), but the basic assertion seemed to be that self-awareness is universally a Good Thing for everyone. To be honest, this seems to be a pretty common theme in most self-help / management bible type literature (not that I've read much - money for old rope mostly, if you ask me). If you know yourself - so the thinking goes - you can strive to take action and improve yourself, which in turn improves your relationships with others, your life prospects and ultimately society as a whole. Hooray!  I have no doubt that there is an strong element of truth in this, and God knows the colleague in question needs a bit more self-knowlege. Since having Duckling, I've definitely felt the need to critique my own behaviour more too, primarily to ensure I don't set a crap example. However,  despite what the books say, I remain to be convinced that being really self-aware is that great for the individual concerned. Some of the happiest people I know are also some of the most blinkered, shallow and clueless, and they seem to bumble through life just fine, precisely because it never occurs to them that they should strive to be anything other than what they are now. Yes, the more unpleasant types piss other people off, but because they don't realise it, they just aren't bothered. It almost makes me jealous...

There seem to be a host of different ways of defining self-awareness.  At its most basic level, it is the ability to look in the mirror and recognise oneself as distinct from the surrounding environment; a conscious and autonomous individual in the crowd. Delve a bit deeper, and you discover more complex layers. The ability to recognise your own personality and key character traits. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and your "place" in family, work and social structures. Understanding your emotions, thoughts and memories, and the fact that they might not always be accurate reflections of reality (at least not reality according to other people)... The list goes on.

When you think about it, it's actually quite a slippery concept. I consider myself reasonably self-aware under all the above categories (but then I would, wouldn't I?!), but it's difficult to be sure that I really am because self-awareness, as used in common parlance, doesn't actually have all that much to do with the 'self'. Herein lies my first issue. When we state that someone has no self-awareness, we generally mean that they have a poor grasp of how others (we) see them, not that they don't have a strong sense of who they are. That weird guy in accounts who always makes inappropriate comments about your outfits may be universally known as "Creepy Chris", but in his mind's eye he is "Cheeky Chris", and describing your new boots as 'kinky' will make your day (no Chris, it really won't).  Furthermore, character traits are socially constructed, and because we do not live in a vacuum, we can only really be defined when placed within a particular context and compared to those around us. So Chris is creepy, but only because we're in the office; in a nightclub he might get away with it. What's more, in comparison to Pervy Pete, Creepy Chris is just mildly inappropriate and a bit socially awkward. 

Poor old Chris struggles because we can only really understand ourselves by listening to the discourse around us and observing the reactions of others, and he's not very good at that.  He finds it tricky both because people lie (or at least don't reveal the whole truth for fear of hurting his feelings / embarrassing him / showing themselves up) and because his interpretation of their reactions is coloured by his own internal reasoning, which in turn is influenced by his past and personality. Chris sees us blush and turn away, but because of the way his Dad always talked about women and his Mum behaved, he thinks it's because we're flattered but shy, not, as is actually the case, weirded out and squirming. To be properly self-aware therefore, you ironically have to be a really good reader of other people, and this is far from straightforward.

The next problem: to be really self-aware, you have to question how and why you do things. A lot. If you're not careful, this can tip you into becoming either self-conscious or self-obsessed. You know your weaknesses and fret when these are tested. You know some people see you as bossy, and thus scan every utterance and every reaction to that utterance for signs of people being put out by your domineering style. Eventually, you can become so inhibited and guarded, that your fundamental personality and spontaneity can be warped. Alternatively, you constantly ask people "oh God, did I offend you?", which is actually more annoying than whatever it was that you thought might have been offensive in the first place. I struggle with the self-aware / -conscious / -obsessed balance regularly. 

Then you have the fact that being self-aware doesn't necessarily mean you can change your behaviour, which is very frustrating. I am perpetually late for everything and it really annoys me and everyone else I know, but recognising this and the causes for it doesn't seem to make me any better at leaving the house on time. I am also shy, some might say standoffish, when I meet unfamiliar people, mainly because I am afraid to let my more extrovert, know-it-all side out (years of being branded an uppity teacher's pet will do that to you). I worry that my new acquaintance will decide I'm really annoying or show-offy or weird, will call me names and won't want to play with me anymore, boo hoo hoo. I recognise being shy doesn't do me any favours, and yet I can't seem to change it because the alternative - irritating people - seems much worse.

Finally, in part because of the above, self awareness means you have to experience lows as well as highs. If you're a real happy-go-lucky type, chances are you're either not very self-aware (you just pootle through life unconcerned about looking like a fool or about your impact on others) or you're a bit of a egotist (you only notice your strengths and the times other people say you're great). Conversely really downbeat people often only notice their weaknesses, failures and less attractive characteristics, or fail to consider their own influence at all and blame their woes on fate, their crappy lot in life, or on other people. Thus they never see that they have the power to improve things.  Or at least that's what the books would say, I sure.

A truly self-aware person will sit somewhere in the middle.  They can recognise when they've really contributed to a job well done, and can feel good when they've consciously avoid causing offence, or actively made someone feel great about themselves. But they also have to stare the reality of the times they've been a bit shit square in the face. And that's HARD. Particularly when you're prone to guilt (i.e. female) and when you can't be certain how shit you've actually been. In some respects it would be great to be able to give everyone you know a survey about their impression of you to understand more about yourself. But the results would have the potential to completely shatter your self-esteem, and those with no self-worth are even worse for social harmony  than those with no self-knowledge. 

So while self-awareness is probably good for society as a whole, I think a bit of self-delusion is ultimately necessary to get us, as individuals, through life, help us achieve things we might otherwise think we couldn't and keep us from constantly being paralysed by anxiety and the knowledge that we are but an inconsequential speck of sand in the great desert of space and time...  I can never be sure how self-aware I really am, but I know for certain that if I didn't have some self-delusion about others' interest in my ramblings, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog. Though I might not be running quite so late for our flight right now.  I know it usually takes forty minutes to get to Heathrow, be we can do it in ten, right?

Maybe I should read that self-help book after all...


*just as a random aside, my quick search of Amazon inexplicably came up with this absolute gem at the top: Shiatsu Therapy For Horses.  Had me giggling for ages.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Twenty unsolved mysteries of kid's TV

Due to the multiple illnesses mentioned in my last post, Duckling and I have spent an unhealthy amount of time sitting on the sofa watching children's television over the past few weeks. Mostly the channel stays firmly on cBeebies to escape the insufferable tat-peddling breaks of most other channels, but we have made the occasional foray into Nick Jr, where Duckling has also discovered the joy of Peppa Pig.  Normally I try to do other things while Duckling is watching TV, but his refusal to be parted from me while ill has meant I've had to endure enjoy a far wider range of children's televisual delights than usual.
 
Now I realise that most programmes aimed at kids are designed to engage young imaginations and inspire a sense of wonderment, but frankly, I think this ambition is too often used as an excuse for inauthentic characterisation, hole-riddled plotlines and stories that lack sufficient exposé, all of which leave the viewer with a series of frustratingly unanswered questions. This fatigued. stir-crazy and slightly grumpy viewer anyway. In the hope that someone out there can help resolve these vexing mysteries, I thought I should put them out there for discussion. Here are my top twenty:
 
  1. Where do Granny and Grandpa Pig fit in the Peppa Pig family tree? Are they Mummy or Daddy Pig's parents? Both Mummy and Daddy Pig refer to them as "Granny" and "Grandpa", so it's wholly unclear...
  2. Why is Mike The Knight such an insufferable git for the majority of every episode? I understand that the moral is to "Be a Knight and Do It Right" when you've been behaving like a bit of a dick, but surely "take 10 seconds to think about things and avoid pissing everyone off" would be a better message?
  3. Where are Sarah's parents in Sarah and Duck? I remain to be convinced that Duck is a sufficiently responsible guardian.
  4. Talking of, in Bing, what IS Flop? Soft toy come to life? An adult rabbit in a world where everyone shrinks and becomes knitted as they get older? A child's cuddly representation of his much loved nanny? I need to understand the symbolism!
  5. Why does Mr Tumble never, ever remember "The Magic", despite this being a fundamental element of every episode?
  6. Why do the residents of Greendale love Postman Pat so much when he is essentially the cause of everything that goes wrong in the village?
  7. A rocket, fuelled by rhymes? Seriously?
  8. Was Iggle Piggle actually modelled on David Cameron, or is the resemblance just a happy coincidence? (Yes, I know I'm not the first person to notice this, but it still tickles me.)
  9. Is Poi from Show Me Show Me pregnant for all the episodes shot in that weird shop / playroom place, or did she just decide to go with a billowy smock look for most of that series? 
  10. How do Kate's parents remain so unfailing upbeat when confronted with the clearly delusional, hallucinatory tales of their daughter's adventures with Mim Mim?
  11. Does Granny Murray get dressed in the dark? My eyyyyeeees!
  12. What is Baby Jake's Mum's secret to looking that slim and cheerful after popping out ten children in such quick succession? (I have my suspicions that she's actually an actress and they're not really her kids - shhh don't tell anyone...)
  13. Have the Cloud Babies writers ever actually studied basic meteorology?
  14. Why are all the 'cheebies' in Waybaloo so appallingly dubbed? Why is Waybaloo so appallingly awful?
  15. Given that Sid and Rebecca are so totally desperate for it to be 'them' that gets to dress up in Let's Play, why do they still grin like loons when they're not chosen? It reminds me of the way actors behave for the cameras when they don't win the Oscar.
  16. Balamory - has everyone had a lobotomy or what?
  17. Is Happy the Crocodile adopted? He appears to have an elephant for a parent, so I can only imagine he must be. (I LOVE Hey Duggie incidentally. Mainly because I am actually in love with Alexander Armstrong.)
  18. Is Mr Bloom's regular statement "Hello my dear, haven't you grown?" to Joan the "lovely" fennel just a touch creepy or is it me?
  19. Where is all the hitting and "Get off it's MINE you big Poo Head!" in Charlie and Lola?
  20. Why doesn't Justin bake a nice battenburg or tray of flapjacks rather than all those custard pies? He'd save Robert the Robot a hell of a lot of washing.
Answers on a postcard / in the comments section...

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The frustrations of looking after a poorly poppet

Duckling is under the weather again. Just a mild bout of conjunctivitis (so far) this time, but it comes hot on the heels of tonsillitis, a never ending snot barrage of a cold, then hand foot & mouth. The poor kid has spent more time ill than healthy over the past couple of months. And it's summer! God only knows what will happen when autumn sets in and the school germs start circulating again.

The neurotic part of me is worried that he has some kind of immune disorder. However, he never seems to get properly, worryingly unwell, he hasn't yet suffered a secondary bacterial infection and he has no wound healing issues either, which, Google informs me, probably all mean his immune system's completely fine. I can only conclude therefore that it's normal for a child of 18 months to get sick this much, as essentially he hasn't built up any immunities to anything yet (breastfeeding gives them antibodies my arse!). It doesn't make it any less frustrating though.

First, it's horrible seeing your child so sad and uncomfortable. Duckling does a good line in plaintive whining, looking morose, and melodramatically crumpling in the middle of his play mat because he feels so rotten. It's heart-breaking because I feel so powerless to help. Calpol is my only real weapon, but spat out and smeared all over clothing, the sofa and the curtains, it's not much use.

Second, the flip side of the heart-breaking lethargy is the rage-inducing clinging. Duckling is Mummy obsessed enough at the moment, but illness seems to have intensified his velcrosity by a factor of thirty. I completely understand why he wants constant cuddles and breastfeeding - I would too - but it doesn't make it any less frustrating when you're trying to cook / play a nice game with him / put your socks on / sleep. Constantly being in demand is totally knackering, however much compassion you have for their unhappy state.

Third, it often puts you in an impossible quandary when it comes to socialising. When your child is supposed to be coming out with you, you have to assess how ill they are (is it fair to take them out?), how infectious they might be (Day 2, probably very; Day 7, less so), the vulnerability / tolerance of the people you're going to see, your own energy levels and how much you need to escape the prison of your own home. If your kid's not coming with you, you have to try to balance the guilt of leaving them with an alternative carer (crap for both the child and the carer) with the urgency / necessity of your planned outing. I don't know about anyone else, but I find myself paralysed by indecision when trying to take all of these competing factors into account, as I know whatever choice I make, someone will end up with the shitty end of the stick. Possibly literally.

Fourth, in a similar vein, is the eternal 'what do I do about work?' question when they're too ill to go to nursery / the childminder / school. I have very laid back colleagues but even they have raised an eyebrow or two at the amount of time I've had to "work from home" over the past couple of months. Because we all know working from home is impossible with a child present, particularly a clingy, sickly child. Heaven knows what I would do if I couldn't pretend to work from home. I think my Mum would be called upon to rescue us every other week...

Fifth, there is always a point in all but the mildest of illnesses where you think "ooh, that doesn't look / sound good. I wonder if I should take him / her to the doctor?" You will then proceed to procrastinate for as long as possible ("I'll just see how he is in the morning") as you weigh up the severity of the symptoms with the pain in the arseyness of having to book and then undertake a visit to the GP, in the full knowledge that they will recover the second you step through the surgery door. So far we've only had to visit the doctor once but I do fear we're riding our luck a bit - most of my friends seem to have ended up in A&E at least once in their baby's first year or two.

Sixth is the mysterious nature of a lot of childhood illnesses. Three day temperature with no other real symptoms? What's that all about? (Viral tonsillitis for reference). Purple green poo? (Overdose of blueberries). Fever and spotty rash? (Chicken pox! Or maybe Hand Foot & Mouth. Nope, Chicken Pox. No, no, definitely H, F & M. Probably. Bloody clueless pharmacist.)

Seventh = snot, sick, spots, squits, scabs... Just yuck.

Eighth, the requirement to sit through endless episodes of Peppa Pig and other kiddies' telly delights (which is the only thing that'll keep Duckling vaguely content when he's sick). It will be better when he's older and can be left to have a duvet day on the sofa largely on his own, but for now, he'll only sit still and watch happily if he's on my lap. Which is kind of lovely for five minutes. Less so after an hour. Altogether now "Peeeeeppa Pig! Do do do do dodo, dah dah dah dah dah dahdah."

Finally, at nine, is the knowledge that however fastidious you are about hand washing and quarantining soiled items, at some point your darling offspring will sneeze / throw up in your face and you WILL get whatever they have. The only thing worse than looking after a sick child is doing it when you're sick too.

Essentially, in a shock revelation, looking after a poorly baby is a bit rubbish. Who knew?!  It is ripe with possibilities for self-flagellation ("I know I was threatening to spit roast Peppa Pig, but I can't believe I took him to the park with that cough. I'm such a terrible mother!"), exhausting, upsetting, miserable if you catch it too, deeply inconvenient in terms of work and your social life and generally a bit gross. On the plus side though, at least Duckling will already be immune to a whole bunch of stuff by the time he goes to school.  That'll mean fewer illnesses once he's there, right?  Right?!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

A letter to myself, two years ago today

Dear Duck at 4pm on Friday 16 August 2013,

As you read this, you are sitting on the sofa, phone in hand, both willing it to ring and wanting it to never ring again. A week ago, you were told that your 13 week-old baby-in-the-making had a 94% chance of having Down's Syndrome. You are terrified. The Harmony Test the clinic used has a false positive rate of less than 1 in 1600. It's far, far more accurate than the standard combined test, which you also took and confusingly gave you a 0.007% chance. The consultant who stuck the giant needle into your placenta, making you faint on the Tube home is puzzled, and has given you a 50% chance. You are drowning in meaningless statistics and don't know who to believe. Google has been no help whatsoever as the Harmony Test is new and nobody else in the world seems to have been in this situation before.

You honestly have no idea what you're going to do if the news is bad. Before you agreed to the test, you were certain that the result wouldn't matter - after two miscarriages and a threatened loss early in this pregnancy, you just wanted a baby to hold, no matter what their abilities and needs might be. Now you're not so sure.

You've worked with young people with Down's Syndrome. You know they are individuals first and foremost, unique people with unique personalities, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, just like anyone else.  That extra chromosome does undeniably brings some challenges with it though. The problem is the unknown.  The severity of the health problems associated with DS can vary enormously, as can the extent of the learning difficulties. You don't know what their temperament might be or how much social awareness they will have.  You don't know many operations you might have to put your child through, or how much of your longterm independence you might be signing away. You don't know if going ahead is a decision that, in your heart of hearts, you might one day regret.  Just that admission has you wracked with guilt. You desperately want to be noble and selfless and liberal and say you don't care, but the reality is you do. This is your child, and your life, and you know with Drake away with work, you will be raising this baby solo for much of the time.  There will also be judgement from everyone, including yourself, whatever course of action you and Drake decide upon, and you're not sure you can handle it. Or the new fissure it will create in an already cracked heart.

I want you to keep it together though, because everything is going to work out fine. You had that one in a thousand false positive result. In a minute, the phone is going to ring and a lovely doctor is going to tell you that your CVS test was normal - your baby has the right number of chromosomes and there are no signs of any issues. And it's going to be a boy, much to your surprise. You will hang onto the windowsill for dear life as she tells you this, then you'll collapse onto the lap of your amazingly strong husband, a crying, shaking, laughing mess, not because your baby is 'normal' but because you no longer have to decide what to do if he's not.

In the days that follow, once the elation wears off, you'll wonder why the Harmony test gave you the unharmonious result it did (I'm afraid you'll never know). You'll spend some time feeling guilty that you got handed a golden ticket when so many others do not, and that you even contemplated ending the tiny life inside of you (that guilt will get worse when he arrives and you realise what unconditional love is like). You'll also be scared that after all this, you might still lose him, or that the CVS test will turn out to be wrong, all at the same time as feeling resentful that PITA (Pain In The Arse) as he will be known for the rest of the pregnancy and a little while beyond has caused you so much stress. You'll not want to be bloody pregnant any more, you won't want to see any more midwives or talk to any more doctors. You'll want to put your hands over your ears and shout "la la la" at everyone and at the contradictory maelstrom of thoughts in your tired hormonal head.

When he starts moving though, and you feel the strength of his kicks, you'll understand what a tenacious little boy you have on your hands, and how nothing was ever going to stop him making his way into this world.

I want you to know that if that call hadn't been good news, whatever you decided would have been the right thing. Being a Mum is all-consuming, and if you'd gone ahead with the pregnancy, you would have loved your baby from the moment he was born and done everything in your power to make his life a happy and fulfilled one, regardless of the difficulties and the problems.  It's a cliché, but love does always get you through.

If you hadn't then I wouldn't have blamed you either. For all the joy and love, motherhood is also incredibly hard work, precisely because your love makes you give your all. Love makes it worth it, but it doesn't make it easy.  The dedication required is unrelenting, even for a baby with normal needs, and it drives you to the brink on a regular basis. The prospect of that child never really growing up, of potentially needing you, as a child does, for the rest of your life, then of having to rely on strangers for care and guidance after you've gone... You would have coped because you'd have had to, but you would now be bruised and exhausted beyond belief. Except you'd never be able to admit that because you picked this path.  Having a difficult life handed to you is one thing. Actively choosing a more difficult life - for you, and your child - is another.

For now though, just keep that phone within arm's reach, and stay strong. One day this will all be ancient history; a tale to be told to the baby growing inside you, and to his children too. If I could hug you, I would, but as I am you in the future, you might have to settle for hugging yourself.
 
I should go before this gets too confusing.
 
Lots of love,

Duck at 4pm on Sunday 16 August 2015 x

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The challenges of asking for "help"

Life in the Duck Pond has been a trifle wearing over the past few weeks. Duckling is going through some manner of ultra clingy developmental stage, he's all over the show with naps as he drops from two to one, he's had a snotastic cold (as have Drake and I) and as of Wednesday, we added Hand, Foot & Mouth to the mix too. I thought I was coping pretty well, all things considered, but as ever, you think you are until you're not. Cue a day of arguments with Drake, shouting at poor spotty Duckling and ultimately tears of the "why is this all so hard?" variety from me.

Part of the problem is that I'm rubbish at asking for help. For much of the week, I am on my own. I don't really have any option but to get on with things and immerse myself in the routine. Shattered? Tough. Craving adult company? Tough. Want to go for a wee without a child trying to post bits of loo roll between your legs? Tough. You'd think that when Drake comes home, I'd hand over the reins, but I don't - my gritted teeth determination simply spills over into the weekends as though the train might derail if I slow down too much. I still do at least one weekend breakfast, most morning dressings, all nap times, most nappy changes, lunch, dinner, bath time, bedtime, and all the breastfeeds and soothing of injuries in between. Drake is great and does most of the washing and hanging up of clothes, odd jobs, DIY, gardening, cleaning and general tidying. He also cuddles and plays with Duckling a lot (he's much better at it than me), and will take him out for a walk and a push on the swings if I really need to get on with something uninterrupted (like filing or cleaning the fridge - the thrills). But the mundane childrearing activities are still mostly me.

I am a feminist (in as much as I consider myself an egalitarian generally) so I'm not really sure how we've ended up with such a traditional division of responsibilities in our house. I honestly can't decide if it's a practical response to circumstance, or whether some more sinister and pervasive gender brainwashing has occurred somewhere along the line. I imagine it's a bit of both, given that our circumstances are the result of a traditionally gendered job set up - Drake has a well-paid role in the (male dominated) IT Sector, and I have a less well-paid position in the touchy-feeling and very flexible (female dominated) charity world, so practically and financially, it makes more sense for me to work part time and do much of the childcare. Duckling's personality plays a role too - he's very Mummy focussed, and won't settle for Daddy for any length of time if he knows I'm in the house (though he's fine when I'm not). I still breastfeed Duckling, so all things related, such as sleeping and comforting, are primarily me. I've always cooked (because I like it), so that lands on my plate, and bath time always seems to involve lots of singing, which I'm better at than Drake, so, err, that's somehow me too. Mostly, it's fine. But sometimes, like today, I have simply had enough of wrangling a cling monster, and I just desperately want to have the 'Mummy' responsibility lifted from my shoulders completely while I do something else for fifteen minutes - preferably sitting on the sofa eating chocolate and watching something exorable on SyFy. I find it almost impossible to ask for this though, which really, really annoys me, and really, really annoys Drake too. For him, in man-land, the process is simple:

Duck has had enough. > Duck asks for help with whatever task she doesn't want to do. > Drake helps with task. > Duck feels better and Drake feels helpful.

For me, it goes something like this:

Duck has had enough. > Duck would like some help, but she doesn't really know exactly what with, or how to articulate the fact she's had enough without sounding like she's moaning about how hard this Mummy thing is AGAIN. And besides, Drake did look after Duckling for a couple of hours in the park earlier while Duck got to see her friends, so she should really be feeling refreshed and relaxed, not shattered and grumpy. > Duck carries on and ignores fact she's had enough. > Duckling has a screaming fit in the bath. Duck has now REALLY had enough. > Duck snaps at Duckling. > Drake comes up to see what the issue is, but conveniently doesn't notice Duck's at her wits' end so doesn't offer to help and wanders back downstairs once Duck has dried the Spotty Goblin (sorry, Duckling) and he's stopped screaming. > Duck carries on with bedtime, cursing Drake for being oblivious, and for the fact he's now downstairs with his feet up, watching the cricket. Although, she supposes he did have to clean up the dinner mess, so it's not like he's spending the whole time relaxing. > But FFS, he has almost definitely spent at least 5 minutes doing bugger all hasn't he?! > Duck's resentment festers as she attempts to get Baron Von Lotsaspots to lie down in his cot and not wail like a banshee. > Up, down, up down, feed feed feed. Duck decides this is probably all that 'no feed to sleep' sleep training out the window, goddamit. She is so crap at this. > Finally asleep, Duck returns downstairs, muttering obscenities under her breath. > Drake makes a comment along the lines of "ho hum, that's just what parenting is like I'm afraid." > Duck explodes.

It's not that I'm not capable of asking for help generally - Drake is forever running up and down the stairs to fetch things for me that Duckling has discarded in another room. It's that I find it very hard to ask for help with things that have somehow become 'my job' - i.e. the childcare stuff. Because I CAN do it - of course I can - it's not rocket science and I do it every day. I just DON'T WANT TO. As much as I know that it's important for parents to give themselves a break, it feels lazy and unfair to pass something over to Drake that I don't want to do, because why would he want to do it any more than me? He works crazy hours when he's away, so needs his weekend downtime too. Plus I'll just feel irrationally guilty if he does do it, so cancelling out the pleasure of not having to do it myself. And, if I ask this one time, I won't have the 'right' to ask again for at least a couple of weeks, and what if I really need to, even more than today?! Or, what if this opens the floodgates and I suddenly can't stop offloading and I turn into a dreaded Lazy Mother?!!

So, yes, it would be much easier if Drake would just offer sometimes so I could avoid all of this idiotic internal melodrama over my totally self-imposed rules of childrearing responsibility. It might also make me feel slightly less taken for granted. But it simply doesn't occur to him, because we're both in our little routines, he feels like he's doing plenty of useful stuff already, and he's not the one in demand 24/7. When you're away a lot, time with your child is precious, so I'm sure it is hard for him to understand why I resent being with Duckling sometimes. Although at the same time, let's be honest, why would he actively want to do the (literally) crappy bits?

I did say a lot of this to him this evening, and I think I got through, after a bit of umbrage had been taken on both sides. I have agreed to be more forthcoming, and am going to start requesting he does at least one bath time over the weekend (even if this means I have to clean the fromage frais off the wall, post dinner). Ultimately though, I think I need to keep reminding myself that beyond breastfeeding, there is no rule book that says any of the childcare stuff is intrinsically My Job. I am not technically asking for "help" therefore, but simply stating that I believe it to be Drake's turn to do the task in question.  Drake is eminently capable (I can even live with his interesting sartorial choices for Duckling), so it is perfectly fine to ask him to do more. It doesn't make me lazy and he can always say no if he really doesn't want to. This shouldn't need saying. And yet here we are. Does anyone else over-complicate things to this extent, or is it just me?