The wee-wee dance and other tricks

Dashing round the supermarket this morning, I saw an earlier version of myself in the frozen aisle.

She was wearily comparing packets of fish fingers while simultaneously keeping a near-hysterical one year old from flinging herself out of the trolley and reassuring a thoroughly bored two year old that they would be going home soon, but in the meantime, please, please, could he stop hitting his sister with the stegosaurus?

For all the dozens of items on my to-do list, I suddenly felt like the freest woman on earth, what with my two hours of child-free time to shop and accomplish chores at will. I wouldn’t want to go back to those days now, and yet a tiny part of me envied her for still being the centre of her children’s world, exhausting as that is.

I’m only now realising how short the time is in a child’s life when I know what they want or what they’re thinking, and to have it within my power to  make it all better – or at least to make it seem so. Apart from the very early days, when the answer to what my inconsolable babies wanted seemed to be, after eliminating every other possibility, not actually to be babies at all, I love this all-too-brief phase of being able to read their minds (even if, having read them, there are times when I’d rather not have done).

At some point in the last few months, I made the enormous mistake of convincing my four year old that “Mummies know everything”. I don’t know why that one particular throw-away saying has stuck in his mind whereas others such as “put your shoes on” or “wash your face” seem like wholly novel concepts each morning, but he falls back on it whenever something is lost or he is having a random ponder on what Barnaby in his class’s dad’s pet tortoise is called. I’m no longer allowed to say “I don’t know”, on pain of a prolonged stamping of feet to the untuneful refrain of “but you know EVERYTHINGGGGGGGG”.

Sweetheart, the truth is that I don’t, as you will learn soon enough, but just for now, as far as you are concerned, I know pretty well all there is to know. I know from the train of your conversation what’s happened at nursery that morning, long before you ever tell me. I know when you’ve done something you’d rather I didn’t know about; when you’re worried, or tired, or upset. I even know, before you’ve quite clocked it, when you need the loo, courtesy of that special soft-shoe, knock-knee’d shuffle known in these parts as the wee-wee dance.

I know, or I hope, that they will always need me and that I’ll be able to be there for them. I know how much I still need my own mum, even now at nearly 40, and how lucky I am that she is here. I just know, too, that as they grow up, no matter how good a relationship we have, there will be parts of their lives that they keep hidden from me, secrets they won’t tell, thoughts that will remain unspoken. That’s as it should be, as they learn to navigate life on their own terms.

What else, but to enjoy the all-knowingness (and pretend to the everything-knowingness) for as long as I can?  I’ll miss the wee-wee dance when it’s gone.


Are you Experienced?

When I was little (*lights pipe, settles back into rocking chair*) I can’t remember having any experiences that announced themselves as such in advance. I can remember doing things that were out of my brown and orange Seventies suburban everyday: going on a Metro (Tyne and Wear, not Paris), riding in my granddad’s car with the plastic covers still on the seats, going to a supermarket for the first time (more exciting than you might think).

We had little holidays too: nights away in a tent which I persist in recalling as brown and orange though I’ve been told it wasn’t, and a short, memorable, stay in a B&B near Whitby which had water running down the inside of the walls and which required children to be off the premises from breakfast till bedtime.

Hallowe’en was celebrated with bin bags, pillowcases and – for the daring – loo roll; Bonfire Night with some damp sparklers and a sweating, swearing neighbour bent fearfully over an unexploded rocket. Christmas, in my memory, was magical, overheated, but largely domestic, though there was the occasional trip to see Santa at Fenwick.

There just wasn’t anything that we turned up to, booked and paid, in the expectation of being provided with an Experience. Even when my youngest was a baby, nine years ago, I wasn’t aware of there being such a smorgasbord of tastefully planned and seasonally appropriate events throughout the year.

When did it all change?

I have spent this morning, in between work and admin, fretting about the fact that I have left it too late to book the expensive Christmas family days out I decided back in August to have no truck with. There are no tickets left for the Polar Express train ride (£95 standard class, £182 for the full-on film extravaganza). We can’t go and see the magic of a wintery Hogwarts (£93, plus travel and accommodation and add-ons) or spend the day in a local forest with Santa and his elves (£180). And ludicrously, even though I know that we couldn’t have afforded them anyway, I feel like I’ve let my children down. We’ll do something nice (and not requiring of a bank loan) but the bar seems so high that I worry that their childhood memories will be lacklustre things compared to those of their friends: sleekly engineered in technicolor, with commemorative booklets to match.

At the end of each term, school sends home multiple copies of the Primary Times and I sit, with a marker, going through the pages and pages of listings and circling the things we could do to make the holidays more fun (and go more quickly). There are wonderful, carefully planned and produced activities and walks and crafting sessions; museum trails and treasure hunts themed around witches or Easter bunnies or Santa’s fecking elves. We only do a few of them, once cost and logistics and CBA-dom have been factored in, but it’s still got to the point where they are slightly crestfallen if we go somewhere and they don’t get an A4 worksheet and the bribe promise of a sweetie or a badge if they hand it back in at the end. And don’t get me started on the mission creep of birthday parties…

I wonder if, by the time they are adults themselves, my children will be capable of going anywhere if they don’t have a set of Enjoyment Objectives against which to calibrate their day on their return; if they will feel uneasy setting out to have fun without knowing where to direct their complaints if it doesn’t adequately fill the designated memory slot allocated to it. It feels very much, sometimes,  like we’re raising a generation to outsource their leisure…which is possibly not a problem, until there aren’t the funds to do it or the ability to keep it in house.


Being there

When I write about my kids, I tend to focus on the humorous bits.

The words they get just wrong enough to be hilarious, the questions that are unwittingly  funny, the situations that would, frankly, make a cat laugh.

My experience of motherhood, told to others, is served with a side order of wry and a chaser of self deprecation.

I make no secret about the times that I yell, or the evenings when I feel that I would give my iPhone for a few moments without interruptions or squabbles. I’m a fully paid up member of the wine o’clock club; will clink virtual gin glasses with others in the same leaky, fragile boat. It’s how we talk to each other about it, after all; with a roll of the eyeballs and a raise of the brows and a fatalistic shrug of shoulders which sometimes feel weighted down with love and care and guilt.

Engrossed in make believe with my four year old earlier, though (having given in at last to his request to play puppy dogs) something made me hear my own voice as if that of a stranger. In my head, though he was being undeniably cute, I was bored to tears with pretending to clip on a lead and take him to the park (aka the bathroom). Out loud, however, I was patient, my words attentive and kind and apparently interested.

We might not be perfect – whatever perfect is – but beyond the bad days and the shouting and the grumpy, short-tempered snappiness of everyday frustrations that stick in our memory and, all too often, dominate our image of ourselves as mothers, are the other bits. The books read over and over and over again. The making sure the cups have juice in twenty seconds after everyone tumbles in through the door. The squeeze of a small hand, or the enthusiastic nodding along to some interminable tale about nothing much that seemed to start two hours ago and looks likely to go on till a week on Tuesday.

We’re more than the sum of what we do. We’re the element in which our children grow, as invisible and essential as air. And we’re good at this, you know. Better – and more important – than we give sometimes allow ourselves to be.



The half-life of treats

My name is Catherine and I am spoiling my children.

When I say “spoiling”, I don’t mean that I have lost control. I believe in parents being in charge. I believe in saying no. I believe in no sweets before tea, unless it’s a very special occasion; in eating your broccoli whether you like it or not; in bedtimes and manners and moderation.

And yet I’m spoiling my children.

Perhaps it would be more true to say that I haven’t lost control yet. I just feel that my control over what they have, what they see, what they consume is slipping away.

Compared to a lot of their friends, they’re not “spoiled”. They don’t have the same gadgets, the same spending power, the same level of veto over their everyday lives as many of their classmates. They don’t have exotic holidays, they don’t have designer clothes, they don’t even have the same degree of attention. So why do I feel that they have so much that they don’t value it?

Perhaps we’ve overdone the day trips. Perhaps they need a long period of boredom at home to refuel their imaginations rather than taking castles and beaches and parks as so many torture chambers designed to keep them away from what they really want to be doing (which is, obviously, playing on screens).

Perhaps we’ve let them watch too much TV, given in too early to the demands for screen-time and Minecraft and YouTube.

Perhaps we’ve acquiesced too easily to the toys on the birthday and Christmas lists that we knew would bring a morning of excitement and fun, before disappearing into the back of the cupboard or breaking beyond repair.

Before I had children, even when they were tiny, I was adamant that I wouldn’t give in to pester power; determined that they would grow up making the most of small things rather than learning early to take the big ones for granted. At first, it seemed to work: they’d have more fun with a cardboard box than whatever had been inside it;  would spend hours engrossed with sticks or pegs or imaginary friends; would be satisfied with an occasional packet of chocolate buttons.

As they get older, though, I feel that I’m losing. I’m failing in the trade-offof what I think is right with the world in which they live. I might be giving them too much, too soon, but I know what can happen when you lack the social capital to interact with your peers. Principles make poor playmates.

They don’t get everything they want, of course. There are plenty of things they think they’re massively deprived by the lack of that they’ll just have to learn to live without, for financial or other reasons.  There are others, though, that I’d rather they didn’t have but to which I don’t – or can’t – object as strongly, and (not being as joyless as I realise this post sounds) others again that I know will just make them happy.

How do I teach my children to be grateful for what they have, rather than pining over what they don’t?

A problem not shared…

One of the inevitable consequences of spending way too much time on social media is a high level of awareness of awareness days/weeks/months. Tweets or Facebook posts with a particular colour ribbon, or link to variously devastating or heartwarming stories are a significant feature of my timelines. I know, now, much more than I used to about a whole range of illnesses and conditions, which can only be a good thing (apart from the hypochondriac tendency to wonder if I’m spotting some of the early symptoms in myself of my children).

The tweets and posts more often than not, especially over a period of time, tell me things about friends or acquaintances which under other circumstances I would perhaps never have known. They are a glimpse into the lives behind the smile at the school gate or the friendly chatter in the park; an often dark hint at pain or struggle which otherwise would go unseen.

There is no way in which I think that the breaking down of taboos around illnesses – both mental and physical – is anything but positive. The burden of sickness is heavy enough without the additional load of shame and feeling that the suffering should remain unseen. On the grander scale of national public life, hearing about the problems of celebrities and others  can help the rest of us speak more freely to family, friends and colleagues, even if tolerance and acceptance are not as forthcoming as they should be. They can help dispel misplaced ignorance and fear. They can prompt an earlier visit to the doctor which could change or even save a life.

Nevertheless, on the more intimate scale of everyday life, it can create a strange combination of knowing and unknowing. I might act differently – consciously or otherwise – to the friend of a friend I know has ongoing problems with depression than to her neighbour who has never mentioned any. Surely there has always, in any given situation, been the unspoken hierarchy of suffering, sympathy and consideration; but has it become accelerated or even unbalanced in this world of increased, if partial, sharing?

Raising awareness and speaking out are vital, but so too is remembering that they can only ever create a set of known knowns. A problem unshared is a problem still, whether it’s public knowledge or not; some people don’t want to tell, and though chipping away at the factors which mean that is the case is vital, some never will. It’s tempting, especially nowadays when social media means so many of us do consciously craft an image of ourselves, to see what people say about themselves as a kind of full disclosure, but it’s worth remembering that things may remain unsaid, yet sore.

I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes, as I’ve said before, but this one remains true.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle

Boy Wonder

I’ve had a version of this in my drafts pretty much since I started this blog. I wasn’t planning on revisiting it any time soon but a real life conversation earlier today and then a brief Twitter exchange this evening have me wound me up so much on the topic that – weeeeee – off I go on an autorant.

It’s the whole boy thing. Or the girl thing. The pink/blue thing. The nature/nurture thing. I suppose, it’s the wilful blind eye turned to the fact that children (people, really) are an exercise in and-and-and rather than simply either/or.

Little Princess

My youngest child (who happens to be a boy) has brought this book home from nursery for the last two weeks running. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that he doesn’t want to be the youngest anymore (which is a burden he will have to live with). We’ve read it what feels like endless times, but in case you’re not familiar with the work, Little Princess wants (you’ve guessed it) a sister, because a brother will be smelly, rough and have all the wrong toys. She wants a sister, notwithstanding the gentle reminder from the maid, the admiral and, er, the Prime Minister (I wonder if David Cameron will have a word with No3?) that she can be just as smelly, noisy and various-toyed as the boyiest boy of her imagination.

Of course she goes on to have a brother. Of course it all ends happily.


There seem to be a lot of grown-ups who would benefit from reading it too. Grown-ups who treat girl babies as a prize, a lucky escape from the one-step-up-from-bubonic-plague-unwelcomeness of a smelly, noisy, rough boy. Grown-ups who like girls because they are determined that they will be quiet, and affectionate and amenable to dressing up. Grown-ups who know that girls will play nicely whereas boys will blaze a trail of destruction through their parents’ homes and lives. Grown-ups who believe, in short, that girls enhance, while boys, on balance, detract.

It’s not everyone, of course. I’d hope it’s not even the majority, despite the inexorable increase in gendered toys and books and clothes and the rest. It’s a lot, though, and it’s not fair.

It’s not fair to the girls who want to wear a superhero costume and go out to save the world rather than waiting, hair intact, to be rescued. It’s equally unfair to the boys who are afraid of heights and aren’t so keen on the prize awaiting them at the top of the tower anyway. It demands one thing and one thing only of both boys and girls, and makes any form of deviance from that one thing problematic. I don’t want my little girl to be constrained in what she can do, but nor do I want that for her brothers.

Are my children different from each other? Well yes, of course, but not necessarily along “boy/girl” lines. Plus, I only have a sample size of three – and for all my good intentions, I know that I treat them differently and project my own experience and expectations on to them. The theory and debate around gender and socialisation fascinates me, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to add to it.

I just think that we are, too often, unrealistic in our expectations of parenthood and unrealistic in our expectations of what our children will be. We need them, increasingly, to cause as little upheaval as possible, and the image of a cute, biddable daughter seems to fit the bill most nearly.

To the people who want a girl because of that, I want to say: what will you do if she doesn’t match up? What will you do if she wants to run around, and play fight; get covered in mud and wear scruffy clothes? Even if she doesn’t, how do you think she’ll get on with boys in later life if you tell her to expect them to be rough and noisy and train her to notice it whenever she sees it? What are you telling her about those who don’t meet the expected standard of maleness: that they are somehow not real boys, real men?

I think it’s normal and natural to have a sneaking preference for one or the other. That little, guilty,  sinking feeling  when the preference isn’t realised – no matter how much delight there is in the actual, rather than the dream, baby – is no cause for shame either. But if you’re sure that you don’t want a boy because they’re noisy or rough or smelly, or because the clothes or toys that come with him aren’t quite the thing, I’d show you my loving, dreamy, imaginative, boisterous, beautiful boys and ask if you’re absolutely sure.

Or perhaps I’d just introduce you to the Little Princess.

picture from

Nannied state?

As I type this, it’s 6.30pm. My husband left home for work twelve hours ago, and won’t be home for a good while yet. My eldest is out at a youth group, from which I’ll collect him in an hour along with four other children since it’s my turn to drive. My two youngest are curled up on either side of me watching “Cool Runnings”.

The house is clean (or as clean as it ever gets). The shopping is done and the uniforms are already drying on the racks. The children have eaten, and dinner for the adults is in the oven. Homework is finished and in school bags, along with the RSVPd party invites and endless permission slips.

When I worked, there was always a mad dash to get to nursery before it shut. We, quite rightly, depended a lot on food that was quick and easy to prepare (often involving little more than transfer from fridge to microwave to plate). Laundry was a constant headache, and I was forever buying gifts at the last minute and apologising for not getting back to people about things.

Some of that was because I am a disorganised and absent-minded soul, of course. But some of it was simply down to the fact that I was trying to do too much. Childcare was covered, for at least ten hours a day, but the functions of running a home and a family were squeezed round the edges of a busy job and the demands of two small children. I joked then, but I meant it, that I needed a housewife: someone doing, in fact, what I do now.

I don’t plume myself on being essential to my children’s welfare by my ability to make a pan of soup or a nutritious pasta sauce, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that my hours are not filled with carefully crafted activities to develop their abilities. I’m happy enough to let them veg, within reason, when they come home; happy enough, in fact (despite the frequent angsting) with my role as facilitator. There’s someone on hand for sick days, for hospital trips and GP appointments, for shopping and all the rest.

We are effectively buying the luxury of someone at home. We are consciously choosing to direct our finances into having a person always available to look after the children, yes, but also to take care of the domestic drudgery which every family demands. We’re fortunate in being able to make this choice, I know, but the stuff that I do would need to be done by someone whether I was employed outside the home or not.

Someone, rather enterprisingly, has spotted the gap. We are well accustomed to the concept of outsourcing childcare to a nursery, nanny or childminder, but there aren’t many among us who can afford in addition to pay someone to clean or cook or let little Billy’s mum know that we can make his birthday. A day nursery in Clapham is offering services to parents ranging from an on-site business centre to Pilates classes. More temptingly, though, is the offer of taking home a freshly cooked meal and some freshly washed laundry along with the paint covered offspring (or was that just mine?) There’s even a concierge service doing some of that boring bureaucratic crap required in every household.

Clapham is, in every sense, a long way from here. I can’t see anyone offering a similar set up locally, so I’ll never be required to choose whether to use it. To me, though, it seems an unequivocally Good Thing…unless, that is, you don’t think that any of it (childcare, osteopath, childcare…) should be necessary. I was puzzled, therefore, that the first piece i read about it, in the Independent, via a Twitter link, was rather dismissive. Even more so that, when I googled, so too were the other pieces I could find, all with reference to the “nannying” of the parents involved by virtue of the provision of all these services under one roof.

Why should this be? Do we “pander” to parents who have their shopping delivered, rather than drag their children around the shops? Do we “infantilise” those who take advantage of the wonder of the internet and mail order to source Christmas presents? Where do we draw the line at requiring adults to stand on their own two feet: having a window cleaner, paying to have the car washed, contracting someone to cut the grass? Or is it only those things which traditionally women have done which somehow remain sacred to the lot of mother? We may all nod along that it’s women’s choice whether or not to work outside of the home (even though there is precious little real choice one way or the other for many), provided that mums don’t drop the pretence that we love trying to do it all really; that being the linchpin of the family home while holding down paid employment is just dandy and integral to who we are as mothers.

This is only ever going to be a niche solution for a tiny minority of privileged, if stressed, parents. But the principle behind it: that homes and families don’t magically run themselves and that it’s the hard slog of (usually mothers) which keep things together when paid employment is added into the equation, deserves merit and consideration even as “childcare” continues to be the only element we hear about.



More than a cold

Kids and colds, eh? Unpleasant, annoying, but not serious, right? Well, not always…

When my third child was born, my older two were in nursery and Reception school. We had  almost five years of parenting under our belts, and snotty noses and hacking coughs were a part of everyday life. The first days of his life were no exception. He was doing the school run with me twice a day before he was a week old, and when, at three weeks, he developed a runny nose, I was mildly concerned but entirely unsurprised.

Even a day or two later, when – with no temperature, and not noticeably distressed – his breathing had become noisy enough to hear over the sound of the car engine and he was reluctant to feed, I wasn’t scared, but was worried enough to take him to the doctor.

The doctor took one look at him and sent us straight through to be admitted to the children’s ward. He had bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways in the lungs, which is very common but can be very serious, especially in young babies.

We were told on arrival that he was so ill that a transfer to a bigger hospital with a specialist unit might be necessary, but he responded well to oxygen and being fed through a tube and recovered after a few days, though he did suffer with chest problems until the age of three. Although he was very young, he had been born at full term and was thriving until he developed bronchiolitis. For babies born prematurely, or with existing health conditions, things can be much worse.

I wish I had known then what I do now, especially what to look for – even as a third-time mum, I had only heard of bronchiolitis in passing, and genuinely didn’t know it was something we should be aware of, especially during the winter months when it is most common.

A friend of mine, whose twin sons were born several weeks early and were very ill with bronchiolitis, is involved with a campaign –  More than a cold  – which seeks to raise awareness.  If you have a young baby, or know someone who does, please take a few minutes to check out their website, especially their tips on prevention. Of course, it’s impossible to entirely prevent the spread of germs, but it is worth being mindful of the risks to young babies of coming into contact with people with colds.

It’s also worth remembering FACT: – symptoms which need prompt medical attention if a baby develops them.

  • Fast breathing: shallow, quick breaths not taking in much air
  • Appetite: inability to feed
  • Cough: distinctive rasping
  • Temperature: high temperature will usually accompany cold-like symptoms of a runny nose

One in three babies have bronchiolitis in their first year, and most of the time it is not serious. The chances are that my older two children had it, and that we thought it was nothing more serious than a cold (which, for them it wasn’t). There’s more information here, on the NHS website.

Having a newborn can be scary enough at the best of times, and I don’t want anyone reading this to be frightened. I do want to help try to help other families avoid the experience of seeing one of their children so very ill.


I am perfectly sober as I write this, but I have the feeling that it’s going to turn into the kind of “and another thing!” rant that I normally subside into at the end of an evening, elbows on table, chin slumped on the palm of one hand while the forefinger of the other wags wildly and with distinct lack of focus. Not unlike the rest of this blog, then.

It’s the season of party conferences, which means that we’ll be whittled down into our constituent groups and targeted furiously. One of those groups to which I belong (though strangely there doesn’t seem to be a counterpart for my husband) is “female voters”.

WomansHourThis isn’t an attack on Labour and certainly not one on Gloria De Piero. But my heart sank when I saw this tweet yesterday, and it fell to the floor when my fears were realised and the very first part of the interview this morning launched straight into “childcare”.

It’s becoming such a Pavlovian response that I made the association even without wanting to.  No wonder poor politicians, coached in appealing to their target demographic, have the same response when addressing women. On several different levels, though, it is exasperating.

Childcare shouldn’t be a woman’s issue. Not all women have children, not all women ever will. To rank it as primary concern among female voters is lazy and offensive.

Childcare shouldn’t be a mother’s issue. It should be an issue for all parents, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should be taken to apply equally to fathers as to mothers. Perhaps the reality is that dads don’t take as great an interest as their current or ex-partners, in which case perhaps not repeatedly telling them that it’s not their problem anyway might help with that.

Childcare shouldn’t be a parent’s issue. People who have children also have jobs, health conditions and other caring responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a society, saw it as something integral to life as a whole, not some awkward inconvenience to be managed by those afflicted?

Childcare shouldn’t be a grandparent’s  issue. Many grandparents are able and willing and feel privileged to be in a position to support their own children by looking after their offspring when they come along. Many can’t. Many don’t want to, or do so at considerable cost to themselves, but feel that they have no choice. Those who do should be recognised,  and, where necessary, compensated, but their contribution should not be taken for granted.

Childcare shouldn’t be an employer’s issue. Or rather it should be, at  a macro level. We need to stop talking about solving the “problem” of working parents (mothers). Provision of childcare so that parents can work should be less about providing facilities open for long hours year-round so that workplaces aren’t disrupted by pick-ups and holidays, and more about listening to what is really needed. What message does it send when family-friendly legislation is introduced to support working parents, but recourse to employment tribunals in the event of non-compliance is made unaffordable for most?

Childcare shouldn’t be a school’s issue. Schools are there to educate children, not to stable them. By all means encourage and support schools to have breakfast and homework clubs and to offer their facilities to providers who can run affordable programmes through the holidays. Just don’t talk about extending the actual school day  “to help working parents” with a side order of raising standards without answering our concerns about what that might mean for our children.

Childcare shouldn’t be an early years’ issue. The 15 hours of entitlement offered for 3 year olds was an important step forward. My own children have thrived in the excellent preschool settings they’ve been lucky enough to attend. Those settings aren’t appropriate for ten-hour days, though, and neither the curriculum, the staff, nor – most importantly – the children would benefit from pretending that they were. Although I welcome the extension of the scheme to some two year olds, I wish that there could be more discretion as to the “need” of families who qualify, because disadvantage is not necessarily financial – and some reassurance that they are not to be added into existing settings aimed at older preschoolers without proper resources. When politicians talk of extending the early years’ entitlement and call it “childcare” I worry: will the offer come to depend on a parent’s employment or financial circumstances? If it is beneficial to a child to have this (and I’m persuaded that, generally, it is) it should only ever by the child’s needs which are considered.

Childcare should be a child’s issue. You don’t need to believe that the only place for children is at home with their parents (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t) to want a debate on children’s best interests and how they are served. Accepting that good childcare can be hugely beneficial, and accepting that it is vital for a majority of families, does not mean losing sight of what children need.

Politicians shoot for childcare because parents reply consistently that it is their priority. The cost of childcare in Britain is astronomically higher than elsewhere in Europe, and we simultaneously hear of women being excluded from employment because it is unaffordable and of women who have no financial option but to work. There is an obvious mismatch, though, between comparatively affluent policy makers who have both choice and access to a range of high quality childcare provision, and women at the bottom end of society coerced into long and/or antisocial hours and told that a place in some nursery or scheme is the answer to any possible problems that might pose.

Cost is hugely important, but so too are quality, flexibility and choice. If politicians want parents – go on then, mums – to take them seriously, they absolutely do need to commit to subsidising proper, age-appropriate, well-regulated childcare that allows us to work knowing that our children are safe and happy. But they also need to make us feel secure in our family lives, and in asking for our rights at work. All the nurseries and wraparound schemes in the world are of little use when a child is ill or in trouble or there’s no-one there at closing time because you got asked to stay on and felt you couldn’t refuse.

So, politicians, listen to what parents say they want, and why. We have to be creative. Can you?


Hormones (and other stories)

A couple of years ago, I had a series of recurrent bouts of cystitis, gradually worsening until, one Saturday morning, I found myself not so much passing blood as pissing it neat. A veteran in the world of UTIs, even I couldn’t dismiss that one, and since the GPs were shut for another 48 hours (why is it always Saturday morning?) I hobbled off to the walk in centre.

I sat for an hour or so, clammy and feverish and making frequent trips to the Ladies, among the flotsam and jetsam of an early weekend breakfast time. Perhaps the doctor I eventually saw was just worn down by triaging UDIs (unidentified drinking injuries) or perhaps he’d forgotten his Obs&Gynae rotation, but after listening to my symptoms, he asked, with a shy smile, “And you are sure that this is not your period?”

Had I not felt like my body was trying to excrete small shards of glass, my answer might have been more forthright. I might have replied that, at the age of 37, having ten years of marriage and having given birth to three children, my body between my navel and knees was not a shadowy unknown. I could have explained, bluntly, that the bleeding was not vaginal, and that in any case it was entirely the wrong point in my menstrual cycle. Being tired, and shivery and in pain, however, I did none of the above. I simply nodded, meekly, and waited for the precious prescription.

Afterwards, I felt rather angry. It’s not the only time it’s happened, either. Being quizzed if I could be pregnant, when an obvious ear infection was making me nauseous. Having to clarify during pregnancy that it was the piles that were bleeding, not anything more directly baby-related. And so on, and so on.

The thing is, that I know its not the health care professionals’ fault. On one level, of course they have to rule out pregnancy when diagnosing or prescribing a particular medication or course of treatment. On another, though I’d like to dismiss them as patronising, a survey earlier this month showed that a frightening 50% of women between the ages of 26 and 35 can’t identify the vagina when shown a diagram of the female reproductive system. Whether that translates to inability to distinguish their (Aunt) fanny from their elbow in real life, I don’t know: but in a world where music videos show enough of women’s bodies to allow us to have a guess at what they ate for breakfast, and where sexting and online porn form stand a good chance of featuring in a young person’s introduction to intimacy, I’d bloody well hope so. Whichever, no wonder doctors assume a lack of knowledge when addressing a patient’s symptoms which would seem laughable if it related to any other body part. (“And you are sure that it’s not your eyes where you have these tongue ulcers?”)

Thinking back to my own, pre-digital, coming of age, there was the initial “period” talk, of course. There were furtive glimpses at the instructions in my mum’s Tampax box. There was GCSE Biology, which I passed despite the fact that some of the text books still betrayed the jagged edges of missing pages from the school’s previous Convent Grammar incarnation. And there was good old (non-GCSE) fieldwork. I had a good relationship with my lovely mum, and I think I had a fairly good understanding of the basics – but I still bought endless furtive packets of Diflucan and Canesten from the chemist, mortified by the agonised certainty that I had untreatable thrush at the same time every month.

It took me, unbelievably, until after I had my first child to learn properly about how the various bits, which I had, at least, always been able to label on a diagram (that looked nothing like what was actually there) worked together. But, of course, that’s just part of the story.

It was only after stopping breastfeeding, without going back on the pill, after spending hours and hours on parenting forums, that I started to piece together my body’s own dance.  I was in my early thirties, but I had never fully realised before that my hormones weren’t some primordial chaotic soup rendering me emotional, unstable or irrational at random, but a functioning part of my physical self. I don’t love them any more than I do my digestive tract and I resent them, at times, just as much, but they are no longer mysterious.

As my own children grow up, I’m trying to make sure that they know the correct name and general purpose for all their various body parts. I’m realising too, though, that there’s much to be said for also teaching young people what I’ll call, for want of a better name, fertility awareness. Not so that they can use it as a form of contraception, but so that they – girls especially – properly respect and accept the mechanisms that control ovulation and menstruation and so that women grow up able to understand how their body functions. More, that they are able to identify (and feel comfortable communicating) when something isn’t as it perhaps should be. That could save more than blushes and unnecessary self-medication. It could save lives.