A light touch

When I was ten, my dad bought me a typewriter. It was a heavy, black thing, keys stiff with use, that ate up the ribbons that almost nowhere sold any more. From the 1960s, it had served out its time in a school, helping girls (because it was, in those days, always girls) learn vocational skills that would get them a job in an office when their formal education was over. By the late 1980s, it no longer prepared them adequately; they needed to become familiar with the grainy beige electronic word processors that had their brief moment before computers took over. So it was that the school, which took pupils from the special school where my dad was head, sold the old models off cheaply and I – who had been begging for a typewriter – became the proud, if slightly perplexed, owner of a little piece of history.

Along with the machine came a handbook full of exercises. I sat for hours, bashing away at the keys, copying out strings of numbers and sentences about quick brown foxes until I had taught myself to touch type. Long before my first computer lessons at secondary school (which, hilariously, happened for the first year without there actually being any computers in the IT room at all) I was competent on a keyboard – although it wasn’t until university that I actually needed to produce work that wasn’t handwritten. Like riding a bike, though, the skill hadn’t left me: it carried me through dozens of winging-it essays and straight into postgraduate temp work, where I could hold my own in typing speed with trained secretaries. Later, when I had a secretary of my own, I was no longer allowed to use my secret weapon, being told that it was a waste of my employer’s time to do for myself what they were paying someone else to do for me.

I still like typing; still enjoy the process of tapping words out onto a screen. The children think there is something of magic about it, being, as yet, more familiar with the idea of swiping a surface to make things happen. Last night, I found myself taking dictation from my nine year old, who, at the eleventh hour, has written an entry for the Radio 2 500 word story competition. There genuinely wasn’t time for him to do it but as I typed his words, I found it almost impossible not to correct them; not to add punctuation, right a spelling, amend a 21st century colloquialism in what was, frankly, a spot-it-a-mile-away Tolkien rip-off. I don’t think his story stands any chance of winning, and not just because of the glaring mistakes. But the temptation to improve his odds just a little, the parental itch to nudge it every so slightly in the right direction; they were hard to defeat.

It’s human nature, I think, to look at what we don’t have (or, as parents, what we can’t provide) rather than what we have (and what we can). I know, how could I not, that by being warm and fed and secure my children are immeasurably better off than far too many in this country, let alone around the world; yet I still fret about their education and worry if we’re doing our absolute best for them. I know that they are incredibly rich in love and stimulation, yet it rankles when I look up and see children with experiences we can’t afford to provide. I hate the jibe of “sharp-elbowed” when applied to parents, and not just because I feel the sting personally. When we manoeuvre, consciously or otherwise,  to improve our children’s chances, we’re doing it less out of ambition than fear; fear that they will somehow lose out if we don’t try to throw the game a little in their favour.

I only half-followed the wrangle last month between Chris Bryant and James Blunt over “privilege” in the arts world, and whether being from a particular background was a help or a hindrance in a career there. I probably ought to have read their actual letters, but having seen the fall-out on Twitter, with my timeline dividing into neat camps attacking and defending the principle of private education, I decided that I had enough low-level conflict between my children to keep me going that week and turned my attention elsewhere. I may, therefore, be utterly wrong in saying this, but it felt like a shame that the question of “privilege” in terms of a child’s chance of success boiled down simply to whether or not her parents paid for her schooling. We can’t talk enough about the ways in which one child accrues advantages, material or otherwise, which are unavailable to another.

Of course you get a head start if you have private music lessons and specialist maths tutoring, but there’s also an immeasurable boost in knowing that you’ll have breakfast each morning, and knowing that if you get miserably soaked on the way home from school, there’s a warm house and dry clothes waiting for you when you get in. How to quantify the advantages of expensive enrichment classes, let alone having someone who talks and listens and encourages. If it’s ludicrous to suggest that talent doesn’t exist across at all levels of society, it’s just as much so to try to deny that certain settings allow it to flourish far more than others.

If my son were to win, it wouldn’t entirely be unrelated to the fact that he found a copy of The Hobbit in his bookshelf when he was seven, or that he has a mum who could type. Even if she didn’t correct his spellings.

Getting there

It isn’t that I believe that chaos lurks around every corner, but if it did, it would definitely start with laundry.

Before I had children – only three children, who I’ll regularly put back into grubby-ish clothes to avoid adding to the washing pile – I couldn’t have believed how much time I would spend sorting and loading and emptying and hanging and ironing and putting away. I feel like a modern-day Sisyphus with a spin cycle; like Hercules, only with an airing cupboard rather than a stables to muck out daily.

Yet paying my nightly tribute to the god of laundry, putting away socks and pants in the hope of waking to a landing not filled with piles of clothes waiting for homes, I realised yesterday evening that some of the other household labours which used to seem endless have quietly resolved themselves.

It’s true, that if a toilet is going to be flushed round here, there’s still a good chance it will be me who does it. That the youngest one’s bedroom floor will remain, for the foreseeable future, a fragment of carpet land mined with lego. But my older two have started setting the table before meals and clearing the dishes away afterwards. They are beginning to remember to take their own toys and books back upstairs when they’re finished with them; to put their shoes in the cupboard and rinse the toothpaste tracks out of the sink and open their bedroom curtains without being asked.

When my eldest was a baby, and a committed sleep refusenik, people would ask how things were doing in the shut-eye department. “We’re getting there!” I’d say brightly, through gritted teeth, convincing myself that the new nap routine or the thicker blackout curtains or the singing heartbeat giraffe we’d just ordered would be the thing that would make a difference. When his sister was screaming pitifully at each nursery drop off, I knew that it would just be a phase. She’d get there (and reader, if you’re going through it now, she did). My youngest, whose body is in a small school uniform but whose heart and soul are busily engaged in saving the universe, has to be reminded minute by minute not to be rough, not to crash into things, not to wallop whoever’s unfortunate enough to be nearby while he’s mentally battling “baddies”? He’ll outgrow it, I know. Even this morning, re-enacting “Wrecking Ball” in the hall with himself as the thing in question and his siblings as…well, you get the picture; even after a miserable steely school run with moods and weather alike cold and grey; even when I really cannot wait for him to get past this stage…I know that it will just be replaced by something else.

The children break up today for half term, after six weeks of school runs and activities and general dashing around have brought us breathless from the New Year into mid February. It’s a welcome pause, for them at least, and one to which they’ve been counting down the days. Come a week on Monday, though, it will all start again as we helter-skelter towards Easter and on to the summer and beyond.

Parenting, I think, brings certain truths into sharp focus. Our time is broken down into innumerable small hurdles and triumphs, distinct portions to be marked off on the way…where? It feels as though there’s always something to solve; forever something to get past. As sleepless nights, pregnancy worries and tantrums recede into the past, they’re replaced by fretting over jobs (us), schools and friendships  (them) and life in general (all of us). We made it through the early days of parenthood, but we’re the challenges (and the joys) just change, they don’t disappear. Meanwhile, the shape of a different caring landscape altogether is beginning to resolve itself on our horizon.

It’s hard sometimes fully to take in that we’re not getting there at all.

We’re here.

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The issue with women’s issues

Poor old Labour are getting a lot of stick today for the launch of their pink bus to tour marginal constituencies ahead of the General Election, targeting female voters with a focus on the five areas the party has determined as being key to women: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and political representation

Quite apart from the discussions of the damn thing’s colour (am I alone in imagining some poor intern, listening to the earnest discussions about the hidden messages in magenta, desperate to venture an opinion on the toxic baggage of its undeniable pinkness?), it is wearying to see childcare and social care among the items highlighted as being of most concern to women. Not because I think that they aren’t, but because I can’t help feel that identifying them as such is in danger of perpetuating a dangerous myth.

I’ve written before about why the assumption that childcare is relevant to all woman is lazy and potentially offensive. Beyond that, though, each time childcare is called a woman’s issue, surely an employer, or a father, or anyone else who has an effect on or power over a mother’s life is reinforced – consciously or otherwise – in the belief that it’s the mother’s problem alone. The more we reiterate that it’s women who care (for children, and for other family members), the more we are saying that fundamentally only women care about caring. The messy, complicated, wonderful business of dependents becomes a niche issue, one which women somehow choose to adopt and therefore have to be primarily responsible for sorting out. It remains an optional add-on, not something which is integral to the daily lives of so very many working age people.

This isn’t a go at Labour. All political parties fall into the same trap. But look at that list of issues again. These may be things which matter to women, sometimes to the extent of life or death, but they all have one thing in common. They are problems caused to women by the action, or deliberate inaction, of others. These are issues which affect and arise from employers, fathers, sons; perpetrators of domestic violence; employers (again) and the whole structure of the society in which we live. Talking to women about the effects on them seems a backwards way of addressing the problems. Those who are suffering the most are not those who have the power to change the situation. Talk about these things, by all means, but talk to those who make the decisions that cause them in the first place.

Labour should be applauded for raising these issues and recognising the pivotal role that they play in disempowering women on a daily basis from realising their full potential. It is because they are so vital that they deserve a better platform than a bus – pink or otherwise – on the fringes.

Spot the difference

I spent last week with an uninvited and unwanted guest. I had a spot on my chin which grew to such a size that it seemed deserving of its own name (if not postcode). God saw fit not to push me over the edge with spots in adolescence, so I’ve never quite learned how to co-exist with skin eruptions, let alone apply make-up and such like with sufficient skill to make them slightly less visible.

So it was that everywhere I went for a few days, the Spot came too. When I entered a room, it went in first. When I was talking to people, I felt as if there was someone else joining the conversation. In fact, so conscious was I of it, that I fell into starting every interaction with the words “I have a spot on my chin”, as if the person I was speaking to might have been under the misapprehension that it was, perhaps, a reenactment of Krakatoa or a misplaced Comic Relief nose.

Each time I said it, I cringed at the words. Why did I feel the compulsion to draw attention to what was, after all, a fairly unmissable blemish. Did my subconscious think that people might have wondered if I was aware of it? Was I reassuring them that I did check my appearance in the mirror before leaving the house? Perhaps my teenage self wanted to get in first and take away any potential ammunition from somebody trying to get one over on me.

The truth is probably an unedifying combination of all three, along with a dose of that peculiarly British virtue of self-deprecation. If it weren’t a contradiction in terms, I would say that I excel at it. I am world class at putting myself down. Doing that Facebook thing that’s going round at the minute last night, where I had been tagged to list seven interesting things about myself, I found it easiest and most natural to recount mildly amusing tales in which I was the butt of the joke. Although I’d never say it out loud, there are dozens of things about myself I should be proud of, lots of achievements which aren’t widely known outside of my immediate family. Yet, like just about everyone else on my timeline who’s done it, I went for gentle self-mockery. Look, look, I have a spot on my chin!

I don’t know if I would really wish it otherwise. There’s a comfort in people bumbling along together, pretending to each other that the good things we have are somehow all the result of happy accident. I am certainly far too British to feel at ease with the prospect of social intercourse based on the trumpeting of personal triumphs. There’s a difference, though, between not actively boasting and going out of one’s way to preemptively kneecap one’s own character for fear someone else may try to.

Yesterday I spent the day with my sister and my little niece. She is at peak cuteness; that fleeting blend of baby and budding individual, finding her words and personality and place in the world. Whatever is said to her, she repeats back, testing out her language and the things it can bring her. If you say to her, “A, what are you?” she raises chocolate-button eyes to your face and replies with the immense dignity of two: “I bootipull”.

She is beautiful of course. I’d say that even if I weren’t her aunt. She’s clever and loving and determined too, and she has that precious sense of self of a child who knows she is cherished and adored. That she is “bootipull” is, to her, a given, despite the soup and felt-tip marks all over her little face, her bare bottom and the gloves transferred from feet to hands because “my cold”.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that we all try to emulate a two year old. There is little to be desired from grown ups declaring loudly that they are beautiful, let alone doing so while naked from the waist down. Seeing her yesterday, though, I realised how quickly even my own children are losing the ability to say or accept positive things about themselves. They beam when praised or complimented, but there’s a blush too, a slight duck of the head in discomfort. I’m already very conscious of not being overly self-critical in their hearing, but I know that there is more to do to raise them to be comfortable in accepting what is good about themselves rather than magnifying what is less so.

Little monkeys

One of my many failings as a parent is the way in which my children settle their disputes. I’d like to say that they sit down together and carefully consider the other’s point of view before reaching a mutually acceptable compromise, but no: it’s usually a matter of shouting and variously surreptitious wallops. I try to stay out of it, unless there’s imminent danger to life, limb or Lego constructions that I’ll end up repairing long after the argument is forgotten. Their play together is usually amicable, and if their altercations are sometimes less so, well, I tend to think that learning how to resolve a disagreement without the input of a grown-up is a fairly vital life skill (albeit one that plenty of grown-ups around me seem to lack). So it’s only when I really can’t avoid it (or when I’ve recently read an inspirationally pastel piece on parenting) that I let myself get drawn into the role of arbitrator. Usually, the “justice” (and I use the term loosely) that I dispense is swift and sharp. No, you can’t follow your sister round the house hitting her with a bow. Yes, it’s reasonable to close the bathroom door if you wish. Really, for the sanity of us all, imagine that you’re inside an invisible bubble when you’re sitting in the car so that you physically can’t amuse yourself by waving your hands in front of your neighbours’ faces. Some, though, leave me speechless. Dear reader, what would you do if you found your four year old and your seven year old rolling round the floor arguing about the lyrics of a Taylor Swift song? One of my other many failings as a parent is the way in which my children soak up pop culture like so many little sponges. It doesn’t matter what counterbalance I supply in terms of the beloved books or films from my childhood, or educational days out to castles and the like. What they really love, especially my seven year old daughter, is to watch shiny, pretty people in shiny, pretty clips on YouTube. (Shiny, pretty clips…and Minecraft.) Taylor Swift is a big favourite. I would say that they were word perfect – indeed, I would have said that they were, right up until I got caught up in deciding whether a line in the chorus of “22” was:

You kiss me like a baboon

or

You kick me like a baboon

Baboon Before you dash off to check like I did, confused at how I had, to date, managed to miss any simian references by Ms Swift, let me reassure you. The line in question is:

Everything will be alright, if you keep me next to you

No baboons. Sorry. Unfortunately for Taylor, (and even more unfortunately for me), even once corrected, the children decided they still preferred their versions. They’ll even still squabble about who’s right when they think I’m listening and in need of just a bit more inconsequential niggling to ruin complete my day. The imaginary baboons are going nowhere. The whole thing has made me think (as well as weep). I’m increasingly conscious of how quickly the little Pale we build around our children is breached; how soon they’re out there exposed to people and ideas we’d rather they weren’t – or at least, not yet. Beyond this, though, baboon-gate has made me realise that although I can try to frame my children’s experience of the world, I can’t live it for them. They will perceive their own reality in ways which seem, to me, incomprehensible; they will make mistakes that I can’t even begin to understand. The urge to protect them and to smooth their path by giving them what wisdom and clarity I have learned along the way is overwhelming, and of course I will try, but they aren’t newer versions of me; not my second (or third, or fourth) chance. They’re not going to pick up where I left off. Although I love seeing the people that my children are becoming – and although it’s a long time till they really do become independent – I have to start to learn to be there in the background when asked for advice, not necessarily being in front as a filter. Easier said than done.

(G)love

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We didn’t so much walk to school this morning as forge our way against the wind, our bodies alternately pressed flat then bowed out as our feet danced to catch up with the gusts.

I had lain awake most of the night, hearing the too-close tree creak and the rain dash against the window, and dreading the children’s outrage when I said we weren’t driving. They surprised me, though; chasing after laughs as they were whipped from their mouths, holding hands to anchor each other. Heads tucked into woolly hats, coats zipped up to chins and hands snug inside gloves. Or, in the case of the four year old, inside one glove and one mitten.

He doesn’t actually call it (or them, when they were two) a mitten. He says, instead, “vitten”, which each time I hear it sends the same, over-in-a-second flash of thoughts through my mind:

Don’t correct him, it is so cute, and he is my last baby and he’ll get it right soon enough.

Is he getting it somehow confused with “vitamin”, which to him means the fruity tablets I dole out periodically when I worry they’ve not eaten any enough fresh fruit and vegetables for a few days, and which are a treat akin to Haribo, and have I gone wrong somewhere there in making them seem a treat?

Does he have a problem with his hearing like his big sister?

Out loud, I just smile, and say “yes, your mitten” and get on with trying to leave the house.

The other mitten (vitten) went missing on Thursday. The glove, on Friday. I looked in the lost property cupboard at school, but to no avail, and I refuse to badger the staff, who have potentially fifty two small pieces of hand wear to manage per session. I suspect they fell out of a pocket, or were pulled off impatiently mid game so that little fingers could get on with playing.

Such a dilemma over something so small, though neither pair was expensive.

Do I buy the smart warm gloves that button into the coat and can’t fall out? I can’t really afford them, and the coat he has, handed down from his big brother, doesn’t have the right loops.

Do I sew them onto strings and knot them through the sleeves? I have bitter memories of small arms struggling against spaghetti tangles and wool snapped in temper.

Do I try to teach him the value of things, and demand that he take more care? He is only four, enjoying the last few months of largely unstructured outdoor play before he starts school proper. I don’t want to fetter the imagination that turns the playground into a spaceship and his friends into fellow super heroes. There’s time enough for him to learn the realities of what happens when playtime’s over.

Despite our persuasion, the fundamental wrongness of the mismatched pair could not be overcome and it didn’t make it to school. He insisted on removing both and stowing them in his bag, in the hope that their lost partners would miraculously reappear through the morning.

So he walked, with one small, warm hand wrapped in mine and the other clutched free, knuckles raw against the world.

If only

If only we didn’t have to think about what should happen to a convicted rapist once he leaves prison.

If only he had made any suggestion to his fans that they shouldnleave his victim alone.

If only he hadn’t decided he deserved to get straight back to where he was even before his sentence was finished.

If only the FA had made it clear that clubs should, at the very least, stand back and wait.

If only footballers, like the directors of their clubs, were subject to a test of whether they are fit and proper persons to receive the fame, wealth and privilege that those at the top do.

If only people in positions of authority had shown respect both for the victim and the law when pontificating about an offender’s future career prospects.

If only journalists and pundits hadn’t decided to frame the whole debate (because, whether we like it or not, debate there must be about what happens post-jail) in terms of whether this was “real” rape, or whether he’s actually been the victim throughout.

If only the voices of senior police and campaigners had been heeded.

If only none of this was about one individual.

If only we’d been having a different conversation altogether.

If only a prominent man, within football or otherwise, had said “Do you know what, I didn’t know that it was rape if a woman was too drunk to consent”.

If only all those people, including me, when it mattered, really took on board that rape doesn’t just mean the stranger in the alley.

If only that man, or men, had said plainly that  a woman doesn’t “ask for it” or give consent simply because she has gone out for the night and had a lot to drink.

If only enough people had said, out loud, “Yes, we have a culture of getting wasted and treating everything that happens when we are as if it somehow doesn’t count. The law’s still right, though.”

If only this sorry episode had changed, even slightly, the perception that a drunk woman is fair game, rather than hardening it.

If only.

Sleep

This morning was one of those occasions which in years gone by I could only have dreamed of (had I been asleep long enough to do so). I had to wake two out of my three children in order to get them ready for school on time.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound much to you, this concept of waking sleeping children. Perhaps it’s been your experience from day one; perhaps you had one of those cherub-like babies who found sleep a welcome friend, not a foe to be battled at all costs.

For something that we never had enough of in our house, Sleep was an omnipresent figure in our lives. We courted her, enticed her; carefully contrived dates between her and our children in the hope that they would discover a mutual pleasure in each others’ company. We would set the scene: soft lights, warm rooms, full tummies, predictable routines. We would watch for signs of interest: rubbed eyes, pulled ears, sometimes even the unguarded sign of defeat that was a yawn, and rush (without any appearance of haste) to engineer an encounter.

But despite all our attempts, Sleep was a fickle friend and a reluctant partner. She would dally a while, as eyelids drooped and breathing slowed, before suddenly remembering somewhere else that she had to be. Sometimes she would settle briefly, and we would slowly, slowly, slowly lower a slumbering babe into her cot, or creep away from the stilled pram. We grew expert at the infinitesimal stealing away of fingers and palms from below a soft, warm, be-nappied bottom, and more expert still in that sudden jerk, that tiny holding of breath that meant anew the heartbreak of desertion.

Lover-like, we hoarded the time Sleep spent with us, jealously totting up the hours that never felt enough. Where did she go, when she left us? Why wouldn’t she stay, when we had done all we could to make her welcome? What forced her to depart, long before dawn, while we knew that she lingered well into morning with our rivals?

These holidays, I’ve realised that the wooing was not in vain. Or rather, perhaps, that it is over. We take Sleep more or less for granted, now; we know that, illness aside, she will be there at the end of the day, and that she’ll tarry till – if not noon – at least till children’s TV has started for the day. We’re don’t matchmake between Sleep and our children any more. We kiss them goodnight and they meet her in their own time, not in our arms; they take their leave in the morning without needing the comfort of our presence to reconcile themselves to the breach. If there are spats or tiffs through the night, we’re no longer required to smooth things over, save for the occasional nightmare or the wide-eyed, bolt upright, fast asleep chatter of No2.

Things change so slowly, so imperceptibly, that the remembered 3am walks, the perching ready to chase after Sleep as she left, the falling into the pillowy, dreamless dark oblivion of the truly knackered feel like someone else’s story, not ours. I don’t miss the months and years of  broken nights and gritty-eyed days; I can scarcely believe that I lived through them at all. After these two weeks of lie-ins, though; after gently shaking awake those same children at the hour of 7.30 who in previous years I was coaxing off for their first nap at that time, I realise again how quickly that total dependence on us – in some ways – is fading away.

On “having it all”…and being shortchanged.

I saw a headline this morning on Twitter from The Telegraph’s Wonder Women (“News, Life, Work, Sex. Uncensored“) section. It caught my eye, as it was doubtless intended to do; covering a new report released today, it trumpeted:

You cannot ‘have it all’ – Government tells women

I’m primed to notice these things, you see. I am of the generation of mothers told at every turn that we’re doing it wrong: working, or staying at home; hovering over every activity or being lazily unconcerned; creating demanding small foodies or contributing to the obesity epidemic. We may well seem over-sensitive, reacting to every apparently small slight, but it’s because each one comes on top of a collection of others which have made us hyper-aware of what is said to – or about – us.

The article (which is here, should you wish to read it) is essentially a litany of women’s failings. We are damaging our daughters by foisting our unfulfilled ambitions on them. We stunt their career prospects by “unwittingly” transmitting our anxieties about our appearance and our weight.

I went on to read the actual report, Costing the Invisible, produced by the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, Bristol and commissioned and funded by the British Government Equalities Office. It draws on a collection of empirical studies to paint a picture of how women’s insecurities about their appearance curtail their academic and economic performance in life, and the cost both to the individual and society. It’s incredibly interesting, and very well worth a read.

It acknowledges the subtle interplay between internalised pressure to conform to an increasingly unrealistic ideal and the way in which women raise their own daughters in a world which gives out very mixed messages about what they can attain. It refers to the complex and conflicting expectations placed on women in the triple roles of work, relationship and motherhood. There is mention of the loathsome concept of  “having it all”, but as cultural rhetoric, not an individual’s own demands for self-realisation.

Of course women have a crucial role in helping to develop their daughters’ confidence and understanding of their place in the world, and it is natural therefore that the report deals with this. A quick search of the document, though, shows that three pages out of 21 refer to this aspect. The overwhelming majority of The Telegraph piece focuses on it.

I applaud The Telegraph for covering the report. I acknowledge what they said in a tweet to me, suggesting I had missed the point by criticising the tone of their article, that they were simply covering a report. I absolutely reject, however,  the suggestion that it was not an opinion piece. That a section of a serious newspaper dedicated to covering issues of concern to women chose to frame their article as criticism of mothers rather than a recognition of the importance of the crisis in body image detailed by the report is to be regretted.

The campaign “No more Page 3″ released a montage yesterday of 6 months’ worth of pictures of men and women cut from The Sun. The men, overwhelmingly, were of all ages and fully dressed, engaged in work or sport or some other activity. The women, overwhelmingly, were young and pneumatic, engaged primarily in posing for the camera.

Just as most women don’t recognise themselves in the context-free glamour of the page 3 model, so most feel affronted and alienated by lazy tropes which reduce us to a collection of stereotype and fault. The Telegraph knows this, of course, and the headline achieved its aim of attracting attention and debate. It’s done so, though, at the cost of playing into the well-worn lines of guilt and blame that women, all too wearily, know so well – and missing the opportunity to examine something much broader which genuinely does affect us all. I don’t think “news” affecting men is designed to work in this way. Why do we fall for it?

 

Busy Body

A few years ago there was a Christmas advert for Boots, which featured two women bumping into each other in the street, laden with bags and notes, sneezing into hankies as they exchanged tales of busy-ness and feckless menfolk home abed with man-flu. I think the message was supposed to be celebratory: wonderful mums, carrying on to make Christmas happen when all around them are slacking off. Thank God Boots is there, with its 3 for 2 selections of mugs and socks and dubious celebrity aftershave to help them out.

It stuck in my mind, though, as a perfect example of how many women do interact with each other. We have these daily fencing matches of words:

“How are you?”

“Oh, fine, you know, busy. You? ”

“Oh, manic, you know…”

It’s a contest, although I think often we don’t think of it as such. It’s a subtle, barbed duel of to-do lists and daily chores, competitive references to work and activities and commitments.

We all say we’re too busy, and often we are, but why are we so bloody proud of it? Has having too much to do, being in a constant state of stress and worry and overload come to represent our value to ourselves and others?

It might just be me, it might be a reaction to the “hard-working” rhetoric that abounds at the moment, but I feel an increasing pressure to justify what I do with my time now that I’m not in employment. I reel off voluntary commitments and help lent to friends, cringing as I do so, in a kind of validation of my life. I feel forever on the back foot in conversations with friends who have jobs, even those who have enormous amounts of family support around them. I simultaneously resent the implication that I have endless amounts of free time to do things, even while recognising that I do have more hours at my disposal at present than most.

There are endless articles about de-stressing, about simplifying one’s life. Practising mindfulness, not being subsumed into the overwhelm of our cluttered daily existences. Finding time for oneself, being able to focus on the essentials. Yet when these are possible; when, like now, I do have time to cook from scratch and walk the children to school and spend time during the day writing for no other purpose than my own pleasure, it feels somehow like a cop-out, not a worthwhile end achieved. If I’m not demonstrably busy, then I’m somehow less.

Does it matter? Even I can find few tears for the existential crises of a pampered, privileged woman who has had the luck to choose how to spend this portion of her life. At a broader level, though, I think it does: if we equate a person’s activity with their value, we risk losing sight of all the different contributions that make up our society, all the different ways in which a person can be of worth. That so many people have no choice but to live at a frenetic pace shouldn’t be a badge of honour.