Pop socks and pep talks

My number one favourite quote in the whole English language is “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”. Not really because of what it means, but more for its simple elegance in encapsulating whole pages of self-help books, whole philosophies of mindfulness, into eight little words.

Of course its meaning is beautiful too, but I’ll be damned if I can apply it to my own life.

My own motto would be much more along the lines of “Never knowingly underthought”, with its hints at those stolid British  preoccupations of preparedness, thrift and constant, if quiet, vigilance. I approach any major life decision (by which I mean anything from choosing a new purse upwards) with the mental attitude of a SWAT team: swarming over all potential outcomes, both good and bad, and scoping out the most improbable of pitfalls to provide covering fire in the event of attack.

If this sounds like I’m boasting, I’m not. The problem with tackling things in this way is that too often, after realising a 3-D landscape fraught with threat and peopled with vivid enemy combatants, the safest way to proceed feels like to stand still and avoid taking a step in any direction. And that’s no plan for a rewarding or fulfilling life.

Occasionally, I do take a step anyway, even though it feels like the ground beneath my feet will explode as I tread down on it. Times like now, when – in what feels like a heartbeat – I am going from being a full-time stay at home mother to being a full-time worker again. With under two weeks to go, the butterflies have taken up permanent residence. I don’t know whether they signify terror or excitement, whether I am grieving for what I am about to lose or anticipating what I could gain, whether I am more afraid of what could go wrong or proud of taking the chance anyway.

From both family and professional perspectives, the risks seem manifold. The old imposter syndrome is back, on steroids. What if I can’t do it anymore? What if I never could? What if it was all a fluke and this time I will finally be caught out, with the direst of consequences? Then there are my children. They will be ok in childcare, but they will be tired. They will have to keep their public faces on for three more hours each day, rather than coming out as they so often do at the end of school and hugging me tight in what feels suspiciously like a recharging of their batteries. There will be personality clashes and missed playdates and a sudden scarcity of that precious time to just loaf and invent their own pastimes which has felt like the greatest gift I could have given them.

There is the crux. I have given them this time, and now it feels as though I am taking it away from them. All the research in the world and all the common sense observations of those around me notwithstanding, this is, in the immediate short-term, a selfish decision. I could have done something else that would have impacted their lives much less dramatically, but when it came down to it, I didn’t want to. For all the advantages that I know the example (and the money) will give them, it feels a bit…mean.

I don’t think that this will be a long term scenario, but I do need to talk myself out of the assumption that it will be a blip. These past six years, with what has been, to me, the most amazing gift of being able to prioritise home over anything else, are done. The next two weeks will be a blur of preparation as I try to pull together my wardrobe and myself so that I start this new phase in something other than jeans and hiking boots and without the mental drag of second-guessing what I’m doing and feeling that I am somehow out of place.

Nevermore

The four year old couldn’t get to sleep tonight, torn between overtiredness and a sense of grievance that the other two were out having a treat which his age precluded him from joining. I ended up staying with him as he drifted off, one hand held tight in his, the other stroking the hair he is so desperate to grow long enough to be styled into a parting and slicked down with gel.

I don’t do this anymore. I don’t watch my children as they tip from waking to sleeping, hear their breathing still and settle and their faces lose the animation of the day. Most of the time they don’t need me there, and I’m usually busy anyway. It’s only on the rare occasion of illness or upset that my presence is called for, mutely, with a pull on my hand or an arm snaked round my neck that lets me know they want me to stay.

In town earlier this week, I saw an acquaintance I knew when we had our first babies at the same time. We drifted apart after our respective third children were born, and she has gone on to have a fourth and what her profile revealed to be a fairly imminent fifth. I had thought my days of broodiness were done, but the sight of her with small children still around her and another yet to come jolted me. Perhaps it was the imminent, though different, change in my own life, that of returning to full time work for the first time in a decade. Perhaps it was the knowledge that in a couple of weeks my age will start with a four. Whatever the cause, I was, briefly but unmistakably, jealous.

Realistically, I know I don’t want to have any more children, and that having three has pushed me to my limits. I don’t think I was jealous of her so much as I was jealous, ridiculously, of my old self; that woman with the bump ten years ago who had no idea what was all to come.

These have been the most prosaic of years to the outsider. Three children and the inestimable blessing of being utterly run of the mill. Nappy changes and weaning and nursery woes. Lost teeth and bumped knees and tummy bugs. School runs and soft plays and friendship spats. If you could pick “Early Family Life” off a shelf in Tesco, this is what it would look like.

And yet.

They haven’t been prosaic to me.

Making a family may be the most commonplace thing in the world, but making your own family? That is a thing of wonder and terror. Loving your children is so expected a thing that it is taken almost entirely for granted, but to love your children? No one and nothing can prepare you for the joy and the guilt and the fear.

There is no time at which you can stop, and hold your family as a work in progress to take stock of what you have accomplished. For your materials are living threads which weave themselves into a pattern which can only ever be fully seen once finished.  It is hard to comprehend that part of this family story in which I wrap myself is complete. I won’t hold a baby of my own again, I won’t spend days wrangling toddlers and nights rising endlessly from bed. Soon, I will wipe a small bottom for the last time.

I don’t want to do it all again. I think I just wish that I hadn’t done it all already.

Advice before going on maternity leave (or a career break)

The date gets agreed and marked on the calendar as if in stone.

The days start to blur into handovers and debriefs, trying desperately to keep your focus both on your work and the impending life change of a new baby or a period out of work altogether.

Your career future, in so far as you can see it at all, looks pretty much like a medieval map of the world:a sharp drop off into an invisible unknown. That doesn’t bother you much though; you have more important things to deal with long before you reach the edge.

And then, quicker than you would have believed possible, you’re either:-

  • coming back from maternity leave
  • trying to find another job at the end of maternity leave
  • applying for jobs after a long career break

You will drag out your last CV and you will wish, as I did on all of the above occasions, that before you took the photos off your desk and re-routed your emails, you had done one or more of the following:-

  1. Made a note of what you actually DID on an average day
  2. Listed your main achievements
  3. Summarised the main people you dealt with
  4. Secretly noted the things you didn’t like about your job (and the things you wish it included)

Some of it would be accomplished by refreshing your CV before you leave, of course. If you’re the organised kind of person who keeps their LInkedIn profile up to date, you’ll be in a similar position. Speaking for myself, though, they were the last things I was thinking of doing before I left work.

The trouble is that now, applying and interviewing, I really can’t remember what it was that I actually did during my 9-5 (or 9-7, or 9-midnight). The things that were so mundane, so completely routine, that I would never have believed that they would vanish from my mind, have…vanished from my mind. I can ply prospective employers with dates and names and grades, but I feel completely thrown when asked to evidence a certain kind of behaviour or a particular type of achievement in a competency-based interview. I know that I could have done it, had I interviewed while working, I know that the ability is there, but now? Proving it is hard.

So that’s it. Before you close the laptop for the last time, before you become utterly distracted with domesticity, preserve the work “you” somewhere you’ll be able to find it again when you need it. Who knows? Trotting out the fact you did that in an interview might even help you answer a particularly difficult question.

The (Other) Mothers

Until very recently, if you’d asked me to tell you three facts about myself, I might have answered the following: I have bright red hair. I am incurably clumsy. I used to have a career.

To my immense surprise, if you asked me the same question today, the answers would be different. I still have hair next to which carrots look insipid. I still trip over invisible obstacles. But, somehow, the career has moved from being a thing very firmly in my past to being, quite possibly, a thing in my future too.

Being at home with my children for the past few years has been my choice, albeit one forced slightly by circumstances. It has been that most grown-up of things; a compromise, neither principled nor perfect, but good enough. Now that there is a chance of going back into work that I loved, though, I’ve been slightly taken aback by the sense of freedom I feel at the prospect of being something other than a mother and housewife again.

My feelings about returning to work are one thing. The varying reactions of other mothers in my circle, both online and in real life, however, have really struck me as worthy of writing about.

This is a post which has lurked behind everything I’ve ever written on working and childcare. The fact that I am now on the brink of working five days a week again, instead of being the loathed figure of the smug middle class stay at home mum, means that I feel free to write what I have always thought about the debates we have about working motherhood without being considered to have an agenda of defending or justifying my own situation.

Voices like mine, stories like mine, families like mine, with education and privilege and some degree of autonomy over our choices; voices that dominate the whole public topic of combining employment and parenthood, are precisely the voices that we don’t need to be hearing. With the best motivations in the world, with all our legitimate angst over the effects of our life decisions on our children, we skew the issues and contribute to narrowing the options for others who don’t have our advantages. It isn’t that our voices aren’t invalid or don’t matter; more that they set a narrative which just doesn’t match the reality which many women live.

I mentioned above the reactions of others to my proposed change of direction. Lots of people have been supportive, lots have said how much I will enjoy work again, notwithstanding the logistical challenges and the tug of changing my children’s lives so dramatically. But lots, too, have told me quite plainly that they think I am mad; those, by and large, who work because they have no choice but to do so, in jobs and at hours that they wouldn’t choose, with no discernible reward in achievement or pay, and with a complicated and costly structure of childcare keeping the whole thing together. These are women who feel like they are letting their children down by working too, just as I think most of us do (logically or otherwise) at some point, but who will never have the chance to opt-out or downshift or start their own business to work flexibly around the school day.

I chose to leave work, because I felt pulled in two and because our only viable option for childcare was naff at best. But I was able to make that choice because I had a husband with a decent income, and an education behind me which I knew would allow me to re-enter the world of work when I wanted to, even if in a different sphere to that I left. I choose, now, to return, with the benefits of being able to negotiate a degree of flexibility, with a salary which will smooth the way and with access to decent wraparound childcare which might not be exactly where my children would choose to be day in, day out, but which is more than fine. It’s not representative of most people’s circumstances, and it shouldn’t be used was a means to illustrate that working motherhood is attainable for all on the same terms.

Every time a politician or a journalist (or, let’s be honest, a blogger like me) writes about the importance and benefits of working to them personally and to their family, it reinforces the presumption that working per se is always without negative effects in all circumstances, and I just don’t believe that to be the case. Women across society may well have legitimate reason or need to prioritise being available to their children over paid work from time to time without it being deemed an excuse to skive.

I don’t believe that a its parents working harms a child, nor that a mother’s place is at home. I do, however, believe that very many women quite reasonably want to be able to be at home, particularly when their children are very small. I do believe that forcing women to take up low-paid work supported by poor-quality childcare is not in their best interests, or, more importantly, those of their children, and I believe also that there we don’t hear enough in support of these women or enough recognition that this is not what they would choose.

In an era of low wages and job insecurity, it is simply not fair to insist that parenting is an indulgence only available to those who have saved up enough beforehand. Many, many people will never be in a position to do that. Do we really want babies to be an luxury for the rich alone?

I’m not proposing a solution here, Nor am I criticising women who take any of the routes outlined above – increasing flexibility in the workplace can only ever be a good thing – or write about their own experiences. It is disingenuous, however, to translate this into meaning that all mothers can and should work in all circumstances without reference to the fact that they are mothers. I wish, without it being in my power to make it so, that we could hear from and accept the words of mothers from all parts of society, not just a small, comparatively fortunate one.

An overhaul of the social security system to allow ALL women to decide how to spend their children’s early years is never going to happen. We’re going in the opposite direction. Some honesty, though, that many, many mothers have no choice at all would, at least, acknowledge their situation rather than sugar coat it with the language of us who do – limited as it may be.

Not Being the Missing Type

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.39.36

On Friday, I had a brief chat with the wonderful Leigh Kendall (@leighakendall) on Twitter after she posted a link to her blog on blood donation with the statistic that new blood donors have decreased by 40% in recent years.

The internet is full of information on how important it is to give blood. I don’t propose to duplicate all of that here, because I am no expert and there are plenty of people who are.

Instead, I want to just tell you how easy it is.

I know that there are people who can’t give blood for medical reasons. I know that there are others who are genuinely terrified of the prospect. But if you’re neither of those, if you’ve always meant to do it but felt a bit uncomfortable, if you would like to but don’t know quite what’s involved, then I’m your woman.

First, go and visit http://www.blood.co.uk (https://www.scotblood.co.uk if you’re in Scotland). Put in your postcode and choose whichever of the forthcoming sessions near you suit you best. They are even ranked in terms of distance, with little maps. Simples.

Do you work miles from home and aren’t around during the day or can’t always guarantee you’ll be back in time for an early evening slot? Use your work postcode and nip out in your lunch break, or, if you work in a large organisation, suggest that they come to you. When I was a solicitor in a big law firm, the bus used to park outside the office for a day and anyone who wanted to could take a short break from the office to go and do their bit (insert jokes here about blood-sucking lawyers in reverse).

Once you’ve made an appointment, you’ll get a letter in the post reminding you, together with a very straightforward form to complete and take along with you. You’ll also, a few days before your appointment, get a phone call from a lovely person in Northern Ireland just checking that you haven’t forgotten can still make it.

When you turn up on the day, you’ll be asked to drink a pint of water to make sure you’re hydrated (this makes it quicker and easier to give blood). You will be asked to read a card to check you haven’t done anything in the past or since your last donation which could mean you aren’t suitable to donate. You’ll be called – pretty quickly – to chat through this in a little screened cubicle and have your finger pricked to see if your blood sinks in a test-tube (thereby demonstrating, apparently, that you are not anaemic. If you are – and I often am – you’ll have another sample taken and checked in a different machine, and if you still don’t pass muster, you leave without donating and with a faint sense of failure. Just me?)

All being well, you return to the waiting area until – again quickly – you are called up to a seat. You can choose to use your left or right arm, if you have a preference. The chair swings back so that you are comfortably reclined with a view of the ceiling, your inner arm is swabbed and a needle quickly inserted (you can ask for an anaesthetic wipe beforehand). Your arm rests on a cradle next to you. And that’s it.

It stings a bit. I find that it feels a bit unpleasant (but I’m a bit squeamish). You might have a bit of bruising afterwards. It really, honestly doesn’t hurt. You don’t see the bag filling up (it’s under the chair) and if you don’t like watching the needle in your arm (I don’t) you can look the other way. You just lie there for ten minutes or so, gently squeezing your hand and wiggling your feet to keep the circulation flowing, and when the bag is full, a little alarm goes off and the nurse comes over to unplug you. You hold a little cotton wad against the needle site for a few minutes and are put upright until everyone’s sure you’re not dizzy. If you are, you get a bit longer on the marvellously comfortable seat. You then go and sit down and have a drink and some biscuits and the chance to make your next appointment right away. The whole thing should take no more than an hour.

You can’t give blood if you are pregnant or for six months thereafter. You can, however, give blood with a baby in tow. I’ve taken my youngest with me from being a few months old and had no problems whatsoever in leaving him in the pushchair next to my side. Now that he’s older and can be trusted not to run around, the staff put a chair next to me for him. My older children sit in the waiting section, which I have always found to be in the same room (you may want to check). They all love coming, because people make a bit of a fuss of them and they are treated to biscuits at the end!

So that’s it. In my experience, over the past almost two decades and in lots of different circumstances, I have found giving blood to be straightforward, efficient and pretty manageable.

It really matters. The #missingtype campaign is aimed at highlighting why we need blood. Hopefully, this post might convince you that you can help fill the gaps.

graphic taken from www.blood.co.uk

Child Benefit

For the purposes of my own amusement, I’m imagining that I have the chance actually to pose these questions to anyone who could or would answer them. I wrote extensively about the changes to Child Benefit which were introduced in 2013, unashamedly from a personal perspective.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep away from it, not least for fear of being accused of a narrow-minded jealousy rather than a genuine desire to understand what was happening to a fundamental part of our welfare system which has been central to the notion of social security from its inception. Increasingly, I no longer care how my motives are construed.

Today, No10 has confirmed that there will be no cut to Child Benefit, although there is still talk of restricting it to the first two children in each family. I welcome announcements that it is to be protected, but I would also like to ask: what is it paid for? I can’t find up-to-date figures for the overall cost of Child Benefit, but it appears to be around £12 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. Surely we deserve answers as to the grounds on which it is spent now that it is no longer universal?

It is impossible to argue that it is paid on the grounds of need. Presently, a family with an annual income of up to £120,000 could claim some amount of Child Benefit, provided that their earnings were split between them. A family with a single earner who made half that loses it all. Neither family could be claimed to be in any way to require financial support, given the extent to which both figures outstrip average incomes, but it seems peculiar that money is freely given out to groups who are by any measure considerably better off than those who don’t qualify. When it was a universal benefit, there was a principle behind paying Child Benefit with which many could disagree, but at least it was a use of public funds which could be justified by pointing to the reasons behind that principle. Now, it is little more than an expensive, arbitrary sop.

Is it, no matter how clumsily, a means of encouraging all parents into employment? Contrary to many reports, the changed regime doesn’t just penalise single income families (whether they have one or two parents). It also hits hard at those where one earner is above the threshold and the other earns a much smaller amount. A woman working at or near minimum wage level is considerably worse off in terms of childcare costs and take home wages than a colleague earning the same amount whose partner earned just enough to still entitle the family to retain Child Benefit. If anything, cutting Child Benefit from higher-earning employees makes it more difficult and less attractive for their partners to work in part-time, low-wage roles which are those which may be most family-friendly – particularly if the high earning partner has work commitments which make them less able to help out. Again, not the most pressing of social problems, but one which deserves an answer alongside the other, more serious, systematic injustices which squeeze parents between sanctions, benefits and work.

The cuts in 2013 were reported to have saved over £1 billion. Good, if that money is going to support children and families in need. It is hard to justify any money going “for nothing” to the well-off (see also childcare support for families earning up to £300,000) when people are reliant on food banks – although I don’t accept that one causes the other. But why are no journalists challenging politicians on the hard questions behind the current status quo?

It is hard to understand why hard-working taxpayers (to use the loathed and much misused phrase) are subsiding a system of benefits paid apparently on little more than a whim; more, are seeing benefits for which they are ineligible paid to those who are better off. It is hard to understand why, in this climate of “difficult decisions” and “hard choices” cuts are made to the incomes of those demonstrably in need while payments to those who are anything but are maintained.

Are journalists and media commentators afraid of being accused of sour grapes over their own lost Child Benefit, a cut which so many were so keen to welcome loudly in print presumably for fear of the same pointed fingers? They should find their courage. I understand the scant tears at the original cuts, but this isn’t about whining to get something back, it is about holding a government to account for awarding public money in a manner which, if applied to almost any other circumstances, would sound laughably absurd. Silence in the face of an ongoing random payment of benefits is dangerously close to complicity in its eventual dismantling.

Elsa’s Knickers

The group was jammed onto a small island of pavement between cafe and street so that we pedestrians had to inch ourselves past them in single file. We’d heard them before we saw them, their deep-pitched yells and whoops rising above the city hubbub. As we got closer, the cause of the commotion revealed itself: a six-foot, stubble-chinned man, lipsticked and bewigged, his straining aquamarine dress hoiked up by his friends to reveal finely-turned legs ending in a pair of lacy lady’s thongs. My daughter’s hand squeezed convulsively around mine, her face raised in mute query as to whether she should laugh, cry or run like hell. As we regrouped, she seemed to have settled on a slightly perplexed version of the former.

“Mummy? Was that….ELSA?”

Whether I like it or not, my children are undeniably sheltered by geography. We live in a suburban sort of humdrum where “daring” is the lollipop man changing into his orange summer gear while there’s still a threat of snow (a period which extends well into June, apparently). There are trips further afield, certainly, but Amsterdam on a Saturday afternoon in May was always going to beat anything they had seen to date.

As it was, Elsa was the only one who caught their attention in Amsterdam itself. They had watched the good-natured, if noisy, stag and “chicken” parties on the ferry with round-eyed amusement, but once we’d got the bus into the city centre, we mooched happily round streets, parks and canals away from the busiest bits; ice cream and pancakes and sausages from a little family delicatessen the most exciting and memorable parts of their day. We held hands in endlessly shifting formations, going where the fancy took us, unhampered by the need to navigate with a pushchair or keep away from all conceivable hazards

It was fun.

I keep wondering if I miss the days of babyhood, wondering if I envy the mothers I see still with babies in their arms, or toddlers demanding immediate attention. We are definitely in the stage of having three children, now: nap times and nappies lie behind us, along with the ever-present awareness of having such very new lives in our charge.

I keep wondering, too, if my standards are slipping, or if they were too high in the first place. I don’t bite back the swear words as much as I ought to anymore and I have made a restless sort of peace with the fact that my children will watch films and TV programmes, listen to music, play games and hear stories that I would rather they didn’t, or at least, not yet.

When they were all very little, we were lucky enough to be able to wrap a bubble around them. They lived in a safe little world of CBeebies and nursery rhymes, friends known from birth, foods and influences and environment alike chosen or rejected on the grounds of wholesomeness, safety and whether or not they were age-appropriate. It’s easy to mock at myself now for doing it, but I’m glad that we did it, glad that they had a little while (much longer, in the case of my eldest, than that of his little brother!) of being utterly sheltered. I know that they are sheltered still, in ways I wish more children could share.

The truth is that although I miss those days a little, I’m glad they’re over. I like being out of the bubble. I like catching my son’s eye and laughing at something verging on the adult. I like going out into the world with my children without constantly screening it for suitability. They may be my children, but they are their own people with their own lives ahead of them too, and they have to find a way to absorb and address the realities of life, not the radio-edit I might prefer for them.

Even if it involves seeing Elsa’s knickers.

On wife-bonuses, Lucy Jordan and being trusted to read the map.

By some cruel quirk of fate, I was a lanky redhead teenage girl in the early Nineties, when every other film seemed to feature a lanky, redhead leading lady. There is nothing quite like ticking off the constituent parts of beauty on your fingers to make you realise, sadly, that it’s a sum that will never come right without the addition or subtraction of something far harder to quantity than leg length or hair shade. On paper, there was nothing to stop me being Julia Roberts…but, try as I might to live in books, the world isn’t made of paper.

It wasn’t just Julia Roberts, of course (and oh, though I now see so many things in it to make me cringe, what sixteen year old girl didn’t dream of being her in Pretty Woman?) There was Nicole Kidman too, though she betrayed me twice over by going blonde and by marrying Tom Cruise. And there was Geena Davis, most especially in Thelma and Louise, which I watched over and over again, wallowing in not even trying to check my sobs at the end. I only watched it again recently, more genuinely upset at the tales of the two women’s lives than I understood enough to have been back then.

I’m still no Geena Davis, and I am quietly, bustlingly happy in a way that precludes a one-way road trip of any kind. I still find myself preoccupied, though, with that sense of the small incremental choices and curtailments, conscious or otherwise, that drive a life along a particular route; prey to the dawning realisation that some destinations are closed to me now as the likelihood of driving through Paris in a sports-car with the wind in my hair (although, provided someone else was at the wheel, I’d still welcome the chance).

This summer sees a milestone birthday (to hell with the coyness, I turn forty). I love the gifts that the years have brought me: an awareness of self, a valuing of others, a peaceful resignation to the state of not being Julia Roberts. It’s not the birthday itself that I mind, so much as the timid sort of existential crisis that comes with hitting forty as a housewife and a mother and little else. Demonstrable achievements feel as distant as dreams, now;  being Someone outside of the house an alien, exotic concept.

I need to plot my course for the next phase of my life, and I’m struggling to find my starting position, let alone identify a destination. Of course, there have been many forks in the road before now. Every choice closed off other options (and oh, how lucky I have been to have the choices that I have had). Maybe it is just the fortyness of forty, but the decisions ahead of me now feel definitive in a way that others haven’t. I’m entering the next decade of my life just as my youngest starts the adventure of school, and I’m needed, as much as ever, but in a distorted kind of way that squeezes me around the shapes of my children’s lives and leaves me unsure where they end and I start. Questions about work and career, about what I want and what they need, leave me wondering how to draw the boundaries without handing over too much of my own territory or encroaching too much upon theirs. There’s no sat-nav for this journey; no right or wrong turns, just a weighing up of what matters most, now and in the future, and accepting that something has to give.

There was much coverage earlier in the week of a strange phenomenon among uber-wealthy wives on Wall Street. Trading in their educations and careers for a gilded kept existence of social climbing and gym fanaticism, some have turned to negotiating with their breadwinning husbands (though “bread” seems an inadequate word for the dizzying sums we’re talking about here) to set measurable targets which bring the promise of a bonus payment beyond that of mere lifestyle accoutrements. I bang on often enough about women’s work – wife work – being undervalued, but even I don’t think that this is the right way to redress the balance (although nor do I think that navigating the social x-ray infested waters of Manhattan society sounds like a picnic).

What I disliked most, however, was the tone of the coverage. According to one headline, these women “think they deserve” the bonuses; others quickly spun a quirk among a freakishly wealthy microcosm of an alien society into a more general attack on what one called the “defensive manoeuvre” of the argument that being a stay-at-home-parent is a real job. Here’s the thing. I worked after I had babies. I am trying, actively, to get back into work, after a few years of half chosen/half imposed career break. I haven’t spent my time at home in a ceaseless loop of nurturing, I haven’t spun and spoon fed my way through a form of motherhood superior to that practised by my working sisters. But I refuse to accept that my time at home has been neutral at best. I agree that by contributing to the family income I will be helping my husband and setting my children a good example; that by using my skills and education I will be more fulfilled as an individual and quite possibly happier and less frustrated. At the same time, however, I can see that my presence here has allowed my children the advantages of activities they love, and lazy imagination-filled holiday mornings in pyjamas. It’s given them ambling walks to and from school, a swift collection when they are poorly, the security of a certain routine every day at 3.20pm. These things aren’t everything, I agree. But hopefully the fact that I am preparing to give them all up means that I am allowed to say that nor are they nothing. Why do we fall so easily into this trope that women who stay at home make their choice out of laziness, fecklessness or cupidity?

Gone, in the main, are the suggestions and downright insistence that a child being cared for by someone other than its mother is detrimental; gone too, thankfully, are mainstream pieces arguing that a woman’s place is at home. In their place, however, is a new accepted reality: that a mother who isn’t in employment is in some kind of vacuum, neither contributing nor occupying anything of value.

Fashions come, and fashions go. There are lanky redhead leading ladies still, but (I am reliably informed) the look to aim for now, equally unrealistic for most, is that of the opulent lips and derrieres of a new generation. It’s the same with motherhood, isn’t it? We start with where we are and what we have, and we rock it the best we can.

Sum totals

I blame the heroines of my childhood reading for my woeful lack of a scientific education. I passed GCSE Biology and Physics respectably (if, quirkily, without the binding element of Chemistry that might have allowed me to take either further), but it was at arms’-length, my nose metaphorically turned up at something I had no desire to find relevant to me. If Jo March, Darrell Rivers, Anne Shirley and Jo Bettany struggled with all things technical and flourished instead in the world of words, then who was I to try anything different?

So it is that at almost forty, I hide my discomfort around making an evidence-based decision. I seize upon the key figures in a report or piece of research, and try, in vain, to focus my attention on the footnotes sufficiently to draw my own conclusions. I am not in my natural element around statistics, much to my shame and regret.

It’s led me, in general, to avoid reading media stories which are based on studies whose worth I feel incapable of estimating. It’s a difficult manoeuvre when I consume newspapers and online articles with my compass finely tuned for stories on parenting and motherhood in particular. It’s hard not to see the plethora of headlines which allege harm to children or promise benefits proven from some act or omission of their mothers. From the time we conceive, through our behaviour in pregnancy, straight into the mined waters we navigate once our children are born, our every available “choice” is subject to scrutiny and academic study.

It isn’t that I think that dissecting the effects of various influences on a child’s progress is not a matter worthy of balanced consideration or the weighing of available evidence. Of course it is useful to know which chemicals are carcinogenic; that communication with babies and small toddlers is vital for their cognitive and emotional development; that certain amounts of sleep or particular foods in given quantities are indispensable. It is just that it seems sometimes that the whole process tends towards (and please forgive the probably incorrect use of a mathematically-flavoured term) a zero sum game.

I read a piece earlier called “Mounting Evidence of Advantages for Children of Working Mothers“. It was interesting, reporting on a finding that of 50,000 adults across 25 countries, daughters of “working mothers” were likely to go on to to earn more, and sons of the same contribute to a greater degree to household chores than the children of women who worked exclusively within the home. It was interesting, but to a large degree, it was useless. The article itself admitted that “working mothers” is a meaningless term. If a woman reading the piece was to be, as it suggested, reassured that pursuing her career would not harm her children, she would in no way be able to take from the study whether there was any sliding scale of risk or benefit depending on the hours, environment or context of her working life.

The same criticism applies, very often, to studies which talk about the effects of breast or bottle feeding a baby, the impact on a child of being raised in any family setting other than that of two heterosexual parents, or… (and the list is extensive). From a scientific standpoint, doubtless it’s fascinating to tweak out the variables in the infinitely messy world of human life. From any other standpoint, however, particularly that of someone anxiously trying to ascertain if the decisions which she often feels she had no alternative but to make are causing damage to the children she loves, it is neutral at best.

I can’t really comment on or criticise the motivation to study parental impact. I can, however, rage against the way in which the results of such studies are reported. I didn’t (and don’t) parent on the basis that each choice I make needs to have demonstrable, material advantages for my children. When a study shows that breastfeeding may not offer any substantive protection against ear or chest ailments, I don’t start hunting for the receipt so that I can claim a refund for my breastfed children with, respectively, three sets of grommets and incipient asthma. If by staying at home with them while they were small I fail to see them pull ahead in terms of well-paid jobs and snug careers, I have no intention of claiming that I was defrauded into sacrificing years of my own life. My motivations, along with those of everyone else, are complex, contradictory and, quite possibly, indecipherable. I may indulge in some (scientifically illiterate) research, but I don’t approach the raising of my children in the same way that I approach the purchase of a car. I don’t think many of us do.

Media coverage suggests that mothers quite consciously plot their courses in order to secure some kind of cosmic leg-up for their children. The problem for us as individuals though is that the best researched study can’t advise us on our own circumstances. We don’t care if doing “x” causes “y”, we just want to do best by our own children in the situations in which we and they live. Moreover, we don’t need someone commenting on our choices on the basis of some loosely-reported study, or worse, constricting the ways in which we parent by citing – explicitly or otherwise – the reasons why we are unjustified in feeling or acting as we do.

Children aren’t raised in a vacuum; parents don’t start their task from an entirely blank slate. Little wonder that we all feel prey to such guilt when we are bombarded by mutually irreconcilable recommendations about the “best” way to go about it. Who benefits from such relentless reporting? I don’t think that mothers do, and I’m fairly sure their children don’t either.

The long and the short of it

I have two sons and a daughter.

I like recycling clothes. My younger son has, each season, a selection of whatever his big brother didn’t destroy at his age. My daughter inherits some of them too – fleeces, wellies, waterproofs – but from an early age has had a strong interest in clothes and a very marked preference for what she likes.

She likes pink. She likes sparkle and glitter and is counting down the days till I will let her have her ears pierced.

There are a lot of days to go.

Pink and sparkles aren’t my thing, but I don’t mind that she likes “girly” clothes. We try to compromise, with me curbing her inner Bet Lynch as far as is humanly possible.

Yesterday, after rummaging through the bin bags of hand-me-downs, I went online to fill the gaps in the wardrobes of all three. My daughter, who is lucky enough to be passed on some lovely dresses and tops from a friend, was particularly short of….shorts.

Tesco, to its credit, let me browse for “children’s shorts” without forcing me into choosing whether I wanted boys’ or girls’. So far so good. But these were the results.

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 09.21.05

Sainsburys offered me these

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 09.28.23 Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 09.28.36

Asda (which also has the option of a unisex search):

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 09.30.22 Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 09.30.43

You might notice the main difference between those for boys and those for girls, and it isn’t the colour. It’s that the girls’ ones are cut – not to put too fine a point on it – on roughly the same lines as a pair of pants.

Let me introduce you to my daughter. As a wannabe gymnast, she spends half of her time like this.

P1020032

When she’s not walking around her hands, she’s rolling around on the floor or clambering up a climbing frame or running across a field. She likes clothes, yes, but during the course of her day she gives no more thought to her body than what it can do. Just like her brothers, in fact. She likes to be comfortable and inconvenienced by what she wears.

And it’s this which gives me the problem with high street retailers’ offer to little girls. I don’t care if the clothes are pink, or sequinned or spattered with flowers. I don’t mind if they have pretty features and are plainly not unisex (whatever that means).

I do mind, very much, that so many of them, worn by a small girl, restrict her behaviour in a way that the boys’ counterparts just don’t. I don’t want my daughter forever hoiking a shorts gusset out of her bottom or rebalancing an impractical strappy top over her shoulders. I don’t want to have to explain to her that she can’t do what she wants to do because bits of her body are bared by her activity when her brothers remain more sensibly covered – and I’m talking not just about modesty, but about safety and comfort too. I mind that the boys’ shorts above are described in terms of their practicality and comfort, while the girls’ are all about being “on trend”. And yes, I could (and do), buy “boys” things for her, but very often that misses the point.

I don’t mind that my daughter wants to look pretty. I just don’t want her to think that that’s the object of each day.