Flipping Heck

Today is the first Shrove Tuesday in many years when I haven’t made pancakes.

I have lots of memories of other Tuesdays; Tuesdays in which I have berated myself for not remembering that pancakes take forever and a day to cook, and that running between stove and a table peopled with hungry, grumbling children is actually not as idyllic as the wholesome image I have in my head of presenting a stack of pancakes to universal delight.

(Pre-heat the oven, people. Pre-cook the pancakes, then bring the children in for a final, flipping flourish once you’ve got the hang of it and you know that there are plenty to share.)

Still, even against previous dismal attempts, this year I didn’t come close to owning Pancake Day. I had no eggs. No lemon. My husband had bought a pack of ready made ones, but we didn’t even need those.

The children were always going to have pancakes at school (they did), at wraparound (yup), and – in the case of No2 and No3 –  at Brownies and Cubs too (barf), so I wasn’t too bothered about the fact I’d be working, and therefore swearing at a laptop, rather than at a pan.

Instead, I picked all three children up from wraparound, drove them home, ruined their lives (apparently) by feeding them a healthy, home cooked meal from the slow cooker, and then, having dashed No2 to Brownies, left the boys to their favourite pastime – the Xbox they got for Christmas.

I don’t think I worry unduly about being a bad mother, but it made me laugh and fret at the same time that my children, who’d been away from me and their home for all but about 45 minutes since waking up, were happiest blasting clones and being Princess Leia.

So, being a 21st century mother with a penchant for sarcasm and a hungry Facebook account, I shared the moment.

I love finishing work a bit early so I can spend quality time with my children

12698357_10154063204899155_4359005843856943904_o.jpg

And they got it.

“Your house looks like my house”

“I recognise this scene”

“At least they’re in the same room as you!”

When my eldest was a newborn, I kept in touch with the women I’d met at antenatal class via text. We gave our babies morning scores out of 10 to record how they’d slept the night before. It’s gone on ever since, with the same friends and new ones, via Twitter and Facebook and wry eyebrows at the school gate.

It’s fashionable to say that social media has made mothers judge each other more; that it’s created a broader palette against which we can find ourselves lacking and a forum in which we can reassure ourselves by trampling those whose fingers stray nearest our heels on some impossible ladder to an unattainable perfection.

It’s probably true, to some extent, but no more so than the impeccably turned out family in every community since time began whose presentability was frantically smoothed over to hide the cracks beneath; the one you’d look at with envy in the market or at church and whisper about afterwards with your sister.

Tonight, though; feeling frankly inadequate at what on many levels could be read as a double mother-fail, the comments of my friends, all so different, all the same, made me smile.

Village, schmillage.

When life doesn’t remind you to buy a lemon, friends come to your aid.

 

Schrödinger’s Mum

I don’t know Schrödinger, you understand, let alone his mother. I think they had a cat, but I think that may have ended badly. Or maybe not.

So it’s silly, really, to say that I thought of her (the mother, not the cat) this lunchtime, as I made an emergency dash to the Post Office to get some cash.

I was working from home, you see, feeling smugger than smug after a productive morning job-wise and happy in the knowledge that I’d got two loads of washing out on the line too. The sun was shining, I had some interesting work to pick up in the afternoon, and I was relishing the novelty of re-tracing the steps of a gazillion school runs without my ankles being in imminent danger from a scooter.

Then I saw her, as I sped past the park. Pushing a toddler on the swings, the pair of them wrapped up warm and presumably filling in time before going home for lunch and a nap. I couldn’t see her face; couldn’t tell if she was revelling in the moment or deflecting wails and grizzles from her child and counting down the minutes till they could decently go home.

It was a lovely image, one of those snapshots of motherhood that matches exactly the gallery we all seem to carry within us: This is what being a mum looks like. The image that we look forward to and the one we miss when it’s past.

She could have been me, that mum. Me on any one of a hundred days, standing in the park, playing with one or two or three children; making the most of a break in the weather or just desperate to get away from CBeebies before the programmes started all over again.

“The hours are long, but the days are short” they tell us, those whose children are long grown and gone. We know they’re right, and yet it’s hard, to be in the picture and behind the lens; to try to provide in the now for the wistful regret we know we’ll feel in the future.

Knowing that this precious time is fleeting but, sometimes, desperate for it to pass.

IMG_0070.jpg

 

 

 

Leaving Mummy Behind

Once upon a time, I had motherhood sorted. I almost always packed the nappy bag properly, I could tell you the CBeebies schedule to the second, and I could reel off a stack of research on anything from carseats to caesareans. I didn’t know it all…but I knew where to found it out.

And then my children got that little bit older.

It isn’t that it’s harder, these days, it’s just that it feels harder to know when I’m doing it right (or wrong). There isn’t such a wealth of resources against which to check how I’m doing.  They’re people all of their own now, my three; no longer a composite project of bottoms to be wiped and tantrums to be managed. They have complex lives apart from me, and problems I won’t always know about, and although I don’t miss the icy-footed nighttime visitors, I do pine for the days when it felt like I could make the bogeymen go away.

Once the very first shock of the baby days was over, early motherhood allowed me to find myself, or at least find a sense of myself that felt good.  It’s a sense of myself that I’m losing again. Holding firm to principles is tough when it brings a beloved child into conflict with his peers; I find myself second-guessing my own “Yes” and “No”. In a masochistic sort of way, it’s a relief to be past the secure certainty of that fleeting phase of toddlers and pre-schoolers when making it to bedtime was promise enough of another chance tomorrow, but the flip side is the realisation that a lot of what is yet to come will be the same middle of instinct, compromise and (hopefully) serendipity that has characterised my own life so far

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve left Twitter, for a while. My eldest is frighteningly like me, and I’ve seen how very easily he could become addicted to his screen-time. And I can’t in good conscience tell him to spend less time on his tablet or X-Box while I’m glued to the words of a myriad of others via the phone permanently present in my palm. We sat down together earlier and I deactivated my account. I will miss it horribly, but it feels like the least I can do At least I’m acknowledging to him that sometimes it’s hard to do what you know you should

 

 

Don’t Call Me A Busy Working Mum

I have three children, a full-time job, and a to-do list with a life of its own.

I am a mum, and I work outside the home, and I am busy.

Yet I will never, ever describe myself as a Busy Working Mum.

It’s just a description, isn’t it? So why does even the sound of it make my teeth itch?

After all, I should be the perfect target demographic for all those adverts I see aimed at the Busy Working Mum, trying to sell me everything from frozen Yorkshire puddings to all-inclusive holidays. Last week, I even saw one offering ready meals just perfect for my lifestyle. I can only imagine that they promise to keep my efficiency and selflessness topped up to optimal levels as I whisk briskly through my days.

So yes, it may be a description, but it’s hardly a definition. It means precisely zero. What value is there in a label available to any woman with offspring in receipt of a salary and withheld from any who’s not? What, after we all, do “we” uniquely have in common?

It is nonsense to suggest that there’s some commonality of experience which binds together the woman doing a couple of school-hour days round the corner with the single mother scraping by on minimum-wage night-time shifts; the high flyer with a nanny clocking up a working week in triple figures with a part-timer whose parents or partners are on hand. Do we really believe that the simple fact of being paid for a portion of our time means that life is unavoidably harder, busier and more stressful than that of someone who doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason?

If it’s not a definition, then it’s certainly not an identity. It’s not the badge of honour I see it used as so often on Facebook posts or comments underneath articles online. “As a busy working mum” they start, before going on to outline why the commenter wishes she had the time to do or be or worry about whatever the subject of the article is. It’s a hard thing to say in this climate of “doing the right thing” by working, but having a job doesn’t confer any virtue or superiority in and of itself. I’m owed precisely nothing for working beyond the salary agreed with my boss. Sure, I pay tax and National Insurance, but that’s because I work, not the reason I do it. If you disagree, and you yourself work fewer hours or at a lower wage than you could…well, that doesn’t really stack up, does it?

And if I reject it as an identity, then I sure as hell won’t accept it as a destiny.

In our fairly bog-standard journey to parenthood, there has been one solitary inevitable given in the combination of family life with employment: that it would be me who would need some period away from work while the babies made their exits. All the rest, from (our relatively generous) maternity leave to who gets the call when little Jimmy barfs on the carpet at story time is the result of our society and its (and our) expectations. There is no particular chromosomal composition that confers a greater ability to RSVP to party invites and buy school uniforms, but “Busy Working Mum” in all her harassed glory suggests otherwise.

Perhaps I’m being over sensitive. Perhaps you wish you had the time to be bothered about it. Perhaps you’re right. But do me a favour. Look out for references to “busy working men”, or “busy working carers”, or “busy working daughters”. And if you don’t see them, maybe just wonder…why not?

The unforeseeable future.

I have a recurrent dream in which I am sitting an exam for which I haven’t revised. It’s not an uncommon dream, I know, but mine has the added fun of featuring an exam on engineering. Not only have I never revised engineering, I have never studied it. In fact, I am so far removed from every being likely to pass an exam in engineering, despite being married to someone who has done just that lots of times, that, dear reader, I once tried to pre-heat a metal baking tray in the microwave. Try that on a rainy day to liven up the children.

Why am I telling you about my dreams, my marital status and my culinary disasters? Well, mainly, because every time I have come to write here recently, I have had a strong sense of being in the wrong place. I have felt, frankly, like a bit of a fraud.

It’s almost six months since I went back to work, and it has changed me. Not in the sense of having less time to blog, or less interest, but more in a sense that I have lost my voice. Once upon a time I was anonymous here and on Twitter, with no responsibilities beyond my family. Over time, I have “come out”, so that (to my never knowingly underthought mind), it is now a doodle for anyone so inclined to link the professional me with the person whinging on here. My preoccupations of the last few months have continued to revolve around the conundrum of reconciling family and work lives, but with the complication that whatever I write feels like it will be taken as a personal reflection, a comment on my own situation or colleagues or employer, even when it isn’t.

There is more, though. I still want to write about motherhood, but it becomes harder as my children become older. There is a universality in the shits ‘n’ giggles of the baby and toddler stages that doesn’t apply as they grow up. I can’t disengage my own feelings and experiences of the problems and joys of developing friendships, school journeys and puberty from the knowledge that these are secondary to the fact that my children are actually living them, and – again because Real Life people read this – it seems an invasion of their privacy to write in any detail about the challenges involved all round.

And finally, there is just a feeling of it all having been said. There is so much excellent writing around, that adding to it with half-baked pontifications of my own feels like a waste of everyone’s time. I never felt as though I was writing for anyone else other than myself; even I am  bored of it now and would rather spend my time reading what might actually do me good.

I had an amazing experience in November, courtesy of Mumsnet Bloggers Network; sitting on a stage with real, proper writers. I think that gave and continues to give me an acute case of Imposter Syndrome, if I’m honest; inhibiting me from wittering on here in the acute consciousness of inferiority. I waxed lyrical there about the importance of making time to write, or indulge whatever form of creativity took ones fancy, especially as a mother, and then came home and did precisely nothing about it. Underneath it all, though, is a realisation that it’s not the writing itself I’ve had enough of, but just perhaps, this blog. And that it’s fine.

I saw a headline yesterday that made me smile, although the subject was anything but funny. It talked about a flood-affected bridge being closed “for the unforeseeable future”. I think that’s probably the best line to finish on. For now.

 

Ovary and out

I can’t believe, as I get older, how  quickly time seems to go by.

Take today, for example.

I can’t believe that my eldest child is nearly ten. I can’t believe that it’s almost Christmas again. I can’t believe that it’s been a whole month since I last had to reach for the Tampax…oh, hang on. It’s not.

With the help of a lovely, gentle book I found online, I am currently preparing my daughter for the wonderful possibilities  indignities and inconveniences that lie ahead of her courtesy of her anatomy. And yet, at the same time after two and a half decades of uneasy co-existence, however (wanting my period to come, wanting it not to come), there doesn’t seem to be any such guide for me as I start the long and probably painful break-up with my own menstrual cycle.

It’s not the menopause, not yet, not really. It’s more a sense that my body knows what’s coming and is trying to make hay while the oestrogen shines, with all the subtlety of a child wanting the teacher to pick them to take the register back. I can see why, in the days before the Pill and the nigh-on standard issue vasectomy after the nigh-on standard issue 2.4 children, “change of life babies” were such a thing. No wonder that women got caught out when our bodies suddenly go from being fertile every four weeks or so to managing it almost twice a month. It’s hard enough to keep track of it all with an iPhone. It must have been murder when there was only the moon on hand

It’s a funny kind of feeling, having your body so thoroughly at odds with your mind; being broody despite not wanting any more babies. The car alarm went off at 2am yesterday,  and I was destroyed with sleep deprivation for the whole of the rest of the day. The thought of repeating the early years of my children’s lives makes me want to weep, even as I look at their giant shoes and incomprehensible Christmas lists and sigh over the small people whose world I once was. And yet, my reproductive system seems to have been taken over by Mrs Doyle, coaxing and cajoling with a bashful upwards glance that knows already it’s unwelcome. Ah g’wan. G’wan, g’wan, g’wan.

The pieces that have made up my life over the last twenty years or so: study, marriage, career, children – each one could have been interchanged with any other and brought me out in a broadly similar position to the one I’m in today. It’s easy, from the vantage point of a happy 40, to look back and think that I would have remained constant. And yet, now, I’m on the cusp of losing something I always knew I was expected to do, then that I was afraid to do, then that I almost gloried in the ability to do, I wonder where I was amongst it all. I wonder who I’ll be after.

And I’ll cling for dear life to the calendar in the mean time.

 

 

 

Mapped Out

I turned 40 in the summer, a time for taking stock and giving thanks for the many great gifts I have in my life.

Also, less inspirationally,  a time for making my peace with  the ones I never will have.

I would love to be able to sing, but I have a voice which my (singer) father likens to a bucket full of broken bricks. I would love to be able to draw, but I’ve never really got beyond the highlight of my junior school days and learning to make a house look 3D. Ish. And I would love to be able to find somewhere on the first attempt without getting hopelessly, tearfully lost.

It’s a shameful thing to admit to, being an independent woman of a certain age who can’t reliably follow a route she’s driven dozens of times without taking a wrong turning. Or to be the one who, even with the benefit of a SatNav, drives round and round the periphery of a destination while her children chirp merrily from the backseat “are we lost again, Mummy?”

It’s such a pathetically, stereotypically GIRLY affliction to suffer from, even though I know it’s less to do with the contents of my pants than the propensity of my brain to wander off at a tangent when presented with anything other than the written word. It is so much a part of me that I would say it was my calling card, on those rare occasions when I arrive where I’m aiming for without a sweaty, unplanned diversion on the way.

I can read maps, sort of, in the abstract. But give me a streetplan and ask me to relate it to what I can see before me, and it may as well be the sort of masterpiece I used to get home from nursery: random strands of spaghetti, held together with poster paint and glue. Worse, in a kind of cringing shame that I am not better at this stuff, I refuse to ask for directions and plough on, willing myself to develop a beagle-like instinct for sniffing out my destination.

Newspaper reports last week suggested that the risk of developing dementia is higher for those with a dark sense of humour and those who struggle to follow directions. I may not be able to find my way to the local garage, but at least I can see my future: laughing my head off, as I forget where I’m heading even as I fail to get there.

In the meantime? I’ll just have to stop swearing at my SatNav in the hope that she one day will tell me where to go without my ending up marooned in a bus lane or faced with a No Entry. Or get my daughter to do it for me.

 

 

 

No Title

This weekend was a strange time to spend hours on social media promoting something as apparently light-hearted as a charity ball. Each time I logged on to Facebook to check for updates and queries, it became harder to distinguish who was “liking” and commenting as profile pictures morphed en masse to the red, white and blue of the French flag. This morning I had time to look more closely, and amidst the tricolors and photographs of the Eiffel tower there were other comments, querying why the victims of this attack were being mourned when those of others don’t even make the news.

I would like to write something pious to the effect that we don’t value some human lives more than others, but it wouldn’t be true. I would like to be able to write something learned about how we are programmed to ascribe a greater value to the faces that look like ours, the crowds we could imagine ourselves within, the streets that we know we could walk unnoticed, but I don’t have the wisdom. We may not be proud of the fact, but I don’t know how we learn to override that something deep within ourselves that feels a visceral tug of fear beyond human sympathy when we can substitute ourselves for the victims of a particular horror.

I was thinking today, though, about this failure to protest carnage equally. About the sad but resigned acceptance of some brutal outrage in a country distant from ours, while the same – or less, if tragedy can be measured like rain – closer to home provokes an apparently spontaneous outpouring of grief and solidarity. That we take it as for granted that bad things will happen in certain parts of the world is no less shameful for being true. Our ignorance and prejudice and a colonial kind of assumption of superiority doubtless play a large part in this, but for some of us so too, perhaps, do the events of the past few decades in Europe.

Growing up I felt, may God forgive me, a sense of living in an era post-history. Each November brought the carefully instructed memorials of the war to end all wars (and of the one after that). We learned about the Holocaust as a one-off, a lesson scored in blood and human agony into the DNA of our continent and never to be repeated. The Berlin Wall fell, apartheid ended, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation seemed to shrink away, as news bulletins reported regularly on the progress of peace processes.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that what we had, for that brief period of time, was anything like utopia; nor that it would have been even if the stubborn, ugly existence of deprivation, discrimination and injustice, had not continued to provide plentiful material for those seeking to make the world better.  But I think that there was a sense, for most people, that we were at least getting there. That we were on the path to something worth having. That in a world where so many problems seemed to have been solved, there was a hope that others were solvable.

Perhaps when we focus on horror closer to home and ignore reports of it further afield (and we do, often, ignore it) there is something more at play than a chauvinistic disregard for the Other. Perhaps we sense that our simplistic, subconscious understanding of the world is being challenged; that maybe we’re not engaged in a linear pattern of development and improvement after all.

Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret’s mother.

You will remember better than I do, God, whether the conversations or the book came first. At a distance of three decades, it’s no longer clear to me quite when I started to think about the holy trinity of faith, identity and periods in any detail, but I do remember that the last of them was for some years the most important thing in my life.

It was all such a big deal, though it seems hard to believe it now. As we all gradually absorbed the Facts of Life, in more or less detail, the outward signs of growing up became our main currency of social interaction. And periods were the first, and for a long time the biggest, denomination.

We knew who had “started”, because they were party to a mysterious monthly ritutal of “coming on”: hurriedly being excused from classrooms and suddenly becoming umbilically attached to their schoolbag. To those of us who hadn’t, It felt like a club to which only the elect were admitted (though the glamour wore off pretty damn quickly once we were  members). We passed around a few, dog-eared, books, which felt like the only things ever written to capture this terrifying, perennial adventure we had all embarked on.

From the perspective of forty, it all seems achingly innocent, somehow. Growing up seems like no biggie. Every adult has done it, after all. I know the worries and the fears, in a theoretical kind of way, but I can’t feel them any more, knowing how most of them resolved themselves in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I can laugh, now, at those conversations so many years ago.

But, God, I have to do it all over again. I have to help my daughter grow up, and although I know that my mother and her mother before her back into the misty Irish bogs of our ancestry have all been doing it, I feel as lost as I did when I started doing it for myself.

I read, perhaps, too much about the helping-to-grow-up thing. Perhaps my foremothers had it easier, after all, when they had a hidden code of womanhood to pass on in a semi-shamedway. There were accepted standards of behaviour; unchangeable ways of Doing Things Right, that I can look at now with horror, but with a small degree of envy at the sheer certainty.

It isn’t that I don’t know what I want my daughter to learn, just that it seems, in many ways, an impossible task.

I want to teach her how her body works, while helping her learn not to feel limited by her biology.

I want to teach her to cope with the way her body changes, while making it clear to her that it is hers alone.

I want to find a way to convey to her that her body is for her to live in, not for others to enjoy.

It is my job, it seems, to show my daughter how to be ambitious and how to identify what she truly wants from life.

To enjoy food but not to be be governed by thinking about its effects.

To accept herself entirely as she is and to expect the same from those she chooses to surround her.

To say yes, and mean it, but to know when to say no, and to mean that too.

Don’t get me wrong, God. I think these are good things to aim for for my daughter. But they aren’t things I have managed to achieve yet for myself, and I am, if not over the hill, pretty much cresting the bump.

I have grown out of worrying about my own body, at least in terms of how it looks. I seem, thankfully, to be beyond the stage of delusion that I can mould it into something it was never going to be. I just wonder if, perhaps, that pressure has now transferred itself onto another target. I can love my daughter, and I can do my best to show her by example the things I want her to be, to have, to do. It isn’t in my gift, though, to ensure that all I wish for her comes to pass.

Perhaps there are too many successors to July Blume, all clamouring to tell me how to do this. They are helpful, to a point, in suggesting ambitions and techniques. In my grumpier moments, though, I wonder if they aren’t just new versions of the “drop a dress size” diets, the instant tips to success or love or a brighter complexion that I’ve been absorbing in magazines and adverts since about the same time I started reading about how to navigate leaving childhood behind.

I am not aware of anything similar, or at least not in anything like the same volume, aimed at men raising sons. It’s almost as if, after all, it’s another way for women to spend their lives feeling that they’re failing to achieve something they’re told they could manage if only they did it right. It’s almost as if we’re projects, rather than people. And maybe countering that is the hardest thing I need to teach.

Gents

Working in a predominantly male environment isn’t a problem. After years at the school-gate, I enjoy it more than I thought I would.

I don’t even mind being on the ‘cc’ list for emails where we’re all addressed as Gents. Really, I don’t. What’s the alternative, after all?

Folks? Sounds like what follows is to be delivered with a Clinton-esque drawl.

Colleagues? Likewise, only German.

All? Probably best of a bad bunch, though it lacks a certain something.

If we were predominantly women, would we go for “Ladies”? I doubt it. Gents may suggest a sort of chummy inclusivity (ironically enough), but Ladies has delicate floral overtones of something else entirely. If there were a bloke or two among us, it would just seem altogether wrong. I wonder why,

So no, being a relatively lone woman in the office isn’t a problem. I like my colleagues. We get on well. We’re all just doing our jobs, after all. We’re all gents. More or less.

It’s just that I’m jealous.

They’re tired at work? They can scrub their fists into their eyes without fear of spending the rest of the day like a panda.

They’ve got desk ache? No worries! They can stretch their arms over their heads; link their hands behind their back and release shoulders without the inadvertent engagement of a bosom.

Itchy ear/nose/crotch/armpit? That’s why God gave you the ability to scratch, damn it. Why interrupt your important work to do it somewhere a little more private.

Stressed? Hot? Tell me spreading dark rings under the arms are as acceptable on a woman. Go on, I dare you.

Time of the month? Oh, of course, the gauntlet of getting those strange little man-supplies to the office, or breaking out of interminable meetings to use the damn things doesn’t apply, does it?

And yes, gents, I know, you have to shave. But the looks you get if you don’t are probably akin to the ones I get when I’m running so late that getting ready amounts to little more than a once-over with a brush and a wave of my make-up back in the general direction of my face.

It’s not their fault, any more than it’s mine. No-one writes these rules, after all.

I’m here, after all.

It’s a level playing field, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?