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.

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Sainsburys offered me these

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

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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.

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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.

Jigsaws

As Tolstoy never wrote, every working family works in its own way. I’m not sure he would have had cause to make the observation in nineteenth century Russia, but it strikes me that it’s one worth making, here in a 2015 Britain gripped by General Election…well, if not fever, then certainly a bit of a nasty bug. Parents’ perceived priorities are high on the agenda.

It’s just that creating policies for “(hard)-working families” makes about as much sense, really, as creating them for people called Tom.

How on earth is a “working family” to be defined? I’m not even going to address whether unpaid work in the home counts; this is specifically about paid employment of one kind or another. People – and for the purposes of this post, I’m really thinking about women – have educations, lives and jobs and then – oops! – they reproduce, as people (women) have been prone to do since long before Anna Karenina got herself in such a muddle.

And after reproducing, there they are, suddenly, with the pieces that made up their lives hitherto needing to be rearranged into a pattern which best suits them. And those patterns are infinite.

For every parent who works in order to pay the bills, there’s one whose job provides a welcome but not indispensable addition to the family budget.

For every two-income household, there’s someone on their own stretched to breaking between the demands of employer and home.

For every parent racked with guilt about leaving their child when they have no choice, there’s another who could never be the parent or the person they are without the chance to do the job they love.

For every one parent motivated by ambition and passion for their career, there’s one who simply likes the adult time.

For every parent who believes on principle that a child’s place is in the home, there’s one who knows that their child thrives in nursery, or with its grandparents, or in the care of a childminder.

Parents choose, or they compromise. We aren’t motivated by any single factor, and from my own experience, ideology very rarely seems to come into it. We make it up as we go along, and – do you know what? – I think that left to our own devices we get it right.

I’ve tried, for a long time, to steer clear of anything about the tired old Mummy Wars, that tainted, painful, unwinnable argument over Who Is Doing It Right with a side order of bludgeoning for the ones Doing It Wrong. It’s hard to avoid, though, because we are all so sensitised from media coverage which seems determined to polarise, and, increasingly, clumsy political rhetoric which  leaves those in one situation feeling victimised or unfairly judged.

It seems too much to ask that we move the discussion on from whether one type of behaviour should be selected as preferable and rewarded, and more to how we can recognise that parents’ circumstances are as unique and as shifting as sand on a beach. I don’t want to talk about whether free childcare penalises those who don’t or can’t work for whatever reason, I want to talk about how we ensure it doesn’t compel parents to work longer hours than they want to and rely on leaving their children in settings they wouldn’t choose. I don’t want to argue about who is more deserving of state support, I want to ask politicians to grant parents pragmatic and flexible ways to manage their own situations.

It’s probably too much to ask. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my own jigsaw and trying to resist the temptation to compare it with everyone else’s.

Making families work

We will help families by expanding free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds. We will also introduce a legal guarantee for parents of primary school children to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm…underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not for profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities.

This is a slightly awkward post to write. It probably comes as little surprise that my political leanings are left-ish, and although I am not so blinkered as to think that a Labour victory in next month’s General Election would mean a bright new (red) dawn for us all, it would be, in my eyes, distinctly better than any other likely outcome. I welcome most of the contents of today’s Labour manifesto as moves in the right direction, and I hope they get the chance to implement them. But one small section, playing straight to the gallery and cutting right to my own, admittedly subjective, preoccupations, made my heart sink.

I have written several times about how the “hard-working family” rhetoric grates. I have worked since having children, but I currently don’t do any paid work, since returning to my profession would, in our family’s opinion,exact too high a price of our children, and doing other work (even if I could get it) simply would not pay financially. It works, for us, as a family, for one parent to plough his energies into a career, while the other facilitates that by means of being at home. It isn’t perfect. I miss work, more money would definitely help, my future – financial and otherwise – preoccupies me. Yet this is the best compromise for now.

So, at present, I don’t earn. Do I work? Beyond the obligations of children and home common to all parents, in employment or otherwise, I would argue (and often do, in my head) that yes, I work. I do several hours of voluntary work each week, in the mornings when my youngest is at preschool; in the evenings when they are all in bed. I do it to support causes which matter to me, to keep my skills current, to give – as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds –  something back in recognition of my own good fortune in life. For the purposes of identity, though; for deciding whether we qualify as a hard-working family in the particular sense it now  has, I know that I don’t.

It perplexes me, often, to wonder how we value work and contribution. Is it required of us to earn to our fullest capacity in order to pay maximum contributions through income tax and National Insurance? Surely not, or we would laud those with the highest numbers on their PAYE slips and denigrate down shifters, or those taking early retirement. Those struggling to survive on incomes stitched together from long and insecure days working jobs at minimum wage and on zero hours would be hailed as paragons of virtue compared to those shirkers who pick up a few grand for a day or two’s non-executive graft. And this is just “work” in its recognised sense of paid employment, leaving aside the immeasurable effort expended, for little public recognition or thanks, in terms of caring responsibilities for dependent relatives or friends.

None of this is Labour’s fault, of course, nor even that of any one particular political party. Our changing concept of “work” has been shaped by shifts in our economy and society which go beyond the reach of any government. It still begs the question, though, of what this means for the very specific needs of the “hard-working family” with whom current candidates for No10 are desperately trying to connect.

So what has this pontificating on the meaning of the word “work” to do with the quote above, taken from today’s manifesto? On its face, it sounds like an eminently sensible proposal, and one of sufficient clout to have seen itself included in summaries of Labour’s key promises. Going back to the above, though, I would ask two questions.

Firstly: how is a “working family” to be defined in order to access the enhanced provision? Will it be required to demonstrate parental employment for the full 25 hours of entitlement, or would a parent who worked fewer hours still be eligible? Will self-employment count? How will those with insecure or fluctuating work patterns fare? Will childcare settings have to juggle two intakes, one, due to family situations which could include disability, caring responsibilities or other issues, who don’t meet the necessary criteria, the other who does? Is this increase, in short, a reward for working or a purely practical way of facilitating it?

Secondly: (and leaving aside the question of qualifications, aptitude and ability) who, precisely, will deliver these “voluntary and charitable” extracurricular activities? Parents are expected to be working, after all, not least since we are talking week days here. Grandparents are increasingly tied up with providing childcare within their own families, or supporting their own parents, let alone continuing to work past the age when a pipe and the sofa would once have been the norm. Is it envisaged that locals will pop down to the school between 3.30 and 7 a few times a week to play Snap? Good luck with that. It’s hard enough to get people to come to a short meeting once a term since work – even if it doesn’t coincide with the meeting time – already trumps all. This proposal boils down to a systematic subsidy of paid work, universally accepted to be of value, by its unpaid counterpart, which we are generally told doesn’t count. Do voluntary workers become hard-working if their work allows other workers to work hard?

It’s an interesting and, I think, well-meaning proposal; one which recognises the challenges of combining a job with school-age children and aimed at helping families who are under enormous pressure, but some of the assumptions need examination. More, they need challenge. The irony is that although so many working parents cite childcare as a huge priority, what they often mean is that they wish they weren’t forced into a situation where it becomes so. Really addressing this will take more than finding a way to remove children from the equation. It requires a proper consideration of how and why families work – in all senses of the word.

Inspector Gadget Arms (or, a letter to my ever-taller son)

I remember when your world was measured by the span of my elbows. Sitting to feed you, your (unexpectedly enormous) downy head resting against one arm of the nursing chair while your (unexpectedly enormous) feet grew, day by day, steadily further round my side on the other.

I remember holding you, rigid, against my shoulder; feeling the air trapped in your (unexpectedly enormous) belly as a physical pain in my own; groaning with sheer relief as it escaped after hours of rocking and swaying and marching up and down the stairs with a dip of the knees just so.

I remember the grateful presence of a new bump to shelf your solid weight against when your early solo encounters with the world proved too much. The wedge of you against me as one arm wrapped you still while the other manoeuvred doors and straps and partings.

You come for cuddles still, your head tucked still beneath my chin, but with your feet, now, planted firmly on the floor. Gone are the days when I can lift you, though not yet those when I can wrap you close and hide your face against me when you need to be out of the world for a while.

I don’t know how to prepare for the days when your arms will outreach mine. For the days, in a few short years, when it will be me pressed to your chest, not the other way round. I don’t know how to believe that your feet will stay firmly on the floor when I can’t be there to check.

It is the strangest thing, to know that I am to be dwarfed by you, while you will stay forever small enough to fill my heart. To hear the snippets that you bring back, as you grow and start to make sense of your life, of a world beyond what we can easily explain and contain for you: “Mummy, the boys in my class think “vagina” is a swear word”; “Mummy, what is a rapist?” and not give in to this urge to enfold you in an embrace that excludes all possible chance of harm; all the inevitable ways in which you have to start to sift and understand and compromise.

I understand now why parents hanker after the early days, that constant presence of a child in the arms, something I thought, while I lived it, couldn’t be completed soon enough. It’s a new kind of love I’m learning; a new way to hold you close without you realising I’m doing it. I can keep you safe still, but I need to teach you how to do it for me when you’re somewhere out of reach. To hold you, always, even when it will be the last thing you want; to keep you wrapped in my arms even when I’m nowhere to be seen.

What-if-itis

I haven’t been here much recently. Apart from having given up Twitter for Lent, which always impacts on my blogging (largely because I subside into a soupy state of ill-informed parochial content), I’ve been doing my bit in my extended family’s concerted recent efforts to drain the resources of the NHS. I found myself sitting two nights ago on the children’s ward of the local hospital, with my youngest, in the self-same bed that No2 had vacated four days earlier after scheduled surgery. A call to the GPs, following a concerned pick-up request from nursery on the grounds that he was struggling to breathe and was distressed, resulted in an appointment a few hours later, without any need on my part to claim emergency. The GP saw us quickly, assessed him thoroughly, spoke to her counterparts at hospital, and dispatched us for the treatment both parties felt he needed. A&E triaged him efficiently, treated him swiftly, and liaised with their colleagues on the children’s ward to bring us upstairs to a clean, quiet ward and a packet of sandwiches for a hungry little boy who’d missed his tea. Whether it was the sandwiches, the drugs, or just that miraculous ability of children to go from death’s door to absolutely fine as soon as they’re within ten feet of a medic, he was, by the time we saw the paediatrician who wanted to check him over, patently well enough not to need the precious hospital bed he was sitting next to (my lap winning out, eventually, over the magic up-and-down mechanism). There were more than hints from the doctor of overreaction, which I can understand, given how No3 was presenting at 11pm. The fact that his oxygen levels at 4pm had been low enough to warrant strong suggestions, from health professionals, for an ambulance (which we didn’t take) seemed to count for little. The ward was jammed with sick children, and in fact closed to new admissions while we were there. I can understand the frustration at having well kids blocking beds, though it was annoying to be accused of having rocked up to Casualty on a whim and a cough. This time, I know that any overreaction wasn’t mine. I don’t think that, actually, there was any at all, given the bald facts of his condition when he first saw the GP. As we sat on the busy ward, though, hearing the endless incoming calls from Urgent Care and A&E, I wondered how we judge “overreaction”. It’s easy to see in someone else’s decision to visit the doctor a fidgety hypochondria. We all know that Other People, demanding antibiotics, are threatening the medical profession’s ability to fight disease. The over-anxious mother, whisking her child off for inspection the moment he or she exhibits the slightest sniffle, is a stock image. But who is really to blame? Driving home on Tuesday night at midnight, tired with the worry and the late night, irritated with the implication that I’d been wasting time, I thought about the culture in which we raise our children and are encouraged to take responsibility for our own health. There were adverts in bus shelters from Cancer Research, beseeching commuters to go and get checked out a variety of apparently innocuous symptoms that have the (usually tiny) potential to be anything but. There are tragic stories in every newspaper, every magazine, about clues missed and opportunities lost to catch a disease before it progressed too far. Facebook (and Twitter, when I’m on it) do excellent jobs of allowing campaigns to raise awareness of various health conditions, too often, sadly, arising from personal loss, which yet can’t help but contribute to a sort of pervasive anxiety and a distorted perception of risk. Given the context in which we live, I don’t think it’s altogether fair to sneer that parents (actually, usually mothers) are excessively cautious in their concern. It’s silly, though tempting, to hark back to the innocence of earlier days. Ignorance killed. It still can. We’re caught in an impossibly difficult position between being expected to follow our “instinct” to divine when our children are seriously ill (an instinct which I must be lacking, since the only time that any of my children really did need very urgent intervention was – oops! – the time when I was happy to dismiss his symptoms as a slight cold)  while knowing when not to bother the doctor with trivialities. And all the time, whether we realise it or not, our judgement is shaded by the exhortations not to ignore, not to delay, not to dismiss…just in case. It’s hard to have faith in the statistics and confide in the expertise and professionalism of our doctors, when we’re constantly being reminded of the one-in-a-millions. They don’t feel so rare when you hear about them every day. We’re frightened of getting it wrong, because we see, so clearly, what can happen when we do. I don’t know what the answer is. Financially and practically, it’s obviously impossible to subject every person in the country to a comprehensive overhaul, or to investigate to the nth degree any small niggle to eradicate any possibility of it developing into something more sinister. I feel sorry for health care professionals, operating under so many constraints, whose reassurance seems nowadays to have a limited shelf-life, and who can’t help but be haunted by the spectre of getting it wrong. Whatever cures and medical advances the next few years hold, I suspect that what-if-itis is going nowhere.

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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