Working v Occupation

I’m not a violent person, but there are times I’d love to unleash my inner Ally McBeal. No, not the needy, neurotic lawyer (quiet at the back there), but the one who combined cartoon and karma to deliver instant comeuppance to anyone who crossed her.

Recently, I’ve been channelling Ally when faced with stupid comments about going back to work. Primarily those delivered with a chortle, and some allusion to the fact that I won’t know what has hit me when I’m faced with a real day’s work. It’s satisfying to imagine a cartoon boxing glove bopping them on the nose, even as I smile sweetly and roll my eyes so hard the minute my back is turned that I get a diagnostic image of my brain.

I am in the perfect position to deliver final judgement (did you see what I did there?) in the hoary old case of SAHM v Working Mother, and I’m pleased to confirm that, in fact, both are harder than the other.

Only kidding.

The answer of course, if you’re interested, is that neither is “harder”. Why? Because, in large part, neither SAHM or “working mother” actually means anything much. It’s like asking “Which has more colour? Blue or red?” (If there is a scientific answer to that one, I don’t want to know it).

That notwithstanding, the last couple of months have verified what I have long suspected: not necessarily that many people think being a parent who doesn’t work outside the home is easy, but that lots and lots and lots of people think it just has no value at all. It is perceived as a kind of vacuum, an occupation of time which is neutral at best, a lily-livered, latte-fuelled skive at worst.

Around the same time as I was starting work (I’d like to say it was as I was filling in the forms for childcare, but that would be a lie for artistic effect) an email job alert pinged into my inbox. Someone not far from me was looking for a nanny; someone to look after three children before and after school. It was good money, and there was a formidable list of qualifications and qualities that the right person would need. If I’d been unfortunate enough to be being hounded by a Job Centre to find work at the time, I could unquestionably have taken that one and moved instantly from scrounger to hard-working taxpayer simply by changing the identity of the children I cared for.

Why, I wonder, does the lack of familial connection turn the self-same activities from a cop-out into a worthwhile position of employment? Why is doing it as a job perfectly valid, while doing it for any other reasons (cost of childcare, lack of availability or quality, family circumstances, child’s needs…) generally accepted to be an extended holiday from real life?

No3 has only just started full time school, so I didn’t have full “child-free” days before I went back to work, but even if I had, they would have only amounted to five and a half hours, not every waking weekday moment. Don’t get me wrong, I weep at the thought of that time now…but the point is that stay at home parents, even the ones with school-age children, don’t have whole days at their disposal. That, and the fact that when the children are around, they are an occupation in themselves.

I could talk about all the things that occupied me when I wasn’t working outside the home and the children were at school, but the truth is, I still do most of it  now in the bits of time that are available to me around an extended 9-5 and the best part of two hours’ commute. 

Maybe I’m doing something wrong, though, because I am not noticeably more tired. Maybe I wasn’t idle after all when I didn’t have a job. Maybe, just maybe, being a parent is hard work full stop. And doing that parenting, however long or short you spend doing it, is not an absence of occupation.
I worked a compressed day from home today to accommodate my youngest’s first day of school, and althoughI was really lucky to be able to do it, it’s reminded me of the wearying aspects of my old life that from the outside apparently seemed like such a doddle.

Now that they are back at school, the children are in wraparound care for four hours each day before and after classes. That’s four hours when I miss their company, but it’s also four hours when I don’t have to be available to play with them, feed them, or listen to them; four hours when I  don’t need to nag them to pick up their toys and step in to break up their fights. It’s four hours that don’t require my involvement in the ludicrously ill-named “school-run” (“life sapping school-drag in the invariably pouring rain” not quite having the same ring to it).

It’s four hours when I don’t have to tacitly accept in social situations that I am less entitled to be tired, less entitled to be stressed, less entitled to be too busy to take things on than the person I’m talking to who happens to be paid a salary in exchange for a portion of their time and effort.

And the holidays? Being able to have spent so many long weeks with my children and few other demands on my time has been a total privilege, but it also, at times, brought me to my knees. Admitting that, though, never felt like it was an option: after all, I was lucky enough to be doing what I chose, and whingeing about it was the utmost bad faith when others had to use precious annual leave. 

It’s time for my closing arguments, but I don’t really have any. I don’t have a neat conclusion that ties up all my thoughts on this into a simple, snappy summary; don’t have the will to win a jury to one particular way of thinking. I don’t even have a Dancing Baby to entertain you.

Instead, I have a pile of ironing, three children to put to bed and some stuff to get ready for tomorrow. That will do for now.

Terminal fret

Half of France was on the road, it seemed. Our own route from the west was choked with holidaymakers returning to the heart of the country, and for every ten French cars, there were three or four Brits, and a German or Dutch or two. The problems only really hit when the autoroutes petered out around towns, or when we all converged on the toll stations. Our four spare hours to reach Calais melted away in bursts of minutes sitting in long lines of people like us, sealed in our air-conditioned bubbles, squeezed around the accoutrements of our temporary homes from home as the temperature needle ticked up towards 40 degrees. The traffic alerts on the radio grew increasingly apocalyptic. By the time we were clear of the worst of the pressure, the message was not even to try to get near Paris. “Find a services” the weary voice told us. “Let the children play, have something to eat, relax yourselves un peu. You’re not getting into the capital any time soon”.

The real fear that we wouldn’t make our train had receded by then, but I continued to worry, as is my wont; picking at the loose threads of a potential problem, teasing and fretting at them till things threaten to unravel, in the luxury of knowing that the worst will never be that bad. As we finally pulled off the motorway into the snaking network of roads that surround the Eurotunnel departures, I was jittery and anxious, mistrusting my ability to read the signs lest we take a wrong turning and lose a precious few moments. My husband was torn between laughing at me and, plainly, trying to hide the temptation to leave me by the side of the road. “There you go” he said, pointing at the signs leading the freight traffic off to the right. “That’s where you belong”. And “Terminal Fret” became a new shorthand for my penchant for catastrophising.

Before we’d set off on holiday, people had reacted to the news that we were going through the tunnel with approximately the same horror as if we’d said we were planning a sunny break down a mineshaft. There was much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads. There was no point in arguing that air controllers strike, Britain rains and that, in any event, we were talking about nothing more than the potential slight disruption to a holiday we were lucky enough to be having. There was still the fear, though. Not at the risk of delay, nor of any threat to us, but – if I’m honest – at the uncomfortable juxtaposition of our own fortune with the misery of others.

It is one thing to rail against dehumanising headlines and support humanitarian campaigns; another to drive past desperate people, comfortable car laden with the equipment we keep in our garage year-round so that we can spend two weeks having fun. Equipment which is a thousand times more luxurious than the conditions in which so many have no choice but to dwell. There was the grubby guiltiness of not wanting to have to explain the situation to our young children, while knowing that others much younger live – and die – in it. It’s easy to feel compassionate at a distance. Harder by far to take pride in that compassion or see it as anything more than a fig leaf when its object is on the other side of your car door as you glide past en route from nice to nicer.

Half of Syria really is on the road, and we can’t imagine it. How can we? We, I, can read stories and see photos and try to compel my mind to how it must feel to take your children’s hands in yours and turn your back on your home, your family, your job; running from the dangers you already know to the ones you can only dread. To turn everything you own or can lay claim to into the wherewithal to place your fate into the control of those you know you can’t trust – but have to. To ignore every instinct and clamour of reason to climb into a swaying, listing boat in the dark of night, or hear yourself locked into a black lorry hold. Dreaming, perhaps of better things, but surely just praying that nothing worse awaits than what you’ve already survived.

We watch and we pity, but the human mind is treacherous in its attempts at self-preservation. Despite all efforts at empathy, a small voice whispers that those who suffer war and famine and a crippling, chronic, insecurity must somehow be better equipped by that suffering to face it. The talk of migrants and swarms is abhorrent, but the mind that rejects it tries its hardest at othering nonetheless. How to respond to the needs of those affected by human-made tragedy without reducing them to simply its by-products? Though the sheer numbers in plight require a mass response, I’m wary too of an approach which lumps people together as one suffering mass. It’s easier to encompass the fact that “millions of people” feel compelled to embark on difficult, dangerous and uncertain journeys in flight or search than it is to grasp the fact that each one of them is the same complicated and unique individual we take as given that we ourselves are.

In the event, we only saw one person on the outside of the security fence at Calais. A young man, long and lean, in a thin green jacket and jeans, walking with purpose along the perimeter as we queued safely on the other side, protected by the magic little red books we have through no virtue but birth. I will never know his name. Even if told it, I could never know his nicknames, his foibles, the little shortcuts worn by love and life that make him irreplaceable to those he may never see again. And when I turn off my computer, and decide to stop worrying about things I assure myself I have limited control to change, and turn to those who are irreplaceable to me, he’ll still be walking.

I hope.

http://www.redcross.org.uk/Donate-Now/Make-a-single-donation/Syria-Crisis-Appeal

http://www.calaid.co.uk

Hell, yes, I’m judging.

We live in the age of the open letter, especially those from a parent to the woman in the cinema, the couple across the airplane aisle, the elderly man on the pavement. 

I’m sorry, these letters say. I’m sorry my child kicked the back of your seat, I’m sorry my daughter screamed without cease, I’m sorry my preschooler rammed your ankles with his scooter. 

I’m sorry, but you see…  He was bored. She was hungry. He and I were having a bad day and the shopping still had to be done. 

I’ve not written an open letter as such here on my blog, but I’ve written plenty in my head. The words have come unbidden as I raged at the glances, real or perceived, I’ve felt when out there in the world in sole charge of my own small tyrants. I count on my fingers the reasons and excuses I have for it all going so horribly wrong: the weeks and months of not enough sleep, the hours and days of worry and wailing and whys. 

Please don’t judge me, the letters say. You don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. You don’t know the day I’ve had to this point, you don’t know the effort it’s taken to get these small, annoying people to this place where neither of us want to be, and where you would patently rather we weren’t. 

And because I’ve read, and mentally written, so many, I really do try not to judge someone else’s parenting on a snapshot. I know the tantrum in the supermarket could well have its roots in a well warranted “no” or causes light-years removed from anything in the parent’s control. I know that what looks like naughtiness may well be anything but. I try to be the one with the rueful smile of mutual sympathy, not the frown or tut that could make someone’s day even harder than it already was. 

But, do you know what? Sometimes, yes, I judge. When I see a determined blind eye turned to the preteens dive-bombing every younger child and adult out of the swimming pool. When I see a big kid zooming at speed, unchecked, on her bike around parked cars and causing pedestrians to skittle out of her way. When I hear a gaggle of old-enough-to-know-betters keeping a half a hundred households awake with a nightly racket apparently inaudible to their parents. 

You’re right, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. Sometimes, though, it’s going to be not a lot. And what we never seem to read are the open letters from those who struggle with the end results of what boils down to little more than lazy selfishness. Not on the part of those who really can’t do much about it, but on the part of those who choose not to. Those who are affected in ways far more serious than simply being annoyed or mildly inconvenienced. 

Culturally, it is unquestionably A Good Thing that we are becoming more tolerant and less judgmental. It still should matter though what others think of us. It doesn’t matter more than anything else, it shouldn’t be a stick to beat those who are already doing what they can. But it matters because our actions impact on people around us, and they matter as much as we do. 

So yes, I’ll hiss at my kids in public and fidget and flush over their bad behaviour when they’re being a pain. And I’ll retain the right to be pissed off when other people’s kids make my life a pain in turn. 

And jf you think I’m wrong for being so judgemental? Judge away.  

The C Word

I read a post yesterday written by a mother who was explaining why she wouldn’t let her young daughter watch The Little Mermaid, because she found the central theme of the story – that of a girl giving up the gift of her voice to follow the man she loved – to be too disturbing.

She has a point. There are disturbing messages in many of the old fairy stories and classic children’s books that my kids read, whether or not they have been Disneyfied. What Katy Did? A girl’s rebellious spirit is tamed out of her through injury and illness. Beauty and the Beast? I’d like it more if it was a prince who had to demonstrate how he learned to value inner beauty by marrying some hideously mutlitated crone who was rendered back to gorgeousness by his true love’s kiss. 

Our children’s minds are so malleable, so precious, that it is natural for us to want to shield them from what we see as harmful beneath the sugary gloss of fantasy.

The trouble is, where to stop? How to prevent external influences shaping or misshaping growing young consciousness into the warped understandings we may see in ourselves and perceive even more in those around us (and them)? We can’t, of course.

When my children were younger, I tried too. I limited television to CBeebies, just as “treats” were restricted to the occasional mini box of raisins. It didn’t last.  Partly it was due to fatigue or laziness, partly due to the recognition that, try as I might, I couldn’t keep the world out. As I type this, my newly-turned-8 year old daughter is listening to the radio on her brand new CD player. It’s a cheap and fairly crappy piece of pink plastic, and the tuning isn’t great, but through the static and the whinging of her four year old brother who wants her new Nerf gun, I can hear the words of that damnably catchy “Cheerleader”.  She’s singing along, just as she was a few minutes ago to “Worth It” which (and forgive me while I hoick my bosom and purse my lips) seems to be a sweetly romantic love song between a man and a woman begging him to do her the honour of pleasuring her.

I don’t think my daughter really processes the lyrics that she sings, but I hate hearing the sounds from her mouth, even knowing that she’s unaware of what they mean. What to do, though? I could insist that she listens only to pre approved CDs, I could restrict her time at friends’ houses where she may rifle through YouTube clips, ask their parents to switch off the car radio when they’re giving her a lift here or there. But even if I could do it, even if it wouldn’t brand both her and me as utter freaks and resolve quite quickly the problem of what might happen at friends’ houses since she would no longer have any, what would happen when she heard music in a shopping centre, or saw a clip on a TV in a doctor’s waiting room or a magazine at the supermarket checkout?

The truth is that, much as I may want to control what my children are exposed to, I can’t. It isn’t in my power to protect them by trying to ensure that they don’t see or hear things I don’t like until they’re no longer under my control. I hate aspects of our culture, where sex, and being both available and desirable for it are prized above many things I value more. I hate that women’s bodies are so much wallpaper, their appearance so much public property, their fuckability so much currency, and that this attitude is crystal clear in much of the music my children hear and the images they see on television, magazines and online. I hate this for my sons as much as I do for my daughter.

I can campaign, certainly, but even if the tide is for turning, it will be long after my children are grown and gone. I can’t shut my children safe in some harbour, out of the reach of the messages I don’t want them to hear or figure out for themselves. But I can help them do that in some kind of context. I can talk about things we see with them, and I can, by my words and my example, give them a different understanding of how life and love and relationships work.

I don’t have to spoil the magic of a happy ever after as the credits roll and the bride waltzes in the arms of her hero in a beautiful dress, but I can make sure they all know that wedding days aren’t really the culmination of a woman’s life.I don’t have to talk over a video of women in their smalls (if that) gyrating around, but I can sure as hell point out when they’re missing, together with the fact that no-one seemed to die thereof. I don’t have to scorn my daughter’s love of clothes and pretty hairstyles to praise her for her strength and draw attention to the muscles or the achievements of women in the public eye, rather than  how they look on camera.

I can’t change what they see, but I can do my hardest to try to change the way they see it.

Peer(cing) pressure

From the moment that line appears on the pregnancy test (or is it words, or sex, or predicted SATs scores these days?), parenthood is full of dilemmas.

Do you choose a home birth or an equipped-to-the-eyeballs hospital setting? Do you breast or bottle-feed? Let your baby make her first forays into sold food via whatever she can grab or by dint of a spoon held firmly by you? And, if the latter, do you spend more hours than seems feasible pureeing a butternut squash or opt for the jars that line the supermarket shelves?

The only thing worse than facing all of these dilemmas is knowing that, even as you do so, you are prime cliche material. The things that feel (and, in fairness, sometimes are) so very vital to you, at that moment, will feel vanishingly unimportant just a few years later and whenever you see someone else in the same position, though you will usually try to hide the fact.

If you have very young children, I hate to tell you, the dilemmas don’t decrease in number as your offspring’s age increases. And if you thought that the baby stages were fraught with the risks of judging and being judged, just wait till you have to navigate your child’s request to watch or play or do something you deem inappropriate while simultaneously not calling into question the morality or good sense of their best mate’s mum who has no problem with it at all.

When your principles, your peers and the interests of your precious first (or second, or third) born collide, there is no help in being aware that everyone else has to make a choice one way or another, or that the world, in general, doesn’t thereby end. Mostly, it’s not a prolonged battle. I am entirely comfortable in my position banning Call of Duty, restricting internet access  and vetoing the purchase of hair gel for my four year old. In each case, the desire of the child in question to fit in is, to my mind, easily outweighed by the potential harm (or mess, if we’re talking about the hair gel). Other things aren’t so easy.

My daughter, who is eight at the end of the month, is desperate to have her ears pierced. She has been for at least two years. She plays Claire’s Accessories with handwritten labels, documents all ear-related jewellery in a dedicated journal in the same way that others spot birds or trains, and has an impressive collection of clip-on creations ranging from chandeliers to plastic moustaches (yes, really).  She is fairly sensible, reliable and with as much sense as any self-respecting seven year old should have. She will also, come September, be the only little girl in her class whose ears remain unpierced.

I just don’t know what to do.

I don’t want her to have it done, for reasons of, if I’m honest, snobbery, sense and safety. She is still, to me, so little and so lovely as she is. She spends all her time doing gymnastics, with long hair twined about her face and neck.  I have twice had to let piercings close up because of infection, and, having had my ears done again in February of this year, am in the unfortunate position of literally being stuck with the pair I chose, since the butterflies seem welded to the posts. In terms of practicality and safety, I feel on pretty solid ground in saying no.

And yet, she is a little girl, not just my little girl. She is a little girl whose best friend moved away last year and is still sometimes adrift in the shifting sands of friendship groups. She is a little girl who likes to fit in, who feels secure in belonging. I can teach her to take pride in being herself, but it’s a lesson I only truly learned myself as I approached forty. Is it fair to try to enforce the lesson now, in this way? Will I look back at photos of her this summer and wish I had let her have her wish, or regret giving in?

I don’t know.

And knowing that it is, in the grand scheme of things, an absolute non-issue, is no comfort at all.

School Ran

At a very rough estimate, I’ve walked 3000 miles between home and school in the past six years.

2500 of them behind a pushchair bedecked with bags and scooters and not-quite-dry works of art.

Almost all of them with my head swivelling Exorcist-style to take in the threats my children just don’t see.

Lots bowed under a cagoule hood while rain dripped down my nose.

Too many to count spent cajoling and – on occasion, berating – so that we would get there or back on time.

No, we can’t go to the park.

No, we’re not buying sweets.

Watch where you’re going.

Give it a rub, you’re alright.

IT’S A ROAD!

*******************

I must have spent over 200 hours waiting outside classroom doors to relinquish or claim children at the start and end of the school day.

Stay next to me.

Have you got your lunchbag?

Where’s your coat?

*******************

I can’t begin to calculate the permutations of handholding. Three times two times me times three.

Pulling along.

Squeezing a shared secret.

That no-nonsense grip we both know means Just You Wait Till We Get Home.

*******************

Snippets of conversations with friends as we drift along together  in the eddy of the school run only to get separated in the rapids of one or other of the children shooting off in a different direction.

Bumped calves.

Heels scooted against.

Smiles across the playground.

The same joke with the lollipop man, day in, day out.

**************************

Six years. A thousand memories.

Budget 15

Guest post for Mumsnet on the Budget:

“The government must support families as they are, not as they wish they would be”  http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/guest_posts/2420759-Guest-post-The-government-must-support-families-as-they-are-not-as-they-wish-they-would-be

Let it go

One of the things about being a stay at home mother that has annoyed me the most has been the insinuations (from others) and the nigglings of guilt (from myself) that I was setting a poor example to my children, and my daughter in particular.

The insinuations weren’t just over-sensitivity on my part, either. When research about the apparent benefits to children of working mothers was rehashed in the press a couple of weeks ago, one commentator stated:

“In some ways [the study’s findings are]  a signal to women who don’t [work] that they have to think hard about how the role they have within the household is going to impact their children’s perceptions of what it means to be a woman and to be a mother,”

I did think hard about it, before I even made the choice to leave work. How could I claim to be a feminist, how could I teach my daughter that her destiny was in her own hands, while the model I presented was one of absolute domesticity? She knew I worked from home, but that was an abstract, unseen concept. What she saw was someone who cooked and cleaned and fetched and carried: always at the school gate, when I wasn’t at the hob or forlornly harvesting socks out of the airing cupboard.

There’s no way of knowing how badly I have harmed her life chances (or otherwise). What could possibly be the control anyway? I would argue pretty strongly, though, that having always explained to her and her brothers that I chose to be at home with them while they were very little because the nursery they were at was going down the pan and because we had no-one on hand to help out with the inevitable, incessant lurgies of small childhood, that I was giving them a fairly good idea of what it means to be a woman and a mother. It wasn’t ideal – or certainly not idyllic – but it was a choice, a means to an end. It was being a grown-up (albeit one lucky enough to be able to decide).

It’s now that I am on the brink of going back to full time work, however, that I am really having to think about what my actions say and do. Not the working itself, but all the other stuff around the edges. The plan is that I will drop the children off at wraparound for breakfast, and that their dad will collect them and bring them home for an evening meal at about 6. And despite the fact that he is a fantastic father, a perfectly competent cook, and a thoroughly functional adult, he is having to chip my fingers off the meal planning to get me to relinquish control. My instincts are to write out what we are going to eat each night, to shop for it all and to plan the preparation necessary in order to ensure we eat a decent meal every (or almost every) night. But I won’t be here. This isn’t my role any more.

The same thing goes for laundry, for shopping for presents, for planning parties and filling in school slips and all the time-consuming minutiae of family life. While we divided our labour so that he earned the money and I ran the home, it made perfect sense for me to do all that stuff. I could explain to my children that I wasn’t doing it because I was a woman or a mother, I was doing it because that was how we had agreed to function as a family for a while. Children are incredibly practical. That made absolute sense to them.

When I am working as many hours as their father, though, what kind of message will I be sending then about what it means to be a mother and a woman if I insist on hanging on to all the domestic stuff? If I cling to “wife-work” as somehow my domain, despite the fact that I also work outside the home? Surely they would, unavoidably, absorb the message that women are just inherently more capable of running round with a hoover or writing an RSVP and that men shouldn’t be troubled even to try.

I hate saying that my husband is brilliant around the house, though he is, because it makes him sound like a well-trained puppy.  He has always been hands-on with the children, right from the nights when he would carry a screaming colicky No1 to the back of the house to try and let me get some sleep. Now is the time that I have to let him step in to do what he is more than willing to do to keep our little crew of five afloat and show our children, not that women can have it all, but that there is absolutely no reason why they should have to do it all. That’s definitely a perception worth impacting.

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.