Category Archives: Ranting

Skiing backwards

Years and years ago, I read about a term applied to (or chosen by?) wealthy retired North Americans who ploughed their cash into giant mobile homes in order to overwinter in milder climes. There was  even a bumper sticker for them and their deluxe Winnebagos: “We’re SKIing”, they’d announce. “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I have no idea whether this is still A Thing, but it was a phrase that kept occurring to me during the years I was a stay at home mother. I felt, a lot of the time, like I was somehow frittering away something due to my children in the future. Saving was way down the list. Investing for their education, likewise. Hell, I was even depriving them of the example of an industrious working mother, with all the benefits I kept hearing came with that.

It was an insistent little niggle, not particularly assuaged by the knowledge that it was a luxurious niggle to have. I knew – I know  – that working far too often confers no such opportunity to build a buttress, however small, against fortune. In our case, though, provided I found a job which paid sufficiently to cover childcare, working would bring financial advantage…or, that whispering little voice kept suggesting, just put the children on a more level footing with their immediate peers.

I’ve written plentifully on here about the fact that having a parent at home full stop is perceived to be of little value. The papers seem to be full of the advantages of maternal employment on children, and study after study proving that they come to no harm through being cared for in a setting other than home. I have no doubt that either is true, provided that material circumstances are such to ensure quality of provision and a levelling of other factors domestically. I just wonder if, perhaps, in the perpetual race to demonstrate no ill-effects, there is a lost nuance of a benefit less tangible, yet no less real? There doesn’t after all, have to be one right answer.

When, half pushed, half jumping, I stepped into what I now know was a career break, it was as if blindfold, with no particular plan and little hope that I could go back to the profession I’d studied and trained for. Almost a year after returning to work, I still can’t believe my luck that it is, for now, working out. It is still faintly incredible that someone took a chance on me, and that I’ve ended up doing something interesting and rewarding, with the luxury and luck of supportive colleagues and near-perfect childcare. Along with the ever-present prompting from my resident Imposter Syndrome, who likes to remind me daily that I’m bound to cock it up soon, is a sense that is all too good to be true.

So far, so me. But what about the reasons for that career break in the first place? Are they thriving, now that I’m gainfully employed? Have I realised that I was, after all, squandering their dues by spending time at home with them? If I am being brutally honest, I think that this was one of my biggest fears when I went back. Fear that they would struggle with the transition, obviously; guilt that I was changing their lives so dramatically. Alongside that, though, a nasty little fear that I might have to admit that I had been wrong.

They are, of course, fine. There has been no sudden dramatic decline in their schoolwork; no outbreak of delinquency (or no more than they displayed previously). We don’t seem to have forgotten each others’ names, and they tolerate or seek out my company in roughly the same proportions as they always did. They are, in some ways, undoubtedly better off: I am better tempered, and marginally (though gratifyingly) more solvent.

Perhaps it’s a bad case of self-delusion, however, but I can’t honestly say that they, or I, were nett losers during the six years I was out of the labour market (excluding the birth of Number 3). There’s a relief, actually, in feeling largely the same. I still have the knee-jerk “It’s a job, love, not a fucking halo” reaction when I hear a particularly egregious example of Busy Working Mum-hood.

Yet how to quantify, how to value, how even to class as “gain” what they now no longer have? There are tiny details of their day-to-day lives I don’t share anymore. There are unscheduled, unlabelled hugs that don’t happen; walks and chats and games  that are replaced now with a briskly efficient-, timed-to-the-millisecond drop off and pick up. There is, on balance, less time – and how do you account for that?

It’s hard to write about this stuff without self-editing. So here come the caveats: of course I don’t think that every mother wants, or should want to, or should take any time out of her career other than that which biology mandates. Of course I appreciate that this whole vexed question is the domain of a relatively tiny privileged minority. But still, I see so many women who, after children, end up in jobs for which they are woefully overqualified, or scrabbling around to make a pittance peddling someone else’s dreams. I hear others who are working because, not to, would close a door forever on something they hold dear. Sometimes it’s a choice. Sometimes, a compromise. Sometimes, it really was the only thing going.

As much as it may sound it, this isn’t an exercise in smuggery. It’s just that, according to every available calculator, I am less than half way through my working life, and those few years out, in the overall scheme of things, don’t seem so much. And I can’t help wonder if my case (thank you, Imposter Syndrome, for as long as it lasts) really shouldn’t be such an exception. This isn’t about the choices people make; it’s about the circumstances in which they make them – and what could make it easier for time out with young children not to be an irreparable blot on a woman’s CV.

We have such a linear view of life, still; such a binary either/or approach to progress and achievement and worth. We’re programmed to stockpile for the future; armour our offspring as much as we can against their own forays into the world. But, perhaps, there’s not one single best way of investing; as we live longer and work longer and move around more, maybe a portfolio approach to building an “inheritance” makes just as much sense as anything else. Much more sense, in a lot of ways, than deeming anything which deviates from school-work-family-retirement as somehow doing things in the wrong order.

It’s an awkward exercise, I imagine, to shuffle a pair of skis in reverse. It’s hard to see what’s coming, and it’s fraught with the risk of capsizing. But perhaps, when you think about it, balancing on planks on snow doesn’t come that naturally either.

 

Voting With My Feet (An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan)

Dear Ms Morgan

I have three units (sorry, children) currently at primary school. Actually, they’re at a primary academy, since our Local Authority withdrew its education function five years ago and forced a wholesale conversion throughout the borough.

It’s a good one, I’ll give you that. We have a dedicated and visionary head, who’s doing Good Things from a business perspective while, crucially, remembering that her stock in trade is the lives and hopes of several hundred small people. Of course she’s bound by the double-entry book keeping of finance and performance figures, but she manages to give the impression that remembering the names of the children in her care and turning up to sing in Assembly matter just as much.

I was a parent governor for a while, approached in my triple capacity as church member, commercial lawyer and, most importantly, person in a cagoule at the coal-face of the playground and the classroom door. It was hard work: not just the meetings, but the rightly rigorous training too, but it was also an honour to do it and I was disappointed when a potential conflict of interest meant I had to step down.

It sounds like the chances of me doing it again are minimal, since you’ve announced that mandatory parent governors are to be scrapped in favour of skilled individuals (the two, apparently, being mutually exclusive). Thankfully, though, you’ve reassured us parents that we won’t be silenced: we will still be “consulted” when the school is making decisions, and, after all, we can still “vote with our feet” if we’re not happy.

I agree with you that the present system isn’t perfect. If the parent governors are voted for, they too often tend to be those who win a popularity contest. If they’re co-opted,  it’s usually because they’re the conspicuous, conscientious type who look like they might have a particular skill and the wherewithal to make meetings. Parent governors aren’t representative, but they are, crucially parents. They anchor the governing body to what should always be the primary consideration: the experiences of the children who attend the school, not the relative position on a performance table.

As for “consultation”, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and accept that you wholeheartedly believe this is a functional and democratic way of engaging the families of children at school. Sadly, experience shows that it is no such thing. On the one hand, most parents are either too busy or too apathetic to give a shit. When we converted to an academy, the consultation process involved a handful of responses. Perhaps it’s natural, since people see consultations elsewhere on matters that concern them – from planning applications to cuts to local services – providing little more than a fig leaf before the process continues in line with the decision makers’ wishes. Perhaps it’s just a sign of increasing individualism. Have you tried getting people involved in a local initiative recently, Ms Morgan?

The notion of voting with our feet as the ultimate veto is entirely of a piece with this notion of choice in education. The thing is, even as a sharp-elbowed, well-informed, middle-class mother with oodles of options, I don’t really want choice. Most of us don’t. We want our children to go to their local school, with the children who live around them, in the community to which they belong. We want our children to scramble into a little learning and a whole lot of socialisation; to acquire skills and knowledge and ambition that will steer them as they grow older, not forced tall and pale like so many little sticks of rhubarb ready to be judged at an allotment show.

We don’t want our children to go to the best school, we want them to do their best at their school. We don’t want to sit, each August, in front of a data dashboard of outputs of all the local educational establishments deciding where little Philomena will go in September. These are our children, not the supplier of our electricity or the insurance we buy for our car. We want to commit to schools and see our children grow and flourish where they are, not uproot them to pot them on in some whimsical pursuit of perfection.

And, of course, “voting with our feet” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Where I live, there is no secondary school within safe walking distance, which means free transport has to be provided. The council recently decided that this free transport would only be available to the school which is infinitesimally nearer than that to which 99% of children have gone and continue to go since…well, forever. That it’s woefully undersubscribed and serially failing is, I am sure, a coincidence, although it does mean that the council’s spend on secondary school transport is effectively minimal – demand for that school is met by a daily taxi, while parents spend £500/year to send their child off with their friends on the same fleet of buses that have always run. Precious little choice, however, if you can’t find the cash.

Please stop and think. Please listen. Not everyone who is complaining about the direction of education policy in this country is a refusenik who fails to see any benefits in your proposed changes. I think encouraging entrepreneurialism in schools is a good idea. Helping them capitalise on their assets in a sustainable manner makes sense. But education cannot and must never be turned into an entirely free market.This isn’t creating a level field. It’s allowing a lucky few to build a Noah’s Ark and leaving the rest to deal with the flood as best they can.

HeadInBook

Inspire, Expire…

As Tori Amos almost said, I never was a coursework girl.

It isn’t so much that I have the big-match temperament, more that I am programmed to thrive with a metaphorical gun at my temple. I managed to garner a reasonably illustrious academic record procrastinating my way through the term in an impressive variety of ways (game of solitaire, anyone?)  and then sweating and weeping through a night of pre-exam cramming.

I’d like to say I’d grown out of it, but…the internet.

The internet is doubly the foe of those of us who would never consider doing today what could reasonably be put off until next week.

Firstly, it is nothing more or less than the Whole World And Everyone In It, there, always, just a thumb scroll away. Dangerous, when you’re of the disposition which finds vital import in  a tea towel that needs washing or a desk that needs tidying whenever a deadline looms.

Secondly, though, is that beyond the simple potential for distraction however,

*****pause while I check Twitter*****

is the insidious effect that seeing a world of possibility has on the mind which knows that tomorrow is always the first day of the rest of its life.

Don’t get me wrong. I like, as much as the next person, to read about those who’ve started over. Whether it’s a new life in Brazil, a spanking new career, kicking the booze, losing twelve dress sizes, finding God or simply reaching the bottom of the ironing basket, it’s heartening to know that people really do change things. More, that they really do change themselves.

But when I see these changes day-in, day-out; when they’re in blogposts and articles and Facebook memes alongside the ever-open Tesco tab and the daily emails from online retailers, the potential for transformation, for redemption, starts to feel a bit like a commodity. Like it’s available to order, whenever I’m ready; an offer with no expiry date.

Maybe I’d have thrived better in the olden days, with the priest thundering the threat of eternal damnation at me every Sunday and tortured gargoyles underlying the or-else.

Maybe we need some imagery for that secular modern-day equivalent of the soul that dies unshriven; the life that lives unrealised.

It’s very easy to kid myself that I have forever to get around to it all, when every time I see some kind of a miserable “before”, it’s in counterpoint to a “happy ever after” rather than an abrupt full stop.

“Remember, man, as you pass by” my grandad told me he’d seen written in a graveyard in his childhood, “as you are now, so once was I”. Perhaps it was a Cork stonemason’s early attempt at Instagram, but it has an impressiveness, to someone whose childhood was noticeably lacking in graveyards, that goes somewhat beyond that of an inspirational quote set against a sunset.

****some time later****

I wondered about how to finish this, but the usual bathetic attempt at uplift seemed hypocritical at best.

The abrupt full stop seems fitting.

 

 

Not Being the Missing Type

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.39.36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

graphic taken from www.blood.co.uk

Child Benefit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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. 

Originally made in 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 and men learned they could type too. 

So it was that the old secondary modern, 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 himself, 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 – or to fail to question what we do to help. I learned to type because my dad, through his job, had access to a typewriter. His dad, though; a miner turned steelworker? It’s hard to see what material advantages he was able to give his sons.

If my son were to win this cursed story competition, 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, along with reading it to him, had the skills to type up his subsequent derivative attempt. She – I – gave him a huge head start – even if I didn’t correct his spellings.

Busy Body

A few years ago there was a Christmas advert for Boots, which featured two women bumping into each other in the street, laden with bags and notes, sneezing into hankies as they exchanged tales of busy-ness and feckless men-folk home abed with men-flu.

I think the message was supposed to be celebratory: wonderful mums, carrying on to make Christmas happen when all around them are slacking off. Thank God Boots is there, with its 3 for 2 selections of mugs and socks and dubious celebrity aftershave to help them out. It stuck in my mind, though, for other reasons: as a perfect example of how many women do interact with each other.

We have these daily fencing matches of words: “How are you?” “Oh, fine, you know, busy. You? ” “Oh, manic, you know…” It’s a contest, although I think often we don’t think of it as such. It’s a subtle, barbed duel of to-do lists and daily chores, competitive references to work and activities and commitments. We all say we’re too busy, and often we are, but why are we so bloody proud of it? Has having too much to do, being in a constant state of stress and worry and overload come to represent our value to ourselves and others?

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

There are endless articles about de-stressing, about simplifying one’s life. Practising mindfulness, not being subsumed into the overwhelm of our cluttered daily existences. Finding time for oneself, being able to focus on the essentials. Yet when these are possible; when, like now, I do have time to cook from scratch and walk the children to school, it feels somehow like a cop-out, not a worthwhile end achieved. If I’m not demonstrably busy, and being paid for at least some of my activity, then I’m somehow less.

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

Boy Wonder

I’ve had a version of this in my drafts pretty much since I started this blog. I wasn’t planning on revisiting it any time soon but a real life conversation earlier today and then a brief Twitter exchange this evening have me wound me up so much on the topic that – weeeeee – off I go on an autorant.

It’s the whole boy thing. Or the girl thing. The pink/blue thing. The nature/nurture thing. I suppose, it’s the wilful blind eye turned to the fact that children (people, really) are an exercise in and-and-and rather than simply either/or.

Little Princess

My youngest child (who happens to be a boy) has brought this book home from nursery for the last two weeks running. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that he doesn’t want to be the youngest anymore (which is a burden he will have to live with). We’ve read it what feels like endless times, but in case you’re not familiar with the work, Little Princess wants (you’ve guessed it) a sister, because a brother will be smelly, rough and have all the wrong toys. She wants a sister, notwithstanding the gentle reminder from the maid, the admiral and, er, the Prime Minister (I wonder if David Cameron will have a word with No3?) that she can be just as smelly, noisy and various-toyed as the boyiest boy of her imagination.

Of course she goes on to have a brother. Of course it all ends happily.

But.

There seem to be a lot of grown-ups who would benefit from reading it too. Grown-ups who treat girl babies as a prize, a lucky escape from the one-step-up-from-bubonic-plague-unwelcomeness of a smelly, noisy, rough boy. Grown-ups who like girls because they are determined that they will be quiet, and affectionate and amenable to dressing up. Grown-ups who know that girls will play nicely whereas boys will blaze a trail of destruction through their parents’ homes and lives. Grown-ups who believe, in short, that girls enhance, while boys, on balance, detract.

It’s not everyone, of course. I’d hope it’s not even the majority, despite the inexorable increase in gendered toys and books and clothes and the rest. It’s a lot, though, and it’s not fair.

It’s not fair to the girls who want to wear a superhero costume and go out to save the world rather than waiting, hair intact, to be rescued. It’s equally unfair to the boys who are afraid of heights and aren’t so keen on the prize awaiting them at the top of the tower anyway. It demands one thing and one thing only of both boys and girls, and makes any form of deviance from that one thing problematic. I don’t want my little girl to be constrained in what she can do, but nor do I want that for her brothers.

Are my children different from each other? Well yes, of course, but not necessarily along “boy/girl” lines. Plus, I only have a sample size of three – and for all my good intentions, I know that I treat them differently and project my own experience and expectations on to them. The theory and debate around gender and socialisation fascinates me, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to add to it.

I just think that we are, too often, unrealistic in our expectations of parenthood and unrealistic in our expectations of what our children will be. We need them, increasingly, to cause as little upheaval as possible, and the image of a cute, biddable daughter seems to fit the bill most nearly.

To the people who want a girl because of that, I want to say: what will you do if she doesn’t match up? What will you do if she wants to run around, and play fight; get covered in mud and wear scruffy clothes? Even if she doesn’t, how do you think she’ll get on with boys in later life if you tell her to expect them to be rough and noisy and train her to notice it whenever she sees it? What are you telling her about those who don’t meet the expected standard of maleness: that they are somehow not real boys, real men?

I think it’s normal and natural to have a sneaking preference for one or the other. That little, guilty,  sinking feeling  when the preference isn’t realised – no matter how much delight there is in the actual, rather than the dream, baby – is no cause for shame either. But if you’re sure that you don’t want a boy because they’re noisy or rough or smelly, or because the clothes or toys that come with him aren’t quite the thing, I’d show you my loving, dreamy, imaginative, boisterous, beautiful boys and ask if you’re absolutely sure.

Or perhaps I’d just introduce you to the Little Princess.

picture from amazon.co.uk

Nannied state?

As I type this, it’s 6.30pm. My husband left home for work twelve hours ago, and won’t be home for a good while yet. My eldest is out at a youth group, from which I’ll collect him in an hour along with four other children since it’s my turn to drive. My two youngest are curled up on either side of me watching “Cool Runnings”.

The house is clean (or as clean as it ever gets). The shopping is done and the uniforms are already drying on the racks. The children have eaten, and dinner for the adults is in the oven. Homework is finished and in school bags, along with the RSVPd party invites and endless permission slips.

When I worked, there was always a mad dash to get to nursery before it shut. We, quite rightly, depended a lot on food that was quick and easy to prepare (often involving little more than transfer from fridge to microwave to plate). Laundry was a constant headache, and I was forever buying gifts at the last minute and apologising for not getting back to people about things.

Some of that was because I am a disorganised and absent-minded soul, of course. But some of it was simply down to the fact that I was trying to do too much. Childcare was covered, for at least ten hours a day, but the functions of running a home and a family were squeezed round the edges of a busy job and the demands of two small children. I joked then, but I meant it, that I needed a housewife: someone doing, in fact, what I do now.

I don’t plume myself on being essential to my children’s welfare by my ability to make a pan of soup or a nutritious pasta sauce, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that my hours are not filled with carefully crafted activities to develop their abilities. I’m happy enough to let them veg, within reason, when they come home; happy enough, in fact (despite the frequent angsting) with my role as facilitator. There’s someone on hand for sick days, for hospital trips and GP appointments, for shopping and all the rest.

We are effectively buying the luxury of someone at home. We are consciously choosing to direct our finances into having a person always available to look after the children, yes, but also to take care of the domestic drudgery which every family demands. We’re fortunate in being able to make this choice, I know, but the stuff that I do would need to be done by someone whether I was employed outside the home or not.

Someone, rather enterprisingly, has spotted the gap. We are well accustomed to the concept of outsourcing childcare to a nursery, nanny or childminder, but there aren’t many among us who can afford in addition to pay someone to clean or cook or let little Billy’s mum know that we can make his birthday. A day nursery in Clapham is offering services to parents ranging from an on-site business centre to Pilates classes. More temptingly, though, is the offer of taking home a freshly cooked meal and some freshly washed laundry along with the paint covered offspring (or was that just mine?) There’s even a concierge service doing some of that boring bureaucratic crap required in every household.

Clapham is, in every sense, a long way from here. I can’t see anyone offering a similar set up locally, so I’ll never be required to choose whether to use it. To me, though, it seems an unequivocally Good Thing…unless, that is, you don’t think that any of it (childcare, osteopath, childcare…) should be necessary. I was puzzled, therefore, that the first piece i read about it, in the Independent, via a Twitter link, was rather dismissive. Even more so that, when I googled, so too were the other pieces I could find, all with reference to the “nannying” of the parents involved by virtue of the provision of all these services under one roof.

Why should this be? Do we “pander” to parents who have their shopping delivered, rather than drag their children around the shops? Do we “infantilise” those who take advantage of the wonder of the internet and mail order to source Christmas presents? Where do we draw the line at requiring adults to stand on their own two feet: having a window cleaner, paying to have the car washed, contracting someone to cut the grass? Or is it only those things which traditionally women have done which somehow remain sacred to the lot of mother? We may all nod along that it’s women’s choice whether or not to work outside of the home (even though there is precious little real choice one way or the other for many), provided that mums don’t drop the pretence that we love trying to do it all really; that being the linchpin of the family home while holding down paid employment is just dandy and integral to who we are as mothers.

This is only ever going to be a niche solution for a tiny minority of privileged, if stressed, parents. But the principle behind it: that homes and families don’t magically run themselves and that it’s the hard slog of (usually mothers) which keep things together when paid employment is added into the equation, deserves merit and consideration even as “childcare” continues to be the only element we hear about.