Tag Archives: family

The invisible children

Luckily, I’m past the stage of needing to use the Parent & Child parking spaces at the supermarket. I still play the game of “spot the invisible child”, though: eyes peeled for that strange phenomenon afflicting people who nab a convenient place presumably on the basis of owning a parent, or having once been a child.

There are ripe pickings for “spot the invisible child” in politics, too. On a more serious level which I’m not qualified to discuss, there are severely disadvantaged youngsters, whether through poverty, neglect or unmet special needs, whose plight too often goes unmentioned. On a level that affects me personally, though, along with millions and millions of others, are the children in the current hot topic of “childcare”.

To listen to politicians and most media coverage, you’d be justified in thinking that it’s an issue which applies only to tots. There are endless reams of thinkpieces on the harm or otherwise of paid care for babies and toddlers; endless (and fiendishly complex) policy wrangles around entitlement to free childcare (or is it early years education?) for the 3s-and-unders.

And then, once those same tots hit school age, any suggestion that their wheareabouts outside lesson time might be problematic becomes harder to spot than a babyseat in the back of a souped-up Fiesta  (whose driver couldn’t possibly be expected to walk across the car park to the cashpoint).

Childcare, it seems, is only really something which the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) can conceive as being of concern to parents until their offspring toddle into Reception.

There are occasional salvoes about Breakfast Clubs! and After School! and Holiday Sessions! all with costings and logistical underpinnings which make Labour’s current manifesto woes come across like an excerpt from A Beautiful Mind and which combine to convey the impression that it’s not really that big a problem; that such things are nice-to-haves, rather than vitally necessary for the majority of us needing or wanting to combine work with parenthood.

It goes without saying that childcare costs are prohibitive for many families with very young children, and that this is a significant barrier to many women returning to work after maternity leave. Solving, or at least easing, this, however, is of limited value if the same woman then feels compelled to leave work a few years later when someone needs to be at the school gate at 8.55 and 3.20 each day, or the only holiday clubs are between 9 and 3 and she works 8.30-5, an hour away.

Subsidising her preschooler’s childcare is great, but it’s of little help when she’s then faced with 6 weeks of summer holidays and an eleven year old (thinking of no-one in particular) who can’t be relied upon to find a matching pair of socks, let alone be home by himself for ten hours a day.

Living away from family, I’ve experienced first hand the difference that affordable on-site wraparound care can make. In my case, it has literally been the difference between being able to return to work or not. Being fortunate enough to have an employer who takes the question of work-life balance and family commitments seriously, I’ve likewise learned how flexibility during holidays and illness can make combining work and care responsibilities possible. Even with these advantages, reaching the end of primary school with my eldest feels a bit like falling off a cliff; talking to other parents, I know I’m not alone in this, and yet it never even seems to warrant a mention.

I’ve yet to hear a single politician outline seriously how they’d strive to ensure the advantages of childcare and flexibility I’ve been able to access thus far would be made available to all parents, not just a lucky few.

As for any acknowledgement we’d care at all how things will work at eleven and over? It’s empty space, as far as I can see.

The fact that so many families muddle through due to grandparents on hand, or mothers (and it is almost always mothers) being forced out of work and/or into low paid or local roles shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a system that’s working. Achieving equality in the workplace and assessing the needs of those who need to balance earning and caring responsibilities needs to go well beyond the nappy years.

I remain passionately in favour of families choosing how best to structure their finances and employment to meet their own changing needs, but restricting employment options can’t be a good thing when so many of us will work for 30 or 40 years after our children start school, both on a personal level and in terms of maximising tax and NI intake.

There are not as many opportunities for cute photo ops with winsome toddlers, sure. But there’s definitely a bigger picture to see here.

 

 

 

 

 

Slight Return

When I was contemplating returning to full-time work after a six year career break, I cast around on Twitter and among friends for clues and tips and reassurance that I wasn’t Completely Mad for even considering it. There was lots on how to get organised, but very little that told me what it would actually be like. Almost two years in, what would I say to someone asking me the same question?

  • Be brave

I expected the tiredness and the logistical challenge of combining work and a hectic family life after the luxury of a few years where I only had to consider the latter. What I didn’t realise was how exhausting dredging up the courage to go in, day after day, till I found my feet again would be.

I was terrified on a daily basis, for a long time, in a way that I didn’t recognise from pre-career-break work, and in a way which I no longer experience now. I had a mantra of “don’t look down”: visualising myself on a tight rope, I willed myself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to contemplate the horrors lurking should I slip.

Little things I once and now again take for granted: composing an email, approaching someone senior, giving an opinion or advice which I know could come back to bite me should I be wrong, were draining in a way I simply hadn’t expected.

Battling imposter syndrome is nothing special, I know, but it took every ounce of energy I had to fight it down when it was armed with the ammunition of that time away from the office.

  • Be selfish

Wankerish as this sounds, I was brought up to believe in service to others, and having been acutely conscious of the additional time I had available while not working, like a lot of people I tried to volunteer where possible and fit in lots of social commitments with friends and family.

Volunteering and working are not mutually exclusive, of course, but it took me almost a year of becoming increasingly unhappy and ill to realise that a break while I reacclimatised to work would have been best all round. It wasn’t the lack of time which was the issue, so much as the need to prioritise family and my own mental well-being with space wherever possible not to be “in demand” from external sources while we all got used to our new normal.

Again, two years in, I now have the energy and headspace to start to be able to fit things in to the spare time I have available, but in retrospect it would have been helpful to have felt I had permission to take a step back. As with the friends point below, it’s natural to feel it important to prove a point – look, I can work and still do everything too! – but those who really care about you won’t be bothered either way.

  • Losing friends and inconveniencing people

Very much related to the above. Maybe this was just me, but it was hard to realise that to some people I considered friends, I had only every really just been valuable by my presence. A stay at home mum is a useful social acquaintance: able to step in at short notice, lend a hand in groups and  generally help move things along by the simple virtue of proximity to home during the hours when others are in the office or on the road.

Not everyone, of course; going back strengthened some lovely friendships by making me realise who was a friend because of who I am rather than what I could do for them, but it wasn’t an easy thing to process in the midst of readjusting back to work when I could have done with a bit of support, and it’s something I wish I’d been prepared for.

  • Be happy

I used to scoff at the idea that having a happy mother was a tangible benefit to children, perhaps because I just didn’t realise that I was bored and rather miserable by the end of my time at home, but it’s been true in our case. I’ve been incredibly lucky in a supportive employer and access to great, affordable childcare, without both of which it possibly would have been a very different story.

Terror notwithstanding, I felt even in my first day that way you do when it’s only on starting to eat that you realise you were famished. Tiredness notwithstanding, I am simply happier with the boost to my confidence and self-esteem which returning to work has given me.

It has been, and continues to be, hard. I miss my children, they miss me (and the luxury of not being in wraparound childcare) and I simply don’t have the degree of involvement in their daily lives that we once took for granted. But they are happy, and they continue to thrive, and we’re all more than managing.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether going back to work (or stepping back in to a more demanding job after a period of doing something to fit in around family commitments) is for you, I can’t give you an answer. All I can say is that it was the unquestionably the right thing for me.

Oh, and good luck.

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.

 

Flipping Heck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And they got it.

“Your house looks like my house”

“I recognise this scene”

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

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

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

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

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

Village, schmillage.

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

 

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.

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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The half-life of treats

My name is Catherine and I am spoiling my children.

When I say “spoiling”, I don’t mean that I have lost control. I believe in parents being in charge. I believe in saying no. I believe in no sweets before tea, unless it’s a very special occasion; in eating your broccoli whether you like it or not; in bedtimes and manners and moderation.

And yet I’m spoiling my children.

Perhaps it would be more true to say that I haven’t lost control yet. I just feel that my control over what they have, what they see, what they consume is slipping away.

Compared to a lot of their friends, they’re not “spoiled”. They don’t have the same gadgets, the same spending power, the same level of veto over their everyday lives as many of their classmates. They don’t have exotic holidays, they don’t have designer clothes, they don’t even have the same degree of attention. So why do I feel that they have so much that they don’t value it?

Perhaps we’ve overdone the day trips. Perhaps they need a long period of boredom at home to refuel their imaginations rather than taking castles and beaches and parks as so many torture chambers designed to keep them away from what they really want to be doing (which is, obviously, playing on screens).

Perhaps we’ve let them watch too much TV, given in too early to the demands for screen-time and Minecraft and YouTube.

Perhaps we’ve acquiesced too easily to the toys on the birthday and Christmas lists that we knew would bring a morning of excitement and fun, before disappearing into the back of the cupboard or breaking beyond repair.

Before I had children, even when they were tiny, I was adamant that I wouldn’t give in to pester power; determined that they would grow up making the most of small things rather than learning early to take the big ones for granted. At first, it seemed to work: they’d have more fun with a cardboard box than whatever had been inside it;  would spend hours engrossed with sticks or pegs or imaginary friends; would be satisfied with an occasional packet of chocolate buttons.

As they get older, though, I feel that I’m losing. I’m failing in the trade-offof what I think is right with the world in which they live. I might be giving them too much, too soon, but I know what can happen when you lack the social capital to interact with your peers. Principles make poor playmates.

They don’t get everything they want, of course. There are plenty of things they think they’re massively deprived by the lack of that they’ll just have to learn to live without, for financial or other reasons.  There are others, though, that I’d rather they didn’t have but to which I don’t – or can’t – object as strongly, and (not being as joyless as I realise this post sounds) others again that I know will just make them happy.

How do I teach my children to be grateful for what they have, rather than pining over what they don’t?

More than a cold

Kids and colds, eh? Unpleasant, annoying, but not serious, right? Well, not always…

When my third child was born, my older two were in nursery and Reception school. We had  almost five years of parenting under our belts, and snotty noses and hacking coughs were a part of everyday life. The first days of his life were no exception. He was doing the school run with me twice a day before he was a week old, and when, at three weeks, he developed a runny nose, I was mildly concerned but entirely unsurprised.

Even a day or two later, when – with no temperature, and not noticeably distressed – his breathing had become noisy enough to hear over the sound of the car engine and he was reluctant to feed, I wasn’t scared, but was worried enough to take him to the doctor.

The doctor took one look at him and sent us straight through to be admitted to the children’s ward. He had bronchiolitis, an infection of the small airways in the lungs, which is very common but can be very serious, especially in young babies.

We were told on arrival that he was so ill that a transfer to a bigger hospital with a specialist unit might be necessary, but he responded well to oxygen and being fed through a tube and recovered after a few days, though he did suffer with chest problems until the age of three. Although he was very young, he had been born at full term and was thriving until he developed bronchiolitis. For babies born prematurely, or with existing health conditions, things can be much worse.

I wish I had known then what I do now, especially what to look for – even as a third-time mum, I had only heard of bronchiolitis in passing, and genuinely didn’t know it was something we should be aware of, especially during the winter months when it is most common.

A friend of mine, whose twin sons were born several weeks early and were very ill with bronchiolitis, is involved with a campaign –  More than a cold  – which seeks to raise awareness.  If you have a young baby, or know someone who does, please take a few minutes to check out their website, especially their tips on prevention. Of course, it’s impossible to entirely prevent the spread of germs, but it is worth being mindful of the risks to young babies of coming into contact with people with colds.

It’s also worth remembering FACT: – symptoms which need prompt medical attention if a baby develops them.

  • Fast breathing: shallow, quick breaths not taking in much air
  • Appetite: inability to feed
  • Cough: distinctive rasping
  • Temperature: high temperature will usually accompany cold-like symptoms of a runny nose

One in three babies have bronchiolitis in their first year, and most of the time it is not serious. The chances are that my older two children had it, and that we thought it was nothing more serious than a cold (which, for them it wasn’t). There’s more information here, on the NHS website.

Having a newborn can be scary enough at the best of times, and I don’t want anyone reading this to be frightened. I do want to help try to help other families avoid the experience of seeing one of their children so very ill.

Back to work?

I will warn you in advance that this is self-indulgent, subjective  twaddle about me, me, me, with barely any attempt at drawing any meaningful conclusions. Hey, it’s my blog. 

I wrote last week about my love of autumn. I didn’t write about my love of the children going back to school. It’s not that I don’t love having them at home; more that I enjoy the structure and routine of the week when we have to be up and out of the house at a certain time of the day, and the sudden break in needing to intervene in sibling tussles.

I also love autumn because to me, as to many, it symbolises a new start. And this year, that’s what I’m trying to ensure I manage. My youngest is now at the school nursery. I drop three uniformed children off in the morning and am home again by 9am, with two and a half hours to myself. I wound up my freelance work earlier in the year, and after many false starts over the last couple of years (the starts in themselves not false, the circumstances beyond my control which put an end to them not false either, but more-or-less horrible) I really, really want a job.

Even typing this, I feel faintly grubby and ashamed, but I am bored. Having had five years at home to concentrate on my children has been an amazing gift, and was the right decision, but I have had to confront the truth that I need to get back to something else. Writing I love, but the novel that is buzzing round in my head is not happening on the page, and I suspect part of that is due to a residual sense of guilt and feeling of uselessness.

Do I agree that a person’s self-worth and value is tied up in what they do for a living? I say no, but, deep down, I think I do. I am tired of the “what do you do all day?” – from others, and from myself, even when I know the answer. The privilege of my education and training is always there in the back of my mind; the use that I’m making of both, at present, forces me to be honest with myself and admit that I’m not. I’m lonely, too: Twitter has been a lifesaver for me over the past few years, but although I enjoy my own company and the solitude of a quiet house, I’m starting to sense a need to work within a team at least part of the time. There’s also the external structure of “employment” as opposed to self-employment – again a bonus for someone who can always find something important that needs doing (or reading) first.

Will anyone have me? I’ve been scouring job pages for a while, now, trying to match what I can offer with what I want and need from a job. I have no illusions about swanning back in at a particular level; there’s nothing that I’d consider beneath me, provided that it pays the childcare I’ll need in order to work. At the back of my mind is the knowledge that I am incredibly lucky in having a chance to perhaps make a choice about where I go from here, and the dim awareness that I should at least try to think strategically about where things could take me. I have had some encouraging feedback, but I know it’s a long road ahead, and – if I’m being honest – I’m terrified and spectacularly unconfident.

And then, of course, there are the children. My eldest two were at nursery from a few months old: long, long days in a setting which, although I tried not to think too much about it at the time, really wasn’t ideal. Since No1 started preschool, though, I’ve been here, at home – always there to take them in the morning, always there to collect them at the end of the day, always there when they’ve had a doctor’s appointment or been poorly or  during the holidays. They have lots of time at home around their schooldays, and, within the limits of cost and logistics, they enjoy after-school activities and playdates. My husband’s industry is almost exclusively male and notoriously family-unfriendly (something else to feel guilty about is that I have facilitated him not having ever to trouble his employers on account of his fatherhood, though he more than shares the burden when he’s at home). We have no family who can help out, and while there’s an option of wraparound at school, it has limitations, particularly for the older children – and fundamentally, they are perfectly happy as things stand.

Doubtless they would benefit in some ways from me working. We’d have more money, for a start. We are very fortunate in being able to manage as we do, but there’s not a lot for extras. They would see me using my brain and contributing financially to the household. But on balance? I can’t honestly convince myself that they’d be better off. It feels like I’m taking something of value away from them, out of principle or self-interest.

So there we have it. I warned you it was self-indulgent. Sooner or later, I will work again – I have to, even if just to keep myself in my old age. I always knew I would, even when I left work originally. I just didn’t expect to feel so….guilty.

One in a million

I grew up in Newcastle. I grew up watching the Great North Run, if not in person, then on the TV. I’ve never run it, and I doubt I ever will, but it isn’t just the landmarks of my hometown that make it the world’s greatest marathon for me. It’s the people who take part.

There has never been a time when there hasn’t been a face to look for in the crowds. Never a year when I haven’t sponsored someone in my family, or my circle of friends, or a colleague. Never any September, sunny or pouring down with Geordie rain, that there’s not been a brightly coloured vest or daft costume among the hoards of others that hasn’t tugged a little bit more at my heart. 

Tomorrow, I’ll be watching it in the company of my little niece and nephew while their parents, my sister and brother-in-law, join the rest of the wobbly legs and dodgy stomachs on the start line. They’ll be lining up with my other members of our family, and friends, so many friends, all in their white vests, in memory of my wonderful cousin who died almost a year ago. 

The past twelve months have taught me much about grief and sudden loss that I wish I had never had to learn so close at hand. The pain and the bereavement are not mine to write about, but the forever-afterness of tragedy, even when the initial drama and shock have subsided, has been a hard-learned lesson in appreciating life.  Life in its tiny, everyday moments as well as its highlights; life in the people around, and the knowledge that nothing is certain to be tomorrow as it has been today. 

I don’t know if my brother, or sister, or cousins, or any of their team is the millionth ever Great North Runner, tucked away among tomorrow’s entrants. I don’t know how many millions of pounds will be raised by the 56 000 people covering just over 13 miles in their lycra and blisters and chaffed unmentionables. I don’t know how many names will be carried in their hearts; how many tears and heartaches and bitter nights lie behind the smiles and cheers and camaraderie en route. But I know that every step along the way is a promise to remember. A pledge to make a difference, whether for someone who needs that help, or in  memory of someone who no longer can. Every step is a tribute to love, and, despite everything, to hope.

Good luck to everyone who is running tomorrow, whatever your reasons for doing so. Even as you jostle together, thousands and thousands and thousands strong, you are all one in a million. 

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https://www.justgiving.com/remember/101232/Simon-Bates