Tag Archives: Parenting

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.

 

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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

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.

 

Schrödinger’s Mum

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

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

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

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

It was a lovely image, one of those snapshots of motherhood that matches exactly the gallery we all seem to carry within us: This is what being a mum looks like. 

The image that we look forward to and the one we miss when it’s past.

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

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

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

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Working v Occupation

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

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

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

Only kidding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peer(cing) pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just don’t know what to do.

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

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

I don’t know.

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

The (Other) Mothers

Until very recently, if you’d asked me to tell you three facts about myself, I might have answered the following: I have bright red hair. I am incurably clumsy. I used to have a career.

To my (continuing) astonishment, if you asked me the same question today, those facts would have changed. I still have hair next to which carrots look insipid. I still trip over invisible obstacles. But, somehow, the career has moved from being a thing very firmly in my past to being, quite possibly, a thing in my future too.

Being at home with my children for the past few years has been my choice, albeit one forced slightly by circumstances. It has been that most grown-up of things; a compromise, neither principled nor perfect, but good enough. Now that there is a chance of going back into work that I loved, though, I’ve been slightly taken aback by the sense of freedom I feel at the prospect of being something other than a mother and housewife again.

My feelings about returning to work are one thing. The varying reactions of other mothers in my circle, both online and in real life, however, have really struck me as worthy of writing about.

This is a post which has lurked behind everything I’ve ever written on working and childcare. The fact that I am now on the brink of working five days a week again, instead of being the loathed figure of the smug middle class stay at home mum, means that I feel free to write what I have always thought about the debates we have about working motherhood without being considered to have an agenda of defending or justifying my own situation.

Voices like mine, stories like mine, families like mine, with education and privilege and some degree of autonomy over our choices; voices that dominate the whole public topic of combining employment and parenthood, are precisely the voices that we don’t need to be hearing. With the best motivations in the world, with all our legitimate angst over the effects of our life decisions on our children, we skew the issues and contribute to narrowing the options for others who don’t have our advantages. It isn’t that our voices aren’t invalid or don’t matter; more that they set a narrative which just doesn’t match the reality which many women live.

I mentioned above the reactions of others to my proposed change of direction. Lots of people have been supportive, lots have said how much I will enjoy work again, notwithstanding the logistical challenges and the tug of changing my children’s lives so dramatically. But lots, too, have told me quite plainly that they think I am mad; those, by and large, who work because they have no choice but to do so, in jobs and at hours that they wouldn’t choose, with no discernible reward in achievement or pay, and with a complicated and costly structure of childcare keeping the whole thing together. These are women who feel like they are letting their children down by working too, just as I think most of us do (logically or otherwise) at some point, but who will never have the chance to opt-out or downshift or start their own business to work flexibly around the school day.

I chose to leave work, because I felt pulled in two and because our only viable option for childcare was naff at best. But I was able to make that choice because I had a husband with a decent income, and an education behind me which I knew would allow me to re-enter the world of work when I wanted to, even if in a different sphere to that I left. I choose, now, to return, with the benefits of being able to negotiate a degree of flexibility, with a salary which will smooth the way and with access to decent wraparound childcare which might not be exactly where my children would choose to be day in, day out, but which is more than fine. It’s not representative of most people’s circumstances, and it shouldn’t be used as a means to illustrate that working motherhood is attainable for all on the same terms.

Every time a politician or a journalist (or, let’s be honest, a blogger like me) writes about the importance and benefits of working to them personally and to their family, it reinforces the presumption that working per se is always without negative effects in all circumstances, and I just don’t believe that to be the case. Women across society may well have legitimate reason or need to prioritise being available to their children over paid work from time to time without it being deemed an excuse to skive.

I don’t believe that its parents working harms a child, nor that a mother’s place is at home. I do, however, believe that very many women quite reasonably want to be able to make that choice, particularly when their children are very small. I do believe that forcing women to take up low-paid work supported by poor-quality childcare is not in their best interests, or those of their children, and I believe also that we don’t hear nearly enough in support of these women, or recognition that this is not what they would choose.

In an era of low wages and job insecurity, it is simply not fair to insist that parenting is an indulgence only available to those who have saved up enough beforehand. Many, many people will never be in a position to do that. Do we really want babies to be an luxury for the rich alone?

I’m not proposing a solution here, Nor am I criticising women who take any of the routes outlined above – increasing flexibility in the workplace can only ever be a good thing – or those (like me) who write about their own experiences. It is disingenuous, however, to translate this into meaning that all mothers can and should work in all circumstances without reference to the fact that they are mothers. I wish, without it being in my power to make it so, that we could hear from and accept the words of mothers from all parts of society, not just a small, comparatively fortunate one.

An overhaul of the social security system to allow ALL women to decide how to spend their children’s early years is never going to happen. We’re going in the opposite direction. Some honesty, though, that many, many mothers have no choice at all would, at least, acknowledge their situation rather than sugar coat it with the language of us who do – limited as it may be.

Jigsaws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making families work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What-if-itis

I haven’t been here much recently. Apart from having given up Twitter for Lent, which always impacts on my blogging (largely because I subside into a soupy state of ill-informed parochial content), I’ve been doing my bit in my extended family’s concerted recent efforts to drain the resources of the NHS.

I found myself sitting two nights ago on the children’s ward of the local hospital, with my youngest, in the self-same bed that his sister had vacated four days earlier after scheduled surgery. A call to the GPs, following a concerned pick-up request from nursery on the grounds that he was struggling to breathe and was distressed, resulted in an appointment a few hours later, without any need on my part to claim emergency. The GP saw us quickly, assessed him thoroughly, spoke to her counterparts at hospital, and dispatched us for the treatment both parties felt he needed. A&E triaged him efficiently, treated him swiftly, and liaised with their colleagues on the children’s ward to bring us upstairs to a clean, quiet ward and a packet of sandwiches for a hungry little boy who’d missed his tea.

Whether it was the sandwiches, the nebuliser, or just that miraculous ability of children to go from death’s door to absolutely fine as soon as they’re within ten feet of a medic, he was, by the time we saw the paediatrician who wanted to check him over, patently well enough not to need the precious hospital bed he was sitting next to (my lap winning out, eventually, over the magic up-and-down mechanism). There were more than hints from the doctor of overreaction, which I can understand, given how No3 was presenting at 11pm. The fact that his oxygen levels at 4pm had been low enough to warrant strong suggestions, from health professionals, for an ambulance (suggestions which we didn’t act on) seemed to count for little.

The ward was jammed with sick children, and in fact closed to new admissions while we were there. I can understand the frustration at having well kids blocking beds, though it was annoying to be accused of having rocked up to Casualty on a whim and a cough. This time, I know that any overreaction wasn’t mine. I don’t think that, actually, there was any at all, given the bald facts of his medical history and his condition when he first saw the GP.

As we sat on the busy ward, though, hearing the endless incoming calls from Urgent Care and A&E, I wondered how we judge “overreaction”. It’s easy to see in someone else’s decision to visit the doctor a fidgety hypochondria. We all know that Other People, demanding antibiotics, are threatening the medical profession’s ability to fight disease. The over-anxious mother, whisking her child off for inspection the moment he or she exhibits the slightest sniffle, is a stock image. But who is really to blame?

Driving home on Tuesday night at midnight, tired with the worry and the late night, irritated with the implication that I’d been wasting time, I thought about the culture in which we raise our children and are encouraged to take responsibility for our own health. I drove past adverts in bus shelters from Cancer Research, beseeching commuters to go and get checked out a variety of apparently innocuous symptoms that have the (usually tiny) potential to be anything but. There are tragic stories in every newspaper, every magazine, about clues missed and opportunities lost to catch a disease before it progressed too far. Facebook (and Twitter, when I’m on it) do excellent jobs of allowing campaigns to raise awareness of various health conditions, too often, sadly, arising from personal loss, which yet can’t help but contribute to a sort of pervasive anxiety and a distorted perception of risk.

Given the context in which we live, I don’t think it’s altogether fair to sneer that parents (actually, usually mothers) are excessively cautious in their concern. It’s silly, though tempting, to hark back to the innocence of earlier days. Ignorance killed. It still can. We’re caught in an impossibly difficult position between being expected to follow our “instinct” to divine when our children are seriously ill (an instinct which I must be lacking, since the only time that any of my children really did need very urgent intervention was – oops! – the time when I was happy to dismiss his symptoms as a slight cold)  while knowing when not to bother the doctor with trivialities. And all the time, whether we realise it or not, our judgement is shaded by the exhortations not to ignore, not to delay, not to dismiss…just in case.

It’s hard to have faith in the statistics and confide in the expertise and professionalism of our doctors, when we’re constantly being reminded of the one-in-a-millions. They don’t feel so rare when you hear about them every day. We’re frightened of getting it wrong, because we see, so clearly, what can happen when we do.

I don’t know what the answer is. Financially and practically, it’s obviously impossible to subject every person in the country to a comprehensive overhaul, or to investigate to the nth degree any small niggle to eradicate any possibility of it developing into something more sinister. I feel sorry for health care professionals, operating under so many constraints, whose reassurance seems nowadays to have a limited shelf-life, and who can’t help but be haunted by the spectre of getting it wrong. Whatever cures and medical advances the next few years hold, I suspect that what-if-itis is going nowhere.