Wednesday, 22 December 2010

why reading matters

EVERY time I shut the fridge door and one of the magnetic letters falls off, I'm tempted to sweep the whole lot clear. It's not as if they are really serving their intended purpose: my son is always game to help spell out the word 'bum' and then fall over in hysterics, but that's about as far as literacy goes.
Then I read this, possibly one of the saddest things I've read this side of Christmas. It was forwarded by a teacher who set her class the task of 'reviewing' a book at home. The child who wrote this didn't have any books at home, so did their level best with the only available thing: a Yellow Pages.
It's been circulated in defence of Bookstart, which most parents of under-fives will recognise as the programme that gives out fantastically well-chosen packs of free books on certain birthdays to encourage the habit of reading. Its government funding was cut by 100 per cent last week, and its future is now uncertain. For children growing up in homes where nobody ever reads them a goodnight story, one more little chink of light is extinguished.
There's a respectable argument that it doesn't really matter. At our local library, it was always the middle class parents (yes, me included) bossily demanding their Bookstart bags: how many of those free books ended up on already well-stuffed shelves, subsidising parents who frankly didn't need them and completely bypassing the parents who did? Maybe we're kidding ourselves to think it made any difference.
But if you look at the wider context, not all of it political, the loss of Bookstart is worrying. Take the round-the-clock temptation of television for preschoolers, which may be a godsend to frazzled parents (again, me included) but arguably doesn't teach language as well as interacting with real people. Add in cuts to local libraries, the one place hard-up parents can get books for free. Then scrap children's right to 'one to one' catch up tuition in school if they fall behind with literacy. Are too many steps on the road to reading now at risk?

Friday, 17 December 2010

on living with ghosts

We have ghosts in our attic. And actually in our cupboards, on top of wardrobes, under the beds, anywhere you could squeeze a cardboard box: swathed in bubble wrap and masking tape, they are the ghosts of lives past, present and perhaps yet to come.
We've just moved house, one reason blogging has been shamefully light for the last few weeks: I've done nothing for weeks but frantically shovel things into boxes, and then frantically shovel them out again at the other end. But it has been an unexpectedly revealing process.
We had the usual pre-move debate about what could legitimately be thrown out. My pack rat husband clung indignantly on to vast piles of junk: broken stereos, miles of unidentified cabling, mystery bits of plastic, old band tour Tshirts with holes in.
Whereas I clung indignantly on to vast piles of different junk: teenage diaries, pages of toddler scribbles, photographs of people I haven't spoken to in 20 years. And of course, almost everything we'd jointly refused to get rid of went straight from the loft at the old house to the loft in the new one, doubtless to stay there undisturbed until we move again.
Really, we should throw out anything that hasn't been opened in six months. But the trouble is those ghosts. Because this isn't just useless clutter: this is useless clutter with meaning. It represents the lives we haven't lived, and would either (in a parallel universe) quite like to live or are quietly grateful we didn't.
That's why I need three skirts that I could only wear if I lost half a stone, and a pile of love letters from someone I didn't marry, and a boxful of baby things just in case: it's why my husband needs his mouldering cricket pads, despite not having played cricket for at least 15 years, because apparently this summer he might.
Ours are for the most part friendly ghosts: they don't haunt us from behind closed doors. They're just other lives we might have led, which for the most part remind us that we quite like the life we chose. I think they're going to be happy in this house. I think we are too.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

When part time becomes 'workshy'

THERE can't be a part timer alive who hasn't come across someone convinced they are taking the easy way out: that doing 'only' two days a week means you're slacking, not serious, or spending the rest of your time watching Trisha.
But whatever people's private prejudices, until now the state has not ruled on whether and when we 'should' be working more hours. Is that about to change?
There's a strange little clause buried in last week's welfare reform plans which suggests it might be. The headlines were all about taking benefits away from dole claimants who won't take a job, but the small print of the white paper's chapter on conditionality suggests in future, ministers might also target people working limited hours.
It's technical and complicated but would basically involve raising the threshold for intervention to include people who are working but not earning much, and so still get some benefits intended for the lowpaid - like, for example, housing benefit. These people could then presumably be told to increase their hours or risk losing some of that state help. As the paper explains, the government could then 'encourage people to increase their earnings and hours in a way that we have never been able to do before', until they're weaned off benefits all together.
In other words, if you're a part-timer not earning much (and many jobs that fit around school hours are badly paid), you could be forced to try and work more.
There's very little detail about this will work, so perhaps it wouldn't apply to parents of young children. Perhaps it's just about ensuring people don't keep a black market job on the side, while doing the minimum in 'official' work to keep the JobCentre happy. But it sets a dramatic precedent.
Mothers who work part time often face the rather bitter comment that it 'must be nice to have the choice', as if we were all the pampered wives of rich spouses. But part time work exists in all income brackets and sometimes it's not a banker husband but the state that makes it feasible to spend time with your children.
Perhaps ministers think it's no longer fair for taxpayers who may themselves be doing long hours to subsidise other people's family lives. But if so, they should start a public debate about whether that's what we really want - preferably without reinforcing the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong, or lazy, about working less than five days a week.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

a year on

HOW did that go so fast? It's only because today is Halloween that I realised this is actually the anniversary of this blog project. It was a year ago today that I walked out of my much-loved job and gave myself a year to get a life. So having turned my career and our family life upside down by quitting and moving to the country, where are we a year on?

Things my son has learned in the last year.
1. Those are not generally known as 'little pig houses', and they will not be blown down by a big bad wolf. They are called thatched cottages and weekending bankers pay fortunes for them.
2. That is not 'a milk float'. That is what buses look like in the country.
3. Where to find blackberries, how to catch crayfish, how to tell if a horse is about to bite, what a day-old calf looks like, and why it's not advisable to wade into a river deeper than your wellies.

The things I've learned are a little more complicated, however.
1. That desperately wanting to spend more time with my son doesn't mean it will always be blissful. It took a while to accept that there were good days and bad days at home, just as there are at work - and that's okay.
2. That my dreams of a smooth and harmonious domestic life in which nobody ever loses their keys and I have time to hand-stitch quilts were precisely that: dreams. We still have no bathroom curtains. I still kill houseplants. Perhaps if I was at home full time instead of working three days a week, that would be different, but I doubt it: wherever there are small children, there will be chaos, at least if I'm in charge. It's just that I'm no longer too exhausted to cope with it.
3. That the earth isn't flat. I was privately afraid that by going freelance I might never work again: I'd just fall off the edge of the world. Yet having sailed blithely over, it turns out there are whole new worlds out there. Going home doesn't mean being defined by home.
4. That what I thought I wanted isn't really what I wanted. I thought I needed a complete change of career: now I see I still love writing, and the old career just needed tweaking to fit.
5. That I don't much care what other people think. There are many ways to be involved in a public conversation: what I now lack in depth of involvement in politics, I gain in breadth of ways to cover what interests me. A few months ago I wrote about domestic violence for Red magazine, and a reader wrote in to say it had given her the courage to stay away from her violent partner. I can't remember much I wrote as a political editor that had a direct and practical impact on people's lives.
6. That I wouldn't go back: not for double or triple the salary, and regardless of what happens next. And that for once, I'm genuinely looking forward to the year to come.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

under pressure

Oh, curses. My days as a totalitarian mother are numbered: it has finally dawned on my little boy that other children get stuff he doesn't.
It started last week when (cue tragic face) he complained that 'everyone else has squeezy yoghurt in tubes.' Under questioning, 'everyone else' turned out to mean one little girl at his childminder's, but nonetheless it's clear: peer pressure has landed. He's since forgotten it, but I suspect the days of fobbing him off with natural yogurt plus fresh fruit and no E-numbers - or brown bread instead of white, or water instead of juice, or raisins instead of sweets, or anything instead of the stuff that kids with less drearily self-righteous parents allow them - are drawing to a close.
And as he gets older, I now see there will be trickier issues than lunchboxes. He can't read yet, but has recognised brands for at least a year: he doesn't watch TV adverts, but pounces on the endless toy catalogues coming through the door (despite me religiously ticking the 'no don't bombard me with your literature option' when ordering online) or anything featuring a picture of Fireman Sam. Advertising has its hooks in him already, like it or not: now comes the tricky job of explaining why you can't always have what you want - and why not everything that glitters (or squeezes) is necessarily gold.
I don't want to give in: I recognise that part of good parenting is teaching children to accept the limits of desire. But adults are subject to peer pressure ourselves: it only takes a few parents to buy their five-year-old an iphone for Christmas (and yes, unbelievably, some will) before everyone starts worrying their child's the odd one out.
For parents who are broke, it's torture: and even the comfortably-off could do without being dragged into the arms race.
So given this will be an anxious Christmas for many parents whose jobs are uncertain, it seems a good time to try and relieve the commercial pressure. Any ideas?

Friday, 22 October 2010

the rise of the commuter granny

IT's a well-known fact that many of us live so far from our parents that the extended family as it once was - all pitching in to help out - is just a memory. And like many well known facts, it's not actually true.
Firstly, the golden age was never that golden: yes, we're more mobile now, but people have moved away for work for centuries. And secondly, nearby or not one in three of us still have some help from grandparents with childcare. How come? Because the hidden consequence of families scattering far and wide is sometimes not the lonely parent, but the rise of the commuter granny.
I know people whose parents come weekly to London from Kent, Lincolnshire, Surrey, and Oxfordshire to help out. My own parents have bailed us out several times despite living three hours' drive away. The recent Family Commission report from the charity 4Children found that while most couples don't live near their extended families, 60 per cent still relied on grandparents for support. They're still helping, but from further away - and possibly at greater cost to themselves.
This column describing a lonely granny in the playground, surrounded by nannies and mothers who 'swan about in boots and swirly coats' but don't talk to her, made me think. Granny childcare round the corner, fitting the kids round their own lives, is one thing: but some commuter grannies can be stranded miles from home, knowing nobody locally, a generation older than anyone at playgroup. It's stressful to parent like that, so why wouldn't it be stressful for grandparents, however much they love the kids?
Yet to admit to struggling is to feel they've not just let down their grandchildren but the adult children who rely on them. No wonder grandparents in Spain threatened to go on strike earlier this summer. Are grannies here taking more of the strain than we realise?

Monday, 18 October 2010

how i spent your money

I WANT thousands of pounds of your hard-earned cash starting next September, and that's just the start of it.
Sounds bad, doesn't it? Unless I put it the more conventional way, namely: I'm about to apply for a primary school place for my son, and I think his education (like all children's education) should be funded from everyone's taxes.
The looming threat of the Great Spending Axe falling this Wednesday set me thinking about what my family takes from the state - or more accurately what my son takes, since he's the spendthrift one (we consume public services most heavily when we're either fresh from the cradle or close to the grave).
From the minute he was born - expensively, if probably life-savingly, by Casearean - it can seem as if all he and I have done is hoover up perks. Health visitors, vaccinations, free prescriptions and dental treatment, child benefit, even free baby yoga at the local children's centre: then as he got older, free bookpacks, tax breaks for childcare via a salary sacrifice scheme, subsidised playgroups, swimming and library access, various over-anxious trips to the doctor, and a free part-time nursery place. For three years, we have been merrily spending your money. Were we worth it?
Hopefully, in decades to come his taxes will be funding your pensions. It is not impossible, I suppose, that he will discover a cure for cancer (though he currently wants to be a frog when he grows up). And of course, his parents paid their whack for decades, so you could argue we're just getting some of it back.
But to the one in five of our contemporaries who paid the same taxes and either didn't want or couldn't have children, that may seem (as the blogger Iain Dale suggests here) unfair. And while children are generally a good idea should one wish the human race to continue, the planet isn't exactly short of the blighters.
So as that axe descends and everyone feels the pain, I suspect a bigger debate may begin about what children contribute to the greater good, aside from ruining perfectly good restaurants by running round and shouting. Perhaps just as some childfree employees feel aggrieved (however unfairly) about parents' rights to time off and leave, as public money gets tight there will be a groundswell of indignation about spending on children. I certainly can't defend every single penny spent on mine.
Nonetheless, I still think there's a sound case for you subsidising my children, and me subsidising yours - and not just because early investment in infant health, nursery education, and family support saves millions being spent in adulthood on problems that could have been solved cheaply in the cradle.
It is a fundamental human instinct to protect and nurture the next generation, to hope for better times, to want more for them than we had for ourselves: it fosters longterm thinking, inspires human progress, drives us forward as a species. Let's just hope we are still going forwards after Wednesday.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

parenthood & the art of fearlessness

NAPPY brain. Preg head. 'She's just not as, well, committed as she was.' There are a million ways, subtle and unsubtle, to suggest someone with children is no longer up to her job. There are oddly few to describe the ways in which parenthood makes you work better - not just more efficiently (nothing like a nursery pickup looming to focus the mind), but actually better.
So it was cheering to see the TV presenter Claudia Winkleman identifying one of them in an interview with The Times at the weekend. She said she wasn't too daunted about taking over from Jonathan Ross on Film 2010 because "once you’ve had an episiotomy, you don’t give a toss about anything....That’s what I’ll be saying to myself, as we go live: ‘At least this isn’t going to end in stitches"'. The great unsung advantage of parenthood is, counter-intuitively, a new kind of fearlessness.
The highlight of pregnancy for me was the faintly tipsy feeling some women get in the middle trimester where, tranquilised with oestrogen, all suddenly seems hazily well with the world. I remember telling a friend I wished that feeling could last forever and she rather wisely said: it doesn't, but you will never sweat the work stuff in the same way again.
She was too kind to add 'because you'll be worrying yourself stupid about your kids instead.' But an unexpected bonus of motherhood for me, having been far too uptight about my work all my life, was indeed a more detached attitude. Stuff I wasted too much time worrying about - office politics, the odd story falling through, what other people thought of me - shrank into insignificance compared with the unthinkable prospect of something happening to my son. In a strange way, that liberated me to be a better journalist, to take more risks - something many women are too cautious about. Too much commitment isn't always, professionally speaking, a good thing. Shame they don't tell you that in What to Expect When You're Expecting.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

the second shift

HOW many batteries does the average family get through? Judging by how often a toy is yanked from its box only to find it's missing four AAs, probably a fair few. But not ten a week. Which is the number of lunchboxes a two-child family consumes between Monday and Friday.
The comparison is illuminating because according to this survey of 3,000 couples, battery changing is a daddy job in most homes and lunchbox-packing a mummy job. Other stuff couples apparently think is dad's responsibility includes teaching children to ride their bikes, playing sports, disiplining children: mothers, meanwhile are washing, ironing, doing the school run. Look at that list and watch the last 40 years melt away like it never happened: there is little on either that the average Seventies dad, in all his unreconstructed glory, or Seventies housewife wouldn't have done.
This list puzzles me, because we all know families who aren't like that (plenty of them read and comment on this blog). Perhaps all the families in which daddy makes the sandwiches while mummy is out addressing the United Nations were just too busy to do the questionnaire. Perhaps fathers aren't quite comfortable admitting to doing what was traditionally women's work.
But these findings suggest that at least in some families, social change hasn't run very deep at all. Men do more of the 'hero' jobs - fix the beloved toy when it breaks, to a chorus of adulation - and women more of the 'taken for granted' ones. Men take care of the one-off or infrequent tasks - building a treehouse, anyone? - and women the chores that get done several times a day, like cooking. (Interestingly, cleaning isn't on either sex's list: are they nobly scrubbing the loo together, or delegating to the au pair?)
Both sexes end up with an equally long list of chores, which might look fair, but they're not putting in an equal number of hours. Yet seven in ten mothers apparently thought this was a fair deal: why?
One reason could be that mothers are more likely than fathers to work part-time or not work, so might think it's reasonable for them to do more of the so-called 'second shift' at home. But if so, that raises an interesting chicken and egg question. Which comes first: women's desire to spend less time in the office (leading them to do more at home) or women's getting lumbered with more at home (leaving them too knackered to work long hours)?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Whose benefit?

CHOCOLATE. Someone to do the ironing. A vat of Infacol. Just a few of the things I'd have been better spending my child benefit on than the stuff I anxiously bought my perfect firstborn (baby massage sessions to cure the colic, which he greeted with outrage; a stupidly complicated stairgate that never got built because we lost the instructions). But spend it on someone else's children? That sure divides the sheep from the goats.
This week the Liberal Democrats voted pointedly at their conference to keep child benefit universal - paid to anyone regardless of income. Their leader, on the other hand, said he and his lawyer wife Miriam don't really need it. Which suggests the Treasury is still considering whether (and how) to slash the child benefit bill for the Bugaboo-pushing classes.
One sees their point. I can't pretend I need £80 a month as much as single mothers facing swingeing welfare cuts or families clinging on with their fingernails. Why not tax it, or take it away from me?
The trouble is it's not so easy. Child benefit goes to mothers, and in Britain, couples are assessed separately for tax. So scrap it for higher rate taxpaying mothers, and the non-working Wag of a squillionaire footballer keeps it while a nursing sister whose husband is out of work could lose out.
You could find a way round that. But it might mean breaching the principle that the money always goes to mothers - repeatedly proven to be the best way of it reaching children, particularly in families where an abusive man holds the purse strings.
Or you could stop child benefit for over-16s still in education, which is largely a middle class perk (the poorest children tend to leave straight after GCSEs, so don't get child benefit any more). But for those kids from deprived backgrounds who do consider sixthform, it could be a powerful deterrent.
The Labour MP-turned-welfare-czar Frank Field's idea is interesting: scrap child benefit for older kids and pay a big lump sum in the preschool years, enough to make a serious dent in childcare costs or subsidise working mothers going part time. But it doesn't really save money upfront, so it probably won't happen.
We'll see what the Treasury does next month. But if it ducks reform, were I a coalition of children's charities I'd be tempted to exploit that liberal guilt and politely invite wealthier parents (starting, perhaps, with the Clegg-Gonzalezes?) to donate what they might have been taxed to a fund supporting poorer families through the recession. How terribly Big Society.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

the meaning of jam

Where did autumn come from, already? There is mist in the morning when I walk the dog, and the hedgerows drip with blackberries, crab apples, rosehips and sloes - one last mad flush of fruiting, before the cold sets in. I hate the descent of winter, but there is one consolation to these last fleeting days of sunshine: you can bottle it.
Making jam is the ultimate cliche of downshifting mothers. It's everyone's shorthand for what people do when they've stopped work - 'oh, she's moving to the countryside to, like, make jam or something' - and is one of those furtive fantasies many working women have about what they might do if only they had more time. Me included: the first batch I ever made was the summer after my maternity leave ended, with a glut of plums from the tree in our old London garden, stoning pounds and pounds of them at about midnight in some sort of lunatic attempt to compensate for my general lack of domestic goddessness.
I'm not sure why jam is such a metaphor for a certain kind of life. It takes time, of course, and a little patient stirring: it smacks of village fetes, and cream teas, and retro snippets of gingham for lids. It looks lovely lined up in glowing rows in the cupboard (or for extra fantasy points, in a pantry).
But not for nothing are jams, jellies and pickles known as preserves: making them is also about saving a bit of the good times for the lean months, holding on to a memory of summer. It's a reminder that once there were times of plenty and times of scarcity, not just all-year-round airfreighted fruit: and for me at least, it harks back to childhood. And not just all that Little House on the Prairie I read in my formative years, where most of the plot apparently revolved around bottling peaches.
My mother makes terrific jam (apart from the year she burnt the marmalade, distracted by President Obama's inauguration speech). And when I do the same, it feels as if I'm preserving more than fruit: a fragment of family history, a thread of continuity. I don't use a sugar thermometer because it feels uncomfortably high tech: I do the trick with ice-cold saucers and waiting until a drop of liquid jam solidifies on them, which is no doubt how my grandmother also did it.
We no longer have a plum tree here so it's blackberry jam instead, and maybe a crab apple jelly (for recipes, try foraging food blogger Norfolk Kitchen). And once the frosts have thinned the skins of the sloes, it will be time for sloe gin, which just happens to make the base of a particularly lethal champagne cocktail. Perfect to see us through the darkness to spring.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

what not to wear

Nothing says September like a new uniform, preferably one you won't grow into for about three years. And I'm not talking about the children.
I went to a girls' school with a purposely hideous uniform, designed presumably to make sure none of us would get pregnant before finishing our Alevels. If you were uber-cool (I wasn't) you shortened it and tightened it until you got sent home. If you were only ordinarily cool (I wasn't) you mutinously wore it long in school and rolled it over four inches at the waist to saunter home. Either way, one glance at someone's skirt and one at their tie (worn with fat knot, uncool: skinny side out, cool) revealed everything.
Sixth form was a long time ago. But if you think you're not still wearing a 'uniform' - and that others don't judge you on it - you're probably very wrong.
As this piece from science writer Ben Goldacre in the Guardian sets out, how women look can completely change people's perception of what they actually do: he cites a study showing female musicians were judged less proficient when they played in jeans than when they did so in a concert frock (even though the 'performance' was actually an identical tape recording, so musically there was no difference). If you don't look the part, you don't sound it.
Of course men are subject to similar judgements: would you trust a consultant in a scruffy Tshirt, or a white coat? But the big problem for women is managing careers where the 'right' uniform is really a man's: where you stand out like a sore thumb whatever you wear, because simply by being female you're not the norm. The strange obsession with what women politicians wear - from Jacqui Smith's cleavage to Theresa May's kitten heels - is partly because they can't wear what most people still think of as a politician's uniform, namely sober male tailoring: they stand out, no matter what.
My own uniform when I started covering politics was the dullest suit I could find: I was a young looking 26, constantly being mistaken for the secretary or the work experience girl, and desperately needed to look older. The big surprise was finding out years later that motherhood has an equally complicated sartorial code, where a brand of leggings or a Boden ballet pump can classify you as accurately as an old school skirt.
One of the reasons I've bought hardly any clothes for the last year is that I'm not sure what the dress code is for this particular stage of my life. Will I ever need a wardrobe full of suits again? If there's one thing more complicated than having uniform rules, it's not having any.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

what mothers do all day

I'm playing helicopters with my son, and as ever, he has grabbed the leading role. He is the pilot, and apparently 'you are the mummy.'
Am not sure what a helicopter pilot's mummy does in combat. 'Nothing,' he says cheerily. On being pressed as to what a mummy does generally, he is stumped for a while, before volunteering that 'you wear silly dresses.' (I'm in jeans, as usual). He can't think of anything else.
What does a mummy do? I've just been reading Naomi Stadlen's book What Mothers Do, which argues that all the mindless things you do blearily on autopilot with a small baby are pleasingly critical to stages of the baby's development. But it only applies to babies. Quite what mothers do for three-year-olds remains unclear.
The line about a mother being a CEO of her own household is well-meaning, but cannot be said with a straight face if you are English. I am absolutely nothing like a CEO. I couldn't honestly say I was in command of anything - offspring, husband, housework - except possibly the dog on a good day.
A CEO does not get woken up at 3am by the most junior member of their organisation, who quite fancies a drink of water. A CEO has people to get them coffee and fetch their drycleaning for them, not the other way round. A CEO is treated (at least in their earshot) with fawning respect. Nobody throws lego at a CEO.
There is no other job description requiring the same combination of daunting responsibility, occasional life and death decisions, and endless wiping things up. It's like being a brain surgeon, while simultaneously having to mop the operating theatre floor, with no actual job training beyond occasionally hanging out in Starbucks with other untrained brain surgeons.
Actually what it's like is building a house, where you are simultaneously the architect and the hired grunt shovelling earth. In the early stages the client asks for things and when you build them shouts 'Nooo! Not that one! ANOTHER ONE!'. In the middle stages, the client demands a house like the one everyone else at school has, only for you to discover halfway through building it that everyone else at school now has something different.
And in the final stages, the client bellows that they hate you and NEVER WANTED YOU TO BE THEIR ARCHITECT, and then borrows your car and crashes it.
But once the thing is built, mostly you're quite pleased with it. After a while everyone forgets their creative differences, and you may even come out of retirement to oversee some extensions. You just have to remember, while spending several years living in a bombsite covered in dust, that there will eventually be a house. Probably.

Monday, 16 August 2010

the joy of filing

I am now the proud - and embarrassingly, I do mean proud - owner of a filing cabinet, only lightly distressed with coffeestains and paperclip scratches. I spent half the afternoon digging it out of the secondhand office warehouse down the road and heaving it up our stairs, but the research materials for my book which were previously strewn all over the spare bed are now satisfactorily stowed away in its drawers and I feel virtuous every time I look at it (which is fairly often, unavoidably: it takes up half the bloody room).
The irony of working from home and then making my house look like an office isn't lost on me, especially as my old office now looks more and more like a home: the paper moved last year to new headquarters that are all sofas and coffee machines and chillout areas to make everyone more creative. Unfortunately, having my own sofa and coffee on tap at home makes me not so much creative as inclined to lie around reading magazines and eating chocolate: hence the need for the grim Seventies office vibe. I was, I told myself, saving time and making myself more productive in the long run by spending a few hours getting organised.
Except that the more I think about it the more I suspect it's the (semi) grownup version of spending hours painstakingly colouring in your revision timetable with millions of different highlighters. File that under P for Procrastination, then.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

a window of one's own

Something's been bothering me for ages. It's bothered me ever since we moved into our old house when I was vastly pregnant, and therefore not agile enough to stop my husband annexing what was in theory our joint study by filling it with guitars and great tangled snakes of cable and pointless bits of paper that CAN'T BE MOVED BECAUSE I MIGHT NEED IT ONE DAY.
It has bothered me probably more in this inbetween house, where there's no study and I work from the spare bedroom - surrounded by unpacked boxes, random articles of skiwear that haven't seen snow in years, and small people raiding the desk drawers.
And it is the main reason, if we're honest, I fell in love with the crumbling wreck of a house we are now attempting to buy. It's got enough room for a study, but even though I now work from home and my husband from an office, I'm resigned to it not being entirely mine. But what it has is deep, thick walls: and that means there could be windowseats.
Admittedly, the windows are so rotten they're falling out and the walls are crumbling around them but still: windowseats! I have ALWAYS wanted a windowseat.
There could be piles of cushions, and streaming sunlight, and ideally very long curtains to hide behind: and that might buy me easily three minutes with a book and a cup of tea before someone comes running to make me play 'truck games, mummy!' or ask where the phone charger is.
Everybody needs somewhere in a home to hide. Men have sheds, in which to smoke furtively and read motorbike magazines: children crawl under tables; my grandfather had a greenhouse in which to hide from my grandmother (I don't think he even pretended there was another purpose to it). I'm not even asking for a room of my own, just a bloody window.
Although don't get me started on the idea of a pantry....

Sunday, 1 August 2010

is fatherhood a feminist issue?

AT first glance it looks like just another of those cheery "ladies! having kids will ruin your career!" stories. Half the headhunters questioned in a survey said taking a career break to have a family held women back from senior executive jobs (ie roles paying £150k and upwards).
Except if you read the small print (as the NewsAboutWomen site did here) the headhunters said the same was true of men taking time out for any reason. In other words: ladies and gentlemen, having kids will ruin your careers.
So far, so grim. But having taken part the day before in a debate on Radio Four's Today programme about feminism, it did leave me wondering: what do you call the campaign against this rather depressing state of affairs?
Feminism is the natural home for anyone believing that, on the whole, women who get pregnant need not be tarred and feathered and dispatched to a job in the postroom.
But believing in equality between the sexes only goes so far. It is after all equality (of an admittedly rubbish kind) if working fathers get just as lousy a deal as working mothers. The problem here isn't sex, but parenthood.
British law still tends to see things in gender terms: traditionally women disadvantaged by motherhood have sued for sex discrimination. Men who interrupted their careers to look after children have been relatively rare, meaning legislators haven't been forced to think about them much until now.
As they get more common, it is of course possible that recruiters will relax and simply stop binning CVs with breaks in them. But it's also possible that some men will join women on the 'daddy track' to nowheresville at work, and promotions will go to people who either don't have children or are willing not to see them so much.
So is fatherhood a feminist issue? Or, given so many more mothers than fathers still take career breaks, is that missing the point?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

life on a plate

Nothing tastes of childhood to me like a stolen strawberry, filched straight from the plant. My father used to grow them and we'd come in from the garden, faces smeared red, valiantly denying eating them.
So that's my excuse for an afternoon raiding the local Pick Your Own, where we went faintly mad and came home staggering under soft fruit. My son loved it, but in all honesty so did I.
I like picking my own fruit in the same way I like buying eggs at the farm gate: no middleman, just you and the person who produced it. I love the way the eggs come still covered in straw, with the odd wonkily-shaped one: I love that there's an honesty box for the money and that 'free range' means the chickens scratching about on the driveway in front of you. (And yes, farm eggs are even cheaper than Lidl's).
Living in the country offers a different relationship with food than we had in the city, and as someone who loves to cook and also frankly to eat, that's great. But is it, I dunno, really progress?
One rough measure of the intelligence of a species is how much of its time it spends looking for food: the more spare time it has to play, the more advanced it's likely to be.
So primitive man spent long days hunting mammoths and scavenging for berries. Then we invented farming to save us going out and finding stuff, and a few millennia later evolution finally reached its natural conclusion: the Ocado delivery. Short of having someone actually eat for you (and who knows, possibly Posh Spice does this) it couldn't be more convenient.
So how do the pampered middle classes respond? We start wandering farmers' markets, growing our own, and doing complicated things with celeriac. We watch/read/blog about food porn: as the cliche goes, we make food the new fashion.
And so we make our foodie life as timeconsuming and as difficult as we can. We're literally back to foraging for berries - though admittedly in more convenient surroundings (our local Pick Your Own has en suite kids' adventure playground, something I doubt early homo sapiens enjoyed).
In evolutionary terms, it makes no sense. On the other hand, I'm eating these strawberries as I type and they taste amazing. Does anyone know what I can do with about half a ton of blackcurrants?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

competitive (non)holidaying

So we're just back from a big, rackety, extended family holiday: the blissful kind where small children run feral, and adults don't wear shoes for a week. Sand pours out of every bag I unpack and the fridge is full of sour milk, but even that can't dampen the general sense that all is once again right with the world.
Which is why one snippet in particular leaped out from my beach reading. A third of Americans don't take all their statutory holiday,even though it's a stingy (by European standards) 14 days a year on average. The most common reason is being too overworked to, well, stop work.
Friends working in the US have long grumbled about a corporate culture where, at senior levels especially, taking a vacation is frowned upon: the done thing is to be loudly and ostentatiously at one's desk all summer, at least if you're seriously ambitious. Now the lunacy seems to be spreading: this survey suggests at least one in five Brits has cancelled holiday due to work pressure.
I admit I've done it myself, in the days of having a Proper Job, and understand the feeling that there's no alternative: but the trouble with presenteeism is that it's contagious. Once enough people in an office waive their holidays, the pressure's on everyone else to do the same or risk looking uncommitted.
I'm reminded of an exchange a few weeks ago between the five candidates for the Labour party leadership, in which David Miliband appealed for a sort of holiday non-aggression pact where all the candidates took a break from campaigning in August to spend time with their families.
Everyone nodded virtuously, but I couldn't help wondering who might be tempted to get one over on their rivals by working nonstop through the summer.
Competitive holidaying - bragging about one's month diving in the Maldives, while everyone else is camping in the rain - may be irritating. But competitive non-holidaying, among those who can afford a break? Now that's seriously antisocial.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

on housetraining boys

ACCORDING to today's papers, a 29-year-old man has held his mother hostage at gunpoint on the grounds that she wouldn't do his ironing. He didn't want to do his own, apparently, because 'it's woman's work'.
Only in America, obviously. But it did set me thinking. I doubt my son will grow up into a homicidal loon with overly high domestic expectations (not least because I don't even iron his stuff now). But I wonder about the attitudes our boys absorb towards housework.
A recent survey from the Children's Society suggested most teenage kids now do hardly any chores: three quarters of 11 to 16-year-olds have apparently not loaded a washing machine, something a supervised toddler can do. It's unclear whether both sexes were equally useless or boys did less than girls, but anecdotal evidence usually suggests the latter.
I used to be adamant my son wouldn't grow up assuming domestic stuff was women's work, for the sake of any poor future daughter-in-law: my generation may have battled in vain to convince our partners the fridge isn't restocked by pixies, but we could at least bequeath housetrained sons to the next generation.
Three years on, I'm not sure I succeeded. The small boy's love of machines means for a while nothing thrilled my son more than stuffing washing in the tumbledryer, but the older he gets - and the more interesting machines he discovers - the more interest has waned.
More worryingly, with a female childminder and a mother working part time from home, it's mostly women he sees doing domesticated things. I won't be doing his ironing when he's in his 20s. But I'm a bit worried his poor girlfriend might.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

growing up

There is a pile of baby clothes on top of the tumbledryer, waiting to be folded and put away for my smallest nephew. The nappies my son no longer needs are already in the loft, shortly to be joined by the now scorned pushchair: and I can't put off the laborious process of converting his outgrown cot into a real bed much longer, even if I have lost all the relevant screws.
Time to face facts: my baby is, if not exactly grownup, definitely not a baby any more. The all-absorbing, intensely physical years of early childhood are over and while doubtless the next phase isn't exactly easy, I suspect it won't be quite so primal. For the first time in three years - more, if you count pregnancy - a bittersweet liberation beckons.
Bittersweet partly because I had always kind of assumed by now there'd be another baby, and the same cycle starting all over again. As time goes by however, it feels safest to assume there won't. Hope is invasive, consuming one's life: a certain sadness is maybe easier to live with.
But then again, there's an undeniable giddiness that comes with leaving the early motherhood years behind. Somewhere in the distance glimmers the prospect of a life where one wouldn't always have to get up at 6am, there wouldn't be weetabix soldered to every available surface, one wouldn't have permanent backache from picking up wailing small people, and leaving the house needn't necessarily involve a ton of wetwipes and spare clothing.
There's even the dizzying possibility of civilised conversation with said child's father: perhaps even some work involving rational thought. Who knew?
It's a miniature version of the sudden burst of energy I've seen older women get when their children leave home: as if the shackles, in the nicest way, were broken. Empty nests are painful but can also bring a relief from guilt, from the huge part of motherhood that consists of just being needed (which is both a joy and at times a struggle).
And it's a useful reminder that careers, like marriages, ebb and flow. There are times when it's easiest just to keep on keeping on, and times when you have the energy to change direction. Now feels like a good time for change.
If there are to be no more prams in the hall, that leaves room for something else. And for me that's going to be a book. It's going to be called Half a Wife, it'll be published in 2012 by Chatto & Windus, and it's going to be about the future of work and the massive changes in family life that are coming together now in one big bang.
I promise I'm not going to plug it endlessly here - although I'll be wanting to pick readers' brains from time to time. But I hope it's going to fulfil one of the conditions I set myself when I left my Proper Job: that I'd take the chance to do something careerwise that I'd never have done otherwise. It's time to get out of my comfort zone.
And to stop getting sentimental over baby clothes, obviously. They are going up in the loft: they really are. Any day now...

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Reaping what I sowed

So a good three months after I planted our strawberries, I've gathered in the harvest. Both of them were lovely: sadly, not quite enough for all three of us to have one each. I reckon, allowing for plants and compost, they cost about £2.50 a berry - slightly more than I paid for two vast punnets of delicious ones from the supermarket.
Yup, yet again I've fallen into the annual trap of thinking growing your own is somehow thrifty, rather than being a ruinously expensive hobby.
This year I planted tons of rocket, spinach, lettuce and red mustard seeds; half a dozen strawberry plants; another blueberry bush, to make my supposedly self-fertilising bush actually fruit; some french bean seeds, tomato seeds and (a bit optimistically) red pepper seeds.
And now? The salads have been great: a couple of quid on seed (I had some left over from last year) will keep us in leafage until autumn and has genuinely saved us money. Herbs are also a nobrainer for anyone who cooks.
The blueberries are now fruiting, but as a £10 bush produces a small punnet's worth, it'll probably take about six years before it's in profit. The beans are all flowering and might even cover the cost of their compost.
And the tomato plants are worth it for the gorgeous smell of warm tomato leaves alone, which reminds me of my grandfather's greenhouse when I was tiny. Just as well, since although they're covered in tiny green globes I doubt they're worth it on economic grounds (all that expensive compost again: I know, I know, cheaper if you make your own, but we've not lived in this house long enough to get a heap going).
And to my surprise there are eight pepper plants, although no sign of any peppers. Hell, if they don't fruit they can be recycled as very boring houseplants.
One of the reasons for growing my own this year was to teach my son that vegetables don't all come shrinkwrapped in plastic, and that bit worked. There's something magical about turning a seed into a sprout, then into a flower and a fruit (and not just for three year olds). So educationally, it's been a triumph.
Recreationally, I've rather enjoyed pottering around in the evening sunshine ineptly pinching out tomatoes with a glass of wine. Financially, however, it's been a washout - apart from the salads and herbs, everything would have been cheaper at Waitrose.
I bet I do it all again next year.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

why twitter is the new fag break

When I gave up smoking, many years ago, it wasn't really the nicotine I missed. What I pined for was the smoking room at work, where all the renegades of the newsroom congregated to spread filthy rumours, slag off the management and bemoan the end of the golden age of news (translated: the age when you'd be doing this in the pub, not the smoking room). It took far longer to wean myself off that habit, not that I ever really did: bitching about the boss by email was fortunately invented shortly afterwards.
That same familiar feeling flooded back yesterday, going back to my old office for lunch with a friend who still works there. Bumping into a few nice ex-colleagues reminds me that the one thing I miss about office life is the people.
That's people both in the particular (the Guardian and Observer staff are an unusually nice bunch) but also the general. One of the great joys of freelance life is the absence of office politics, bruised egos and power games: but while I like not having to deal with it, I do miss gossiping about it. I miss the watercooler stuff: rumour, innuendo, the stuff of other people's lives.
These days, I rely heavily on Twitter for my virtual fag break/watercooler moment. Many of my old friends and colleagues now tweet, which helps, but as a bonus I also now get the rest of the world's office gossip too.
I waste a lot of time on social media, but perhaps it's not so much of a waste. We all need human interaction, but tend to assume that online socialising doesn't really count: that it's for cold-hearted geeks who can't deal with flesh and blood friendships.
Well maybe not, if this American study is right. It argues that using social media bumps up our levels of the hormone oxytocin (the 'bonding' hormone, which rises when you're with people you love and makes you feel happier) just as 'real' socialising does.
I'm dubious about the writer's claim to have got the same hormone spike from ten minutes on Twitter that a bridegroom got from his wedding: if true, I wouldn't bet on that marriage lasting. I'm not convinced we react the same way to words on a screen (or in a letter, or a phone call) even if we know the person they're from, as we do face to face.
But for the kind of casual office banter I miss, social media is not a bad substitute. Which means not actually having a boss is no longer a barrier to communal moaning about the boss: what a relief, eh?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

sex & the art of headline writing

Call me oldfashioned, but the screaming headline 'You'd think I could GET A DATE' over an interview with the actress Kim Cattrall does kind of infer she was discussing her frustration at being single.
So quelle surprise to find she actually told Saturday's Daily Mail it wouldn't be the end of the world if she didn't find a (fourth) husband because 'I'm free to do what I want..My big passion these days is my work.' Hmm.
So far, so normal: newspaper brings a successful (ok, forget about Sex & the City 2) woman down a peg or two by inferring that she might have an enviable career but hell, nobody wants to sleep with her. The Cattrall piece is unusual only in the sheer determination required to slap a 'woe is me' headline on these quotes.
So I'd have left it there but for opening the Times's review section to a Tracey Emin interview headlined 'I've got my sex drive back.' What followed was an intelligent and balanced interview, under a weirdly phew-what-a-scorcher headline.
Sexism again, deliberately reducing women to the level of you-would-wouldn't-you rather than taking their professional lives seriously? You'd think so, but for the awkward truth that firstly much of Emin's work is about her sex life, and secondly a male artist who said he was now dying to 'go out and f*** the world' would doubtless also find it made the headline. (See Lynn Barber's interview with Rupert Everett in the Sunday Times mag the next day: headline 'I used to be so sexually driven, but that's completely turned off'. Maybe Emin could give him some tips).
The issue isn't just sexism: it's sexuality as commodity. I know why sub-editors write headlines like this, because it automatically makes more people want to read it. I just did the same in this blog title. Feel conned? Well, me too.
This will sound as if I want to rush around covering up piano legs lest they give rise to impure thoughts, but it would be nice if occasionally writing could be sold on the back of something - anything - other than the obligatory saucy Sex Quote.
As a journalist, you're always relieved to get it (hurrah! now I know I'll be able to get this dreary interview with actor hyping film/model who is the new Face of National Prune Week/preview of the Budget in the paper). But it would just vary the tone a little if occasionally the same headline importance was given to, I dunno, art. Or work. Or money (Emin's attitude to her wealth is fascinating). Or power. Or whatever.
Except it won't happen, because as newspapers go digital the one surefire way to get your article clicked on is to make 'sex' a keyword. Stand by for much, much more of this.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Is stay at home motherhood a class issue?

The health visitor who did the first home visit after my son was born didn't stay long. She weighed him, whizzed through her questionnaire on autopilot, gathered up her handbag and said she was sure I'd be fine.
She was right, luckily, but I doubt she deduced that from her questions, having barely listened to the answers. I suspect she just scanned the livingroom for signs of your classic middle class mother (Habitat cushions, Earl Grey avaliable on request) and mentally moved on to more vulnerable clients.
I was reminded of this last week, chairing a Labour leadership hustings, when Diane Abbott got onto the subject of lone parent benefits. She said she always wondered why when middle class mothers stay at home fulltime that's considered a good thing - lovely for the kids, a noble sacrifice for the mother - but when poor single mothers stay at home it's suddenly bad. One mother is a pillar of society, especially for the conservative right: the other's a drain on the state and should be driven out to work with a cattleprod.
That double standard always bothered me, and particularly now the government is offering tax breaks to stay-at-home married mothers but simultaneously expecting single mothers to get jobs. Why is what's 'good' for the children of married parents strangely bad for the children of lone parents, who might arguably need them around even more if there's been a traumatic family breakup?
The answer's partly that the mother on benefits is subsidised by all of us through our taxes, while the married mother is subsidised by her husband so it's nobody's businesss but theirs. Except that isn't the whole truth.
When I worked full time, I paid a lot of tax: now, I use just as many public services but pay less tax, because I earn less. Doesn't that make me a burden on the state too, since I'm not working as hard as I arguably could?
Which leaves the question of whether this is about class. Middle class mummies get mocked for our pushiness and ponciness but we usually get the benefit of the doubt from authority figures, be it health visitors, teachers - or the media. Poorer mothers are negatively stereotyped from the start.
Yet parenting is blatantly easier when you have the money for everything from the big things (good childcare, house in the catchment of a good school) to the small (treats and activities that get you out of the house). The welfare issues are complicated, particularly at a time when public spending is under such pressure: but we're more likely to reach a fair solution if we can stop subconsciously dividing mothers into slummy or yummy according to income.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

in which i knit my own yoghurt

Q: What's the difference between milk and nice expensive Greek yoghurt? A: Eight hours in a warm airing cupboard.
It's just under two weeks until George Osborne's Budget of Doom, my deadline to hack back my spending to downshifting-friendly levels. So this week, I knocked a good 15 per cent off the weekly supermarket shop by instigating three new rules.
1. Goodbye A Leading Supermarket Chain, hello (whisper) Lidl. Shopping here is a bit like going back to the Seventies: strip lighting, strange German brands you last saw inter-railing, and none of that wafting-bread-smells guff supermarkets use to convince you they are actually a leisure experience.
Not everything is cheaper, although the fruit and veg is a steal: luxury stuff like mangos and avocados is half the price. And I had to go elsewhere for some stuff Lidl doesn't sell (breadflour, kids' toothpaste, chicken that looks like it occasionally enjoyed the use of its own legs). But the main reason the bill was faintly unbelievable is that the general ambience encourages one to get the hell out fast, thus spending less.
2. Once it's gone, it's gone. No nipping back to the shops midweek for anything other than cornerstones of human civilisation (coffee, looroll, milk for offspring). If an ingredient needed for dinner turns out to be missing, alternative dinner must be improvised.
3. No more convenience foods. And I don't mean readymeals. The breadmaker I'm often too lazy to use has been hauled out: a loaf in this costs about half its shopbought equivalent. Enough pizza dough for two pizzas, topped with rocket from the garden and oddments of meat and cheese from the back of the fridge, costs less than a tenth the price of a takeaway.
As for the yoghurt, I used this Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recipe: heat milk, stir in a bit of (bought) posh live yoghurt, leave somewhere warm overnight et voila: yoghurt that tastes like the brand it was made from, but a quarter of the price.

The thing about downshifting is you move from being cash rich but time poor to being skint, but with free afternoons. And that means the time I won back by giving up my Proper Job isn't exactly free: some of it has to be re-invested in fiddlier but cheaper ways of living.
The saving grace is that this is stealth economising: should one not want people to know one is saving money, simply pretend to be making one's own bread from sheer, smug Cath Kidston-style oneupmanship. Nobody need know that the reason for the homemade gnocchi is that it's a fraction of the price of deli stuff (it's just mashed potato, egg and flour - how have I paid through the nose for this for years?)
Unless, of course, you blog about it.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

run and become

I've always secretly envied running bores. You know: those evangelicals who go on about runner's high, and how the stress just rolls away, and how they get their best ideas when they're running, and the marathon was the best day of their life even though their toenails fell off, bla bla bla.
I envy it because I've always hated running, and the few times I've tried to make myself persevere (because it's good for you, cheap, quick, and you can do it anywhere) it's always ended in failure. And the comfort of hot buttered crumpets.
So imagine my surprise when I forced myself out for a run tonight and actually enjoyed it. Well, didn't actively hate it, anyway.
It helps that running along a riverbank is more invigorating than picking my way through abandoned takeaways in a London park. Sheer vanity is definitely there too: who was it said that until your 30s you have the body you're given and after that you have the body you earned? After three post-baby years merrily doing no exercise, I so don't want the one I've earned.
But it also feels luxurious to have a bit of time purely for myself: more so, actually, to have my body to myself for a bit. Life with small children often feels like one long physical demand, from the hazy days of round-the-clock breastfeeding to the constant desire of toddlers to clamber on you.
The problem now is how not to give up. After all, I've got to this stage before and then fizzled out through sheer boredom/laziness/refusal to go out in the rain. So, evangelical runners, I need to know: how do you keep making it interesting?

Friday, 4 June 2010

the daddy wars begin

THIS week saw the first shots exchanged in what you could call the 'daddy wars'. On one side, David Cameron and Nick Clegg changed the time of a Cabinet meeting so they could take their kids to school first - sending a powerful signal to fathers and employers about the importance of family life.
Fire was returned with both barrels by the Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn, who complained in his Friday column that when his children were small he left home at 5.30am and only saw them at weekends. The Mail's diary column says Cameron and Clegg 'invite our contempt', a view I suspect the Mail's editor Paul Dacre probably shares. I'm sure some older male MPs are muttering similar things, and there may be jitters around Downing Street.
Well, I hope they stick to their guns. Littlejohn reflects what many British men, particularly older men, probably think. But there is another generation of fathers who don't want their children to grow up in their absence, and Cameron and Clegg owe it them to show the sky doesn't fall in if you occasionally put family first.
The 'daddy wars', just like the much better-chronicled mummy wars, are often rooted in guilt: if a man announces he won't sacrifice his children to a career, men who have essentially had to do just that are bound to feel criticised and defensive. There's a sense of 'I had it hard, why shouldn't they?'
And men who disagree don't always dare say so. Some years ago when the Commons was debating changes to late night voting, those campaigning for more humane hours were nearly all women (and mothers) while those against were nearly all men. A male MP (and father) told me he and several colleagues were privately on the women's side but staying quiet because it was easier to let the women take the flak.
Well, where working fathers and working mothers share the same frustrations about office life it's time they made common cause. Cameron and Clegg have a unique chance to make a difference: I hope they grab it with both hands.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

home economics: the sequel

Oh dear. Just totted up what I've actually spent in the last seven days as opposed to what I think I spend, and am genuinely appalled. How have I got through £260 without anything decadent to show for it? The only things I bought for myself were an intray to sort out my overflowing pile of invoices (tax deductible, maybe?) and a mint plant from the garden centre.
OK, it was a bad week for presents: wedding anniversary, niece's birthday, housewarming for a friend. The silliest thing on it is £35 for a couple of months' supply of the dog's stupidly expensive diet food, as instructed by vet. I could hire it a macrobiotic chef for less.
Nonetheless. The efficiency savings hitherto announced are coverdue. Inspired by David Laws's first decision at the Treasury - cancelling the office potplant budget - it's time to get cracking, or my downshifted career will last approximately as long as, well, David Laws's.
So far have identified the following grievous wastes of money in this house:
1. Leaving the immersion heater switched on for, like, ever (that would be me).
2. Leaving every single electrical appliance in the house on standby constantly (my husband)
3. Buying aubergines. I don't really like aubergines, but buy them for the odd recipe in which I don't mind them, and then never do anything with the inevitable leftover half. I have wasted literally POUNDS on inefficient aubergine use over the years.
4. Parking fines, congestion charge fines (him again), library fines and extra charges for overnight delivery because I never order birthday presents in time (me).
When the Treasury made £6 billion efficiency savings, they axed advertising budgets and management consultants. We are what you might call between management consultants right now, but a flick through the bank statements reveals I still pay a £4.99 a month subscription to lovefilm, despite giving up on them after a couple of scratched DVDs. Ha! No longer. There is also a subscription I forgot to cancel for a childcare website through which we didn't find a childminder months ago (top tip:'s list is free). Zap goes another £12.99 a quarter. This is quite fun.
Then I turn the thermostat down a degree (even though the heating's not on) and turn off everything electrical that is blinking: washing machine, laptop left plugged in and half-on, microwave. I turn off all the lights in rooms we aren't using, feeling virtuous.
My son, who is playing in the kitchen, complains that if the lights aren't on in the livingroom simultaneously 'I'm worried little people will come from under the sofa and bite me.'While demonstrating the lack of snarling little people under the sofa, I find some missing Lego. I bet George Osborne is having similar experiences all over Whitehall.
Next step: the axeman cometh for the supermarket shop. Aubergines are just the beginning.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

home economics

IT's one of the oldest tricks in politics: ooh, don't mind me, I'm just a housewife. Margaret Thatcher told us in 1980 that spending cuts were essential because 'every housewife has to' stop shopping when there's nothing in the purse. During the election, David Cameron suggested that shaving squillons off public spending was just the sort of scrimping on pennies that households do all the time. No doubt we'll hear it all again during this month's Budget.
Which is timely, as a bit of frugality is long overdue in this downshifted household. So to cheer myself up during the grim process of spending less money, I'm conducting a little experiment. Where possible, I'll be channelling current Treasury thinking when I take the scalpel - or possibly, given my last bank statement, a whopping big axe - to the Hinsliff finances. Who knows what we might learn about the real economy from this not-even-remotely-scientific model, eh?
So here are the ground rules:
1. I won't cut back on frontline services. After careful thought, am defining these as: things that genuinely make three-year-olds happy; gin and tonic; occasionally getting out of the house.
2. I will act in the true spirit of coalition, ie I haven't really told my husband what I'm doing. I am by nature stingy, fretful and given to hoarding bits of string in case they come in handy: he cheerfully blows money on what I regard as total rubbish. This, I feel, may give me a useful insight into the relationship between the Tories and the LibDems.
3. I shall consider the merits of salami slicing all budgets vs boldly axing big programmes, or what I call The Highlights Question: viz, I could save a fair bit of money by no longer being blonde. Or I could keep going to the hairdresser and cut back a bit everywhere else. Hmm.
4. I will devolve spending locally. Which means: first for the chop is money spent via corporate giants with rude call centres. Last to go is anything bought from shops you can walk to, where they hold the door open for pushchairs.
So for the next month, we shall be Delivering More With Less Money on this blog. And Making Things Better Without Just Spending Money. And, of course, being Brutally Honest About The Results (that last is the only one that is not an authentic Cameron slogan, by the way) on here. If you're doing the same, please join in and share your ideas.
Tomorrow: the efficiency savings begin....

Monday, 31 May 2010

lessons from the vegetable patch

Time to face the truth: I'm not nearly ruthless enough to grow salad. Reading this has given me the courage to confess my own similar dilemma with the vegetable patch - like its author, I just can't bring myself to do thinning out.
I know you have to pull out the weedy/surplus seedlings so the rest have space to grow. But a combination of stinginess - I hate throwing away perfectly good (embryonic) rocket - and soppiness makes me wimp out every time.
Surely if the spindly, yellowing ones were lavished with a few weeks of top quality fertiliser/sunshine/twice-daily watering/private education, they too could grow up to be spinach! All that potential gone to waste is so sad. Even if it was only ever destined to be lettuce.
This deep feebleness has, of course, resulted in a salad jungle: vast thickets of red mustard, great tangles of rocket - none of which will mature properly because they don't actually have any room.
My fellow garden wimp, Douglas Carswell, saw his veg patch as a metaphor for coalition government: weak policies have to be weeded out to let other ideas flourish. Hmm. My overcrowded, stunted lettuces are reminding me more of the first law of working parenthood: you can't do everything, and failure to prioritise only means nothing gets done well.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

how to tell you're a grown up

My son turned three recently, which has prompted several conversations about what being grownup means. He seems confident he's more or less there now, but does concede there are a handful of desirable things that only grownups can do. After much debate, he has boiled these down to:
1. Cut with sharp scissors
2. Shave
3. Change a lightbulb when it's blown
4. Drive a cement mixer
5. Swim in your pyjamas (I think this relates to some older kids he saw doing lifesaving practice at the local swimming pool)

The more I look at this list, the more I think it roughly covers it. As for the moment I finally gave up on the illusion that I am in any way still young, it was probably last week, walking through some water meadows nearby which are popular with tourists.
I didn't just tut at the rubbish left behind by last weekend's picnickers: I actually picked it up and took it home.
Which means I have finally become my mother.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

back to the kitchen cabinet

There is a line, in the Winnie the Pooh book with which my son is currently obssessed, about Kanga suddenly feeling 'motherly, and wanting to count things', like vests for Roo and clean spots on Tigger's feeder. It must have been on my mind, because this week - when I was planning to do absolutely nothing, after a month working flat out - I've found myself mostly wanting to count things instead.
Or not so much count as sort. There is a great, underrated pleasure in sorting: ruthlessly chucking out old paperwork, tangles of chargers whose phones are long gone, laddered pairs of tights. It's an almost physical relief.
And the great bonus of being mostly slatternly is that on the rare occasions you do spring clean, there are so many surprises. Who knew there was sunlight outside, once the windows were washed? Or that I'll never actually need to buy another biro in this lifetime, given how many were lying around the house?
There is a secret, retro pleasure in this bringing (if briefly) of domestic order to chaos. The urge doesn't strike me very often but it tends to come after an intense period of work: I think there's an element of wresting back control, reasserting yourself in the domestic world you've become disconnected from.
And this time, maybe some displacement activity too. A new government has formed, and for the first time in four elections I don't have a ringside seat next to it.
Perhaps what I'm really doing is confronting the fact that, after a month embroiled in my old world during the election, it's time to move on. It's Cabinet reshuffles for them, and reshuffling kitchen cupboards for me.
Oh well. I still don't quite know what the future holds: but at least now I've chucked all the jars long past their sell-by dates, it's less likely to hold salmonella.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

why this hasn't been a Mumsnet election

A few days ago, a woman about my age came up to me on the street while I was out with my son. She apologised for bothering us but said she was desperately looking for some part-time childcare for her daughter, who's recently started school.
She worked at a local hospital, which often meant late evening shifts: but she couldn't find a local nursery or childminder open much past 6pm, while afterschool clubs aren't open that late either (and even if they were that's a terribly long day in school for a four-year-old.) I guess a nanny was too expensive on an NHS salary, and there were no grandparents nearby.
If she couldn't find someone, she would no longer be able to do her job: and she was getting desperate, which was why she was stopping complete strangers like me, hoping that the local mummy grapevine could somehow magically produce a solution.
And as we chatted I thought: during almost four weeks of this so-called 'Mumsnet election', with politicians supposedly targeting middle class mothers in marginal seats, I have heard nobody even come close to offering practical help with problems like this.
We live in a 24/7 economy, with supermarkets open round the clock and millions of people in the public sector working night and weekend shifts, yet childcare is still too often organised around an 8am-6pm working day. How do you hire and hold onto parents in those circumstances?
But nobody wants to talk about complicated things like that. What we get is photo opportunities amid the fingerpaints to promote tax breaks for married mothers or toddler tax credits (worth £3 a week and just under £4 a week respectively: hardly enough to compensate for having to give up one's job) and gushing talk from the leaders' wives about what great dads their husbands are.
As a bunch of eminent (and clearly cross) women make clear in this letter to the Times today, too many of the really big questions for women haven't even been touched. If this was the Mumsnet election, god help us when politics reverts to normal.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

oh yes, the camera does lie

For as long as I can remember, I've hated being photographed. My best friend couldn't claim I'm photogenic (my passport was once returned to me at Customs with the words 'I'd change that, it's doing you no favours'): let's just say there's a reason this blog is illustrated by a picture of a road.
So when Grazia magazine said they wanted to shoot me for an article I'd written about what it was like giving up my Proper Job, I just hoped it would all be over quickly. What follows, folks, is the truth about what it takes to turn a haggard old crone into the Grazia-fied stranger in this week's edition. And no, the lovely mac is not really mine. Sob.
That one oh-so-natural picture took a team of five (photographer, photographer's assistant, stylist, makeup artist, shoot stylist) half a day to create. They arrived, trailing two rails of clothes and a high street's worth of shoes, just as the builders were fitting a new door to replace the one wrecked in the burglary. I think it's fair to say ruralshire builders are not used to the fashion world.
Nor, I'm fairly certain, were the sensible matrons out walking their dogs nearby who rounded a corner to find me poncing across the river meadows in (borrowed) designer labels trailed by the full Grazia entourage, with the makeup artist dashing forward every five seconds to top up my lipgloss, while I tried vainly to look as if I was just out for a stroll.
Freddie was a little confused ('Why are we going for a walk but not walking anywhere?'). The dog let itself down by licking the camera. And the lovely Paul & Joe dress didn't quite zip up my non-model back: thank God for that mac, really.
Still, the end result is about the only photograph I've ever seen of me that I quite sort of like. The bad news is that left to my own devices, I look absolutely nothing like it.
Oh, and my son keeps asking loudly in public places when 'the makeup lady is coming to do you again'....

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

competitive parenting & the art of lunchboxes

It's fair to say things have been a bit slack domestically of late, given how distracted I've been by the election: slack enough to induce some irrational pangs of guilt. I've fallen, in short, into the competitive lunchbox trap.
Three days a week my son goes to a childminder, which means three packed lunches to make. I used to be fairly inventive about these but lately it's been done on autopilot: sandwich, yoghurt, fruit, zzz....
So this week I resolved guiltily to be more adventurous, cultivate his inner gourmet, all that. The result? Today's offering - a smugly healthy, deeply labour intensive Annabel Karmel-ish thing - was rejected point blank on the grounds that 'it tastes of chairs', apparently
There are two lessons, I think, here:
1. You can overdo this motherhood thing. Other mothers might occasionally be impressed (or more likely irritated) by uberparenting, but your own child will usually be utterly unmoved.
2. Don't knock a cheese sandwich.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

teaching (not very old) dogs new tricks

Day Five of the dog's assertiveness training, and it's not going well. When he was a puppy, we taught him not to bark when someone came to the front door since it woke the baby: handy then, but since we got burgled there's been a rethink. Hence the deeply ludicrous process of trying to teach a dog to, um, bark.
Our dog is what canine behaviour experts call 'food orientated', ie fat. So every time he makes a noise at anything he gets a dog biscuit to encourage him. After a few days of this, a breakthrough: when the postman comes, the dog sort of huffs once embarassedly under his breath and then sits looking pointedly at the biscuit cupboard.
Hmm. Perhaps the problem is too many incentive regimes running in this house. Life with a small child is one long round of bribes/threats, obviously (or is that just me?): and then there's the NHS 'quit kit' that arrived for my husband, who is supposedly giving up smoking. He was unamused by its main component: a toddler-style sticker chart, complete with irritating little symbols of rainbows and sunny days.
I was keeping the sticker chart for my son, but now I'm thinking I might try it on the dog. This morning he enthusiastically welcomed the man fitting the burglar alarm and then, when I took him for a walk, barked furiously at a yoof in the park for no apparent reason.
Which leaves two possibilities:
1. the dog is engaged in a sophisticated form of offender profiling, with potential civil liberties implications
2. the dog is thick.
Either way, we're nearly out of biscuits.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

why freelancers don't take holiday

It has been one of those 'two worlds colliding' weeks, when work has gone crazy (the election) coinciding with my childminder going on holiday (Easter).
My parents are currently here helping out but as we speak, the house is also full of builders drilling things: yesterday, it had all the above plus a BBC film crew setting up in the dining room. We're still househunting, and just to complete the picture, we got burgled at the weekend: hence the builders, busy installing an alarm. The mobile never stops ringing, and my head is exploding.
What I need, I realise, is a holiday. When I was working fulltime, I eked out my time off so that I never went more than three months without some kind of break: often we didn't go away, but it was just a chance to stop and breathe.
Yet now that I'm freelance, and don't have to ask my boss to book holidays any more, I've forgotten to ask myself. It dimly occurs to me that I stopped work one Saturday in November and started a freelance commission two days later. There hasn't been a week since where I didn't do something, workwise.
Which means I've fallen with a thud into the part-timer trap: firstly being too scared to stop (what if the phone never rings again?) and also subconsciously thinking of my non-working days as 'holiday'. Yet despite its charms, even the boldest travel agent would hesitate to sell looking after a two-year-old as a relaxing vacation.
Obviously, the middle of the most important election in 30 years is a bad time for an ex-political hack to down tools. But once it's over, I'm turning the phone off for a week. No really, I am.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

toys for boys

'Knights and castles! with swords!' is what my nephew wanted for his fourth birthday. So there I was rootling through a hundred boxes of Playmobil in our local toyshop looking for suitably armoured horses, when I saw it. Among the assorted pirates, Roman gladiators, cowboys and (thankfully) knights sat Playmobil Office. A little plastic figure in a suit complete with desk, computer, a filing cabinet and even his own lovingly crafted set of folders. I think there was also a wastepaper bin.
I can't imagine a toy the average small boy would less like to play with: it does rather smack of a token gesture designed to placate parents. The vast majority of boys' toys are action heroes, swashbucklers and derrers-do: they live by the sword (or at least the fire hose), and they're intensely physical. They don't do much filing.
Boys' toys are far more exciting and inspiring than the fluffy pink tat aimed at little girls. No wonder parents of daughters worry about the passive role models created by all those fairies, princesses, and ballerinas.
But boys' toys reinforce a stereotype too, even if it is a more empowering one: they're all about physicality, strength, and daring, brawn rather than brain.
Bringing up a boy has changed a lot of my ideas about what's ingrained and what isn't, having watched as the passion for diggers, fire engines and bin lorries emerged early and continued steadfastly regardless of whatever toys we offered. And of course I know toys are about fantasy, not real life: the fact that most of the little boys who grow up playing knights and castles will probably end up working in offices doesn't mean they should be playing with filing cabinets now.
But nerdy as it sounds, I wouldn't mind seeing a few more toys that made the connection between doing well at school (the one thing parents of sons inevitably worry about, as boys fall behind at GCSE, Alevel and university) and doing something exciting in later life. I can't be sure that playing astronauts will make my son more likely to take Physics A-level in 15 years' time. But I doubt the prospect of becoming poor old Mr Playmobil Office would make any self-respecting little boy knuckle down to GCSEs.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

how to make a paper boat

So I spent my day making paper boats, to float in the bath. Hours of high quality toddler entertainment, fiddling with the half-remembered folding technique that makes a reasonably watertight gondola. Then experimenting with different papers for optimum non-sogginess (hot tip: pizza flyers, the stiff shiny ones from dodgy looking outlets on industrial estates. And glossy magazine covers. Those featuring Jennifer Aniston seem particularly water repellent).
There won't be many more relaxed days for a while. The election's no doubt going to be called next Tuesday, so bang goes the next month (I have, obviously, broken my promise to myself to stay out of it. But am MOSTLY staying out of it. Ahem).
But the paper boats were a useful reminder of two things. One, obviously, that if you're two the best things in life often really are free.
But secondly, how much harder parenting would be without the interweb. I couldn't remember how to make paper boats, so obviously I googled it. (What DID parents do pre-Net? Talk to each other? Hand wisdom down the generations? Surely not).
There are millions of variations - I picked this video at random. But almost all those I looked at were not trying to flog anything (what paper boat-associated merchandise is htere? old paper?), advertise anything, puff anybody's paper boat-related book, sucker you into being their friend, or get your bank details.
People just go to the bother of filming themselves making paper boats and posting it online for the sheer joy of - what? Maybe some origami-based sexual fetish, but more likely just because there is a compulsive human need - and one particularly strong among parents - to share stuff that might make others happy, and to teach what you know. For all the ugliness and criminality online, there is sheer altruism too.
Also please note: say what you like about online news, but you can't make a boat out of it, can you? I rest my case for old-fashioned newspapers.

Monday, 29 March 2010

why i'm a rent girl

So after about six months of househunting, I finally saw a house this morning that might work, in a pretty village with a great school. And it has a treehouse. So we could always live in that when the leaking roof gets too much.
But it's made me think again about renting. The hardest part of the downshift for me was selling our much-loved family house in London: we've been renting for six months in ruralshire, which makes us feel camped out here, permanently on the edge of flight. It's unsettling.
Unlike many Europeans, the Brits kind of look down on renting: it's something you only do when you're young or when you can't afford to buy. But it has upsides too. It's somebody else's problem when the boiler doesn't work, and it's cheaper than a mortage. We could just leave if we decide ruralshire is not for us. Why not rent for a bit longer? Doesn't look like house prices are soaring ahead any time soon.
In fact, the appeal of renting doesn't stop at houses. I read a really interesting blog by Brian Kaller recently about applying the library principle to other things. Do we all really need our own barbecue, or lawnmower, or cake tin, or anything else you use less than once a week but still feel compelled to buy and keep? Why couldn't there be neighbourhood 'libraries' for these things and we could all take turns borrowing them as needed?
Ok, maybe not the barbecue - we'd all want it on the same sunny Saturday night in August - but half the stuff cluttering up my garage is there because I might need it ONE DAY, not because I use it frequently. Think how much money I'd have saved by borrowing, not buying it.
The trouble of course is that stuff we acquire isn't just stuff: ownership of stuff is a way we demonstrate we've made it, a way we define ourselves, a source of pride even.
Ownership equals spontaneity and freedom - you don't have to book in advance, you just decide that morning you're going to have a barbecue or go for a bike ride. We're used to the convenience of ownership.
And actually ownership equals a healthy economy: it's more lucrative to get everyone to buy their own lawnmower rather than to have a central pool of it that everyone can borrow. Owning big assets like houses also makes sense because they can make you money, although the vast majority of stuff we have (from rusting barbecue to not-yet-rusting car) is actually losing value the longer we own it.
But maybe the recession is a chance to rethink renting. You can now rent designer handbags, jewellery, big-night-out dresses online - for those who want designer, but can't afford it. There are sites where you can hire your own expensive but rarely used things like ski stuff out to others who only need it briefly and don't want to buy.
We're used to timebanks letting us barter our skills: so why not neighbourhood asset banks, which would let me swap my (shamefully underused) lawnmower with you once a week if I can borrow your food mixer? It's the sort of trade that happens constantly in small villages, but not necessarily in inner cities, where people may actually own less and benefit more from asset 'renting'. It could even encourage people to talk to their neighbours.
And after all, if we buy this moneypit of a house we'll never be able to afford to buy anything else ever again. I'm going to need a communal barbecue. Swap you for a turn in the treehouse.

Friday, 26 March 2010

vegetarians, stop reading right here...

Spring is sprung in ruralshire, and everywhere you look is new life: lambs gambolling in the meadows and - thanks to our local farm shop and their willingness to let small children rampage around the farm - piglets too.
Ah. The farm shop. The flipside of all this rural idyll stuff is the link you can't avoid in the countryside: the one between animals in the field and animals on the plate. When we were townies, meat came shrinkwrapped from the supermarket: now, you can buy it a few yards from where it was previously living. And even the boy has started to work it out.
It started with 'Where does chicken come from?' one teatime. Um, from chickens. Yes, like the ones outside the house down the road. 'Why don't the chickens need it any more?' Um, well, because it sort of IS the chickens. Ones that are sort of, um, er, dead. 'Why are they dead?' Weelll, they had a very long and happy life, and then when they got very very old, and had finished being chickens, well, um, er....
I have made a complete hash of it, obviously. I was expecting to tackle the big metaphysical questions sooner or later, obviously: but I was thinking expired pet goldfish, not dinner.
Yet I've been surprised on two counts. Firstly, the boy has taken it all rather matter of factly: small children aren't sentimental, possibly because the towering ego of your classic under-3 does not allow for empathy with chickens.
Secondly, I'm also less squeamish about this than I thought. Perhaps because I was brought up in the country myself, getting closer to the source of my Sunday roast hasn't put me off it.
But it has made me care more about where our meat came from, and what sort of life it had before: we now eat meatfree once a week and more fish too. It feels appropriate that meat should no longer be a daily thing. Unlike those lambs, whom we see every morning.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

because im worth it (um, sort of)

It's nearly the end of the financial year, and so I've spent the afternoon reading baffling letters from HMRC all of which contradict the previous one. Ah, the joys of being self-employed.
But it made me realise: this blog has dwelt on the emotional ups and downs of working for myself, but the financial ones? Not so much. Yet it's part of any honest reckoning.
First, looking back over my earnings since going freelance, the good news: it's more than I expected. Hurrah! Though admittedly, the bar was set on the pessimistic assumption I'd sink into a pit of unemployabliity.
But secondly, it probably could have been more. Going freelance has exposed my financial Achilles heel: like a lot of women I am rubbish at negotiating my own pay.
Some years ago, I was headhunted by a rival newspaper: I wavered, nearly took the job, and when I decided to stay my husband suggested I negotiate a payrise from my employer as a reward for loyalty.
I'm not really sure what happened inbetween me striding into the managing editor's office with a watertight case for a rise (surprise surprise, asking male colleagues on other papers it turned out I was paid less than all of them) and slinking out emptyhanded. But as my husband groaned halfway through my version of the meeting: "Just tell me you didn't volunteer for a paycut."
Let's just say the rest of my Fleet Street career was not a shining advert for industries where you mostly negotiate your own salary. And I don't think I'm alone. Too often, women don't earn what they could because unlike men they don't ask (the other reason, of course, is that when they ask they don't get: this extract from the book Women Don't Ask is worth a read).
Too often we blithely assume everyone will nobly pay us what we deserve, when actually businesses are wired not to spend money if they don't have to. Too often we're satisfied with approval from our bosses, where men demand cash (this blog from WhereTheBrightWomenAre is brilliant on why women get suckered into doing stuff at work that doesn't count).
Well, self-employment has been painful but liberating.
Now, I have to negotiate fees for every new project, and to be honest: I hate it. Because I've always had a salary rather than a per-hourly rate, I had no idea initially what to charge for my time: I was far too quick to say yes without even asking the fee, or just accept that what people offered was the going rate. At the back of my mind is always a tiny, insistent voice questioning whether I'm worth whatever I'm asking for.
Yet it's been illuminating having to calculate exactly how long it takes me to do any given piece of work, and so how much my time should be worth. It's made the money I earn seem more real: finally there's a direct link between the hours I put in and what I get back, which there wasn't on a salary.
And it has been liberating, on the few occasions I've rejected a job because the fee was too low, to discover that magically the fee then usually rises. Rather cheeringly, it turns out I am (sometimes) worth it. Wish L'Oreal would make an advert about that.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

how i got the needle

This week it has been, occasionally, a bit sunny. Which triggers the usual end of winter panic: realising that I haven't got anything to wear. What the hell did I wear last summer? Why does this happen every summer? I can't have spent the entire season in the office.
This time, however, retail therapy is not an option. I am supposedly downshifting, for god's sake: I am meant to rise above material things, not lie in the bath reading fashion magazines wondering if cutoff grey tracksuit bottoms are someone's little joke.
So instead I spent an afternoon foraging at the back of the wardrobe and in what I euphemistically refer to as the 'sewing box' (ie stuff that's been waiting to be repaired/ altered since approximately the 1980s).
And this is what I found, to my surprise. Who knew?
Exhibit 1: long pale blue shorts that I never liked. Chopped short, rehemmed et voila - reasonable knockoff of £95 pair in this month's Elle.
Exhibit 2: silk combats, not worn since last time they were in (not sure, but I was definitely single) yet by bizarre cyclical fashion logic now deemed v spring/summer 2010. Though I learn they are called 'the silk cargo pant' this time. Love that fashion singular.
Exhibit 3: One pair muchloved jeans with rip in knee (from years of changing nappies on the floor) + scissors = denim shorts. Very Kate Moss. Obviously as worn by her older, fatter sister, solely in the privacy of her back garden.
Exhibit 4: Grey TopShop jacket that I loved so much I refused to stop wearing it when pregnant, despite a bump so huge it was visible from space. The seam split and I never got round to mending it. Five minutes with a needle, and it's back.
Exhibit 5: Pale blue Diesel trousers, not seen since drunken sailing holiday in Croatia, feared drowned. But no! scrunched up in the sewing box, it turns out. Now reinvented (well, rehemmed) at 2010 just-above-ankle length. To wear with heels, in the unlikely event I ever go out again. Which brings me to
Exhibit 5: After counting shocking number of pairs of heels, firm resolution not to buy any more. Especially if, like the teetering orange pair bought for a friend's book launch which make me look like a lapdancer, I can't cross the road unaided in them. Let the fashion mags claim it's now 'all about the kitten heel'. Last year it was all about the lapdancer heel, and I know how that ended up: in an undiginfied heap on the pavement in Clapham, that's how.
I'm not saying I'll never darken the doors of Selfridges again. But the joy of being thirtysomething is finally seeing fashion turn full circle: from now on, pretty much whatever the trend, you've probably got one stuffed at the back of a drawer from last time round. If that's not God's consolation prize for ageing, I don't know what is.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

time and the (half)working mother

I am having trouble with my time zones. Not in the way I used to (husband fogbound at Washington airport, me in London at overrunning meeting, ergo nobody home for bedtime). But I have three different sorts of time now, all moving at different speeds.
First, there is toddler time. This is not time as the laws of physics would know it. Toddler time can go backwards, forwards and sideways: it can take half an hour to walk a few steps (if there's beetles on the ground to investigate, or things that need poking with a stick, or just because I DONT WANNA!!! WAAAAHH!). But it can take a fraction of a second to grab a knife out of the dishwasher when your back is turned.
Toddler time responds badly to being organised, or attempting to achieve anything specific. On rainy, badtempered days an hour of toddler time can last forever. Yet the years between babyhood and disappearing off to school can somehow flash past in an instant.
Second, there is housework time. Initially I thought this worked to the toddler clock: that it basically involved wafting around, pegging out washing in the sunshine, inbetween playing. But wafting does not get stuff done. Wafting leads to everyone running out of socks. Domestic time actually needs to be organised, methodical, linear: it means shopping lists, schedules, and making packed lunches the night before, and it's therefore not brilliantly compatible with toddler time.
Third, there is work time. In an ideal world, this would be on the same latitude as housework: structured, efficient, running to a strict timetable. But for me it's another time zone again: short, creative bursts of being absorbed in what I'm doing and making sudden leaps forward - mixed with long hours of faffing about eating biscuits. It goes in slow motion for days, when I can't summon any kind of urgency about the task ahead, and suddenly speeds up to a frenzy about three hours before deadline.
Switching between these three time zones isn't so easy. I keep having to remind myself when I'm with my son to slow down and forget the idea of getting anything done: no sooner have I got the hang of that then it's time to kickstart myself into organised mode, or work mode. I finally understand now what people mean about part-time work involving more frequent gearshifts.
I'm not moaning: I prefer all three of my new timezones to the old never-enough-time one. But I do think I've got jetlag.

Monday, 8 March 2010

I'm not a feminist, but...

Many years ago, I went to a press conference involving the two then government women's ministers, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Jay, and their colleague Helen Liddell, launching some initiative on women I now forget. I asked all three of them whether they would define themselves as feminists. One by one, they all squirmed and wriggled and said something along the lines of, ooh, well, er, no I wouldnt say a FEMINIST exactly, but....
This is daft. I knew all three well enough to know that in private that's exactly how they'd describe themselves (in fairness, I guess they'd now be happy to do it in public: this was back in the late 1990s, the Labour government was new and very nervous, and I was working for the Daily Mail.)
But it's also very common. "I'm not a feminist, but..." is a mad thing for any thinking woman to say. (But what? But on the whole, I'm in favour of having the vote? But ideally, I wouldn't stone women to death for adultery? But I'm not a total idiot either?)
The problem is with feminism's image. To many women it equals killjoy, man-hater, harridan: it equals not being allowed to shave your legs, banned from appreciating fashion or fun, lacking a sense of humour. This American poll illustrates the problem nicely: 70 per cent of American women wouldn't call themselves a feminist, but when feminism is defined for them neutrally (and accurately) as 'someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes', suddenly 65 per cent of them are feminists after all.
Similarly while over a quarter think the women's movement made their lives worse, when asked what made their lives better, the answers - equal pay, or more choices in life - lead straight back to the scary old women's movement. We just don't like to give it the credit.
So for anyone still hesitating, here are some myths about feminism laid to rest.
1. It's rubbish that stay at home mothers can't be feminists. Yes, Germaine Greer argued that economic independence from men was the foundation stone of women's freedom. If you rely solely on a male breadwinner for the longterm, you need to know you're gambling your economic future on the risk of divorce, bereavement or male redundancy.
But feminism is also about the right to make your own intelligent choices: it's about saying that nurturing other people shouldn't be regarded as 'lesser' than paid work, just because it's women who more often do it. Feminism can be about attacking the way working life is organised (to suit men with a wife at home) rather than about forcing women to fit into a male pattern of work.
2. It's not compulsory to hate men. Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century philosopher and early feminist, said she did not wish women 'to have power over men, but over themselves'. You can live with and love someone without having to be completely subservient to them.
3. Feminists do wear lipstick. They just do it knowing precisely who they're dressing up to please (could be men, could be themselves, doesn't matter) and they don't torture themselves to unnatural and/or ruinously expensive degrees trying to meet some loony vision of female attractiveness (corsets so tight you faint, cosmetic surgery that leaves you maimed, a size zero figure that means you can't actually eat).
4. Stuff doesn't happen by accident. If you enjoy having the right to vote, to get a mortgage in your own name, to get contraception without requiring your husband's permission, to be paid the same as the man sat next to you, to get pregnant without getting sacked, to an education, to say no - then you should give credit where credit's due. Happy International Women's Day.