Wednesday, 27 January 2010

How to tell you've spent too much time with small children

Four ways for parents to tell it's time for a leetle more adult company

1. You drive past some kind of heavy machinery and cry "Ooh! Look! A big fire engine! Nee-nah, nee-nah!". And realise too late there is no small child with you in the car. Just adults giving you puzzled looks.
2. You make a sandwich for yourself and automatically cut the crusts off.
3. You no longer have any clothes that require drycleaning. (Actually you do, but they are past saving).
4. You accidentally refer to yourself as "mummy", in the third person, when speaking to someone in officialdom.

This has been rather a watershed week, hence the shamefully light blogging action. Freelance work is now piling in thick and fast enough that I can't put off the need for some kind of childcare any longer.
I've never thought I was cut out for full time motherhood, greatly as I respect those who can manage it: I'm essentially too selfish for it, and need the stimulation of work. Nonetheless, although the plan was always to work part time, I've been dragging my feet and dreading re-entering the whole childcare thing.
There's nothing more terrifying than trying to choose someone to be in loco parentis, even if it is for only 20 hours a week: I'm torn between fiercely not wanting my son to be with anyone but me, and realising that trying to squeeze work in around him is doing neither of us any good.
Right now work infiltrates all of our life together: I'm fobbing him off during the daytime while I check my emails or take a phone call, then staying up until the small hours writing while he's asleep. The family isn't getting my full attention and I'm never really able to relax.
What I'm hoping is that a couple of days' childcare will make me better at drawing proper lines in the sand: I have to learn to confine work to the two or three days I planned for, leaving the rest of the week for the family, rather than letting work sneak its way in and around everything else. Like damming a river in one place, rather than letting it flood unpredictably everywhere.
So after a few false starts, we think we've now found a decent childminder: cross your fingers for the settling in period.
Am cheering myself up by thinking that at least I'm not Katie Holmes. Allegedly (well according to Grazia), Tom Cruise is seeking an actress to play Mary Poppins 24 hours a day in their home, instead of a real nanny for their three year old daughter Suri (she of the rather disturbing toddler high heels). Apparently Suri saw the musical and said she wanted La Poppins to look after her.
I dimly remember vowing never to judge anyone else's childcare choices, so I won't: I really won't. I will just bite the keyboard, quite hard.

Monday, 18 January 2010

on hiring a 30something woman

I owe my old boss a lot. But I've never exactly felt he deserved a medal for his bravery in offering me a job.
Which is why I'm so annoyed at myself. I was interviewed today on radio about giving up work, something I've done before. But I've never been asked this particular question.
Surely, said my interviewer, my boss had had to think twice before appointing a woman to a senior job like my old one?
I was so surprised that instead of saying what I thought (er, why? Obviously you need to know if someone could do the job, but why should you be specifically more worried about that if they're - gasp!imagine it! - a woman?) I spluttered something about hoping that wasn't the case. I wimped out.
Thinking about it on the way home though, I wondered. This may well be unfair, because he never said a word about it, but I do wonder if my gender crossed my boss's mind. If for no other reason than because I suspect a lot of men appointing a 33-year-old woman to a critical job worry whether they'll get pregnant and leave. It shouldn't enter their thinking, but I bet it often does.
And of course, I did get pregnant two years later: and eventually leave, nearly five years later. Nevermind that if I was childless, I'd quite possibly have left for a new job elsewhere. (There is a brilliant study I can't currently find showing men leave jobs more frequently than women, because they defect for promotions - so actually if you want a committed employee, maybe hire a woman).
So perhaps the interviewer was right to ask. If so, depressing how little has changed. I was talking a few days ago to a friend of a friend, a GP who trained in, I guess, the early 70s. She was asked directly at her medical school interview if she meant to have children and what she would do about it, a question that's illegal now under sex discrimination law. She knew the only acceptable answer was that she'd be a fulltime doctor no matter what, so it's what she said.
Interviewers don't usually ask that question openly now: but I suspect a fair few still ask it silently in their heads. Changing that will take more than legislation.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

on thawing out

A slushy, dripping sort of day. Which means, thank god, that about a month's worth of snow might actually start melting.
Never thought I'd be glad to see the back of the magical stuff but am fed up of taking half an hour to get a wriggling child dressed to go out in the morning (gloves, hat, fourteen jumpers, waterproofs, coat, boots...oh, sorry, it's lunchtime). Plus there's nowhere to go when we are finally dressed, what with playgroups and everything else being cancelled for bad weather. I have exhausted all cunning methods of entertaining a bored toddler on my own.
Actually, that's a lie: I have really exhausted all cunning methods of entertaining myself. The boy would probably happily play cars and build snowmen for months, but I've got cabin fever. We need company: which in a place where we are new arrivals and know nobody, isn't easy.
Later this week I have to referee a debate between some MPs in front of possibly hundreds of people. This doesn't remotely worry me: it's a piece of cake, compared to walking into a new playgroup and attempting to Make Friends. I've interviewed prime ministers and been to war zones, neither of which were as scary.
Everything about it makes me feel like the new girl at school, arriving two years after everyone's already made friends: it doesn't help that I went to (and hated) an all-girls school, gaining a lifelong suspicion of all-female environments.
While I had a fabulous mummy network in London thanks to two NCT groups, there's no such easy means of breaking into the circle here.
Apparently I'm not the only one. "Everybody with any sense hates playgroups," says my veteran stay-at-home mummy friend, rolling her eyes. Another friend who gave up work says it took months of 'plastering on a smile' and being relentlessly chatty before the playgroup clique thawed enough to admit her.
I know, I know: they're just perfectly nice mothers and toddlers, and in time we'll work out. But for now while I pretend we are going to playgroup for the sake of the boy's social skills - sharing, taking turns, responding in civilised manner to being whacked with a toy - it's actually mine we're working on. I need to learn to play nicely: if, that is, anyone will play with me.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Inbetween days

Whenever my son sees a picture of Big Ben, he always calls it 'mummy's office'. He's sort of right: I did used to have an office in the House of Commons, but of course it isn't mine any more, as I keep telling him to no avail.
I'm really reminding myself, of course. This week's been dominated by the failed coup against the prime minister. In my old life, I'd have been right in the thick of it all: even now I couldn't resist tweeting on it, and dabbling at the journalistic edges.
But it's made me realise how unresolved I am about my current multiple identities. Anyone attacking working mothers makes me bridle, because I still count myself as one: but then I sort of consider myself to be full time at home, too.
Because I don't yet have childcare (finally found a part-time childminder, but we're too snowed in to get to her) any writing must be fitted in when the boy's asleep -so I'm essentially fulltime mother by day and working mother by night. I'm neither fish nor fowl: I honestly don't know which side I'm on.
And there are a lot of us around. We all know parents at home who say that in their heads they're still working - either because they want to go back some day, or they're planning to set up a business from home, or still doing a bit on the side. Likewise I know people who've gone part time and count themselves primarily as being at home, because it's so different to their former career. Many of us don't see our current roles, whatever they are, as permanent.
The old labels don't seem to fit: too many of us are like gapyear kids who know they're going to university eventually (even if it's much more than a year out, and even if some of us decide to stay in our chosen land of home). We're inbetweeners, zigzagging between both camps: it's like being a second generation immigrant, no longer belonging entirely to your parents' culture but still a bit adrift from the culture around you.
Does it matter? Sometimes it's liberating to have multiple identities, to choose which world to be part of today. The element of surprise - not being predictable, or easily pigeonholed - is fun.
But there needs to be a better word for it, if it isn't to feel uncomfortably like limbo.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Are working mums taking the rap for the rest of us?

There is a sad and alarming piece of research out today showing the number of children who have trouble learning to talk (four per cent haven't said a word by age three). As usual, TV gets the blame: but more explicitly than usual, so do working parents.
Jean Gross, the government's communication champion who oversaw the research, is quoted saying parents should 'think about what children need. It's not expensive toys and big houses. It's you.' - ie, they should work less.
That follows an interview in the Sunday Telegraph with the brilliant GP Dr Sarah Jarvis in which she is quoted blaming obesity in kids partly on working parents who are 'so knackered at the weekend they let their children stay in front of the television' instead of going to the park. Suddenly, it feels like working parents are in the dock for everything.
This is a tricky one for me. After all, I gave up fulltime work because I wanted to be with my own son more: I wasn't worried about his development (he had a brilliant nanny before) but obviously I hope me being around will have a positive effect. And yet this stuff makes me uncomfortable.
Is it really only working mothers (or their childminders/nannies/whoever) who ever park kids in front of the TV instead of reading to them or going to the park? Really?
Telly and sugar happen to be the two things I am fascist about: I just don't watch TV with my son unless he's too ill to get off the sofa, or unless we're at someone else's house and their kids are watching.
But I admit that was easier to stick to when I was working: I'm definitely more tempted by CBeebies now, with only so many ways to fill a long rainy day.
Before, I was always incredibly conscious of needing to do lots of stimulating, educational, virtuous things with my son in my spare time: it was a way of compensating for my absence. Probably overcompensating, if I'm honest: I am a more relaxed, less driven parent now and we are both happier for it. I suspect I'm not alone in that.
So is there any hard evidence that working mothers threaten their children's development?
Well, not in the survey published yesterday, there isn't: it's a YouGov poll of 1,000 parents and it doesn't even record which of them worked.
Admittedly there was a recent study from the Institute of Child Health, suggesting that working mothers' children watched more TV and were more likely to be driven to school instead of walking.
But that was contradicted a few weeks later by a massive study from the Institute of Education arguing that working mums didn't really affect children's development: a stable home life mattered more.
Of course, Gross is an eminent educational psychologist, and presumably knows what she's talking about. She might also say she isn't blaming parents, but bad childcare - which is still too often the only kind some parents can find or afford.
Nonetheless, I feel uneasy about using this as yet another stick with which to beat working mothers - at least until we have clearer evidence.

Friday, 1 January 2010

It's not exactly a resolution, but...

There's a Swiss ball in our garage, which occasionally gets used as a giant beachball by visiting kids: the dog also likes chasing it around the garden.
The one person who never uses it is the one who bought it so she could do loads of situps, and thus recover her pre-pregnancy flat stomach. I did about three situps total, before remembering my stomach wasn't flat even before I had a baby.
So with that triumph in mind, I'm not making New Year's Resolutions. But having said back in November that I'd give myself a year to get my life back, I do need a plan.
So here, roughly, is what I'd like to have done by November 2010:
1. Learned to use my old skills differently, but also taught myself to do something totally new. There's no point leaving a great job and just dabbling in the same thing, freelance: I need to stretch myself a bit.
2. Established a mix of work and living that actually makes me happy. Which right now probably means working no more than 2-3 days a week, and using the rest of the time to be a mother and a wife, and a good friend, and a daughter, and a sister, and an aunt, and a vaguely useful part of a community. And maybe do some exercise. Ahem.
3. Have contributed properly to the family's income. Ok, not like before. But I'm used to earning, and I don't like the idea of asking my husband for pocket money.
4. I'd like to find time for something creative. Probably something I'm rubbish at, but anyway.
5. Last but not least: it can't all be about me. When I resigned my Proper Job, the criticism that stung was someone suggesting that work was about more than my personal gratification: what about contributing to society, she said sternly?
So at the risk of sounding nauseating, I also want to further a cause in some tiny way. If I can work this out (or even if I can't), I'd like my experience to be of use to others caught in the same trap.
And if I can do all that by November, I'll still have a month left before the next New Year - which I will, of course, devote entirely to situps.
So that's my plan. What's yours?