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.