Working mum of three

Figuring it out as we go along. Blogging is cheaper than therapy.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Crisis. A time of intense difficulty or danger.

In work, we have something called ‘crisis mode’. So when stuff is kicking off, extra staff are pulled in to work on particular issues. Normal procedures don’t apply, people rush around being busy and important. Everyone does their best even if the information is not complete and the solution isn’t obvious. Occasionally things slip through the gaps, and sometimes mistakes are made. But it’s ok, because we are in crisis mode.

Without wishing to belittle the global challenges we are faced with today, I’m going to compare them to parenting. Because we’ve been in and out of crisis mode at home for six years. Our own little domestic ecosystem holds many of the same challenges as those you find in a conflict zone: opposing factions, messy violent battles, houses turned inside out, third party interference, intense negotiation, sanctions, and sometimes a ceasefire (until the next time). These crisis points have tended to erupt around the births, lasting for months, calming, then exploding again with little warning. In line with the dictionary definition, our crises have certainly been periods of intense difficulty or pressure and while the ‘danger’ is usually resolved with a 20 minute power nap, you can’t underestimate it.

The beauty about crisis mode at work, is that people make allowances for it. So everything still needs to get done, but if you say ‘I’ve been working on the crisis’ then you’re afforded a bit more leeway. It’s empowering and important. You’re in a special club.

So I’m trying to work ‘crisis mode’ into my personal life, in fact I have a whole raft of crisis indicators: boys with the wrong coloured school trousers, filthy car interior, sick stained tshirts. I once tried to get colleagues to identify our give-away codes that meant we weren’t coping so well with the week. For one it was swimming, if she hadn’t been in the morning before work, then it was a sign things were getting on top of her. For me it was more basic: drying my hair. You know it’s not going well if it’s slicked back into a bun. Day after day. These days, I don’t even know where my hair dryer is.

So we have our indicators, of which there are many, now we need the empowerment. I want to own these challenges. I’d like to stand on the bench in the school yard and scream: my kid might have grey trousers instead of black, but I am in crisis mode, so lets focus on the things I have achieved, like the fact that he is dressed. And clean. And fed. And alive. Now, obviously I would never do that because i) I don’t like to make a scene ii) I am actually mortified that they have the wrong trousers. And that’s why we need the crisis club. Because we need to be empowered. Call it self help, call it hippy crap, call it busy parents giving each other a hand (or a smile).

Why stop there at parenting? I met up last week with some pals from uni. Bright, brilliant friends, out there doing it, fighting their own fights. They make me feel excited about the good in the world. That so many of us spend so much of our time trying to make life better for someone else. The stories are moving and the challenges can feel overwhelming. That’s why everyone is welcome to join the crisis club. A little signal with your pals, a discrete sign that you’re in need of an extra bit of handholding, then hold their hand right back. Let them into the club and own those challenges together. It’s way easier when you’re allowed to drop the ball a few time.

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I heart services for people

I’ve been a civil servant for ten years this summer. Ten years. How did that happen?!

When I joined, all those summers ago, it was a panic move. I had finished uni, realised that I wasn’t cut out for the world of drama and theatre studies, and that my degree hadn’t prepared me for it anyway. I knew I wanted to travel and I knew I wanted a steady income. So it was between British Airways and the civil service. Aren’t I glad they didn’t think I would make a good flight attendant (though I was gutted at the time).

I used to strut down Whitehall in my crisp suits. I was preppy, brighteyed, enthusiastic. I had a brilliant first job sorting out conferences for the powerful. I got winked at by George Bush you know. I was dating an awful man twice my age who almost broke me that summer. I had to crash into my sisters’ spare room and into her life, a bundle of tears and uncertainly and relief.

I felt so grown up, rushing around those corridors of power. Figuring out my place. Getting stuff done. But I was a baby. Innocent, thin skinned, fragile. Wrapped up in the excitement of it all. Just like our wee one year old is now: finding his feet, wobbling on shaky legs. Blinking back tears as I got told ‘that’s not how we do it here’ more times than I can remember. And for a while I believed it. Wrinkle free, kid free, responsibility free. I met a new man, an arrogant, posh man who wore suits everyday and took himself seriously. Thankfully, he wasn’t interested in me having just come out of a long relationship. I had new friends, we drank cocktails like water, we hung out on the Southbank, we saw so much theatre that summer. Life was ace.

If then I was a baby taking my first tentative steps onto the career ladder, then I must be coming of age now. Things are about to get stroppy. It’ll be a relief when that teenage ‘I know everything’ attitude kicks in because that’ll take an awful lot of worry out of my decision making. But I guess my career is also about to get spots, mood swings and get a bit experimental.

Standard practice in my department is that jobs change every few years; so that we become jacks of all trades. It’s not good for someone like me who likes a bit more certainty. That time is coming up for me. Similarly, we are talking to the boys about their next school year, new teachers, new classrooms, new expectations. They are much cooler about it than I am. I need to apply that same level of inevitability to my work. A new boss is just like getting a new teacher. A new job is like a new class. And in this new teenage career phase, I’ve got choice, responsibility, my own front door key. But there are still plenty of adults around to make sure I don’t do anything too dangerous.

The suited man turned out to be quite special. Another life decision that I would never have predicted. The years have flown by, as have the babies. Now I work from home in track suit bottoms. I make more important decisions and care less about my shoes. I worry about reports, progress, bullying when I should be writing reports, taking steps to progression and tackling bullying in the workplace.

I love being part of a machinery that I believe is trying to do good. I’ve had amazing experiences and fantastic opportunities. I believe I can make a difference. But it is faulted of course. It makes mistakes. It takes forever to make change. As with all the public services, in a time of austerity, it relies on people to ‘do more with less’. I work to the bone because of professional pride and accept a painful salary because I want to make life a bit better for someone else. I told my team this week that I am in a constant state of ‘not delivering’ because while I’m finishing one high profile piece of work, there are already 5 more major projects building up. We swing from one priority to the next. I’ve felt so much responsibility on my shoulders, which Rich says are as hard as stone. I passed the edge of my limits months ago.

This week, 2 million public workers went on strike. I was hugely relieved to have a day off. I went to rally with firefighters, teachers, social workers and loads more. The feeling of exhaustion was overwhelming: we are doing our best, but we are totally shattered. No one joins the public services to become rich, but we need a living wage. We need enough staff and enough resources to deliver our jobs properly. The people who stood with me make genuine life or death decisions. They are responsible for the care of our most vulnerable. Do we want them pushed to the limits of exhaustion? Overwhelmed? Worried about making their own ends meet?

As I stood with my 5yo on my shoulders, him clapping along with the crowd, me with tears in my eyes, the strength in solidarity washed over me again. The strength of standing together is beautiful. And all these people want to do stuff for others; collect their rubbish, alphabetise their library books, teach their kids, sort out their driving licences, save them from a burning building. The least we can do is give them a salary that rises with inflation. Its not much to ask for. It’s a no brainer.

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Breast at its best

Bottle or breast
We’re all doing our best
But here are some thoughts
To get off my chest (pun intended)

Oh breastfeeding, what a joy. What a personal, emotional, physical drain. I mean joy. You’ve made me feel special and given me closeness. You have made me cry. Tears of worry, pain, happiness. What a privilege it is to give your body for nine months. Then again for months more.

A funny kind of privilege, one that doesn’t let you out the door. Makes people feel awkward. And leaves your body sore. A privilege that teaches you about bra extenders, breast pads, nipple creams, front openers, flap fasteners. Torpedo nipples, leatherback breasts, heavy, full and leaky. Dried-on milk. Not sexy, but empowered. #NoMorePage3. Look what I can do: Panic stricken, ruddy faced baby, waling wildly. Silenced, soothed, satisfied. No packaging, no waste, no cost. Everything he needs. This is how powerful breasts can be.

I can do it in my sleep. His nose blocked and snotty. While breaking up a fight between older brothers. Debating global politics. Online shopping.

We’ve fed almost everywhere I can think of: Church during the nativity to keep baby quiet (I had to ask my mum if it were allowed). On a flight to stop ears from popping. Sainsbury’s car park, Nanny’s sofa, the park, the beach, the library, cafés, doctors, museums.

I’ve missed weddings, parties, nights out. I’ve forfeited conversations. I’ve made people leave rooms. I got high fived once: ‘You go girl’. And I realised it was special.

Now I’ve hung up my hooter hider. Folded up my muslin wrap. I struggled under that blanket, blindly fumbling, wrangling boob out of bra, stretching top under udder, helping baby find breast. In fact I hadn’t bothered much with that, not since practicality took the place of dignity somewhere between baby one and baby three.

Magnificently milking. Belly laughing. Milk-shaking.

Long nights, early morning, crazy days. Is there enough milk? Too much? Baby preferred the left, but I never figured out why.

Baby looks up at me, fingers in my nostrils, nipple in his mouth and drifts into milky sleep.

Oh baby, I gave my body to him on the inside and the outs. It’s an overwhelming closeness that only I will remember.

He rejected the bottle for weeks: fast flow, sippy cup, most like mum, closer to breast. Long days without milk. Swollen breasts, heavy tears, mummy guilt, baby indifference.

And now, he happily flings mush all over the kitchen. Finger in my nostrils, draining bottle, eyes full of trust. Still perfect.

I already miss the breastfeed. As we wean to days now between. I miss those sweet orange sickly shitty nappies. That creamy milky sick in my hair. Wallowing together in our own goo. The dependence. The quiet. The power. The necessity. I savour our last feed (well, it could be the last), overwhelmed by the beauty of it, before reaching for my phone, and reading twitter again.

The final injustice; the return of period cramps. Bloated belly. Countdown to cycle, held off by milk production. A painful reminder of fertility again.

Well, it is such a privilege…

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Boys just wanna have fun

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I’ve always known how I would bring up my daughter. She would climb trees, she would fix things, she would be good at sports, she would have toys that did things. She would be physical, active, outdoorsy. She would also be gentle, caring, empathetic. Ambitious, capable, confident. We would battle, of course, especially through the teen years, but in the long run, we would be close and I would know she was grateful for her feminist roots.

So I wasn’t really planning on having three boys (parenting lesson #7: nothing goes to plan). I had never really thought about boys. It all just seemed a bit more straightforward for them; that male upbringing was simply a prolonged sequence of sport, fart jokes and sexual experimentation. I felt sorry for families that only had boys, how boring their lives must be.

Turns out that they are fragile little things, they worry and cry, they need comfort, security, routine. They dance and sing. They paint, draw, ‘scissor’ and glue. They skip along the road holding my hand. They are so untouched, unaffected by their gender. And it’s beautiful.

I won’t forget 5yo bursting into tears after school because they had watched a film where the kids got separated from their parents. He had held it together in the hall with his friends, and for the walk holding hands up the steps but as we waited for his brother he crumpled and told me the jumbled story with his arm like a vice around my neck. Oh these boring boys. At the weekend we played football and talked about school while 3yo arranged plant pots behind the goal. They argue over who makes their baby brother laugh the most. They beg us to do baking, water plants, read stories. They disappear to play complicated games together in their room. Sigh, so shallow these males. 5yo frequently mediates between parents and siblings displaying top notch emotional intelligence which rivals Catherine Ashton’s. Seeing him hold nervous 3yo’s hand and coach him through swimming lessons is priceless. Where is that tested in the school system?

Now I know that statically, these boys will be fine, by the virtue of being white, middle class and male. But I also know that they’ll have to navigate their softer sides against an expectation of aggression, competitiveness, even violence. I’m a believer in making change from within: they need to get into the boys culture in order to change it. They’ll need the skills to be able to banter in the changing room but have the self confidence to call out sexism, racism, homophobia and whatever else. It’s a lot of pressure to put on these boys. They already show a keen sense of justice (‘why is his half of the biscuit bigger?’) but can they hold their own in the big wide playground? 5yo complains of being exhausted after school because he has spent all day stopping the older boys from crushing the girls. He tells me that the girls keep kissing him and we talk about making sure they want to be kissed and his right to say no. He is confident in his values, and his sensitivity, but he is challenged relentlessly and all three will have to weather that throughout their lives.

The confidence question has been playing on my mind recently, probably as I battle my own demons on the return to work. I’m in observation overdrive, searching for the secrets of self confidence. I study people giving presentations, telling their children off, chatting over coffee. I’m fascinated by the noisy kids, leaders, game makers. This confidence comes from somewhere. I’ve thought about it in terms of the #banbossy campaign, which focuses on empowering girls. It’s a great initiative, but how about we celebrate the quiet kids, the ones getting on with it and not making a fuss. The low drama kids. The middle of the road. Hell, let’s just give our best to all kids. They key thing is that they are comfortable as themselves.

I’m glad that I had got this so wrong. Having focused so much of my life on feminism and women’s issues, it’s taken these boys to make me realise that everyone has a part to play in the solution. I was aware of it in theory, but now I get to see first hand how important it is to pass on those values to boys in practice. It’s not good enough to bring up balanced girls, we need to sort out the boys too.

Ok, so their room already stinks of boy, but their skin smells sweet and fresh. Kids are enchanting regardless of gender. And the real beauty is that they come with all of it unlocked. Although the doors will get closed as they get on with their lives, I want to make sure they always know where the keys are. And the fart jokes, they’ll need a good selection of those too.

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Parent teacher week

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I’m heading to London for a conference this week. In preparation, I’ve been snatching moments to rummage through my bags of clothes. The bags of one-day-I’ll-fit-into-that clothes that keep growing. I’ll stick with the same rotation of tops for the time being.

I’m dragging the youngest along for the ride, well, along for the milk. On the train, we sway precariously between seats. Business people avoid eye contact and pregnant travellers watch discretely with interest. I try to answer emails quickly while breastfeeding to silence my unruly babe. An older lady entertains him while I fire off an urgent email. I try not to dwell on whether she is helpful or judgmental. Sweet baby coos and clings tightly to my arm. So much change for such a little guy to manage.

Earlier in the week, we had the parent teacher report on 5yo. Summed up in one word as ‘patchy’: sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn’t. Sounds about right. Sometimes he is doing sums in his head, spelling words phonetically, telling the time. Othertimes, he is writing letters backwards, saying numbers the wrong way round or too tired to even communicate. Teacher was full of praise for the qualities we consider important; politeness, concentration, caring. But commented more than once that he wasn’t ‘a boys boy’ as if that were a bad thing. Meanwhile we’ve all been trying to learn welsh. It’s a motley crew, me with my 17 year old GCSE, bampi with his Glasgow welsh, 3yo with his made up vocab. 5yo does a beautiful job of helping us along, gently correcting our pronunciation, delighting in the role reversal. He chooses the welsh channel for cartoons now and sings merrily along to the theme tunes. In quieter moments, 5yo has been opening up about kids who won’t play with him. He doesn’t want to play football with the bigger kids because he gets in the way. This week’s best friend has told him that his beloved Octonauts is ‘childish’. Kids can be so cruel. So much pressure for a big guy to handle.

3yo is exploring his personality. We recently had the new neighbours over for tea. As they sat in our lounge, the scattered toys, and stained cushions stuck out like emergency flares. The boys were crazy excited. Partly it was the special chocolate biscuits. Partly it was the excitement of showing off their toys. But most of all, it was the fresh audience for ‘a show’. 3yo has become a skilled performer. His shows involve a random mix of song, dance and made up Welsh. They last for hours. This time, usually shy and retiring 5yo wanted in on the action. So while I jiggled the cranky baby on my hip, trying desperately not to have to breastfeed in front of our new neighbours, Rich nervously spilt his tea all over the sofa and the boys whipped up into a hyper frenzy. Despite urging them to rehearse upstairs, the lights were dimmed and the performance was set. We haven’t seen the neighbours again since then.

I had to miss 3yo’s parent teacher meeting for the conference. We were placing bets on what the report would be. Nil points for Rich who thought we would be reprimanded for our mischievous mite. I knew he could turn on the charm. Turns out his school performance is his best, most polite, sweet, timid self. A world away from the tormentor who tortures his long suffering siblings. Like his brother before him, he was labeled with the ‘shy’ badge and I wondered if this was some reverse sexism. We’re told the boys don’t rough and tumble like the others. They don’t like to get dirty. They aren’t loud. We know they struggle with some of the playground battles. Our values are about talking through problems, sharing, compromising. But they are faced with playground games of Star Wars (5yo wants a ‘light saver’), Dr Who, ninja turtles and power rangers. It doesn’t feel right that our ideology should cause them to be left out or unable to get involved. But I can’t tolerate the violent themes that are inherent in boy culture. Too much bullshit for these guys to handle.

Rich had his birthday this week. I treated him to a lay in, which meant being woken up at ten to seven by two kids jumping on him, then eating his crumpets. We went to watch a lovely production of Under Milk Wood. Late of course, we ran through the rain to get there which reminded us of a very early date when we ran, late for a performance, through the undercarriage of the Southbank. I slipped off my heels and ran full pelt. I laughed at Rich’s surprise and I knew that our relationship had just got a little stronger. This time, in a parallel universe, we ran through the Swansea bus station, out of breath and cursing. We slumped heavily into our seats, determinedly enjoying our first night off since baby arrived. He finished his birthday by cleaning up a stinker from baby. These days birthdays are just normal days with treats crammed in.

The conference was useful, I’m glad to have been a part of it. It exposed a huge range of challenges, but was also very positive. For me, the number of confident, articulate policy changing women who participated was moving. My first glimpse of some real gender balance in my ancient organisation. I had important work discussions then compared notes about getting up three times each night and dropping off crying baby at nursery. I talked with female peers in important jobs about self doubt and lacking confidence. This is crucial networking and establishment of support structures. So much good stuff for me to think about.

The week was topped off by Mother’s Day. Now, we don’t go in for this commercialised claptrap much, but the boys loved showing their cards and giving presents carefully chosen from uplands market. A total perk of having kids in childcare is that these occasions are always marked with home made booty (see cards above). Even the baby had managed to paint one! I didn’t think about work once as we headed out for an adventure at carreg cannen castle. We watched new born lambs snuggle with their mums, explored the castle tunnel and enjoyed cream teas.

The boys seemed to have aged several years in the three days I’ve been away. They are becoming people before my eyes. Baby has a cold. Onwards to next week then. A few things for us all to be getting on with.

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Ying versus yang

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It’s not the most exciting double life, but there are definitely two of us. Work-me and mum-me. This week, the two me’s have not been getting along so well. Neither feels like they are getting enough attention. Both want more hours in the day.

In the office last week I was able to keep the two me’s very separate. I had an hour’s commute each way to get into the appropriate character. On the first day back to work, I felt like a spare part, and there’s nothing worse than leaving your baby and feeling like it’s for nothing. So on the second day I volunteered for stuff, I wrote drafts, I organised, I got involved. I got my work-me mojo on. But in some ways I think I pulled it off too well because colleagues haven’t given me much slack since then. Coming back after maternity leave is very odd; competent but nervous, familiar but unsure, enthusiastic but exhausted.

I was told several times by well meaning colleagues to read an internal blog about settling back after maternity leave. Thanks, but I already know what it’s like. It’s rough. It’s emotional. The blog is actually for everyone else to read: a kind of ‘how to be supportive’ guide. Bit sad that we need it – are we so lacking in compassion and common sense? And even worse that most people have missed the point – that we all have a role to play in getting women back into the work place. I was even told that my account had been completely deleted when I left because ‘most women don’t come back after maternity leave’. Not exactly the welcome home party I was expecting. I wanted more: a scheme or some kind of formal outreach that respects my privacy and determination to be taken seriously. Sadly it is seen firmly as my problem and not that of the organisation. So although I’ve had some lovely contacts from colleague-friends, it is my own struggle to get back into the swing of things. I don’t need the hand holding of a new beginner but some reassurance, encouragement and an early mark wouldn’t go amiss.

Despite my best efforts, there were gaps in my ‘professional’ performance as mum-me snuck back in. I found myself swaying gently in the lunch queue. I changed the subject away from baby talk so that I wouldn’t burst into tears. I patted my handbag off to sleep on the tube. Being without the baby is a bit like giving up smoking. You just don’t know what to do with your hands. My mum-me arms felt so gangly without him to carry. I missed having baby to excuse my lost focus on the conversation. I missed the endless conversation fillers.

Back home, despite our fears, they had a wonderful week. Rich and baby bonded over mushed food and peekaboo. My days were punctuated by text updates which made my eyes sting. Baby was perfect. As soon as I walked in the door, 5yo bounded over for cuddles and to whisper ‘I’ve missed you so much’. 3yo would excitedly tell me about his day: ‘we went on a train’ ‘I had grapes’. But baby, sweet baby, always in his fathers arms, would take a few moments to stare at me intently before bursting into tears. Big, wet, overwhelmed tears that could only be soothed by milk that he hadn’t noticed he was missing all day.

We took the kids into my office to give them some context for my going back to work. As the two worlds collided I felt strangely relaxed. We walked around formal rooms, busy corridors and even past the big BIG boss’ office. The boys were perfect, introducing themselves and showing off their visitor passes. They took it all in their stride. As we talked to my team they held my hand. Even in work I’m mum-me to them.

This week we’re back into the remote working routine and the two me’s keep getting confused. Our morning routine is even more complicated. Breakfasts are scoffed while lunches are squeezed into tupperware. Boys are wrangled into clothes between cartoons. A blur of shoes, coats and brushed teeth dive into the car. I race back for bags, books, bottles, consent forms, phone, where’s my bloody phone?

I fly back in from the school drop off, logging on and switching modes. I try a line of chitchat with my team about this week’s costume demands (the Owl and the Pussycat for those interested), but there is rarely time for such frivolity. My mind spins into a different gear.

From my little home office, my team can’t see the bags under my eyes or my unwashed hair. I send important emails around the world with sick stained shoulders. The two me’s go into battle again.

Logging off has got later and later this week and my blackberry became a staple at dinner. Legitimate emergency this time, but the temptation to check emails during family time is lamentable. It’s winking at me now.

Overnight I wake to feed the baby, two or three times. This transitional period is always rough. Sometimes so tired I can barely keep my head up. But usually with real clarity I add to either my home or work to do lists. I pay bills in the middle of the night, order groceries, send emails. I’ll be lost without these extra hours in my day when they are wasted for sleep.

Such a blur of pressure and survival, but I’m already two weeks back into work. And while my organisation struggles with its emotional intelligence, I decided to take responsibility. I had dived so deep into work-me that I was hiding mum-me. I was expecting colleague telepathy. So I’ve told my boss now about the school run. I’ve mentioned to my team leader that I’m still breast feeding through the night. It’s not much but I feel a bit more at peace. They haven’t treated me any differently, I’m still crazy busy and have the interesting work. It feels good to have addressed my ying and my yang. The two me’s are beginning to get along.

And now I’ve had a little think about my day, I’ve realised I have this 6 minute drive from the school run when I’m alone in the car. It’s my only unaccountable time of the day. Not responsible to or for anyone. I’m neither work-me nor mum-me. Just me. 6 minutes. 3 times a week. Just me.

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Working mum once more

I’m looking forward to going back to work. There, I said it.

I’ve got an interesting job. I love being challenged. I feel like I can make a difference. I’ve had a job since I was 15. I like working.

I’ve just spent the morning piecing the house back together after a regular destruction from the boys. I’ve been putting together different parts of different toys for over an hour. I’ve swept the kitchen floor about 75 times in the last two days. I madly wipe down surfaces in case a neighbour pops by (one recently told me that that our predecessors ‘kept the place immaculate and they also had three boys…’). The freezer is overflowing with home made baby purée. I’ve scaled mountains of laundry that are more frightening than Everest. I can empty the dishwasher with a baby in my arms in under 3.5 minutes. I jiggle the babe on my hip while taking care of chores and scorching chicken nuggets for hungry mouths.

But this isn’t me. It isn’t us. Even as a full time parent, our furniture is stained, our car is filthy and our children never have matching socks. And to be honest, I don’t care. There is more to life, and for me, that means getting back to the coal face. My brain is screaming to be put back into a work gear.

I haven’t often admitted out loud that I’m looking forward to getting back to work, but I’ve been trying it more often, and actually it’s ok. Mums get it. Many have been through it and all have had to make tough decisions. It has opened up a whole new world of playground conversation.

Social pressure continues to be painfully contradictory. Girls should do well at school, get a career, be obsessed with marriage, give it all up for children. Women who go back to work are bad mothers and those who stay at home are sad. It is simply not so two dimensional.

In this house, Rich and I are the CEO’s. But we are also the cleaners, caterers, drivers and dogsbodies. There’s only so much bum wiping you can take. My job on the other hand, is a challenge. It’s busy but it’s also rewarding. I’m asked my opinion. I’m listened to (sometimes). If there’s a problem, I do my best to fix it. There are procedures, colleagues, resources. Grown ups are (usually) rational, logical, reasonable. This week I’ve made time to visit some working women chums. These inspiring, smart women are out there doing it and fully reinforced my choice to go back to work. So while I have enormous respect for full time parents (and it is by far the hardest job I’ve ever done) it’s not for me. This week I’ve talked more about making a difference, strengthening communities, fixing challenges than sleep patterns and nappies. We work hard our whole lives and then are expected to give it all up as soon as the kids come along. It doesn’t make any sense. The boys are a massively important part of my life, but they aren’t my whole life. They don’t define me. They enrich my life. As does my work.

I’ve intentionally written this blog while I’m feeling strong about heading back. At a time when my head is ruling over my heart. Of course, I will miss my mummy colleagues, we have spent hours mentoring, coaching, and problem solving. I’ll miss the breast feeding, and the beautiful baby so peaceful and dependent in my arms. I’ll miss the time with each of these boys. So I’ll continue to live on the brink of tears for a while longer as we navigate back into the work life balance. As my head battles with my heart. As my body readjusts. As all of those social pressures settle and the voices quiet down. This is what’s right for our family.

Today was the baby’s settling in session for nursery. He was to go for two hours in the morning. I had my first free moments fully planned: coffee house with discrete crying corner duly selected, anti-diet pastry on standby, guilty pleasure gossip mag at the ready. Instead, I was treated this morning to a vomiting three year old over breakfast and a vomiting five year old on the school run. So my tranquil morning, which was more about me than the baby, was thoroughly disrupted by poorly little boys. Baby was fine at nursery and was sound asleep at pick up. Boys spent the day veering between nausea and normal. And I had a good reminder that life goes on. Though I may never get the stench of strawberry petit filous vomit out of the car, the kids know they are loved and that they are safe. Working parents or not.

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Worry while you work

The day I figured out how to butter bread with one hand changed my life. I was no longer slave to my tiny captor. I had independence, accomplishment and most importantly, I had toast. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the haze. And as the sleepless smog cleared, the deadline of getting back to work loomed large on the horizon. So I have been trying to wean myself off my baby, and like any addiction, there have been highs, lows and overdoses.

The kid is a handful. He wants to be carried all the time. Or fed. He sleeps lightly and wakes often. He only has eyes for his mamma which is as delightful as it is punishing. He is master in the dark art of bottle avoidance and a black belt in solid food flicking. My lovingly prepared portions of puréed apples, sweet potatoes and apricots lay abandoned in miniature pots like islands of failure at the end of each day. I’ve worked harder and achieved less than ever before. I stew over every new nugget of advice I receive in the playground and angst over each decision. This is the bit when we try to rationalise with a baby. We expect him to understand that actually breast isn’t best anymore and that he better bloody well chose a bottle or food or he’s going to be a bit hungry. I withhold my milk and we battle, thrashing and crying for hours each day. Then we struggle at night while the hungry child wakes. Our range of bottles, cups, formulas grows with every trip to the shops. I try to get into his psychology, but the simple truth is that he just doesn’t know any different.

From nowhere, we share a moment of joy, he laughs at something or grabs for a toy. He chuckles heartily when I tickle him. He learns new skills before my eyes. The sleepless, unwashed, unhinged moments melt away. Nothing else matters. I am hypnotised by his dark eyes and suddenly drown in a flood of emotion as I contemplate his transition to nursery. What a shock it is going to come to this little mite who has been so close to me his whole life. So the excitement I feel about going back to work is thoroughly undermined by the thought of my tiny baby coming to terms with what will feel like loss and abandonment as he heads off into daycare.

Heading back to work is daunting enough. I have been away for a lifetime after all. My team has changed, the work load is steep, the expectations are high. The last month of maternity leave is the worst. There is so much the play for: anxiety of getting back to work (will I be any good? Will I be able to leave on time? Will they treat me differently? Can I still type?), the physical and emotional juggernaut of leaving the baby (Will I cry when someone asks how my baby is? will I start doing baby talk in a meeting? Will my breasts calm the hell down before Monday morning?), the actual handing over of baby (will he be ok? Will they know what to do when he cries? Will he ever forgive me?). Add to this a large dollop of refusal-to-wean, some guilt sprinkles, a 7 month scoop of sleepless nights and you have yourself a knicker-bocker-head-fuck.

All this is from a woman who has done this twice before and survived. It can be done. Yes, it’ll be a bumpy few months as the whole family adjusts again to this new phase. We’ve been spoilt over this period with a full time ‘home maker’ (though our home is still in constant chaos). I’ve had time to run kids to discos, gymnastics, parties. I’ve made cakes and costumes. I’ve missed countless hours of sleep and nursed sick children. Now I just have to fit work back in to the fray. I will miss the school pick up, which has become one of my loveliest parts of the day and coaxing information out of the boys is my favourite sport. Their inquisitive minds and flourishing personalities are such a treat. We will have to develop new rituals now because this is the beginning of baby’s independence. His first steps into the world before he can even crawl. Here we go on another stage. The making of little people and the teaching of values by doing. This is all part of it. Bloody parenting, I love it.

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Christmas roundup

It’s been another momentous year for the Checkland Harts. Over the summer we welcomed baby 3 to the crew. He’s a beautiful mix of his big brothers and is endlessly entertained by their antics.

We’ve decided to lay our roots in Swansea, starting the kids in welsh school and buying our own house in the marina. It’s impossible to beat our New York bubble, but we’ve been spoiled here with a beautiful summer, happy kids and finding old and new friends (not to mention the easy access to babysitters).

5yo has really settled into full time school and bounds into class each day. He’s a brilliant welsh coach for the rest of us, gently correcting our pronunciation and coaxing us along. He’s also been wowing us with questions like: how many waves are in the sea? (Answers on a postcard please). He loves riding his bike around the marina and is beautifully patient with his little bros.

3yo also started school, his favourite part is ‘everything!’. He’s a prolific artist and loves to put on a show for visitors. His teacher said he is a well loved, quiet, considered wee chap, which is quite a different story from the tyke we know at home.

Rich has made it through his first year with IT learning software company CDSM and is well on his way to sorting out the online learning of welsh school kids. He seems to have convinced them that he’s a hot shot NY project manager. Switching to the private sector has been a bit of an adjustment, so he’s busy introducing mentoring and competence appraisals. He’s got back into some regular football playing and has seen more Swans matches than West Ham.

For the third (and final – ed) time, Rhi has taken a break from work for that all important baby bonding time. It’s been a blur of sleep deprivation, school runs and cooing. Before going on leave, she was working to better the UKs human rights efforts, including by getting us elected to the Human Rights Council. She’s looking forward to getting her teeth back into it in February, though the childcare burden pulls heavily on the heart strings.

We are hoping for a few less life changes in the coming year so we can get on with just living. We had so many lovely visits this year and hope well see even more of you in 2014.

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Stockholm syndrome

Send help: I’m being held captive. Tortured in fact. My body and decisions are not my own. He seems irrational, uncompromising, cruel. But I am completely in love with him.

Throughout the night, every night, I’m woken abruptly at all hours. Sometimes over and over again. Patterns are lost as quickly as they are established. I stumble around in the dark, covered in vomit and crap searching for wipes and blankets. We fall to sleep while feeding and I jerk awake with fear. I rock back and forth for hours, arms throbbing under the weight of 7 bags of sugar. I ease him into bed and stand, doubled over, back aching, hoping not to wake him. I silently move away, releasing each fingertip at a time. His eyes flash open, my heart stops, I stand frozen, afraid to move. He cries, we start again. I curse myself for unleashing untold hours of wakefulness.

I’m rendered powerless throughout the day. An expert in one-handed chores but defeated by basic tasks (like putting on socks and buttering toast). I can’t achieve anything worthwhile. My body is at his beck and call. He frequently humiliates me in public by exposing my breasts in restaurants and playparks. I sit still for hours, lose feeling in my limbs and toilet breaks are rare and rushed. I stare longingly at out of reach cups of tea and remote controls. The battery life countdown on my iphone strikes panic through my soul.

But from the depths of this grim and murky torture, I begin to sympathise with my captor. It’s almost as though it is he who is dependent and powerless. At the peak of my exhaustion, the limits of patience, the brink of tears, there it is: a glimmer of a wonky smile, an unmistakable moment of recognition, a gloriously excited coo. It turns out he’s not a cruel tormentor. There is no malice. In fact he runs on instinct, survival and total dependence.

Rich says this blog sounds like the opening of a crime novel, so I fear I may have taken the analogy too far. I promise this is not a cry for help. It was meant to be funny. Nevertheless, I’ll post it anyway because we don’t talk enough about how hard it can be. There’s no doubt that I am completely in love with my babe (I will bore you with that another day), but the hard work, self doubt and exhaustion play a large part of this period. And mine would be considered an ‘easy’ baby (is there any such thing?). I don’t joke when I tell people that the first few weeks are tantamount to torture: sleep depravation, disorientation, disempowerment. No wonder so many new parents battle with depression. Not helped by the feeling that we shouldn’t talk about this stuff, that it should appear effortless and perfect, and constantly told that we should enjoy every minute (see examples of unenjoyable minutes above). There are endless ‘experts’ telling us what we are doing wrong and that we shouldn’t allow our baby to manipulate us, as if babies have a cruel master plan. A wise friend has recently said “don’t read anything, every child is different, just follow his lead”.

So here I am, shattered and besotted. For the time being, we are an inseparable team. And what a privilege it is, bloodshot eyes and all.

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