Working mum of three

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

Make love, not football

I’m not a big football fan. I’m not ok with immoral amounts of money for kicking a ball around and the way that it dominates people’s lives. Rich sometimes checks his phone and reacts in such a way that I think something dreadful has happened; “it has” he says, “West Ham are a goal down”. 

But with three boys already being indoctrinated, I’m prepared to get involved on high days and holidays. Especially when Wales have qualified. And a collection of people unifying behind a common goal (pun intended) is one of my weaknesses. I don’t know where it comes from, but just like Payet who came off in tears after scoring the winning goal for France in the opening game on his home turf; the emotion of the collective is overwhelming. 

We’ve loved the build up to the tournament, it’s been a family affair; the boys have been earning and trading stickers for their panini album, we’ve got two wall charts, immediately filled in after each result and matches have been full of audience participation. They’ve driven us mad with songs from the stands. They know loads of the players. They argue over who is going to be Bale, Payet and Sigurðsson. We had so much fun watching the Wales v Slovakia game, randomly bursting into song, dancing and jumping. Wales’ stunning win was topped only by 5yo bursting back in the room at full time, completely naked, shouting: “Winners! Winners!”

Earlier in the evening we were talking about how fantastic it would be to take the kids to an event like that. I used to go to football as a kid with my dad to watch Swansea, bribed with a Curly Wurly, and turns with my sister on his shoulders. That was in the days of crowds in stands and we were taught to raise our arms in front of our chests to protect our lungs as the fans piled out of the Vetch. I still do it in crowds but I haven’t often felt in real danger. 

I’ve imagined the fear of this dad stuck in the stadium. From the excitement of the spectacle turning to cold fear as the scene unfolded. It kept me awake for hours last night, trawling twitter for updates, going over how frightening those circumstances must be. Bar brawls are one thing, but watching a scene erupt into violence, while clinging onto your kids, with no way out, is the stuff my nightmares are made of. 

I was quite taken this week by the idea that we could be an elaborate virtual reality game. Perhaps it would explain the inexplicable violence. That perhaps our species will naturally self destruct, no matter how many opportunities we are given. That we never learn. 

When the second of our three boys was born, and by chance, most of our friends had also had boys, someone said to me: “all these boys being born; it’s going to be a big war”. That has burrowed into my mind for years as I wonder whether she meant that lots of boys will automatically create war, or that war is inevitable and the boys will pay the price. Violence is so accepted in our world that it is expected, even when looking into the face of a new born baby. ​

We shall overcome

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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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