Working mum of three

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

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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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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Maternity leave and other basic human rights

20130614-100003.jpgIt’s hard to admit that you can be replaced. It’s tough to work full throttle on something and not be able to see it to fruition. There is never a good time to have a baby.

The pendulum is about to take a major swing in the family direction. The nesting phase has already started; the garage has been rearranged, the toilets have been scrubbed and the chocolate drawer is well stocked. Sleep patterns, feeding patterns and poop patterns will dominate our world. Familial harmony will be the key objective. Work will be a distant and irrelevant memory. Once the baby arrives, Monday mornings will no longer be feared, because every day will be the beginning of a full working week. Frustration, tedium and exhaustion will take on a whole new meaning. Work meetings, corporate responsibility, banal and bizarre parts of my job will all fade into insignificance. My own tiny imprint on the UN Human Rights infrastructure is about to go on hold. Switching from the international stage, to the domestic minutiae.

It is hard to describe the paradox. If family and work are the two major components of my existence, then opting for one implies a disloyalty, a lack of dedication to the other. Even if it is temporary. Some think that having children is a selfish and conformist act that sucks you into traditional roles and restricts your ability and desire to make a difference in the world (I know this because someone said it to me). In fact, having three doesn’t make me want to achieve less, rather the burden of responsibility to improve our life, society, global circumstances, weighs even more heavily. So the pull in both directions is mutually reinforcing. What an impossible conundrum.

The sadness of leaving a job might seem a bit foolish, it is the UN after all, and the civil service, so the amount of change while I’m away will be invisible to the naked eye. But there is a lot wrapped up it. Work represents my independence. My skills and achievements are my own (not someone’s mummy). But more specifically, I have worked hard and I’ll be missing out on the tea and medals. It’s really hard to hand things over and let things go. Perhaps hardest to swallow, it feels like my professional achievements are overshadowed by my role as a mother.

A decent maternity leave is such a privilege. Hats off to my American mum friends who survive with no legal entitlement. And even here in the private sector, women are only entitled to 6 weeks at 90% pay. The dedicated time off with our newborn is precious and vital. So while the discussion about enabling both parents to share the parental leave must be a step in the right direction, asking mums to sacrifice that time, even if it is for their partners, seems a bit unrealistic. There are physical and emotional considerations to take into account (most notable is breastfeeding).

Which leads us on to the broader gender disparity. Like many dads to be, Rich recently commented that it is hard to ‘bond’ with the baby until the bump is really big. So while I have been mulling it over (panicking) for 9 months, going to appointments, perfecting my pregnancy small talk, it has so far had little impact on Rich’s day to day, and even less so on his work. This is just the beginning of the different impact parenting takes on each gender in the work place. Remote working has given me a bit of an insight into what it is like for a bloke; my colleagues have been largely unaffected by the pregnancy, in fact, many have been shocked when I’ve told them.

While my team has been hugely supportive (in fact my line manager told me I was an inspiration – hohoho!), they have had to run a recruitment and figure out the logistics of it all. Rich isn’t even entitled to a statutory paternity leave since he has only recently joined the company – so they won’t bat an eyelid.

On my return to work in 8 months, it won’t be reasonable to expect to walk into a promotion. Without the absence, my recent opportunities would have given me the confidence to push for it. Now, when I go back, it will be back to square one: questioning own abilities, balancing home and work commitments, rebuilding skills and confidence. Ok – I recognise that some of this is self inflicted, but in my experience, this is a common mindset amongst returning mothers. Meanwhile I have watched a male peer dance up the promotion ladder in the same period as having two children. Choosing to have three kids will undoubtedly have an impact on what I seek to achieve professionally. No matter how good my references are, there will be gaps in my appraisals and assumptions made about my commitment to work (thanks Alan Sugar). On the radio today, a woman was introduced as ‘impressionist, mother of two’ while none of the male contestants had their family circumstances referenced. There will be none of this discrimination against Rich.

By my reckoning, that’s gender, personal fears, cultural biases and practical considerations holding women back. But I wouldn’t give up my maternity leave, nor my right to ‘found a family’ any more than I would give up my right to work. So something needs to be done to redress the inequality of it and to support mothers in their return to work: answers on a postcard please. Luckily, I’m about to have some time to ponder these bigger questions.

In the meantime, there will be a few tears shed as I clock off work for a while, but even more when my tiny, completely dependent, miniature person arrives.

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Relationship management

We are just emerging from several weeks of unswerving pressure. Rich has had two huge projects at work that have seen him rushing home for kids bedtimes then logging back on until the wee hours. In a record breaker, he pulled an all nighter, arrived home just when the boys woke up, spent a few hours with them, then went and did another full days work. My eyes sting just thinking about it.

I can’t really claim that I’ve been single parenting as my parents are such willing and available support. But short staffing at home has taken a strain on the family side of work life balance. We get through the daily grind, but the chores build up and the feeling of not coping hangs heavy like an overflowing inbox. At the end of a long day, 4yo often wants to talk about ‘what I did and what you did today’ and while this quiet, reflective time is so lovely, I have half an eye on the clock and I’m planning out which evening chores will have to wait.

Rich’s boss has recently had a baby, which we thought might change his attitude. Sadly he still sees long hours as a badge of honour. It fills me with fear for when our own baby arrives. I remember planning my days with the first two to the exact moment Rich was due back from work. Even a 10 minute delay would send me over the edge and sending expletive texts. I would sometimes take the baby to the bus stop in the rain to minimise the time without Rich. Being at home with kids is hard. So if we’re going to be a three child family (and we’re roughly 5 weeks away), then we’re going to have to set boundaries.

Half way through his second working weekend, Rich told colleagues that he would have to go home to do some ‘relationship management’. In trying to have an open conversation and make clear that family was important as work, he coined a phrase that was so disheartening I nearly sent him back to the office. As though all my efforts to be supportive had been completely missed and that our relationship was just another job on his to-do list. Was he going to tell me that my increased domestic responsibilities were ‘developmental’? Or that I was in line for a good appraisal? Humph.

It’s clear that our family unit will have to be flexible enough to cope with the demands of two parents working full time. Share the load. Ask for help. Take time out when we need. All of this is easier said than done – just ask my civil service colleagues who are constantly told to de-prioritise and ‘do more with less’. But what’s that saying that 80% effort is good enough? We should definitely apply that to chores. I should note here that Rich has repaid the domestic burden a million times over when I have been up against it at work. And that is the beauty of being a team.

We get through it because we want to look after each other. I think that’s probably the success of our relationship; we want the other to be happy. If not happy then; ok. We like looking after each other. The little things everyday, rather than the grand gestures. I saw an older man coming out of a petrol station recently with a Turkish Delight bar and a Twix. The idea that he knew exactly what treat would make his companion smile just filled me with happiness. And it’s nothing, no effort to remember something simple like that. That’s my kind of relationship management.

I didn’t get a bonus for all my domestic hard work, no pay rise, no afternoon off. But having my swollen ankles rubbed while we shouted at some reality tv nonsense was absolutely priceless. Love you Roo Roo x

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