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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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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I heart our NHS

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‘Privatised medicine’ always made me think of those Bupa ads: soft lighting, smiling relaxed nurses, luxurious settings. We’ve had two children in the US, and our third in the UK. In my experience, the quality of care has been very similar, once you find the right medical professional. But what’s frightening is the cost that comes with that same service in the US.

The #RoyalBaby served to highlight that the cost of childbirth is double in the US, but even that is misleading: we don’t get billed in the UK. Luckily we had health insurance in the US so the financial side was covered. Imagine the bad moments we had when we opened bills for $30,000 for my labour and delivery and $9000 for the baby’s care in the first 48 hours. And those were for straightforward, non medicalised labours. Of course, I cant compare the fees as I never see a bill in the UK. Not even a bill to show me what I would have paid.

So it’s the difference between healthcare as a service or as a business. During our time in the US, we had experience of medical opinions that have appeared to be motivated by finances rather than ethics. Take ‘cord blood banking’: in the US, you are overwhelmed with adverts for emotionally charged cord blood banking services: for a down payment and regular fee, they will store the stem cell rich cord blood to be used in the event that your child needs it later in life. I repeatedly tried to donate my cord blood for general use but the service wasn’t available. In the UK the midwife automatically collected the blood as a part of the delivery so that it can be used for someone who needs it now. That seems pretty sensible.

Pregnancy care in the US is a bit more intense: it was all doctor lead (midwife/doula services are limited and costly). I was weighed at every appointment, had more scans, and was generally poked and prodded a bit more (blood tests, breast exams, even a heart monitor). But the most surprising difference for me was the element of choice I received in the UK. I had options. I could refuse tests. I even heard a story of a friend who turned down her dating scan at 12 weeks because she was so confident of her own dates. I suppose I could have taken more control in the US, but we were firmly lead down a medicalised route because services were not offered as choices but as obligations, for example, lots of children’s doctors wouldn’t accept kids if they didn’t have all available vaccinations.

We’ve had interactions with individual professionals with varying perspectives on both sides of the pond. Medical treatment depends so much on personal relationships, and we didn’t get off to the best start in the US. In innocence, I mentioned to my first OBGYN in New York that I would consider a home birth. This took us away from our so far pleasant conversation to a lecture about illegal home birthing, why would I want to be crawling around the floor and spitting at my husband, and ‘if you can’t get that baby out within three hours, then I’m taking it out for you’. needless to say, this was the last time we saw that doctor. We will always have a great memory of Dr Randall from Tennessee (of all places!) who delivered our first and fully accepted my desire to deliver naturally with the phrase ‘women have been doing this by them selves for centuries’. And Dr Rosenberg who delivered the second and gave us a great story when she appeared moments before delivery in full splash proof gear, including elbow length gloves, galoshes and a face visor. At the crucial moment she famously announced to the room ‘she’s not pushing, she’s just screwing up her face’. Ahh, we can laugh about it now.

In Britain, my medical appointments were much more conversational, friendly in fact – I was given mobile numbers for several of the midwives and encouraged to phone and text them. The conversation about my birthing plan in the UK brought me to tears as the midwife casually went through the standard options and explained that this was to be my birthing experience. It felt so different to what we had been through in the US, where it often felt that we had to convince them that it was ok to have a natural labour and delivery. When my series of appointments came to an end with my midwife, I felt like I had lost an old friend.

We took pre-parenting classes in the US, so I can’t compare, but it seemed that the medicalisation has become deeply intrenched into US culture. The growing want to take preventative action rather than trusting nature. Our classmates’ key concerns were around how to book a c-section and circumcision. Ok so circumcision is a religious thing, but as the lovely Dr Randal told our group of anxious new parents ‘there is no medical reason for that procedure’. Certainly not all of our peers were Jewish, but the expectation to take an intervention when it was available weighed heavily. Not one medical professional in the UK discussed circumcision with us.

Giving birth is never fun and my personal approach to getting through it is a whole different blog (if you ask, I’ll tell you all about my ‘kylie’ technique!). In the US I was strongly encouraged to have the epidural. During my first labour, the anaesthetist pressured me to sign my consent for it in the early stages of labour, because I would be too stressed later. The following day, he came in to remove my epidural and insisted I show him my back to prove that I hadn’t had one. During my second labour, the nurse had to ask the anaesthetist to leave the room as he relentlessly pressured me to have the epidural. Their insistence was so great, you would be forgiven for thinking they were on commission.

If I could have taken one thing from the US, I would have been the baby monitoring. It was not intrusive (a few pads stuck to the belly for short periods). It enabled the medical team to see what stage I was at while monitoring the baby. They were also able to monitor from outside the room, so didn’t need to disturb us. It meant that Rich was able to more easily track when my contractions were building, and therefore to talk me through them. During this third labour, I felt that I was progressing faster than the midwife did. By the time I was examined, it was too late to get into the birthing pool as the baby was delivered within the next 30 mins. Monitoring would have helped alert the midwife earlier.

In the NHS, and after our quiet time in the delivery room, I was helped into the shower by the nurses and Rich and baby were moved to our private double room. More like a hotel than a hospital, we were given tea and toast, supported by helpful while non intrusive staff but most significantly, Rich was allowed to stay overnight, giving us dedicated time to bond with the new babe. I know this service is not widely available on the NHS, but it represents the difference approach. To illustrate the contrast: when we arrived at the hospital for my first labour in NY, Rich was whisked away to fill out the same forms in triplicate while I anxiously waited alone as my contractions built.

Then there is the after care at home. I have been amazed by the level of follow up care, from midwives who have advised on breastfeeding, asked how I am feeling and have even covered domestic violence, to health visitors who have made sure everything is right with baby and me. All this in the comfort of my own home. This is certainly not part of the standard care package in the US (but no doubt you could pay for something similar).

I can’t speak highly enough of the NHS care we received. I was treated as an individual, my opinions were respected, my experience was my own. The midwives and other medical professionals were my equals (in fact they told me that I was the star of the show). They treated me like a friend, rather than a customer. And that was exactly what I needed. How lucky we are to have this incredible service, which is envied around the world.

I have to add a few disclaimers here. I know countless stories of problems with the NHS maternal health system, but I only talk here about my own experience as it relates to the US system. When I went overdue with this pregnancy, I began to get a feel for the pressure I would face to take interventional route. So I am not trying to argue that the NHS is perfect, show me an organisation of this size and responsibility that is. The point is that despite its shortcomings, we are so fortunate to have it. Based on our experience in the US, it is a myth that privatisation would improve the service: rather, it would only force us to pay for it at source and allow others to profit.

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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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Rough and tumble

Mid morning phone calls from the nursery always strike fear into a parent’s heart. 4yo had been involved in an ‘incident’ involving a toy car and another kid. The other boy has a reputation for being ‘trouble’, several parents have complained about him and we often get stories about his behaviour from our boys. This was the second ‘incident form’ to be signed in a week: 2yo had earlier been victim of a frequent and zealous biter. A clear bite mark is still there a week later.

I’m a bit sceptical about reports from the teacher that both our boys had reacted without confrontation: tears of course, cuddles, explanations of what had happened, calming down, no retaliation, then quick friends with the ‘perp’. But hang on, I’ve seen these boys completely out of control with rage. So it feels like the other two kids have been a bit scapegoated. They are known as ‘naughty’ kids. We arrived at the same time as one of them recently. They were all rushing into school in a jumble of ripping off coats and racing to get to toys, giggling all the way. In fact it was quite lovely. But the dad called back his son to give him a pep talk about being good and asking for a report from teachers later. Seemed like a pretty sensible approach.

Handling negative feedback about our kids is tricky. It’s taken me years in my professional life to be comfortable in responding when challenged on something. It’s easier to avoid conflict. Apologise, fix the problem, then moan about the injustice in private. I’m the person who apologises if someone bumps into me on the street. We try to teach our guys to talk their problems through, speak to teachers/adults, walk away from rough kids. Are we setting them up for a lifetime of bullying? In the workplace, so much of the messaging is around being assertive, confident, taking responsibility. Running to your boss for a cuddle is not encouraged. But it’s a fine line between pushover and wimp, assertiveness and bullying, ‘referring upwards’ and tell-tale.

The reality when they are playing with each other at home is that they damn well fight back. 4yo is patient with his little bro, he’s a thoughtful sensitive soul, but even he can get to the point of sheer frustration and lash out. In fact, he’s been experimenting with violence: totally unprovoked, he smacked his little bro in the face; on a long car journey, he lost his cool and threw a ball into Rich’s face. These incidents happen when he’s exhausted, and he immediately runs to hide, crying with embarrassment. He knows it’s not acceptable, but it’s happened before he could stop himself. Soon after our second was born, I hosted a massive play date (yup, don’t know what I was thinking either). Towards the end, the elder threw a train and whacked another boy on the forehead leaving a mark. Shocked and exhausted, I burst into tears, it was so out of character for him and it still is – at least, so I hope and still tell myself.

2yo picks up on the rough and tumble he sees with the older kids, he’s always been more physical and less afraid of getting into trouble. He pushes out his tongue when he is doing something he knows to be naughty. With a ‘tell’ that obvious, he’d be a terrible poker player. His big bro sometimes comes running into the room in terror saying ‘he’s doing the tongue’.

People often react sympathetically to the possibility of us having three boys. All the usual ‘football team’ stereotypes come out. Having a girl would be a fascinating study of how differently society reacts (not to mention a check of our own instincts and responses to cultural pressure). But I don’t accept that their behaviour has anything to do with gender – other than the social expectations they contend with (nice blog here on this). For example, they couldn’t have taken a more different approach to the pregnancy bump. 4yo often comes over to give baby a kiss and follows up with: ‘did the baby like it?’.

20130604-164425.jpg 2yo on the other hand prefers to drum my rounded belly. The other day, he brought over a crying doll with sincere concern. When it stopped crying, without a pause, he smacked it hard on the ground, then looked up with the same worried expression: ‘baby crying again’.

They’ve recently moved into the same room with bunk beds and have suddenly become best friends. Pottering off to play together, sharing, inventing games. But night times have been horrific. We used to believe in the one week rule: whenever there was a major change, it takes a week to adjust. But we are now facing our third week of no sleep before 9. 4yo has been great at reining 2yo in, but sometimes even he gets caught up in the sheer joy of being naughty. We sat in the kitchen discussing the knife attack in Woolwich when I heard faint sniggers in the hall and had to chase them back into their beds.

On the third night of bunk heaven, we thought we had cracked it when we heard 4yo saying ‘well I’m going to sleep and if you want yoghurt tomorrow, you need to go to sleep’. This was followed by 20 minutes of silence before a little voice started calling. With my sternest face, I marched upstairs to find 2yo with a whole tub of sudocreme in his hair, bedding, sofa, bunk slats, teddies. He held out a sudocreme covered tissue and said ‘this tissue is a bit dirty’. Laughing at the outrageous naughtiness of it was not my finest mothering moment, but the scene of devastation was so shocking, I couldn’t help myself. I’ll take this kind of shenanigans any day over the ‘boys will be boys’ culture.

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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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