In any group of parents, no matter what age or experience, nothing seems to get the garbage fire rage burning quite as warmly as the subject of attendance awards. This is not, to be clear, about legal action taken by a local authority against a parent failing to get their child to school regularly. These are the certificates and treats and weekly newsletter trackers and termly celebrations insisted on by schools around the country to improve their attendance figures (regardless of whether they need improvement or not). Continue reading →
I’m not one for universally acknowledged truths, so this generalisation will probably bite me in the behind, but I suspect that most – if not quite all – parents have, at some point, a series of thoughts around the things they don’t want to hand down to their offspring. The hangups and torments, the weaknesses and inner monologues. While we’re busy wondering if they’ll have our hair, or avoid our grandfather’s unfortunate nose, there are things about our outlook – no matter how much we’ve found peace with ourselves – that we probably wouldn’t hand down with Uncle Joe’s cheekbones and Auntie Jean’s height.
I was a nervous child. And a conflict-avoiding adult. Continue reading →
I write this
sitting in the kitchen sink at 35,000 feet. I won’t be able to post it up here, but we’re four and a half hours into a flight that’s barely halfway over so there’s plenty of time to write. So by the time you read this, it will already be done and dusted.
I’m supposed to be watching The BFG but I’m struggling a little with both staying awake and fully appreciating it. I actually love some of the cinematic changes from the book – a livened up exchange with a visiting Fleshlumpeater (was it that one?) is beautifully done; the setting is simply stunning. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to find fault with Mark Rylance in anything, but the modernisation of Sophie is as hard as a snozzcumber to swallow. I mean, she’s officious and self-righteous in the book, too (Dahl was nothing if honest about the foibles of even his own family) but this feels a little like Hermione gone horrid. The corrections to the BFG’s language seem snarky and cruel rather than thoughtlessly self-assured. But we’re only 35 minutes in. I might have judged the little tyke too harshly. Watching a film on a plane is never giving it its best shot, and I’ve already rewatched – and thoroughly enjoyed, again – Captain America: Civil War. So maybe I’m feeling generally combative.
Plane journeys are pretty dull after all – even if the destination is a thoroughly exciting one. But I relish the boredom. The boredom is fantastic. The boredom is my favourite thing. Because the boredom means the crippling anxiety is over.
It’s not technically accurate to say I have a fear of flying. What I have is a fear of take-off. Approximately 2.5 minutes into the flight, I chill the hell out and then it’s plain (ahem) sailing all the way. And no, before you ask, it doesn’t come back for landing. Landing is normal. Landing is natural. Landing is what we’re meant to do. I do get horrible ear pain, but eh. We’re heading down. We’re where we’re supposed to be. There’s nothing weird about an incomprehensibly massive, heavy metal object coming to rest on the ground. Firing it up from the ground, well… this might be the only time you’ll hear me quoting Frankie Boyle, but he did make me laugh on just one occasion when he said there wasn’t anywhere on Earth he liked enough to be fired at it in a tube at 700pmh.
Luckily, there is such a place for me; many places, in fact. It’s what keeps me getting on flights because if there’s one thing I can accept less than take off it’s never visiting exciting places. Perhaps if I had endless time and money I’d go everywhere by train – my most beloved mode of transport – and sea (far less beloved due to my propensity to feel grossly nauseated, but I do love watching the waves. But I am, at this moment, heading to my happiest of happy places, Walt Disney World, and I couldn’t do it any other way that is remotely reasonable.
But the anxiety, the fear – it’s really, really, really real. It starts a few weeks out with the occasional wobble, and the last two days are a painfully blurry countdown of hours until take off, minutes until that moment when the engines go from a dull purr to a roaring throttle, when the pace suddenly picks up and the slowly trundling beast that haltingly bumbled back from the gate becomes a raging lion in full gallop after a gazelle.
(Sophie is now in a rusted car, being thrown down a hill by what appear to be gargantuan Nac Mac Feegle. I love Spielberg, but I might have to give this one up as Not For Me. Still, when it comes to films I’m no quitter, and I recognise that I am, after all, writing a blog post at the same time…)
Anyway. The anxiety.
It’s so unpleasant.
For 48 hours now I’ve had a persistent constriction in my chest. I get quite panicky about heart stuff; a lifelong poor relationship with food, aversion of any exercise that isn’t a bracing stroll and witnessing a close family member suffer a heart attack in their 40s when I was a child… well, I worry about my heart health. Obviously worry is super good for heart health, and so then I start to get anxiety about what the anxiety is doing to me. As vicious circles go, this is the Wandsworth one-way system. Now that the tightness has eased, I’m free to feel a pain in my chest that is caused by the muscles in my neck – bunched up in tension by day and bad sleep by night – slowly trying to work out if they’re okay to relax or not (after all, there is a return flight).
These days, I’m honest about my fears with most of the people I know. The thing is, I don’t want it to mean I don’t get asked to travel; I recently missed out on a flight with work because I was sick, and none of the relief I felt at being spared take off was worth the annoyance I felt at being out of the loop. I will absolutely accept the flights and get on the flights and live through the tremulous wibble in my own head because I desperately want to beat this.
I am a supporter of – believer in? – hypnotherapy, having used it for birth, and I keep meaning to book some sessions in to deal with this. I wonder if some other forms of therapy could also be helpful – CBT for the thought spirals, perhaps. I mean, I need to address why I am so scared, from the fear of dying to the fear of knowing I’m dying, to the existential dread stuff about what comes after. One of my best friends has pointed out that it’s not unnatural to be perturbed about the very, well, unnaturalness of take off. The thing is, I don’t worry once everything is stable; I’ve flown through two (separate) hurricanes and been in a plane that had an emergency unscheduled stop due to a failed engine (one of two) which, once repaired, I had to get back into to fly home. Turbulence doesn’t overly bother me, even though one of my parents suffered lifelong injury after falling and being trapped in a loo when a plane they were in hit an unexpected pocket of it in a cloud, or however it is that works. How is it such a very small part of every journey can cause such disproportionate horror?
But there is one person who has no idea that I feel the slightest frisson. I never, ever mention my fears within my daughter’s earshot. While we’re trundling down the runway I’m reading (the same line fourteen times if necessary), or my eyes are shut in peaceful sleep (prayer) or I’m giving my daughter a gentle snuggle (holding on for dear life). I don’t medicate – if the odd glass of bubbly doesn’t count, and not every time – except with eating too much rubbish. After suffering through endless weeks of viruses followed by worry about the flight I have eaten in the past three weeks all the sugar I haven’t eaten in the last two years (I am actually savouring the thought of a hard reset in the New Year; realistically pancakes and waffles and ice cream – oh my! – will just be too tempting in the Sunshine State). My friend Erin gets anxiety from eating sugar; I’m not sure my attempt to treat mine with it is the wisest move I’ve ever made. But food has always been love in my house. Pretending so that my daughter is spared my agonies is the least I can do.
I travelled fearlessly as a child myself, and this continued until I was in my late teens. God willing she’ll be like her dad, gazing eagerly out of the window and savouring the speed even now he’s in his 40s, without a frisson of fear. I remember once actually reading so intently I didn’t notice the plane had risen off the ground; I just looked out and saw clouds. I must have been about 19 then, because I was reading – or trying to read – James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was my gift for winning the English Prize at school during my A Levels. I chose it out of a sense of duty and pretentiousness and after that all-encompassing attempt to work out what the hell was going on I abandoned it and leant it to my friend Beatie whom I think still has it. She’s always been madly smart and has written a fantastic book you should all read, called Petite Mort. It’s very good, and the scary part is I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as she’s going to get, say, three novels from now. There’s Angela Carter-level talent just beginning to show. You’ll see.
(I think Sophie has just risked accidental suicide. Hmm. I properly love the rendering of the Nac Mac Giants, though.)
I think blog posts are supposed to have a story to them. This is meant to be like my word of the year piece – a neatly constructed slice of life with something at the end. A moral, a resolution, a conclusion. But I’ve been reading a lot of Shirley Jackson this past week – note: do not read Shirley Jackson to calm your spirit, that is just stupid – and I’ve been hugely enjoying the way her creepy, plotlessly unsettling stories seem to just suddenly end, with either nothing changed or everything moved slightly to the left, inexplicably. The fact is, I was scared, and now I’m not. I’ll be scared again and then I won’t be. And I’ll carry on in the cycle – and carry on hiding it from my favourite person in the world – because… well, because.
So that’s that, then.
I should maybe write about what it is to be five, but how can I? Being
a mum to a five year old I can tell you about. I think that there
might be only one word for it: awesome. Literally. I see that
tomorrow holds so much. I watch the grown up you appearing in the
embers of babyhood you’ve blasted away behind you like a phoenix. I
remember that there was a point when you were basically a genial blob, and I
remember that there was a time when you couldn’t read and were barely
interested in toys or games. I recall there was a period when your nappies were
full and your gums empty. But now we have these lengthy and complex talks –
ideas shower from you like rain – and you ask questions and stretch out
every bit of your vocabulary, testing out words like you’re nibbling bites from
dense loaves of bread. I cling to the moments when you have daft,
babyish ideas, like when you asked me if peas were dead tadpoles. You
understand why it’s funny, and make sly jokes about your mad idea, when
there was a time not too long ago you would have been too embarrassed.
Generally, you’re a brilliantly good-natured soul, making friends easily
or so your teachers tell me – and I see it when we visit other children. I
do envy this; your easy manners and wonderfully engaging nature are things
I have never felt entirely sure of in myself, gregarious as I am. But I
love that I’ll never have to worry about you fitting in, even with your fabulously
odd sense of humour and the way you gravitate towards geekery. I admit I felt
validated when it turned out that your favourites at Walt Disney World were
every bit as edutainmenty and nerdy as mine. Spaceship Earth! You know what
you like and it’s gentle and smart and sparkly, just like you. And
over and above everything, you know that your mama will adore you, will
understand the weird fears and sharp passions, and love you as you. Always.
The other day I ended up staying late at work and heading out for dinner with some colleagues (friends, really and all, for what it’s worth, currently child free). While we were waiting for food I got a text from my husband about how our daughter’s bedtime had gone, and it listed the number of cuddles and kisses I could give her when I got home.
I got some baffled looks at this, so I tried to explain. My daughter knows that the last thing I will do every night before I go to bed will be to stick my head around her door and check in on her. My commute is around an hour and a half long, so I inevitably miss a fair number of bedtimes, and therefore bedtime cuddles. She doesn’t want to miss out on these altogether, but also knows she’ll be asleep when I get in. So she gives me a certain number of cuddles and kisses I can deliver when I arrive. It’s usually hilariously specific yet not – “ten or eleven kisses, and two or three hugs” – and sometimes she’ll be super prescriptive about exact kiss placement on her face, and sometimes not. And I only ever carry out exactly what she says, though I’ll admit if she gives me a choice of numbers of kisses I’ll invariably go for the maximum.
I basically got a ‘but why?’ to all this, and I tried to elaborate. The main message I’m trying to get across to the kid is that her body is her own (as I’ve written about before) and that doesn’t change when she’s asleep. We’ve talked about respecting each other’s boundaries a lot during wakefulness – one of her favourite games is the ‘Stop Go Tickle Game’, where she gets to dictate exactly how much I tickle her tummy and around her neck – but now that she’s left the infant stage where she’s unable to communicate preference, I want to demonstrate to her that this respect continues 24 hours a day. Of course I could just pay lip service to it and then smother her little chubby cheeks in mummy kisses as soon as she’s out – she wouldn’t know I’d broken her trust, but I would. And it would be heartbreaking.
The reaction I mostly got was ‘that’s fascinating’, and I’ve no doubt it sounds a lot like weird, handwringing, liberal overthinking. Even if it is, I’d rather overthink this stuff than not think about it at all. When you’re raising a girl, one of the topics you cannot ignore is personal safety; we live in a world where female autonomy and bodily integrity is not sacrosanct. In the slightest. I was very much taught about the practicalities of navigating a life around this as a youngster and a teen – personal alarms, not walking alone, self-defence classes, holding keys as weapons. And while I think that teaching a few defensive strategies has an element of common sense to it, I also think that focussing entirely on that basically says “this is your responsibility, as a girl” – and it’s blatantly not. I cannot, in raising a girl, control what other people will do around her. But I can help fight a culture that suggests that she can. To me, the best way to do that is to continually reinforce her confidence in her own boundaries.
This makes it sound like we all sit there politely asking each other for cuddles as you might ask to pass the salt, and anyone who has ever seen our family in real life would find this pretty hilarious. We’re a seriously huggy bunch (as anyone who has ever gone drinking with me will know); we just place emphasis on the fact that the word ‘no’ is important. More recently we’ve also talked about non-verbal cues as well; when my daughter told me she sometimes wanted to say ‘stop’ in the tickle game but was laughing too hard, I suggested she use a gesture instead and she decided on holding her hand up like a traffic police officer. It’s a constantly evolving process and negotiation, because the paradox of being a child is being taught that you have agency but told you have to go to school, must have your jabs, should eat your greens and will go to bed by a certain time. Parents exist in the land of I Know What’s Best For You, and to my mind she will trust in me offering up this sometimes bitter medicine (we recently had a belated phase two of the MMR, and it was not fun) if the rest of the time the sweet, sweet sugar is confidence in her own autonomy and ability to make decisions and choices that feel right to her. I position myself as the guardian of her safety and health – my number one job as Mama, part and parcel with loving her more than anyone else in the world – and her as the guardian of her personal space. And it’s a partnership which involves her direction and leadership as well as mine, until she’s old enough to take the reins entirely.
Of course I second-guess myself occasionally. For example, does making an agreement beforehand convey consent when one is asleep? For the moment I go with it because on those occasions where we haven’t spoken for some reason so I just poke my head in and leave it at that, she’s disappointed at ‘missing out’ on cuddles when we speak the next morning. She often proactively announces to her dad, without being asked, how much affection she wants doled out when I get home. But eventually I guess my mad work schedule will differ and she’ll get older and less concerned with missed bedtimes and this will all change.
But what won’t change, ever, is my respect for her. So I will carry on having what might seem like needlessly complex rituals in order to reinforce this for her because I really believe it’s important.
Is this something you ever think or worry about with your children or relatives’ children? Do you have family routines and behaviours which seem baffling to others but underscore an important message from your perspective? I strongly suspect I’m not the only one…
Do you ever get principle fatigue? Where you know, you believe and you accept that something is anger-making, worth getting angry about and should be changed, but you just can’t seem to pull enough of yourself together to care right this minute?
Genuinely, I think that’s where a whole lot of those incredibly irritating “bigger things to care about” comments come from. I mean, such a statement is self-evidently nonsense (not a zero-sum game, people), but I think it might come from that place of information overload. A place you reach where, even if you haven’t even done any particular activism lately, you just feel too tired to.
I’m at that point with so many things at the moment, but particularly parenting issues. I have reached the pinnacle of Too Much Information.
I grew up fat. I am thinner now than I was as a teenager. All those “wow, remember when I had a tiny waist and now I’m so wide!” stories are a mystery to me – that never happened. I would have loved an atmosphere where I didn’t go to a slimming club at 14. Or where one week I lost 4lbs because I’d been really sick and hadn’t eaten, and told them that but was still congratulated, and the following week I was cautioned to ‘be careful’ after gaining back half a pound now I could keep food down. Where I could buy clothes from the same places as the other girls. Where I could dress my age instead of trying to make clothes designed for 40 year olds work.
Of course part of it all is about the messages you get from your parents; as a girl, your mother’s modelling of body positivity is important. But I’m not here to shred her for every negative thing she said, or celebrate her for every positive thing she did. The fact is, she did her best and has always been an excellent mother. I understand that more than ever now.
Over the past year, there’s been a drip feed of articles about body positivity across the very brilliant communities I’m a part of, and the wider media too. In essence, this should be a good thing. However, like many things that go through the media wringer, it doesn’t quite arrive in the same state it started out in. “Girls of three reject fat dolls” because of “mothers’ griping, fathers’ sniping” decides one article. In another, “experts” decide that mothers “have the biggest impact on girls’ body image”. These are just a couple of examples, but there are many, many more. What I love about the gender-positive communities I take part in, is that there is a critical and interesting conversation around these – talking about how “mum” does not exist in a vacuum, and she didn’t just pick these negative ideas up out of nowhere. There are plenty of positive tips and affirmations and support in learning to give up destructive “fat talk” and those are awesome. I just feel like I can’t really bear one more of these stories being picked up by the wider media because all I can hear is “It’s. Your. Fault.”
Parents have ultimate responsibility for their kids’ safety and development, yes, but we are not magical creatures who can, the moment a person lands into our lives – be it through our own body, our partner’s or a surrogate or birth parent’s – suddenly forget all the conditioning and crap we carry with us. We will have flaws. Furthermore, we all know Philip Larkin was a bit right.
Now, I know what people will say at this point. The argument goes one of two ways.
1. If you’re feeling guilty, maybe you should reassess, and you’re not doing what’s right for your family.
2. These articles are only meant to help, not to put pressure on. THE MOMMY WARS AREN’T REAL, MAN!
The problem with the first one is that it’s ridiculous. First, it assumes that everyone is in a position to live exactly how they’d like in their ideal world, just by making a few simple changes like eating oats for breakfast or running a marathon. Obviously rubbish. Secondly, it assumes that guilt just evaporates if you try to address everything you worry about. That might be true of some things, but I suspect some worry and guilt is more habit than an actual gut sign that something is wrong.
The second one sort of is and isn’t true. I do think the Mommy Wars are massively overstated and some articles are linkbait trolling. And no, each individual article is of course, NOT ABOUT YOU. But the overall culture that is created when we keep repeating these tropes that parents are the ultimate pinnacle of influence – and therefore the insinuation that we can control all outcomes – is damaging. It is putting pressure on. It is, collectively, saying that there is no responsibility on the individual until they become a parent, and then there is ALL THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR EVERYONE (presumably even for non-parents, since they are never asked to take responsibility for anything more difficult than a cat, right? After all, if you don’t have a kid, you can’t possibly be a whole person).
And this is the point at which my head explodes and I simply can’t take anymore. Because yes, of course raising children is a mammoth and serious responsibility, but there is just no way that I can get it all right. No. Way. And, no matter how it looks from the outside, neither can anyone else.
Now, I’ve written, repeatedly, about things I think about and do and think are important when raising a child – like this piece about consent and making children kiss and hug friends and relatives that I wrote just before the issue hit the news, which I’d call very prescient of me except that I’m hardly the first person to have written about it. But I hope I’ve never suggested that this means I get it right all the time. In fact, I’m planning a follow up piece on that one to talk about some of the issues that came out of the first – and maybe consider practical ways to make it easier to make this a natural part of parenting. But then am I contributing to this feeling of TMI if I do that? Am I just adding to the noise?
Of course, one could just not read this stuff. But aside from the fact that I both personally like being part of the parenting community and it is highly relevant to my job, I don’t think “just don’t look” is a very convincing argument in a world where media are everywhere. That’s just silly. It is not possible to ignore the world, and to some extent we must all engage with it. And so – that sense of responsibility burned into my soul – I must ask myself hard questions about contributing to my part of it, and how I can do so without encouraging the feeling of being burnt out that I am rapidly boiling over to.
And so I come to parents trusting their instincts. It’s a powerful thought, this, but it’s phenomenally difficult to do because – contrary to intuition – you can’t shut down the flow of information altogether and expect this to happen. You can’t turn off the taps, because you need a drip feed of stuff that helps to keep you ticking, keep you thinking and keep you understanding the instinctive and deliberate things you do as a parent. How do you fit that filter to your mental tap? How do you decide what you let in, and what you don’t? Is it only the stuff you already agree with? We do that to a greater or lesser extent anyway, but you do have to challenge yourself occasionally.
That’s the tricky bit. I’d more than happily parent by instinct, if I always knew which instincts to trust. I know I can’t trust the ones that tell me never to let her out of my sight or do anything by herself, so I willfully ignore those thoughts in order to help her grow and be resilient, capable and brave. I know I can trust the ones that told me it was fine to feed her peanut butter whenever because we have NO history of allergies anywhere. Also the ones that say she does not have to be clean all the time. Ooh, and the ones that say I’m allowed to get seriously peeved at her, as long as at the same time I also listen to the ones that say that walking away and counting to ten before getting down to her level and talking it out is WAY more effective than yelling, even if yelling is what I really, really want to do.
Essentially I need to go from this:
I’ve been thinking a lot about being a ‘working’* mum recently, since a colleague – I call her that, she’s really, very rapidly, become a friend – decided that the time was not right, family-wise, for her to be in the role she was in. So she left. It was, for her, exactly the right decision at exactly the right time.
For me, being in my job is a no-brainer in all sorts of ways – financial, intellectual, emotional, you name it. I get satisfaction from work, I enjoy work and I need to work. But in talking to her about all the things she intends to do now her time is more her own again (she will, of course, have to share that time extensively with her children, as was her intention, but they are school age so there are hours in the day without them), I realised there is one piece of my otherwise happy puzzle I’ve left out: me.
An average day is pretty rushed. I get up early for my very favourite part of the home day: waking Ramona up. She is an absolutely snuggly, warm and gorgeous delight first thing in the morning. A little bundle of wonderousness and at her most cuddly, rubbing sleepily at her eyes and grinning that slow-blooming, dozy grin that makes my heart pound and swell with pure, melting love.
Then off I shuffle to work and Get Things Done, all the while learning, learning, learning. Even in just the last two and half months (probation meeting next week – eek!), I’ve taken part in various aspects of agency life that are completely new to me, and stretched creative muscles that had been getting a bit creaky. I suppose using muscles you’ve let go soft builds up a bit of lactic acid – there are always times when it briefly seems Too Much – but they also quickly condition themselves, and you start to come by those ideas faster, develop them a little better, feel your initiative jerking up a gear.
Then back home again, and if I’m lucky I’ll be back just in time for my other favourite part of the home day: bedtime. She’ll have had a bath, and I’ll be there to read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish or Meg and Mog or Oh, The Thinks You Can Think (this week’s choices) followed by snuggling down in her big bed and then singing. We have to have Hungry, Hungry, the alphabet, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; Ramona generally sings comedy versions where all the words are ‘Mummy’ or some are replaced by blowing raspberries. She’ll make a great stand up comic one day, if fart noises are your kind of thing.
Days when I work from home, I get to pick her up from nursery and have extra play and reading time together. This is immeasurably precious.
Yet even when I’m with Ramona, in those wonderful few hours, or at weekends, I’m too often weirdly attached to my phone, or trying to do ten things at once. I can’t switch off one brain for another. I’ve got so used to multitasking, I try to do it constantly, phone in hand, one eye on a screen.
And then I eat, and collapse. I’m not exercising enough – I’ve started going for brisk lunchtime walks on the days I work from home, and that’s helped, plus I insist on getting away from my desk for some air every day now that the weather isn’t totally arctic. I do have a little extra time, especially the one day a week Ramona stays the night with grandparents, and I have from 8pm to 10pm every night once she’s asleep. But somehow, all I fill that time with at the moment is… nothing. Or, at least, not the things I really love doing.
I know that if I really wanted to, I’d find time to do those things I mean to do: exercise, draw and paint, write more (especially on here) and, crucially, pay 100% full and undivided attention to Ramona whenever I’m with her – or at least admit I need an hour to myself and go and sit elsewhere and get whatever it is done before coming back to again commit myself to her. As I’m doing now, actually, with one ear on her playing and reading happily with her dad. This is not an ‘I’m addicted to technology’ cry for help; it’s an admission that I try desperately hard to be all things to all people, but risk failing the people who matter the most: myself and, most importantly of all, my family. I’ve always been organised and efficient at work, and able to compartmentalise and prioritise; at home, however, I seem to let it all slip to everyone’s detriment, and in spite of an excellent, supportive husband who more than pulls his weight all round.
So taking the time to write this and get this off my chest is the beginning of a shift to being more my work self at home. Bringing the attentiveness and care that I like to pour into my work, and pouring them into family life just as much. To spend more time playing pirates, and painting hands green (there’s a whole other blog post in that one coming soon) or scribbling on this blog, sketching and scrawling, reading, reshaping that novel or catching up with friends.
I made a resolution this January that the theme for this year would be Decisiveness. It’s worked out pretty well so far, so I decide to pay attention to making all the parts of my life work better together. Let’s see how it goes.
*I do hate that term, and I’m enjoying seeing it being used less in general. It’s pretty much the ugly sister to ‘full time mother’. I am Ramona’s mother all the time, even when I am at work in an office. Mothers who don’t work outside the home sure as hell work in it. And both terms rather unpleasantly imply that mothers are the only parents that count.