Tag Archives: working mum

Gladstone’s Library aka I took a holiday alone and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done that I’m thinking of right now

I am a work-out-of-home mother. This necessitates some sacrifice in the amount of time I can spend with my daughter, and that can be difficult. My employer is reasonably flexible, allowing regular work from home which means maximising before and after school time. Despite various weekend commitments we all try to make sure there’s at least one weekend day where we don’t do too much and get a few hours to veg on the sofa. I try to use my holiday time judiciously to both reduce the eye-watering amount I spend on summer clubs and actually get a continual run of solid family time from which we can all recharge and remember why we like each other.

So this summer I did the sensible thing and took two weeks off, in the middle of which I ran away for a long weekend on my own.

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This is, I think, something that can be hard to understand. If time with my daughter – and, for that matter, my freelancing, round-the-clock-working husband – is at a premium, it seems exceedingly selfish to run off in the middle of it to be by myself. It is selfish. And like many selfish things it turns out to be extremely good for you.

This is not going to be a piece about how much I missed them and how much it made me appreciate family time more because yes I do appreciate family time even more but actually I didn’t spend my time pining or – crucially – feeling guilty. Now, that might have been partly down to the venue in question, Gladstone’s Library. An actual, honest-to-God residential library, it’s a madly wonderful place in a tiny village in North Wales that I had no idea existed until my friend Jen visited and revealed the secret. A plan was made; rooms were booked. Before I knew it I’d shelled out around £150 of my hard-earned cash to stay three nights in what seemed to me to be a thing from a dream: a place where I could be completely quiet, completely focussed and – meal times and evenings aside – completely alone.

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I’ve forgotten how to be quiet. I do not know how to be still. I love the cinema because I’ve always loved the cinema but also because there are rules that require me to turn my phone off, concentrate and not talk – except when I’m telling my husband that no, he’s not ever allowed to clap at the jokes in a film again. (Sorry, people sitting next to us for Spider-Man: Homecoming; the Bueller thing was too much for him.) I pass Quaker meeting rooms and think about going in and learning how to sit still but it is unthinkable; I haven’t seen a fully single-screened television programme for at least two years. All of this means that the writing that is living in my head very rarely happens, because above all writing – good writing, writing another person might at some point want to read – requires concentration, even if you only do it four sentences at a time.

And, honestly, I think in paragraphs. I think in chapters. I have never seen a film without writing a review of it in my head – cautiously, and with edits. I have mentally drafted at least 200 blog posts you have never read: some because I thought better of them, some out of fear but most – say, 175 – because I simply never got round to writing them down and then the moment had passed. I did actually draft a book and even did some work on rewriting it but then this new idea started to take an unnerving shape in my head and I have been percolating it ever since.

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Now, I do believe good ideas need time to bed in. You need to nest in them like a cat on a fresh washing pile; ideas have to be given a bit of a pressing and tried on for size in several different positions and at least once upside down. But there is a point at which the unfeasibly bendy stretch must happen and you must leap off in search of the meat of the matter. If you don’t, creativity, like diseases, arrives at only two outcomes: cure or death. Either the peg on which you wanted to hang your story will be curiously missing, forcing you to go seeking another, or you’ll throw out the hatstand and all the coats on it, too. Dear God, I seem to have wandered into a metaphor swamp. And I thought I was doing so well.

At Gladstone’s I checked into a room rather like a modern monastic cell, in such a good way. A reasonably comfy single bed with a warm duvet. A desk, a small cupboard concealing a hairdryer and a tray full of tea things. Many power points. Around the way a shiny little eaves bathroom with Velux windows that had no blinds and probably wasn’t overlooked. I had come forewarned with comfy trousers and comforting cardigans; next time I’ll take slippers, too. I unpacked my books – knee deep in Joanne M. Harris and her runes, a notebook my friend Alex gave me for my birthday which I haven’t dared to defile with stupid notions yet – and folded my clothes into the cupboard, quite unlike at home. Alright, it overlooked the graveyard next door and I felt I needed to be slightly drunk to sleep there alone every night but Gladstone’s can’t be blamed for my imagination.

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When you check in, your room key is also your pass to the library and your room number can be used to charge the simple, school canteen meals to your account. Jen met me there and ushered me into the library, beaming and with the sleepy-eyed joy that can only come from having written yourself into another place. In through the door to the Theology Room and you would know in an instant you were in a library even if the only sense that remained to you was smell: dry paper, much-polished wood, cracked leather. Add sound and you add the soft percussion of laptop keys and gentle rustle of paper, carefully shuffled footsteps, creaks of tiny spiral staircase steps (maybe a whisper). The library is not large but it still feels capacious with its two floors and high, beamed ceilings and vast leaded glass windows.

Because of the warmth of the place – both the actual summer glow of sun through the windows and the almost tactile loveliness of the staff – I didn’t notice the silence at first. I would hardly be surprised at quiet in a library; I knew what I was there for. That wasn’t the silence that I hadn’t known I needed.

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I woke up every morning and tried out a sequence from a Dana Falsetti set of yoga videos I’ve got on that Cody App thing because my back has been quite bad this year and I need to do something to address that. I love Dana – that’s a post for another time. Then I had a shower in my own bathroom; maybe they could see me from across the way but I suspect that was more traumatic for them than me. I wore no make-up – the books don’t care – and swaddled myself in layers since I’m always cold, even in a sun-kissed library. I met Jen and Caitlin for breakfast; for me boiled eggs, toast and butter – on one day, porridge – and for the others perhaps cereal (no, Caitlin, milky muesli never is nice) or toast and jam. It’s included, but maybe splash out a little extra for cooked breakfast on the last morning.

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Then: writing. No, I’m not ready to talk about the idea. For one, I’ve hit that sticky part where it will either come together a beautiful pliant dough, ready for kneading, or it’ll stick to my palms in desperate globby lumps that I’ll be picking out from under my nails for weeks. But I think it might be a good one, if only I can work out how to be a little more nuanced and bring all the different bits I want together (or honest enough to dump the things that won’t work). Jen favours the History section, which gets locked at 5pm (as a resident, you can get a key); I can see why – there are just six desks and some wonderful old tomes. My favourite desk is an unusual one in the main room – set back from the main balcony in front of a window, rather than side on to it. But you can hardly sit in a bad place; it’s impossible.

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Lunchtime is stews and bakes, quiche and carbs with a side order of huge chunks of lightly boiled veg (I hope you like carrots). There are Sunday roasts on the appropriate day and ice cream or a stodgy pudding. Onto the room tab.

More writing. I ran into a brick wall on day two, but I anticipated that and brought my sketch book for my Secret Squirrel project and did some designing instead; the tap-tap-tap was replaced by the scritch-scritch-scritch of my pencil and sharpener and that sudden table rattle you get from angrily applying an eraser. I sipped at my water and cursed the thoroughly justifiable rule that there can be nothing else but a bottle of water in the library; I have never so desperately wanted a cup of tea. I had fantasies of sneaking in Thermos flasks, and then horrified day-maeres of spilling my imaginary contraband caffeine on the crisp pages of some historic volume. Curse my rule-abiding personality.

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Night, and there’s more school dinner fayre in the dining hall, but only if you want to be served within a specific half hour. Across the road to the Fox and Grapes and their hearty burger and more wine than I had expected to drink and some deep laughs. The silence has continued, but I haven’t noticed it yet.

Rinse, repeat. On the Sunday afternoon, Jen and Caitlin give hugs and go; I write a little longer, eat the oddest enchilada I’ve ever eaten in the dining hall and take to the common room and its honesty bar for whisky and more Harris runes – though for the first time I’m distracted by my phone a little. I chat with a friendly stranger about how great The Power is. I am, indeed, slightly drunk when I return to my room alone and pointedly don’t look at the graveyard through the window.

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More writing after a last breakfast and then a walk – up and down the tiny high street, into the lovely church which seems to be in at least four different styles on the inside, and over the road to the castle grounds. I get in a long conversation with a very strange man about his very troubled (and thankfully preoccupied) dog, and then start to worry when he twists the strap of the lead round and round his hands like a movie serial killer and run off to get my train. (I would totally have haunted my bedroom, though.)

Did you know that it is silence that makes you an adult? It is what we do in the silence. I didn’t. I have a really lovely daughter. I do; she’s the best person I’ve ever met and certainly the best person I’ve ever made. I also have this astonishingly supportive husband; I’m sorry that he’s more feminist and lovely and kind and sweet than yours but he also farts and burps so we can’t have everything. There is a specific and precious kind of recharging that comes with just being with them; when we got away for a few days to a wedding in Finland it was just wonderful. Our weekends on the sofa? Superb. Can’t beat it. But I had not in perhaps 10 years experienced what it was like to have no demands on me whatsoever. Not work, not motherhood, not being a partner and wife, or being a daughter or sister.

I had not been away under my own steam, to my own choice of venue, to do my own thing (largely in silence)… ever maybe? I can’t remember it. I couldn’t remember the last time I could make choices without having to explain them, negotiate or check in. I just was. For three days. Entirely in my own world. And it turns out that I am an independent adult after all. I knew… but I didn’t know. It took the silence to show it to me. It took the absence of any adult responsibilities to understand my own adulthood – and honestly, the responsibilities seem lighter because of it. My privileges seem more awesome. My family more precious. My creativity more valid, and certainly more deserving of my time and attention.

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At the beginning of the year I talked about giving things a chance. One of the things I gave myself a chance to do this year was be alone. I started going to the cinema by myself on purpose. I have had meals out alone, over a book, and enjoyed them. My chance, as it turned out, was to get to know myself and try not to be frightened, nervous, bored, uninspired or lazy. When I met myself halfway, it turned out that I was a person worth knowing. Three days in a library didn’t turn everything around, but it did provide a significant milestone and permission to pursue this wonderful relationship with myself openly and with greater joy.

I haven’t written any more of the book yet. But I will. And now I know where I keep the silence in my head, I’ll be able to visit a lot more often.

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Time management as a work-out-of-home mother

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.

NFPtweetup social and getting back to work

On Thursday, I had a day that felt pretty much like I had never had a baby. Okay, it began with dropping the littleun off at nursery, and I did pick her up and say a quick goodbye, but I spent the morning doing grown up things like, erm, cleaning house. Then I headed into the office to do some catching up, and was answering email queries within five minutes of stepping through the door.

I then headed over to the NFPtweetup social with my manager, Jacqui, but we didn’t end up being all that sociable, at least for the first couple of hours! Though I got to chat babies with the wonderful Rachel, Jacqui and I spent most of the time talking about work… and it was brilliant! We were bouncing around a few ideas, talking about things that have changed in the last year, talking about how we could develop one thing or another. Nothing concrete and certainly nothing I could talk about here, but it just generated this exciting atmosphere of Things To Be Done. And it made me go from happy to be going back to work to itching to get started. I was all set to start brainstorming some ideas for Monday today, but had to remind myself to enjoy my weekend and spend my last few free days soaking up as many Ramona cuddles as possible!

And those cuddles are wonderful. I will miss them. But I know from that swell of positivity and surge of determination that work is exactly where I’m meant to be.

Having said a quick hello to the lovely Steve Bridger and got a chance to meet my husband’s newest colleague, Rochelle, I then got a delicious dinner bought for me at Moshi Moshi (my first visit; quite pricey but excellent – I recommend the soft shell crab).

Thank heaven for grandparents who agree to put a squirmy little baby to bed. And thank heaven for squirmy little babies who start the next morning by giving you a just-beginning-to-be-toothy smile and a hug that melts hearts at fifty paces.

Okay, working world. Make some room: I’m ba-ack!

NFPTweetup 10 and thoughts on being a community manager: Back to work!

Well, not really. I’m not planning to return to my desk just yet, but it was good to dip a toe back in the water. Of course I never really exited the pool; part of being so interested in things like social media – look, I’m blogging! – means you follow what’s happening even when you’re not being paid to.

Anyway, in a change of the usual play – change – feed – play routine, I attended the 10th NFPTweetup, and enjoyed it hugely. Rachel Beer, the team at beautiful world*, sponsors JustGiving and the speakers did an excellent job bringing it all together, as ever. Last night was a return to an older but much-loved and very useful format: a couple of short, focussed presentations, some break-out sessions on particular topics and a panel and plenary.

The introductory presentations were two of my favourites so far because – at least out of the five or six tweetups I’ve attended – they were the most unusual. Jonathan Waddingham of JustGiving provided some insight into the next generation of their Facebook app, and the way it plans to simplify giving through Facebook, and then Amnesty International UK’s Fiona McLaren spoke about Amnesty‘s use of social media surrounding the recent protests in Egypt.

The latter was the one that felt really different and especially interesting for it. Although in specific content it’s far from what we do at Dogs Trust, actually every charity sometimes has to ride the wave of a public story. A lot of talk around social media is about creating the content, making the story and bringing it into the public eye. This was about becoming part of something already bigger than any individual or organisation and using it to send an important message to both existing and new audiences. It was fascinating stuff and I felt very glad I’d got mum to Whifflesit so I could be there to hear it first hand (even if the event was being livestreamed for the first time in a while).

A break out group led by Rachel and Ashley Clarke followed for me – others went into groups with Jon and Fiona – focussing on new and newish developments such as Facebook’s Page settings, Quora and Paper.li. It also segued off into an interesting discussion about brand feeds vs personal feeds and whether avatars should be logos or individuals as well as some talk of Twibbons (that’s a previous event’s presentation from my manager).

It’s thinking about that session that lead me into some other thoughts about community management that I’ve been musing over lately and meaning to blog about. I see post after post after post on what it means to be a community manager and whether it’s the same or different from a social media manager or a digital marketing manager. And of course no two community manager jobs can really be defined the same way in the particulars, just in the overall aim: to build, maintain, engage and influence a community around a particular brand, interest, message and/or product. But I got thinking about it in the context of my job title – Digital Marketing Officer – and what that means.

One of my favourite discussions about social media teams is from David Jones, from his H&K days (and it’s only five minutes, so you should totally watch it now). It defines four different people / jobs: Reconnaisance, Mad Scientist, Communications General, Community Manager. I love this because I think if you work in social media you should instinctively know which one you really are even if you do some of all those things, but sometimes the lines get so blurred it’s hard to do. I’ve been thinking about it recently because while actually at work it was hard to know for sure. Wasn’t I all of them?

Well, yes, in a way – I think everyone in this field is – but being away from the day-to-day of it let me know at heart who I am and what it is I love doing. I enjoy being part of strategic planning and I think you can’t carry out a strategy if you haven’t been involved in creating it. But if I’m totally honest I enjoy the daily implementation more. I do enjoy getting the internal buy-in and learning about / researching the big picture stuff, but get even more excited about the chance to get on and do it. So I’m maybe 20% Recon and Communications General.

I really do like trying out new tools and platforms and enjoy the buzz I get from using them in a way that results in something positive, in meeting an objective; I also love getting to grips with the language and etiquette. However, I can find it dull and frustrating at the beginning stages when it’s just a bunch of geeky early adopters talking in circles (*cough* Quora *cough*), so I’m maybe 25% Mad Scientist.

So if I’m the person that enjoys listening, talking, creating and curating content and generally being a helpful, positive voice, I must be the Community Manager (or at least 55% CM). And oh, I totally am. I miss all sorts of bits of my job at the moment, and the biggest part is actually feeling useful in the community. Sure, it can be frustrating sometimes, and occasionally I wonder if my skin is always thick enough for this. But if I ever wasn’t sure which element of the job I really own, now I am.

Of course, lots of social media jobs demand you be all four simultaneously and usually quite rightly so (though occasionally so much so it’s clear the employer doesn’t really get it and just wants one cheap uber-geek to do what at least two or three decently paid semi-geeks should be doing), and certainly you’ve all got to be holding hands and swapping skills and knowledge. Yet I’ve really found it helpful to know how, at heart, I define myself, and what I’ll be bringing back to the table – and hoping to learn – when I get back to work.

And now, bed. Or there’s no way I’ll be able to keep up with the Whiffle tomorrow.

*I feel like I should point out that my husband is now working with beautiful world as a designer, although he’s only just started doing so and I’ve attended these events loads of times before. But there you go.