I don’t want to be in the Olympics

This is Little H’s latest refrain, hot on the heels of reluctance to take part in the school fun run once she realised she might not win. It even surfaced when soaking up the incredible atmosphere in ring-side seats at the men’s artistic gymnastics yesterday.

What to do…Do I go all Amy Chua on her and ferociously encourage a competitive, focused, ‘winning is best’ mentality?  Or do I foster a more laissez-faire spirit of gentlemanly sportsmanship – ‘trying hard and taking part is what matters’?  Or, do I do nothing and leave it up to her to find her way, telling me what she wants to try or not try, letting her change her mind as she sees fit, dropping one interest in favour of another, or, indeed, keeping them all.

At five years old, everyone gets a medal and too much openly competitive spirit with peers is tempered with quiet parental asides to remember others’ feelings and not be unkind.  Well, that’s how it goes down in Surrey, anyway, heartland of middle-class England. If the stereotype of Asian parenting is true, I suspect the same doesn’t apply in middle-class China or Japan. Which is right?  Which parenting style is going to turn out better children? And therein lies two big questions: what is ‘better’ and what is the role of a parent in achieving it.

Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,  brought these questions to the fore, making me explore my own values and beliefs, even though I haven’t ever cogently articulated them before – to myself, let alone to anyone else.  What do I believe life is for?  What does it mean to reach one’s fullest potential?  Is being happy the best end goal? How much is it about the goal versus the journey? What core values and beliefs do I believe I need to instill in my children and what am I willing to dedicate and sacrifice to achieve that, assuming Mr H agrees?  And anyway, where’s the child’s view in all of this?

Big questions, particularly for a Sunday evening.  I don’t think I have fully formed answers yet, but I do think it’s important to consciously consider them and talk about it with Mr H.  We also need to stay conscious to it as our kids do stuff, share their views and feelings and watch how we go about our lives.

When Little H shared her reluctance to take part in the 2km school fun run if she didn’t win, I knew how I responded was important.  I heard myself carefully trying to balance the sentiment that taking part is fun even without winning, with the view that if you want to win/succeed, you need to work hard and believe in yourself.

London 2012’s slogan is ‘Inspiring a generation’.  The row of people in front of us watching the gymnastics yesterday were treated to Little H’s embodiment of this: wonder, excitement and a deluge of questions and comments.  Could one man win the Olympics for their country; why were the Chinese not being very good today; how does a country win the Olympics; how do people get to be in the Olympics; I don’t think I could be in the Olympics; I wish colouring was in the Olympics; I wish I could watch you doing that, Mummy (cue the whole row turning round to say they’d quite like to see that too).

I grasped the opportunity to talk about self-belief, awe-inspiring skill and strength, hard graft, enjoying proud moments, wanting the best of yourself.  Watching her absorb and react to the electric atmosphere was worth every penny we paid for the tickets.  Seeing Team GB’s men win their group wasn’t half bad either.

We’re going to be watching, listening to and talking about sport a lot over the next two weeks.  I want her to be inspired, to see the joy and pride that comes with putting your all into something you believe in, to think maybe it could be her competing or being one of the best singers, dancers, actors or techie geniuses representing her country in a spectacular show like the opening ceremony, to start to dream and to see that even for the best, dreams are only realised through hard work.

And I guess through that I answer my own question about potential.  Personally, I think that if an individual has the potential to be great, then that is what they should strive for in life.  Yes, it takes sacrifice, yes it asks a lot of those you love, yes you need to step back and enjoy the journey, but striving for a dream is worth the effort, whatever direction that dream takes you, practical considerations allowing (oh dear, I can already hear that conversation – blow the ideals, darling, where’s the rent coming from).

Even the smallest of things worth doing in life take effort, determination and belief that you can.  So my message to Little H and all other littlies is start with having fun colouring the best picture you can, singing your heart out, trying your best in a 2km school fun run and let it flow from there.

There’s time for the hard lesson of life that no-one’s great at everything, and everyone has to choose where to focus their energies.  For now, I think my job as a parent is to encourage her, to enable her to try as wide a spectrum of fun things as possible, to believe in her, to help her believe in herself and help her to enjoy putting effort into what she does and reaping the rewards.

As for me, I’m signing up for a triathlon next year. And if we do get our house extension, and thereby space for a piano, I’m taking it up again.  I want to do both for me, but if it helps Little H see that trying new things is hard and fun, that it’s important to start with ‘I think I can if I try’, it might not be Carnegie Hall or the Olympics but hey, we all start somewhere.  We can all do our bit to inspire a generation.  My new generation is sleeping on it.


In need of an uplift

Last week was a bad week.  I know this because I kept breaking into tears in front of friends, and now I’m consulting Toddler Taming  to find some new strategies.  Or at least to remind me about the things I already know work and don’t work so I can then reflect on the current daily battles and decide which to fight and which to try to ignore or deflect.  Not forgetting step three: negotiate agreement on plan with Mr H so we achieve the holy grail of calm, consistent parenting…well, try to.

No, it definitely wasn’t the week you want to have going into the Big Test of new non-working motherhood: six weeks of summer holidays.  That week would be full of love and gorgeousness with my three year old, reward charts full of stickers and siblings who might actually play together for more than a millisecond.  Instead I felt each smeared loo seat, each refusal to come down the stairs without a pick up, each episode of hitting or shouting, each jab and counter-jab of sibling fencing were arrows pinning me to a summer of despair, an abysmal mother finding no joy in her children, only willing the clock to reach 6pm each day.

Three things lifted me from such awful self-absorbed misery.

Firstly, friends.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  They are brilliant.  What would I do without them.  I can’t avoid them either (at least in term time), so when I feel like I want to hide in a black hole feeling sorry for myself, they force me to have the moment of light relief and human contact I actually need.  Last week, they did much more – three chunks of time Littlest H was whisked off me, and precious time it was too.  I read somewhere that people are three more times as likely to say yes to requests for childcare than people are to ask.  Asking for help is hard, even if it’s in return for help I’ve given.  I always feel bad foisting my child on someone else when there isn’t a ‘good’ reason like work or medical appointments.  In reality, time to be alone is good enough.  Even an hour can reset the balance and allow me to face the day with renewed vigour, patience and playfulness.

Secondly, books.  Is there anything more uplifting than a really good read?  I have started reading the books my book club read before I joined it, the latest of which is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  What a fabulous little gem of a book.  I loved it, it lifted me up and made me feel warm, positive and happy.  Losing myself in a good book, even if it’s just for a few minutes at bedtime, recharges my batteries, reminds me I’m still me and there’s more to life than our little domestic enclave.  I also found time to read some of the weekend’s paper on the same weekend I bought it, rather than the usual month later.  The fact that I can steal an hour to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read the paper undisturbed was definitely a pick-me-up, a sign life isn’t all bad and is getting more balanced as the littlies get bigger.

Finally, meditating the parent mantra: “Ommmmmm, it’s only a stage, it’s only a stage, it’s only a stage, ommmmmmmm.”  Things Littlest H made an unholy fuss about a few months ago pass by unnoticed now.  Teeth brushing for instance.  I remember so well battles as described in Playing with the Holsby’s recent post, and now it’s a walk in the park (take heart Mrs Holsby).  Putting shoes and coats on was a grinding battle of wills where now he’s sunny as you like about it.  Only a month ago he refused to come to the table for meals, now he mostly gets up and tucks in without turning a hair. I have to hope the same will happen with walloping his sister and toilet battles. I know in my heart it will.  In the meantime, Toddler Taming is now being joined by ‘How to talk so kids listen’ and ‘Raising Happy Brothers & Sisters’, as recommended by a friend today.  I don’t care if reading how to parenting books makes me an ‘alpha mum’, or a control freak, sometimes I need to read wise words that help me think calmly and positively about ways to make it better.  I used to read work books to find new ways of thinking and approaching my job, so why not now?  This has got to be the hardest job I’ve ever done and it’s not like I can just resign to find a more suitable position, is it.

So on we go.  Two days of summer holiday down, a few bumps already along the road but I feel hopeful last week was a blip.  Seeing more of Little H is wonderful, I miss her when she’s at school.  She’s both an antidote, a help and a fellow sufferer/enjoyer of Littlest H, so it’s great to have her along for the ride.  My new books will wing their way to my door radiating more hope, and no doubt at least one gem will find its way into our lives, making us all rub along a bit more smoothly.  And the glass will feel a bit more full for a while – until the next shift in behaviour of course, and who knows what delights await us then…

Searching for nirvana

No, I’m not on a quest to find the rock band, much as I enjoyed them in my yoof.




The nirvana I’m looking for is my version of the Hindu or Buddhist state of ultimate bliss: the elusive perfect job that balances me as ‘me’ and me as ‘mummy’.

So far, so not happening.

What I do know is that mothering 24-7 is not the best answer.  It can be done, but it’s not ‘mummy’ at my best.  And ‘me’ doesn’t get much of a look in either.

I have lost count of the times I’ve wistfully yearned for the focus and unavoidability of a vocation, and for that vocation to be for a job that happened to work brilliantly with family life.  Or that it was such a vocation I didn’t care.  Or that I’d at least fallen into a career that could be bent to fit with family without significantly compromising my sense of job fulfilment. Or, or, or…

My hypothesis is that the perfect job would mean I could work 2 – 3 days per week, with at least one of those within a school day (9am – 3pm).  Of course, it also has to feel fulfilling, challenging, and be financially worthwhile, or at least viable.  And therein lies the rub.  Does such a job really exist?  And is it one I’m qualified to do?

At my 20 years on school reunion recently (gulp), a friend was saying how her career as a doctor was suiting her family life very well.  She had reached a stage in her career where she could practise her specialism a couple of days a week, enjoy it, be paid well for it and have plenty of time and energy left for her family of four.  Nice.  Oh, did I mention she also lives in Perth, Australia– lifestyle capital of the world?  I averted my green eyes into my sauvignon blanc.

I, on the other hand, have successfully manoeuvred myself into a position where the jobs I’m attracted to and qualified for are utterly unsuited to balance. They suit a life more like Kate Reddy in ‘I don’t know how she does it’ (though much less high powered).  I interviewed for a less unsuitable version in the same field and I felt like I was being shut up in a box.  I almost had to run away it sounded so mundane, so within my comfort zone, so far from making any real difference in the world. Do I need to work so desperately I have to accept I can now only do a percentage of what I am actually capable of?  Isn’t that the most depressing thing, knowing you could be / do so much more?

I know, of course, I’m choosing to prioritise family over that career fulfilment.  But the extent of that giving up of self is something I have found pretty tough.  Why, why, WHY is it so hard to be a present mother and supportive partner while fulfilling my potential in my own right, without having to give up things that keep me sane, like exercise, friends and sleep?

How I wish I’d chosen differently all those years ago at university.  But would any twenty-something girl with the world to play for listen to someone like me suggesting they think of future family life when choosing a career?  Yeah right.  And anyway, why should they.  Feminists have fought for females to have the education, confidence and opportunity to be what and who they want to be just the same as men.  Asking them to close doors up front just doesn’t seem right, even if it means they may well be faced with the depressing realisation that they can’t ‘have it all’ when they have kids in ten years time.  People who believe they have it all really mean they have the bits they care about.  They’re also probably personality types who don’t wallow and are good at accepting and moving on once a decision is made.  Big strike against me then.

One option I’ve mulled over quite a lot is starting some kind of business; becoming a ‘mumpreneur’.  Plenty of mums I know are doing it, and it’s fantastic to see them getting out of their comfort zones and going for it.  Check out Mrs McIndoe or Little Puggle for two of my favourites.

This option seems by far the most attractive, despite the hard graft and nerves of steel required to get going.  I’ve always secretly longed to be good enough at taking risk to put myself out there like that.  To be a success story in my own right and feel really proud of what I’ve achieved.  I see now that having kids and wanting to be with them, plus having the security of being a second income vs essential one, may well be the push I need.  The one snag is what to do.  Any ideas, anyone?

Do dogs need to fly to find aprons

Conversation one:

A dog barks.  “Mummy, what was that noise?” asks Littlest H.

“What do you think it was?” I reply. “A dog. Barking, woof woof.”

“Why do you think he was barking?” “He wants to fly, Mummy.”

“Wow, a dog who can fly. How do you know he’s flying, Littlest H?” “Because, because, Mummy, he wants to find an apron.”

Conversation two:

“Tom, how many times have I asked you not to do that?  LH, LH, are you listening?  Where are your listening ears, LH?  LH, I’ll count to three and if you haven’t stopped doing that, I’ll be really sad, LH, and if you keep going, I’m afraid you’ll be on the step.  What a shame.”

Is the first conversation worth the latter, repeated ad infinitum, day after day?

Take today.  It started with Littlest H hitting his sister, followed by suddenly sweeping his full glass of milk onto the floor, walls and back door, both for no apparent reason.  It ended with more hitting and hair pulling, wee on the carpet and numerous other small, niggly misdemeanours.  Really, is this what my life is for?  Does parenting have to be so wearing so much of the time?  Am I actually better for my children than a very capable, fun, warm nanny who doesn’t shout nearly as much?

I came across a couple of articles recently about a new book by a psychologist about ‘difficult mothers’ and the life-long impact they can have.  The cases are extreme, but the ‘angry’ and ‘controlling’ sections did pull me up a little short.  Am I the mother I want to be, and does being at home with them all the time help me be that person or not?

I think it does, at least, more than working as I have been the past couple of years.  But it’s a tough one.  Especially if I add in the feminist twist of whether or not I am showing my daughter that women can be good mothers/ wives/ friends / people and have a fulfilling career while they are at it.

I think I’m ok on most of the areas picked up by the book, just the angry fishwife bit I think could do with some work.  My proudest moment was determinedly trying to apply super-nanny tactics to get Littlest H to stay on the ‘time out’ step at home.  After I had replaced him on the step about 50 times (no exaggeration), I could think of no other way to express my outrage than to get his reward chart and rip it to pieces in front of him… Thankfully he stayed on the step as lord knows where I would have gone from there.

I quite often offer up thanks that we have a detached house so that our neighbours don’t have to have social services on speed dial.  And even in this less than balmy summer, I have found myself noticing whether the room I’m berating my child in has an open window.  But so far, so good. No flashing lights or restraints.  Apart from the odd reward chart-ripping catastrophe, I think I manage to contain myself enough of the time not to be unhinging my children.  And I hope that by apologising when I do lose it, I show them that I’m fallible, but it’s not good and I don’t like it.

It’s actually another one where friends matter. It’s hard, if not impossible, to really lose it when you are in company.  Which is good for everyone really, isn’t it.  And we are in company a lot.  Which keeps me sane.  The old adage of a burden shared is a burden halved is one I fully endorse where parenting is concerned.  Even 30 seconds of sharing the morning’s disasters at school drop off can rescue the day from blackness in a way that leaving the problems behind to get on the train to work never really did.

For all this new life’s many downs, I do feel I am now trying to tackle them rather than leaving them to someone else.  Which gives me a perverse sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.  But then, I am someone who applies that same logic to things like running, walking or camping in mud and rain.  Really, I must give this role modelling thing a bit more thought…

It’s come to this

‘This’ is a nit date.  Ever had one? Oh, you should, everyone should. It’s the pinnacle of life I never thought I’d reach.  Spending two hours with an equally hirsute friend de-lousing each other’s hair – it’s exactly what I left work to do.   Followed closely by spending 30-60 minutes nit combing my daughter’s similarly long, thick, wavy hair every other day for two weeks and counting.

On reflection, I see this joyous initiation into primary school life in two ways.  On a bad day, dealing with nits is yet another rung in the never-ending hamster wheel of life with young children.  As if there aren’t enough mind-numbingly dull, repetitive aspects to the average day, now I have to add this to our bedtime routine?  Where do I rustle up that extra time – oh yes, of course, out of my own, post-bedtime adult time.  The time when all parents I know take a deep, relieved breath, often followed with the clink and slurp (sorry sip, of course, sip) of the all important ‘I survived’ glass of wine. Right now, it also eats into my exercise time, which makes me grumpy.  If nothing else it means I can’t have chocolate after supper ‘because I deserve it’.

Don’t let’s forget the gross-ness of them either.  Having never seen a nit, when the letters from school started coming through I asked a few friends what to look for.  Tiny grains of rice that are stuck to the hair seemed the best indicator.  That didn’t quite prepare me for increasingly obssessively combing about 20 brown, 2-3mm bugs with recognisable legs out of my daughter’s hair.  Boy was my head itching after that.   Every time I see girls in my daughter’s class with their long hair flowing in the wind I feel like finding their parents and giving them a good talking to.

On a good day, (or in a good hour – let’s be honest, days with kids are never wholly good, are they), it is a mark of friendship that we trusted each other to do a really thorough job and not be too grossed out by the whole thing.  For some people it could sit the same side of the line as not closing the door when you wee or talking about your sex life.

Mostly though, I think it’s an example of the most unexpectedly valuable, enjoyable and treasured things I’ve gained through stopping working – the fun and support of really wonderful, local friends, for me and the kids.  Friends whom we would never have been able to get to know anywhere near as well if I had continued working.

Although I was lucky enough to make one or two great local friends when I was working, I know now how valuable and nourishing a broader support network really is.  I wonder if this modern friends-based set up gives us even more support than families provided when the norm was to have grandparents, siblings, cousins a few doors down.  These are people I’ve chosen to spend time with, with whom there are no family role issues or baggage to deal with, just trust, respect, friendship and joint knowledge that in a fix we will do whatever we can to help each other out.

I think not having access to this is one of the most difficult parts of being a working mother, unless you are lucky enough to get it through existing friendships.  You can’t be there for play dates to get to know your kids’ friends.  You feel you can’t ask too much too often because you know you can’t reciprocate.  You’ll never be one of the gaggle loitering at the school gate because you have to drop and run, if it’s even you who drops at all.   You might meet people at the occasional organised evening out and 5 mins chats at school pick up time, but you know you don’t have the time to build proper relationships.  What a shame, there could have been nit dates, pox parties and everything.

You give up a lot to keep a full-time career going in my opinion.  Nit dates are the least of it.  Even on my worst days I don’t regret stopping, or not feel thankful we can make it work financially for a year or two.  When I’m cleaning wee off the floorboards for the nth time, or hearing myself shout ‘will you stop shouting’, I have of course wondered if it was really the right decision for me or indeed for the kids.  But out of the heat of the moment, I know this life is infinitely more rewarding on so many levels.

So maybe in a funny way, the nit date wasn’t so bad.  My friend was happy she has finally found someone who has more hair than she has.  And it could be worse. She told me some of the nits cases she’s seen at work were so bad the sufferers had nits in their eyebrows.  Now that really is gross.

Blue jobs, pink jobs

I love how the grass looks when I’ve just mown it.  Mowing is a pink job in our house.  Putting out the bins is a blue job, as is going to the tip, cleaning the car (properly, wax, wheel trim and everything) and tickle games with the children.  Weekend and holiday children duties are shared, cooking, cleaning, washing mostly pink, ironing equally disliked so split.

DIY is a tougher one.  Traditionally it’s been a reluctantly blue job, with a joint preference to get someone in if we can possibly justify it, which is unfortunately not often enough.  I have to admit to maybe, perhaps, in the past having played ‘a girl’ about it to avoid having to do it.  I may even have gone so far as to either try to be coquettish about skirting it or make such a fuss about it my husband is bound to take the job on just to stop me blowing a gasket.

It’s a bit pathetic really, to be so useless at it.  My mum is out there doing courses in plumbing, plastering and welding, doing better at them than the young guns and capably taking on all the DIY in her house that Dad would never let her anywhere near when he was alive.  And here I am, nearly 40 and barely able to use an electric screwdriver, let alone a drill.  What excuse do I have?

None I can feel proud of.  Female emancipation was about equal rights to participate in society, about wanting gender not to matter – women can do anything just as well as men (physical strength allowing).  So is it right to play a ‘girl’ card to get out of something I don’t want to do while at the same time expecting my husband to take equal share in the traditionally pink jobs?  No, of course it’s not.  Hiding behind the stereotypical female and male roles is definitely not cricket, on either side.

Which is why there is currently a deconstructed chest of drawers waiting for another coat of paint in our spare room.  And our son’s freshly repainted and decorated room saw me try my hand at filling and sanding more than a nail hole for the first time, plus doing everything on the job, except the shelves – I couldn’t bear my drilling to leave wonky shelves I’d have to look at every day.  I’m determined that I tackle these jobs myself now that I can’t use excuses of other pressing weekend jobs and short, exhausted evenings as easily as I did when I was working.

Hang on, wait a minute.  How does this fit with women’s lib.  Now not only am I chief of the typically female domains of cooking, cleaning, childcare, I’m now taking on the blue jobs too.  Is this where the suffragettes thought their efforts would get us?

Well, maybe yes actually.  Because 10 years ago, my husband and I entered our marriage on the understanding that we were, and are, equal.  We are equally capable of fulfilling all but the child-bearing and breast-feeding roles in our partnership.  Our intelligence, opinions and skills are equally valuable.  In theory we could each support our family financially or domestically.

Right now, we have a pretty traditional set up, with me at home, not working, and him working his butt off, out of the house from 6.15am until at least 8.30/9pm every day.  But that’s a choice we’ve made together, for now, and we know it will shift again as the kids get older, I get back into work mode (of some sort) and my husband has enough of City life.

Underneath it all, I think it’s a lot to do with expectation. He doesn’t expect me to be at home with the kids or do all the jobs I do at home just because I’m a woman.  I don’t expect him to be the breadwinner or do his jobs because he’s a man (heavy physical lifting excepted).  But each of us know we have our individual strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, attitudes to work, career, money, ambition.  I can’t pretend we don’t have moments when a whiff of expectation causes defensive hackles to rise and cross words to be spoken, but it feels like we’ve found a way to muddle through that we are mostly, most of the time, happy with.

And to me, that is a brand of female emancipation.  It might still result in traditional blue and pink domestic roles, and yes, cultural norms, pressures and assumptions no doubt play a significant part in why that happens.  But I for one feel there is a choice in how we organise our domestic life as equal individuals, as an equal partnership.  That’s got to be progress hasn’t it?