Keeping the connection alive: Relationship 101


tides ebb and flowIt’s interesting, isn’t it, how relationships ebb and flow.  Just over a year ago, Mr H and I split our weekday jobs into diametrically opposed roles: he would keep working, focusing on his career and bringing in the dosh; I would stop working and do everything else.

On the face of it, you could say I have a cushy life.  We live comfortably without me working.  With Littlest H now at pre-school every morning, I have time (in term) to myself I can decide what to do with.  If there’s a snow day at school, a child is ill or there’s something at school I’d like to attend, my life isn’t turned upside down.  Yes, some rejigging is required, and things I planned to do go un-done, but in comparison to the stress created by the nanny calling in sick or figuring out how to be at home to attend a school event without missing meetings I couldn’t really miss, it’s pretty manageable.

And yet, such a stark split of roles is tough.  Especially as a reasonably feisty, independent woman who enjoyed working and having financial parity with my partner, and who also has a pretty highly honed radar for female stereotyping.  It certainly took a while for us to get used to the new arrangement, without me feeling defensive about perceived expectation of ‘little woman’ behaviour, or a lack of understanding about just how much juggling there is in managing the day to day commitments of two kids. (To give an example, after a typical logistically-challenged day early on last year, that ended with tired, awful children, when Mr H arrived home to discover no milk, he questioned how I could not find time to get more.  A rare reaction, I might add, and rarer still since that particular instance and my response…)

Most of the time I can genuinely say I am happy managing the kids and the household by myself Monday to Friday, although I’ll admit I count the hours to Friday nights.   I’m used to it; we have our established routines and they work well nearly all the time.  I love hearing about the kids days first-hand and being the person ferrying them here and there and getting to know their friends.  I love being part of a community of mums who support each other through good and bad days, emergencies, building work, appointments or just the need for time out or a rant.  It’s also easier now I have some time in the day for decent exercise, as that keeps me sane (Mr H’s hours mean I can’t exercise early morning or evenings).

But I can’t pretend it hasn’t felt a bit dull and mundane sometimes too.  I love my children dearly, but the level of conversation is more “Mummy, I have a joke.  What is it Littlest H.  What do you get if you have a farmer?  I don’t know Littlest H, what do you get.  A farm.  Get it, Mummy?  Isn’t it funny, Mummy?” than discussing whether Cameron is right to call a referendum on Europe or even gossiping about the latest workplace drama or thorny issue.

I don’t think I noticed that mundanity last year.  Alongside the novelty of being with the kids, there were plenty of ‘projects’ that kept me occupied – redecorating, the allotment, planning a home-building project, writing this blog and children’s stories.  It’s only struck me since I started setting up a business with a friend this year.  It feels so purposeful, so constructive, so stimulating to be thinking about the world outside my domestic enclave in a pretty tightly circumscribed corner of Surrey.

But it hasn’t really changed anything about the roles Mr H and I have.  It won’t, as the whole point is for me to find fulfilling work that fits with family life.  In a way it’s harder – the volume of time I need to work on the business competes with time to spend with him, so the need to schedule ‘us-time’ is almost more important.

Being brutally honest, our set up has put a big strain on us, and we’ve fallen into lazy habits that haven’t helped.  Mr H is knackered when he’s home, and rightly puts his limited energy into the children first, who clamour for his attention.  Then there are the outings or social engagements, exercise, and sometimes it feels like we come last.  Not by planning or design, just by circumstance.  Us can feel like a mostly practical, sorting-out thing, a managing-our-lives thing.  A co-existence, not a fulfilling, positive relationship.

Last night we went out for dinner.  Just the two of us, to our favourite local haunt. I think it’s the first time we’ve been out by ourselves since mid December.  It’s been too long.  We’ve let our commitment to weekly date nights, or at least weekly ‘cook together and eat/chat without putting the telly on’ nights, slide.  It shows in our snippiness and lack of connection.  It’s easy to get lazy, but that connection is so important – I’ve seen at close hand what the loss of it has done to other relationships.  Without it, all our relationship is is a vessel for the children’s lives and our own separate existences.

Family life with young children, at the age when careers break through or risk being left behind, is tough.  You’ve survived years of sleep-deprivation. The time, money and energy for things you used to love doing are harder to find.  The fun of life requires more effort.  But allowing a lack of effort towards one’s relationship to slide into routine is a big risk.

So in a way I feel thankful we had a row on Thursday that triggered a rearranging of commitments to go for dinner last night.  Because we talked, we re-connected with each other’s lives and each other’s feelings.  We acknowledged the situation we’re in, the risk and the need to do it differently. We discussed ways to achieve regular date nights that don’t get canned by unavoidable work commitments or opting for the easy way out of tv and laptops.  We’ll book in some fun things to do together.  The ebb will return to a flow.

No doubt we will face another ebb at some point, but I am certain we are strong enough, and have open enough communication lines (albeit sometimes at higher volume than we’d like), to turn it around.  It might be relationship 101 to stay connected, but it can be all too easy to forget.  Marriage was never meant to be easy, but it definitely needs to be fun.  Time to bring on some more fun, I think.  Nevermind the Year of the Snake, let’s make 2013 the Year of Fun.

Re-finding the mojo magic

It’s a funny thing, mojo.  I think having kids mutates it.  The moments that fill my ‘I love my life’ mojo cup have changed.  Or so I thought.  But this week I’ve asked myself, have they really, or is that the illusion I hold onto to love my life rather than wish it were different?

Take my new sparkly shoes.  Aren’t they GORGEOUS?

And check out the lovely posh make up in front, all new and full of the promise of nights out, especially when coupled with sparkly feet.

Add a hairdresser trip to sort out my wild-lion-on-a-bad-day look…

…And a soupcon of London cool (‘scuse the sex shop photo, but it’s actually the front of La Bodega Negra, an uber-cool Mexican taqueria in the heart of Soho, inside below, complete with gimp suit behind the restaurant reception desk!)

And voila, my twenties mojo resurfaces.  You know, that mojo that lives in the city, knows where the cool hangouts are, stays out late drinking fabulous cocktails (bugger the hangover) and having conversations not about kids or domestic life or hardworking husbands or schools or the mother’s juggling act, and then goes dancing.  Mojo that ends with pictures like this:

 We used to have loads of these – us on a night out, looking a bit rosy in the cheek.  But, as we realised when asked by the fabulously fun women we were out with, the last time we went out properly like this together was at least seven years ago.  That’s a loooooonnnnng time.  Plenty of nights out separately, but together and in the big smoke – that’s a whole different babysitter ballgame.

And do you know what, it felt brilliant.  My sister-in-law asked me if the evening made me feel old.  Quite the opposite – it made me feel young – young, alive and happy.  I wasn’t a mother, I was me.  The me that loves letting my hair down and going a bit mad, especially with Mr H. Not the comfortably middle class domestic me who stays local, has an allotment, mostly socialises with gorgeous but pretty similar / similar lifestage people, and chooses the cultural or physical options like opera or ballet or hiking or biking for any time Mr H and I get together sans enfants.  Now, I’m all excited about using up some grandparent looking-after-the-kids points to go up to London and go out clubbing and stay with our new friends without rushing back for sitters or horribly early bouncing children.

Funnily enough though, re-finding that mojo hasn’t diminished the joy of its family and domestic life mutations.  Nor has it made me resent where my life is now. I love my life – I have a gorgeous husband, two beautiful children (even if they do wind me up immensely too often to think about), a nice enough house in a good town, a load of amazing friends and right now, some pretty exciting personal projects on the go, whether finding my voice through writing, learning to swim freestyle for my first triathlon or exploring a potential business opportunity with a dear friend.  Do I wish I were a young Londoner myself again?  Not really.  Way more angst, sore heads and shopping than I can be bothered with, let alone haemorrhaging money every weekend (ahem, let’s just ignore the haemorrhaging children represent…).

But last weekend did teach me something.  It taught me it’s important to indulge the old mojo every so often, even more so to do it with Mr H, and, when possible, up in the thick of life, in the big smoke.  Not to play it too safe, not to always take the more sensible options.  Not to forget we’re still young, the big 4-0 on the horizon or not.  There’s life in the old girl yet…

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?