Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Managing low expectations

Kept thinking all night about what happens to lots of women, including me when we have children. I've got a good degree, a further degree, and have had great jobs. In fact probably was hoping to get to director level before I was forty. But when I had children everything changed, suddenly I was a bit more paranoid then before, a bit more vulnerable and my head wasn't just in to my job. And even if it was just how we feel it wouldn't be so bad, but children really need their parents, they get sick, have worrying rashes and temperatures, cry when you leave them, cry when you pick them up. Sometimes I wonder its possible we get anything done with young children.

When I had just one child I just about managed to work three days a week, but truthfully was not managing either my workload or family life as well as I'd have wanted, so I felt obliged to up my work hours to four days. Then I felt out of touch with my baby community, and with doing things with my son, our Friday afternoons were more about the girls chatting then watching our lovelies.

I'd leave Ollie at nursery at eight, then rush to work in an hour of traffic usually to get their for nine. Work through the day, never stopping for lunch, then rush home at five, be in an hour of aggressive traffic (this was through Tottenham, North London), get to the nursery to find son sitting in a corner sucking his thumb. We'd then get home, make a quick dinner, and son would be in bed by seven. And start again the next day. I felt like a clock watcher at work for never putting in the extra hours, and just sad because I wanted to bring up my son, not nineteen year old girls.

It got even harder when I had my second child, after a traumatic birth, difficult first few months - settling down as a four person family, I planned an au pair to look after children. The one I employed despite seeming nice and coming with good references simply could not cope alone with them - I do now its not easy. Then I planned a child minder, again with good references, and set a date to return to work. The child minder could not start for a couple of weeks so my mother in law came over to look after children. The day before my return to work my daughter became very ill with a stomach bug. I could not leave her, and postponed returning to work for a week. She got better through the week, but mother in law caught it and got ill.

After over ten years of living in London, I'd managed to almost avoid crime, my luck ran out that week. According to the police this was because I was vulnerable with two babies, this was hard for me to accept, as I've always prided myself on being strong and tough, and never thought of my self as as a target.

I walked with the children in their buggy through an unfamiliar area on the way from a local eye test to playgroup. This area took me through an estate which definitely had an aura of unwelcome and frankly scariness about it. I think I was then followed up to the high street, and when I got to the Baptist church, to enter the playgroup, two men with balaclavas on rode up to me on bikes, grabbed my bag and started to cycle off. I was so shocked I was shouting that's my bag and give it back. My son saw the whole thing.

The police came quickly, and were very supportive, as were all my friends at the group, who took the children off and looked after them. The biggest problem was not money, I didn't have any, or my cards, I cancelled them, or even my phone, which I again cancelled. It was my car keys which have a bleep y lock on, and the brand of the car, and my house keys. The police dispatched some officers to look after my flat straight away, and my mother in law, who was inside. She was so ill I don't think she totally realised how scary it could have been, which was a relief really.

After the shock, the worst was to come, when my car was taken by RAC on behalf of Norwich Union to have the locks changed. It was crashed in to, and lost by them while they had it, and I love my car, it felt like it had been violated.

I had to try and get to the bottom of new cards, hire car, new car seats for the children, new phone, an also deal with my feelings whilst back at work. It was really really hard, in retrospect I did do some good pieces of work in my three months back, but it came at an emotional cost. At the same time I had the child minder calling me and saying that my daughter was crying and would not settle every day by at least three in the afternoon.

I felt I'd gone from a strong, capable career minded single woman to a sort of neurotic worrier with numerous problems, and to cap it all before I'd gone back to work the Chief Executive had made a point of getting my boss to ask me whether I was serious about going back, or just wanted a little three month project, to avoid paying back my maternity leave. I also felt, and it was suggested to me that unless I did at least a four day week then I would not be taken seriously at my grade.

Here I was insulted at all that, and yet unable to cope in the little three month project I'd ended up going in to. I gave my notice in after a month, but rather then being the wonderful life enhancing decision it should have been I cried. I can see now that this was because I simply could not make any other decision, therefore I hadn't come to terms with it. I cried when I told the childminder I was leaving work, and knew then it would be tough.

That all said, the children have thrived since I left, largely we've eaten better, been healthier and the house is much more of a home then ever before. Apart from the financial side, which we always knew would be tough its worked really well. But the toll on me has been great, don't have the ability to think analytically any more, can't read complex articles and books, not sure I will ever, or in fact could ever get back on the career ladder again, and have forgotten who I am.

I keep wondering what the answers are, and thinking about literature and art that is about staying at home wives. I keep coming back to the song ' Mothers little helper', forgotten artist but written about tranquilisers, and to Hannah Gavron's seminal book about women trapped in a council estate; ' The Captive Wife'. Then I think about all the mothers I knew in the seventies with their obsessions with cleaning rota's ,and perfect houses, and knowing which day you had which dish for dinner. I think even Ann Oakley wrote and researched ' Housewife' when she was in this phase of her life.

I'm struggling to find positive stories about about stay at home mummies, I seem to remember a swathe of mummy chick lit books, have to admit they all seem to blend in to one in the end. The only happy endings I can think of entail the mummy finding a project, a shop to manage, a business; hotel etc to run.

Then there are the examples of the perfect yummy mummies, Paula Yates was one, and Jools Oliver today's. Paula Yates was clearly a great mummy when her children were little, full of fun, creative ideas and love. But was the effort she put in to this too great, so that when she escaped she went too far? What about Jools Oliver, she has nannies, and now her own writing projects, and no doubt others too, and she publicly talks about the loneliness of being on her own with the children most of the time.

The feminist ideas from the seventies of living in co-operatives, or communes and everyone being responsible for the children come to mind, or of good accessible childcare being open long hours. Before I had children I thought these were great, and would enable women to continue to be themselves. I also though making anything accessible to women and children just meant running a creche. Now as a normal anxious mother I can imagine so many horror examples of these, I know they are not the answer, although they may help.

Truthfully the only 2007 thinking around enabling mothers (or fathers with childcare responsibility) seems to be with the New Right' s subtle push on single parents to get them back to work. Even then though this is just focused on childcare, and not on all the many and varied emotions that parents go through.

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