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It’s official. I’m seeing a therapist.

Well actually, I’ve seen a therapist once.

There wasn’t a particular reason for going. In fact I’m feeling that my life is going pretty swimmingly at the moment. But I felt curious to try it for myself and I love a good emotional analysis. And also, I wanted to see if there were any relics from the past that may be affecting my future unknowingly. Plus my mother wisely informed me that absolutely everyone ought to go to therapy and who am I to doubt her.

The therapist’s room was near Borough market, and I was early, so I spent a happy few minutes browsing the over-priced foodie delights, musing that I couldn’t possibly be more middle class.

I arrived panting at the top of four flights of stairs, to be greeted by a very ‘bland’ looking lady. She had a soft American accent, probably East coast, and everything about her was non-judgemental. I liked her.

She showed me into the little room and to my delight there was a reclining couch in there! And a chair as well. I picked the chair, although in hindsight, I wish I’d reclined.

Her first question was, ‘So, tell me about yourself.’

For a second I was stumped, and then out came a river of words.

I’d never been asked to tell a complete stranger all about myself, and just that simple action was enlightening. What do you say first? How do you describe yourself? By your roles, your job, your relationships?

Suddenly everything that came out of my mouth took on significance. Wife and mother, daughter, sister, friend, yoga teacher, writer, singer. I’m none of these things and all of these things.

I’m just me.

But the thing is, I’m also a sum of all those parts, and some of those parts that I have taken for granted for 36 years are buried deep within my subconscious psyche, and don’t take kindly to being yanked, kicking and screaming into the glaring light of a therapist’s gaze.

For example, the word ‘duty’ came up. I felt that being a wife and mother involves a certain amount of duty. The therapist’s ears seemed to prick up and she prompted, ‘What do you mean by duty?’

My immediate reaction to this was irritation. What do you think I mean lady? You know, doing all those things OUT OF DUTY that I would rather not be doing, but if I don’t do them, then no one will, and Christmas probably wouldn’t happen, and to be honest, I’m not sure much else would either.

But instead I smiled politely and replied, ‘Well, it’s not all bad, but you know, duty is part of being a wife, mother, daughter and so on. All those roles have an element of duty.’

And this is also true as in fact, I think the whole concept of duty is hugely underrated and if more people felt duty-bound to get things done, then it wouldn’t be left to the dutiful minority.

But I did get her point. It’s slightly odd to put duty top of the list. I saw what I’d been missing.

‘And love!’ I countered. ‘Obviously love.’

But then why had I said ‘duty’ first?

It’s obviously my mother’s fault.

That’s the other funny thing about going to see a therapist. We think we’re individual and have carved out our own niche, and then we think about it and realise that we’re just at the bottom of a crevasse that has been carved out by our parents, and their parents and so on ad infinitum.

My mother was, and is, dutiful. She put her children first. And she was, and is, a phenomenal mother. We wanted for nothing. Our needs were met, possibly whether we liked it or not. But, when prompted, I think that the only thing I would have changed about her mothering was that I wish she could have been happier. I wish she could have done things for herself, FOR FUN, with no thought for anyone else.

Because she showed me that mothering involves putting yourself last on the list, and sometimes, I don’t want to be last, I want to be first!

The other thing I realised was that, being the eldest of five, I became a little mother in my own right. I still call my children by my younger sibling’s names when caught off guard. I grew up young, was aware of my parents’ emotional needs, and tried to fix them. In fact, my Dad’s speech on our wedding day included the line, ‘Poppy did a great job of bringing her parents up.’ It was funny, but there was a smidgeon of truth to it.

So the duty I felt was a sense of duty to them too. To try to make them happier.

As a child, you don’t understand that it’s not your responsibility, you just love them too much.

My son has the same sensibility. He’s aware when the mood weather signals an impending storm, while my daughter is blissfully unaware. He’s sensitive to the opinions of others, while my daughter is teflon-coated and determined. I admire and love them both.

Seeing myself and my family, both nuclear and extended under the microscopic gaze leant by the therapist’s attention was startling. I left feeling that I possibly needed a whole lot more therapy to get over the therapy I’d just had.

Who knew that I had so many issues?!

But there was one point that I took away with me, wrapped carefully in my heart. Being a mother is desperately, hugely important. When I said to the therapist that I’d loved being a full time mother, but got to the point where I wanted to use my talents, she interjected, ‘Your other talents’.

I didn’t see what she meant at first. We are so conditioned to under-value the role of mother. Because of course, being a mother demands a huge range of talents. And – unlike our other jobs – goes on to impact the emotional health of our family for generations to come.

And hopefully saves them having to go to therapy in a couple of decades time.

Unless they want to.

In which case, I would highly recommend it.

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We are currently mid-birthday season.

And I am questioning the amount of work I am putting in to keep the birthday season rolling smoothly.

Birthday season involves an insane amount of thought, effort and time.  There is present research, present buying, present delegating – keeping track of who’s bought what from the birthday list, then liasing via email and text to update on status of all present buyers.  Event planning – deciding with the child what they would like to do for their party.  Then gradually getting them to change their mind to something that doesn’t involve phenomenal sums of money, or potential disasters.  Inviting the kids – getting the numbers of parents, then chasing the already busy mothers to confirm if their children can come.  Working out how all these children are going to get to the venue and back.  Planning the food plan for the day. Wrapping said presents.  Making a homemade card, because ‘bought’ is a cop out.  Piling up the presents into a present pile, decorating the entire present area with bunting, candles and flowers.  And I haven’t even got to the cake.

I mean writing it all down, it does sound ridiculous.

My husband finds the WHOLE thing baffling, and consequently does absolutely nothing.  In our house this is an accepted turn of events because the whole birthday ritual is something that I have instigated, therefore, it’s MY fault my children look forward to their birthdays, ipso facto, over to you, lady.

I blame my mother.

Because, growing up in a family of 5 children, there wasn’t often undiluted attention coming my way.  But my birthday was an exception to the rule.  On that day it was all about me, there were cards, presents, flowers, a birthday cake and sometimes a birthday outing.  Those birthdays are enshrined in my memory in a little haze of excitement, blossom and fairy dust.  And although Dad always contributed to the present pile, the legwork was done by Mum.

By way of contrast birthdays were not a flurry of creative rituals in my husband’s childhood home.  Although not in any way deprived of love, the sum total of his birthday treats seemed to be the odd book (usually pre-read) and a cake.  He had a party once, and hated it.  His friends all played with HIS toys and the whole experience was baffling and noisy.

So, for him, marking our children’s birthdays with anything more than one or two presents and a cake is just unnecessary fuss.

I don’t know if he’s right or not.  I do know that my daughter is literally alight with joy from about three weeks before her birthday.  That she made a countdown calender.  That she noticed every detail, every effort and bubbles over with love on the day itself.

But I do feel that things have got a little too one-sided.  And after a bit of research (a.k.a. googling) I have discovered that the work around birthdays is just one example of a whole field of work called ‘emotional labour‘.  Or, in feminist speak, ‘repeated, taxing and under-acknowledged acts of gendered performance’.

According to journalist Rose Hackman, emotional labour is the next feminist frontier.  Taking care of birthdays is the teeniest tip of the iceberg when it comes to the organisation, care, time, thought and effort that many women I know put into keeping not just their own nuclear families ticking along nicely, but the lives of their wider families, their friends and the communities in which they live.

When David Cameron patronisingly launched his ‘Big Society’ idea back in 2010 (crikey, that’s gone fast) every full time, part time and working mother I know rolled their eyes in response.  They were already running the Big Society, while washing up, on the phone booking a Drs appointment, and breastfeeding at the same time.  But it needed a man to label it so that he could claim it as his big idea.  Swear words come to mind.

The problem is, I’m not saying that I don’t want to do it anymore.  It would just be nice for the emotional labour to be shared a bit more, to be recognised for what it is – love made manifest.  The problem is, that like the fridge fairy who fills the fridge with everything the family desire BY MAGIC, as long as we keep doing the emotional labour, no one is going to be rushing to take if off our hands.

So, in a bid to get it noticed I am tempted to hand over the birthday reins to my husband next year, let him do it his way.  Because, ladies, we are our own worst enemies.  We need to relinquish our desire to control and stop bearing the brunt of emotional labour.  And won’t it be interesting when one half of the population starts to notice all those invisible jobs that make life special and the home tick with love?

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Oh GOOD! It’s advent again…

Time to wheel out the age-old tradition of arguing with your children about which advent calendar they’re not going to get.  Whichever one it is.

I probably should have gone down the smug mother route of hand-making my own wooden/embroidered/hand-thrown-pottery version many years ago when they were little, and then that would be THE advent calendar.  But then you have to go to the fiddly faff of hand-filling 24 pockets with 24 handmade little treats, so maybe not.

Up until a few years ago I would reveal two basic model, card advent calendars with pictures behind windows and my two children would go wild with excitement.   Then, one year, in a moment of weakness, I gave in to mounting consumer pressure and bought them Lego advent calendars, and that was the end of the card calendars.

After that the chocolate-filled ones were the MINIMUM acceptable offering, and while I’m not the strictest mother in the world with their diet, cheap chocolate on empty little stomachs every morning didn’t sit particularly comfortably.

As it happens, my mother happens to think along similar lines (funny that), and on cue, arrived at our house recently with a vast, practically life-size, very traditional, card advent calendar.  The children could barely disguise their disgust, but thankfully just about managed to retain their manners to thank her.

Later, in recognition of their self-control in the face of such disappointment, I kindly offered my daughter a chocolate calendar as well.  ‘No, that’s OK, Mummy,’ she replied calmly.  I couldn’t quite believe my ears and replied happily, ‘Oh well, we’ll just have the card one then.’  ‘NO!’, shouted my nine-year-old, outraged, ‘I want a makeup one.’

Thus followed an in-depth ‘discussion’ on the nature, point and origin of the festival of advent and Christmas, which included such conversational gems as:

Me: ‘Who’s birthday are we ACTUALLY celebrating?’

Her: ‘Mrs Abbot’s.’ [a teaching assistant at her school]

Me: ‘What’s Christmas really meant to be about?’

Her: ‘Presents.’

 Me: ‘It’s actually about Jesus, who was about giving and love and looking after poor people.’

Her: ‘Well I only believe in Jesus when he was a baby, not when he was a grown up.’

Last year we had an advent candle.  I think I’ll stick to that.

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This is the story of a brown gerbil, called Clover.

One day, two little gerbil sisters, one brown and one gold, were living in a pet shop in Sydenham.  They were about 6 weeks old, and they were small and shy.  On a grey day in May, a little girl came in to the shop to buy two gerbils;  it was her 8th birthday and they were going to be her first ever pets – not counting woodlice.

The little girl and her best friend and brother and mother all crowded round the cage.  There were only two gerbils in there, so there was no need to worry about which ones to choose.  They put the gerbils into the travelling cage carefully and the little girl carried them home in the car, cradling them on her lap.

When the gerbils got home they were released into their new home and they went wild with excitement, scampering this way and that, burrowing down into the grey bedding and running in and out of their tunnel.  The little girl said that her brother could name one gerbil and she would name the other, so she named the brown one, ‘Clover’, and he named the golden one, ‘Tiria’ (after a brave otter warrior in the Redwall books).

At first the gerbils lived up in the little girl’s room, but when they decided that the best place to do their wees was all over the wall, they moved home and lived downstairs in the utility room.

Clover and Tiria seemed to be happy in their new home.  Then, one evening, there was  a dramatic turn of events. The little girl’s mother was sitting downstairs relaxing in front of a boring grown up TV programme, when she heard a clanging noise from the utility room.  Now, a clanging noise in and of itself wasn’t unusual to hear, as the gerbils seemed to make all sorts of noises in their cage, but she felt that this particular clang was worth investigating, so she popped her head round the door, only to see Clover, the escapologist, racing behind the microwave!  Keeping her cool, she gently moved the microwave, scooped up the escapee and put her back in the cage.

In the morning, the little girl and her mother agreed that Clover must have nudged a little wooden bridge underneath the top door of her cage and pushed it open, slipping out and jumping to freedom.  This was not the only time that clever Clover escaped, in fact she was to escape 4 times in her life.

Her clever escape was the first clue the little girl had that Clover was a gerbil of more than average IQ.  The other clue was that in a fairly short amount of time, Clover the gerbil became immensely fat.  If you looked at Clover next to Tiria, it looked like Clover was double the size.  ‘How has this happened’ wondered the little girl, ‘when I give the gerbils the same amount of food and seeds -as-a treat?!’

So, next time the little girl gave the gerbils their regular treat of sunflower and pumpkin seeds, she watched them carefully, and soon it became clear why Clover the clever gerbil was so enormously round.

When Tiria took a seed, she would sit daintily eating each seed one at a time, nibbling it delicately while holding it between her paws.  Meanwhile, Clover would rush at the little pile of seeds on her palm, hoover up about 7 at a time into her cheeks, and then scarper down the ramp to the pile of bedding, where she would bury her hoard of seeds to consume at her leisure.

After that, the little girl tried to ration the amount of seeds she gave to Clover to try and put her on a diet, but despite all her efforts, Clover stayed incredibly large. However, the upside of this was that she was very nice to hold as she felt so squashy and soft.

Then one day, after many months of a happy gerbil life, Clover began to get ill.  At first, she had a cold, and the little girl did her best to keep her warm, but then she got a chest infection, and not wanting her to suffer, the little girl and her mummy took her to see the vet.  The vet was very kind and took all sorts of scientific measurements, and then prescribed Clover a tiny course of antibiotics, and gave her an injection to help her breath.  The little girl couldn’t watch the injection happening, but Clover was very brave and didn’t even squeak.

For the next few evenings, Clover the clever gerbil was brilliant at taking her antibiotics, clasping the syringe fiercely and biting the end so that she had all of her medicine.

But sadly, although she seemed a little better at first, she began to lose her energy again and one day she stopped wanting seeds which the little girl knew was a bad sign, especially for Clover.

The next day the little girl’s Mummy found Clover lying near the mouth of her tunnel.  She was very still, and her little body had stopped breathing.  Clover the clever gerbil had breathed her last.  The little girl was heartbroken when she was told that Clover had died.  She couldn’t quite believe that Clover wasn’t scurrying and scampering any more.

She looked at her lying so still, and noticed that her eyes were open and her mouth seemed to be smiling.  ‘I think she’s happy’, said the little girl, stroking her soft fur.

The next day the little girl had a funeral for Clover in the garden.  She wrapped her up in a box with wrapping paper round it – to keep her safe from worms – and put her in the hole that her mummy had dug.  She sprinkled some sunflower seeds over the box, and placed a little white flower on the top, before spreading the dark earth over Clover.

‘I’ll always, always remember you, Clover,’ said the little girl.  And then she stood in silence for a whole minute, thinking about her wonderful, clever, brown, fat little gerbil.

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Today I’m conducting a very personalised social experiment. Today I am not going to do any job for anyone else other than myself. Apart from taking the kids to school and picking them up again. It hasn’t been as easy as it sounds.

The Reasons Why

The decision to undertake this radical shift in how our household is run is due to three separate events:

The first was that yesterday morning I engaged in a typical ranty moan with my friend on the walk to school, concerning our offspring and their ability to create mess where’er they roam.

‘My daughter just flung her clothes into her bedroom’, she said. ‘My child left their cereal-flecked toothpaste spit all over the sink’, I complained.

We agreed that they’re not doing these things to spite us, but because they inhabit their own little worlds.

Then, that evening, on a rare outing to see a non-kiddie film, I went to see Suffragette with two girl pals; a film documenting a group of activist suffragettes in 1912. Maud Watts, a (fictional) young wife and mother, works in a laundry in Bethnal Green and has done since the age of 7. She works a long day, comes home, and does the washing at home. Her husband, Sonny, a product of his time, just wants things to carry on as they are, with Maud doing everything for him, and he ‘looking out for her.’

Lots of other things happen, including her son being given up for adoption because her husband has thrown her out and is incapable of looking after him (cue copious sobbing from three tired mothers in the audience). However, the moment that I keep thinking about is, after getting back exhausted from prison she asks him apologetically, ‘Have you had your tea?’ and he replies resentfully, ‘Mrs Garston’s done her best.’ That is, a neighbouring woman has fed him as well as her own family, but that’s not good enough, because it should have been his own wife feeding him. That scene kept repeating in my head, because it was her role to care for him and without her he was helpless and had to turn to another woman to take her place. Food ties us to our care-giving role, and I’m afraid to say, that’s very much true for me, over a hundred years later.

The other factor is that there has been a recent spate of articles (due to some study somewhere) about how we’re bringing up pathetic, risk-averse children. ‘Let your children gambol near the edges of cliffs’, it suggested. ‘Let them speed down hills on homemade go-carts with no helmets on as in carefree days of yore’ and lots of other similar nostalgic suggestions. The thing is this is a step too far for parents of our generation. We’re bringing babies into the world and then surrounding them with a thousand health and safety related gadgets, and the a few years later we’re meant to hurl encouragement at them as they shimmy up into the treetops…my children don’t even walk to school on their own yet, let alone carry out break-neck stunts.

But I understand the sentiment. Let them go, let them make mistakes, graze their knees, fall over. If we don’t they’ll never learn to trust their instincts AND they’ll live at home until they find someone else to look after them.

These three things together made me stop and think. So I decided to consult my union of one, and call a mini-strike.

My Role in the Home

Encouragingly, the children were delighted with the idea, my husband nonplussed. ‘I’ve never forced you to make me tea every morning’ he said defensively. No, that’s true.

I am not repressed, my husband doesn’t tell me that I’m his wife and I should do as I’m told. He’s supportive and a believer in equality. But I’m also a mother at home, and have been for ten years now, and part of that role has always been that I am the homemaker. All the creative, domestic touches are mine, most of the decorating decisions, the washing, the cleaning (until very recently), the clothes buying (for me and the kids), the shopping, being the cupboard fairy, breakfasts, packed lunches, lunches, teas, suppers, cake baking, jam making. All of it.

And no one else has made me do it. I could have said no to it and got a job, a long time ago. So partly I’m doing all this because I enjoy it. It’s my home, my kitchen, my children and I like being in control of everything that goes on in it.

It’s also partly learnt behaviour. I do all these jobs because my mother did, and she did because her mother did. Part of that learnt behaviour, is that just like she did, I am the day-beginner. I pretty much always get up first, out into the cold and dark and empty the dishwasher, wipe the sink area, or any of the other endless repeating jobs that women everywhere do. I always finish this stint by taking my husband a cup of tea in bed. ‘Oh sorry…’ he habitually moans as he thanks me for the tea. I take him up the cup of tea because I want to, because I like looking after him, and because he wasn’t up and I was.

The other thing I do is become a human clock. I go around for two hours every morning telling the children what the time is:

I start with, ‘It’s time to get up’ – usually quite sweetly, in a fond way.

Then, ‘Come on, it’s quarter past, time to get moving’ – tone now slightly brisker.

And, ‘You’ve got two minutes to get downstairs!’ – shouted from another room, or up the stairs.

Finally, ‘We should have left 5 minutes ago, we’re going to be late – what are you doing???!!!’ – roared from the hall.

This morning, while I was engaged in my strike, I heard my son call up the stairs to his sister, ‘We need to go in 5 minutes!’ I was sitting quietly typing on the computer, thinking,’ this is a novel experience’.

The Benefits of Changing my Role

It isn’t just me that will benefit from me stepping down from chief dogsbody. My husband never asked me to be a slave to housework and he will have a happier, less resentful wife, who has more time to commit to her own projects and hopefully generate more income for the family. The children will realise that a clean house and organised schedule doesn’t happen by magic, someone has to do it, and if they start taking responsibility for their own belongings and lives now, they’ll grow up to be useful independent citizens, rather than selfish individuals.

The next thing is to have a TO-DO list of how to change our little family from a Mummy-dependent trio, into an inter-dependent awesome foursome.

  • Get alarm clocks for every other member of the family so they can work out when to get up.
  • Implement cooking lessons for husband and two children (not just my daughter).
  • Make it clear that while I’m happy to do jobs for the whole family, such as washing etc, the children also need to take on jobs for the whole family too, because that’s what people who live together have to do.
  • Remind myself not to habitually follow the kids around tidying up after them.
  • Remind myself not to remind them to do everything and if they forget things, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn something from it.

There are loads of other things I could add to the list, but it’s a start.  Because watching that film woke me up.  Due to the sacrifice of thousands of women, today I have the vote and choices in my life.  Thanks to them, the only person responsible for chaining me to menial tasks is myself. I have decided to set myself free.

 

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The tagline of this blog used to be ‘a day in the life of a mother at home’.

It’s been a LONG time since I last wrote, mainly because I felt that being a ‘mother at home’, while still being a large part of what I do on a daily basis, isn’t the central premise of my life any more.

Being a young mum, life seemed to tick by with every year seeing things ticked off my LIFE ‘To Do List’.

School, Uni, MA, getting married, having a baby, having another baby, moving house. I was busy. I also wrote for, edited for and occasionally represented Mothers at Home Matter, a group whose cause I absolutely believe is a vital one, but now I am ready for the next bit of the journey.

My kids are 9 and 7. They don’t need me like they used to.

So I am turning back to myself to find out what it is that I want to do ‘when I grow up’. Because while my twenties were spent getting married, having my babies and enjoying being a creative homemaker, I now feel that my thirties need to be spent coming out of that cosy circle.

But of course, all my peers that didn’t do the young mum thing (which is MOST of them), now have established, and frankly terrifying, careers.

They are experienced journalists, they are drama teachers, they are doctors who travel out to help with the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey, they are not pottering about in Aldi, delighted each time by the savings they’re making compared to Sainsbury’s.

This is not to say that I am ungrateful for the life I am lucky enough to lead.

I am a part time singer with a trio called The Frockettes – we get dolled up and sing retro three part harmonies AND get dosh for doing so. I am also studying to be a journalist. It’s a distance learning course and as such, takes a vast amount of self-motivation.

So this blog is about the transition. It’s still about motherhood, because that is a journey too. But it’s also a blog about re-focusing on new goals. Maybe I’ll never get there, but it’s the journey that counts not the destination, so bear with me.

Running Mummy with hubby and beans

Every now and then it’s important to remind myself of what an incredibly efficient bio-machine I inhabit.

Usually its efficiency is in quarters that I’d frankly, rather it stopped being so bloody good at: efficiently growing hair in inappropriate places, efficiently converting calories into fat targeted expertly to my hip region and so on.

But every now and then, I marvel and am in awe of my body. I remember that it is not a tool for vanity, or simply a walking and sitting vehicle with a brain on top of it.

The first two times were when I carried and gave birth to my children.  These processes had very little to do with the thinking ‘I’ and everything to do with the physical ‘I’.  I had no control over what my body was doing and watched in as much wonder as my husband as the whole incredible process of growing and birthing happened inside my very own body.

The most recent time I was in awe of my body was when I ran my first ever 10 km race in Greenwich Park.

Once I started running once a week back in January, I made myself book in to run a race (against all my school-era instincts).  I knew that I would have to train now in order to not completely die during the race.  A close friend ran a 10k in May and did it in a sickeningly good time – pressure.

The weather got hotter, the running harder and the pressure mounted. Then I pulled my right achilles running too fast down a hill, my right thigh started twingeing and I discovered that my right leg is shorter than my left. Then a toenail on my left foot went black and started to come off.  I had no idea that running was such a dangerous sport!

But by this time the race was looming and there was no going back.  I decided to run it my way, which is start slowly, keep going slowly, get to the end.  A radical method.

It worked! I ran the course in an hour and 9 minutes, got the medal and felt totally shattered.

Shattered but proud of my body, because I have a new respect for it and I have discovered the satisfaction that comes from honing and toning the body – turning it from a soft, passive thing, into a slightly less soft (with bigger calves) active thing.