Tuesday, 23 February 2010

What's the best way to be a mum?

When I was growing up my mum worked. She didn't rush out to an office in a smart suit, instead she ran a small business with my dad, but she was no less absorbed with her career than a high flying city woman. She worked out of the shed in our garden and I recall her spending most of her time out there, she claims that wasn't the case, but I can only rely on what made an impact with infant me.

She would go to markets in London to sell their wares, and while I was tiny I would come along too. But as soon as I went to school I was left behind, aware that my mum wasn't there at night and that she wouldn't be there to send me to school. As I got older she started to travel abroad as the business spread it's wings.

Once I sprained my ankle at school and there was no one there to come and pick me up, until my sulky older sister returned from school to begrudgingly drag me back from the doctor's surgery. Another time I lay in my bed crying for my mother after a bad dream, she was outside working and didn't hear a thing. Fortunately a lovely friend of hers came up, calmed my fears and dried my tears, but it still wasn't my mummy.

Rightly or wrongly I always felt as if the interesting part of my mum's life was the one away from us children. The things she wanted to do all revolved around work, and I felt as if I was constantly left behind while she pursued the fascinating things that she really wanted to do. My abiding memory of her was that she was always trying to get away to do something for work, and that I was vainly trying to catch her and make her stay with me. It left me with a chunky chip on my shoulder and the conviction that being a stay-at-home mum was the best way to bring up your children.

I always planned that when I had my children I would give up work and be there for them. Not for them the patchwork of inadequate childcare and unwilling grandparents who made up the landscape of after school care during my childhood. Instead I would be there, freshly baked cakes in hand, ready with a smile whenever my boys needed me. They would never feel that my attention was elsewhere or that my priorities lay anywhere other than with their wellbeing and their needs.

So how is it that with four children aged from one to six, I now spend most of my time working, shooing them out of my office as I race to meet deadlines and very little of it baking cakes or prioritising the children's joys and sorrows?

Circumstance has a lot to do with it. Just as it was when I was a child, money is tight. I didn't marry a rich man, I married one I loved instead. Big mistake if you want to be a stay-at-home mum. My husband is lovely and a fantastic dad, but he doesn't earn enough to allow me to stay at home in any style. I suppose I could forgo all luxuries and stick to my principles, but I am not sure how happy that would make anyone. I have a weakness for a comfortable life, and making do and mending simply doesn't appeal.

It's also a lot trickier to live the frugal life in London, where you are surrounded by other parents in the advanced stages of affluenza. Sure my kids could be the only ones who had no new clothes, toys, holidays, trips out etc, but would that make them happy? Having been poor in my own childhood (the business wasn't that sucessful), I know the answer to that is no. I will never get over the humiliation of turning up at school in one of my mum's jumble sale finds, only for some spoiled brat to rush up in peals of laughter revealing to the whole school that I was wearing her cast off. I still blush hotly at the memory.

But I also discovered that perhaps the reason behind my mum's distraction is that for some women the satisfaction of bringing up children isn't enough. There is a reason why women fought for the right to work, and that's because for many staying at home with only the washing, ironing, cooking and babbling of a baby isn't enough.

I adore my children, and I love my days spent looking after them. I wish there were more of them, but if that was all there was in my life I think I might just lose the plot. Every occasion which has seen me unemployed in my life, and there have been many, I have always started some new project to distract me. This blog was begun when I was on maternity leave with my twins, and you can see from the early entries just how devoted I was to it.

You see I can sit still and dandle my babies for only a short period of time before my mind starts racing off to find something else to employ it. I hope and pray that this doesn't have make my boys feel that the interesting part of my life is the bit that doesn't involve them, because this is far from the case.

If I split up my life into parts, I would say the part that sustains me and makes it all seem worthwhile, the bit that resides in my heart and soul, the bit I would save if my life burnt down, is the part that contains my family; my sons and my husband. But the part that keeps my mind alert, the part that gets me the respect I crave and the feeling of success outside the home, is my work. I would ditch it in an instant if my family required it, but I do relish the chance to be me, and not just a mum or a wife and, to be frank, I like earning my own cash.

I think that makes me selfish, that I can't seem to give up the part of my life that is all about me, and swap it for one that is all about my boys. I wish I could. I have lots of friends who have done this, with varying degrees of success, but I know I couldn't step into their shoes, within a week I would have set up a business baking cakes or decided to run the PTA, just to give me something to do as well as washing socks, finger painting and seeking out the best playgroups.

I suppose what I aim for in life is to create a good balance. At the moment I feel everything is skewed towards work, and that makes me sad. I live in hope that I can push the scales more in favour of my family, while still keeping on enough work to keep me sane and solvent. But in my line of work it tends to be boom or bust, so you are either run off your feet or twiddling your thumbs.

I often wonder if anyone feels they have got it right or if every mum, whatever her choice, is destined to beat herself up as she attempts to create that elusive 'perfect' childhood for her children.

Monday, 22 February 2010

One of a kind?

I think I may be about to smash an illusion under which all parents labour - that their precious little darling is a unique, one of a kind, exclusive edition. You see the more time I spend with other parents of small boys, the more I realise that they are all cast from the same mould, or moulds. There are the little lads who love nothing more than mud, football and scrapping, then there are the girly boys who adore playing with glittery pink dolls and abhor the rough and tumble of male horseplay.

I have one of each so far as my eldest definitely spent more time trying to get into princess costumes than he did playing outside in the mud when he was a little un, while number two is much more of the male persuasion, with stomping in puddles and making a mess coming high up in his list of priorities in life. The twins have yet to nail their colours to the mast, so I am still watching this space to see which path they will choose.

However, far from being special these character traits are shared by many of their little boy pals. We went for dinner with a couple of school parents on Friday, who have twin boys in my eldest's year at school. They have one of each type of boy, and when we discussed our boys we almost found ourselves finishing each other's sentences as we fell over each other to say 'Yes, mine do that too".

From the fact that any direct question about their day or friends is met with a blank 'Don't know' or 'I've forgotten', while they can drivel on for hours about the intricate ins and outs of the arcane plot of Ben 10, to the tricky relationship balance that exists between and man's lad and a girly boy, it was as if they had been living with our two for the last few years. Of course there are differences, their boys are football mad, while mine aren't in the slightest bit interested, but I think that's go more to do with family affiliation than anything intrinsic to their characters.

Another friend has a son who is a couple of years older than my eldest, and seeing what she goes through with him is a bit like having a time machine, whereby I can fast forward 24 months to see what's in store. Each phase my boy enters, she has been there and done that, from the sweet and cuddly, to the mummy obsessed and the teenage sulky strops. For her talking to me must be like deja vu.

But it's not just friends' children who make me realise that many of those things I consider special to my children are actually shared by all and sundry. Whenever I see the latest pictures from the Beckham's boys parties, I realise that it's just what my boys would choose should we suddenly win the lottery and have the financial clout to give them their wildest dreams.

Perhaps it doesn't matter if our children aren't quite as much one of a kind as we might like to believe though. After all we still love them to bits and they each have their own foibles and idiosyncrasies that make them stand out from the crowd, even if it is only in their doting parents' eyes. In some ways it's even comforting, because when things go tits up you know that you aren't the first and won't be the last parent to face any the challenges your children throw at you.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

I'm bored

Today I read an article in the Daily Mail about a mum who was pleased that her children were bored during the half term holiday. After gnashing my teeth for a while over my oversight in not pitching this idea to them myself, I felt myself turn ever hotter with shame at all the activities I normally lay on for my boys in the school holidays.

This half term has been pretty typical and on Monday they went to soft play, on Tuesday they went to a different soft play area, on Wednesday they went into London to a museum, today I took them out to lunch in China Town followed by shopping in Covent Garden. Tomorrow is as yet unfilled, but daddy is taking the day off work to help me keep them entertained, so no doubt some treat will be laid on.

In the summer we go away or book them into summer camps and in the shorter holidays a combination of nannies, grandparents and parents keep them ever amused with days out, trips to the cinema and other assorted amusements.

This in stark contrast to my own school holidays which I recall as stretching empty, and yet strangely inviting, with little promise of anything out of the ordinary to keep me from getting bored. They never started well as away from the routine and social life of school I initially found myself a little bereft. I was effectively an only child as my only sibling was eight years older and wanted nothing to do with me during the brief years we shared a house, so there really was no diversion for me during those weeks and weeks off school.

My parents both worked, and even if they hadn't in those days I don't think parents really thought it was their job to keep their children entertained. Instead I would, depending on my age, spend my summers building showjumps out of bamboo canes in my garden and leap around over them pretending I was Lucinda Prior-Palmer (any pony mad girls of the 70s will know who I mean), pedalling round the countryside on my bike, playing with my sister's old toys in a dusty back bedroom or mooching around the shops in search of the latest, must-have teen fashion item.

In other words I made my own entertainment. If I ever did whine to my mum that I was bored she would instantly suggest I did some mundane household chore and that would send me scuttling for my bedroom and the infinitely more attractive options it held. I can't imagine what my sons would say if I suggested they help me with the laundry instead of whipping off to a toy shop or attraction during the school holiday.

My oldest boy threw a strop when it was mooted that he should go to the Natural History Museum, which was his brother's first choice, rather than go shopping for new toys, which was his first choice. I did point out to him the discrepancy between his entertainment options and my own childhood, but he just cried even harder.

When I was little I did live in the arse end of nowhere, which meant that trips out were harder, as a result I still remember the few outings that I made into town with wonder and awe. Seeing Star Wars at the cinema, a panto in a nearby town, a school trip to the Cutty Sark, these were big deals in my childhood. For my children they are everyday occurrences.

I often wonder if all this indulgence really is kind to them. Perhaps by taking the special nature out of such treats we render them meaningless. I doubt my boys will remember anything particular from their childhood, despite the vast sums of money and parental time we have spent on them. Perhaps they will recall a trip to Disney in Florida, or maybe a skiing holiday or two. But all those hours spent in safari parks, at shows or in the cinema are likely to meld into one round of gaiety and fun, rather than remain picked out in stardust in their memories forever, like those special days out do for me to this day.

I fear I am I robbing them of the excitement by making it commonplace, but when I ponder the alternative, which is sitting around in our house watching the boys make their own amusement. The chaos, the horror, the damage doesn't bear thinking about, so perhaps the sacrifice of a bit of wide-eyed wonder is worth it to retain my sanity and keep the payments on the house insurance within reason.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Selective memory syndrome

Picture the scene. Boy two wallops boy one during a heated ownership dispute over a particular red brick that actually belongs to one of the twins' toys. Enter law enforcement, aka mummy, who bellows at the top of her, quite considerable, voice for them to stop fighting. In steps grandma, the cosy, soft spoken voice of reason, with the gentle reprimand 'You are quite a shouty mummy aren't you?'.

Hmm, methinks to myself. It is true that maintaining order in our often chaotic household of mini men does frequently see my volume turned up to maximum, and my usual response to infantile in-fighting is to scream demands for instant cessation as loud as I can. I find this method is pretty effective, and so far I pride myself on not having been reduced to physical violence to quell disorder. Not I hasten to add that I think a swift slap is out of order, it's just that I have never been able to bring myself to do it to my precious babies, which may explain their somewhat delinquent behaviour from time to time.

However, what really strikes me about this little exchange is just how much of my childhood that sweet little grandma seems to have wiped from her memory banks. Perhaps it's no surprise that my eldest has rechristened her memory a forgettery, because her fond recollection of rose-tinted motherhood don't chime with my memories of her as a shouty, slappy, generally quite snappy mum.

This is not to say I don't adore her or that she wasn't a wonderful mum. I loved being a little kid having doughnut eating competitions with her to see who would crack and lick the sugar from their lips first, or walking through town to buy a new car at WH Smith every week, or mooching around the supermarket choosing what to eat during our weekly shop. She was my idol and I loved her to bits, but soft spoken, kindly and even-tempered she was not.

Rile my mother and you unleashed a screaming beast, spouting salty tears, great roars of opprobrium and quite a few sharp slaps around the leg. I will never forget her whacking me up the stairs to get me to stay in bed at night when I was about six, or indeed the many times she went for me as a teenager during our particularly vicious fights.

Not to say I didn't deserve it as a teenager as I was vile. And not really to complain about my treatment, after all parenting methods have changed over the years and what was OK in the 70s is reviled now, with mixed results in terms of children's behaviour.

What really gets me is that my mum seems to be suffering from selective memory disorder, and while she seems shocked by my decibel heavy parenting of four small boys, she recalls nothing of her own methods when bringing up just one little girl. Apparently in her mind she was always reasonable, reasoned and above all quiet, while I am wild, shouty and unreasonable with my children.

Perhaps her criticisms of me are bang on, I don't doubt that often my boys bring out the worst in me, but I do dispute her claim that she was any better when coping with a recalcitrant child.

Perhaps that's what age and becoming a grandma, who can after all hand those unruly children back at the end of her allotted time with them, does for you. No doubt I will be slipping on the rose-tinted specs when I look back to my own days as a mum from the great distance of grandmothering and, as I watch my daughters-in-law scream their way through the preschool years, I will cover my ears and comfort myself by imagining I did a much better job.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Mary Poppins

You know how it is when you go shopping for new shoes. You go into the first shop and try on a pair that are just perfect, but it's not possible that you could have found the right pair so fast, you have to traipse around for the rest of the day trying on pair after pair until you conclude that the very first ones you saw were indeed the ones.

So it's a weary trawl back to shop number one only to discover that they've sold the last pair in your size, and you return home cursing your cautious nature and wishing you'd just been impulsive and bought them at once. Now no pair of shoes could ever match up to that mythical first pair and you return home disgruntled and empty handed.

You may well be wondering quite what this has to do with Mary Poppins, but in a most frivolous way I am likening my search for a new nanny to that search for the perfect pair of shoes. How Sex in the City is that? You see we interviewed a lovely woman, the first to apply for the job and the first we interviewed, and she seemed just perfect. She has experience with four children, she was lovely with the children, even to the point of bringing them each a tiny present - to an interview!

My husband wanted to hire her on the spot, but my cautious nature kicked in. Sure I thought she was wonderful, but can I really hire the first woman I interview. Should I not give up my evenings and weekends to interviewing scores of inferior candidates until I am sure she was the best, only to phone her up and find another family has snapped her up.

In my experience good nannies don't stay on the market long. It would be lovely to have weeks to weigh up your options and consider each candidate, but whenever I have dithered by the time I made a job offer the girl was long gone.

That said I hate the idea or rushing into a decision that is so crucial to the happiness of my children and therefore my family as a whole. The woman who works for us now was my choice and that didn't end well, so now I feel unsure of my instincts and above all what I want is continuity for the children, especially the babies who need a constant face as they grow into toddlers.

Speaking of which, twin two is finally on the move, so not only does the poor new nanny have to cope with two stroppy boys, now she has two twins shuffling and crawling along behind her everywhere like a pair of puppies. Twin one is up on all fours crawling properly and exceedingly fast, while twin two has perfected the commando move, using both arms and both legs to propel him forward in a sort of swimming movement.

I suspect that part of my problem in picking a new nanny is that in my heart of hearts I'd like the job myself. I have experience in coping with four boys, I love all of the children, I am happy to cook, clean and do their washing and I have endless tricks up my sleeve to keep them amused. I am happy to drive our bus of a car and don't mind seeking out local playgroups and classes to help socialise them. I would always put their safety and happiness first. All in all I am the perfect candidate, the only problem is my salary expectation.

I have made a vow to myself and a threat to my husband though, if it doesn't work out this time I am throwing in the towel until son number two is at school at which point I shall probably find myself unemployed, or unemployable, but at least the headaches over nannies will be over.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

What a welcome

So we are back, having braved the slopes and travelling for two days straight each way in a car full of boys. It was fun, the boys have perfected le snowplough, well at least the eldest has, while the youngest spent more time lying in the snow wailing or rushing indoors for hot chocolates. Still much merriment was had by all. Number one son, fussy eater extrodinaire, managed to find a dish he enjoyed and literally lapped up the raclette, I managed to ski a red slope without crying, no mean feat let me tell you, and my husband managed to cover the entire Three Valleys on skis, which is more exercise than he normally gets in a year.

Still the majestic beauty of the mountains was wiped away by today's announcement by my nanny of two months that she is finding the job too tough and is leaving. I think what with all the Bank Holidays over Christmas and her taking three days paid holiday (she only works two days) I have paid her more not to work for me, than to work for me. Still even this financial inducement is apparently not enough to entice her to stay and she is off.

Its times like this that make the life of a working mum a living hell. I am tempted to throw in the towel and give up, but the prospect of abject poverty is strangely unappealing, plus the fact that for at least five minutes my career prospects are looking rosy, which is a disappointingly rare turn of events.

I wish I could clone myself. One of me could lie in bed all day, watching soaps, reading Grazia and eating chocolate - that would be the real me, one of me could be a high flying journalist who had the time to schmooze all the right editors in order to get the best commissions, one of me could be a domestic goddess running around after the boys and baking cakes till they were sick of my fondant fancies, and one of me could bugger off on a round the world trip and forget all about family and financial responsibilities.

Don't mind me, I am just feeling hacked off at having to renew my search for childcare just when I thought things had settled down.

On the positive side the babies turned one yesterday. I can hardly believe these squirming wrigglers with their plump little thighs and cute little tricks are the same skinny babies that were evicted from my womb just 12 months ago. This year, like all the ones since I have had children, has flown by. But although I had planned to savour every moment, like most of my plans this has been shoved aside by day to day concerns, and now I am counting the moments till everyone is at school/nursery and I can stop having a daily panic attack about just who will look after the boys while I attempt to earn an honest crust.

In the meantime if anyone knows of a good nanny who wants a job looking after four kids in North London send her my way....