Saturday, 27 August 2016

Boys will be boys. Or will they?

Yesterday, I sat in a sweaty church hall. I was one of around 50 parents desperately fanning themselves to keep cool in the muggy atmosphere created by summer sun beating down on the corrugated roof of a building packed with too many people.

As I shifted in my moulded plastic seat, my thighs sticky with sweat I noticed that the accouterments collecting around the other parents feet - lunch boxes, water bottles, spare shoes, unnecessary cardigans, reading books - were almost universally pink and sparkly. Fairies, unicorns and unfeasibly cute kittens were strong motifs.

As the mother of four boys, this should be a strange environment for me to find myself in. But I felt right at home. We were waiting to watch my middle son take part in a musical that he had spent the previous week rehearsing at a holiday drama scheme. As the other participants trooped onto the stage the reason for the sea of pink glitter became evident. He was one of just four boys - but that's just normal in my household. 

Ballet boys

My eldest and my youngest have both learned ballet and in every class they were the only boys standing, pirouetting or arabesqueing. For the two years that my eldest took ballet classes I was a mother alone holding a navy blue coat or chatting about superheroes as we waited for the class to start. 

I was the only mother who had to soothe tears because their child was not allowed to wear a beautiful pink skirt to dance in, but instead was relegated to boring black leggings, the only mother who had to explain gently why my boy had to dance with a flag, rather than the much more appealing glittery pom poms the girls got to wave around. 

It's been tough being the mother of boys, but not in the way that most people would imagine it to be. I have never washed muddy rugby kit, I have never shivered beside a football pitch, or even had to endure one on the TV, I don't have to deal with wrestling on the floor or with cuts and bruises from playground scraps. 

It's not easy being blue

Instead I have to buoy up confidence that it's OK to be different, that just because you are the only boy who loves pink and dolls, that's just fine. If you would rather read a book than kick a ball around it will probably be the best life choice you can make (that is unless you have the skills of a budding premier league player - see I don't even know an appropriate name to slot in here). 

The number of times I have been jokingly told that with four boys we almost have enough for a five-a-side football team, only to quietly think to myself that I am more likely to end up with a corps de ballet. 

It's not that my children don't show any male traits - they are messy, loud and addicted to computer games - it's just that they just don't fit any of those other obvious boy stereotypes. 

Think different

Not that it matters to me, as I watch typical boys struggle and fail in comparison to girls when it comes to exams and career success, I am wholeheartedly glad that my sons are much closer to the female of the species. At my eldest's end of term prize giving ceremony once again he stood out as one of very few boys who was honoured with an award. But I couldn't have been prouder to have brought up a boy who swims against the crowd. All those lunch hours spent happily buried in a book are really beginning to pay off. 

While I am all for girls being allowed to do just what they want, to play with trucks and become front line soldiers, perhaps the parents of boys should be equally keen to break down gender stereotypes, if only to ensure their sons don't get left behind playing footie in the park, while the girls scoop up all the prizes. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Why the summer holiday is the best time to be a working mum

When I was at home minding my brood, the summer holiday was a time that I would both long for and dread in equal measure. Six weeks of not having to get up to do the school run, of not having to track down swimming kit, shoes, and clean jumpers every morning, of no homework and no schedule was pure bliss. Six weeks of children moaning, bickering and endlessly whinging that they were bored if I ever dared to switch off the Xbox, not so blissful.

As the break loomed this year I had equally mixed feelings. It's my first summer as a working mum and, as the school term reached its chaotic end, riddled with concerts, picnics and prize givings, I felt nostalgic for those lazy sunny days spent with my boys. When I missed the mums' end of term get together in the park, I sat glumly at my desk wishing I was sharing prosecco and strawberries with my school gate mates. But when it came to packing for our two weeks in the sunshine, I was more than happy to use going out to work as a great excuse to leave that particular chore to my husband.

Foolishly he showed himself to be eminently capable, doing a far better job than me - remembering both tea and laundry detergent - so I have now designated him chief packer for the household. Lucky man. 

But it was when we returned that I really appreciated the true benefits of being office bound during the long summer holiday. As we unpacked what appeared to be at least six months-worth of dirty laundry, replete with shorts pockets crammed with pebbles from a faraway French beach, T-shirts liberally smeared with exotically-flavoured ice creams, swimming trunks still damp and salty from the seaside, I realised gleefully that for once it wasn't me who had to clean this mass of filthy clothing. 

As I checked that my phone was charged and I had my fob for the office door on my first day back at work,  my husband disconsolately asked me 'What should I do with them all day?' Not my problem I thought smugly as I remembered all the summers when I had to entertain my entourage of toddlers  and small children as he fled to the office. 

The hours I have spent wandering around farms staring at sheep who looked as catatonically bored as I was, or sitting through hours of animated film that left me anything but, or furtively reading thew newspaper on my phone, as I lurked on a park bench pretending that I couldn't hear my children's demands to be pushed on the swings. Or worse, doing battle with wasps and friendly dogs as my children hysterically screamed and flapped their arms as if Godzilla were bearing down on them with murder in his reptilian eyes. 

Of course there were golden days where we chased down dragons in the local woods, played epic Pooh sticks battles in the brook behind our house, munched on sausage rolls and strawberries in the grounds of splendid stately homes and froze fantastic concoctions to make syrupy sweet ice lollies that dribbled all over their tiny faces. But those glittering snapshots of delight were few and far between hours of fighting over toys or staring blankly at the TV. 

On balance I have to shamefacedly admit that I would choose a swift kiss in my way out of the door for those few children who have made it out of bed before I leave for work, followed by a peaceful day at my desk, over spending at least five and half weeks desperately thinking to myself 'When do they go back to school?'

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Contrariness and other working mum conundrums

Looking out of the window dark clouds were gathering, ripe with a torrential downpour. I wasn't really that surprised that the once cloudless blue sky now held such menace. After all it was around half an hour until school pick up. It is a strange meteorological phenomenon that so much rain always falls inside the single hour that it takes to collect the children from school. Perhaps someone should do a study?

As I reluctantly began to scour the cupboards for snacks and loaded myself up with four raincoats that had seemed entirely unnecessary when the boys had left for school, it was with a heavy heart. I had grown to hate the school pick up. The way it rudely interrupted my flow of work, or procrastination, or television watching, depending on how busy I was. It was an annoying chore that, after a decade of braving the elements to collect tetchy children at the end of nursery or school, I'd definitely had enough of.

Even if the elements hadn't already soured my mood, the bickering, fighting and ungrateful moaning about my choice of after school snack, soon would. I would sit in the car as I drove back home with my jaw clenched tight against the scream of frustration that was bubbling up inside me. It was boring, thankless and if I never had to do the school run again it would be too soon. So imagine my surprise when this was one of the mummy chores I missed the most when I went back to work. I suppose it's the same effect at work as when someone dies and suddenly you can't remember a single bad thing about them, even if they were the most curmudgeonly pain in the arse when they were alive.

Suddenly, rather than being a rain sodden grind, the school run was bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. Those tedious school gate chats about the minutiae of classroom politics, were transformed into the sophisticated debate only to be found in the most intellectual of fin de siècle salons. Rather than the infinitely more prevalent rainy days, I remembered only the afternoons when the sun baked the tarmac of the school path to a glittering sheen and we all celebrated by eating vanilla sweet Mr Whippys from the ice cream van. Instead of being filled with whinging and sniping, those car journeys back home were our chance to share cosy chats about their day at school.

Such is the contrariness of the working mum. Where a year ago I couldn't wait to escape the tedium of household drudgery, now it holds a strange allure. Well that is until I spend my weekend doing laundry and helping the kids with their homework. Then I remember that perhaps the grass really is greener when at least you are paid to deal with mind numbing tasks and unreasonable demands.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The colour blind generation says good bye to Jill and John

Back in the mists of time, when I were a young 'un, children's reading books where peopled by characters who were whiter and starchier than a loaf of Mother's Pride. Names like Peter and Jane proliferated, as did the wearing of smart frocks and neatly pressed shorts. While the ethnic diversity might have matched up to my primary school (when a single black girl joined towards the end of my time there the headmaster held a special assembly to tell us all to be kind to her, even though she looked 'different' to us) that was about the only thing that seemed familiar.

My home life was a whole lot more chaotic than Jill and John's. For starters, rather than living in a jam-scented fug in the kitchen, churning out lashings of sandwiches and ginger beer, my mum was a feminist hippy, who spent most of her time hefting pine furniture out of a makeshift caustic soda tank in the garden. A little explanation is required here, my parents ran many businesses together during my childhood, but the most memorable was restoring pine furniture. The smell of drying, soggy pine, the chemical tang of paint remover and the rich perfume of thick beeswax were the smells of my childhood.

Mum wandered around in plaits, dungarees and very dubious sandals, legs defiantly (or perhaps just absent-mindedly) hairy and opinions ranging way beyond the best way to turn out a Victoria sponge cake. While I suppose I should have valued this challenging role model, actually I rather longed for those apron-wearing, floury-handed mums who inhabited the pages of my reading books. I wanted something different from what happened at home. Hankered for a simple family where mummy baked, daddy went to work with a briefcase and a bowler hat and my wardrobe was entirely filled with perfectly ironed pastel pinafores.

The life portrayed in my own children's reading books is perhaps a little closer to the real thing. Rather than stumbling over long and complicated words, my boys have struggled most to get their English tongues around the many foreign names that appear on the pages. While they breeze through the basics, when they hit a Rajesh or Ranjana, a Jabari or and Ebele, they generally came to a grinding stop waiting for me to work out how best to pronounce these unfamiliar names.

It is the perfect preparation for children who are growing up in multicultural London. My sons have heard multiple languages spoken and experienced many cultures during their years at a state primary school in what the Daily Mail would call a 'leafy, north London suburb'.  I remember when the Olympic parade took place, my then seven-year-old pointing out all the nationalities he had in his class as their home countries walked onto the screen. I think he had close to a full house.

As a white woman, I might think that the balance is tipping towards a more accurate portrayal of the wider world in children's books, but I am prepared to stand corrected by another mother who knows far more about what it is like to grow up looking different from everyone else.

Michaela Alexander's daughter was fed up with everyone in her books looking nothing like her. Why did princesses all have silky golden hair, rather than a proud Afro? Why indeed? Michaela decided to set things straight by publishing her own book: Miles & Mia A to Z. The title characters are black, their friends are all shades from blonde to brown.

The aim of this book is to make Michaela's children and others like them, feel comfortable with the characters on the pages of their bedtime story. I cannot comment on whether this will work or not, as while my little boys (for this is a younger children's book) enjoyed the story, they didn't even notice that few of the characters looked like them. After years of sharing classrooms with children from every corner of the world, perhaps this generation will be the first to grow up genuinely colour blind and Miles and Mia will become the Charlie and Lola of the multicultural age.

Friday, 25 March 2016

How it feels when the heart of the city you love is broken #BrusselsAttacks

The location of home is a movable feast. For some it is a cosy image of a childhood house where their heights through the years are pencilled on the wall. For others their minds will forever return to those formative university years. For some it is an adoptive city where they finally found their place in life. For me, I left my heart in Brussels. I only lived in the city for seven years, but it is where I had my first kiss, first heard the words ‘I love you’, first had my heart broken and first learned that life goes on despite this. 

Brussels is not just any city to me, but my city. I awoke on Tuesday to the radio blaring that it was under attack, that bombs had ripped through Zaventem airport, smashing and pulverising travellers just like me. Perhaps on their way home to see beloved grandparents as I had been so many times, or simply harried commuters who were glued to the email on their phones seconds before that life was destroyed. I could feel the howling pain of a city so small that any attack would touch someone, somewhere, you knew. 

When a second explosion blew out the doors of a silver metro train, vapourising dozens of lives in its foul wake, it was at a station that I had travelled through daily on the way to and from school. It was a station whose name flashed past my eyes on my commute as I yawned away the morning, as I wondered if I had done all my homework, as I excitedly anticipated seeing my boyfriend. Maalbeek was part of the wallpaper of my morning journey. 
As smoke belched out bloodied commuters on to the street, I felt the tears begin to flow. Why? I hardly know anyone who lives in the city anymore, and those that I did know were not likely to have been travelling in the morning rush hour. But while I could weep for every family crushed and shattered by death and loss, the familiarity of this tragedy made it hit home much harder. 

Brussels is a like a familiar teddy to me, a well worn comforter that makes me feel at home. Walking across the cobbled Grand Place, its soaring gothic confections surrounding me is like a hug from my childhood. The antiques market of the Sablon, a babble of the monied denizens of Uccle poring over heavy oil paintings and glitzy ornaments, was what drifted through my window as I tried to enjoy that teenage privilege of sleeping until 2pm. 

The Midi station was the unsavoury starting place for trips home to London, the Bourse, where now candles flicker to remind us of the dead and injured, was where I would grab a post drinks McDonald’s burger. The trams and metro were my network of freedom, taking me to parties and nightclubs, to assignations and break ups, to gossip with friends and to get to school. 
I cannot compute the comfortably bourgeois city of women in fur coats and children in preppy chinos, of chocolate shops displaying their sweet wares like precious jewels, of the salty, greasy joy of chips and mayonnaise, of waffles crisp and vanilla sweet, with this city of dust, destruction, twisted shrapnel and nails of hate flying and piercing it to the core. 
I suppose I shouldn’t care about the mayhem unleased in Brussels more than anywhere else in the world, but I do. Having lived in London for the past couple of decades since leaving Brussels, the concept of bombs, horror, terrorism and innocent blood shed is hardly alien. There have been attacks on the tubes, beheadings in the streets and the treat of a spewed outpouring of bile and bombs is never far away. 

But Brussels is different; it is cosy, sedate, perhaps even smug and pompous, but for it to become a hot bed of terror is inconceivable. Though I, and many contemporaries, will admit perhaps it should’t have come as quite such a surprise. Disenfranchisement is the currency of Brussels. As French speakers squabble with Flemish, and tie themselves up in the impenetrable tangles of red tape, a whole community of North Africans was left to fester for decades, creating a culture ripe for brainwashing. 

Despite living in a smart square in central Brussels I was often confronted with the spray painted words, ‘Maroc dehors’ (Morrocans Out). There was no sense of integration, instead these dark skinned immigrants were ignored and demonised. 
Racism was a part of everyday life, perhaps because no one who had spent any time on the night time streets of Brussels had avoided a casual mugging or, as a girl, groping from the sullen clusters of North African youths, who longed for the trappings of a comfortable life, but wouldn’t dare to aspire to it in this fragmented society. 

Everyone in Belgium carries a carte d’identité. When I lived there in the early 1980s acquiring one as a foreigner was a humililating and alientating experience. You would arrive early, before the office opened, and queue along the pavement for hours before being greeted with a brusque yes or no as to whether you were someone the Belgians wished to become a part of their country. Belgian civil servants are renowned amongst residents for their surly approach to customer service. 
This was the days before Schengen took effect in 1995, so we Brits queued alongside everyone else. It was not pleasant to feel unwelcome in a country you wanted to call home, but at least we knew that our ID cards would be issued once we reached the head of the queue. I’m sure this wasn’t such a dead cert for those whose colour ensured their faces didn’t fit so easily.

Even once Moroccan immigrants were granted their cards they would need them far more than I. Belgian police are not the friendly bobbys on the beat I knew from my life in England. They tout machine guns and have the right to stop anyone to ask for their papers. 

They would regularly trawl the Rue Neuve, one of the arteries of night life, on a Saturday demanding ID from random revellers. Well I say random: for white teenagers we could wave our slip of green card and be on our way; brown youngsters would be smashed against the side of the police van and frisked. There was no sense that there should be any fairness in stop and search policies. If you were brown you were fair game. 

I would love to say I cared, but at the time this was just life. Moroccans didn’t mix with regular Belgians, even less so with the monied ex-pat crowd I was part of. They preyed on us, stole from us, grabbed at us in the street, made us feel uncomfortable with their dark brown stares. There was no attempt to assimilate them; instead they were hidden in ghettos, fear and loathing keeping them in segregated schools and low paid jobs. 

These were not a section of society that we chose to recognise, but instead sought to ignore. Belgium is not a progressive society. Perhaps that is what I loved so much about it. This is a place where one style of jacket remained in fashion for a full 25 yearsfrom the early 70s to the late 90s. Where bars, restaurants, architecture and shops are prized for traditon and longevity, not innovation or change. 

But this slow pace of change also means the feuds are never settled, and that bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace. The tradition of closing for lunch, a plethora of bank holidays, keeping the hours that Britain ditched back in the 50s, are all prized above actually solving problems. 

It is also a tiny place, that has, admittedly through some fault of its own, become guardian of the peace in a bloody war between ISIS and everyone who disagrees with them. With a population of just over 170,000 people, the equivalent of a single small London borough, Brussels has now been tasked with acting as the gatekeeper of Islamic terrorism. 
While Belgium may be to blame for not keeping its house in order, when cities like Paris and London cannot keep their populations safe, how on earth could Brussels be expected to? 

This is a tiny and provincial country rife with dividesa country that cannot decide the identity or language of its own peopleso it is perhaps no wonder that it failed so spectacularly at assimilating a culture with whom it had nothing in common.

So as my old home rebuilds the devastating damage inflicted by these bombs, my only hope is that by smashing its heart to smithereens, there is some chance to rebuild it free from the racial fault lines that have always threatened to tear it asunder. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The monotony of a long term cook

Putting the last candy sweet, acid bright lick of icing onto a showstopper challenge cake, lifting a glass cloche to unleash a puff of fragranced steam, watching a swoosh of rich jus being painted, just so, onto the pristine white of a porcelain plate. These are sights that I cannot get enough of on my television screen.

The Great British Bake Off is must-see viewing for all the family, and I can be found, surrounded by a squirming sea of boys, glued to the soggy bottoms whenever the series airs. The orgasmic groans of Gregg Wallace as a particularly delicious pudding melts its way down his throat have me in paroxysms of joy, and don't get me started on Heston's Feast. When he crafts a jelly baby out of ox's blood and angel's breath (or something equally implausible) I can hardly contain myself.

Which is why it surprises me how dull I find cooking nowadays. You would think that someone with shelves bulging with bright ideas from Nigella and Jamie, a monthly subscription to Good Food Magazine and a family-sized belly to prove my enthusiasm for the consumption of food would enjoy the process of the creation of food more than most.

It was not ever thus, once I did relish whipping up a delectable feast for lovers, friends and sometimes, at a push, even family. I remember my first serious relationship, which spanned my late teens and early 20s, was measured in grand meals I would cook for our unappreciative young friends. They would happily live off Pringles, booze and huge chocolate bars, but was determined to be 'grown up' and host sophisticated dinner parties replete with herb-crusted lamb and lavender-infused panacea.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, old before our time, that boyfriend and I reached that stage of boredom with one another that wouldn't usually hit until mid life crisis years and split up when we were just past 25.

It was with a real sense of abandon that I threw out my aprons and matching dinner sets. For a good year I subsisted on Kit Kats, Special K and vats of white wine. While I am sure that I paid the price internally, that divorce diet of hedonsism and self neglect was ideal in terms of slimming me down ready to find my next catch.

Part of the attraction was that my new man helped to restore my deep affection for food and we spent our courtship enjoying romantic meals a deux and lovingly crafting meals for one another.

Then along came children. At first this did little to abate my culinary activities. I remember the night I went into labour I had just put the finishing touches to a chocolate bread and butter pudding ready for a dinner party that weekend. The arrival of a newborn put paid to the party, but we did enjoy the pudding, warmed up from the freezer, some months later.

When it was time for solids the neat, blonde, neon-white smiling Annabel Karmel, nestled herself between the quirky charm of Nigel Slater and the haute cuisine of Gordon Ramsay on my book shelves.

I learned what a mouli was for, and why it should be avoided at all costs, and could find my way to the butternut squash section of the supermarket with my eyes closed. My fridge was soon clogged by icebergs of tiny cubes of frozen mush. Meal times became a fraught battleground as I tried to persuade my son that he would not die if he let a mouthful of courgette pass his lips. I lost, as he is quite right, these are the Devil's vegetables.

This was perhaps the beginning of the end of my love affair with cooking. After spending hours pureeing and mashing all manner of exotic fruits and vegetables, wasting time that could so much more profitably have been spent, slumped, asleep, in front of the TV, seeing it tossed to the floor without even being tasted was soul destroying.

Fast forward through years and years of serving up teas of fish fingers, pizza, pasta and chicken nuggets to an unappreciative audience of children and my romance with cooking has been cremated. Every night I wrack my brains as to what to feed us all that will be nutritious, tasty and easy to make. I fall back on staples that are dull and do little to excite the appetite, but I have neither the will nor the inclination to try harder.

I thought that when my husband took over cooking duties when I went back to work things might improve, but within a month he had that same rabbit caught in headlights look when asked what was for supper.

I used to wonder why my mother said that my grandmother's fondest wish was that they would invent a tablet you could give children that would fill them up and provide them with all the nutrients they needed. Now I know just what she meant and hope that some bright spark will make her wish come true.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Why I hate the supermums of Instagram

When I was a kid the worst words a host could utter were 'Would you like to see our holiday snaps? As it presaged at least half an hour of h oohing and aahing over utterly dull shots them and their kids posed against landmarks in some not awfully far flung destination. Even worse was if they were a bit more tech savvy and could put them up into a slide show. Everyone would sit, stifling yawns, in a darkened room as we were subjected to grainy slide-after-slide of pictures of them splashing in the waves in their Speedos (it was the 70s after all).

Back then pictures of other people's lives were probably the dullest form of entertainment imaginable. Fast forward 30 or so years and we can't seem to get enough of them. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made billions courtesy of our insatiable desire to devour images of other people's lives. It has also made a pretty penny for those select few whose photos everyone wants to see too. Gather yourself a few thousand, or indeed tens of thousands, of followers who lap up your smug photos of your perfect life and you can bag yourself a fortune from brands who want to hook themselves to your star.

So what's changed? It's very simple - the ability to edit your life so you only show the gorgeous, heavily filtered, glossy magazine version of your daily life.

In the days of film, your dad would take a shaky shot of you, cutting off half your head, with your belly hanging out and a weird expression on your face. But you wouldn't know how monstrous you looked until the photo came back from the chemist, by which time far too much had been invested in the photo not to keep it for posterity.

Seventies family life is preserved in all its Technicolour horror, though thankfully it is now consigned to dusty albums or retro slide boxes, that are only aired when your parents want to embarrass you in front of your kids.

Family life in 2016 can be doctored as thoroughly as any magazine front cover, which has led to the rise of the model family as portrayed so deeply annoyingly by the uber mums of Instagram.

Where once it was acceptable to slide disgracefully into motherhood. Once you had an extra human being to care for it was OK to let your standards slip. A day spent wiping up slicks of unmentionable bodily fluids was excuse enough to live in tatty tracksuit trousers and a ratty T-shirt that skimmed over the bumps left behind after expelling a child or two.

Not any more. Now mums are tortured by shots of women who seem intent on sharing how bloody amazing they are. Their children are photogenic and dressed immaculately in the latest mini me fashions, their houses are interior designed to the hilt, their holidays are not sandy sandwiches on a windswept beach, but infinity pools in exotic locations and, worst of all, they still look gorgeous in a bikini.

How I hate these paragons of perfection who remind us that you (and your husband) that don't have to let yourself go after having children. In fact you can still be a sex goddess, a loving mummy, a wild explorer and a fitness queen.

Oh please do fuck off with your year long sabbaticals jetting around the world with your stunning bevy of blonde toddlers, your insistence that motherhood is no reason to jettison your fashion sense, and your meals that look as if Jamie Oliver just popped round to cook an organic tea for your tots.

If only I still had mini people of my own I could set up an anti-instamum account, sharing only shots of me when I had been freshly puked on, had failed to wash my hair for a week and still had a preggie bump two years after my child had exited my womb. I could wax lyrical about the beauty of elasticated waists and food from jars, I could let my devoted followers watch as I jetted from Tesco to  push a crying child on the swings in a wind swept park. I could inspire envy with shots of my children literally coated in snot, or whinging in a wee soaked nappy. I could be the real mum of Instagram.

I am sick of the reality of motherhood being airbrushed under the carpet, and I think it is about time mums are reminded that while there may be the rare and exotic few for whom becoming a keeper of several small and wild things makes her more beautiful, successful and all round amazing, for most of us it's still a challenge getting dressed and out in the morning.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

5 reasons why mums know best and why every office needs them

After over a decade of motherhood I felt as if my workplace skills had atrophied to the point that I was entirely unemployable. Despite having held senior positions before popping a sprog and having worked in a couple more during brief hiatuses from my full time role as mum, I was sure that I was incapable of offering anything useful in the world of commerce.

I know that I am not alone in this feeling that giving birth and spending far too many hours in front of CBeebies has some kind of physical effect on your brain. Stripping you of your powers of bullshit and bravado that are crucial to survival at work. But I am here to tell all the mums who think they couldn't ever make it behind a desk again how wrong they are.

Mums really do know best for the following five reasons:

Mums are digitally savvy

You think fiddling with your phone, sharing pictures of your kids on Facebook, instagramming the birthday cake you just made, sharing a video of your baby's first steps on YouTube and tweeting a countdown to wine-o-clock are just distraction techniques to get you out of sorting the washing.

WRONG - these make you a digital whiz. You know all about the latest social media platforms, what makes for viral content, what posts have reach and how to communicate in different mediums online. These are skills that employers are crying out for. They are desperate to find that Holy Grail of content that real women are actually interested in and mums can easily locate it for them.

Mums are arch negotiators

Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will know that office politics reign supreme. Getting what you want out of a job is all about scratching the right backs and not treading on the wrong toes. It is a harsh world out there and only the best negotiators will rise to the top.

Luckily all mothers have been trained to haggle with people who drive the hardest bargains on the planet - toddlers. We have all had the fights over nap time, getting into and out of the buggy, over whether or not broccoli should be considered a great source of vitamins or a deadly poison that should not be ingested at any price.

We are used to wheedling, cajoling and occasionally using brute force to get our own way, no matter how unreasonable our opponent. I cannot think of better preparation to navigate the tricky power struggles of office politics.

Mums can multitask

Give a 20-year-old sixteen tasks to do at the same time and it is a recipe to find junior members of staff in tears in the toilets. This generation has just left home, where mum did everything for them (silly mum) and the idea that they should do more than one thing at a time is ludicrous.

Mums on the other hand are more than used to booking a plumber, while stirring the dinner and pacifying a screaming toddler with a biscuit. Or reading a story, while standing in as a makeshift climbing frame to her child. Or leaving the house equipped for any eventuality from snowstorms to sunburn.

Merely having to put together a report, make a phone call, book a taxi and chair a meeting, blissfully free from the usual soundtrack of wailing children, is a walk in a park for a mum.

Mums are nobody's bitch

When I was 25 my job was everything to me. If it went well I was a success, if things went tits up I was a failure. My whole psyche was tied up in the ups and downs of my career. That meant that I was terrified of losing my job and as such prepared to put up with any amount of shit, just so long as I was able to cling on to my rung on the career ladder.

Not any more. I like my job. It is fun, stimulating, gets me out of the house and pays me well. But it is not my life. My life is my family, my job is what I do during the day. This is not to say I don't want to do it well, but I am not going to play the game of who can stay longest or curry the most favour with the boss. If my employers can't see the value in me, I am confident someone else will, and even if they don't I still have my boys and really that is all that matters.

All mums are in the same boat. Not matter what happens at work, as long as your kids are happy and healthy life is good. This makes mums perfect employees. They will work bloody hard, give of their best, but they won't be afraid to stand up and be counted if something needs to be said - and every employer should welcome that, as otherwise how can they improve and do the best job for their clients?

Mums know best

I often sit in meetings where lots of young people try to guess what will motivate a proper grown up to make a purchasing decision. They come up with lots of fatuous ideas based on what we all thought grown ups were like when we were that young. A classic example was when someone said that 40-year-olds were past it and no longer cared what they looked like.

Ahem says I, a 44-year-old decked out in make up, hair dyed to hide the dreaded grey, clothes bought to make the most of a body ravaged by childbirth and my devotion to cake, yes we do.

I think my little colleague, who was young enough to be my child, saw anyone over the age of 30 as ready for a blue rinse and a zimmer frame. The problem is that when you are trying to appeal to people who have cash to spend, even 40 is a spring chicken.

While young people are amazing at knowing what the latest way 'millennials' communicate is, or what platform is hot or not, or whether you still meet dates on Tinder, or is that almost as uncool as saying uncool, they know bugger all about life. That said the combination of sparky, bright youth and genuine life experience is and something every office needs. So step up mums as your contributions are golden.

Mums are the CEOs in any family with the skills to reflect that. So if you are thinking of hopping off the school run and onto the career ladder, don't be afraid and make sure to haggle over your salary as hard as your kids bargain for that extra five minutes in front of the telly before bedtime.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

I did a bad thing

Bless me father for I have sinned. I have done a bad thing that I have never, ever done before. But I don't feel guilty, I feel pretty good about it.

So what is this bad thing I have done? I have let someone who commissioned me to do some work down.

I took it on in good faith, I really intended to do it to my usual high standard. I hate letting people down and I am a very conscientious writer who never, ever misses a deadline. You can ask any editor I have ever worked for, I will always go the extra mile. Give up that weekend or evening so I can get copy in to them, or make amends to ensure that it hits the brief exactly.

In all my 20 years as a journalist, I have never said no to any changes, any crazy shifts in perspective, any mad deadlines. I pride myself on being 100% reliable.

But a couple of days ago I emailed an editor who had commissioned me and said to her that I simply didn't have the time or energy to complete the writing task I had accepted.

I admit that I do bear some guilt in this. I should have said no from the outset, but it is so ingrained in me to accept any commission, I foolishly agreed to do this piece of work. I am heartily sorry for that. I know I made her life more difficult as a result and that was never my intention.

But what makes me feel a whole lot better about my shoddy behaviour is the difference between this and any of my other commissions. I was asked to write it for free.

So when I shamefacedly emailed her to say that actually, when push comes to shove, I am going to prioritise my job that pays me and my family that loves me, over scrambling to write up copy for nothing, I didn't feel nearly as bad as I probably should have.

This little epiphany in my life comes on top of a huge response to the editor of the Huff Po stating that he is proud not to pay writers, as those who write for free do it for the love of writing rather than  shabby commercial gain.

So I take it that he is more than happy to edit this online model of moral crusading for free? I mean it would just demean his position to actually, like, get paid to do it. If he is taking a salary then how can we know that he really is choosing the best, most enlightening and unbiased writing for our delight. I am just not sure I can trust him if I feel that he is being paid to do his job.

Come to think of it, why on earth did I pay the builder who renovated my house last year. Surely he is a craftsman and by giving him money I was sullying his art? He would surely have done a much better job of the loft extension if I had refused to pay him and insisted that the exposure it would provide for him, as it jutted proudly into the sky above all my neighbours, was reward enough for his toil? What a fool I have been to dirty all the transactions I have made throughout my life with the taint of money.

Next time I am in M&S I shall insist they donate my lunch to me for free, otherwise how do I know that my tuna and sweetcorn sandwich has been made with love, instead of the base desire of the person who made it to be paid for their work. Charlatans the lot of them.

So I am not sorry for the bad thing I did, but I am truly sorry for ever having considered writing for a commercial organisation for free. I'm ashamed that I was stupid enough to play along with the idea that writers should donate their words in return for exposure. After all I know just what that is worth, I have been on the cover of the Daily Mail twice, my stories have led on their website, with its 100 million readers many times, and yet still people think I should write for them for free, so what was that exposure worth in the end? Sweet FA.

Let this be a cautionary tale to all those writers who do consider their words so worthless that they are happy to give them away in return for that most ephemeral of concepts; 'exposure'. By gifting your words you are not paving the way to some distant point where someone will have a eureka moment and realise that actually your prose is worth paying for. Instead you are slowly hacking the heart out of the business of writing, killing dead the idea that it is a skill and craft that should be rewarded. Thanks for that.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Down time? Remind me what that is again...

The sunlight streams through the floor to ceiling sash window. It warms the cat curled up asleep on my feet. Around me lay the disemboweled remains of the Sunday papers, a glossy supplement laying bare the personal life of a famous actor, the business section counting up and down fortunes. My head lies snug on the lap of my beloved, as he is engrossed in the dubious pleasures of a grand prix on the TV. All is well with the world. 

Perhaps later we might get dressed, go for a late lunch, maybe catch a movie or just while away the evening in a wine bar putting the world to rights. The world is our  oyster and we can spend our own sweet time searching for that pearl of entertainment that will divert us until the working week begins again. 

This was how weekends used to look. They were a chance to rest, unwind and forget about the power struggles and pressing deadlines of the office. There were that precious 48 hours of down time that was so essential to making the five days of toil that interspersed them bearable. 

Since those hedonist days of old, the whole concept of downtime has become increasingly alien to me. From the rude disruption of my quiet weekends wreaked by the eccentric routines of a newborn, to the Saturday afternoons spent freezing in a local park, desultorily pushing a complaining toddler on the swings and trying to catch furtive glances at your phone for just a little distraction from the monotony of the playground. 

But in some ways it hardly mattered as back in the days of little children all my days blended into one blurry mush of childcare. There were a few notable highs to keep one sane; the moments when my children were adorable, funny, cuddly or hilariously astute. For example, the day my little son touched me gently on the arm and said 'Mummy, I know I say you are the most beautiful woman in the world, but you know I don't mean that literally? There are prettier girls, I just don't want to upset you.' What a charmer. 

But essentially one day of Play Dough, CBeebies and the park was much the same as another. 

Since the boys have grown up a little there has been more chance to be self indulgent. Now that they can work the TV on their own pre-dawn weekend mornings can be spent in the land of nod once again. But every time you get settled down to being seriously lazy, it seems to be time to feed them again, or you remember that they have no clean school uniform, or that you really should listen to their violin practise, rather than sneaking in a decadent episode of Suits on Netflix. 

When I was a SAHM this wasn't such a problem, as I could work pockets of down time into my day. Since I worked a seven-day week, I felt it was acceptable to take the occasional half hour off to watch TV with my lunch, or go for a run with a gripping podcast on my headphones. While weekends were no longer luxuriant breaks from the week, there were the odd windows of indulgence to keep me from feeling too hard done by. 

Now that I am a working mother, I think the most bloody sacrifice to this new way of life has been my personal down time. Now I know some working mums say that the commute is their 'me' time. Well I am sorry, but being squeezed under someone's ripe armpit inside an insanely overheated train for an hour each way every day isn't my idea of a little treat. 

Add to which I am usually exhausted because I have had to get up too early or work too late, so my time on the tube is spent in a haze of stressed resentment at my miserable lot, and you don't have the recipe for chilled out relaxation. 

So that leaves the two scant days of the weekend, during which I feel duty bound to spend time with the children who I have seen for about 20 minutes each week day, most of which was taken up by screaming at them to get ready for school or bed. 

But I have a terrible confession to make. I would much rather laze on the sofa with my Kindle, or indeed those Sunday papers, than spend quality time with my children. I don't want cook tea, or tidy up, or deal with their roster of parties and extra curricular activities. I want to be selfish and slothful. I want to drink wine, go for dinner, spend a bit of time just tuning out the world, go for a run at a time that suits me, not their busy timetable. I want throw a snotty-hot-tears, kicking-my-legs-on-the-ground tantrum to demand some me time. 

Just as well that my wages are paying for the boys to have the latest whiz bang gaming console for their birthday, as that means they won't notice whether I am there, or not, or dancing round the room with in the Christmas Pudding nipple tassels I got from Secret Santa and little else. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

To work or not to work? Don't fret, Nicole Kidman has the answer

I am not a feminist. Well, perhaps I am in the sense that I do think the infinite superiority of the female of the species is illustrated by our natural ability to find lost items by employing such innovative tactics as looking for them and the fact that, in general, we can hold more than one piece of information in our minds at a time.

That said, my thesis is somewhat undermined by the fact that I never remember when the bins need to go out and I dissolve into a whimpering mess at the sight of a spider in the bath.

Perhaps indeed this is what I mean by stating that I am not a feminist. I think both genders have much to commend them, and much to disparage.

As a working mother in a house full of boys the idea blazing a trial for the sisterhood isn't something that plays on my mind too much, apart from trying to prepare my sons to be amongst the less repellent versions of their gender, by learning the importance of cuddles, putting the towels back on the rail and making a damn fine cup of tea.

But the example I set as a mother working or not is not something that keeps me awake at night.

I think that whether a mum works or not is probably down to two simple factors.

1. Does she need the money, and if she does will her wages be enough, post childcare, to make it worth the bother of wearing lipstick every day

2. Will she go bat shit crazy if she stays at home with the kids all day?

I know that my friends with daughters would add a third point to this as they do think it is important to set an example for their offspring, by showing women can succeed at work as well as being mums.

Well after a fashion anyway. I rather feel that motherhood and career are pretty incompatible activities, as both demand a full time commitment, which is hard to achieve simultaneously.

My advice to any daughter would probably be to hook up with someone who is loaded, employ a nanny to deal with any pesky kids and spend your time getting lovely facials. But I realise this path does come with its own pitfalls, as this type of sugar daddy almost invariably expects you to stay young and beautiful in return for his cash, and this becomes increasingly difficult as you eat chocolate and get older.

But you don't need my thoughts on the vexed question of to work or not to work as film star and ex-Mrs Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, has solved the dilemma for us all. The answer is that if you work you are a better mum.

Wells that depends. If you swan off to make a smash hit movie, come home with bags of cash and can make up for your absence by scoring them tickets to the Oscars, then perhaps working as a mother is a no brainer.

If you clean toilets for 12 hours a day and spend your spare time rushing between a patchwork of childcare that eats up 90% of your hard earned wages, perhaps the idea of living vicariously through your kids as a stay at home mother wouldn't be quite so unappealing.

Contrary to Nicole's certainly, like most things parenting, there is no right answer to these questions. It's all down you the parent, the children, the family set up and the various constraints and opportunities that are brought to bear on that situation.

Just as I rather despised those smug mummies who would lay down the law vis a vis breastfeeding, I also think that the best way to be a real member of the sisterhood is to keep schtum about each other's life choices. After all we all feel ridiculously guilty all the time, no matter what we do, so there is no vacancy for someone else to help us regret our choices.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Me x 3: A working mum's Brief History of Time

Time is a very elastic concept. It seems to expand or contract in direct correlation to your age and how much you have to fit into a given number of hours.

For my children an hour is: 'Forever, that's why school is so boring', I quote. Whereas for me every year passes as quickly as a scrap of garden glimpsed from the window of a speeding train.

I seem to have whizzed from 18 to 44 in about 15 minutes or so and a hour is but a nanosecond in which I manage to complete virtually nothing, other than to glimpse at my watch to declare 'My god is that the time?'.

I feel as if the only way I can possibly complete all the tasks set for me in any given day is to have myself cloned at least three times over.

I could have one of me to be the professional working woman. She would have time to wash and properly blow dry her hair, to learn subtle make up techniques and how to walk in high heels without it crippling her. She could get up at 6am to go to the gym, she could go out for drinks after work and she could go to all those infinite training courses that would teach her how to do her job properly. She could negotiate pay rises and new jobs with aplomb and find a way to get along with the most challenging of colleagues. She would be quietly confident and instead of buckets of debt would have a tidy nest egg carefully saved in a high interest account. I am sure my other selves would be terrified of her.

Then there would be mummy me. She could have infinite patience to listen to the children's prattle. She would not sacrifice bedtime stories to slip off for a glass of wine. She would come up with inventive and enjoyable ways to complete school projects. She would ensure that the children were engaged in the most enriching after school activities. She would bake cakes for the school fete and go along to every PTA meeting. She would think of tasty, healthy meals to cook from scratch every night. She would by sympathetic, empathetic and definitely the one my other selves would turn to if they needed a button sewing on or to delve for a snack in her handbag.

Finally there would be the real me. The one who subsists on wine, crisps and too much chocolate. Who endlessly promises that I will lose weight/go for a run/write a book.....tomorrow. I would go out with friends and get dreadfully pissed, safe in the knowledge that work me would be up with the alarm ready to get in on time. I would quiver and dither over what I wanted to do with my life as working me and mummy me would have all the important stuff covered. I would read books and watch boxsets on the sofa in the daytime. I would stay up ridiculously late playing games on my phone and then sleep till midday.

Yes, I think that if I were me times three I might just get this working mother thing cracked. As it is I have to keep muddling along doing my best with the measly 24 hours at my disposal. Which is perhaps why real me seems to so frequently take steering wheel of my life into her unsteady hands.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Quality time - just what does that mean?

When I was at home with my children they took me for granted. Mummy was in no way special. I was the one who remembered their PE kit, who washed their pants, who grumbled at them about the state of their rooms and nagged them to do their homework. Mummy was someone who was always on tap and their response to this availability was to abuse this seemingly infinite resource. 

When I turned up at the school gate with the wrong snack, I was in for a severe tongue lashing from my disgruntled children. They were quick to point out any lapse in the high standard of care they expected from me. Should a school project be forgotten, guess who's fault it was? If there were no clean socks in their cupboard.....well you just can't get the staff nowadays. 

In short I was a general dogsbody who had the status in the family of a particularly well worn doormat. Never once did anyone thank me for packing all those swimming kits, for filling out all those slips for school, for giving up my free time to wrap myself in a sheet and pretend to be a Roman woman, for baking endless cakes to flog at the school fair. Nope, this was all part of the basic package when it comes to being a stay at home mum. 

So the concept of spending 'quality time' with my children never crossed my mind. My idea of quality time was time spent away from these tiny tyrants. Quality time was being able to read a whole chapter of a book without interruption, being able to watch what I wanted on TV, being able to go to the loo without someone banging not he door within moments of my bum hitting the seat demanding to know when I would be finished. 

Since going back to work though, everything has changed. Yes I can go to the toilet in peace, I can read my book on my commute, I can pass out in front of the television within moments of sitting down on the sofa, but what I can't do is spend time with my children. 

One of my favourite times of the day used to be around 4pm, when I would hear my eldest's key in the door. He would come in, his skin fresh with the cold autumn air, his tie askew after a long day at school. He would dump his inordinately heavy school bag down, chuck his blazer on the banister and wander into the kitchen demanding food with all the urgency of someone nearing starvation. 

On the kettle would go, out the biscuits would come and soon we would be sitting at the breakfast bar  going over his school day. He would tell me what he had learned in his lessons, we would have impassioned discussions inspired by the topic of his debate club, he would bitterly moan about the indignities of being forced to do a cross country run in PE, I would discover all the funny things he and his pals had got up to at school. If I was lucky I would get a big kiss and a cuddle before he went up to do his homework. 

In short, I was a part of his life. A fleeting one, but one that he took for granted as simply being there, with tea on tap ready to listen to his joys and sorrows. 

When I think about that time now it makes my stomach clench in dismay, as now I miss it every single day. Sometimes he might call me on his walk home from the bus, but invariably I am in a meeting, can't pick up and by the time I phone back he has left his phone somewhere he can't hear it and I have missed my chance to get that tiny window into his world. 

By the time I get home it is dinner time in the mad house and all four boys talk simultaneously at me. I am so exhausted it all washes over me and the last thing I want to do is spend quality time with any of them. A large glass of wine and the sofa are far more appealing, than the chattering company of small boys. 

My eldest will be plugged into Minecraft or upstairs sawing away at his cello or doing his homework. My queries about his day will be met with the monosyllabic grunts of a pre-teen and I soon give up. 

So going back to work has changed my concept of quality time forever. Where once it was five minutes peace, now I can hardly believe I would crave time away from the boys, rather than greedily guzzling all those moments spent with them. The moments that give you a little insight into how things are going, how they are changing, how your little boys are becoming, gradually, yet oh so fast, men are moments of the purest quality. 

Now quality time is me and two of my boys, eldest and youngest, reading an old favourite children's book that transports me back to when my 12-year-old could fit into the crook of my arm and I would read to his uncomprehending baby ears tales of bears tucked up by their loving mums, or of dragons terrified of mice, or of fantastical beasties who roamed the deep, dark woods. 

In short, what I miss most about being a stay at home mum is the humdrum nature of just being around. Of picking up those sparkling nuggets of information your children casually drop in between demands for biscuits or whines about curtailment of screen time. 

I miss being boring old mum who was always there. Now I am a rare treat my boys don't take me for granted, but they don't let me in with the ease that they once did and that is the most heartbreaking sacrifice a working mum is force to make. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

Room the movie and one A-Ma-Zing mother

If I tell you what Room is about you probably won't want to see it. The premise is based on a girl abducted, raped and kept captive in a single room, so far so horrible. But the film picks up the story seven years after her capture and depicts the frankly incredible relationship between the captive mother and her five-year-old child by her captor.

While critics and viewers alike have waxed lyrical about the performances of the lead characters Brie Larson as Ma and Jacob Tremblay as her son Jack, what really made me sit up and take notice were Ma's amazing skills as a mother.

Here is a girl who was snatched off the street in her teens, repeatedly abused by her kidnapper until she becomes a single mum left to bring up a child alone in a tiny room. As a mother who had children in a loving marriage and brought them up with all the mod cons imaginable, I was so moved by what a great job Ma did with nothing at her disposal beyond her imagination and a fierce desire to protect her child from the horror of his surroundings.

As I drive my children around in a car to the cinema or to go bowling, they annoy me to the point of screeching on a regular basis. I very rarely find the time to amuse them with anything other than an iPad or the television and flights of imagination are in very short supply, and this is how good a job I can do while bringing them up in what is comparatively the lap of luxury.

I can't imagine how I would cope should I be stripped of all of this and left to my own devices with my children in a single room. Suffice to say I suspect my captor would soon be begging us to leave.

The concept of creating a limitless world for your child, within four grotty walls left me speechless with admiration. To be cooped up day in, day out with a child, with no park to wear him out, no babysitter to give you respite, not to mention the constant unwanted attentions of your abuser, his father, would be nothing short of a living hell.

Yet Ma really does make the best of it, putting those of us who struggle in much more hospitable circumstances to shame. Room is not only a great film, it is a perfect depiction of the epitome of a good mother and one that left me feeling both awed and hugely inadequate.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Kicking ass and other office survival skills

So it turns out that a few months as vice chair of the PTA is about as adequate preparation for survival in the modern office as playing a few rounds of Angry Birds would be for a career as a rocket scientist. The mild bickering over whether to send another chiding letter to the parents over the paucity of prizes for the tombola is child's play compared to the 'push back' required to protect yourself at work.

Indeed, even the terms used are designed to befuddle the uninitiated, for 'push back' is apparently code for telling someone to bugger off and stop trying to offload their work onto you just because you are new and naive.

Problem is years as a freelance and a mummy has left me with an ingrained fear of saying no. No matter how outlandish, unreasonable or downright insane the demand of a child/editor, woe betide the mother/writer who turned them down. In either case it could only lead to tears, in the case of the children on both sides, with editors it was probably only me.

So it became anathema to me to say no. A stupidly tight deadline? No problem. An impossible to find case study? Let me help you out. It's already 6pm and you need quote from an expert on the other side of the world by tomorrow? Please allow me to stay up until the early hours. Really it's my pleasure. You need a pink straw to go in that milk, not a blue one? Anything for a quiet life. A Tardis must be created from egg boxes and cardboard by tomorrow morning? Pass me the glue. You need the toilet NOW? Let me hold you out behind a tree to relieve yourself.

Work out for yourselves which that last one applies to - editor or child?

The thing is as both a freelance and a mum, saying yes is just so much easier.

With editors it is the only right answer, and there are no second chances if you get it wrong. After all there's always a queue of eager beaver interns who will happily botch up the job for nothing, or even more chilling, do a far better job for nothing.

With children, particularly young ones, you are dealing with power crazed despots. They are quite happy to make your life a living hell should you refuse to turn the car round the moment you reach your destination and drive back home to pick up their favourite sippy cup. Should you serve the wrong food their wrath knows no bounds and if you think you are going to go shopping then you best not deny them unfettered access to snacks or you will pay.

Adding no back into my vocabulary is proving somewhat tricky though, as I still have that reflexive yes on the tip of my tongue. So when someone approaches my desk with that chancer's glint in their eye, with an oh so casual request for me to 'Whip something up', my knee-jerk reaction is to agree instantly, rather than question them closely as to what exactly it is they need whipping up.

In general the answer is some time-consuming task that they could probably complete much more competently that this wet-behind-the-ears newbie, but that they hope I won't identify as such.

After so many years as a yes woman I am just too soft, but no more. Recently a colleague, no doubt sick of my grumbling about my workload, snapped that I needed to grow a pair. Light dawned and I realised she is quite right. It's time for this mother to toughen up and learn to kick ass again.

Maybe I will even learn to say no to the children too.