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.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

That Sunday feeling

The problem with weekends is that they are just too short. Well I say that, when I was a WFH mum weekends really only stood out in so much as I could hand over some of my everyday tasks to Mr FDMTG, which was nice, but it was hardly the break that I had come to understand a weekend to mean.

This is a hangover from my school days, when the weekend was the most exciting time of the week. Saturday night was the night for discos, snogging, bar hopping and generally getting into trouble. Hmm, thinking about this perhaps it is no bad thing that my weekends are a touch more sedate than they were in my teenage years.

One particularly riotous escapade occurred when my friend and I decided to put our somewhat shaky command of maths to work on the finances of our weekend drinking. We came up with the bright idea that rather than cough up a few quid per drink in the local den of vice, we should instead buy direct from the supplier (in this case an off licence of dubious repute) and drink our tipple of choice straight from the bottle.

I remember buying the vodka, the first few slugs and then nothing more until I woke up in a hospital bed the next morning, feeling as if I had been run over by several buses and then come down with the world's most earth shattering case of food poisoning.

To make matters even worse I was meant to be staying at my friend's house, with her delightfully straight-laced parents that weekend. On that bleak Sunday morning I returned to the pastel haven that was their home and was promptly shoved into the guest bedroom to puke my way to repentance, until they could return this 'bad influence' back to her own louche parents, never to be invited to lead their daughter astray again.

Tales like this might make you wonder why I recall my school day weekends with such fondness but, mercifully for my liver, such excesses were not the norm. Instead weekends were a blur of dancing at neon lit clubs to 90s dance music. I can't hear Sash Encore Une Fois without instantly being transported to flinging my hands above my head, on a packed dance floor, fuggy with cigarette smoke as me and my gay best friend did our best to pretend that we really were part of the cool crowd.

There was the painfully pretentious bar where we would sip over priced cocktails - the livid green, banana-flavoured Pisang Orange was a firm favourite - as we bitchily ripped apart the other clientele. The cafe where all the ex-pat brats (I grew up in Brussels) would meet to flirt, kiss, drink and fuel interschool feuds. Then there was the crazy few weeks I dated a seriously cute Columbian bar tender, who turned out to have a sideline in dealing something a whole lot stronger than Stella Artois.

The problem with those Saturday nights was that they were always followed by Sunday afternoons, when you suddenly realised that you hadn't even glanced at your homework and you had to be up inhumanly early the next morning with everything ready to  hand in. It is a lifelong trait of mine to leave everything to the last minute, so Sunday evenings were characterised by frantically cramming some project that should have taken two weeks to compete into a couple of hours.

That sinking feeling of impending doom stayed with me throughout all of my years of education and employment. But as a freelance mummy working from home that Sunday feeling hasn't troubled me for a long while.

That is until now, when going back to work reminded me with a jolt just how short weekends are and how futile it is to spend all day Sunday wishing that it wasn't Monday tomorrow.

Perhaps that's why this post from The Daily Mash, which suggests we could all  have a six day weekend if we stopped dicking around at work, made me laugh out loud. After just a few short weeks back in an office I am reminded once again that if we spent less time in meetings talking about work and more time actually,  you know, doing it, the concept of a six-day weekend could easily become a reality. I might just go and set up a petition to campaign in favour of this, after all Cameron can't ignore the fact that me and all my Facebook pals agree, can  he?

Thursday, 14 January 2016

From slummy mummy to career bitch and other wardrobe crises

Going back to work is filled with innumerable terrors for the naturally reclusive home working mummy. After years of only having to make conversation with yourself and day time television (oh the hours I have wasted screaming at Jeremy Kyle and his motley collection of guests), suddenly you have to dust down those long lost social skills. You have to remember that it is not considered polite to start dabbing at a colleague's clothes with a wet wipe and that it really isn't acceptable to spend the entire day with a streak of child snot across the front of your dress (apologies to all in my office who had to witness this faux pas today).

It is very demanding this professionalism.

But perhaps the biggest challenge for me was the complete wardrobe change. When I first got my job a friend who works for the same company said 'Well you will have to get yourself a whole new wardrobe now won't you?'. I looked down at my ensemble by George at Asda twinned with wannabe Uggs and wonder what he could possibly mean.

For the past decade or so, workwear has consisted of leggings and a baggy T-shirt on a good day, pyjamas until school pick up on a bad day. Fashion really didn't come into it. I have been known to do the school pick up run with my nightie hastily tucked into a pair of jeans and hidden under my practical, padded mummy coat.

As for make up, nail polish and blow drys, well those were things of myth and legend, lost in the mists of time. For a girl who had religiously bought every issue of Marie Claire from the day it launched, I really had let myself go. I thought glamming up was changing my top and using a liberal spritz of dry shampoo.

When I went to my interview I wore high heels for the first time since my 40th birthday. I had forgotten what instruments of torture those shoes are. By the time I reached the office I had developed corns.

But a quick recce of the other women in the office confirmed my friend's fears, my mummy wardrobe simply wouldn't cut the mustard.

I preempted my first paycheck with a serious shopping spree. Out with comfort, practicality and machine washable, in with pain, Prada knock offs and dry clean only. My racks of comfy jeans and washed out T-shirts were ruthlessly replaced by chic shirts, little black dresses and the dreaded high heels.

For my first week at work I walked everywhere with a limp until, one desperate lunch hour I dived into Clarks and chose the comfiest pair of shoes I could find. Never mind that they looked like orthopaedic slippers, at least every step was no longer agony.

But it wasn't just my feet that were in for a shock. Having to look presentable every day posed somewhat of a challenge. I am categorically not a morning person, yet a 9am start in central London meant getting out of bed with enough time to spare to transform a rather unkempt 44-year-old into a sleek career woman, and let me assure you that is a time-consuming task.

Shaving my legs became more than just a bi-montly treat, I had to be smooth of limb every day. Imagine that. My middle aged face had to be made palatable by the means of a liberal application of BB cream and my hair could no longer sprout randomly from my head, but had to be tamed into a mirror sleek bob.

In short I had to switch from a woman who firmly believed that a beauty regime consisted of a dab of lip salve and a prayer, and that high fashion was a pair of Ugg boots that didn't smell faintly of the sheep they had been made from, to someone who could wield a mascara wand like a pro and wasn't afraid of a pair heels.

Although I must admit this is still a work in progress as I realised when I got up from a meeting today, only to discover that my skirt was tucked firmly into my knickers and presumably had been since I had gone to the loo about an hour ago. Sadly my fashion report card still reads: 'Could try harder".

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Warning! Man Multitasking

Follow my blog and you will know that I was a long term, working from home mum. In my time I have struggled to cleanse and re-nappy the poo-coated bottom of a small baby, whilst discussing a commission with an editor at a national newspaper, tried to negotiate a column at the same newspaper literally as I came out of the operating theatre post C-section.

I have woken up at 5am to try to file a feature before the children got up, I have worked evenings and weekends to make sure I hit deadlines. I have done amends on a feature whilst suffering from particularly explosive 'morning' sickness and I have done a photoshoot in sky high heels, holding newborn twins and hoping to God I didn't leak any unmentionable substances before the deeply fashionable snapper left.

As any mum who works from home, even on an occasional basis, knows juggling children and paid employment is a challenge. Even when you are past the baby stages, you soon learn that fitting anything even vaguely lucrative between the hours of drop off and pick up is nigh on impossible. If you try to do anything silly like the washing or grocery shopping, you can just forget it.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Thanks to seismic changes on the home front, Mr FDMTG and I have swapped roles. I am off to work every day, suited and booted to hack my way through the corporate jungle, while he is at home, attempting to earn a crust while managing the diaries and vagaries of our four sons.

Guess what? He's finally realised just how tough I have had it for the last 12 years. Finally, he understands why I literally begged him not to take my sons out of after school club despite our declining finances, because it would mean six round trips to school thanks to their packed after school schedule.

He knows now why I would wail like a banshee over the excessive overuse of clothes, leading to near Everest sized piles of 'not really that dirty at all' laundry. Why I would often wonder out loud if we all might be happier if we were to become nudists. While I could never think of what to have for dinner, because after cooking what seems like a million pans of spag bol, you just begin to lose the will to live, let alone think of more creative things to do with mince.

He has discovered just how bloody irritating our children can be, when you have to deal with them on a full time basis and, while he has yet to learn my defensive strategy of ignoring them in favour of fiddling with my phone, he begins to realise its value.

At last light has dawned about how hard it is to manage the cleaner, he quails just as much as I used to at the prospect of either asking her to actually, you know, clean the house properly, or even worse leave so we can find someone else who will.

He knows why, by the time he returned from his office, I was red faced with frustration at being interrupted on a minute-by-minute basis by the boys and their inane and insane demands. He gets why my double G&T habit was purely medicinal, rather than borderline alcoholism (or at least that's what I tell myself).

I know I shouldn't laugh, but I'm sorry my sides they are a-splitting as I watch this rank amateur attempt the fine art of being a parent who works from home. Hopefully he will get the hang of it, or it will be just the incentive he needs to earn enough money to cough up for a nanny once again.

In the meantime read about his exploits at his fab and funny blog Fourboding.

Friday, 8 January 2016

My New Year Anti-Resolutions

The back end of 2015 proved to be far more eventful that I might have imagined at the beginning of the year. As we approached the New Year it was all change, some for the better, some for the worse and some for the 'let's just wait and see shall we'. I would love to go into more detail but for various boring personal reasons and much against the spirit of blogging, I don't like to share too much practical detail about what I am up to. Suffice to say that things are in no way the same as they once were.

Anyways, enough of being cryptic. I am beginning to remind myself of those needy souls on Facebook who post mysterious status updates about how dreadful things are, without having the decency to clarify what exactly has gone wrong in their lives to satisfy my nosiness.

The real point of this post is that, what with all this upheaval, this new year, more than ever, I have been thinking about change, which led inevitably to New Year's Resolutions and what a bloody terrible idea they are.

The wonderful Marianne Power from the Help Me Blog also inspired me with a fabulous post about this earlier in the week so this is my homage to her and all the other sensible souls who say Bah Humbug to NYRs.


I WILL NOT ATTEMPT TO LOSE WEIGHT. If it should leave my body of its own accord, I will not complain, but I am not going to pretend I like salad, do more exercise that I consider strictly necessary or fret over all the size 10 clothes that lie mouldering in my loft while I hold onto a tiny shred of hope that one day my body might once again miraculously fit into them. I shall eat puddings, chocolate and chip and I will rely on the healing power of Lycra and banish my scales to the dusty hell they deserve.

I WILL NOT GIVE UP BOOZE. Dry January has to be the worst invention since....., um, nope can't think of anything bad enough to compare it to. Of all the months in the year to deny yourself the solace of fuzzy drunkeness this has to be the absolute worst. Personally I think the only medicine to cure the January blues is a socking great G&T.

I WILL STOP FEELING ASHAMED OF BEING OLDER. This one is the biggie for me. Once upon a time people who I worked with considered me formidable, scary was how more than one minion described me. Trouble is that the years have taken their toll on that tough cookie, leaving in her wake a rather more soggy biscuit of a middle-aged woman.

This is not helped by the fact that I work with terrifying young people with beards, more confidence than should be legal and an unnerving tendency to bandy around names like Mashable, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat and VICE in a distressingly successful attempt to bamboozle us oldies into thinking they know far more than I suspect they actually do.

If I were to confess that I actually quite like to sit down with a real newspaper on a Sunday and get my fingers all mucky with ink, pages rustling comfortingly as I turned them, they would look at me as if I had admitted that I loved to crank up my Gramophone and dance around the parlour in a crinoline. Turn, pages? What you can't just swipe your way through a colour supplement and why can't I just skip to the next section by jabbing my finger at the text?

The thing is, while there is plenty I don't know, there is also a lot that I do. After living for over four decades, half spent working in the media, I have learned that when it comes to what I would call words and images and they would call content, what counts is delivering something real.

To create something that touches people and makes them feel as if they are not alone in this world, that there is someone out there who 'gets' them, who can articulate their fears or share their passions, is just as weird and dysfunctional as they are.

To craft words on a page or footage into a film that will move someone to tears by transporting them into a moment of sadness or pure joy.

It is our job to wield the power of content to inspire, to educate, to amuse, to console, to comfort, to teach and to create something precious that will stay with whoever consumes it, however they consume it. You never know it might even change their lives in some tiny or huge way.

I am proud to say that I know some of the things I have written have done just that.

Whether you do it in 140 characters (how behind the times am I? #Twitter10k) or with quill on parchment, it's not where you say something, but what you say it that counts.

So rather than quailing in the face of the novelties that amuse my younger colleagues, I shall adopt a serene air of superiority, that might even, with a following wind, be mistaken for scariness once again. I shall not go quietly into the dying of the light, or the perimenopause which is much the same thing. Maybe I will even insist on using a quill pen and parchment to make my pronouncements. The bearded men might even copy me and I could start my very own hipster craze. Quill bars could pop up amongst the cereal cafes, sarsaparilla bars and chimney sweep-inspired boutiques of Hoxton.

So forget Dryathlons, diets and denial, make some anti-resolutions of your own that might really make you happier this year. Cheers and here's to a 2016 where I am no better than I was in 2015, but hey, I am fine with that.