Category Archives: motherhood

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

When I was about 19, I went out for a night of karaoke with friends at a local nightclub. Although I’ve done a lot of singing in public in my time, karaoke was new to me, but, ever the performer (I hesitate to write ‘show off’ – I really do try not to get too up myself), I chose a song from the catalogue and signed up to the list without a second thought (I’ve always been a bit overconfident on the singing side of things, comes from my early childhood experiences when I was constantly being called upon to Do The Singing bit in school shows, church and amateur dramatics). For my turn, I chose Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and, I remember, I sang it to much applause (afterwards, when I went to the loo, I was accosted by another young lady who, rather aggressively I thought, asked me if I was the one who had been singing earlier; when I rather nervously admitted it was me, she told me I had been fookin’ ace – I’m taking that as rapturous). I remembered the experience when I was out in the car earlier today and it came on the radio (an expedition into the cold and rain in search of Forgotten Items From the Supermarket). It made me smile.

My friends and I, when we were at College (we were 17 and we thought we were the bees knees) used to request this song regularly when we went out to discos (a regular occurrence); we’d jump on to the dance floor in our Doctor Martens and bellow the words to each other, bouncing with the joy of being young and brave and having the world at our feet. We’d sing the lines ‘Some guys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/ I wanna be the one to walk in the sun/ cos girls just wanna have fun’ and vow that we would never put up with the sort of nonsense from our chosen partners that would have us stuck in the house being subservient. We were feisty, and determined.

As I drove along the slick streets, brown with the slightly thickened ending to raindrops, I turned the volume up and sang along, happy to be diverted down memory lane for as long as it lasted (I had taken the precaution of writing myself an actual list before I set off from the house, I thought I would be safe), remembering the days when I was younger and thinner and much, much fuller of energy. The younger me isn’t so different to the older me I thought; I’m still determined never to be shut away, an adjunct or an add on to someone else. It’s just that back then, I thought it was personal. I thought it came down to the person you chose as your life partner.

Now, though, I know different. I can see that this shutting away, this turning of a woman into some sort of silent trophy, or idealised image of supportive womanhood, or motherhood, or whatever else it is that women are supposed to represent or do, is not so much, not in my life anyway, personal and private, as systemic.

R thought I was going on a bit, but when he found that he was the one who had to curtail his working day in order to meet the kids from school and damage his career prospects (and I don’t mean extras, school events such as assemblies or school shows or sports days or anything like that).  Not that schools are in any way the same as places of child care, but dropping everything at half-past two in order to make it to the school gates for three does kind of cut in to your day. And, when you add in the magnifying effect of caring for a disabled young person – right at the point when you’d think things would be getting easier in the school run department you find out that it is actually worse, what with the even shorter educating day at college and the difficulties in finding the sort of care support you actually need; not for S the wander round the shops with friends that I used to do, while I was waiting for the bus. Holding down a part-time job, or even working at all, becomes increasingly challenging the longer I am in this game, and I haven’t even begun to write about health or social care. I’m lucky to be able to work the way that I do; I don’t for one minute think that my working arrangements are the norm. Employers pay you to do a job, and if you aren’t there, because you have to share the caring load, they will look for someone else who can. Part-time leaders? I’ll believe it when I see it.

I don’t know about you, but today, as I consider the opportunities I might have had, the chances I’ve missed to make a wider contribution, to effect a bigger, direct change in my chosen field of education, Cyndi Lauper, and her bouncy, buoyant, rebellious song doesn’t really do it for me any more. Yes, the personal is political, but now, it’s more. It’s bigger than me and my choices. Now, today, I might have a reminiscent singalong in the car, and smile at my youthful innocence, but tonight, when I do the washing up, next week, when I sit on the train, hurtling though the early morning chill to London, now, when I sit here, editing this post and considering what it is I am trying, so clumsily, to say, I will be, I am, choosing a different song. In so many ways, I’ll be singing, ‘what about us?’

 

 

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An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.

 

An Attitude of Gratitude

When I was a young, wet behind the ears, first time mum, I dashed to the book shop, upon realising that my beloved first born was going to need a bit more sustenance than breast milk, and bought an infant-to-pre-school cook book. Filled with gorgeous photographs of little children happily tucking in to carrot sticks and hummus, wholemeal muffins and interesting looking purees, I there and then decided that my children would follow suit. Organic, wholemeal and home-made. Water, not juice. Sweeties? Never. I was determined.

I have a dear friend (who I haven’t seen for a while) with whom I used to cackle over these sort of decisions, years down the line, when we had realised that the best laid plans are great…until the children show you that they have developed a mind of their own and refuse to cooperate. These days, we are more knowledgeable in our food based decision making; it is fairly predictable, what they will or won’t eat (and it won’t be wholemeal and it won’t be hummus and it will have little to do with my will). Milk is preferred to water (and water only under extreme duress). One of us will not eat breakfast cereal. Another, nothing with visible onion or anything green. Yet another turns their nose up at pizza. Meal planning can be a complicated affair, if you don’t want to be cooking individual meals, that is.

I have discovered the ‘outside food’ factors that limit the menu. You can pretty well guarantee that they won’t eat whatever it is you have lovingly prepared for them if you’ve left it too long and they are too tired (this is especially pronounced in young children, I found). They go past the point of hunger and all they are capable of being is bad tempered and screechy, no matter how hungry they are, good for nothing except a bath and a bedtime story. Unexpected (and exciting) visitor turns up at tea time? Appetite gone. Birthday party? Same.

I have found that the amount that they will refuse to eat is directly inversely proportional to the amount of time and effort you have gone to in the cooking process too. I gave up cooking fish pie for them years ago. Curry, similar.

I also gave up feeling aggrieved at this ungrateful behaviour at around the same time I made this discovery. I want them to eat, after all, and they being young, had no idea how much effort I had gone to in putting their tea at the table. The hubs, however, not having gone through the fire of early motherhood, and escaping the vast majority of screaming tea-times through the virtue of being at work, feels differently. He feels that he should be thanked, not by a letter or a card, a round of applause (although he would probably like one, and one for doing the bins, too) and definitely not with a hug (especially if the end of the hugging arm is adorned with a fork), but by clean plates and a willing attitude towards the washing up. I remind him, when the heat of the moment has past that they are children, after all, they are still, despite their size, young, and they have no idea that the all-powerful adults might have had to make an effort rather than wave a magic wand (especially if they are not involved in the process). The provision of a meal at a regular time, for them, is something to be expected, their right, if you like.

Of course, I remind them, as we sit down at the table, that someone did work hard to put the food there, as I perform a kind of grace, involving thanks for the cook, which, as they grow, they join, with smiles and verbal good wishes (although not always with that thing that we really want – the eating with gusto and the smacking of lips, but, you know, it’s a journey). I take no offence at the lack because I know that they will pay it forward when their turn comes.

Christmas is coming and I, along with many (not all), parents will be ensuring that my children send a letter of thanks to relatives who live far away and who have gone to the trouble of sending them a gift, of thinking about it, buying it, wrapping it and standing in a post office queue to get it to us in time for the Big Day – none of which they were required or contractually obliged to do. But, when I think about it, it is not the letters that matter, although I know that recipients enjoy receiving them. An attitude of gratitude is about more than good manners because they, however nice on the surface, can hide an insincere heart. It is, instead, that understanding of something beyond the self, the growing realisation of someone else that I am looking for.

The giving of a gift and the sending and receiving of formal thanks at this time of year may seem a social obligation, but it’s not. With any luck both are freely given, no conditions attached.  They are acts, if you like, of love.

 

 

 

Someone to watch over me

For some reason, I know not why, there is always some aspect of Christmas that I decide to make more difficult for myself than it needs to be. For a couple of years it was making my own Christmas puddings (yummy, but needing a large number of hours steaming and then maturing under the bed in the spare room before steaming again, on The Day). Home made pastry for home made mince pies. Gingerbread houses. (Last year, for some equally bizarre reason, we decided – or rather they decided – to have a go with boiled sweetie stained glass. Mary Berry makes it look so easy, after all. No doubt she doesn’t have to trail around the shops fetching said boiled sweet on her lonesome, along with all the other shopping.) This year, after having a word with myself at the end of November about not making a song and dance about it, it was fill your own crackers.

Now, I am, I freely admit, totally in love with crackers. A festive meal isn’t a festive meal without them, I’m afraid. When I was a very little girl, my mum used to save bits off them and put them in the useful drawer and my sister and I would pore over them, delighted by the shiny foil and scraps of tinsel, using them to create our masterpieces throughout the year. When we were older, we were instructed, by our dad, as to how to pull the snap without damaging the body of the cracker, and later, when the jokes were told and the party hats discarded, he would reconstruct them carefully, and they would come out, every year, to decorate the beams, along with the holly my mum had liberated from the local hedgerows (there were never any berries, the birds were too hungry). In 1999, when I went with friends to see in the new year in in the far north of Scotland, the crackers were my job, and I bought enough to cover the table, twice.

The thing about crackers, though, is the gifts. We all enjoy the terrible jokes, and some of us wear the party hats for the rest of the day (and some of our children hide them away in their bedrooms for some unknown reason), pulling them is fun in itself and it makes us all laugh, but the gifts are always a bit of a disappointment. When I was a little girl (again) we had some crackers that contained china figures of animals. I don’t remember the crackers, but I do remember the animals; we played with them for years, and nothing has ever lived up to them. A plastic moustache and yet another pair of nail clippers that don’t really work cannot compete, not in any way, shape or form.

So this year, thinking I’d be organised and buy my crackers while there was still a choice, as I hemmed and hawed over the options, I discovered a small, flat packet of fill your owns. There’s nothing really whizzy about the design (I usually go for something the more bling the better, if you know what I mean) and these, in their holly-printed simplicity are nothing of the sort. The designers have gone for home-spun-wisdom-stylee, no doubt. I thought that the cracker itself would be enough (why waste the the money on a useless gift you will only chuck out in a couple of weeks?), until, that is, I showed them to my daughter.

What a great idea, she declared. We can put gifts in that people would like!

So, there you are. This week, instead of sitting at home, doing something useful like wrapping all the presents while the kids are out of the way, I found myself trailing around the shops looking for gifts of no more than 5cm in diameter, and something that family members would like and appreciate, to boot. Making Christmas life more difficult than it needs to be. Again.

I kind of enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it.  Once I came up with some ideas about what to put in them, it wasn’t too much of a chore. I enjoy gift giving, and I love thinking of things that those I love will love. It gives me pleasure to bless them in a small way. But then, as I exited the last shop, no-more-than-5cm-in-diameter sized gifts in hand, I realised something that made me feel…sad.

I had spent so long, running after everyone else that I had neglected to think of myself. Who would buy a surprise gift for me? Self pity washed over me as I considered the state of Christmas, for me, and for countless other mothers. The shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the cleaning. The making sure that everyone else has a good time. The mental load I carry for my family is great, and Christmas adds to it, whether I embrace it willingly or not. It’s so easy, when you serve, both professionally and personally, to lose yourself, to ignore your needs and put yourself at the bottom of the list.

 

But then, you know, I gave myself another talking to. If I want something in my cracker – and if I want to like it – there is nothing to stop me getting it myself. My daughter and I will have just as much fun making them, no matter who buys the gift. It’s OK.

Christmas is a time for giving, but the price doesn’t have to be your mental health and wellbeing. We all need someone to watch over us, but sometimes, it can be us who does the watching. And that’s OK.

 

Mind you, if nobody notices that I have tatty holes-in-the-soles slippers, a wonkily fixed handbag and a broken iron I’m not entirely sure what I will do with the (frozen) roast potatoes. Nobody will get any, that’s for sure. They will have to make do with broccolli.

Sharing the Load

One of the things I have been struggling with lately is the notion of myself as a carer. It’s very strange. I remember, when I was expecting my beloved first-born, the very idea of me being the parent, the mother to another person, was astonishing. When he first arrived, a tiny bundle with a home-made hat, safely contained within the hospital Tupperware, there was a suspended time when I looked at him (and to be fair, I repeated the experience a further two times) and wondered what he had to do with me, and what I was supposed to do – and supposed to feel.

At the time, it was one of the things that disturbed me; this idea that I should instantly ‘fall in love’ with my child, as if motherhood, and all it entails, was supposed to come easily, that it was somehow as natural as falling off a log. (‘Cos you know, there’s a lot of falling off logs that goes on in day-to-day life.)

When you think about it, there’s a whole lot of things that mothers are under societal pressure to somehow find a doddle, a pleasure even. Breast feeding. Home-made purees. Broken nights. The wiping of bottoms, noses and sick. Constant laundry. Tidying up after everyone else. The pressure is on to make you feel as if you should Enjoy Every Moment and if you don’t, then there must be something wrong with you. You’re not a Real Woman, or you’re a Bad Mother, you can’t cope or something.

And then, of course, there is the whole disability thing. If you dare to bring to birth a disabled child – and I don’t think that this is specific to Down’s syndrome, although, given the antenatal screening that takes place you really wouldn’t think so – then it’s as if the only acceptable response from you, as a mother, is to throw yourself down on the altar of motherhood, either as some sort of public advocate for disability rights or by negating any needs you might have of your own for a separate kind of life in deference to those of your child (remember the woman who was awarded her own degree, after attending so many lectures with her disabled son, in order to ensure that he actually got there, at her son’s graduation?).

The hardest thing for me, though, is not that we should enjoy this process but that, somehow, the expectation that we should do all of this on our own. We are already isolated, working hard, paying the ginormous mortgage, travelling to work, to and fro, in our little metal boxes. We have separated out work and home, spheres with edges that kiss, but only in the evenings. And it’s not just our personal lives. Apparently there is no “I” in team, but even the seemingly most collaborative, collegiate of professions (teaching, the one I know the most about it has to be said) are increasingly set in the ways of individual competition.

You know, this is where I think we have got it wrong. Bringing up a family, the next generation, no matter how we might construct it, or what our role in it, personal or professional, is not the sort of thing you can do on your own. You need your friends, your wider family, your colleagues, around you. You need the people who are supposed to be supporting you to join you, not to sit in judgement, or complain that you didn’t stick to the plan, or that you are somehow less or shamed because you actually admitted that you needed help.

We can’t do it on our own and that’s OK.