Tag Archives: motherhood

The Funnel

I was doing some sorting out the other day. We have been decorating the sitting room (NOT the lounge; lounges are for people who live in a constant state of 1970s and have things like dark green shag pile carpets and pine-orange furniture), and part of this process has been the temporary removal of the book case (Argos) to the garage and the serious reconsideration of every book that had been shoved onto it when we first moved in, over a year ago now, upon its return. Two sets appeared: those that made it back onto the shelf, and those that have been transported back into the garage, en route to the charity shop. It’s not been easy, I can tell you.

It’s not the books that you know you really didn’t like but are somehow worthy, or the ones you didn’t really like that are the problem, or the ones you know you will NEVER give away (dog-eared tomes, some without covers, testament to how much you have loved them) that cause the difficulty; it’s the ones I enjoyed, but that I know I will never read again. They are the ones I weigh in my hands, on the shelf and off, until I reluctantly make a decision.

Old work diaries fall into this category, bizarrely. I’m not sure why this is, they aren’t ever going to come in useful for something, after all. Not personal diaries, though. I have about four or five year’s worth of them, tucked away in the bottom drawer of my desk, religiously filled in until about the beginning of March, apart that is, from 1987. In 1986, I had discovered Yes Prime Minister, and that Christmas, along with a novelised volume of Sir Humphrey’s diaries, I got a Yes Prime Minister diary of my own. I enjoyed it hugely, and, true to form, attempted to keep it (up until March, and, when I was putting the books back on the shelf the other day, I found it and I read it.

I have to admit that up to the point of perusing my old diary, I had been indulging in a bit of parental guilt over the State of The Children and giving myself a good and proper hard time. In 1987, I was fifteen and in the Fifth Year, the same age, in fact, as A. The first year group to take the GCSE, I was supposed to be getting ready to take my exams. The record of my teenaged days (lie-ins, a lot of lie-ins, Eastenders and novels) was reassuring.  Like my children today, I hadn’t given The Future a second thought, and here I am, sitting on the sofa at the grand old age of forty-six and I seem to have turned out not so badly after all. It made me feel better.

I don’t know, though. I can’t help but worry. Part pf me guesses that this all-consuming, corrosive worry about your kids is part and parcel of parenting in England at the start of the 21stCentury. The sands, somehow, seem to have shifted. It’s no longer acceptable to go along to the odd coffee morning while the kids jump on all the beds upstairs (and pull all the bedclothes off while they are at it) or send them out to play in the morning and only see them at meal times; today we must cart them round to baby gym and toddler singing, rugby/football/ballet tots, swim club, martial arts; the list goes on, it is never ending and gets worse as the children get older. The number of distractions, of things we must say ‘no’ to is exponentially increased. It doesn’t seem acceptable to muddle along, to be good enough; somehow life seems to be painted in extremes of success or failure.

But when I look back to MY education and MY mid-teens(even if I do it with the subjective distortion of memory) the pathway before me seemed much more open. If I got a good grade, it was up to me. If didn’t, I would get another go. If I made a mistake, it wasn’t the end of the world. was the person those grades mattered to, the person who owned them. Not my parents, not my teachers; me. There were opportunities and choices for me, lots of them, or that’s what it felt like, anyway.

I guess that is my greatest fear. I look at my children, my learning disabled son and my typical younger ones, snapping at his heels and growing up fast. Their moment of opportunity and choice is fast approaching (before the straightjacket of adulting rears its ugly head). And yet. In an age of austerity, and what I seem to continually describe, to myself and others, as an ‘increasingly challenging policy backdrop’, what choice, if they don’t fit a certain kind of straight-line progress, standard-child mould, will they have?  Is the world really their oyster? Or have we, unwittingly, as a community of adults continually obsessed with our own performance, despite our constant prating on about social mobility and our love affair with the idea of meritocracy, created instead for them an educational funnel?

 

 

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Maternal Mental Health

Back in March, I came across an article that I thought was very sensible indeed. Seeing as I am more than a bit worried about global warming (I’ve moved on from nuclear disaster, although I lost a lot of sleep over it in my early teens, worrying, as my school was nine miles away from home, that the bomb would go up when I was there) and also about equal rights, and generally interested in matters of education, it made a lot of sense. Educate girls through to the end of the secondary years and all sorts of wonderful things happen that have a direct impact on, for instance, world health and population growth, and thus the preservation of the planet.

Apparently, my auntie Pauline, a very old and somewhat mythical lady by the time I came along, I have a vague memory of white hair drawn back into a neat bun, and dark, dusty corridors with the sort of carpets that didn’t meet the walls, used to say that if you educate a girl, you educate the family; that, while the effects on the individual are profound, the ripples of your positive actions are powerful and far-reaching. And, when I think about it, an education does more than give young (and older) women the knowledge that will enable them to understand, and control, their fertility, but is the means to the confidence to ask important questions of their sexual partners too. No longer do women of my generation have to go through what my great-great grandmother did, and bear thirteen children because she was unable to refuse a Friday night after a visit to the pub.

The thing is, though, that I think that it is more than education that matters in the lives of mothers. I remember, almost as if it were yesterday, a conversation I had with my mum when I was expecting S, my firstborn. I was OK with being pregnant (although I did cry the day I could no longer fit into my jeans, because I knew that, from that moment, nothing would ever be the same again), but every time I thought about giving birth it was if I was staring into a black hole of terror.

“You’ll be alright Nancy,” she said, in that practical way of women who have been through the whole messy business and come out the other side, “it’s not THAT bad.” It was strangely reassuring. If she could do it, so could I.

That said, the experience was, for me, traumatising; and I know I am not alone. When S was tiny, I joined the local library (I’d given up paid work for a while, so I didn’t have any money) and one of the books I read was an account of early motherhood that took on the difficulties, face first. The sleeplessness, the constant responsibility, post-partum pain and the trials and tribulations of feeding the baby, no matter how you do it. It’s a treadmill, all on top of the physical shock that is giving birth. Even when it goes well (and I’ve done that bit too), and everything is fine, there is nothing about the process that is easy. There is a sense of being ripped apart – and then having to get on with nursing a baby (and possibly one or two toddlers) before the ragged edges have even begun to knit together.

Put traumatic birth, and by that I mean anything from mass intervention to emotional shock and something wrong with the baby, from jaundice to chromosomes, defects requiring surgery or brain damage, in the same event and you have a recipe for disaster in terms of maternal mental health and wellbeing. And, like an education, when a mother is well supported, so is the rest of the family.

What annoys me is that we know this. We know that the mental health of mothers of disabled children is fragile. We know that when there is a disabled child, there is often a slow slide into personal isolation, marital breakdown and poverty. We know that the lives of mothers of disabled children can be dominated by conflict and struggle, with education, with health and social care – and yet what are we doing about it? The Children and Families’ Act?

There are real and concrete actions that maternity services could put into place in order to support new mothers, and thus the wider family. Greater support from midwives and health visitors, access to a counsellor – and not just one offer, but an open door, especially where health concerns over the baby mean that mama is a long way down the list of concerns. It shouldn’t get to crisis point before someone steps in. We need to stop pussyfooting round the edges with our educational solutions and go right back to the start.

I, it seems, was lucky.

And I hate writing that because I don’t believe in luck.

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?’

 

 

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.

She Stands at the Window and Weeps

The suds slide slowly,
Abandoning the porcelain
For the cooling, greased greyness
And a diminished, laboured repetition.

They echo, with their soft descent,
The trickled tracks
Of raindrops;
Crystalline sisters, wedded to glass.

Their tired decay
A contrasting parallel
To tears
As she stands at the window and weeps.