I’ve always cared, but when hatred landed on my doorstep on Saturday night it dawned on me for the first time (naively indeed) that this is our new normal. We have been living a privileged… More
Why not take this overly-simplified, horribly stereotyped test to tell you what you already know?
I know, I’m selling it HARD.
When you open the curtains to find the weather is grey and drizzly with that fine rain that apparently gets you really wet, you know, wetter than other water falling from the sky, do you:
(a) Fist pump the air, skip into the kitchen and gleefully set up a craft activity? Wet weather is to be celebrated with paint, glitter and glue!
(b) Cry into your coffee, scan the weather forecast on your phone for any glimmer of hope, and then set up “camp” on the sofa with the kids duvets, some popcorn and stick on Frozen for the eleven-thousandth time?
2. When you arrange to hold playdate at a friend’s house do you:
(a) Worry because there might be access to toys/ food/ tv that you don’t approve of?
(b) Fist pump the air because 1. You don’t have to cook 2. You don’t have to tidy up 3. you don’t have to cook 4. You don’t have to tidy up?
3. When your kid begs to bake some cakes do you:
(a) Break out the food processor, pastel hued Joseph&Joseph mixing bowls – one per child – and matching silicone baking tins?
(b) Buy a Peppa Pig packet mix from the Co-op and precariously balance the paper cases in a roasting tin. Referee between children who ALL want to stir the cake mix AT THE SAME TIME IT’SMYTURNMUMMEEEEEMYTURNMINE!
4. On a trip to the playground, do you:
(a) Lead a game of hunt the Gruffalo/ bear/ witch in amongst the trees with your kids and any others who want to join in?
(b) Send them to hide, count loudly to ten, and then pretend to look for them while you sit on a bench and shout, “Are you behind the swings? Are you under this leaf? Nooooooo… I wonder where you could be…”?
5. When you’re at soft-play do you:
(a) Throw yourself with wild abandon up and around the curiously sticky plastic surfaces, without wondering why they are quite so tacky?
(b) Send them into the melee alone – they’ll be fine, the REALLY big kids are at school?
6. Do you cook up elaborate plans for day-trips because:
(a) It’s important to show them the world outside their little bubble?
(b) The more time spent out of the house, the less mess there is for you to tidy up?
7. Do you look at friends without children and:
(a) Pity them the fun and laughter they’re missing out on?
(b) Envy the lack of contact with bodily fluids that they make on a daily basis, and the adult conversations that they get to finish without requests to be accompanied to the toilet for a poo?
8. When negotiating with a two-year-old about whether its reasonable to use kitchen scissors do you:
(a) Get on their level, look them in the eye and explain calmly that scissors are dangerous, are not toys, and offer a hug in exchange?
(b) Swap them for a KitKat?
9. When you want to shower/ wash hair/ defuzz do you:
(a)bribe the kids with snacks and sit them on your bed with Paw Patrol?
(b) Get up early and do it before they wake up?
10. When off on a childfree overnight jaunt do you post on social media:
(a) How much you are going to miss the kids (
b) How much you are going to miss the kids but also now much you’re looking forward to guilt-free drinking/ bacon you don’t have to share/ reading newspapers/ maybe a bonk?
Now, in true 1990s Smash Hits fashion, count up the number of As and Bs that you chose:
If you answered mostly A: congratulations! You are a mum and you love your children unconditionally. You are doing your best to keep them alive and happy, while hoping they don’t turn out absolute arseholes, and that really is all that matters!
If you answered a mixture of As and Bs: congratulations! You are a mum and you love your children unconditionally. You are doing your best to keep them alive and happy, while hoping they don’t turn out absolute arseholes, and that really is all that matters!
If you answered mostly B: congratulations! You are a mum and you love your children unconditionally. You are doing your best to keep them alive and happy, while hoping they don’t turn out absolute arseholes, and that really is all that matters!
Never was the saying “the grass is always greener” more apt than it is for this but since I was about 15 I’ve never understood any woman’s desire for big boobs.
A teenager of the 90s and well-versed in the pneumatic vitals of the Baywatch brigade, perhaps I should have been happy to sprout a pair of mahoosive funbags. In reality they’ve been nothing but a literal and metaphorical pain in the chest and if you’re an owner of excess chest-flesh you too might recognise some of these reasons why:
- The never-ending conundrums of clothing – shirts (gape), jackets (don’t fasten), roll necks/ high-necked blouses (matronly/ make you look like you’ve slung your boobs runs your waist as a belt), crew necks (frumpy), v-necks (slutty), strapless tops (useless strapless bras), backless tops (don’t be silly).
- The torment of going bra shopping.
- The torment of going bra shopping for something sexy.
- The torment of going bra shopping and realising you’ll need to sell your car before affording more than one black and one nude bra. The sexy(ish) stuff will have to wait anyway it seems.
- The misery of going bra shopping with your B cup friend – even nursing bras look cute when your mams are less-ostrich-more-fried egg.
- Thinking bra shopping was bad enough and then having to buy a bikini. At least ugly, frumpy bras get hidden under clothes.
- The horror when you find out your boobs grow when you’re pregnant.
- The surprise when your areola stretches to the size of a side plate.
- The terror when you attempt breastfeeding and realise a single boob is bigger than your baby’s head. There is a very real chance you may suffocate him/her.
- The agony of spending the first three months bending your neck at an excruciating angle to ensure at least one tiny nostril remains uncovered.
- The lingering disappointment when you realise the Netflix and Chill version of early motherhood is nowt but a dream – one hand is needed for the baby’s head, the other hand is needed to stop your boob disappearing under your armpit. You have no more hands and you realise too late that the remote control/ your phone is out of reach.
- The pain of thinking “sod it” and reaching for the remote control/ phone only for your carefully balanced boob to slip out of the baby’s mouth with an agonising slide of tender nipple over surprisingly sharp gums.
- The “hilarity” of someone wearing your bra as a hat.
- The reality of back fat. Chest fat. Upper arm fat. All extensions of breast tissue apparently.
- The sadness of realising that the last time you passed the pencil test was when you were twelve.
- The discomfort of attempting any exercise without a sports bra/ scaffolding. Even walking fast can produce a distressing level of tremor.
- The annoyance of being told, “I wish I had big boobs”. Oh really? See above.
The scale of the adjustment from no children to one has never since been matched despite the best efforts of the arrival of a second child and the departure of my career. There’s no doubt that motherhood has changed me.
I’m confident I’m not alone in that assertion but does motherhood, should motherhood, define us?
Elements of the media clearly feel motherhood does define women who squeeze out a sprog or few. The obsession with labelling women as mumboss, mumpreneur, Instamum, the grandmother of them all yummy-mummy, or its backlash slummy-mummy, make it clear that whether a woman is groomed or not; running a household, a business or a team; or perhaps is vlogging and flogging herself to the highest bidder on the internet, the most significant thing to remember about her in every context is that she’s someone’s mum.
For most mothers at least trying to do a good job, the centre of every decision is occupied by their children. Where they live, the hours they (don’t?) work, whether they pursue career advancement, how often they wee – children are generally speaking the Most Valued Players in every game.
But what is insulting is the obsession with reducing the rest of a mother’s life, personality, interests, abilities, qualifications, passions and experiences to bit-parts in a mother’s world. We see them relegated to the subs bench, only allowed onto the pitch once the real work is done and the most important player, Mum, has received the right amount of attention.
Not everyone feels these terms are negative – some people insist they are a compliment, shorthand for, “Wow she’s a mum AND a boss/ entrepeneur/ looks good – she’s smashing it!” but isn’t this a bit patronising?
It suggests that managing to spin all the plates without them smashing all over the floor is surprising – you clever girl! But this exclamation mark is one that never gets applied to dads – no one ever questions how a father can have children and be successful elsewhere – and so you start to apply a question mark instead.
If it takes two to tango, why, like DNA, is the raising of a new life not split 50-50? The possession of a vagina does not determine the superiority of one’s ability as a parent. Once birth and breastfeeding are out of the way, what exactly can women do that men can’t?
Facing down a four year old’s determined resistance to dressing herself in the morning feels akin to watching the change in outdated gender norms. We all know it needs to happen, it’s for everyone’s benefit, but progress is painfully slow. Cheek-biting and concerns about the future are shared responses to both, but society’s obsession with defining women with children as mums first is a problem that is not going to be solved with stickers and a trip down the supermarket toy aisle.
Men have their status as entrepeneurs, bosses, or just plain old breadwinners taken for granted. They are committed to their graft, their attention is never divided so the words used to describe them have no need to be either.
In contrast, the mum-isms suggest a mother’s attention is always divided and whenever a woman grows a new one the assumption is triggered that to be a good mother she must always be available to her children.
Being called a mumboss or otherwise is only a compliment when we assume we are congratulating a women for managing to juggle it all. The absence of a fatherhood equivalent suggests dads are never even expected to do the juggle. Being a good father does not hinge on being available – being a mum comes first, we are told, but being a dad doesn’t.
This problem is huge, systemic, wrapped up in generations of gender norms and predetermination and simply changing the words we use is not even close to the whole answer. But is a start.
And while we’re at it, perhaps we also need to reject the premise of the question that asks does motherhood define us – a question that pits women against one another and often tells us nothing other than what an individual believes “define” means.
Instead, until we adjust the compass to make it possible for fathers to be dadbosses, or mums just plain old bosses, the pointing, probing, relentless question we should all continue to demand the uncomfortable answers to is, should motherhood limit us?
Image credit: Lola Hoad Design
I’ve been afraid recently. Afraid that I can’t keep my children safe. It’s something all parents know we have to deal with, but recently I’ve been feeling heavy with it.
The attacks on Westminster shoved my breath sideways a week or so later when I stood outside the exit to the tube. The tarmac seemed to have absorbed the shock, hurt and horror of that day. As I looked around at the streets, those buildings and the people, the thought, They never thought it would happen to them pulsated in my mind and I hurried away with heaving breaths.
With the help of friends I’ve reframed that fear since – stabbings happen and cars mount the pavement every day somewhere in this city, this country and the rest of the world. It does not diminish the tragedy of the lives lost or permanently affected by the events on that day, but it does diminish its power.
But even reframing it leaves a nag catching in the back of mind because regardless of the method, or whatever madness it’s attributed too, it’s the hate I can’t handle: the dismissal of another human being as being less than you.
Hatred breeds hatred, the worn words proclaim, and as the pixels and airwaves exploded following the attack on Westminster, their exhaustion was explained. The pace and vitriol of those looking for someone to blame, a reason that suited their rhetoric, spoke tellingly of people just waiting for an excuse.
But in this picture I find hope.
It’s a different place, a different issue but it’s a response to the same hate. Her insouciant smile in the face of his spitting aggression; her disdain and bemusement at his impotent, ignorant rage, so clear and cutting for everyone to see.
So, as she stares with no-nonsense contempt, I find my self challenging the despondancy I’ve been feeling – nothing is getting better, the world is full of nobheads and bigots and arseholes and Trump – I should just take shelter in a simple life well lived, raising my children, keeping my peace.
It’s a feeling borne of small things – a conversation, a comment by a stranger, a series of headlines that eat away at the validity of the burning feeling deep in my gut and the prickling behind my eyes. But this picture has solidified my resolve.
How can I feel beaten down by a mere conversation when, hands in pocket, she looks hate in the eye – and smiles?
It was a disorientating conversation to be fair – the woman was intelligent, articulate and passionate about what she was saying. She insisted that young women are being sent the wrong message about being able to “have it all” – that they need to be told the truth about how hard it is and adjust their expectations. I suggested perhaps we need to expect more from men, not less from women, to which she responded, “My husband can’t even put an empty packet in the bin. We are years away. Years.”
While she’s probably right on the timeframe, I was wrong to turn inwards, mask the eye-roll and feel that her certainty qualified her to convince me I was wrong.
And what about the mother outside the hospital who yelled at her daughter for swinging on the bike racks? “You’ve got to be a girly-girl,” she shouted as we walked past. My heart plummeted and “What’s the point…?” were the next words out of my mouth.
The wave of hope The Women’s March awakened in us all has been drowned out by a never-ending stream of attacks on our conviction. The backlash against “Legsit” did nothing to quell an emboldened, “anti-political correctness” right who continue their onslaught to undermine every hard-won increment of what we’re allowed to say.
The Co-op advert, be it an unfortunate error or intentional publicity stunt, was thought up by someone, apparently questioned by no one with the power to change it, and is just a small part of a limiting picture being drawn by people determined to use only the blue and pink crayons.
On the other side of an ocean but magnified by status and disbelief, Trump continues on his quest to, this time metaphorically, make a grab for women’s bodies. Meanwhile, the rule changes on Child Benefit here are the latest peculiar and insulting discriminatory attack against vulnerable women least able to stare down their aggressors.
But Saffiyah Khan has reminded me that fighting bigotry, and its insidious bedfellow injustice, on all fronts is worth it. The fight for women’s rights does not have the visceral urgency of a Pakistani-Bosnian-brummy woman standing up for her city against a misguided mob of white-English-men but still I find strength in this picture and I can’t stop looking at it.
I gaze at her grace and her glory and find certainty that I too might be a little more brave.
Because when you’re right you have to stand up, in your own way and however you can, because there is always a point.
Every so often, parenting has been going a bit too smoothly so I suggest something I know I’ll regret as soon as it starts/ the words are out of my mouth: “Let’s do some baking!”
I don’t quite know why I do this – perhaps it is the glee and excitement on the girl’s face whenever the B-word is mentioned? Maybe it’s the guilt that I ship us off to the park at least once a day, partly (mostly?) so I don’t have any mess to tidy up at home? Or maybe it’s the last shredded remnant of The-Mum-I-Thought-I-Would-Be speaking – all exploration and experiments, you know, letting them be little – the reality being, fine, as long as it doesn’t involve glitter.
I’m a person who once used gravy powder to make chocolate muffins; the last time I made a cake I set the microwave on fire with my efforts to soften the foil-wrapped butter.
I’m not good in the kitchen.
It should come as no surprise then that the next discovery, after I’ve reminded myself that I hate baking but appear to love shooting myself in the foot, is that my cupboards do not contain the correct combination of staples.
Coats, shoes and pushchairs have to be wrestled with as we face the trip to the shop that I know is going to end with someone crying, and/ or a parental crumble (I find at least two parts topping to one part parent provides the best results) as I resentfully buy the latest edition of CRAP magazine.
Ingredients purchased, plastic tat broken, magazine discarded, its finally time to bake. But not before I’ve struggled with a conundrum – bake while the boy is asleep but sacrifice a cup of tea and a sit down, or wait until he wakes, aware that 90 minutes is not enough time to evolve the eyes in my arse I will require.
To be honest, baking with one child or two isn’t really the issue. I just hate even the threat of the mess. (Fortunately the boy performs a veritable cornucopia of household appliance roles – he hovers up the crumbs, deposits them in his internal dustbin (he once ate a stone with no noticeable side effects) and then celebrates the sugar high by doing a passable impression of the washing machine spin cycle.)
The fact that the girl who loves baking doesn’t really like cake is not entirely motivational either.
Despite not being The-Mum-I-Thought-I-Would-Be though, I do occasionally try. I live for the moments that I manage to make the small people happy, and to be honest I get bored doing the same-old all the time too.
Positive pants slapped back on I whip out the whisk, take a deep breath and preempt the imminent patience-drain by silently chanting my fallback mantra, “What would Flop do?”
Just as I credit Peppa with successfully preparing my daughter for the dentist, sharing her room with her brother, and teaching her to say “No” in an impressively dismissive manner, I also look to Bing’s tiny potato-shaped parent (weird how genetics work, huh?)for lessons on how not to eff up the small people.
Unorthodox it may be but anyone familiar with that moany Bing Bunny brat will already harbour healthy respect for Flop’s parenting. His ability to make Bing see sense where any other preschooler would see only rage and a reason to make their parent pay, is legendary, and from him we must learn.
Girlchild asked to ride her bike to the park, but doesn’t want to ride it back – what would Flop do?
Boychild insists on stuffing toy cars down his sleeping bag – can’t fall asleep without them, can’t stay asleep lying on them – what would Flop do?
Or, as in Easter Eggs, when one child drops her chocolate egg and it breaks all over the floor – what would Flop do?
Well, apparently he’d use some sort of witchcraft, Jedi mind trick or sleight of hand bribery, glossed over in the pages of the book, because Bing shares his egg.
I admit its unlikely, and absolutely makes me question my parenting ability, but if my kids can learn a bit of empathy while tormenting me at bedtime then I’m on board with that book.
But what about the baking?
With my mantra tucked in my parenting tool belt to stop me from cracking up, I break out the eggs and dust off the flour but if I’m honest there are also times when it’s less the cookie and more my sanity that is crumbling. Enter stage left, Bing Baking.
Nothing can quite replace the concentration-flour-clouds that accompany a baking four-year-old’s breath, or the surprising amount of strength required to cream sugar into butter, but when you just need to keep yourself afloat or the family alive it turns out there’s an app acceptable for that.
Bing Baking means your wee-one can practise the method with none of the madness – the rolling, the cutting, the baking and decorating, it’s all there with none of the mess and for what its worth, I reckon that if Flop really was a parent, that’s exactly what he would sometimes do too.
Written in collaboration with Bing Bunny, Acamar Films (with thanks for the bundle of Bing fun) but rest assured that all comments, opinions and hatred of baking are wholeheartedly mine.
Next stop on Bing Bunny’s Easter blogger’s tour is @laurasidestreet www.sidestreetstyle.com
Easter Eggs – RRP £5.99 from Amazon Bing and Sula are hunting for Easter eggs in the playground, in this egg-shaped board book based on the hit CBeebies TV series. But when Sula drops her chocolatey egg and it breaks, Bing decides to share his to cheer her up. Sharing an Easter egg… it’s a Bing thing! This Bing storybook is recommended reading for Bingsters aged 2+.
Bing Baking – RRP £1.99 from the App store (Apple Devices) or Google Play (Android) For the first time, your child can be part of Bing’s colourful and playful world by joining him and Flop in their kitchen for a joyful, fun and messy baking experience. In this child-friendly, super-creative app, your Bingster will get the chance to make and decorate a new batch of biscuits each time they play. They can roll the dough or squidge it with their hands, using an array of cutters to make different shapes. Once their biscuits are decorated, they can be popped in the oven but you’ll need to keep an eye on Chicky Timer to make sure the biscuits don’t burn. If they do, it’s no big thing – you might not be able to eat them but you can still decorate them. Don’t forget to tap on the camera to take a snapshot of your yummy delicious treats before you and Bing sit down to eat them together. Yum, yum, yum!
Driving a car, operating heavy machinery or being wrist deep in a shitty nappy, are all things best done while not looking at your phone. Death, maiming, the upsetting realisation that your finger has pierced a wipe and the whiff of poo under your nail is going to inexplicably linger for hours, are all reasonable motivation for not titting around on Twitter, or fiddling with filters.
But at a playgroup?
A few weeks ago I was shamed and consigned to staring at my child while he stayed still and played with the same toy for 45 minutes. He did not want me to touch the cars – a firm out-stretched fore-finger and the words no, mummy made that clear – and naturally, as I could not exploit the time for my own purpose, he discovered hitherto unknown, and since unvisited, levels of concentration.
To begin with I was sat on a twelve-inch-high chair, two feet and a flicker of an eye-ball away from my son. My phone was in my lap and I was tweeting (for my course aka study aka my new future aka how I hope to pay bills and buy stuff) when there was a tap on my shoulder accompanied by a conscending smile and, “Sorry, can you put that away? We don’t allow phones inside.”
In a click I worked my traitorous-face away from my first thought of, WTF? Do you KNOW how much work I have to do?! through to the reasons why this was their rule. I figured they were concerned that parents might not interact with each other/ their children/ keep their children alive if they were distracted by screens, and I was on the verge of a self-congratulatory I’m-such-a-good-adult-it’s-not-the-end-of-the-world moment when…
“You can use it outside though…”
WTF? smeared itself back across my face as I struggled with the logic of this, but fortunately the member of staff had moved away to deal with a squabble over a half-functioning plastic vacuum cleaner.
I observed as one tiny hooligan’s owner extricated herself from conversation and did that large-stepping, half-stooping walk we do when we realise our children are being feral. Its as though we are trying to reasssure any onlooker that we’re moving quickly and are ready to get down on their level and make eye-contact because we’re such a good mum who was in no way, nope, nada, not at all, distracted.
I (ironically) waited for the, “Sorry can you look after your children? We don’t allow conversation inside,” judgement to descend but unsurprisingly there was none.
What had dawned on me though was that this may not be about interaction or safety – this was (sort of) akin Chamillionaire’s tales of racial profiling and police brutality in his 2005 hit Ridin. I had been judged and juried for using my phone in the presence of Prince Procreated – they’d seen me scrollin’, and they were hatin’.
It appeared bizarre that we weren’t to use our phone inside while our child was playing quietly, but using it outside in an arena reminiscent of the Hunger Games was a-ok. The part of the film when all twenty-four tributes enter and make a dash for the most covertable weapons, picking off the weaker contestants along the way, while displaying vein-rupturing levels of aggression, can only have been imagined by someone familiar with the average preschooler tussle over the Little Tykes. But apparently parental distraction was to be welcomed here?
And what exactly is the difference between someone being engrossed in a Twitter thread about Piers Morgan being a penis, and being crotch deep in a face-to-face discussion of Brexit/ school catchment areas/ how your blood bubbles every time your husband fails to see “the stairs pile” (a common and bonding annoyance I have found)?
Who hasn’t, mid-conversation, vaguely heard a child yelling “mummmmmyyy, heeelllpppp” in the background but carried on chatting? Seconds later you’re yanked away by the flapping realisation that the yell is coming from YOUR child who has climbed into the toy washing machine. Thanks to genetically-acquired-and-one-day-to-be-grateful-for-freakishly-long-legs she is now jammed and can’t get out, and yet no one has ever told me not to chat.
The fact is that levels of attachment to a screen is definitely NOT an accurate prediction of a parent’s attention to the scream, so why the Rule, heavy as it is with all its implicit judgement that a parent on their phone is a neglectful one?
I am friends with enough working mums to know that receiving emails, messages and phonecalls during their “days off” is not unusual, and in many cases is expected. One friend told me how, when receiving calls from work, the person on the other end would hear the children and say, “Oh is there a better time?”. She would think, Yes, when I’m in the office. This is how I spend ALL my time when I’m not, you ignorant childfree chump – most people have nowhere to stash the small people whenever they become “inconvenient”, so what’s with the sniffy?
The world is also awash with parents (dare I say mums, because in the main it is?) who have been booted out of the traditional workplace so are setting up for themselves. As makers, cake-bakers, social media managers or clothing designers, they are in a classic chicken and egg situation – the money they need to pay for childcare comes from working more, but they can’t work more until they have the childcare.
So in steps the safe, friendly, entertaining stay-and-play where emails can be checked free of whines and requests for a few minutes, and you can be reasonably certain that no one is going to die.
And besides the working mums, what if, starved of empty minutes spent commuting, the stay-at-home-mum is using her phone to connect with family and friends? She’s had a pretty shit day, or week, or month, and that connection with other people gives her comfort and reassurance.
But oh no. Bad mum.
I once saw a woman stand up (with a microphone no less) and say, “Whenever I see a mum walking along or in the playground on her phone, I wanna trip her up and tell her to look at her kids.”
The jarring lack of thought and empathy could have sent me sliding down Guilt Gulley midway as I was through the training to be a social media manager that had me treating my phone like an extra limb. Instead, in a moment of rare confidence and certainty I decided to view her as a few bars short of Instagrammable wi-fi.
But this Rule at the playgroup has made me think again.
The implicit assumption seems to be that whenever you see a mum on her phone in the presence of her kids, 1. what she is doing is unimportant, and 2. that it is all she ever does.
I’m not suggesting that parents shouldn’t limit their screen time when around their kids. I’ve definitely been guilty of using my phone too much and have seen how my children turn from charmingly cheeky rascals into feral wildlings as a result.
I also don’t want them to ever think that I find my phone more interesting than they are so I do my best to limit it.
But the main thing is that, like everything in this parenting lark, judgment is cheap and easy when compassion and understanding would actually go much further.
So next time you see a fellow mum with her face in her phone, maybe challenge the first thought you have. Maybe speak up at work when a colleague says, “Let’s just give Nicola a quick call” with its unspoken suggestion that she’s only looking after her kids, or you could even join The Women’s Equality Party who have affordable childcare as a cornerstone of their manifesto.
At my local playgroup meanwhile, I might just (probably anonymously) suggest they display signs which say, “If you hear a scream, look up from your screen”, because next time they see me scrolling, I don’t want to feel them hating.
“Perhaps you should hand your notice in. You don’t seem as robust as you once were.” With disbelieving ears I absorbed the words and, winded by the wound they had inflicted, struggled to defend myself.
The lump in my throat dissolved into the tears that are always much closer to the surface these days, and with utter humiliation I slid back to some time in 1993 and cried in the headteacher’s office.
It was November – four weeks before I was due to return to work from maternity leave. It had all been agreed – my three day contract, the days I’d be working – months beforehand, but once a colleague handed in his notice they needed me to pick up his timetable. I was informed that my days of work had to change.
Childcare everywhere is expensive but where we live it is also hard to come by – plenty of people arrange their childcare while they are pregnant – I repeat, WHILE THEY ARE PREGNANT. Finding childcare at the drop of this plate-smashing, ball-bouncing bollock I already knew, sobbing in the headteacher’s office, was going to be impossible.
I did a lot of crying that day. I felt hurt, confused, and betrayed. The other members of my faculty, including my line manager were as shocked as I was, but reassured me with their efforts to find a solution.
At that time, and many times since, I’ve tried to understand why my Headteacher behaved in the way she did.
With twelve years experience I know I was expensive for “just” a classroom teacher – they could (and just before I left, did) employ a full-time Newly Qualified Teacher for the same money they would be paying me for three days.
In the meeting the headteacher talked about the difficulties in accommodating part-time teachers into the timetable, even though my three day a week agreement had long since been approved.
Budget cuts were imminent, she had also thrown into the conversation, and somewhere quiet in the back of my mind a voice said, “You shouldn’t be saying that” but I was disappointingly powerless to speak through my shock.
And she brought the school manager into the meeting almost immediately to discuss just how much of my Maternity Pay I would have to repay. £7000 it transpired and I was silenced once more by the prickling behind my eyes.
Of course it’s tempting to consider the appropriateness (and legality?) of some of these comments but as my understanding of my professional reputation collapsed around my ringing ears, the most important thing was how railroaded and unwanted I felt.
I came out of that meeting feeling like my seven years service at the school counted for nothing. My branches of self-belief were shaken to the point they were laid bare and as all parents do in the bleak days of mid-winter I wondered if I had imagined the be-leaves were ever there at all. Maybe I’d been bare-boned, stark and skill-less all along. Maybe I was shit and they were just glad to see the back of me?
Eventually however, a solution was reached. It took a couple of weeks; contortionist levels of bending over backwards by the other members of my faculty; two further meetings in which the solutions they had created were rejected; and ended with success after a senior colleague advocated for my return.
Meanwhile I had written my letter of resignation. Like most people I didn’t and don’t have £7000 collecting dust (imagine!) so, with the help of the National Union of Teachers, I’d cobbled together a plan.
Essentially, every parent of under 18s is entitled to 18 weeks of unpaid Ordinary Parental Leave and it was this that I was going to exploit. It meant that officially I was returning to work thus would not have to pay anything back, but in reality I would never physically set foot in that school ever again.
I was desperately unhappy for many reasons – not least that my colleagues who had so determinedly had my back were going to be left with a knife in their’s, stressed and dealing with the fallout from being a member of staff short.
In the end though, I got what I wanted, right? I returned to work on the days that I had originally agreed.
So why am I sitting here, unemployed and (after several months of intense navel-gazing) mildly irritated?
Well, in short, because someone had to look after the children.
The reality of returning to my job as a teacher with two small children was that, compared to my pre-procreation working hours, I was in deficit of between four and five hours every day.
Morning routines, drop-offs, pick-ups, bath and bed time were my responsibility every morning and night because of the demands of the Mr’s job. He was typically out of the house before the children woke up and three times a week he arrived home for the last 10-20 minutes before they went to sleep. The other two nights a week they would already be in the land of nod when his key finally scraped in the lock.
A sales environment in the city, his was not a workplace where employees even requested flexible working. Unsurprisingly there are next to no women in senior positions and the culture is firmly one of face-time over Facetime, even though a considerable proportion of the job is possible with the wonders of modern technology.
If he had been able to contribute one morning, and one evening routine each week, who knows? Perhaps I would still be educating the future instead of bashing my keyboard in impotent dissatisfaction.
Instead, because of his employer, I had to turn my back on being an employee.
It has been a difficult learning curve and there have been times when I’ve sent myself into a spinning dive off the sides of the track, but at this point it would be disingenuous of me to say I’m still angry about what happened.
I’ve been granted a second chance, new horizons to explore and new opportunities to be excited about, but even with this positive spin on the matter, the question still begs to be asked – should this have happened?
Should my school have made it so difficult for me to return? Is it right that my job was so demanding that I required an extra 4-5 hours a day, after working 8.30-5.30pm without breaks, to make it happen? Is it fair that my partner-in-slime was unable to support me in my return to work because of the culture of his company?
I was a successful, respected, passionate, driven, committed, caring professional, but thanks to circumstance the skip-load of skills that I developed over twelve years have been wrapped up like a dead pet goldfish and flushed down that most deplorable of brain drains – maternal unemployment.
Surely this can’t be right?
Surely this is a bit bloody bonkers?
Surely, there is a better way?
For all of the above I am supporting Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka with her #flexappeal campaign. She’s got her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek as she prances around in lycra and grinds to a rewrite of 90s hit “Let’s talk about sex” but I’m going to be right there beside her on Friday March 31st when she brings it to Trafalgar Square for a second time. Check out her Instagram feed for more details but safe to say it will be flexing awesome.