Mobile Moan

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.

How I found myself unemployed and angry

“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.

I “won”.

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.