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.

Is staying at home the same as having a J.O.B?

“Do you work?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, how about you?”

“Oh I’m a teacher… what do you do?”

“I’m a mum – I have two children.”

“Oh no, I mean what do you do for a JOB.”

“Yeh, exactly. I’m a mum.”

Contraversial I know, but this is exactly how the conversation I’ve never had (except in my head) goes about the disconnect that exists between being a stay-at-home-mum, and having a “proper job”.

There lies a question.

A matter for debate.

Or perhaps just another red herring designed to pit parents against one another: is staying at home with the children the same as having a job?

Well now you’ve asked (it’s ok, I know you haven’t…) there are many similarities:

  • from the minute you wake up, you’re on someone else’s clock
  • breaks where you get to sit and stare into space are few and far between
  • time to do the things you want to like read, write, yoga and re-watch all eight series of West Wing on a loop (for example) are limited to a couple of short hours each day
  • there are parts of the job that you enjoy, there are other parts that you HATE
  • there are parts of the day that leave you buzzing and mentally fist-bumping yourself
  • there are parts of the day when you feel like you’re not good enough and you’re sure you’re going to be found out
  • your boss(es) are demanding and at times unreasonable
  • there is never enough time
  • you never get to the end of your to-dos
  • you’re tired at the end of the day

But there are also a number of differences. Some, I’ll admit, are good ones:

  • the fear of sleep deprivation is no longer as strong. The stakes at work are much higher whereas no one gets sacked for putting the car-keys in the fridge
  • small children throwing tantrums are infinitely preferable to the teenagers who threw swear words and the occasional pencil/ ball of spittle-stuck-paper/ chair
  • boredom and frustration sometimes rear their heads but there isn’t the eye-popping, migraine-inducing level of S.T.R.E.S.S that being a teacher entailed

While others are B.A.D:

  • conversation consists of endlessly repeating what the two-year-old said so that he stops, interspersed with lectures on the skin colour of Polar Bears (black, fwiw) from the four-year-old, and asking her if she is hungry/ needs a wee
  • you get followed to the toilet
  • there is no tangible progression, no acknowledgment
  • there is no salary

The question it often feels like is really being asked is, is staying at home easier than going to work?

Its a sticky, tricky one, full of potential flash points and petty resentment, something I’m aware of as I admit that despite all my hand-wringing I find staying at home with my children easier than what I did before.

But then I had a job that sometimes felt like war, 14 hour days and working weekends were not uncommon, and I have enough friends telling me going to work is a dollyhob compared to being at home to be confident this is not the case for everyone.

About as commital as a pre-Amal George Clooney I know, BUT one thing I will insist is that staying at home with the children IS like having a job.

The point is that there is a distinction to be made between keeping children alive, and parenting. Which, incidentally, is why Jeremy Kyle’s sofas are never going to be bereft of guests.

The day-to-day triumvirate of providing sustenance, hygiene and entertainment is not parenting. That is looking after children.

Parenting is about the example you set, the choices you make, the values you instill, the heartache that accompanies all of those, and the hope that the overall outcome of your literal blood, sweat and (lots of) tears will be a Good Human.

It is generally accepted that when mums and dads, through choice or necessity, entrust their children to someone else to look after, they are not abandoning their position as a parent.

And from the other side of the (invisible) coin, if someone else – whether it be a childminder, nursery, nanny or the next-door neighbour’s teenager – gets paid for doing what you do for free, then I don’t see why it can’t be classed as a job?

One that is really hard work.

Just like the job your other half does when he/she leaves the house.

It’s all hard work.

So instead of wasting time arguing over who has the biggest shit-show for a life, why don’t we all just agree that challenge and compromise exist whichever way we turn?

Rather than sticking up the vees behind one another’s back, lets heartily pat each other  instead, because the bottom line is that we’re all doing the best J.O.B that we can.

Why parents are the real losers on V-Day

I’m writing this imagining that we’ll be marking V-Day by sitting on the settee, not touching, while I dick around on my phone and he pretends he’s not asleep.

We might splash out on a takeaway, although if I get motivated the M&S Meal Deal seems the correct amount of lack-of-effort-but-let’s-pretend-we’ve-tried.

To be honest, we probably wouldn’t be celebrating “properly” even if we didn’t have two children running us ragged because (while I’m aware that this is a bit wanky) we don’t like being told what to do by card and flower companies trying to make a bit of extra cash in between the actual “things” of Christmas and Mother’s Day.

If you’re busy planning your celebrations however, and are now annoyed at me for belittling your heartfelt romantic gestures, please don’t be – it’s perfectly possible that I’m twisted because no one ever bought me chocolates, a card, breakfast in bed or flowers on the 14th Feb. (At this point the Mr is going to pipe up with “I have!” in an incredulous tone because last year he bought me some Maltesers).

Given my lack of experience in this field of roses, I’m also uncertain about the etiquette of Valentine’s – is the onus on the man treating the woman, or is the idea that the man and woman are nice to each other?

And if it’s a man and man, or woman and woman, who buys the present/flowers/ card then?

And what if you are (whisper it…) S.I.N.G.L.E on Valentine’s Day? Well, there I do have an answer because every year there seems to be a concerted effort by “the media” to make people who are single on Valentine’s Day “feel better” about it.

Last year a video called Why being single is the best gift you can give yourself did the rounds and, intrigued, I watched.

The assumption of the video, and the numerous articles I read while in freefall down this particular internet rabbit hole, seemed to be that being single is shit and anyone who is single on this particular day feels even more shit than usual, therefore they need advice to make them feel less shit.

Now, I appreciate that I’m not the target audience for these intensely patronising pieces so you’re welcome to shout “what do you know?” at your computer screen, but some of the “advice” was errrr, a bit shit?

One of the articles I read encouraged single people to go out and buy themselves a Valentine’s Day present. Call me a coupled-up clueless fool, but the last time I checked, going and spending your own money on something for yourself, was called “shopping”. No?

Anyway, that’s not really my point. What I’ve actually popped up all half-empty to say is that contrary to popular opinion, single people are not to be pitied on Valetine’s Day, parents of small children are the ones who suffer most.

And no one is making us feel better.

There is a chance that having met a person with whom we have procreated, the people who write these borderline-offensive How to cope on Valentine’s Day features think we have got it sorted. But it seems to me that all of the traditional methods of celebrating this occasion are no-go (or at least hard-to-go) areas for parents.

Romantic meals? Ha.

Special expensive chocolates? Will only be eaten standing up behind a cupboard door lest they be sniffed out, demanded, chewed up and spat out once reality dawns that Belgian Truffles don’t taste like chocolate buttons. You’ll probably be expected to willingly accept the slimy mess, complete with strings of attached saliva into your outstretched palm, and will then have to find somewhere to wipe it without smearing it over handles or drawers. Or you could just eat it.

Flowers are fine as long as you don’t have a small child who likes to eat them.

Candlelight? Four words – Disney Princess polyester dresses.

Basically, all the “romantic” stuff doesn’t just make the single people sad, it’s also a thorny rose in the heart of the average parent.

And all of this, of course, assumes that you’re still in a relationship with the person you had sex with and made another person. Eff me – imagine what V-Day is like for people who are single AND have small children?

Anyway, in a pleasurable backlash against the sappy soppy sloppy flowers and card brigade of which I am definitely not one although perhaps maybe possibly one day someone will buy me a card and some flowers and give me a kiss and some breakfast in bed and take the children away for a few weeks…sorry… there are people out there who take pleasure in marking Valentine’s day in rather less typical ways.

A trip to Ikea? A £5 Superdrug voucher? A cross stitch proclaiming “Come the fuck in, or fuck the fuck off”? Or perhaps some cookies with the words penis, cunt and cock emblazoned across them? No?

Well, perhaps you would like to celebrate by being sick on the kitchen floor at 3am after one too many on a girls’ night out, and gift your husband the pleasure of mopping it up?

Whatever way you look at it though, V-Day for parents is not even close to victorious. Especially when you realise that this year it lands on a Tuesday during HALF. TERM.

Roses are dead

Romance is too

When you have small children

Surviving is sometimes all you can do.

I’ve marched before but this time was different

This time it was personal.

It became even more personal when on my way to the march a man approached me as I was making my way through the Underground carrying my placard. Genial enough at first he asked me what protest I was making my way to. It became apparent that he already knew.

A few steps after I answered he launched into homophobic, misogynist rant that, while it did not quite intimidate me, left me wondering why he felt it was necessary.

Why did he approach me when he clearly already knew why I was there? And why me when there were plenty of other people walking through the underground carrying placards (although unlike me, they were in groups, not alone – explanation provided, perhaps)?

His rant was intense and bizarre in equal measure, starting with the assertion that we had to make a choice between “John Wayne type leaders…real men”, or having “some nancy-boy who’s probably going to bring AIDS into the house”.

As he followed me up through the tunnels and up the escalator he continued that male serial killers in America were murdering women because they had “bossy mothers” or were “sick of women nagging and telling them what to do”. Apparently mass murder is the fault of womankind too.

Just like watching Trump’s inauguration, it felt like a spoof of right-vs-left-wing politics, when the right-wing are stupid/ mad and bad, and yet somehow manage to outsmart the left-wing good-but-ineffectual guys.

I was shocked, tongue-tied, and frustratingly impotent in my efforts to force out a “fuck off” – for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to be rude to this walking, talking definition of bigot.

It felt tempting to dismiss him as “crazy” – he didn’t look mad, but then, what does mental illness look like? – but then I remembered that millions of people have just legitimised similar (perhaps marginally less extreme) views to these, by electing men equally bold about sharing them, to the most powerful seat in the entire world.

And it intensified my certainty that I was in exactly the right place.

I was marching for equal pay; because I feel insulted by the idea of a man who has bragged about sexual assault becoming the most powerful man in the world; because, like many women, I know what it feels like to be heckled, grabbed and groped, followed by aggression when the violation is not welcomed.

grab-this

I was marching because I feel frustrated and personally limited by the relative status and expectations afforded men and women in our society.

I was marching because I wanted to say enough – as much to myself, as to anyone else – to give myself permission to be pissed off.

And I was marching because as parents we are programmed to want better for our children. I’ll be damned if my daughter is going to live her life the same way I have, with insidious limitations papered over with a veneer of “Having it all”, only for them to leap up and takes chunks out of our certainty when we start to make demands.

But in answer to anyone thinking, but he’s not your President, not your country, isn’t this a little pointless, I also marched in solidarity.

Because I am unlikely to ever fail to access an abortion, or birth control, does this mean I should not care about the women who can’t?

Because I was born in a body that matches the gender I identify with, does this mean I should not care about the people for whom this is not reality?

Because I love a man, not a woman, does this mean I should ignore the struggles of those who love differently to me?

And because I have white skin,  does this mean I shouldn’t acknowledge the unearned privilege that this carries with it? Shouldn’t I recognise the even greater struggles that people, particularly women, of colour have to face? Battles that carry even greater resonance because they will be my son’s and my daughter’s.

I’ve marched before on behalf of a passionate, desolate profession, beaten down and desperate about their working conditions and the prospects for the children they taught. But I’ve never marched before from a place of such deep-seated fear for the futures of people I don’t know, don’t love, but who I care about, because they are people.

As the crowds swelled, so did the lump in my throat.

The coming together of people with a common cause has always had the power to move me, but the energy felt sharper, brighter, and more certain of its justness than I have ever felt before.

One hundred thousand men and women marched in London alone, and behind them lie many more wishing them well and that they could have joined. And we wake up this Sunday full of optimism and empowerment that joy, beauty and togetherness were found yesterday in a world that feels so full of hate and division.

That greatest of human comforters was out in full-force yesterday – we are not alone.

Even so, the truth is that we also wake up to the reality that the occasion is over and nothing has changed – nothing has really been achieved.

To see the long road ahead, the reams of progress that must be made, it is tempting to wonder if it is worth it? Is it really necessary? Can I really care so much, for so long? But whenever I feel like this, I look at my children.

My beautiful brown boy and girl exist because of the tireless actions of people that have come before us, and those who continue that fight right up to today.

Things change. When it is right, they have to.

And as if I needed that reminder yesterday, my favourite memory was the young girls and boys, some barely teenagers, waving their signs, chanting and singing.

Their presence provoked the loudest cheers and chanting I heard at any point in the march as their youth bouyed us up with their promise of a different future.

I’m only 36 but already I can see we are too late for now, for us.

But we keep on keeping on because they are the future and we must not let them down.

Five things to do for a friend whose child is in hospital

The smallsmall was admitted to hospital this year on Christmas Day. Sound dramatic, right? Well, it was a bit – breathing is kind of important and he wasn’t being terribly good at it, so in we went and ended up staying for four days.

Shittest Christmas ever, you might be thinking. But actually it wasn’t so bad. The nurses and doctors were immense (and of course were WORKING on Christmas Day – where were you, Mr Cu- I mean, Hunt?…) and even when I fell asleep leaning on the side of the bed the boy was on, they just brought me chocolates and left me face down in a puddle of saliva as they went about their very important business.

Like most British people I moan about the weather and my inabiliity to get a GP appointment but on the whole we know that when the chips are down, the NHS always stumps up.

My mum’s cancer (x2), the instrumental birth of my first child, the midwifery care for my second, the weeks my preemie nephew recently spent in NICU, and now this little episode of festive drama – every time the NHS has proven themselves to be a little bit of ace in a world full of too much shit and Donald Trump.

Having said that, when your kid gets admitted to hospital, the resources are quite rightly pointed in their direction. There is little sleep and no food for the anxious parents (unless you count guiltily hoovering up the cold remains of your kid’s shepherd’s pie while hiding behind a blue curtain).

hospital-food
It would have been a waste, right..? The cake and custard was good too…

So, while I was sitting around in hospital I gave some thought to what would make the stay easier for me and anyone else who finds themselves in this position:

Food. Most children’s wards have kitchens which parents are able to use. One of the most helpful things friends/ family can do is bring/ send in food that can be easily warmed in a microwave.

Just a note of caution – I do mean actual food, not the snacky kind of junk food that we all imagine someone stuck in a hospital will be craving. The chances are that after the first 24 hours, the parent in question will have already consumed Christmas-like quantities of crisps and chocolate and will be feeling a little sick.

Proper food is the one here, folks. And if you have no time to cook (fair enough) then grab a decent ready meal, some soup perhaps, or a sandwich of superior quality to the average hospital canteen’s, and rest assured the gesture will be greatly appreciated.

Slippers, socks, (new) pyjamas. An unexpected hospital stay means no time to pack, no time to think what you need, and there is definitely no time to consider the fact that it might not feel ok to be forced out of your comfort-home while wearing your comfort clothes.

You can’t even fall back on being ill and therefore not caring, because you’re not.

I’m putting on my PJs at home generally means I’ll be donning the tshirts too tatty to wear in public, coupled with a pair of pants. If I’m feeling frisky (said with sarcasm and meaning exciting-but-not-really, not that kind of frisky) I might stretch to a pair of the Mr’s boxers.

Clearly this was not going to cut it on a hospital ward.

When it comes to socks, there was also something embarrassing about taking off my shoes to uncover an unwelcome toe or heel waggling at everyone. People generally were kind enough to pretend not to see it, but we all knew.

I’d change my clothes quicker than a self-conscious teenager in PE, in case the next footsteps swept the blue curtain aside. I worried that the sight to greet three doctors and two nurses “on their rounds” would be me, precariously balanced on one foot, arse in air, midway through changing my pants.

I’d guiltily wolfed down the small’s leftover banana behind a blue curtain as I waited for the Mr to appear with breakfast (see the first item in this list). It was 10am already, and I had considered eating my own arm.

And I’d been holding in my farts way longer than can possibly be healthy.

Having holes in my socks was just an indignity too far.

I really would have welcomed some new ones, a fancy pair of PJs so I could pretend I was in control (I’m totally taking this all in my stride – look my pyjama bottoms match my top) along with a pair of slippers because the Mr kept forgetting mine – no judgement, just a worried dad trying to hold together the other pieces of our life.

Take note.

An opportunity to nap. It’s likely that the parent has had little sleep. The combination of observations, medications, the noises of other children, and snoring of their parents, make sleep on a paediatric hospital ward impossible.

Ear plugs are frowned upon. Should your kid’s various machines starting bleeping and dinging in an alarming way (which apparently is different to the routine bleeps and dings that wake you up all night, or the ones that happen when your kid pulls off the oxometer. Again), I’m imagining the doctors and nurses rushing to your child’s aid would prefer not to have to rouse you from you slumber.

Should you be paying a parent a visit therefore, bring a cup of tea, then sit in a chair while they collapse face down on the bed and doze for an hour or two.

This will be the kind of sleep they will wake from not knowing their name or where they are, but the knowledge that their child is supervised and cannot launch him/herself from the bed will be enough to allow them to give in.

hospital-3
Don’t go to sleep, mummy! I don’t care if I only have half a functioning lung – I’ll land on my head if you go to sleep! I will, I will, I will!

Hand cream. Wash your hands on your way into the ward, on your way out, after nappy changes, after going to the loo, before eating, after eating, and after every time your kid spits their meds all over you (how they ever get better, I don’t know). The hand washing is BRUTAL.

Soon the skin on your hands starts to resemble the heels of your feet (which are hopefully now swathed in brand new socks).

Hand cream will be very welcome.

Bring your best chat. Once you’ve dispensed with the questions about how the small person is, ask how they are. They’ll no doubt tell you they are fine but let them know it’s ok not to be. Be ready in case they cry. And just let them for a few minutes.

Then pull out your phone and do some full-scale bashing of whatever you know floats your mate’s boat. Whether it be football results, the news, politics, celebrity gossip or you’ll never guess what so-and-so-in-the-village has done now, just bring it.

Your mate will relish the opportunity to think and talk about something other than medication, test results, or whether that bleeping is one of the important ones or not. They’ll feel rejuvenated by talking about something normal for once so research it beforehand if necessary, just do your best not to turn up with your head in shed – that’s going to help no-one.

There are about a hundred other ways that you can be useful to parents whose children are in hospital – this is just a start. If you’re really not sure, then why not ask?

And finally, to any parent reading this whose child is in hospital regularly, or who’s stay lasts longer than four days: you are a fecking hero.

 

NB. I’ve purposely said parents in this piece because most people care about their kids. But I also think most of these concerns might be peculiar to women (or maybe that’s my unconcious gender bias rearing its head – I just can’t imagine the Mr being quite so bothered about the sock thing. The food, yeah, but socks…?) What do you think?

The financial fallout of fertility

I’m a child of the 80s, teenager of the 90s, young woman of the noughties, and for My Entire Life the emphasis has been on becoming an independent, empowered woman. A concept inextricably entwined in my mind with earning my own money.

But now, as a woman in my thirties, a mother of two, set adrift from traditional employment by family circumstances that made my career impossible, I find myself battling insidious implications.

Where I was once independent, I am now reliant on someone else to provide me with security. The roof over my head, the food on the table, warmth and light in my home all depend on someone else.

Once empowered, I am now reduced to the financial status of a child.

And I ask myself if, where I was once strong, am I now weak?

How has this happened? This is not where I was supposed to be, I think, and a few weeks ago I reached the sad conclusion that I am not proud of who I am.

Like parents everywhere, I hope I am raising children who will not build walls, nor grab pussies, who will choose acceptance and welcome over fear and division, and I know there is pride to be found here.

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Please don’t grab pussies. I’d be really sad.

But I also want something else. Something selfish (and I’m totally comfortable with calling it that). Something that pays me my own money.

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m letting the sisterhood down. Like I’m laughing in the face of the hard-won increments made by the women who came before me, so that we have rights that today we take for granted.

I feel like I’m letting down my twenty-something self who sneered in her certainty that she was not one of those Goldigger’s Kanye rapped about. Instead she certain she was one of Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women who would pay her own Bills Bills Bills and Who Run the World (Girls).

I feel like my feminist ideals have been defeated by the cold-hard inflexible economics of life in the modern world. Like I gave up too soon, I should have fought harder for my job, for my ambition, for my equality.

And I feel embarrassed that I now take money from my partner’s pocket and put it in my own.

Questions that were irrelevant in the first 13 years of my relationship, the first 35 years of my life, have heralded an awkward new dynamic in my used-to-be-a-partnership.

How do I ask for money? Does this make me a kept woman? How much control should I expect to have over the household finances? Can I really decide how money that I haven’t earned gets spent?

Of course I KNOW I shouldn’t feel this way. If any friend of mine came out with such drivel I’d heavily exhale and call bull.shit.

I would tell her that to employ a cook, cleaner, round-the-clock nanny and life-admin-PA would cost upwards of £100,000 a year.

I’d tell her that without women (because it is over-whelmingly women) making the same decision I have, to put themselves in the back-seat of the family wagon, squashed into the tiny space between the fortified buttresses of her children’s padded thrones in a perfectly mundane metaphor for her whole existence, then we’d all be fucked.

I’d be the first to object that the value in an action is not always financial.

But I’d say it all then most likely fall back on an exhausted cliche. Something like, raising the next generation is the most important job of all, would be what I’d say next, but I’d know that in the face of this feeling there are no words that are not patronising and inadequate. That she hadn’t already thought of for herself, and still found wanting.

Like so many women of our generation, the truth is I don’t value the work done in the home.

The mind-numbing mundanity, the repetition and relentlessness, the picking up and putting down, the boundaries placed on the mind by the same four walls, and the constant requirement to put yourself last are not new – I imagine there was plenty of gin-numbed angst in Don Draper’s time.

What is new however is the expectation of more – the chance to have it all we were told we would have, but which turns out to be an illusion.

We have been conditioned to look down on being house-proud in favour of being loud-and-proud about our achievements in work – achievements accompanied by a pay-packet and while (in the words of another excruciating cliche) money isn’t everything, what it represents, is.

On the cusp of being a Millenial I took a crumb of comfort that the pay gap between men and women born between 1981 and 2000 has shrunk to five percent. My initial lukewarm reaction – it’s progress but wtf, there’s still a gap – dropped to freezing the second I read the next sentence, because when those same women turn 30, (and one assumes start having children) the pay gap starts to widen.

Projections in the study by The Resolution Foundation estimate that by the time Millenials hit 40, the pay gap between men and women will be closer to 25%. That’s TWENTY-FIVE percent, a number for which only shouty capital letters will suffice.

As a woman who had a child, took a demotion because my previous role was “too challenging” for someone with a young family, had another child, had a “difficult” return to work, and for who’s career the nursing home levels of flex in her partner’s job rang the death knell, I am a seething speck in this incredible statistic.

cracked-wood-plank
The flexibility of the Mr’s workplace.

And I’m willing to bet my substantially deflated financial worth on the fact that I’m not the only pot quietly simmering away on the stove I’ve unwillingly been tied to.

In the midst of the financial fallout of fertility, I torment myself with the thought that the money I am spending is not “mine”. I contrarily reflect on a simpler time when roles were clearly defined and we had not fallen for the falsehood that men and women are now equal.

Family, lifetime partnerships and those pesky, inconvenient, brilliant, small people are of course more valuable than how much cash you carry in your pocket, but we focus on the money because it’s easy to measure.

This, however is about more than just our bank balance because the money stands for so much more.

It stands for choice, independence, opportunity and freedom and I find myself asking why should we live without those?

Why there’s no Elf on the Shelf in my house and other Christmas musings

Child of the eighties, born in December, and the middle one of three siblings, the twelfth month of every year was defined by increasing levels of anticipation. The longest 25 days of the diary were punctuated by moments of ecstasy every 72 hours when it was my turn to open the advent calendar.

We’d have a new one each year but with three of us sharing the words “my turn” were wet-myself-wondrous. Hopping-on-the-spot levels of anticipation were reminiscent of the need-a-wee-shapes I would break at every summer service station stop.

I’d hold my breath and listen for that tiny satisfying crack that told me this one hadn’t been tampered with by sneaky sibling digits, and with barely contained excitement I’d ease that door open to reveal…

…a picture.

No toy to add to a ready-made scene, no present exquisitely wrapped, not even a chocolate to chew in determined enjoyment despite it tasting upsettingly similar to the cardboard it came in.

Nope, just a picture.

And I bloody loved it.

I’d fend off envy that it was my siblings’ turn by fetching down the previous years’ calendars from the loft. I’d play with them endlessly, pretending it was the first time I’d ever opened those doors, even though their edges would never again meet quite as closely as they once had. Occasionally I’d take a cheeky peek at number 24 way before its time.

We would buy our family Christmas tree on whichever weekend fell closest to my birthday, a tradition which meant we were often more than half-way through December before twinkling lights and tinsel made an appearance in our home.

It’s a tradition that my parents still uphold, although these days I wonder whether it was borne from reducing the necessary daily hoovering in the days before non-drop trees. Every slammed door would be followed by the whispers of branches unsheathing themselves needle by needle, and in a house full of teenagers it’s a wonder it wasn’t bald by the time Christmas Day rolled around.

It is these kinds of memories I have returned to several times over the last few weeks. I’ve been jokingly justifying my decisions not to participate in Elf on the Shelf, not to buy and wrap up 24 tiny presents or books for each child, or to think up 24 festive-fun activities to open each morning.

I’ve called myself “lazy” while not actually thinking I am, and wondered where people get the money, but underneath it all I’ve also spent too much time thinking that perhaps my children are being served the festive equivalent of chicken on Christmas Day – it kind of looks the same but is just a bit everyday.

Whenever I’ve told my daughter that No, the Christmas Elf has not filled the advent calendar up yet because she’s waiting for you to get dressed, I’ve wondered if I’m just being heartless and cruel.

When a crafting-induced fit of rebellion saw me throw the remnants of our creativity out of the back door, I spied an opportunity and used the sprinkling of sparkly stuff and lonely purple pompom as evidence of the Christmas Elf’s visit. My heart broke a little as I watched the girl wander in her socks into the garden shouting for Rudolph, worried that he might be stranded, and I marveled in mildly-appreciative horror at my own manipulative cynicism.

Despite my more machiavellian tendencies however, this year in particular I have felt the pressure of making Christmas “come alive” for my little girl. She’s four now, is really feeling the festive flavour, and her pleasure when The Big Man in red paid a visit to the nursery Christmas party made me kick myself hard for scorning the annual stampede to book tickets to the best grotto in town. It sells out by the end of August.

We call her our “magic”. Originating in the mists of time impenetrably fogged by too many sleepless nights, it’s a pet name which has come to represent the wonder with which we look at her as she spells her own name and other ubiquitous rites of passage that nonetheless stop us in our tracks.

But what if I’m depriving my magic, of her’s?

And so here we are again, caught up in the same old guilt-ridden cycle. Its spidery-tentacles stretch out around us like a creepy hangover from the horribly comercialised Halloween. They’re so transparent they are easily overlooked, until we find ourselves observing what other people are doing, how other people are celebrating, and wonder if we are getting it wrong.

I wonder if I should have done Elf on the Shelf. I’m full of admiration for some of the brilliance I have witnessed on social media (that wily mistress with her kleptomaniac tendencies for joy) but I guiltily feel like I’m under enough pressure as it is.

“Just” this one more thing to do might be the elf that broke the reindeer’s back, and the price-tag of the “real thing” makes me wince at the thought that this is just another idea dreamed up by commercial interests who’re exploiting the lucrative fertile ground of middle class parent’s concerns about being and doing “enough”.

But then I think enough.

Because Christmas will be magical because Christmas is magical.

I clearly remember driving back from my aunt’s house late one Christmas Eve and being convinced I’d seen Father Christmas’s sleigh through the car window. I didn’t want him to know I’d seen him as I knew this meant a lump of coal and an unwelcome satsuma in my stocking the next morning so I shut my eyes tight.

A few hours later, around a parent-punishing 4.30am, I breathed a sigh of relief when my sack of stash was waiting at the end of my bed…

It turns out that I didn’t need to be bought anything, I didn’t even need to be told anything, the magic of Christmas and a child’s imagination was all I needed to give me beautiful memories to look back on.

I didn’t need the personalised stocking – not once did I question why my presents arrived in an old pillow case that I knew for the rest of the year lived in a drawer under my bed.

I didn’t need a box full of presents on Christmas Eve – I’m pretty sure I never thought, “Christmas is brilliant but I really wish all my presents didn’t come on the same day”.

I didn’t need an advent calendar full of gifts as well as those under the tree, and I look back relieved my parents didn’t feel they had to bankrupt themselves to create the acceptable measure of magic.

As always, if you are doing these things because you want to then deck your halls, jingle those bells and eat all the figgy pudding you can manage. But none of the songs sound quite as good if you’re only singing them because you feel you should.

The truth is, I’m sure you’ll agree, is that the lights, music, trees, smells, carols, stories, The Story, food, family, smiles, and the never-ending chocolate, together create a time of year that is already like no other.

There is no need to fill it to overflowing, because just as we will all no doubt say at the end of Christmas Day’s dining, sometimes you need to know when just one more mouthful will make you feel sick, because actually you already have enough.