Thursday 22 October 2015

Why there's no such thing as an easy baby, but there is such a thing as a bloody hard one

People told me that there was no such thing as an easy baby – they told me that all babies are difficult, and, having had two, I know this to be true. But this comment did not appease me when my firstborn cried for hours on end. I would express how hard he was and I would hear the same response: "well, babies are hard, love."

Other parents made light of it, as though I was a naive first mother. Of course I knew that most mothers had been in my shoes; the sleepless nights, the relentless feeding; the monotony; the not knowing whether they were getting enough food, the not knowing if something was wrong. But the crying; the endless crying? I wasn't so sure.

He was the only one in the hospital that you could hear down the corridor (even though I had my own room). "Bloody hell, he's got some lungs on him,' the midwives would say. I kept pressing the buzzer for help all night: "He just won't settle," I said, at my wits end. One midwife told me I would just have to stay up feeding him all night, another more sympathetic midwife propped me up with cushions because she realised I was going to fall off the bed with my baby in a heap of exhaustion.

We were lucky enough to have friends who delivered meals to us after I got out of hospital. Some timed it at the rare moments he napped peacefully, others as I was wrestling to feed him, and others left their meals outside the door with great understanding that perhaps I did not want to be seen after two hours of sleep. One friend delivered a meal on week two and asked how we were getting on. "He seems so restless," I expressed anxiously. My friend chuckled: "babies are restless." Despite all the kindness we had received with gifts and meals and blue balloons left on our doorstep, I just wanted someone to tell me that it would get easier, that it wouldn't always be like this, that it's bloody hard sometimes.

My husband went back to work and I felt quite isolated in the house, not knowing who to call for help. Who could I ring who wouldn't tell me that all babies were hard? My baby would cry for hours on end. I began to suspect the C word.


That word that no one else understands unless you've had a baby with it.

"Isn't that just a made up diagnosis?" one friend asked, as her baby laid quietly on a baby mat for the whole hour she visited. The same friend who told me that her baby never cried.

No one believed me about the colic because he never seemed to time his crying fits when people came to visit. I thought that perhaps it was all in my head until my mum happened to see it one day. She thought I should call the doctor because she'd never heard a cry like it. "He's like this everyday. mum." I said.

I tried everything; the colief, the gripe water, the infacol, baby massage – all of which seemed to make him worse. I tried feeding him at different times, for longer, for shorter. My days were filled with trying to find ways to overcome it, to beat this thing that was killing me inside. How long would it go on for? Was my baby in pain? What was I doing wrong?

And then after four months the colic stopped. But he still cried. He woke up screaming every morning without fail until he was three and a half years old. He cried whenever the wind blew in his face or if a bus went past.

Other people seemed to stun him into silence, or at least distract him. Everyone interpreted this as a 'chilled' personality, as though two hours in Costa is a good enough assessment of temperament. I would express that he was far from chilled and I would get the response "well, he's chilled every time I see him." What, am I making it up? I felt like I was going mad.

Four years later I was expecting another baby and my whole being was filled with complete and utter dread. But when my second was born he just laid in my arms and stared at me. I figured it was just the birthing drugs that must have got into his system or something; of course babies aren't that placid, right? There's no such thing as an easy baby. The midwives nicknamed him 'happy' because at two days old he looked like he was smiling.

I got home and he slept quietly. He woke from his naps by cooing. I tentatively awaited the chaos that was about to explode. And it never really did. Sure, he didn't sleep very well, and I had difficulty with feeding him, but all that seemed a breeze compared to the first time around.

"Second-borns are always easier," people told me. "You're more laid back with your second," they'd say, but I was still listening with my first-time-mum ears – the ones that heard dismissal of mothers who found things harder than others. And sure, perhaps I am more laid back, but could that stop my baby from crying for hours on end? And if so, was I to blame the first time around? Do all babies and parents come from the same mould? Along with all those who find their second baby easier is an equal number who find them harder.

My second born is nearly a year old, and he is hard work. But the whole baby phase seemed to pass me by and I look back on it with fondness. And yes, part of this is because I knew I wouldn't be doing it again, but part of it was out of sheer relief that it wasn't like it was the first time around.

Why am I telling you this and why does it matter? Because I almost didn't have another baby at all for the reason that I thought all babies must be the same, or that I somehow inflicted the hard work upon myself the first time around by not being laid back enough. If I had had a baby like my second born first I would have been very smug, likely to come out with comments like "Isn't colic just a made up diagnosis?". And I meet mothers of 'easier babies' who do this; who speak of motherhood with ease and push the mothers who find it hard into a corner. If you've never experienced a baby with colic you have no idea how horrendous it is. If you've never had a sensitive baby who screams every time a bus goes past you have no idea how trying to calm him takes over your life.

And if your baby cries incessantly please know that it's not your fault. It won't always be this way. And should you choose to have another it may be easier, or it may be harder (unlikely), but it will be very different. No matter how many rules and routines you follow, no matter your own temperament, or your genetics, there is no given for what sort of little person you will be graced with. So let both the hard and the easy things humble you, not make you cold to those that struggle or bitter to those that seem not to. There may not be such a thing as an easy baby but there is such a thing as a bloody hard one. Hang in there, it will get easier.
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Thursday 8 October 2015

"My dog ate my son's reply slip" – Why parents shouldn't need to make excuses.

It is my son's school harvest festival today. I know that because it said it on the pink sheet of 'dates to remember' that I found in my child's book bag. In fact, it said it on several letters in the run up to it, along with the letter about the quiz night and the school photographs and the recycling day where they plan to make a giant paper-mache statue of a stressed-out mother with all the millions of letters that they get (okay, maybe not the last one, but you get my point.). But it is safe to say that I know it is harvest festival, along with the hundred other things I know about; like my son's reading practice, and the phonics homework, and the permission slips I need to return, and the children's parties he is invited to, and the presents I need to buy. I know, I know.

I knew about the harvest festival when I bought some cans of food ready to take in. I knew about the harvest festival when the school sent home a label the day before for my child to write his name and draw pretty pictures on so he could pin it to his food. I knew about the harvest festival when my phone buzzed and reminded me of it. I knew about the harvest festival when I was half way to school and Simeon's mum said 'are you going to the harvest festival?' And I said "Oh, crap, I forgot the tins." and she looked at me with that face that says 'awkward', as the mass canned food she had brought spilled out slightly from the bag in the bottom of her youngest's push chair.

When I got to my son's classroom the side was covered with nicely wrapped hampers and huge bags of food for the homeless, all with beautifully drawn labels with pretty pictures on and smily faces 'love from Emily' 'I hope you like the food, love Harry'. My hope of rectifying the situation by nipping into co-op for a few tins of beans (basically anything I could carry with my youngest strapped to my chest) had not appeased the situation. I started to feel my palms sweat as I coyly asked the teaching assistant for a pen so I could write my son's name on the three tins I'd brought in; spaghetti hoops, beans, and some sort of minced beef in a tin that my son had chosen. She looked at me blankly. Of course she did, I mean, how simple is it to get your child to write his name on a bit of paper and collate it to a tin of beans? Hard, actually, when they would much rather be watching Umizoomi and you're trying to feed a ten month old his breakfast. I then realised I hadn't got a bag for the tinned goods, so I had to take my youngest's nursery things out of his to put them in. This resulted in me carrying random baby clothes and a toy elephant whilst trying to help my eldest to put his book bag in his drawer, whilst also trying to stop my ten month old grabbing at my hair and leaving me with a bald patch. I left a trail of baby socks and baby-grows on the classroom floor, having to manoeuvre between the other parents' legs to pick them back up. And I walked out looking like a washer woman, also carrying a loaf of bread that I had bought for ourselves along with the tins because I hadn't had time to go shopping, and I thought we deserved toast more than homeless people. Obviously.

On leaving the classroom my son was shouting something at me and I was too busy trying to gesticulate which his bag of tins was so he would know that I did in fact leave him some to take. I walked out feeling rather flustered, a shit mother and a bad citizen.

What my son was gesticulating to me was that he had a new teacher for the day and he was excitedly pointing at her and smiling. He pointed her out to me because this new development in his life was important to him. He didn't really care that I had left him cans or not as long as I listened to him. And I actually made it to his harvest festival today, and his little eyes lit up as he noticed I was there. He beamed at me with the most beautiful smile – and I knew in that moment that he knew I cared about him. And it's in those moments you have to give yourself a break and realise that what the teachers or the parents think of you doesn't matter – that it doesn't it matter that I forgot to make him write his name on a bit of paper because I spent time playing games with him instead; that it doesn't matter if I forgot to donate buns to the cake stall because I was too preoccupied thrashing him at Connect Four. Who decides that mothers and fathers need homework on top of it all too?

Now don't get me wrong, I totally appreciate that parents need to help their children to learn or to give them permission for school trips, and god forbid that we stop donating things to homeless people, but when there is more than one letter a day to keep filing away and updating your calendar from it gives me information overload and I forget things. I forget about the important things because I'm bombarded with unimportant things, like how the fish pie has been swapped for the fish cakes on the school dinner rota. Do I give a shit?! And maybe there are parents that do, but surely most would be happy to let their child choose what they want for lunch out of the selection of perfectly healthy options, and let them learn to make their own decisions. And I know how hard it must be for schools to try and organise school dinners, festivals and school trips, or to follow policies and curriculums, but there's a reason I did not become a teacher and have no desire to be one. Please don't give me homework too.

Newsflash: parents aren't just parents (which, and I don't care how cliché it sounds, we all know is a full time job in itself) – they still hold down other full time jobs, maintain relationships, pay bills, cook tea, clean... they have a life just like every other citizen. At what point did someone decide that it's okay to give parents a million other responsibilities, on top of caring for their children with all their heart? It's the equivalent of becoming a chef and then being told you ought to learn about botany because it is vaguely connected to your job and the ingredients you use. Does it make the dishes taste any better? No. In the same way that creating hampers or baking cakes doesn't make me a better parent.

I sorted through my son's book bag last night, and amidst the letters of dates and information overload was a little envelope that said 'mum and dad'. I opened it to read a little note he had written:

"I just love you."


It's enough.

We're enough.

We might forget tins of beans but we're enough.

And all the other (unimportant) letters went straight in the bin.

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Thursday 1 October 2015

Were you labelled a 'sponger' for taking maternity leave?

I got a taxi last week. Now I'm sure you couldn't give a damn how I get from one place to another, but bear with me. It seems that whenever I get into a taxi I partake in the usual 'polite' conversation with the taxi driver in true Peter Kay style: "are you busy?" And conversation ensues about very British things like the weather or the traffic or, if I'm in the taxi for more than ten minutes, issues about society today. The problem, though, is that although most taxi drivers are perfectly nice people, many have made me more aware of prejudices against women, and, more specifically, mothers. This is, of course, nothing to do with their profession and perhaps more to do with the fact that I am more likely to chat to a taxi driver than a bus driver or an office worker. 

While I was pregnant with my youngest child I took a taxi to the hospital. I had already walked the three miles to work that day so I was hardly going to put my swollen ankles through any more walking (which for the purpose of this blog post implies that I am not a lazy person). I explained to the taxi driver that I was going for a prenatal appointment and then we got talking about children, and it was all very lovely and civil until he asked me if I knew the sex of my child.

"A boy," I said.

"Oh, that's good," he replied,  "It's better to have a boy because he'll make something of himself." 

I'm sure his comment was harmless, in the sense that most ignorant comments are; they don't hurt anyone initially but create a chain reaction of perpetual sexism that we seem to be perfectly ok with. Yes, men still earn more than women, but are we happy to just accept this as the norm? If I had a daughter would I tell her that's just the way it is and she should simply wish to be born a male? 

On another taxi journey with a different driver, we got talking about various things; the weather, the traffic and holidays. He spoke about his frequent holidays around the world, mainly to America. We talked about how American citizens only get two weeks paid holiday. The taxi driver was very sympathetic (as someone who clearly took a lot of holidays) and I agreed and said how we're very lucky, especially as American women can't take as much maternity leave either. 

"Oh I agree with that!" He said, as his face turned from a jolly smile to one of disgust, "Women sponging off employers, it's unfair for small businesses."

"And so what do you suggest mothers do?" I asked. Clearly he thought I didn't have any children because I was on my way to a meeting, and maybe he thought mothers don't go to meetings or invest back into the economy they've been 'sponging' off. 

I have had a lot of people reflect this view to me about women on maternity leave and my view is not unsympathetic to small business owners, but that does not leave me without a voice as a mother who works very hard. People are quick to say their opinion but very slow to read up on the facts.

"How much salary do you think my boss had to pay for me while I was on maternity leave?" I asked 
"Oh, I don't know..." He said, looking as though he was calculating a figure too large to comprehend.
"Nothing." I said, cutting him short.
"Oh." He said, looking slightly surprised.

I continued to say how I had complete sympathy for my previous boss, after all, he had to find my replacement, albeit probably on less of a salary than me, and he had to cope with me going to appointments in work time and was very accommodating. But let's not start getting arsy with women for sponging off employers when employers don't actually have to pay them anything at all. 

The taxi driver felt sorry for people who have less holidays than him, yet he probably doesn't care if his employer pays for his privilege of having more holidays. He's just glad of the opportunity to go on holiday and get paid for it. So, you say, maybe I'm not sponging off my employer, but I'm sponging off the government? To be clear, the government pays 90% of a mother's wage for the first 6 WEEKS of her maternity leave, and £139.58 a week for the next 33 weeks (that's £558.32 per month for around seven months, should you choose to take it). Now I am extremely grateful for the money the government invests into mothers, and that's not so I could lounge around watching Jeremy Kyle. When I took my first maternity leave I was in a state of shock as to how hard it actually was to raise a child. I found myself desperate to get back to work (despite the fact I'd earn very little after childcare), not because I didn't love my son, but because it's bloody hard work. But I stayed at home with him for nine months because, for me, I felt it was important. I figured that nine months in the scheme of things, was a small investment into the security of a little baby who would grow up 'to make something of himself.' (And I'd say the same if he was a girl). For other mothers this is different but, in my case, I wanted him to have one family member around – and, as I earned less, it made sense to be me. 

So what can I do with £550 a month? That's not enough to cover my mortgage, let alone feed my family of four and pay for clothes and all those Costa coffees you think I'm out supping all day. I am grateful for a husband who supported me, but even so, we had to seriously clamp down on our finances. It doesn't sound much like sponging, does it?

On my latest (and hopefully last!) maternity leave I looked after my children in the day and spent nap times and evenings building up my portfolio and making contacts in order to start my own business. I did so because I am passionate about what I do (to make something of myself?) and it made sense to do so now because if I went back to work I would be earning next to nothing after childcare. I also wanted to be in control of my hours so I could do school drop offs and have a little time with my kids. Admittedly this means I often work into the early hours but this is the price I willingly pay. I do not complain about my lifestyle, but I'd like a little more respect than to be labelled a sponger.

We have an attitude in this country that if you're not working hard in a paid capacity you are of little worth. I challenge you to try and look after two children for the week and tell me a week in your work is harder (and that's not me moaning about how hard life with kids is, I'm just genuinely asking you to consider what it's really like). Unless you are extremely unfortunate, juggling three jobs and scrubbing toilet floors to survive, I would bet you'd find 'work' an easier option; less rewarding, maybe, but easier none the less. I look back at both maternity leaves as hard work. £550 a month is hardly going to buy me a car is it? Looks like it's another taxi fayre for me. 

So what's the solution for the government? Should we stop having kids? But who would raise the next prime minister or the next rocket scientist? Should we put our children into institutions? But who would provide enough love and security to raise people who are compassionate and self assured? That's not to say it can't happen through institutions, or that it's guaranteed through family, but for me I know only myself and my husband can offer our children a special bond that will give them a good start in life. I couldn't care less what job they do as long as they have a good work ethic. I couldn't give a shit how much money my sons earn as long as they are kind.

So why are we so adverse to supporting mothers? Why do we value it less than paying an extra two weeks a year for people to go to the Bahamas? Why do we belittle women and tell them they are spongers and that they will never make anything of themselves, simply for having ovaries? I work bloody hard and I don't actually know many mothers who don't. In fact, most mothers I know are the hardest working people I've ever met, so don't give me any crap about how all mothers are spongers or that I don't invest back into my economy. Now excuse me while I go to another meeting.
...Taxi? I think I'll catch the bus.

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Thursday 24 September 2015

6 things you face once your kid starts school

My beautiful boy on his first day of school (and probably the last photo I will post of him on my blog, I promise!).

Ever since I gave birth I've had people giving me milestones to work towards - "don't worry", parents say, "it's so much easier when they start smiling", or when they can talk, or when they can wipe their own arse. They list the milestones and you tick them off and you count down to the next. Now don't get me wrong, I love my children to bits - and yes, I do cherish the special moments and the sloppy kisses and the cute things they do. But I also count down to those milestones like its a ticket to the bloody Bahamas. Sure it's lovely when your child hadn't learnt to talk yet, but that ain't so cute when they can't tell you what they want and they're now clawing your legs and screaming. Give me a child that can talk any day. So we tick it off and we give ourselves a pat on the back (seriously, do you not do that?!) and we count down to the magical day of school that everyone tells us we will feel both emotional and relieved over - the promise of the school days and now it is the time that the parent 'gets a break'. 

Yes, if you live in 1945.

Here are the problems you face when your kid starts school

1. The school runs
If you're not lucky enough to have a car and get stuck in traffic (oh joy!) then, like me, you'll have to walk. This, in theory, is lovely - a nice leisurely stroll to start the day with - If you were walking completely ON YOUR OWN. Instead you have a child that lags behind whining all the way up the hill that he's tired (until he sees his best mate and then they peg it up the hill doing batman impressions) - do you think I'm a complete sucker?!  Clearly. Because now I'm carrying his book bag, his drinks bag and, oh, did I mention, a ten month old in a sling? At what point did I think it was reasonable for him to give me his book bag to carry?! Sucker.

2. The hours
The people that tell you life gets easier after school probably put their kids into boarding school. In Austrailia. Seriously, someone tell me how I'm supposed to do things now that I can't be anywhere until 10am? Oh, and did I mention I need to leave at HALF PAST TWO to pick my kid up? That's hardly a working day is it? It's more of a long lunch break, in which to cram in a bit of work whilst you're shovelling in some leftover ham sandwiches. And if you put your child into 'before and after school' clubs, you've still got to fork out for it and make sure you're back from work in time to pick them up. 

3. The weather.
Some weird celestial weather god plans it to rain at 2:25pm - I SWEAR. Take today, for example, it has been sunny all morning, and now it's approaching 2:10 there are big black clouds looming, making you look like a proper 'school mum' in a frigging North face cagool. Who wears those things? People on expeditions and parents on school runs, that's who – practical parents who now have to dress for the weather. Oh, sure, you get the odd one who tries to fight it, turning up in the playground in Dune stilettos (mostly the mums), while all the other parents watch on smugly in their Hunter wellies (if you're posh), or ten year old trainers (if you're me).

30 mins before the school pick up

4. Home time
When I expressed exhaustion after looking after my pre-school son, everyone reassured me: 'wait till he goes to school that'll tire him out!' Yes, if he was a snail, but he is not a snail, he is a little boy who is full of beans and the only thing that tires him out is, well, waking TO school. Home time comes and he's wired. "What are we going to do now mum? I'm bored?" And he climbs on the sofas as bounces off the ceiling. Well who is tired at 3:30pm?! (Okay, me). After spending the last four years of him finishing nursery at 6pm, school is like a walk in the park – more like a sit in the park, actually. To top it off, you can't go anywhere because tea time is at 4:30, but an hour is waaaay too long to cope with a bouncy four year old in the house, so you have two options: go out the house and have tea at some god-awful fast food restaurant (there's only so many nights you can get away with it), give him a snack at 3:30 which means he won't eat his tea, or, my preferred option, tea at 3:30pm and try to make it stretch till 5:30pm, just make it last as long as possible so you can try and get more work done (if you're a nutter like me and work from home).

5. Letters
Coming out of my god-damn ears. I swear to god they make up stuff so that you get a letter every single day of the working week. Could they not just put the info about the cake stall in with the info about the school trip? Here's an idea; an online calendar so that everything is all in one place and can be easily updated. Nope, they prefer to kill off several forest-loads of trees so that they can cover them in endless notes in comic sans. My son's school has started sending emails now too - sometimes you think they're just repeats of the letters, but no, they like to interchange their communication methods just to make sure you're paying attention in true school-teacher style. Now I have to spend an hour a week sorting out my inbox as well as my paper bin, just to make sure I haven't missed anything. 

6. It's the end of an era.
A bloody hard one. Had I my son been of a less demanding nature I may well have got emotional about him starting school, but the only tear I shed was when I had to iron on labels to fifteen items of grey and burgundy uniform. Admittedly I'm very lucky – he loves school – he was more than ready to go. I didn't feel emotional, just proud of him; how he handled his emotions on his first day; how he sat on the mat next to 30 new children; how he complied with the rules and got excited about school dinners. Maybe you got emotional about your child starting school, as I thought I might, because it's such a massive thing: a marker of change for your family; the start of the new era; and the end of all that nappy changing, spoon feeding sleeplessness. My baby is no longer a baby anymore. 

And thank god, because it was bloody hard work. Parents who drop their kids off at school should be presented with a trophy - and a certificate saying well done you absolute bloody legend, you made it through nearly five frigging years of complete and utter chaos. 

And here's to more of it: the school trips and the parties and the fetes and the homework and the school clubs and friends over for tea. Here's to the parents in the playground in their pac-a-macs or stilettos – Either, or – well done for making it this far (you bloody legend, you).

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Monday 14 September 2015

YOU'RE tired?? 6 steps to responding to exhausted mothers

I planned to write a post about my son starting school last week. In fact, I had a number of ideas of topics to write about. 

But I was just too exhausted. 

I had bitten off more than I could chew.

I hit an all time low in parent-ville. 

I have suddenly had to tackle a whole new life phase; juggling being a 'stay-at-home' mother (until I have more childcare sorted) and a full-time freelancer (which kind of means working during nap times and till around 12am each morning). My ten month old still hasn't mastered the whole sleep thing either and is up at least twice a night and at 6:30am and then we've been dealing with various illnesses, doctors and hospital appointments, not to mention the added dimension of school runs and half days and reading ten flippin' letters that appear in a book bag everyday.... I know, I know, moan moan. It is a lifestyle I have chosen, albeit somewhat blindly; I take full responsibility. I am the master of my own destiny and all that shit - unless you have children, in which case mastering anything is bloody impossible.

Being of a somewhat honest nature I am quite open about being absolutely bloody knackered (can't you tell?!). This does not mean that I regret my children or my career choice, I do not have an ulterior motive when I say I'm exhausted; it simply means that I am tired. No kidding! On good days I am equally as honest about finding life fun, or being thankful for my kids when they are funny, kind or clever. But this time, I am just plain knackered. No, I am not the first mother on the planet to have a child that doesn't sleep through the night, nor am I the first to start a freelance career alongside looking after children, but I am not going to tell you that I'm okay when I'm not. 

Admittedly I need to make some changes so that I don't have a complete-and-utter-frigging-melt-down, but no doubt in a month or so I will be telling you how cute my kids are, or how chuffed I am to win a new client. Thousands of other mothers put on a front that everything is hunky dorey, and I'm not one of them. 

Now maybe I'm stupid to expect people to accept my honesty; to tell me the sleepless nights won't last forever, or to simply give me a god-damn hug. Instead, I am told how someone else's life is harder than mine: "you're knackered? Well I havent had any sleep for the past twelve fucking years, AND I have to walk the dog - do you have a dog?!

No, I don't have a dog. I cannot be tired.

The problem is that this doesn't make either party feel any better about their current life situation - it merely creates a culture of one-up man ship (down-man-ship), leaving every mother thinking that she doesn't have a right to feel tired every now and again, or has to justify it with ridiculous tales of how the one o'clock feed lasted two whole hours, and then the neighbour's car alarm went off and then..... Who gives a shit? You just wanted a hug, right? Or at least for someone to validate you - to tell you that, yes, you are tired, of course you are, this is a frigging impossible stage of life. Besides which, all we're doing is creating a culture where mothers feel they can't be truly honest for fear of being shut down by martyr-mothers. This is not a culture I want to live in. So, if you'd rather not let your parenting struggles make you all bitter and twisted, here are five ways to be kinder to other mothers when they say they are struggling.

Step 1: 
If you are a parent yourself, know that the parent who has just mentioned a state of tiredness is not hinting that you are NOT tired in any way shape or form (unless they are a little bit psychotic). They are not telling you that their life is worse than yours, you DO NOT have to justify yourself. 

Step 2: 
Conjure up in your mind all the times you have felt bloody exhausted (like, close to death itself) and now speak to this mother with as much compassion as you would perhaps like in those situations. Do not mention your dog.

Step 3: 
Acknowledge her. Do not say "me too" - if you have a good friendship then there will be plenty of opportunity for you to raise your own woes of tiredness/explosive poos/the time you locked yourself in the bathroom this week because you were scared of your two year old. If you do not have a good friendship then don't be surprised if she puts her tired fist into your unsympathetic face (okay, slightly harsh, but I wouldn't put anything past a mother suffering from extreme exhaustion). Sure, she may only have one kid and you have three but you have no idea what else is going on in her life. Acknowledge that life might just be a little tough for her just now.

Step 4: 
Encourage her - tell her that it won't be the same forever, give her some hope; something to look forward to. Tell her she's doing a good job, or, if you don't think so, say nothing and just hug her instead. Don't tell her to 'cheer up' or 'count her blessings' or you may have to take another hit.

Step 5: 
Offer help. How can you make life easier for her? If you're scared she'll ask you to look after her unruly children for her, offer specific things you can help with, like taking her out for a drink or bringing round a takeaway, or just offering her a cup of tea. 

Step 6: 
Check up on her. Ask her in a week if things have got any better. It doesn't take much but you may have lifted her spirits in amongst the chaos of life, knowing that you're there for her. Having little sleep means more susceptibility to illnesses and depression, so make sure she's okay.

I try to do these things when a parent-friend expresses that she or he is finding things a little tough. It's all too easy to compare ourselves – to play the martyr or think we have to prove that we've got it worse than anybody else. Parenting is pretty tough. Kindness goes a long way. So if you're feeling pretty tired today, you have a right to feel exhausted; you are doing the best you can. Hang in there, it won't be forever. But right now you have a choice; to let it make you bitter the next time someone else tells you they're tired, or to respond with kindness instead.

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Thursday 27 August 2015

Is it realistic to tell mothers that they can 'have it all'?

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Can mothers really have it all? Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

So I hope I am an inspiration for other mums that you can do it and go out and do both (work and motherhood) really well.” Jess Ennis-Hill

There has been a lot of news coverage about the incredible athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill since she won heptathlon gold. And rightly so. But Jess has had far more coverage than any other athlete in the World Championships, not just because she is just an incredible athlete, but because she is an incredible athlete AND a mother. Some have said that it's unfair to focus on motherhood – after all, hundreds of women achieve incredible things after giving birth and never get a mention. Others have justified the amplified encouragement by the physical achievement of, quite frankly, running further than to the co-op in banana stained leggings to fetch baby wipes thirteen months after giving birth. God, I was more impressed by the fact that she was wearing make up. 

But we cannot deny that, as mothers, our bodies go through A LOT. To achieve physical fitness to the point of winning a gold medal thirteen months after giving birth has never been done before. But some mothers take the hump - are we all just bitter and twisted that Jess actually gets recognition for being a mother too? Or do we want to create a culture where we acknowledge that motherhood is completely and utterly life changing and that women who bear children should be bloody celebrated for their achievements (and if that's running to the co-op for baby wipes in your banana stained leggings, you go girl). Jess' achievement is undeniably great, but let's not berate her for getting more praise because she's done this alongside motherhood. Does she not warrant more praise?

But the problem is, can we expect the same of ourselves? And no, I do not mean taking our banana stained leggings to an Olympic stadium (unless you really want to), but can we expect to have it all, whatever that looks like for us? Can mothers have it all, and do it all well at that? Jess has smashed the expectation placed on women that we can't do as well in our careers after we've had children - that we can't achieve things never been done in our fields of work, or family, or fitness. Jess has said she wants to be an encouragement that "you can do it and go out and do both (work and motherhood) really well.” 

And sure you can. But you might miss your Grans birthday, or forget to put the bins out, or have to get a cleaner. Lets be real about what it takes to achieve 'great things' as a mother. Jess was working-out on her garage floor when Reggie napped at four months old. Her determination has got her where she is; but other areas in her life had to take a back seat for a while, and without speculating too much, there are a considerable amount of other things that need to be done by mothers in nap times and evenings. 

"Before you become a parent, you think it will be easy," she said. "Then you're thrown into it and realise it's incredibly hard. I would be lying if I said I didn't have moments when I thought: 'What am I doing?'."

Jess Ennis-Hill

For me, motherhood gave me the drive to pursue my dreams of becoming an illustrator - like I realised that life was too short; that time was too limited to spend it on things that did not bring me satisfaction. I'm determined to achieve what I have always wanted, and what that has looked like for me has been making phone calls and sending emails in nap times, working on projects till 1am and then getting up with my children at 6:30am. It has meant going to meetings on four hours' sleep, putting on far too much cbeebies and skipping a lot of meals.

Other mums sometimes tell me I'm amazing for doing all this. Am I? The reality is that I'm behind on my washing pile and cleaning, I rely heavily on family and nursery, I have to budget more, I don't spend much time with my husband on evenings, I don't cook and I don't get seven hours of sleep a night. The fact is, that you probably wouldn't want my lifestyle unless you had something you were equally as passionate about that made it all worthwhile. With passion comes great responsibility - I have to take stock of how much quality time I've spent with my family; my husband has to hold me accountable for too many evenings at my desk; I have to make sure I am still meeting friends for drinks and drinking enough water. 

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I do not have it all. Jess does not have it all. She may have a lot more income to achieve far more than me, but she still has relationships to uphold, a child to rock to sleep, birthdays to remember and shopping to order. She still has the emotional weight of wanting to be there for her son yet investing considerable time away from him while she trains. And I for one think she's incredible, and yes, I think she's all the more incredible because she's a mother. There, I said it. I am totally in awe of her achievements because life is ten times harder with kids and getting the bloody buns out each week feels like enough of an achievement.

The fact is, I could never be an athlete like Jess. Why? Because I don't want to. I don't find getting sweaty in Lycra very fulfilling – I do it just so I can eat more Mars bars. But Jess, Jess loves what she does. To her, although she makes massive sacrifices to be as great as she is, my guess is that she considers it totally worth it to do what she loves. 

I have a friend who is a musician. She looks after her kids all day, cooks for her family, and then goes out to perform at weddings and events on evenings till the early hours. I have no idea how she does it.

I have another friend who is an obstetrician. She works long hours and on-calls and is highly respected in her field of work, yet still manages to be a loving and committed mother. I have no idea how she does it. 

I have a friend whose job is to look after her kids all day. She cooks and cleans and bakes cakes and thinks up activities for them. I have no idea how she does it.

And the list goes on. And we can either compare ourselves to all the other mothers doing amazing things and feel a failure, or we can give ourselves a huge pat on the back for the things we achieve. 

What are your passions? They don't have to get absorbed by motherhood, but just know that you will have to make more sacrifices to do them. And if there's nothing you're particularly crazy about that's okay too. If all you do is make yourself a cup of tea during your kids' nap times then know that you probably have far more balance in your life and will undoubtably be a nicer person to be around. We need more of you, actually. We need more mothers who are content in their own skin, happy with who they are without need for public affirmation. You are so incredibly refreshing to me and I long to be more like you (honestly).

So let's not only celebrate Jess' incredible physical achievement but the fact that she has done that AND is a mother. Seriously, when did we get so tight on dishing out praise? Is parenting not hard enough as it is without encouragement? Stop trying to deny that parenting makes life harder to achieve things. There's a reason why those running on the outside track get to start further forward - Can we not make allowances in the same way for our parenting setbacks? Let's create a culture of affirmation and support - you might not be able to have it all, but all you achieve is bloody amazing. 

Anyone know how to get banana stains out?

What do you think? Can mothers really have it all? Have you ever felt dismayed that every other mother seems to have it all together?

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Wednesday 19 August 2015

When will I stop writing about my children?

When I started writing my diary it was just for me; I needed to write it. And I still need to write like I need to eat - not only because I enjoy it but because it's like therapy for the all the exhaustion; something more stimulating than the mundanity of spaghetti hoops and fish fingers. When I became a parent it was a bit of a shock – I struggled with the birth, the sleeplessness, the expectations suddenly placed upon my shoulders.  And in the early days I wrote because I had to, for my sanity, in that old whsmith diary (the one that was supposed to be a log of my baby routine, not one full of my woes).

Since then I have extended my writing to all sorts of subjects surrounding parenting and the pressures we face. It has been an instrumental part in dealing with a lot of issues surrounding anxiety, self worth and femininity. For years I felt I was the only one who felt the way I did; the only one who admitted that she found the washing pile overwhelming, or the thought of leaving the house with two small children an impossible task. And I wrote it out just for me, yet others responded and shared their secrets with me: that they felt that way too.

The problem, though, is that at the centre of my writing are two small but very individual people; my children. They are the backbone of my writing, my decisions, my creativity, my world. And of course my blog posts will include them; their funny ways, their tantrums and their milestones. Writing about parenting, after all, includes children. And the thing about writing thoughts and diaries publicly is that they rarely just include you, but those that affect you deeply.

Do my children give me permission to tell the world about their toilet habits? Their mood swings? Or their aversion to sleep? How would I feel if someone wrote a blog based on me and the time I started shouting at the washing machine like a mad woman? Or the time I cried when I ran out of Nutella? Okay, so I just went there, but I can make myself sound better than I really am, turning my woes into a comedy that you can all have a giggle at because, more than likely, you will appreciate my writing over any weaknesses. If someone else wrote these things, they may depict me in a light that I would not be too pleased with.

My eldest son is approaching school. He is the reason I started writing - his birth and his first few months were the hardest and longest moments of my life. I wasn't allowed to admit that, because mothers aren't allowed to feel anger or resentment towards their children as it makes them sound like bad people. I found my son hard – his extreme sensitivity to the world around him; the way he cried when a car drove past or the wind blew in his face; the way I felt I was treading on egg shells every two minutes. And he's still that sensitive little boy, complete with an awareness of the world around him; a kind heart that wants to help others; an amazing sense of humour; a desire to learn. And sure, he still has plenty of things I find difficult. But he's four. Of course he's not always going to eat with his mouth closed or aim properly when he pees. Of course he's going to sulk when he doesn't get what he wants – we all do it, we've just learnt to suppress it into internal rage.

We're all big kids at heart, and we can learn from little ones. They bring out the very best and the very worst in us, but they give us a greater awareness of what is good and bad; what is fair and what's not; what life is about and what it is not. When I write about my children I am trying to engage with those of you who have children too, or maybe those who do not, to give you an insight into what it is like for me, in the hope that you relate and find encouragement. In other words, my children are a tool to reveal a greater vulnerability in me, a voice that speaks into the silence.

Some mothers would never speak badly of their children. They either have perfect children, or they aren't being entirely honest. And that's okay, perhaps they are doing their children a favour, or perhaps they're doing themselves a disservice and becoming a more stressed out parent because they need to keep up with the idyllic image they have created. All parents find their children difficult at times. Fact. I speak about it openly to let parents know they are not alone, or for them to relate to my words and at worst have a giggle about the time I walked outside with baby sick on my back, or the time I flashed my boob to the postman. But what of my children? Can I continue to write about parenting without bearing intimate details about them?

When I was six years old I sometimes wrote secrets. Now, to you or I they would be quite silly, cute even, and you would have no problem with telling anyone about them, because it's just something a kid wrote, right? And one day an adult found what I had written and they laughed at it, and they shared it, and I felt betrayed. I was just a kid, but those things were important to me – they mattered. Children know and understand far more than we give them credit for, especially the sensitive ones we want to write about the most. Sometimes I'll see old friends and they will tell my son that they know all about him and, unless they are psychic, they have gathered all their information from social media. And what you read about him may well be true, but it's true only through my eyes. The time he had a tantrum in  the supermarket, that both made my day hell and made an excellent blog post, may well have been because I hadn't spent any time with him that morning and he was crying out for my attention. My point is, sure our lives are made difficult by our children, but do we take the time to see inside the minds of these little people and try to figure out what's wrong?

I promised myself that when my children started school I would be extra careful what I wrote of them; that if I wanted to write personal details about them I would ask their permission, or at least consider what image I am portraying of them. As my children get older I do not want them to be the children of that blog – you know, the one with embarrassing photos that their school friends can laugh at. I can still be honest without sharing intimate details, and I can still write with or without children. And sure, I'll continue to write about the highs and lows of parenting, but it will most likely be more episodes of me shouting at inanimate objects or running to the shops to replenish the Nutella.  Speaking of which...

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Wednesday 12 August 2015

Why mums just want to have fun

When I got asked on a girly holiday abroad by one of my close friends I smiled and said I'd think about it, knowing full well that of course I wouldn't actually go. Of course I couldn't go on holiday without my family; of course I couldn't leave my children for five days, especially not my eight month old. 

But see, the thing is, I'd never even been on a girly holiday before. In the diary I wrote, aged 16, I wrote a list of my hopes and dreams for the future, and I'd innocently scribbled the hope of a girly holiday, as though that's all a girl could ever wish for in life. Not only a girly holiday, but one to Ibiza where I got to dance on a beach. Simple things. But for one reason or another, I never went. And before I knew it I found myself running to catch a plane with two kids; swapping sunbathing for chasing children round a pool and coming back feeling like I really needed a holiday (because you can't class that as a holiday, right?). Mums love hanging out with their families (at least some of the time!), but we have to admit that it's bloody exhausting. And then we feel guilty for not enjoying every minute with them, or for begrudging getting interrupted on the sun lounger. We feel like we can't complain or have any time to ourselves. 

The more I mused on the prospect of a girly holiday, the more I realised how much I needed one. So what if I actually went? Maybe other mums would have jumped at the chance straight away, but my head was filled with the usual voices over every decision I make; you're too old; you can't do that now you have kids; it costs too much money; its not sensible. Sensible?  We teach our kids that they need to be sensible from day one, we drill it into them from an early age to play it safe; to avoid risk or failure of any kind. And although it's great to teach our kids to be wise, being wise is an entirely different thing to what the word sensible has become. If I didn't have enough money to go on holiday, it would be wise not to go, but if I did and I felt it should be saved for the next potential house maintenance, that would be sensible. Spot the difference? I was being entirely sensible about not going to Ibiza, as though my kids needed a mother who was at their beck and call every hour.

So I owed it to my sixteen year old self to go on a girly holiday to Ibiza, and I did just that. Before I knew it I was dancing on a beach to house music in my bikini, and I think I could've cried with happiness (Simple things, I know). We went for meals, we had cocktails, we danced, we laughed, we sunbathed and we swam in the sea. I had no one tug on my arm for an ice cream, no one ate any sand, I didn't have to cut up anyone's pizza or help anyone into bed (though it was close!). 

Some people seemed surprised when I said I was going abroad without my kids. I had many a raised eyebrow, many a confused look – you're leaving your kids behind? How old do you think you are, sixteen?! Yes, sometimes. And I'm still the same person with the same ambitions, though maybe they've evolved a little to accommodate things like more sleep. But what is it with mums and me time? Why is everyone so adverse to us getting it, not least ourselves? Why do we instantly discredit anything that is solely about our own pleasure as though that means we are being entirely selfish?

My kids got to stay with their grandparents while I was away, which my eldest was giddy about for two whole weeks beforehand. They got to go out for pizza with their dad, go on nice walks and get shed loads of attention. And when I got back I got to cuddle my four year old for a whole half hour which I don't think has ever happened in his existence to date. My eight month old beamed at me like a Cheshire Cat. I actually felt appreciated for a rare moment, and realised that me time is actually a very good thing for all of us. Me time is about giving my children theirs; allowing them to explore life without me for a while. Me time is also about letting my children know that I have a life outside of them; that my world does not revolve around them. Sure, I have sacrificed a lot for them, and will continue to do so, but that doesn't mean my life isn't equally as important as theirs.

So the next time a thought pops into your head telling you you can't do something because you're a mum, I challenge you to, well, challenge yourself. You are still your own unique person, with all the brilliant things that make you tick, you owe it to your children to invest in them and set an example for them to invest in themselves too. 

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Wednesday 5 August 2015

Are parents expected to be 'morning people'?

I've never been a morning person. I used to spend the first hour of my morning avoiding all contact with humanity and sipping a strong cup of tea. Now I have to get up at least an hour earlier than I previously did and with no chance of a cuppa, let alone a silent period of time to 'come round' to the day with all of its sensations; the noise, the traffic, the computer screens, the schedules, the interactions... Urgh. 

This morning I peeled my head from my pillow at 5:48am to stop my youngest from waking up the entire neighbourhood. My husband had got up at 3:30am with him so I could hardly use the excuse that my husband is a 'morning person' in order to get up with demanding infants. The morning feed has become a blur; when do you class the first feed of the day? 3am? 6am? Either way, I would far sooner be asleep.

Luckily this morning my eight month old went back to sleep at 7am, but my eldest woke up at 7:03, meaning I had a whole three minutes of filling the kettle, switching it on, waiting for it to boil and NOT making myself a cup of tea. 

My eldest bounded down the stairs, excited about the fact he was staying at his grandparents this evening, and although the prospect of having a break from the kids for a while is highly appealing, the day (or week) before this actually happens is ten times the work;  watching as your child bounces off the walls all day, banging their head several times in the process. My eldest was wired. "Mummy, mummy, can we do this??"  "Mummy, do you know what...??" "Mummy, what's that??" "Mummy why does that do that??" "Mummy...." ...All said in a shrill, high pitched tone whilst he bounced or ran around the living room like a monkey on speed. Sometimes I think I should just record myself saying 'I don't know' so I can play it on repeat to him in a morning to save me the trouble of repeating myself. Of course I'm not listening, I don't listen to anyone before 8am, especially not without a cup of tea. 

After helping him with a sticker book, learning about how plants grow and making him breakfast (all with the sound track of mummy, mummy...), I finally made myself some tea and toast.. Ahhhhhh. Now tea and toast sounds lovely, doesn't it? It's the sort of thing you have alongside a newspaper and radio four, or perhaps with an open window to the sound of birdsong. What tea and toast looks like for me is literally Downing the tea before I get interrupted and then shovelling bits of toast in whilst I deal with cleaning my child's jam off the floor, or mopping up his drink, or feeding child no.2 at the same time. 

My husband came down the stairs and told me he hadn't been back to sleep since 3:30am, and instead of feeling incredibly sorry for him that he was lacking in sleep, I got angry. You mean, you were already awake at 5:48am?!! You mean you could have, in your sleep deprived state, got up and done something quite untaxing like feed a small child??! Besides which, my own exhausted, non morning person state (which is not my usual middle of the day state, just in case you are unfortunate enough to meet the former) was feeling like her own exhaustion was getting entirely overlooked. I mean, I'm not talking about just the sleep exhaustion, I'm talking about the mental exhaustion of spending three hours solid with children first thing in a morning. And I don't know about you but if someone comes round for a cuppa and is still there three hours later, I start to make hints that I have other things to do; like pretend I need to go out when all I really want to do is sit for an hour in a chair on my own in complete silence.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you this story of my morning, other than to write out my angst as therapy for the loss of my morning 'me' time. Maybe parenting has totally transformed you to be ready for anything in a morning? Not me. You could say I have an attitude problem, or that life is just tough for parents of young kids. Maybe it's both. But if you meet me today and you offer me a cup of tea don't be surprised if I hug you (and leave you to go and drink it quietly on my own).

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Wednesday 29 July 2015

Why I have a favourite child

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When you have one child you cannot imagine loving another child the same. You have journeyed with him from day one, cared for him in the most intimate ways, and studied every line and curve on his face; his button nose, his perfect ears, the way his eyes light up when he sees you (or food). The thought of having another child seems alien when you just have one – how can you possibly have any more to give another child? How can you possibly love another just as much?

People told me I would love another one just the same when he or she came along and I quickly discovered that that was not the case. After giving birth for the second time, I was presented with a baby that seemed to just coo at me at every waking moment, who snuggled into me every chance he got – a far cry from my eldest who, well, cried. A lot. And as all mothers do in secret, I compared the two and felt I had won the lottery this time around. A baby that hardly cries? Is that even possible? Baby number two was undoubtably my favourite.

My eldest took to him like a dream; he suddenly matured into a caring and considerate older brother, cuddling him and making him laugh. He even did things for me to help out, helping me put washing away and fetching me his baby clothes. He watched intently as I changed the newborn's nappy, asking me questions about how the tape worked and where the wee goes. And on mornings when I'd had bad nights feeding he would allow me to nap while he climbed into bed with me and played on my phone. My eldest was undoubtably my favourite.

Yes, I have a favourite child. Which one? Well, it depends entirely on the day. Today, it is my eldest because he made me laugh till my sides ached this morning, whereas my youngest whined and wouldn't eat his breakfast. Tomorrow my eldest could refuse to get dressed and pee all over the bathroom floor and I would undoubtably be favouring my youngest again. You see, all parents have favourites, but what this really means is favouring the behaviour that makes life the easiest. In theory, not many wish for a hyperactive child over one who sits and reads books quietly, but that doesn't mean you would want to change a child just because they are more demanding (maybe sometimes). You see how they tick, and why they prefer the things they do and you appreciate that they are very different. You try to encourage them into the unique person they are, but that doesn't mean you don't just wish for an easy life sometimes, who doesn't? But easy isn't alway best.

Do I love my children just the same? No. I do not. I do not love them in the same way at all. They are entirely different people. I probably love them the same amount, but this is impossible to quantify. In some respects they are both my favourites; I look at my eldest and instantly favour him (as long as he's not picking his nose), and I look at my youngest and instantly favour him too (as long as he's not puked on my jumper). I sometimes dart between the two and feel so incredibly overwhelmed with favouritism it's untrue, but I can't quite decide which one for.

Favouritism is conditional, love isn't. But favouritism can come across as love sometimes. I can get angry with my son for doing something wrong and he can presume I don't love him any more. I can praise him for doing something good and he can presume that my love is earned by these things. It's important I separate the two things so my children know they are loved unconditionally regardless of their actions. I may not alway favour what they do but I will always love them.

So I guess my point is that having favourites is inevitable, but favouritism needs to be treated for the fickle thing it really is. In my opinion children need to recognise the difference so that they are not continuously seeking approval in life, nor rebelling against it. They are beautiful people just because of who they are; they do not have to work for it. If they want to be equipped with good tools for life it will be a benefit to them to favour some behaviour over others, to be selective about praise and criticism, but to always see the good and cultivate it. A 'difficult' child is one that makes life difficult for adults because he doesn't follow the rules or stay quiet, but this doesn't mean he is unlovable, or that those things cannot be channelled into really good things. Disapproval of behaviour doesn't mean disapproval of them, and this needs to be clear. You may be surprised just how powerful saying I love you is. It's the same whatever age your children are, whatever they've done in life. You do not have to accept what they do, but only love can change things.