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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