‘What are you up to today then?’ ‘I thought I might go to baby massage at the Children’s Centre, then I might make a start on the ironing this afternoon’ ‘Well, that sounds fun. Quite a busy day!’ So would go the morning conversations between myself and my husband during my first maternity leave. After the final ‘busy’ comment, I would generally stare at him with a contempt I would struggle to muster up for any offence these days. Busy? Seriously? The patronising assumption that an hour of waving your baby’s limbs around followed by discussing signs of teething with a group of women I barely knew hardly counted as ‘busy’ or ‘fun’ in my eyes.
I loved being a mum, but in those early months I struggled with maternity leave in a way I never expected. It was boring, the days stretched out and, above all, it was lonely.
This week Action for Children published a report stating that a quarter of parents feel lonely, isolated and ‘cut off’. They claim this level of loneliness is shocking, but I’m not shocked.
Prior to giving birth my days had been genuinely busy. Working as a secondary teacher, I barely get a moment to myself. At times it drives me crazy, but I’m never isolated and in 7 years I don’t think I’ve ever clock watched. I can honestly say I love working.
Yet when my son was born, I made this choice to give it all up for a year and revel in the domesticity of motherhood. While I’m glad I did, there were definitely times when I found it more frustrating than fulfilling. I’m far from the only person to ever feel this way, and it certainly isn’t a modern phenomenon. In 1963 Betty Friedan published the hugely influential book ‘The Feminine Mystique’, credited this book with kick starting the second wave of feminism. In it, she exposed the unhappiness felt by many supposedly well off women, blessed with a comfortable home and a healthy family, who simply couldn’t find fulfilment through domesticity alone.
If such struggles were felt by mothers who had grown up in a society expecting such a life, I wonder if this loneliness and disaffection isn’t felt all the more keenly by women of our generation who have grown up to expect so much more? These days many mothers have spent years educating themselves, working and often carving out successful careers. To go from a respected colleague to a stay at home mum is never going to be easy. It’s not just the lack of work colleagues, but everything that goes along with it: the structure, the intellectual stimulation, the post work socialising, the sense of purpose and achievement, and having something to talk about other than snot, vomit and poo! Viewed in this light, the loneliness felt by many new mothers is anything but shocking.
However, far from a sentence of loneliness, parenthood can also be the doorway to a whole new community. I lived for years in London never meeting a neighbour, but now know so many they even offer to babysit so we can go out! These days I can go shopping and run into friends in a way which I never thought possible in a busy metropolis: I was happy to believe the ‘everyone in London is grumpy and will never talk to you’ stereotype. After weeding through the boring baby chat, I’ve even made a couple of good ‘mum-friends’ who I hope will remain part of my life for many years to come.
Plus, for those of us who really can’t cope, at least the work of people like Friedan means we do have the choice to return to work when we just can’t take any more baby yoga!
Having said all that, my due date is a week away and I’m about to start this whole stay at home thing again. Could someone maybe pop round in a few weeks and make sure I haven’t gone completely mad??
Yesterday, after a trip to visit a friend and her baby (let’s face it, practically all my social engagements involve babies and small children these days), I nipped in to the chemist for a few essentials.
Earlier this week, the world of Twitter made me aware of this exercise in smug self-satisfaction, thinly disguise as an article about the difficult decisions of modern parenthood.
If (unlike me apparently) you have better things to do with your life than read mediocre – bordering on dull – parenting articles online, here’s the general gist:
Journalist talks about all the ‘sacrifices’ she has made for her children – i.e. Taking them to football practice on a weekend, being involved in their school and social lives, not getting hammered every night of the week and actually paying some attention to them – as opposed to all those other feckless parents she is friends with who apparently spend their lives bemoaning to anyone who will listen how outrageous it is that they are expected to abandon any aspect of their pre-parenthood life to actually care for their own offspring. Her general message: other parents are crap, I am good and I want everyone to know about it.
It was rubbish, but it got me thinking. If I scanned all my blog posts for the phrase ‘pre-baby’ or ‘pre-parenthood’, I fear that to the untrained eye it may well appear that I am one of those feckless parents who bemoans the fact that their life has to change just to accommodate a being so small they could probably squish themselves inside a dustbin during hide and seek and not be found until calling the police had become a serious consideration.
Obviously life changes considerably when you have a child, often more than you expect: you have to get up much earlier; you have to eat dinner so early you are hungry again by 9pm; you can’t just sit on your backside as soon as you get in from work – you actually have to do stuff; you have to respond to every social request with either ‘I’ll check the family calendar’ or ‘I’ll see if we can get a babysitter’; and forget about any kind of spontaneity like post work pub trips, they are a thing of the past.
It’s not such a bad thing. These days, every time I get the chance for a post-work pint I’m so excited at the novelty that I’m inevitably disappointed when I realise that it’s largely just people sitting around and moaning about work – like the staff room at lunchtime but with alcohol and much more expensive.
It’s a clear case of ‘the grass is always greener’. There are plenty of things I remember fondly from my youth, but that doesn’t mean I expect to relive them now. I remember as a teenager in my goth-inspired phase sneaking into the local dodgy club underage, dressed in baggy combat pants, a t-shirt emblazoned with a character from children’s TV and more eyeliner than Alice Cooper. It was great, but you couldn’t pay me enough to do it now. As a student it seemed a great idea to go out every now and then wearing fairy wings for no apparent reason, but if someone suggested it this weekend I’d be backing towards the door within seconds. Only a few years ago, I remember staying up every Saturday night until sunrise with a different array of people spread across the living room floor each weekend. It was amazing, and to be honest I do still miss it – but then I remind myself that I also hated my job, had no idea what to do with my life and spent my weekdays commuting in the sweaty pit of the central line, desperate for the weekend to provide an escape from the drudgery.
Pre-baby life was great, but that was then, and now post-baby life is just as great too. There’s no point comparing – it’s a totally different beast.
No one deserves a medal simple for accepting things have moved on. That’s just life. Our identities are made from where we have been and what we have done, and it’s the new and different things we do which make us more interesting. We don’t need to abandon who we are, everything we do and everything we hold precious to embrace that, we just adapt. No one writes articles about how amazing they are because as adults they have accepted they have to go to work and therefore can no long while away the hours scrawling notes about who they fancy on their pencil cases, or praising people who no longer attempt to subsist on a diet of Dominos pizza and Redbull once they’ve left uni. It’s called growing up!
Whether you like it or not we all have to do it in the end, otherwise you’ll end up as one of those scary middle aged women who lurk in the corner of Yates’ pubs, wearing clothes from the teenage rails in New Look and drinking Bacardi Breezers long after they’ve gone out of fashion.
Now that would make a much more interesting article!
My husband has never done Valentine’s gifts or cards. In 7 years together he has stayed ever true to his convictions that it’s all a consumerist, capitalist mugs-game and that if you really love someone you’ll show it when you want to, not when you’re told to. Although I may, on occasion, have been slightly jealous when people posted of surprises they’d received on Facebook, I have always respected his determination to avoid this ‘holiday’ – if only because it means I also don’t have to bother. There has been only one exception.
Last year I asked my Cupid-hating husband for a present on Valentine’s Day – an afternoon home alone. One day, whilst whiling away the hours of my maternity leave singing about the wild adventures of some worthy farm animal and his ever-cheerful friends, it occurred to me that I had never had so much as an hour alone in our house. We had moved in one week after our son had been born and since that moment, whenever I’d been home so had he. I’d had occasional moments away from him – evening classes, book group, nights out, trips to visit friends – but I’d never so much as sat on the sofa or been to the loo in my own home without company.
As it required no involvement in the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day, my husband agreed and headed off for an afternoon of father-son bonding.
Home alone for the first time in nearly a year, and the first time ever in that house, I revelled in the silence. I lazed on the sofa and read, uninterrupted, for hours. Though at times I missed the burbling and ramblings I’d gotten used to (the baby’s, not my husband’s), it was a chance to be ‘me’ again, the me I’d been before I’d become a mum and lost the right to waste hours of my life on whatever indulgence took my fancy at that moment – be it reading Dostoevsky, watching The OC or simply doing nothing at all! When it came time to go and meet my family, I felt rested, rejuvenated and eager to resume my role as wife and mother, glad of my time in an empty house.
Fast forward over a year and I can barely remember the last time I was home alone. Returning to work largely gave me back that pre-baby identity I’d worried about losing and now that the days of breastfeeding and newborn clinginess are over I can head out to be the ‘old me’ fairly regularly (to be fair to my husband, he holds up his aim to show he cares all year round fairly well by doing more than his fair share of solo evening parenting with barely a grumble). Still, when he suggested taking the boy with him to visit a friend this afternoon, leaving me unexpectedly by myself, a small part of me lit up with selfish glee. I could get ahead with schoolwork, do the ironing that’s been clogging the sofa for two weeks and watch a whole film without worrying about burning or neglecting a child, or sack it all off completely and spend the whole afternoon buried in a book with a constant stream of coffee and biscuits at my side. Bliss!
Except…I can’t quite get used to it. I’ve read, I’ve napped, I’ve watched some trashy TV, but somehow I feel lost.
Maybe it’s because my new glasses haven’t arrived and reading is more tiring than it should be. Maybe it’s because I finished watching Gossip Girl last week and haven’t found a suitably crap America teen drama replacement (suggestions?). Maybe it’s because it’s still a little too cold to sit on the balcony and watch the world go by.
Or maybe it’s because there isn’t an ‘old me’ anymore. And there isn’t a new me. Somewhere along the way the boundaries have blurred and I can’t quite define the mum in me as separate to the non-mum me. Somewhere in the last year I’ve figured it out without ever realising it: returning to work, getting a social life and embracing motherhood have combined without me spotting it.
So I look back to the image of my lazy self, whiling away the hours watching Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice for the fifteenth consecutive time and wonder how the hell I could stand doing so little? And all the time with no one I hitting me in the face with jigsaw pieces or inexplicably piling apples from the fruit bowl in my lap and giggling? How long ago did I buy that ‘Improve your French’ book on which the spine is still unbroken? Probably because I was too hungover to bother opening it most weekends. I think back to those days not with pity, nor regret, nor envy, nor nostalgia, because they’re never coming back, and they’ve never really gone. Like my identity, they’ve subtly woven in with family life. The French book remains untouched; I still wake up hungover on occasions, but these days I get over it pretty bloody quickly or else I’d end up vomiting while changing nappies; and I still have that Pride and Prejudice box set. And, come to think of it, another hour before the boys come back…
Although my job involves standing in front of and talking to groups of teenagers all day, and despite the fact that in my youth I had dreams of a career in acting, I have never been a fan of public speaking. To start with I think I’m fine, but the longer I speak the more my hands start to shake, the words tumble out faster and faster, and my voice starts to quiver until sympathetic audience members look at me as if they’re worried I’m about to cry.
So imagine my pride when, during a workshop at last weekend’s Women of the World festival, I not only managed to stand up and speak, but received two spontaneous rounds of applause! I was so proud, but am under no illusions that my public speaking skills were being applauded for their own merit. It was just because what I said were the kind of simple, common sense comments on parenting and being a woman that can be all too easily lost in a world of too much information, constant media bombardment and so-called expert advice.
Put simply, I said obvious, not just cliched stuff – and people liked it.
The workshop was entitled ‘Own your own body’ and led the audience through a series of interactive discussions about women’s attitude towards their bodies. This section was entitled ‘Mother-Daughter relationships’ and was initiated with the suggestion that there is too much pressure on mums to ‘snap back into shape’ straight after giving birth (I always like how that phrase implies we were all in shape to start with!). After damning ‘the media’ and ‘celebrities’ for putting all mums under pressure to go on fitness regimes before the cord has even been cut, the workshop leader went on to suggest that this anxiety could be transmitted to children through mother’s milk and this was perhaps why so many girls grow up with eating disorders.
I looked around to see a range of faces nodding wisely and found myself a little lost. I had rocked up at this festival for women expecting myself to agree with everything I heard: whooping, cheering and shouting ‘you go sister!’. Yet somehow, despite my burdening fear of looking a total moron in front a room full of women I respected, I felt my hand creeping up to disagree.
As a microphone was thrust enthusiastically I my direction, I looked to my friend for support. She nodded and I found the strength to speak… ‘Well, first of all. I don’t think we should just demonise all celebrities. They’re people too and whatever pressure we’re feeling, they’ve probably got just as much if not more. I doubt they’re deliberately setting out to make us feel crap.’
Stony silence. Maybe there were one or two nods, but nothing audible. Oh god. What was I doing…
‘And, well…I had a baby 20 months ago and if anything I feel the opposite of what you’re saying. I may be a bit wobbly around the edges, but I have more important things to think about these days than what my stomach looks like in a bikini (not that I have enough money to go anywhere which requires one anymore). Besides, my body grew a person and pushed it out. I think that’s pretty bloody amazing.’
I had them. Cheers, applause, one woman even stood up and waved excitedly at me from across the room. She didn’t quite shout ‘you go sister,’ but her grin implied it.
‘Also…’ I said, emboldened by my new found fan base, ‘I have an issue with the title of your section. Why is it about mother-daughter relationships? Don’t you think that boys have body issues too? And don’t fathers have a role to play in fostering healthy self-esteem? Why are we drawing gender boundaries when we’re talking about tiny babies who have no needs other than food and love?’
I was annoyed. How could you simplify the complex array of issues which lead to low self-esteem, body dysmorphia and disordered eating habits to the fact that a mum was stressed about losing her baby weight in the early weeks. Plus, if there were any new mums in that audience who were stressed about their weight, you’re hardly going to alleviate that stress by telling them they’re inadvertently passing it on to their newborn! To be honest, I found it borderline offensive. And of all the places to start assigning gender stereotypes (little girls will have issues with their weight) to tiny, tiny babies, at a conference which is trying to break down gender boundaries seemed ironic bordering on ridiculous. If you assume it’s going to happen, don’t you risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? Especially if you imply that the only person in the family who can help overcome this is another female.
By the time I’d finished my moan I had them eating out of my hand – which incidentally was still shaking like it was subject to a very localised earthquake.
Yet a week later, my words still ring in my head. Was I right to disagree? Did I simplify things, or just complicate them further? And if I disagree with their view on tackling body image from an early age, what should we do?
What do you think?
Parenting is tiring and stressful. Sometimes we just need a bit of time to ourselves to rest and recuperate. But with a never ending to do list and hoards of people clawing for your attention, how on earth is a mum supposed to relax?
Here a re a few ideas…
1. A long soak in the tub.
Dig out the Boots Christmas gift sets, run a warm bubble bath, light some candles and maybe even pour yourself a glass of cold, white wine. Mmm. Why not go the whole hog and cue up some new age, hippy dippy, plinky plonky relaxation music on YouTube? No one could fail to wind down in that environment…
Though it is a little disconcerting to be soaking your troubles away under the watchful eye of three rubber ducks and and a wind up fish. Lean the wrong way and you’ll accidentally set off a cacophony of squeaks, tunes and bubbles.
Never mind, you can always distract yourself with a good book, and that new Thomas the Tank Engine potty chair is the perfect height to rest it on while you reach for your wine.
2. Beautify yourself
Beauty is only skin deep, but sometimes a little bit of skin deep pampering is all you need to feel human again. Put the little one to bed, lay out your cosmetics bag and get those claws looking beautiful again.
The problem is doing your nails is no longer a simple absent minded, in front of the telly job. These days it’s more like mission impossible. You don’t have the luxury of choosing a colour – it’s been so long since you used them they’ve all either turned into glue or curdled like last week’s milk. Even when you finally find a colour that works (sparkling gold is suitable for middle aged mums, right?), it’s a race against time to apply it and manically blow it dry as you live in constant fear of an inexplicable roar from upstairs, crashing into your peace and quiet like an explosion: ‘MAMAAAAAAAA,’
3. Time off
Sometimes you just need to book a babysitter and get away from it all. Go the whole hog and head out on a date. Get a bit of some romance in your life.
Of course, between giving the babysitter a monumental list of instructions and saying goodnight, it’ll take you ages to get out the door. Then you’ll probably spend the first half an hour of dinner checking your phone, wondering if bedtime went smoothly without you there: desperately hoping it did, but also secretly hoping it didn’t because that might mean you’re not sufficiently missed. Plus, what’s the point in having a break if that’s the day the little one decides to behave like an angel? Little git – probably does it on purpose!
Eventually you’ll get over the worry and settle into a real grown up night out. You’ll talk about work, about current affairs, about…about…no, wait, you’ve run out of things to talk about. You’ll have to resort to talking about the kids. Ah, well. At least wanting to talk about them reminds you how much you like them, and why you gave up all this going out stuff in the first place, and that’s a good thing to remember in itself. I think.
4. A girls’ night out
Slap on the slap, squeeze on the heels and head out for a night on the town. It might not be ‘relaxing’ so to speak, but it’s a bloody good way to let you hair down. Just ignore the thought of a hangover the next day, and the fact that it’ll be 10 times worse than it used to be because you’re tolerance now is about the same level as a field mouse who’s been taking part in dry January.
Also, try not to be offended when the rest of the girls keep referring to you like you’re their grandmother – suddenly the old and sensible one who they assume will be unable to talk about anything but children, when in fact the whole reason you’ve come out is to escape all that! You can always take comfort when at the end of the night they’re crying into their vodkas about their latest relationship mini-drama or the fact that they couldn’t get the bar man to give them his number (presumably they didn’t notice you’re in a gay bar), safe in the knowledge that while life may be quiet, at least you don’t have all that crap to deal with anymore!
5. Culinary indulgence.
Sod it. Nothing else seems to be working. Stick with what’s simple: crack open the wine and pass me a creme egg.
Over the last couple of years, I have noticed more and more signs that I am approaching middle age. Not so much the fact that I am married, have a child and own a house (How did that happen?). No, I can exist alongside all those things and cling onto the belief that I am still the same person who used to stay up to 5am on a Saturday night, wine in hand, dancing to Motown on my sofa.
No, it’s the little things that remind me I’m getting older: the fact that I now mainly listen to radio 4; the occasions I opt for flats over heels for work; the fact that I now prioritise speed and practicality by cycling to work in 20 minutes where before I would happily have put up with a 45 minutes busy commute just to be sure I had good hair for the rest of the day.
The onset of middle age is a slow, sneaky process. Yet there is one issue for which my middle aged-ness abandons its cloak of secrecy and runs screaming down the corridor of my life, proudly announcing its existence.
I knew it was time to end my maternity leave when I saw my husband’s face when I first told him about my bin campaign. The first time we’d brought my mother-in-law to see our new home we’d been apprehensive (as an ex-local council in a fairly on-the-edge-of-ok area we knew it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d see Kirsty and Phil gushing over) but excited – it was our first proper home and we loved it. I’d expected her to question our decision to live on the first floor with no lift when we had a new baby, and the graffiti on a nearby wall was badly timed to say the least. But I had never expected her actual first comment: “there are a lot of bins”.
Fast forward 18 months and I not only agree with her, it’s become a personal vendetta. There are a lot of bins – big, ugly metal monsters which sit outside our block overflowing with black bags. It’s not pretty, but it’s practical for an area housing lots of people, and reasonably well hidden round the back and out of sight. No, it’s not necessarily the system of bins that bothers me, it’s the people who don’t use it. The people who are too lazy to take their rubbish to the big ugly bin area. The people whose lives are so full they don’t have time to walk the extra 30 seconds to the other end of the block to dispose of their household waste and instead feel it is appropriate to just dump it on the floor in front of the main door, providing a veritable feast of old tea bags and half eaten chicken bones to local cats and foxes, and an almost irresistible, bacteria-ridden temptation for a nosy toddler.
(Even as I type a small surge of self-loathing is coursing through my veins. ‘Stop typing’ shouts my inner, younger self. ‘Stop ranting at strangers about your bins. Stop it and get a life!’)
One day, while on maternity leave, it all got too much. I got in touch with the council and the housing association and complained. 2 days later a letter was sent to everyone in our block reminding them of proper procedure. My husband looked at me and groaned. Still things didn’t change.
I complained again, suggesting perhaps they should provide more big ugly bins in more easily accessible locations. This time there wasn’t a generic response. It was a personal phone call from someone asking to meet me to discuss the bin situation. Where did they want to meet me? By the bins of course!
“You need to go back to work” sighed my husband, “You’ve got too much time on your hands”.
He was right. I couldn’t spend the last weeks of my maternity leave literally hanging around by the bins moaning. I made up an excuse, cancelled the meeting and hoped it would all somehow sort itself out.
Still, aside from a few grumbles on the way in and out of the house when the rubbish situation was particularly offensive to the eye, I had managed to put it all in perspective. Until yesterday, when an incident so foul occurred that it brought my middle-aged angst crashing back upon me with more force than could have been achieved had I spent a year listening to Vanessa Feltz’s radio show whilst watching Location, Location and Grand Designs on a continuous loop, throwing olives at the screen every time some smug rich git appeared looking upset about the lack of skylights.
On the way out of the house I noticed two dirty nappies (in nappy bags at least) had been dropped on the stairwell. Keen to remain positive, I assumed perhaps they had been accidentally dropped and not noticed. I went to pick them up, but balancing a wriggling toddler on my hip and a heavy bag on my shoulder decided bending down in the middle of a concrete stairwell was not a good idea. ‘I’ll sort it when I get back’ I thought, ‘though someone else will probably have done it by then’.
Returning a few hours later I noticed that they had indeed gone; perhaps our rubbish issues were finally abating. Then, as I put the boy down, I noticed something unusual by the door: two small carrier bags. It was the nappies. It took me a moment, but the realisation slowly dawned. Someone in the block had picked up the nappies and carried them, not to the bins, but back upstairs and placed them clearly and deliberately on our doorstep. Why would they do that…? Unless… OH NO, THEY THINK IT’S ME!
18 months of grumbling, complaining and carefully ensuring that all our rubbish is put in the right place and not only have I failed to sort out the problem – people actually think I am the problem! Someone equally frustrated by the wayward rubbish bags has noticed that they contain nappies, noticed that we have a small child, put two and two together and come to the conclusion that WE are the rubbish fiends! I am mortified!
What to do? Obviously they had to be gotten rid of immediately, but I still had the toddler whose current favourite activity is trying to cause himself mortal injury by playing with anything and everything dangerous the second my back is turned. It would have to wait until his bedtime. But what if that looked like I was trying to sneak out under cover of darkness? Covering up my crimes? And what if I ran into someone? I’d be wondering if it was them and want to explain myself, but if it wasn’t them I’d just persuade a completely nonplussed neighbour I was totally insane! What could I do?
That’s it…a note. A public note declaring my innocence. I could put it on our door: ‘Whoever dumped dirty nappies on our doorstep, please be aware that they were not ours’. But that wouldn’t really address the bigger problem, and it would mean people peering at our door to read it. Maybe on the main door to the block? Then I could address the person who dumped them at my door and also publicly declare my disdain for whoever is actually leaving rubbish lying around. Would have to be worded carefully, and I’d have to sign it with our address so they’d know who it was…
Then I imagined my husband’s face again. I thought about him coming home from his lads’ weekend to find his wife had gone mad and started pinning notes about bins to the communal door. I imagined him coming home happy having indulged his young, hedonistic side and despairing that I had simultaneously slipped into the most hideous, grumpy stereotype of middle age. I couldn’t do it.
Now, don’t think I’m giving in. I will not be stigmatised as some kind of neighbour from hell, throwing soiled nappies around just for the fun of it. And I’m not putting up with walking past mounds of mouldy tea bags every time I come home either. I’m just going to take my time. Think things through a bit more. Tactics, that’s what I need, tactics…
I may have lost this battle, but the war is not over. And this is a war – in every possible way – a rubbish war.
Two and a half years ago I had one of the best weekends of my life in Manchester. Fully done up with fake tan, blonde highlights, ‘disco pink’ nails, a new dress and impossibly high heels I strutted through the city centre on my hen do. Much to my surprise it turned out to be a truly cheesy and tacky affair. Each step of the way I was given a new piece of hen do tat: a garter, a flashing tiara, a hen-to-be sash, a sparkly veil. Even more to my surprise, I absolutely loved it! I couldn’t have asked for a more fun and better organised weekend.
So it was with sadness that last night, after watching Newsnight’s (rather tokenistic) discussion about modern feminism, I found myself remembering the one negative moment of that carefree girls trip.
Walking through the Piccadilly area around 6pm – that time of the weekend when evening revellers mix freely with families on their way home from a busy day shopping – I was chatting and giggling with my best friends. Suddenly, I found myself up in the air and moving swiftly away from them. A man I didn’t know had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder in the style of a Neanderthal carrying home his day’s hunting. He proceeded to run around the street, slapping me hard on my bum and showing off his ‘prize’ to his mates. I kicked and screamed and eventually he put me down, where I was comforted by my friends who had been running around after me.
The whole affair lasted less than a minute, but it was awful. I felt scared, angry and mortified. How dare he? What made him think he had the right? The answer, unfortunately, was obvious. I was a girl on a hen do and clearly therefore , anything goes. Gradually I found myself feeling less angry with him and more annoyed with myself. I worried people would think I was hysterical. Clearly it was a joke, so why had I been shouting so angrily? Shaken up but determined not to let it ruin my day, I carried on towards Pizza Express (I told you it was a classy do!).
Moments later I was approached by a young police officer. He had seen the whole thing and wanted to check I was ok. I was immediately comforted. He explained that the group the man was from were still around and seemed to be watching us so he would follow us to our next destination at a distance to make sure we were all ok.
‘Aaw, wasn’t that lovely.’ We all exclaimed over dinner. ‘Really reassures you to know the police are watching and looking after people.’ With that, we attempted to put the whole business behind us and get on with eating, drinking and dancing the night away.
But was it lovely? If the police officer really thought the man was watching us and posed enough of a threat that we needed an escort, why didn’t he actually DO anything? No one even spoke to that man, never mind took any action to reprimand him for his abhorrent and misogynistic actions. Instead, I was left feeling vulnerable and slightly to blame – I brought attention to myself by dressing up so what did I expect?
On yesterday’s Newsnight, professional controversial opinion-giver Angela Epstein argued there was no need for modern feminism as all the major battles had been won. She bemoaned people whinging about ‘minor’ issues via forums such as @everydaysexism and argued that if people really had been harassed they could always report it to the police to deal with.
With all due respect Angela, you’re missing the point.
Women don’t report these incidents because they don’t feel they can. They either feel it was their own fault in some way or don’t see the point, because these types of sexist actions are so common they’re barely taken seriously and almost certainly nothing will actually happen.
These are not ‘minor’ issues.
As I was carried down the street by a stranger on my hen do, my mind raced back to a year earlier when I was grabbed and carried down a side street two minutes walk from my house. Once there, a stranger held a knife to my throat and proceeded to put his hands on my legs. Were it not for a well placed elbow and an awful lot of kicking and screaming on my part, I dread to think what could have happened. It was the most terrifying experience of my life, and one which hopefully most people will never experience.
But how big a step is it really from what that man presumably though was a ‘joke’ on my hen do to that other terrifying incident which led to a 999 call? On both occasions, a man felt I was fair game. On both occasions, I was robbed of control of my own body, albeit momentarily. In both cases, though the police were involved, no one was ever held to account.
I’m a strong woman and moved on swiftly with my life, but I can’t say that being grabbed off the street by a stranger is something that I could ever put totally behind me. It’s no coincidence that the number of nights out I have without my husband decreased dramatically well before we had a child.
If we continue to accept these insidious incidents of sexism, misogyny and oppression as ‘banter’ and ‘minor’, we can never truly expect to tackle the violence which is so regularly perpetrated against women day in, day out. It is not whinging, or moaning, or attention seeking. It’s simply the right thing to do.
Screw it, let’s do it! That was the name of the book which changed my life. Well, briefly…and rather superficially.
8 years ago I moved to London. After a brief stint living in what was essentially a shoe box with a window, I moved into the flat which was to be the scene of some of the happiest moments of my ventures into true adulthood. Living with two friends from university, I spent the subsequent year partying, staying up late chatting and watching the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice on a permanent loop. Getting to bed before 5am on a Saturday was a rare treat and if you didn’t wake up to discover at least two people crashed out in the living room, you knew it had been a boring evening.
Yet, despite all this fun, my housemates and I weren’t as happy as we hoped. We’d moved to London as graduates do, determined to find our vocation and forge our career paths in the big wide world. We’d all sought out and successfully gained positions in the jobs we wanted, only to discover they were crap!
One housemate came home regularly soaked in other people’s urine while my life was blighted by an ageing socialite charity trustee who, rather than helping me raise funds would instead tell me off if she thought my hairdo didn’t match my outfit or my voice was slightly too high that day. As for the other girl, there were days we thought she’d moved out we saw her so little during the week.
Then one day, clearing out a cupboard, we discovered a book by multimillionaire Richard Branson. As a group of young women committed to working in the charity sector, this was a strange source of inspiration. In this tiny book, Branson set out his key values which allowed him to storm ahead and make his fortune, all the while smiling and pausing regularly to jaunt of round the world on his latest adventure. The main key? Set yourself a challenge every day. Not every month or week or every so often, but every day.
So our new life began. Every day we set ourselves a new challenge to make our lives better. Since everything else was fine, basically the challenge was ‘don’t moan about work’.
It worked. Every time a negative phrase formed on our lips, someone would shout ‘what would Branson do?’ Every time one of us was having a tough times, we’d wisely advise ‘Set yourself a Branson challenge!’ Faced with a moment of uncertainty we’d chant ‘Screw it. Let’s do it!’
Fast forward several years and we’ve all moved on: new and better jobs, new homes, new babies. Life is less manic and definitely involves less partying, but I’ve certainly been lucky enough to find happiness at work and at home. Still, the last few weeks have been tough for me: a family bereavement, illness (the dreaded chicken pox) and stints of parenting alone as the other half jetted around reporting on various dull-sounding conferences. I found myself more and more annoyed. I seemed perpetually stuck at home with no social life, thinking I back on the days when an could jet off at a moment’s notice and do whatever I wanted. More and more, my husband and I seemed to be saying ‘You know what I miss about before we had a kid…’ and discussions with childless friends always seemed to end with: ‘Probably not. I don’t know if we could find a babysitter.’
Gradually it dawned on me that to an outsider, it might sound like we don’t like being parents at all. Worse than that, I was dangerously close to convincing myself that life was better pre-parenthood.
So I set myself a Branson challenge: for one whole week I would not moan about parenthood. No matter what happened, I would be relentlessly positive. I did not complain about being tired at work when I’d been up since 4.30am. I’ve cheerfully accepted the fact that my head is now freezing on the cycle to work since I can’t get peace long enough to dry my hair in the morning. Even when I had to miss out on staff drinks after Ofsted (and if a glass of wine isn’t deserved then, it never is!) so I could get to the childminders in time, I just smiled and shrugged it off.
The truth is, like so many things in life, it’s the idea of stress or the idea of missing out that’s the worst thing. As soon as I stopped thinking about it, it stopped being an issue. Who cares that I couldn’t go to the pub? In truth, I probably had a lot more fun playing with the little one than I would have had in the pub: guzzling down wine, moaning about work and ending up having to face the next day’s teaching with a hangover. Plus, getting up at 4.30am was quite useful when I had Ofsted prep to do!
There seems to be something about parenthood that lends itself to moaning: tiredness, loneliness, boredom, stress, all the things you have to give up. Sometimes you wonder why the hell anyone is doing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet, where lonely parents go to vent!
So this is my advice to you: turn off the computer, cheer up, go out and enjoy being a parent. Not because it’s beautiful or magical or a privilege or some other annoying and unhelpful cliche. Certainly not because it’s something that you ‘should’ do. Just because, actually – as I’ve thankfully remembered is week- it’s really fun!
Tonight I sit with mixed feelings: part excitement, part dread.
Tomorrow morning at 9.30 I am heading off to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival. I can’t wait. 5 full days and nights of comedy, drama, drinking, excitement and who knows what else. A week hanging out with friends I don’t get to see anywhere near enough with no worries, distractions or responsibilities. A proper break and quality time with my husband. The apartment’s sorted, show tickets are booked, music is downloaded and wine will be purchased on arrival.
It’s going to be amazing!
So why am I sitting here half dreading having to leave? Because I won’t be taking my 14 month old son with me.
It seems to be a controversial decision to take a holiday away from your child, especially when they’re so young. Reactions from people I’ve told have ranged from ‘That’ll be such a nice break!’ to ‘Oh, you’re going to miss him so much’ all the way through to ‘Wow. Don’t you feel guilty?’ That one really hurt.
There is a certain amount of guilt; some of it self-imposed, some imposed by others. There’s a certain sense among new mothers that if you’re not suffering, you’re not doing it right. From battling with breastfeeding even when it’s physically tearing you apart to martyring yourself by refusing to let anyone help with night wakings even when you’re dead on your feet, there’s a feeling that if you take any time for yourself, it’s a sign you don’t love your child as a much as someone who’s willing to make themselves completely miserable in the service of their offspring. If this is the case, someone who leaves their child behind to go on a totally self-indulgent mini-break must surely be the most selfish of all?
I’d have to argue ‘No’.
We booked this holiday a year ago, when I was still locked in a seemingly endless cycle of torturous breastfeeding, mind-numbing loneliness and chronic sleep deprivation. In other words, I was a brand new mum. I was reluctant to leave my little one for more than about 10 minutes, but was also acutely aware that my pre-baby identity seemed to be slipping further and further away as I morphed into a boring, baby-obsessed zombie who had absolutely nothing interesting to talk about. i couldn’t think further ahead than the next feed, but booking a holiday so far in advance provided a light at the end of the tunnel and something to aim for.
It’s also more than just a jolly. Edinburgh means something: it’s where we got engaged and where we spent the week before our wedding.
Becoming a parent is a huge adjustment and anyone who claims it hasn’t affected their relationship is lying. How couldn’t it? Pre-children you’re two happy go lucky people with only yourselves to worry about. Then one day your whole life and relationship begins to revolve around a crying , screaming, pooing little being who demands so much and, at least in he early days, offers little but its cuteness in return. Affection you used to lavish on each other is immediately transferred to someone new and crazy nights out or cosy nights in are swapped for an exhausted collapse on to the bed at the earliest justifiable opportunity. It’s not easy. But when I said ’til death do us part’ I meant it, and a few days to reconnect as people, not parents, can only make our marriage and therefore our family stronger.
Not just our immediate family either. While we’re living it up in the heart of Scotland, my son will be hanging out in the heart of Yorkshire with his two grannies. Never will a child have been spoiled with attention so much in one week. Do I feel guilty about leaving him? Not in the slightest! He’ll have the time of his life, as will the numerous friends and family members left to hang out with him without the worry of me sticking my maternal oar in to insist that he doesn’t eat that or he prefers it like this, when in reality he probably couldn’t care less.
There are loads of other benefits too: being reinvigorated by a few full nights’ sleep; finally spending time with friends without having to dictate location according to where has high chairs; lie ins; time to read in peace. Generally, a few days out to do all the things I took for granted pre-parenthood.
Still, I’m not a fool. I know it will be hard. Bedtime today brought me to tears as I knew it would be the last bedtime story I’d read for a while. I’ve been noticeably less grouchy with night time wake-ups over the last few days, glad to sneak in as many cuddles as possible before I go. Plus, the last two weeks I’ve been plagued by fears that I’d miss a major landmark moment: first steps, first word. I’m genuinely not sure how I’d get over that, but then here’s every chance I’d miss it because I was at work or just upstairs in the loo! Still, I’ve spent the last week desperately trying to get my boy to speak, enunciating ‘Mum-my’ so clearly and regularly passers by probably think I’ve suffered some form of strange, mild stroke.
Of course it’ll be hard. For 14 months that boy has been the centre of my whole world, and now I’ve got to remember how on Earth I used to function without him. There will inevitably be tears in my eyes as we leave tomorrow, and I’ll run back home at the end of the week, but for the space in between we’ll all be getting something we need and don’t get at home.
Plus, as if to give me permission, the little man looked me firmly in the eye last week, smiled, pursed his lips and said ‘Mama’ so I was there for the most important first!