I have reached the age where half my Facebook feed is pictures of other people’s children: babies smearing their faces with mashed banana, toddlers taking their first steps, kids in their school uniforms proudly holding trophies and certificates. I’m used to it. At times I really enjoy it; a chance to see the children of loved ones I don’t get to see as much as I’d like. (FYI: The other half of my FB is childless friends posting pics of themselves in bars, at gigs or cheerfully toasting a cocktail on a far away beach. Me? Jealous? Never!)
Last week, more kiddy pictures than usual seemed to appear as friends joined in the Facebook Motherhood Challenge. Women basically post photos which make them ‘proud to be a mother’ then nominate some other ‘amazing mums’ to do the same.
Reactions to this social media phenomenon have been mixed. Many have loved it, eagerly joining in. Some have inevitably hated it, griping and moaning that they have to see yet more pictures of other people’s children. Others have, quite rightly, questioned the name. A challenge? Posting some pictures? Not exactly climbing Everest.
In this article, The Guardian suggests that it is an exercise in smugness, thoughtlessly ignoring those women who don’t have children and offending people by creating a smug clique. I’m not sure what has made the writer quite so angry, but perhaps there are some valid points. It must be hard to see these images if you are trying to have children, or have lost children, and perhaps we should think about that a little more. But to imply that people joining in this largely harmless activity are cruel and offensive seems a little over the top.
The Pool wrote a similar but less aggressive article, suggesting that seeing these images of happy smiling mums and their children divides us, making many others feel bad about themselves because they, at that moment, are not particularly happy and smiling.
At first, I tended to agree with these articles. I’d enjoyed seeing pictures of my friends’ children, but wasn’t this a bit much?
Then, on my way home from nursery this morning, I began to think differently. Trundling along in the drizzle, exhausted, snotty, straining from a bad back and with a snoring baby strapped to my chest, I missed the green man. I sighed and, faced with all of two minutes before I could cross, I reached for my phone. As I pressed the on button, it dawned on me how this has become my go to action in moments of inaction. What was I hoping to achieve? I had no messages, no one to contact and would only faff around for 30 seconds on Facebook before putting it away again and crossing. And I do this all the time! Why?
Because, at the moment, I’m a stay at home mum. There are times I can go for hours, even whole days, without having a conversation with an actual adult. I adore my sons, but when 90% of your day’s conversation revolves around someone else’s food choices, toileting needs and identifying different types of tiny plastic dinosaurs, sometimes you need a way to reach out to someone else. And isn’t that what social media was made for? If you looked at my Facebook activity, it would most certainly spike when I’m on maternity leave, and especially on days when my husband works late.
Maybe these women aren’t smug. Maybe they’re lonely. Maybe they’re a bit bored. Maybe they’ve spent the morning cleaning urine off the floor, tackling a mound of washing which towers over their head, trying to get work done while Peppa Pig blares in the background, all while perpetually yawning because they were up 5 times in the night.
If spending 5 minutes scrolling through photos which remind you of why you love being a mum (or dad – surely there should be a fatherhood challenge out there somewhere?) cheers you up when a baby has just thrown up all over you, and getting comments allows you to have a brief virtual chat with friends, where’s the harm?
If we don’t like it, we don’t have to look. Maybe we should just get off Facebook for a while and get some perspective. That’s what I’m going to do. Right after I post a link to this blog post…
“Why did we have another one? Why did we think we needed two? It was going so well with one!”
Such are the desperate cries in our household at moments when the children have decided to tag team their night time neediness.
It’s a good question. We were set with one. We had it covered. We outnumbered him. We could tag team parent, each of us got at least one lie in on a weekend and it was fairly easy to find a babysitter for just one child, especially one who you could just read a story and send to bed with no crying.
Now most tasks are twice as difficult. Bedtime is an organised chaos of synchronised reading and feeding, there is always at least one point in the day when one child is being ignored almost to the point of neglect and our nightly conversation is now a bet as to who will wake up first/most/in the most confusing and annoying manner.
Put it like that, why would anyone have a second?
Well, we’ve got two now and I kind of love them both so, time to focus on the positives.
1. You’ve got a built in play mate.
“Can you just keep brother company for 5 minutes while I do this?” Such a handy and surprisingly effective phrase! Voila. Both children entertained with no input from me. Only for a maximum of five minutes and I’m sure the novelty of this won’t last for the older one, but still, works for now! Plus, one day in the future there’ll be two of them to go on the swing and that will save both my dignity and a whole load of knee and thigh pain.
2. Practice makes perfect.
I remember once asking my mum for money for a night out when I was a teenager. She said no. I pointed out that she had given my older brother money for nights out. It wasn’t fair! “That’s because he was my first. I made all my mistakes on him. I know better now.” How wise you are mum! The joy of having a second baby is I can now do, panic free, all the things I was crap at the first time round (feeding, changing, pushing the buggy, knowing all the words to wind the bobbin up). And if I can’t do them, I at least care less.
3. Who needs sleep?
I remember having a new baby to be the most horrendously traumatic experience. It was like my body shut down. I just could not live on so little sleep. 3 years later and it appears my body has learned to cope. 4 whole hours uninterrupted sleep? I could rule the bloody world on that!
4. It’s all relative
3 years ago a whole day in the house by myself with the baby was a true test of wills. Likely by 3pm I’d be calling my husband desperate for conversation, and by 5pm I’d be literally pacing the floor, counting the seconds until he got home to relieve me.
These days, a whole day with only one child is like a spa treatment! You mean I can sit on the sofa, have a cuddle and watch something that isn’t CBeebies? Result!!! I might even get round to washing up.
5. It’s just so bloody cute.
Look at them. How could you ever regret that?
There’s an unwritten rule that no one can slag off your home town except yourself. It is fine for you to gripe and moan about where you come from, but as soon as someone else has a go, you become staunchly proud of your roots and demand that your hometown is the best place in the world!
I should know. Coming from Bradford, I have more reason to invoke this than most. My hometown has been host to race riots, the area I grew up in once elected a BNP councillor (imagine me shuddering with horror as I admit this) and the majority of the town centre was nothing but a giant hole and a pile of rubble for the best part of the last ten years as a failing economy stalled the only major development to grace Bradford in decades.
These are among the many reasons I left fifteen years ago. Since then, I have only returned for brief stopovers between jobs and travels or to visit my family and friends.
But try to slag it off yourself and see how proudly I’ll defend its diversity and cultural heritage, despite not living there for over a decade. It’s my right. There’s plenty I dislike about it, but it’s my home and I love it.
As I settle into my second stint of maternity leave, I’m wondering if there’s a similar rule for being a mum.
Yesterday, I found myself at a rare loose end – my eldest was at nursery, my youngest was asleep in the pram and I didn’t have time to go home before I was due at baby massage. I snuck into a cosy café and settled myself for an indulgent half hour with a good book (not a bad life!).
Unfortunately, I had pitched up next to two more mums killing time. Let’s face it, that’s all that cafes are full of during the day: mums and lots of ‘creative-types’, tapping away at their fancy laptops as they stretch out one drink for two hours to avoid paying for any actual office space.
I tried to concentrate on my book, but was endlessly distracted by nosy toddlers peering at my baby and their mums’ inane chatter. I began to pay more attention to them and less to my book, and a sad realisation dawned on me. Mums are boring. Really boring! In the time I sat next to them they had long conversations debating the merits of carrot sticks over rice cakes as a snack, and telling each other their children’s sleep patterns in intricate detail. I don’t mean to be rude, but even they looked bored. Bored by their own thoughts; in desperate need of some adult conversation, but unable to come up with any substance for it.
I’m being horrible. I know I am, and I knew it then, but I have a get out clause. I can moan about boring mums, because I am one! At times I can hold interesting conversations: debate the merits and perils of bombing Syria; discuss which Booker Prize winner is my favourite; discuss whether or not Luther is the true masterpiece of TV drama (erm, yes it is and it’s on again in a few weeks! Yey!!!). Yet much of the time I find myself rambling on about how well my eldest son can write the letter ‘A’ or explaining how I’ve been won over by cloth nappies over disposables. It’s important to me, but I know it’s dull as dishwater to the vast majority of the population, me included. Sadly, that doesn’t stop me.
The truth is, a lot of the time, I am boring. Because mums are boring. But it’s ok. I’m allowed to say it, because I am one, and I bloody love it!
One of the many struggles you encounter as a parent in the early days is finding things to do. Figuring out how the hell to fill your days when you don’t have to go to work. Hour upon hour stretches out in front of you with nothing to fill it except 45 minutes of singing ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ in a rundown old community centre, led by a man who looks as if he’s walked straight out of a Little Britain sketch. Not exactly an action packed day.
Yet somehow, despite these hours of nothingness and your desperation to fill them, you can find yourself sitting at the end of the day worrying about all the things you should have done, but didn’t have the time.
How is it that you had nothing to do, but couldn’t get anything done? Yet somehow, had loads of stuff you should have done, but didn’t? It doesn’t make any sense.
The conundrum increases as time goes on.
As your child grows, you suddenly discover a whole host of things you need to do. Endless doctor’s appointments, health visitors’ visits and baby drop in sessions. It’s a good job you get maternity leave, because how would these things get done otherwise?
Your child continues to grow, and it gets worse. Now you have playgroups and classes to get to, on top of your child’s daily demands to go to the park. Then there are visits to choose childminders, then nurseries, then schools. Once they’re in nursery or school, there are endless meetings, shows, parents’ evenings and all sorts in between. It’s a wonder anyone manages to make it into work when they have children.
All the time, every time you get close to achieving something, someone in your family starts crying, needs feeding or announces they’ve pooed in their pants (hopefully one of the children!) and all your good efforts go right out the window.
And so you enter the great Catch 22 of parenting. You have loads to do, but no time to do it, despite having loads of time to fill with nothing to do. You reach the end of the day and realise you’ve achieved nothing. Then you beat yourself up about it, make a to-do list, fail it the following day, and repeat ad infinitum.
How to deal with this problem? Don’t worry. I’ve created a handy step by step guide to getting stuff done with kids:
- Do anything that HAS to be done, i.e. anything which risks your children ending up in hospital or being taken away if you don’t do it.
- Sod everything else.
- Eat some cake.
There. That’s one thing sorted.
While in many ways, motherhood has completely taken over my life, easily the biggest and most important part of my day, I am deeply aware that I am still in the relatively early days of this parenting malarkey. I still have lots to learn.
However, I am going to risk saying something stupid. Only 3 years and 2 children in, I reckon I’ve cracked it. I’ve found the ever illusive secret to enjoying parenthood and living a happy and relatively stress free family life (if there could ever be such a thing!)
Have low expectations.
Very low expectations.
Bottom of the ocean, as deep as you can go, barely visible they are so hidden in the depths, low expectations.
How many of you parents reading this went into it expecting it to be all smiles and loveliness? Come on, be honest. No matter how much people warned you about sleepless nights and explosive poos, you never really appreciated it did you? You knew you’d get woken up but you thought you’d be like the mums in the soft focus ads, gazing adoringly at your darling child as they smiled up at you, not stumbling into their room, bleary eyed and swearing as they scream so loudly you think your eardrums might explode. You never thought you’d be scraping poo from within a baby’s neck folds at 3am while choking back your gag reflex. But it happened.
Being a parent is a shock to the system. It hits you like a freight train, then drags you along for the ride. No matter how many warnings you get, you’ll never know what to expect when you have a baby.
Until you’ve had one.
The advantage of being a second time mum is you know all the perils.
When will the baby sleep through the night? Not for bloody ages! Sod Gina Ford. Don’t even bother. First time round I grumbled any time I was woken up. Second time round, if I get 3 hours in a row I feel bloody invincible!
First time round, feeding the baby felt like an endless, exhausting task. Now, I know to appreciate it for what it is: an excuse to sit down. Never try to plan around how long it will take. Assume it will take ages and enjoy the rest while you can.
Trips out should be seen as a success if everyone returns alive and unharmed
The house will never be clean. As long as no one is going to contract some kind of disease, that’s good enough!
Cooking? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating only food that can be bunged in the oven or pinged in a microwave. And cherry tomatoes thrown onto a plate definitely count as enough vegetables!
As for anything else, if all you mange in an entire day is to ram some washing in the machine, you’re doing grand.
It’s not pessimistic. It’s realistic. It’s going easy on yourself. If I could go back to myself in those first days of motherhood and give myself some advice, it would be this:
Calm down, lower your expectations and enjoy the little things. Your house will be a tip and you’ll never complete your to do list, no matter how small. Aim for a nothing and anything you achieve will feel amazing. You’ll be so much happier for it, and that’s all that really matters!
9am. So far I’ve been thrown up on, dealt with a toddler weeing on the floor, and cleaned up a disgusting leaking newborn nappy, only to have said newborn wee all over me and himself the minute his nappy was removed.
If being a mum lacks glamour, being a mum of two can be downright undignified. When I said I’d been thrown up on, I meant I’d been thrown up on. Not my clothes. Me! The boy didn’t even finish swallowing or move his head away before he spewed his breakfast back up all over my boob. What a charmer!
If the end of my pregnancy was marked by the constant refrain, ‘Sorry darling, mummy’s too tired/sore/big to do that’, my new motto seems to be ‘Just a minute love. Let me finish dealing with your brother’. Doesn’t matter which brother, and to be honest I call them by each other’s names half the time already! Looking after two small children certainly does keep you very busy.
With no work until the summer, this messy, disorganised existence is my life for the next nine months.
But, without sounding too soppy and sickening, I’ve never been happier.
There may be twice the poo, twice the wee and twice the crying, but there’s twice the love and ten times the cuteness!
I haven’t the time or brain power to even try to write a cleverly structured or witty blog post right now (I’m writing this on my phone as I feed the baby and watch yet another dinosaur film with his brother!), but this may be my favourite blog yet.
Because it’s my first as a mum of two. A scruffy, sick-covered, surrounded by mess, undignified mum of two.
And I bloody love it!
You know you’ve hit a low point when you start crying over pastry.
Last week I attempted to mimic my own mum’s easy domesticity by following her apple pie recipe with my son. It didn’t go to plan. Rather than the calm, domestic scene I had envisaged, I ended up sucking back tears and profanities as my attempts to roll out pastry were hindered by the presence of a giant pregnancy bump. The more the pastry broke and crumbled, the angrier I became and, tipped over the edge by yet another pointless ‘Whyyyyyyy?’ from my toddler, I snapped and burst into tears.
This is what being overdue and hormonal does to you.
Enough was enough, said my husband. I needed a rest. By that evening he had cajoled various relatives into helping with childcare and I was forced to relinquish control.
2 days later I had an entire child free day. I had no idea what to do!
‘Eat chocolate and watch films!’
‘Sit on the sofa and do nothing.’
…came the suggestions via Facebook and WhatsApp.
What my friends and family failed to remember is that I am completely incapable of relaxing. Always have been.
My son left with his Grandad at 9am, and by 11am I had:
- Washed up
- Cleaned the kitchen
- Made a vat of chilli
- Done some washing
- Put away the ironing
- Taken out the rubbish (including a rather embarrassing and time consuming stop to scrabble round and clear up the mess as one of the bags broke all over the floor outside our block)
- Begun to defrost the freezer – a completely unnecessary and unplanned activity
Tired and achy, I imagined my disapproving husband’s face if he could see me buzzing around and forced myself to slob for a few hours in front of the telly.
I couldn’t do it. No matter how much chocolate I ate or how many episodes of The Good Wife I lined up, I could feel my brain making a mental to do list, silently analysing and categorising all the jobs I could be getting done in the house free of a meddling toddler. There was only one thing for it: if I was going to relax, I’d have to go out.
As I packed my bag, I paused briefly to check the progress of the freezer. Slow going. Doubtless it hadn’t been defrosted since years before we’d moved in and some shelves resembled sections of the Antarctic more than they did a household appliance. If I left it like this I’d either come home to a swimming pool on my kitchen floor, or it would still be a giant block of ice and I’d have achieved nothing. I couldn’t have that!
I’d just give it a helping hand. Scrape a few bits off with…erm…a knife! That would work. Almost like an ice sculpture.
10 minutes later and I’m manically Googling ‘hissing freezer’ with every window in the house wide open, having pierced a tiny hole in the side which I was convinced was spewing toxic gasses certain to kill me and the baby within seconds. Why was I such a moron? Why couldn’t I just watch Loose Women like a normal person?!
Thanks to the internet, I quickly discovered 4 things:
- I was not going to die
- I’m a moron
- Lots of other people are equally moronic
- I have broken my freezer
And so I realised that I am not simply incapable of relaxing, I am dangerous. It wasn’t my pregnancy or my hormones that ruined the apple pie, it was me! I am no Domestic Goddess; I am a Domestic Devil!
The sooner I accept this fact, the better. But I won’t, because I am as good at being stubborn as I am bad at relaxing.
I’m tired now. I should go put my feet up. But our washing machine has been playing up. Maybe I could have a quick look before I put dinner on…
I am due to give birth to my second child any day now.
I officially only started maternity leave today, but as a teacher I’ve been lucky enough to have the summer holidays to prepare for our new arrival. If anything, it’s been too long. I have become obsessed with making every little detail perfect, both for the baby and our 3 year old boy.
After weeks of sorting, washing, buying and organising, this week I reached fever pitch. I worried that not all the old baby clothes had been washed and ironed; I stressed about the fact that our new bouncy chair didn’t fit together properly; I was close to screaming over the failed delivery of our new oven. How could I possibly be expected to cope with all this when I should be practising my breathing and preparing for birth?
Then, last night, something stopped me in my tracks.
That photo. The photo we’ve all seen and will be haunted by for years. The photo of a young refugee washed up on the shore. The photo of an innocent little boy killed by his and his family’s desperation to find a better life, killed by hideous situations beyond their control. After days of worrying and stressing about nothing, this was the thing that finally made me burst into tears.
Suddenly, none of my worries seemed that important.
The truth is that being able to bring two healthy children into a stable home environment makes me one of the luckiest women in the world. That’s not hyperbole, it’s not hormonal sentimentality: it’s a fact. We don’t need perfectly white baby grows or matching nursery furniture, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’d forgotten that. We just need our home, our family and love.
Like so many people, it took that photo to remind me what matters. Even though I’ve written about it before, I’d lost all perspective. In another time and place, that little boy could easily have been my little boy. There but for the grace of God…
It’s not just me who should be ashamed: in years to come, I’m sure we’ll look back as a nation and be ashamed of ourselves. Of how concerns over our own lives and comfort made us forget that everyone deserves somewhere safe to bring up their family. Children are children, regardless of where they come from.
In the meantime, I’m giving up on my obsessive preparations to think about what really matters. I’ll hug my son a little tighter and cuddle my bump a little more. If anyone I know is reading this and was thinking of buying us a baby present, give the money to Save the Children or send the presents to the migrants in Calais. We’ve got everything we need.
Let’s not let that poor little boy’s death be in vain. Let it give us all the perspective to see what’s important and have a little more mercy and humanity.
‘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??