Monday, 30 November 2009

It's not easy being wrong

I’m working on a couple of options for the opening of a conversation I need to have with my kids – specifically the nearly-nine-year-old. It’s a delicate matter, but one that’s consuming me, so I need to show both compassion and kindness and strength of conviction.

Option one: ‘I’m going to look for a full-time office job so you can go to playcentre every night after school and hopefully you’ll find someone there who will take care of your every need without irritating you so much that you find it impossible to talk to them without barking and when I do come home in time for a quick bedtime kiss you will have forgotten how much I annoy you and try to constantly ruin your life and we will be friends again.’

Option two: ‘I used to talk to my mum like this and trust me, you’ll regret it one day.’

Option three: ‘I’m telling. Daddy. And Granny. And Santa.’

So my daughter talks to me like an angry teenager already. I can hear my mum laughing all the way to the corkscrew. Becoming a mother is, among other observations, like opening a huge, unapologetic picture window on your childhood and all the things you’d either forgotten or successfully repressed. All the behaviour patterns, friendship concerns, relationship issues that you’d rather not re-live on are right there in front of you in the form of small people who look a little like you and a lot like someone you fell in love with and frankly expect a more mature attitude from.

Every time you face a decision-making moment with your children, and you reach the answer that will define your parenting method for the next stage of their lives, there’s an accompanying supportive smile from a grandparent. Supportive and piteous. And loaded with dry amusement. You realise, mere hours after hospital discharge, that the bundle of newness you’ve brought into the world is also the very thing that will turn a spotlight on every minute of every emotion you’ve ever brought your mum.

Which hopefully, and certainly in my experience, is a good thing – once you’re over the inclination to throw a teenage tantrum every time advice is offered.

The thing is that I always thought I’d be better at this bit than the playgroup and nappies bit. I always thought my strengths would be with children who could reason and opinion, and so far it’s exactly that which has flawed me – in the most irritable, defensive and sulky foot-stamping way. I can’t do it. I can’t be ignored and shouted at for offering the wrong chocolate biscuit or wanting to wash their favourite clothes. It’s exhausting, and depressing.

If I’d written this before the weekend, it might have alluded to some slightly judgemental observations I had about other people’s parenting skills. I had a definite conviction last week that I knew kids who’d been let go too soon, interest had been lost, mothering downsized, and I was determined not to cave, however hard the challenge. After a weekend of getting it wrong, I’m not so sure. Mother and daughter relationships are impossible to understand unless you’re in them, and even then it’s a bit hazy. What I do know is that the lessons from granny are gold dust. And that being able to watch my mother-in-law bring her precious teenage girls through the darker years with such hands-on understanding, compassion and carefully levelled monitoring is a complete privilege. If getting it wrong is noisy, getting it right is a quiet but extraordinary victory. Go Nanna.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Boy power

Catherine Millet (or should I say Catherine Millet, 60, Writer) wrote yesterday in the Observer that she likes her men younger these days, because they have more energy than middle-aged ones. And, more newsworthy perhaps, that she’s ‘cool with mixing sex and work’. I thought this was a fabulously random view to share, and I’d like to agree with her, on the second point. But then I work from home, so my options are limited to either my husband or any male houseguests, which seems like a tricky game to play. So my opinion is slightly less risqué than hers maybe.

However, it does highlight a very particular problem with home working – an issue that I approach with trepidation for fear of implying something I don’t mean. Basically, there’s no-one to flirt with. I don’t mean the ‘sex and work’ thing that Catherine Millet, 60, Writer is referring to. I mean the very different style of social interaction that occurs when you talk to a man rather than a woman.

I love the company of women, and have always had amazing friends to confide in, support me and inspire me in a way that is very particular to women. My girlfriends are consistently the perfect antidotes to almost anything that’s wrong in life. But, like almost everything good in life (marzipan aside) the magic doesn’t work if it's all that's on offer.

After two long years working on The Lady magazine, that very special ladies’ weekly taught me two important life lessons. Never to work in Covent Garden on minimum wage again, and never to work in an entirely all-female office again. You only need a post-boy, or an ad man, or even a male boss – just someone to break the tension.

Fundamentally, women make friends on a different level to men. I crave ‘moments’ with virtual strangers as evidence of my competence, intellect and general niceness. I worry so much more about what women think of me than men. And trying to have that level of intimacy with a bunch of women you spend most of your waking day working around, with the added pressures of strip lighting, crap coffee and shoe envy, is a rich breeding ground for that most deadly of viruses – passive aggression.

I generalise, I know. And of course neither office politics or flirting potential are gender defined. But from my experience, everyone feels more inclined towards another working day after a slightly awkward journey in the office lift with the person who caught your eye just one too many times at the Christmas party last year and, 11 months on, you’d completely forgotten was still in the building.

So now, working from home, I’m spending too much time in my own totally passive aggressive company. Or struggling with the complex politics of my other working environment – the playground.

Last week was the school’s parents’ association AGM – the closest I’ve been to a proper meeting in weeks, and an exciting chance for some actual debate, discussion, maybe even a need for a follow-up meeting-ette to finalise the carol-singing running order? Anyway, someone, female, made a completely ridiculous comment, which I raised an eyebrow at just as she turned to scan the room for signs of dissent. She saw, I died an inward death, and left the building as my cheery goodbye was greeted with a turn of the back. Meanwhile, a dad I’d practically scowled at held the door open and walked me to the car.

Whilst I’m keen to point out that this is not a pre-curser to any kind of sex-work relationship, there's no denying there was an air of palpable excitement that a man had shown up to the meeting at all. Now if I could just get the unenergetic middle-aged man who sells me pre-school cereal bars every day to smile at me, my working world would be as diverse as it ever was.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

GUEST WEDNESDAY: The Nanna Diaries

I follow just three blogs at the moment: Micro-chasms, The Hermitage and Wgafwit and, I think, within those I am really getting a diverse world view.

The Hermitage is following the life of Traveller and Artist (and I'm sure many other things) Rima – who lives the life that I should be living myself, being sure that I am of rambling Traveller if not Circus folk descent. She draws like an angel, and deserves to be a Blogger Legend (viz: Bleg). I don't like outdoors, animals or anything broadly termed 'nature', but I do like trailer-life. I miss my Traveller friends sorely – and the long muddy paths, on-site coffee, weeing on wild garlic and hearing the distant dogs. But for now the nearest I can get to it is to follow Rima.

Wgafwit is the mind-child of my beau-frere, Nicolas, who has only one post so far and its particularly interesting because it's a man blog (viz: Mlog). Men write equal but different and I really enjoyed it.

Ah now, Micro-chasms. Written by awesome daughter-in-law who has asked me to present at Guest Wednesday, and my mentioning her blog along with Hermitage and Wgafwit, follows on from her recent post about how her generation define themselves.

Well, how things have changed. I did a straw poll of how my friends define themselves by profession and it went something like this: retired, semi-retired, retiring, part-time, and me very full-time. In there are therapists, social workers, teachers and hairdressers, confirming that many of those who survived the sixties and didn't become crooks or bankers went into support professions. Each and every one is a parent.

Let me immediately re-assure those who suffer angst as to how they are currently defined, and who ponder long on the relative values and definite battle grounds of full-time employee or stay-at-home parent, that this doesn't last. Now, in our fifties and sixties, the main pre-occupation (sadly) is how soon one can retire from a career that seemed oh so important in the early days. In my tribe, we never say ‘That person is a retired doctor, dentist or lawyer’; rather that they are either retired or not.

As to the war zones: well, I have seen older people crave acceptance from their adult children who cannot forgive them for pursuing a career, and equally I have seen full-time mothers seek appreciation from their adult children who find it difficult to see why or what that parent gave up exactly, and why they are expected to feel guilty.

So you see, it really all doesn't matter a jot; I'm sorry to have to say this because it will disappoint many who are justifying their ways of life in the way that women always have felt necessary. I believe it's all about being able to support the children that we bring into the world. If you’ve have a spouse who brings home six figures plus, well lucky for you. If you have had to take two or three rubbish jobs to pay for it all, then welcome to a different world.

The only thing that really makes me a bit frantic is when people think that they have the top jobs by right or that they have worked harder than others. As everyone knows, my favourite downtime occupation is 'tipping' and last week one of the men who is employed there told me that he works a seven day week at £6.75 per hour. Rain or shine. He doesn't love it, he just does it. The people who own it earn thousands. Not because they are more clever, rather that perhaps they got the breaks. Which would be fine if they paid him what he was worth. So maybe the whole thing is about equity and fairness and, dare I say it, sharing what we have in a just way.

Maybe that's the same for us. We have to decide what we want; decide on what we are fortunate to have, and not to waste time on how others see us. And look forward to retirement.

The Nanna Diaries

Monday, 16 November 2009

Design for life

I heard a brilliant phrase last week – told to me by someone trying to explain the difference between the advancement of Japanese mobile phones compared to the US models. I honestly don’t remember why this conversation took place, there was red wine involved for sure, but I’m glad it did for this little gem: A camel is a horse designed by committee. So the Japanese have got far better phones because they work together and put all their best ideas in one model that’s super useful and fit-for-purpose. Not just pretty.

I knew instantly I heard this analogy that it struck a deep personal chord of recognition, but it took me until last night when I was going through the bath, teeth, story, bed routine to work out why. I am the camel – my kids are the dedicated committee working tirelessly to mold, tweak and manipulate me into a super efficient human machine of provision. Any unnecessary thoroughbred tendencies I might affect (polished fingernails, freedom of thought etc) have been filed down and phased out by a tri-positional assault from my highly effective design team, so the current model of me is perfectly streamlined and efficient for their needs.

If this sounds bitter, it’s not meant to be. I’m delighted to call myself a proper mum, particularly because it’s something even my Granny is a bit surprised I’ve managed to achieve. But becoming perfectly honed for one very specific task might be the reason I’ve started to notice that disappearing thing happening, the thing that grumpy old women claim is worse even than the wolf-whistling of their glorious past.

According to my design instructions, my heart is full only of love, my intentions are only to provide and serve, and any aesthetic concern is a frivolous waste of battery power. At least that’s what the grey hair and, let’s call them laughter lines, would attest to. There’s a growing amount of physical evidence that I am definitely the mother and not the au pair.

It’s not as though I was ever a teenage beauty queen, but neither was I constantly untucked or unironed. It’s hard for a perpetually self-disappointed woman like myself to admit, but I’ve have been generally easy on the eye. I think. Anyway, whatever the past held in promise or photographic evidence, it has really let go. Six months ago I went on holiday feeling like a woman with a surprisingly large family for my tender years. Six months later and I have just spent a morning finally downloading the photos, and deleting any evidence that I was even present when the plane took off.

So is this it, the age when I start to slowly disappear? I feel as though the me I live with is based to a frighteningly large degree on the me that people responded to. If I’m no longer visible, am I still me? And when I meet new people, how will they know who I really am if they can only see a tired, wrinkled and wobbly version of the person inside?

There’s a finer line than I thought between the glamorous excesses of the high-speed gallop around the racecourse on a Saturday afternoon and the long trudge through the desert. But, while I have always had a bit of a phobia about horses’ legs being too skinny for practical use, and I am proud to be fit-for-purpose, I’m not sure there isn’t still room for a few more flashy apps and unnecessary features before I saddle up and head for the sunset.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


I’m going home on Friday. As an English girl, even after 12 years of living in Denmark, I still refer to England as 'home'.

I’m going to London to spend time with some very good girlfriends and I am so excited. I’m also looking forward to the precious 'me' time that comes so rarely when I get away without children.

Imagine, flying on my own for once! I’ll be able to read my book, plug in my headphones and not worry about small feet kicking the seat in front. It won’t be me having to ensure that everyone has drinks, snacks, books, snacks, toys, been to the toilet, clean nappies, and did I mention snacks? And there’ll be the added bonus of other people’s kids crying on the aeroplane not bothering me one bit – I’ll be able to shut it out because it won’t be my responsibility (or I suppose I could offer a sympathetic smile and help to reach the overhead locker).

Once in London, I am going to be such a tourist. It has been ages since I was there last and I am looking forward to drinks and eats in Soho and a stroll through Camden. We’re even going to make it to a show.

I intend to do some serious shopping. Of course, I’ll hopefully make it past Selfridges and maybe even Harvey Nics. But I’m also going to be sure to stock up on the ordinary English things that I miss in Denmark: Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, self-raising flour, proper teabags, salt and vinegar crisps, Marks and Spencer’s underwear, and pretty much everything from Boots. I’ll have to pop into WHSmith’s just to breathe in all the magazines.

These things sound trivial. And they are. In the big scheme of things I happily live without all of them. But they remind me of my roots. Perhaps it is only something you can appreciate if you have been away for a while, but if you grew up in England, you can take any boring high street and there’ll be something that reminds you about your teenage years. It might be the local pub, HMV, or the pick ‘n’ mix at Woolworths (err, sorry, no-one can have that one anymore). I know that this probably doesn’t say anything good about the generic nature of the British high street, but it’s the memories associated with these things that are worthwhile.

However, regardless of my ingrained 'Englishness' and my desire for some good old-fashioned fish and chips, when I am back in England I actually feel quite foreign. I can’t remember the queuing etiquette or the correct way to fill out a lottery ticket. I haven’t a clue what’s going on in X-Factor or Come Dancing. I don’t know the right way to use the word minger and I am not 100% sure who all the politicians are anymore. And, after years of getting used to the Danish non-existent customer-service experience, I get quite startled if anyone in a shop actually speaks to me.

So, at the end of the weekend, when I reluctantly say goodbye to my girlfriends, I will again be able to happily say that I am going 'home'; back to Copenhagen and all the familiar things that I have, despite myself, become accustomed to there.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Holding it together

Our cat just left home. Not entirely of her own volition, but she was purring. She’s been rehoused, repackaged and relocated to her country retirement estate. No longer is she mistress of a Georgian town house with a garden smaller than the bathroom. She’s got land, a chocolate box cottage and cows to play with. And a new mummy who will actually seek her out for comfort.

It’s incredibly hard to talk about cats without losing a certain degree of dignity and sanity, but seeing as I’m fairly convinced this is a subject that could never reduce me to an emotional heap I’m going to try. She was a member of the family after all…

In fact, now she’s gone, I’m a bit concerned that maybe she was the glue that held the family together. Obviously as parents we are consigned to loving adoration and pride for all eternity, but are siblings not really just a small collective of people with shared experiences and memories? The only other people in the world who truly appreciate the unique boundaries of their allotted parents and what rubbish breakfast cereals they choose.

It’s only as a child that you have a proper handle on what it is to be a sibling. Once you’ve left home, the sister you never allowed beyond your bedroom door for fear of total destruction of your carefully catalogued LP collection becomes something different. The brother you regularly relied on for nothing more than flopped-hair friends and a steadying arm home after the ‘no alcohol’ youth club disco is to be admired, talked to, befriended even. They are the people you could have been had you set off from the same starter's gun but run side-step on a different trajectory.

But when you’re living the halcyon years of early childhood, your siblings are a sort of odd essential – most of the time they steal your stuff, your attention and your place next to Daddy on the sofa, but they are always there to share an incredulous, raised eyebrow at the nonsense of the world your parents are making you play in.

Obviously there are a few other deep-rooted emotions, in most cases, but on a day-to-day basis maybe the fact that my kids shared responsibility for ignoring the same cat might be a crucial factor in their relationship. The cat was certainly the only consistent reason for coming home from holidays for the past five years.

On a personal note, she gave me something specific to worry about during the medical nightmare that was my twins pregnancy – clearing up the toxic cat poo every week without my mother in law finding out. (As the famous French proverb goes, ‘Cats, flies and women are ever at their toilets’. Real proverb.) But she had to go, for medical reasons of a different, respiratory nature. And while there have been tears a plenty from the angry collective of under 9s, I realised as I found myself absent mindedly stroking her while finalising her transportation that I had never truly given myself up to her. She’s always been a cat, and my heart is made of ice.

The gorgeous little thing will be missed. And we’re getting fish after school today. They’re much easier to dispose of when the time comes.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


There are three kinds of mum friends. The ones you are pleased to bump into at the park, the ones you actually arrange to meet up with, and then the rare and wonderful ones who become real friends. Those women with whom baby talk can segue into relationship talk, work talk, life talk. All three kinds can be life savers. On a bad day, a friendly face pushing a swing next to you is all it takes to remind you that you are a sentient adult. A coffee with someone who is also navigating toddler tantrums or charting the waters of sleep and wakefulness in a new born is an invaluable support. But it’s that extra understanding that you get with some women which gives a unique space to be the thinking, political, funny person you are, without having to make any apologies for also being a mother.

I spotted my best mum friend across the circle at my first NCT meeting. My husband teased me over my new love affair, and I laughed along, but he tapped into the way I felt exactly. I had met my parenting soul mate, someone who was like me, was going to do it like me, and who wanted to be my friend. Our affair began while still pregnant when we hung back from the other women in the group, walking home from a pre-baby get together during the early days of maternity leave. As we took a different direction from the others, I knew that we would be friends, and I cherished it like a teenager. We romanced each other over coffee and cakes and strolls in the park. From baby massage to mini music we learnt our new trade together and slowly unpacked our lives in the process.

Being on maternity leave is a totally democratising experience. We were, in those early days, completely equal. Both at home, with our babies, with acres of time to fill. Bliss. Like any first flush of love, the beginning provides a canvas for you to paint a perfect portrait of yourself, leaving out the flaws and imperfections. But then it was time to go back to work. She to her high powered, long hours, high profile, high earning job and me to…

I have always been freelance, and my working life has been sporadic at best. Even before children, I was on maternity leave of sorts. I’ve never earned much money, had the need for office clothes, or had a job title. I’m a bumbler, and I probably always will be. My lack of direction and drive has been a constant disappointment to me and despite my best efforts and many sleepless nights, the desire to succeed has never been strong enough for me to really make decisions and push myself. Having children has provided a perfect foil for putting off my career once more.

So, career-free and newly abandoned by my friend, being on maternity leave morphed into being a Stay At Home Mum. Frustrated, bedraggled and with a new sense of desperation to get my house in order, I put it off again, and a second pregnancy followed quickly. And what joy I felt when I heard my friend’s voice on a crackly phone line saying “I think I need to talk to you about double buggies”. Not only would she be around during the little babyhood of my second but this meant we would be the same again! Forget the job, forget the money. We are mums of two – war vets – doing it together.

But the gulf was too wide to cross. We are still friends of course, and see one another regularly, but it has changed. Her second maternity leave was supported by her full time nanny who she kept on, so whilst I struggled on buses with the double buggy day in day out, she skipped off to mummy -and-me yoga and sat in coffee shops reading the paper. As I grew more tired, slower, more resentful, she sat back and enjoyed her newborn in a way that I could only dream of. And my attempts to fit us back into the same hole seemed more and more desperate by the day.

As even the just-coffee-mums can only squeeze me in on their one afternoon away from the office, I feel more and more like a Shirly Hughes drawing. I am living in Alfie gets in First, and all those around me are the busy working mothers that I presumed I would be. My mother-in-law who raised children in the 70’s doesn’t understand why I’m not organizing coffee mornings, and baby sitting circles, completely ignorant of the seismic shift in the lives of most middle class families over the last 30 years.

So what do you do when you are the one left behind? Hunker down and carry on potato printing? Cancel five years from your diary and mark your life “to be continued”? Move to the suburbs and make friends with the other Stay At Home Mums who I’ve done everything I can to distance myself from? Or finally make that shift and really start valuing what I do everyday, stop looking at my achievements as second rate, and start cheering every meal I make and every nappy I change as the vital acts that they are.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Strength in numbers

Last night I went for supper with a collection of really successful women – the lucky kind, who can sum up their life achievements in one word: doctor, barrister, novelist etc. I spent most of the evening waiting for my ‘About A Boy’ moment where everyone finds Hugh Grant charming until he admits to doing nothing for a living. This involved a lot of Cava drinking to ensure I was fully occupied every time it looked as though the conversation was leaning towards me and, specifically, my daily time sheet.

To be fair, there were also a significant number of equally successful women around the table who, like me, would have to do a rambling Ronnie Corbett-style explanation of their professional lives. And no doubt many of the one-worders would swap at least a couple of their pencil skirts for a few more after-school pick-ups. So there we are, back to basics: there is no way of doing it easily. The hardest bit about being a woman isn’t trying to have it all, it’s about trying to work out which bits you actually want anyway.

And if it’s hard for us, here’s evidence that we’re not making it any clearer for the next generation. One of my new high-achieving friends told us over supper that her daughter had written an essay at school using the word strident, and had come home delighted that the teacher had commended her for this. She’d informed the teacher that her mum used the word a lot because her mum was a feminist – and that her best friend probably wouldn’t know the word because her mum wasn’t. When my friend tried to assure her that this other mum was surely a feminist, she was told ‘She can’t be, she’s still married’. Ouch.

So, inspired by the vastness of other people’s experience, knowledge, understanding, confusion and amusing anecdotes, I have decided to stop navel gazing alone. My brilliant and talented friend Hazel will be appearing in the first ‘Guest Wednesday’ blog, and if she’s not cleared everything up by Thursday and you’d like to join the circus, let me know. Then next time someone asks, you can say ‘Blogger’.