Friday, 29 January 2010

GUEST FRIDAY - Hazel Gould

A good friend of mine went on a last-minute-late-night date last week that began with a phone call at 10.30pm, and ended at 5.30am at her flat with two large G & Ts and Emergency on Planet Earth at top volume (our parents turned to Rumours for nostalgia, we look back to Jamiroquoi to channel our early youth.) They both passed out, and when they got up he went to work. I imagined the scene: him stumbling into the office with a can of coke and a wry smile and saying to his colleagues “mate, I only went to bed at 6, I was wasted. I’m probably still pissed” and then sitting down to do a day’s work. Of course, this story has nothing to do with me, but my daydream did remind me of a time when a lack of sleep was something to be proud of.

Sleep is a precious commodity for the parents of the very young. Hours are collected like gold bars, as if we could stash them away for a rainy day; we barter on the nursery trading floor, selling midnight lullabies in exchange for lie-ins and cbeebies at dawn for breakfast. It’s a bear market, investor confidence is low, and all we really want are “just five more minutes”.

It seems to be a commonly accepted truth that the person who is working in the morning needs sleep in order to function properly and the person who is at home with the baby can easily get through the day with two hours sleep and a strong coffee. Biology and the politics of parental leave meant that more often than not there is a clear gender divide in the first months. Lots of couples, during the early days, decamp the daddy into the spare room to sleep all night, leaving the mother to deal with the baby because “he has to work” and “there’s no point in us both being tired”. Of course each family has its own internal logic, and it is not my place to judge the choices of parents who are doing their best to raise their children. But I do wonder if the tyranny of work needs to be challenged from time to time.

Is it not the same men who, pre-children, were drinking until 4 in the morning and rolling into work rubbing the stamp from their hand with a dab of red bull on a tissue, who now, after having a baby, need to approach a day’s work like an Olympic event: it seems that he needs to be Rocky (young and fit and training for the fight of his life) to tackle his in tray. Meanwhile there is a woman at home looking after their 10-week-old baby, with no idea what to do or how to do it, or worse, a toddler tearing around the house desperate for attention and activities, who is expected to parent, quite literally, with her eyes closed.

Biology has a large part in our downfall. Nature plays a cruel trick on pregnant women, making a good nights sleep impossible throughout the 7th and 8th months. And for breastfeeding mothers, night feeds are hers responsibility and hers alone. For all the convenience and comfort that breast feeding gives, it makes the partner’s role in the middle of the night practically irrelevant. For a lot of women, by the time they return to work, feel the freedom and pleasure of taking the bus alone, drinking a coffee, having a conversation with a colleague and realise that work is often by far the easier option, it is too late to redress the balance.

I was very lucky*. My husband took to nighttimes like a bat. He would leap out of bed at the first snuffle and deliver my son to me, with a clean nappy, and he would be there to put him back in his cot when he’d had enough to eat. It wasn’t such a big thing, but I knew I wasn’t alone. When my daughter came along, it was very different. It took a lot more than a snuffle to wake either of us up, and feeding her and getting her off to sleep was like falling off a log to me. Her birth coincided with a very difficult and stressful time at work for him, so much of the nocturnal activity was my domain. It was fine, I did it, and I didn’t resent it, but I was eternally grateful that first time around, he had been jigging the baby back to sleep and giving me a cuddle when I was crying with fatigue and frustration

We imagine that raising children is done on instinct and that the only muscle that is really needed to be in tip top form is the heart – the rest of the body can sail to hell in a handbasket. It’s true, of course, and if you love your children and keep them fed and warm, I really believe that it’s hard to go too far wrong. But I also know, that after a run of bad nights my patience is at zero, my fuse is short and my creative, physical and diplomatic energy is non-existent. The kids have a pretty uninspiring day and so do I. When I go to work feeling as tired, something about the air hitting my face, the paper cup of coffee, the banter and the focus keeps me going.

Sleep deprivation is awful, it’s painful and depressing, but it is part of the story of parenting. The night that my husband just gave up trying to get our son to sleep and watched an entire Thomas DVD at 2am is already part of our folklore. Those nights are the way we earn our stripes, our love for our children is tested almost to the limit and we learn that however much we might want to throw the crying bundle out of the window, we don’t. No body likes feeling that it’s impossible to cope, or that somehow they are underperforming at work, but for the 2 years or so that sleep is so fragile in babies, it’s worth it, just to know that you were in it together, and you came out the other side.

*At some point I will launch a campaign to stamp out the word ‘lucky’ when referring to having a partner who is so kind as to look after his own child. Now is not the time. I am lucky to have him, for all sorts of reasons.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Tell me on a Thursday

There are two ways of embracing change. The first is to embrace it. This is the way that involves excitable announcements, late-night planning conversations, lists, photos, maps, associated purchasing and public celebrating.

The other way is to see potential change as a vertiginous cliff edge that should be kept clear of, preferably with the assistance of fences, warning signs and a strictly enforced let’s-never-visit-this-place-again policy.

My husband loves change – particularly the hours of internet research and aforementioned late-night planning conversations it inevitably allows. Which is either an indication that his life is perpetually disappointing or underwhelming, or it’s a sign that he thrives on the adrenalin of constant movement and reorganization.

I, on the other hand fear change like the grim. Maybe not fear, that makes it sound as though I have no control over it. On the contrary, I simply work very hard to prevent the need for it. I am the master of its irrelevance. It rarely gets the chance to take root. Which is probably why I love surprises. They offer absolutely no time to worry about the after effects.

So the outcome of our completely opposing attitude towards change is that any conversations based on the future have, in recent years, taken place around the kitchen table, a couple of empty dinner plates and far more than the recommended number of empty wine bottles. And more often than not it’s approaching midnight on a Thursday. Thursday is the new Saturday in our house – if Saturdays were ever actually the night to get accidentally and focus-loosingly drunk in your own house in order to make any progress in decisions as far reaching a next Easter. Maybe Thursdays are just the new Thursdays. And really the only looser is Friday.

We used to make our decisions walking around Waterlow Park, officially London’s best-kept secret. Now I have to have a glass of something French and a resolve to not take any previous resolves too seriously for a few hours. We’ve had loads of lost Fridays over the years, and I’ve been party to loads of lovely decisions while pretending not to mind about having the carpet pulled from under me and life-change plans swing slowly into motion.

And then, eventually and inevitably, comes Monday morning, and the under-medicated cold light of day. The changes that seemed so easily embraced while my reality was being massaged by the hypnotic glow of weekend family life are suddenly once again a threat to everything I base my stability and happiness on. It’s a puzzle; one easily solved no doubt by a few weeks of abstinence.

Footnote. Things I have omitted from my observations: 1. I fear change because my father left when I was 11. I mean, really, what cod psychology tish 2. The main source of our ‘change’ debates is the subject of secondary schools, and the possible suggestion that I might detach myself from my heartbeat and move out of town. Let’s see just what real fear can achieve.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The deciding factor

Do you ever wonder who decides things? General, omniscient things I mean, not whether Mariah Carey is interesting enough to be the cover story of a Sunday supp magazine. (I would suggest the correct answer to this is no, but evidence would prove otherwise.) Who decided the bus routes, the national fear of spiders, that Brussel sprouts are only eaten at Christmas? Under duress?

Maybe it’s an eldest child thing, but decision-making is close to my heart, and I consider myself pretty good at it on the whole. I’m certainly prolific. I can decide all day, sometimes for fun, sometimes to avoid actual activity, sometimes to annoy my family, and occasionally to progress our lives in some meaningful way. But mainly it goes unnoticed I think. When people expect you to be decisive, it becomes a bit lost as a skill.

I’m trying to put some positive ticks on my CV of self-belief and inner confidence at the moment (at the moment, right…) and I think, as long as it doesn’t overflow into bossiness, that being decisive is a good trait. Some people are professionals, social and cultural deciders – those people who commit to a book, or a TV show, or a new season’s colour, and their decision is the tipping point for that thing becoming universally acclaimed. It’s not just that they have personal success in their particular field, it’s that their mind is revered for being made-up well. I’d like to give you some examples, but Simon Cowell is as far as my January mind will take me. He surely has the Deciding Factor.

January is a hard month for being decisive. Your general will to live is a little deflated, your alcohol, sugar and caffeine intake dangerously low and shaky, rookie decisions easy to fall into. TV adverts are my downfall. Everything looks like an essential purchase when you’re cold, hungry and skint. I’d be happy to pay a small premium to be allowed to watch Channel 4 without adverts in January.

Anyway, I think I’m going to have to make a really difficult life-work balance decision soon, and it’s making me feel like a complete beginner in the game. If God had meant us to be indecisive and just try and have it all, why did he bother to invent guilt? Or was that Eve? Is that the truth about original sin – the temptation bit is easy to live with, but the guilt of having made the wrong decision is crushing.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Time poor, intentions waning

Novelists have always been at the top of the achievement ladder for me. Admittedly they might not be as good at saving lives as medics, or preventing world wars as teachers but, aside from performing a solo flute concerto at the Albert Hall or having several diplomatic languages under my belt, they have done the one thing I’d most like to do before I die. Or maybe even reach 40.

Like anyone who has ever put a pen to paper for purposes of enjoyment rather than to compose a shopping list, I am slightly convinced, in the dark hours of the night, that I could one day be sipping champagne listening in anticipation to the Booker prize results from a table two metres from the prize podium. The problem with my particular novel is that it has no content. None whatsoever. I am an efficient jobbing writer – give me a brief and I’ll research, interview, type and file. Coming up with ideas isn’t my forte. Which is one of the reasons I started this blog – to try and squeeze some self-initiated creativity out of my stoney imagination. And even that was someone else’s idea to be honest.

The thing is that there isn’t enough time in the day to commit to novel writing. And with statements like that it’s easy to see why I call myself unimaginative. But in my January ideal, the things I am hoping to add to my meagre 24-hour days are already a bit over-excited. I’m supposed to be running in the morning before anyone else gets up to make up for the classes I’m missing now I’m back in the office; getting to an office for all the hours the kids are entertained with Jolly Phonics and Greek gods; spending more quality time with the children when they’re not in state childcare; ensuring my vast musical knowledge is passed onto my daughter by hovering menacingly outside the study during her daily cello practise; trying to stop the little ones breaking up all the fantastic Lego creations made by the adults over the holidays, and of course find all that extra time to plan how best to not eat or drink anything that will take no time at all to lodge itself permanently to my hips.

And, the most annoying thing is that I’ve started to stay awake at night trying to work out how to collect extra hours for the day – which would be the perfect answer to everything if I were at all productive at 3am. Sadly I’m not, in the least. However, my half-awake dreams are getting more and more fabulous and action-packed, so maybe a best-selling series of teen novels about an anxty 30-something female super hero who never actually makes it to the gym but can kill literally hours of valuable time fretting about the optimum running order of her to-do list will be a highly-acclaimed success.

Monday, 4 January 2010

I am resolved

We all know the children are our future. We'll treat them well and let them lead the way. I can't claim to believe that they are all possessed with inner beauty, but you get the gag. And so it is with a calmness and serenity (that anyone who's met me for more than one glass of wine will probably not recognise) that I passed this New Year's Eve with a newly digested understanding that it's not all about me anymore. That the small people in my life need increasingly more of my energy than it takes to move their possessions from one room to another. But also that getting the balance between supporting and dictating is a delicate one, and probably one I’m going to be focusing on for a few years’ worth of resolutions to come.

My particular style of dictatorship centres on control of the small things. By literally never being able to let an issue drop, never not getting the last word, I have been sub-consciously instructing my daughter in the art of debate since she lay gurgling on her changing mat. We can now entertain ourselves for hours by hurling asides up and down the stairs in a highly-skilled attempt to be the one who will get the final say over which jumper she will wear today, or other pressing matters. Being persistently right in every small nurturing issue is a burden I can live with – being challenged on the correct ply of jumper is a fight I am up to.

I think there is a credible gender distinction suggestion to be made here. I think women know full well that later in life their grown-up children are going to remember the basic mechanics of their childhood – good and bad – in terms of what mum did. Dad's part will be different in every family, and carry huge value no doubt, but mum's influence will have saturated to the psycho-analytical level. By focusing on the small things – the importance of never leaving the house without three layers; always putting tops on felt-tip pens – you can go some way to avoiding any memorable involvement in more critical character-building decisions that your 30-something offspring will doubtless throw back in your face. If we hold to the assumption that dads don’t do detail, or concern themselves too much with consequence, then when the issue at hand is not how to read the Sunday papers uninterrupted, it might as well be whether four is too young for a hotmail account. Or an iPhone.

And so the small issues are mine. However, after four festive days in a remote cottage in Dorset with more than enough arguments over which width of scarf is most suitable for the sub-zero temperatures, I realise that somewhere between suggestion and instruction is a valuable mediation area. And at the heart of my new clarity is the understanding that there is a clear distinction between self-awareness and self-obsession. I am self-aware enough to know that a tendency towards self-obsession is dangerous. Worrying about trying to achieve the perfect level of motherhood has become in danger of taking over my life. Letting go of control over irrelevant issues in my children’s lives is also about preparing for the fact that one day I won’t be the relevant or most influential person in their adult lives. Rightly so.

The result of all this slightly muddled sense of inappropriately focused attention was that for the first time ever I couldn't think of a resolution that I could articulate without feeling a bit embarrassed. A whole glossy magazine’s worth of disappointing female failings could be lumped into a general 'try really hard to be better' resolution, but I couldn't admit that to my 9-year-old when she asked for fear of being hideously responsible for her first dose of emotional anxiety or physical self loathing. Instead, I told her I was going to try and be less controlling, and less concerned with the things I couldn’t control. Breathe, and, relax.