Ten things I hate about parenting

 

Before my first child was born, I had lots of worries about parenting. How would I cope with the lack of sleep? The over-whelming responsibility? The loss of freedom? Obviously I have had issues with all these things, but generally the things which really get me down and have me furtively stuffing chunks of Dairy Milk in my mouth in the downstairs loo so that the children don’t see and be set a bad example (I mean, steal it), are the little niggles which add up and occasionally threaten to subsume me.

1) The relentlessness of meals

Three meals a day, seven days a week. Plus snacks. All of which need to be healthy, economical, tasty, nutritionally balanced and provided on time. There is no possibility of skipping breakfast and grabbing a muffin mid-morning if you’re hungry. Or waking up too late to make a packed lunch so popping out to M&S for a sandwich. Or feeling far too knackered to cook and ordering a takeaway. My saviour had always been toast and houmous. Anna would eat that for all three meals a day given half a chance, the ingredients can be bought in our local Tesco express, it takes a couple of minutes to prepare,  and with a few cherry tomatoes or slices of cucumber on the side it’s pretty well balanced. Unfortunately, Sophia doesn’t like it. She’s not a big fan of toast at all. Or houmous. And definitely not houmous on toast. Anyone got any ideas what I’m going to feed her for the next decade, or two please?

2) Always having to get up

You know how it is. You have a streaming cold. Or you’re doubled up with period pains. Or shattered because you’ve been surviving on five hours a night broken sleep for the last fortnight. So you plot ways to sit down for twenty minutes. Get a selection of toys out and arrange them on floor. Move all breakable objects out of reach. Grant permission for some TV viewing. Provide drinks and snacks. Then sink down with a sigh of relief and put your feet up. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Drinks get spilt. Nappies get filled. Toys mysteriously bury themselves in totally inaccessible places. The remote control goes AWOL. And, inevitably, you have to bloody get up!

3) People I haven’t given birth to calling me ‘Mum’

Health visitors (the worst culprits), shop assistants, teachers, doctors, nurses, bus drivers, playgroup leaders. I know it’s hard. I know you meet hundreds of parents each week. I know you can’t be expected to remember everyone’s name. I know that in the modern world it isn’t safe to assume that the parent will share a surname with their child. I do feel your pain. But it is lazy and patronising to call me “Mum”, it irritates the hell out of me, and when it happens day after day for seven years it gradually erodes my feeling of being a person in my own right.

4) Bright blue children’s toothpaste

Colgate hate me. I assume. Why else do they make their children’s toothpaste a) the stickiest substance known to humankind and b) bright blue? However many times a day I wipe the sink down, there is always bright blue residue in the basin, on the taps, on the tiles around the sink, on the toothbrush holder and IT DRIVES ME BONKERS.

5) ‘Don’t worry about the dirt, just enjoy the kids while they’re little’.

How many times have you heard that advice from a well-meaning friend or relative, or seen similar sentiments expressed on postcards or gift magnets. The only conclusion I can come to is that these people have either never lived with small children or had cleaners. I am about as far from being a neat freak as you can get. I am not spending precious time when I could be snuggled up reading, or running through wild flower meadows with my precious offspring engaged in daily scrubbing of the front doorstep, or colour-coding my store-cupboards or even hoovering under the bed. I don’t even iron. No, what I spend several hours a day doing is ensuring that we have clean dishes to eat off, clean clothes to wear, and that the floors, kitchen work surfaces and bathroom are hygienic enough to avoid attracting vermin or giving us all E coli. And the house still looks a total tip 90% of the time.

6) All the STUFF

Paintings. Colourings. Collages. Models of space-ships. Lists. Interesting pebbles or leaves collected in the playground and brought home. Letters from school. Felt-tips without tops. Stickers. Free gifts from a magazine bought three years ago. All of which are liberally scattered around the house on a permanent basis, largely ignored, but apparently far too precious to be thrown away. On the odd occasion I do get ruthless, inevitably the next day we have near hysteria because one of the discarded items isn’t to be found.

7) Party Bags

When I found the National Union of Parents the first item on my agenda will be the abolition of party bags. Surely one of the biggest causes of misery in any modern family. Seriously, who wins? The parent bestowing the bag has to spend eye-watering sums of money on plastic tat, and then precious time stuffing it into the bags, and worrying that there will somehow be extra, unaccounted for guests who don’t have a bag. This worry results in buying more bags, and more plastic tat.

Then the parent of the child receiving the bag has to accommodate yet more STUFF (see above) into their already overcrowded house. We already have more spinning tops, crayons which don’t work properly and little yellow rubber men than you can shake a stick at. Even the child doesn’t really win, because inevitably the most favoured toy is broken within the hour, which coincides with the sugar comedown after the party and leads to frustrated tears and all round grumpiness.

If you really want to bestow a parting gift, may I suggest wrapping a piece of birthday cake in a piece of kitchen roll? Or perhaps a small bag of chocolate buttons. Both of which have the advantage that if I’m quick off the mark I can scoff them myself. In the downstairs loo, of course.

8) The inverse proportion of time spent planning an activity to time it keeps child amused

When I have browsed Pinterest, chosen a craft activity, purchased the necessary supplies and planned a fun yet educational afternoon it is a near certainty that child will engage long enough to create total chaos, spreading glitter across every surface in the house and covering their new cardi which they’re not even wearing at the time in paint, before declaring that they’re bored and wondering what’s on telly now. On the other hand, Sophia was happily engaged for 20 minutes yesterday afternoon carefully peeling the sticky address label off a parcel I’d taken in for a neighbour. Every time I declare no more planned activities, but somehow I’m always drawn back in again.

9) The assumption I possess skills I blatantly don’t

I can write. I can write, if called upon, academic essays, business plans, board reports, discussion papers, blog posts and novels. Back in the day I was also pretty good at running a department and managing a team of staff. I can’t sew, or knit, or crochet. I can’t paint or draw. I can’t make fancy dress costumes or scale models of the Eiffel Tower from toilet rolls. I do my best to decorate cakes which look like Mr Men or fairy toadstools, but I’m not very good at it. Before I was a parent, no-one expected me to do these things. Lots of people can do them, and enjoy doing them, and that’s great, but no problem at all if it’s not your bag. Yet there’s an expectation that the act of giving birth, much as it enables your body to produce milk to feed your child, also mysteriously conveys the ability to spend the next decade crafting with the best of them. Except it doesn’t.

10) The constant stream of guilt

Am I doing it right? Could I be doing it better? Is it my fault? How do I improve? Why can’t I? Why can’t they? Pressure from mainstream media, social media, friends, family and, most of all, my own insecurities mean that I am always wondering whether I am doing enough to be the mother that these perfect little scraps of humanity I somehow created clearly deserve.

ducklings

Twentieth Day of Advent: Me-time

Virginia Woolf famously declared that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I am not financially dependent on my writing (which is just as well!), and although I don’t quite run to a room of my own, I don’t really feel lack of physical space causes me any problems. Perhaps because my writing doesn’t quite reach Ms Woolf’s literary standards, or perhaps because I am incurably nosy, but my favourite place to write is in a familiar, moderately busy cafe. When it is going well I get so immersed I don’t notice what’s going on around me, and when the Muse hasn’t visited then I can eat cake, eavesdrop and people-watch.

The thing which is lacking in my life at the moment is mental space, head space, me-time, call it what you will. Of course, this is the other side of the coin of that which makes me very happy indeed – my lovely daughters. I am also very happy that I get to be a stay-at-home mum and so see as much of them as possible. But if there is a downside, it is a lack of time to myself, for writing or reading or bathing or even going to the toilet. A joke has been doing the round on Facebook recently:

beautiful-pink-unicorn-10063789Santa Claus: So, Mum, what would you like for Christmas?

Mum: I’d like a beautiful unicorn please.

Santa Claus: Oh, come on, be realistic.

Mum: [sighs] Oh, ok. What I’d really like is five minutes to do a wee by myself and drink a cup of coffee while it is still hot.

Santa Claus: So, what colour unicorn were you thinking of?

There is probably a slightly manic edge to my laughter there.

I am in awe of households with children where both parents work outside the home. Their lives must be challenging in ways I can’t even imagine. But there just might be some benefits too. My husband habitually gets off the tube a couple of stops early and walks the last bit to work through a park. He’ll casually mention that he popped into Pret at lunchtime for a coffee and a sandwich. If he’s lucky enough to get a seat on the tube and manages to avoid being hit by the flying pig then he might read the paper on his way home. He misses out on stuff too, but I do envy those microscopic moments of time when he is only his own responsibility.

But there is an upside, other than all the quality time with my amazing children. No, I am not saying that in a sarcastic tone. The upside is that you become very good at making the most of the time you got, and it makes you disproportionately happy. Yesterday, husband, as he often does, volunteered to take Sophia with him when he took Anna to her swimming lesson. That meant I got over two hours to myself. During that time I made a macaroni cheese for tea, cleared the kitchen and washed up, vacuumed the dining room, living room, stairs, landing, our room and Sophia’s room, contemplated vacuuming Anna’s room and decided there was just too much stuff on the floor and so settled for making the bed and doing a quick tidy round, hung out a load of wet washing and put the dry stuff away, cleared a bookcase which Sophia had been perilously close to pulling over, found new homes for all the books and took the bookcase upstairs out of the way, wrote my blog post, and still had time to sit with my book and a sneaky slice of rocky road for at least ten minutes. Excuse me if this is over-sharing, but I even did an unaccompanied wee.

A lot of what I did were fairly mundane domestic chores, but just doing them by myself, while bopping along to some cheesy Christmas tunes instead of either simultaneously entertaining Sophia or stopping her throwing herself downstairs, or creeping round terrified I might wake her up, made me feel incredibly lighthearted. Having some space and a bit of me-time also meant that I felt much more enthusiastic and energetic about mothering when the children got back.

Today has been slightly different. Husband needed to do a bit of work this morning, so while writing this post I have also been making a frittata, super-glueing a dragonfly and watching the baby monitor wondering why Sophia is most definitely not asleep. I still feel pretty happy, though.

The Food of Love

I love food. No big secret there. I spend a very large proportion of my waking hours either shopping for food, cooking, eating or thinking about what I want to buy, cook or eat.

The last couple of months, though, have challenged this love somewhat. Sophia is now eating three meals a day (and by ‘eating’ I am using the baby definition, which actually means throwing to the floor or smearing as widely as possible across face, hair, clothes and anyone unwise enough to be in her vicinity), and so in addition to all the other family meals I have to think about what she is going to eat. If there’s one thing hungry babies don’t like, it is mummy vanishing into the kitchen to spend ages cooking, so Sophia’s food needs to be planned and preferably cooked in advance.

My husband and I have always eaten separately from Anna during the week. There are several reasons. One is that my husband is almost never home before 7pm, often much later, and, in my opinion anyway, that is far too late for a young child to be eating and going to bed. There is the option of me eating with Anna and husband eating alone later, but that would still be two  separate meals, and it is not something we’ve seriously considered as we both feel that taking the time to sit down together for a proper meal, sometimes a glass of wine, and really catching up on each other’s days, however dramatic or mundane those days have been, is a real cornerstone of our marriage. I sit at the table with Anna, and chat to her, and sometimes have a snack to keep me going until dinner at 8.30pm, but I am always glad to have that adult time to look forward to. Another, more prosaic, reason for our decision is that we (especially I!) love spicy food. Rarely a week goes by without us eating Thai. Indian or Mexican style food, and Anna has made it abundantly clear that she is not a fan, and I’m not prepared to give up my curries in the interests of a family meal.

My plan was (and is) that now Anna and Sophia can now eat their evening meals together. This is working a lot of the time, but they’re not always eating the same food, so often I’m cooking separately for them. Sometimes this is because Sophia is still on a strict(ish) no salt, no sugar regime, and I don’t want to deprive Anna of reasonable treats for the sake of eating the same as her sister. Sometimes Anna has eaten a big school lunch and only wants a sandwich. And sometimes I want to take advantage of the fact that Sophia is yet to develop an intolerance for green veg and cram as much spinach and broccoli into her as I can before she decides they’re inedible. Anna has been of that view since she was about fourteen months. Meals I have discovered which work for both of them are eggy bread, beans on toast, macaroni cheese, pasta with tomato and veg sauce, baked potatoes, and chilli (without the hot spices). I’m working on increasing that repertoire, but in the meantime, a standard day can see me making porridge and toast for breakfast (having previously batch cooked the granola my husband eats), then something for mine and Sophia’s lunch, then a snack for Anna when she gets home from school, then an evening meal for Sophia, an evening meal for Anna and an evening meal for us. Throw in a play date guest, or a bake sale at school, or an ungovernable yearning for chocolate brownies, and you can see why I’m never out of the kitchen.

I still love food and cooking. I love the sense of nurturing and providing for my family. And I am thankful daily that we are lucky enough to be able to afford plenty of good, safe, nutritious food and the fuel to cook it with. But. But. Sometimes it just all feels so relentless. It’s not just the cooking, it’s planning it, and making sure we’ve got the ingredients in stock, and then clearing the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, picking up the discarded food from under the table and wiping everything clean, washing the filthy bibs and muslins and mopping up the spilt milk. There is a certain, inescapable, amount of drudgery involved, and it can be difficult not to feel overwhelmed by it, and lately I have been.

cinnamon bunsOn Sunday, though, I surprised myself by trying a new and fairly complicated recipe for cinnamon swirl bins, just for the fun of it. I’d got the recipe from Jenny Colgan’s novel The Little Beach Street Bakery (if there’s one thing I love more than a good chick lit novel, it’s a chick lit novel with ace recipes in it!), and I was a little trepidatious because dedicated viewing of the Great British Bake Off has taught me that sweetened, enriched doughs can be very tricky. I could almost see the sceptical look on Paul Hollywood’s face. But, do you know what, they worked! They were absolutely delicious if I do say so myself. Their appearance could probably be tactfully described as rustic, and I may have been a bit heavy handed with the icing (although no one complained), but they tasted incredible – so much nicer than anything similar you can buy. Along with an omelette they made a fantastic lazy Sunday brunch which we all enjoyed (I stretched the no sugar rule sufficiently to give Sophia a taste), and I rediscovered my love for pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps simply because they weren’t an essential meal it made baking them all the more enjoyable. The food I make generally comes out of love for my family, but it was nice to reignite my own love of food too.

Walthamstow to a Tea

I’ve posted before about how much I love where I live. But one of the things I love most about it is that it is constantly evolving and never fails to surprise, and delight, me. Take Sunday just gone, for example.

We’d had a quiet day at home, getting lots of boring but useful jobs done. Anna had decided that cleaning would be fun, so never one to avoid an opportunity to exploit my child, I armed her with a duster and a bottle of polish and let her get on with it. One entire bottle of polish later (thankfully some kind of organic, almond oil based none-child-killing polish) and the house definitely smelt cleaner at least. The wooden floors do have a few lethally slippery patches where polish was accidentally split, but hey. Husband meanwhile had the distinctly less fragrant task of unblocking the outside drain.

At about 4.30pm I remembered I needed to go out to buy milk for breakfast. Husband suggested we all go and get some fresh  (and non-almond scented) air, and perhaps an ice-cream cone. We popped Sophia in the sling, Anna grabbed her sandals, and off we went. Ten minute later we were all licking delicious cones of Gelupo gelato, which one of our local shops has started selling. And I say ‘all’ advisedly. We didn’t buy a cone for our seven-month old, but strapped to my chest in her sling, the proximity of it proved to be too much for her, and she lunged at it, licking determinedly. I know refined sugar isn’t really a good idea for babies under one. Or, I guess, for anyone really. But I didn’t have the heart not to let enjoy a couple of licks. Second-child syndrome, I suppose. I was all about the organic spinach with Anna at the same age.

We strolled through Walthamstow village, past the beautiful Vestry House museum and the old almshouses. And then it all got exciting. There is a restored Tudor house in the heart of Walthamstow village called, imaginatively enough, the Ancient House. It’s a lovely building, and I was very excited when I saw that the gate was open, and there was a sign pointing into the courtyard advertising a yard sale. We went in, just out of curiosity to see inside. In this case, curiosity was amply rewarded. tea setsWe ended up with a gorgeous vintage French tea-set, some pretty Victorian glass bottles, a Victorian tea-cup and saucer and coffee cup and saucer, a Victorian serving tureen and a delightful little forget-me-not pattered cup and saucer for Anna, because she fell in love with it. All for £17. Yes, you read that right. £17! The lady who was selling had a business hiring out vintage china for weddings, and making tea-cup candles, but she has had to move out of her workshop unexpectedly and needed to get rid of stock fast. Very sad for her, but I have to admit we were thrilled to benefit and give a good home to some of her lovely things.

So there you go. Only in Walthamstow do you pop out for a pint of milk and come back with a perfect sixteen-piece vintage tea service!

Procrastination

So, today, I was absolutely clear that I had loads of domestic chores and cleaning to do. I knew that I needed to do the out-and-about ones straight after school drop-off, then go home and get on with the cleaning. I sat down and made a list. A really long list. And that was without even trying my usual trick of writing down jobs I’ve already done for the satisfaction of immediately crossing them off. I didn’t matter that there was loads to do, though, because there’s six hours of the school day, and you can get an awful lot done in that length of time.

Things started off pretty well. I went off to the sorting office to collect a parcel. I’d forgotten to take a bag with me to put it in, so had to proceed with a large cardboard box wedged uncomfortably under my arm, but that’s not a major problem. I queued in the post office, and then the next job was to pop to the chemist’s, but I got distracted by a 40% off sale in the Body Shop and bought a few Christmas presents en route. Then to Boots, and then home. Half way home I caught myself thinking how nice it was not to have a heavy awkward box to carry any more. I stopped, brain whirring. I was meant to still have the parcel. That was why I had gone out in the first place. I mentally retraced my steps, and then physically retraced them, luckily tracking the parcel down in the Body Shop.

By the time I got home it was 10.45, which is still loads of time. But first of all I needed to write the list. Then check my emails. And Facebook. And Twitter. But 11.15 is plenty of time. Once I’d phoned my mum I could get going. I stuck a load of laundry on, and then remembered that my sister-in-law had been to the hospital fracture clinic about her broken elbow, and I’d like to see how she was. I’d start on the cleaning once I’d spoken to her. Three-quarters of an hour later she, in the nicest possible way, pointed out that she was extremely hungry and could I please stop talking and let her go and get some lunch.

1pm is ok though, because you always work faster with a tight deadline. I definitely had time to check my emails again. And Facebook. And Twitter. Then I picked up an armful of the flotsam and jetsam washed up at the bottom of the stairs and put it all away. The trouble is, by this time, I was starting to feel hungry myself. I decided that much the best thing to do would be to pop out to the local cafe and have a sandwich while blogging, because that would save time preparing lunch, and I’d be multi-tasking while eating it. I could get on with the jobs after that.

Somehow the upshot of all this is the utterly unpredictable result that my to-do list remains pretty much untouched. But it’s ok, I have a plan. After school drop-off tomorrow I need to pop to the supermarket, but then I’ve got the whole of the school day to get all the jobs done. Which is loads of time…