Sunday, 24 October 2010

Peers and promise

I had the benefit of an amazing undergraduate education at a prestigious university. I learned so much, academically, socially and personally. I was no doubt quite a different sort of person than I am now. Yes, I was concerned with saving the planet and the people of Myanmar, and was an early supporter of the Fair Trade movement in the UK. I tried to stop motorway development with direct action and got a Member of Parliament's fellowship withdrawn because of his contribution to education cuts. But it was still pretty much all about me.

It was, admittedly, a fantastic time to be young and enjoy oneself. Rave culture, recreational drugs, Glastonbury, and the LGBT community were an important part of my world. Student politics, stage managing a drama production at the Edinburgh Festival, busking Christmas carols and dabbling in journalism were also things I got involved in. I knew a lot of my peers, but had quite a small, close group of friends; we spent a lot of time sitting around drinking, smoking and castigating the state of the world.

Fast forward almost 15 years since graduation, and many of my friends from that time are fulfilling their early promise. One is Director of Strategy and Planning at the British Library (and a wife and mother of two.) Another writes a regular column for a national Sunday newspaper. A third is a research scientist, a fourth a published academic who has held a professorship. My dear friend Edmund, godfather of my middle child, has many composition credits to his name. It's the same with my wider peer group. The president of our Junior Common Room was private secretary to our last Prime Minister. Natasha Kaplinksy (who used to bounce in to breakfast in her netball gear, having not partaken of any of the debauchery down in Hertford College Bar the previous night) is a famous TV personality and newsreader. It may not be long before people I knew at university are trying to run the country.

But not all of us have continued down the prestigious path, myself included. My husband sometimes jokes that if I had done the 'milkround' for a job in the City I'd be pulling in 60k per annum and we'd be rich. Instead, I'm a wife and mother to three girls, doing volunteer work and studying towards church ministry. But it seems that career riches weren't to be. And if I had sought them, I possibly wouldn't have been in the place to meet my husband, develop our relationship, and start a family.

But I don't feel disappointed, bitter or insecure. It doesn't make us any of us other graduates less worthy (or, for that matter, those who haven't been exposed to a college education.) All of us have paths to follow, and promise to be fulfilled. There may be several different ways we can travel through life, but ultimately we need to find what is right, and what is meant for us. For me, a glittering academic career was not on the cards. Yet I have never felt second best to those whose job titles attract more attention than 'wife and mother'. That's for them, and my path is for me. I know I'm fulfilling my potential in terms of the person God hoped I would be and the role I currently carry out. Looking at it from a human point of view, it may look like a failure to succeed in an aspirational arena. But I have long since stopped seeking the praise of individuals and this post was never designed as an apology.

Since the Child Benefit debacle, I have spoken to so many 'wives and mothers' who believe that the role is their most important achievement, and I think I agree. My education to date has placed me in a good position to develop my understanding of theology, and hopefully a wider ministry once my family needs me less. I am not contributing directly to the economy, nor a shining light of my university alumni. Yet, my role is crucial, valuable and special, and if it were all I ever achieved, it would be more than enough. I contribute widely and importantly to my family, just not in a financial sense. I don't measure my worth in income, possessions and appearance, but in relationships, happy girls and how supported my husband feels this week. There are thousands of us who feel this way, and I'm proud to fly our flag. This thinking may have confounded me as an undergraduate (more than all those books on archaeology and anthropology!) but it doesn't make me defensive or disappointed now. If people don't get it, they don't get it; I'll continue standing up for what I believe in.

This post was part-inspired by what Kate Wicker wrote about her feelings at a recent visit to her alma mater and a previous post about being in the company of her husband's colleagues. We are all challenged by what others think (and what we think they think!) of our role at times, and need to boost each other up. Boost up the mothers (and fathers!) around you as often as you can and let them know how important they are and what a great job they are doing. Do it today!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

I HATE having my hair cut!!

Well - let me clarify that a little, as hate may be a little strong. Although, I do actually detest going to the salon. More importantly, I hate myself and what I become.

There is nowhere else I would let someone boss me about and dictate to me what they think about my appearance. There is nobody else I would be willing to sit and chat inanely to about partying, TV shows and general meaningless tittle-tattle (willing is perhaps the wrong word when I am held hostage by scissors). There is nowhere else I would sit and wait more than half an hour for my appointment without complaint. Or feel guilty for using the bathroom in the back, even when heavily pregnant. Or feel compelled to tip, even when I don't feel they've done a good job. I used to enjoy the pampering of having my hair washed, and reading the trashy magazines they have, but even that doesn't do it for me anymore.

And now, because I have a very little baby again and don't want to lug her to the salon, I've gone and done something even worse. (Can I first say, it's the not the person, it's the situation.) One of the women from my exercise class cuts hair in people's homes, so I booked her for 9.30am on Friday. I somehow thought thatg things would be different. How wrong was I!

She was lovely. But - I had to wait for my appointment with her, too. She did text to say she would be late, as she was dropping her baby with her mother, but it was still late - and of course I didn't complain. In fact I probably apologised - I was apologetic throughout the whole encounter. I apologised that the hot water took a long time to run throug;, that my kitchen chairs weren't clean; that I preferred a low maintenance hairstyle since I have 3 kids and need to be out of the house by 8.15am.

The worst thing was that I didn't get the haircut I wanted, and I had only myself to blame. I wanted it cut back into a long bob, so it doesn't hang heavy on my neck and annoy me. I had in my head all morning that this was going to happen. But when she asked me what I wanted doing, some part of me suddenly worried that it would be a bit cheeky to ask her to do a restyle and that she might have just expected to be doing a trim. So I mentioned that I had a long bob previously, and wanted to go back to that, but what did she think?

"Layers", she opined. "With your thick hair."

Now get this, folks, I have had it with layers. My hair is thick and wavy, yes, but put layers in and without the aid of 30 minutes concentrated blow-drying and straightening, I look like something the cat drags in. To look the best that I can, I need that long bob, with hair all the same length. I normally kowtow to hairdressers. But not to this one.

"Not layers, thanks. I need something low-maintenance, I'm afraid. Just take a couple of inches off," said I.


I HATE what I turn into in the hairdresser's presence. A scaredy-cat, quite frankly. Someone afraid to voice my own opinions and ask for exactly what I want, although I am paying money for it. I didn't even take up her offer to blow dry the cut. I didn't complain when I went up to the mirror and saw that it was still far too long for my liking. I wasn't truthful with the hairdresser, or myself. And I really don't like that aspect of myself.

I always tell myself that next time, I will specify exactly what I want. I will not chatter incessantly about nothing to hide the fact that I am scared. I will not pretend to be someone I am not. I will behave with the hairdresser the same way I deal with supermarket staff, the bank, teachers - confident and assured. I will not end up driving to the store and buying hair dye to make up to myself that the cut doesn't look great, so I'll put on a colour so it looks a bit more passable.

Those who know me well are fully aware that I don't place too much importance on appearance - it's often style over function with me. But at the same time, I do strive to make the best of what God gave me, even if it's just a touch of lip gloss or an okay haircut. If I'm not happy with the way the clothes I buy look on my body, I return them. If I don't like a perfume, I won't use it. But haircuts? I'll just accept what the hairdresser gives me. Without complaint. And probably with an apology thrown in :-)

I HATE having my hair cut!!!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Small Successes! Volume Three*


1) I think it's a success that I'm actually sitting writing to be honest! Or, that I'm giving myself time to take stock & review the past month or so. Not that life's easy now, but it's definitely easier, and though I am tired from school runs and night feeds and trying to get the baby to nap when she wants - I am less tired than two weeks ago! I generally try to live in the now rather than worry about the future or more than glance at the past, but just sitting here, with a sleeping, fed baby, a household that is running OK (with much help from a hero of a husband may I add), I am happy to look back and think - WOW! how far we have come in such a short time. Rebecca is 11 weeks old and we are finally finding our feet, enjoying days out and looking forward to the half-term break. (I think this probably counts as a big success rather than a small one, but I haven't sat and written for a while!)

2) I'm getting back into my culinary groove. Granted, it wouldn't be possible without all of the above, but I'm getting organic fruit, veg & meat delivered and ACTUALLY USING THEM!! rather than them sit doing nothing in the fridge until the expire. Last night I even managed to throw together and have on the table in under an hour, this little gem from Delia Smith - a traditional UK 'cottage pie' of savoury beef mince & gravy, topped with mashed potato, sliced leeks and cheddar cheese and baked in the oven. Tonight (fingers crossed) it will be a spaghetti carbonara with mushrooms, leeks, garlic and bacon.

3) Despite my return to culinary form, Friday night, the last day of school for 10 days, means a visit to the fish and chip shop for our family. And this is my most major success - giving myself time off. I must have looked as run down as I was feeling this week because a friend offered to have my 4 year old to play this afternoon, which has (don't laugh) enabled me to tackle my grimy kitchen floor as well as sit and have some 'me' time. Back on Monday, another friend offered to make me lunch and the pumpkin, lentil & chilli soup we shared together set me up for the rest of the day, together with a long chat! Tuesday night, my husband took care of the baby while I slept. And I LET THEM. I let these people look after me. I made sure I didn't feel like a failure in accepting their kindness, like years of trying to prove myself a capable adult to my parents can still make me feel. I am a SUCCESS at mothering and looking after the family, but I am learning to recognise that an important part of that is learning to let others look after me - even asking for help if I need it :-)

It's great to take stock and recognise our successes and the people we know & things we do that contribute to them.

Share your successes too:
*inspired by Danielle Bean at Faith and Family Live

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Child benefit blues

OK, before you all start thinking, "She's only mad because her husband earns over £44k and she's going to lose out on some money", the newly-announced Child Benefit cuts won't affect me directly.

But oh my Lord, am I hopping, spewing, mad!!!!!

Part of this is due to the fact that the cut will affect families where at least one parent earns £44k - but not families where both spouses work and each earn £80k. So, 'traditional' families or whatever we should call them, where one parent works and the other provides full-time childcare for their offspring, are more likely to lose out, even if it's not every family unit that is fortunate to rake in this amount of cash from one salary.

My own personal circumstances are biased - as a triple-qualified graduate professional, who was earning a good salary but chose to go the 'stay at home mum' route through choice, I wouldn't want my Child Benefit slashed - yet if the earning potential of both parents was shared and I chose someone else to look after my children, I could keep it (and we're talking £2,500 a year now with 3 kids.) And for a long time I thought that the middle classes/higher earners shouldn't be getting Child Benefit when they didn't need it. Ours goes on dancing and swimming lessons rather than shoes like mine did when I was young, for example. Yes, how middle-class. But as well as discriminating against families who have chosen one spouse to put most of their energies into earning money, and the other put most of their energies into full-time childcare, there's a wider, deeper problem here.

Child Benefit was introduced in 1945 to encourage the population to, well, populate, following the decimation of life during two World Wars, and was initially paid to people who had more than one child. It was termed the 'Family Allowance' - it was introduced to benefit larger families, to help them with the cost involved in bringing new life into the world. The subtext read - 'Having children is a good thing. We support it. We respect parents having more than one child. Whatever their income. We're incentivising child-rearing.'

Over the years though, with the increased use of contraception and reduction in the numbers of children in families, the rights of parents to have bigger families and be respected for this have been eroded. Child Benefit is now paid for the first child too, and you get substantially more for the first child as well (the rest clearly aren't worth as much, or, someone figured out that they are going to wear elder siblings' hand-me-downs.) In the United Kingdom, the noise, the clutter, the sheer silliness and physically intrusive spectacle that is family life continues to be frowned upon, especially when compared to the love that kids get in continental Europe, when each tiny person is valued and children are fussed over in every area of life. Yes, people do have large families, but they're not seen as the norm anymore, and if they can't or won't support themselves financially, people have a go. Some of this may be justified, but surely bringing new life into the world is a right, not a privilege; a universal event, not something to be sneered at.*

Prime Minister Cameron has been pushing a pro-family agenda and has a young family himself, so this whole shebang has actually shocked me on a political level too - the Tories will surely lose middle-class voters if they actually do get to go through with this. It certainly doesn't accord parents and children with the respect and love they deserve. It's bloody hard work, parenting - taking money away isn't about the finances, it's about what that money symbolises: that each new life is welcome in society, whatever your income bracket.

I went into a new delicatessen/cafe yesterday with (we discovered) no baby-changing facilities, so ended up wiping Becky's bum on my own mat on their bathroom floor (and resisted the temptation to hand them the bag with the dirty nappy in it). They'd completely failed to understand that some middle-class cappucino drinkers in their midst might have a young family that needs supporting practically, psychologically, and politically. Ditto the UK Government, I reckon. Sort it out, George Osbourne. Now.

*especially when you are pregnant and usher two young girls out of public toilets without washing their hands because they're being difficult (and you have anti-bacterial handwash in your handbag anyways.) You know who you are, Judgemental and Intefering in Whitby.