My dad told me he sent a copy of my parenting book to his old university friend who is in his 70s. After reading the book, his friend’s comments were these: “It’s not a book on how to raise your children, it’s a book on ‘How to Train Your Husband!'”
I had to laugh. I thought that it was only in the last chapter of my book “Inside Out Parenting” that I broke forth into a feminist rant on equality in childcare and domestic chores (promise), but it has to be said that since the book’s release several men have commented to me that they feel sorry for my husband. Also I do know that for some time now several of Banker’s friends no longer allow me unsupervised contact with their wives lest I contaminate them with my views on equality in domesticity and the value of fathers in the lives of children, so it is possible that this flavour pervades more of the book than I realise.
For many people the status quo is very satisfactory thank you very much and boats shouldn’t be rocked. But if like me you feel that “Equality starts at home” then here are my contributions on how to attempt to achieve this. I am by no means an expert on husbands or relationships but equality is something that I have thought about and tried to implement. Rather than feel ashamed or guilty about being a “mean wife” (which I am not impervious to feeling due to societal expectations of a “good wife”), I shall embrace the “How to Train a Husband” banner and offer you these gems:
- Choose your husband wisely. Simplistic advice perhaps but many of us get caught up in love and romance that we don’t think beyond to the potential 50+ years of life ever-after when desire abates, life goes on and chores are required to be done. Choosing a husband that respects and loves you is really important. My definition of “love” involves caring about your happiness. If being a “perfect housewife” is making you desperate or depressed, then husbands need to care about that and try to be more involved to allow you to fulfil yourself in the ways that you need.
- Start from a base of equality if you can. It is much easier to argue for equality in the home if your relationship started off on a basis of equality. Marrying your boss or someone incredibly wealthy unfortunately can put you an an unequal power footing from the outset. You may always feel weaker in your ability to assert your needs. But for many young couples these days, it is more commonly the case that going into parenthood both partners are working and earning an equivalent salary, the power dynamic only changes when one parent (usually, but not always the wife) steps back from her career due to childcare responsibilities. If this is the case, then you know what equality in a relationship feels like so you should seek to maintain it.
- Assert your needs. Some people love quitting their jobs to undertake the fantastic experience of parenthood. This is great. But some people don’t and they feel guilty about feeling this and/ or complaining about being unfulfilled by their caregiving role. I would say that if you don’t feel totally fulfilled, then it is imperative that you make this known to your partner. Harbouring guilt and unhappiness will gnaw at you from the inside and is the harbinger of depression. We all have to do things out of responsibility, but we need support and hope that there are alternatives or compromises to be made to work towards something more fulfilling. Hopelessness and feeling there is no way out is a very dark place. If you abided Rule number 1, then a partner that cared about your happiness would step in and do what they could to allow you to feel more fulfilled. Even if they could not actively help, their support and understanding of your feelings can sometimes be enough. Equally, if breadwinners feels trapped in a job they hate they should make their voice heard: adjustments need to be made for everyone’s happiness and an effective team and division of labour should work for all.
- Childcare is a 9-5 job. Of course this is blatantly untrue as children need looking after throughout the clock. But if it were a standard job, these would be the hours that you would be employed to work. As such, from this view point, any work that is required to be done outside of the 9-5 framework are a job for parents – of which there are usually two. Whilst I have undertaken to be the primary carer for my children between normal working hours (unfortunately in my case Banker works 7am-7pm), any child related problems outside these hours or at the weekends are equally shared. I know that this seems ridiculous to point out, but I have seen many of my friends continue to resume full responsibility for their children at weekends running themselves ragged while their husband relaxes after a hard week in the office. Really? If you are in possession of several young children I can honestly say that I think going to the office should be regarded as veritable downtime. If your husband poo poos this notion, book a week’s holiday away and get your husband to be sole charge of the children for a week (no grandparent support allowed). I promise that within a week, they will come around to the notion that going to the office is easier than childcare.
- Childcare and Maid are two different jobs. Just because you have given up your job to look after your children, this does not mean that you have also become the live-in maid. If your husband treats you like a maid, please stop and think whether this would have happened before you got married and gave up your job to look after children? If it did happen before you got married – why did you marry him…?? If it didn’t used to happen, what has changed, why have you become the maid? If he wants a maid, he should employ one. If the family are suffering because of reduced income due to your quitting your job to look after children, then this is a FAMILY problem, meaning that EVERYONE needs to pitch in to help with the cleaning and chores. You should both be maids. I know that this sounds petty, and I do more than 50% of the domestic chores in my household, but HELL if that is the “expectation”. If there is ever a whiff of discontent or insinuation that domestic chores are my “responsibility” – I go on full-on strike! Yes, ladies – I have purposefully picked out my husbands’ shirts and underpants from the dirty laundry and laundered my own and the children’s clothing only. If there are complaints about no clean shirts I point at the washing machine. Many of my friends find this despicable – but really? I never washed his clothes before we had children, why should having children together mean that I am now responsible for washing his clothes?
- Maintain a job and income. I know that this is not always possible, but if you can, in any way shape or form, I think this is beneficial for your self-esteem and sanity. The only way to maintain respect in a relationship is by knowing and believing that you WANT not NEED to remain in it. For me, knowing that I have maintained employment skills in a part-time job means that I have certainty that should my relationship fail, I could go full-time and be able to support myself and my family. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would all wish for our marriages to last and relationships to succeed, but there is nothing successful in a marriage that lasted in misery and entrapment. Remaining in a marriage for fear of destitution is not really a great place to be in. Finances aside, a job allows you not only financial independence but to maintain social contact with other people and to meet new people such that should a relationship fail, you do not feel socially isolated and unable to meet new and interesting people. I don’t know if there are statistics to back this up, but anecdotally it feels like that when a couple divorce, the husband re-marries more readily than the wife. I don’t think that it is always because the wife typically gets custody of the children that this happens, but because many wives have been socially isolated or cosseted within female only social groups long before the divorce settlements are initiated.
- If “Training” your husband is not in your nature, encourage others to do it for you. I have found that often mothers are more readily blamed for anything that happens involving their children. When Big Sis broke her leg at the park with her father, my mother rebuked me with “What the hell were you doing letting your husband take her to the park!” This transfer of blame from fathers to mothers should be unacceptable but it happens all the time. Banker had a spate of being late to pick up Big Sis and Lil Bro on his nursery runs. Rather than rebuke him the nursery were congenial when he arrived late. However, the following day I would be given a telling off about the children being picked up late. I immediately countered that it was my husband who was late and not me. They acknowledged this and asked me to let my husband know that this was not on. Luckily, I had taken a good dose of assertiveness that morning and said, ‘You know, if I tell him it will be perceived as nagging. It will be much more effective if you ring him at work and tell him yourself.’ To my alarm, the nursery teacher became all bashful and said, ‘Am I allowed?’ This was the first time that I realized the unfairness of it all. Professionals are more than happy to criticize working women on their parenting but dare not criticize working men. I said to the teacher: ‘Not only are you allowed, but I would be delighted if you did!’. Mothers: encourage professionals to talk to your husband directly and refuse to be accountable for your husband’s actions. My additional advice, is this: if you are a professional who works with children, be it teacher, nursery worker, teaching assistant, doctor, nurse, dentist, or other, please be fair and call fathers to account as well as mothers.
- Share the Mental Load: What scientific explanation is there to say that organising childcare, making a packed lunch or reminding children to put on a coat and remember a PE kit require a pair of breasts? None-whatsoever. Yet generations of women have been conned into subsuming these activities as their responsibility. I myself spent much time and sleepless nights wracking my brains over solutions to tricky childcare logistics when I wanted to return to work. It only struck me when Big Sis was 7 that fathers could actually contribute to regular weekly childcare duties, rather than just at the weekend, Banker too was surprised to be asked. He had indeed sat through my endless rantings about how maybe we could pay ‘anyone-in-the-world’ to look after the children, without once suggesting that part of this responsibility was his. There ensued, of course, the typical grumbles: ‘important job’ . . . ‘impossible’ . . . ‘money’ . . . ‘promotion’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’ . . . ‘blah’. However, I happened to know that one of his colleagues had been able to wangle a late start to drop his children at school a few times a week. This colleague had just spent a tonne of money fighting for shared custody of his children, following a divorce. For him, it was a privilege to be able to do the school run. So I pointed out to my darling husband that I was offering him exactly this privilege, without the expense of a divorce and custody battle. Bargain! Seriously, though, surely childcare arrangements are a shared responsibility? Why does it so often fall to mothers? Even when fathers are doing childcare, it is often because the mothers have told them to do so and given them explicit instructions of where things are and what to do. The other day, having just cleaned the kitchen, I asked Banker to make Big Sis a packed lunch for her school trip. He replied, ‘OK. But what goes into a packed lunch?’ I did not dignify this question with an answer. A grown-up, well-educated man should be able to work this one out for himself. I, for one, would like some time off from all the thinking and planning of parenting, as well as all the doing. Make sure it is not just the load that is shared, but also the mental load.
I know I might sound like a right old dragon. But the good news is this: although implementing and fighting my corner with my husband has not always been plain sailing, I know this for a fact: my husband has been grateful for my honesty and has thanked me openly for allowing and fostering his relationship with his children. At a recent book publicity event, the male CEO of a major publishing company came up to me to say that he chimed with my view: the thing he is most grateful to his wife for was to insist that he participated in childcare. Although he grumbled at the time, he recognises now the difference it has made to his relationship with his children, now fully-grown. Because children are not blind, they see everything: who is doing what for whom. Providing the cheque for lavish birthday parties and expensive presents will never quite equate to the tear wiper, illness healer, sandwich maker, homework teacher, hug-giver, PE kit rememberer, confidence instiller; and I think that deep down, we all know this to be true.
For many parents it’s back to school this week, a time of mixed emotions. I’m sure that I am not alone in feeling a sense of relief (thank God I’m no longer responsible for them 24/7 or for organising who will be responsible for them 24/7), sadness (how the heck did they get this big? A minute ago I was wiping their bottom) and anxiety (how will they get on with their new teacher?).
The “Back to School” prep has all been done. This year, thanks to a last minute job application form that was due, the majority was delegated to Banker. For the first time, he braved John Lewis alone with the kids to battle over the last Size 3 Geox, AND he ironed on all the name labels on the new uniforms. This latter he did correctly this time as last year when he was assigned this task he spent an hour ironing on sticker name labels (used for books and pencil cases etc) rather than the iron-on name labels (used for clothing). They obviously didn’t stick and I had an absolute barney as I had to repeat the task. This year all was done to standard, which goes to show that these parenting tasks need not be the preserve of mums (if we are happy to tolerate a hiccup or two)! All I did was get Lil Bro his back-to-school haircut and then they were set.
As soon as my kids saw their friends they were off without a backward glance.
I toddled off to the shops. It was with sadness that on my return from the shops, a good hour after the school bell had tolled that I saw a mum and her son outside the school gates. I heard a snapshot of their conversation “Just go in and talk to the others. It’ll be fine.” It occurred to me that for some families, “back-to-school” is not just a logistic nightmare of name labels, new shoes and haircuts, but a return to a battle-ground and heartache.
As an autism specialist, it is not uncommon for my clients to loathe school and in extremis to refuse to go to school. Anxiety is the most common co-morbidity in children with autism, and it is also the most common mental health problem in primary school aged children. So here are a few pointers on school refusal:
Try to find the cause for anxiety
- Encourage your child to feel safe to talk to you about their problems. This requires a non-judgemental attitude and a guarantee of confidence and that they will not get into trouble. They will also need to know that they will be taken seriously, and that you will have the resources and strength to help them. Many children I see in clinic do not disclose bullying to parents as “it will worry them”, “they won’t believe me”, “they will only confront the situation and make it worse” or “they won’t be able to do anything”.
- Often it is not sufficient to ask your child why they will not/ do not want to go to school. Persistent badgering on this question may cause more harm than good if it is not forthcoming given encouragement. Sometimes your child may not fully understand their own emotions or the cause of their emotions and therefore cannot tell you even if they wanted to. In this instance, it is up to you to speak to teachers and friends and come up with your best guesses. Discuss these hunches with your child in a non-judgemental way: “If I were in your shoes, I’d be a little scared of your new teacher…” and see whether any of them chime with your child. This is a favourite child psychiatrist strategy of mine as usually one of your guesses will be correct and when you see a child’s face respond to you verbalising their darkest emotions, you can tell that you’ve got to the heart of it and work can begin.
If you find a cause then dealing with the cause will be your next step. Some common causes for school refusal in primary aged children are:
- bullying/ social ostracisation by peers
- bullying/ fear of a teacher/ fear of being told off
- anxiety about a particular subject: fear of failure in an academic subject, fear of being ridiculed in P.E.
- anxiety about leaving the parent (separation anxiety) for fear something may happen to the parent.
Sometimes, there is no one-single cause and anxiety may be generalised or the sum of minor anxieties that can overwhelm. Working through each one, however minor, can be important.
Dealing with the cause should always involve:
- Working together with the school. The natural parental instinct is to do your utmost to protect your child which can mean confronting the school staff or the parents of other children. Try to stay calm and keep an even head – whatever happens, getting other parents and teachers on side will lead to better outcomes for your child than making adversaries.
- Supporting your child. As well as in relation to the identified cause, increasing your child’s self-esteem, resilience and social skills will always help.
- Sometimes, parents will allow children to stay off school due to school refusal. It is important to remember that this can inadvertently encourage problems as you are in effect teaching your child that crying and fussing will lead to a day off school. Sometimes it is impossible to get a child into school, but if this is the case, then schoolwork should be done at home rather than a pleasurable day at home watching TV and playing computer games. An incredibly boring or taxing day of chores at home may lead some children to the conclusion that school is preferable!
- If at all possible, get children back into school as quickly as possible because the longer that they are off school, the harder it will be to get them back.
In September 2013, after a prolonged period of doubting, mental deliberation and build-up, I ventured on-line and bought myself a domain name: Shrinkgrowskids.com. It was meant to keep me busy while the children were in school because finding employment in school hours only is impossible. I psyched myself up. I was about to start writing when the following happened:
- my daughter broke her leg (she was 6 years old and too little to use crutches. We have a typical Victorian townhouse on 3 floors. She needed hoisting everywhere. I put my back out)
- my dad got diagnosed with cancer (thankfully now in remission)
- my son had terrible allergies to a list of over 20 food items
There were a lot of hospital appointments. The blog got put on the back-burner. Life’s never easy and there is always an excuse NOT to do something.
I’m glad that I persisted.
In January 2014, I finally got the chance to sit down and blog and this led on some 3 years later to the publication of my book last month. So I wanted to share the following with you:
Remember your dreams and make time to make them happen!
Here’s a little taster from the intro of my book:
Oh, for pity’s sake!’ I silently cursed.
I had timed the nursery run to a tee and for once we were actually on schedule – until my three-year-old daughter, Molly, realized that her new shoes did not have her name label in them. Disaster! I tried to persuade her that this would be fine for one day and promised to stick the labels in that night; I explained that I couldn’t do it there and then because we would be late for her nursery (and, more importantly, I would be late for a meeting I was due to chair). But Molly out and out refused to see reason.
So I tried cajoling, then bribing, then threatening her. All to no avail. Ultimately I gave in, impatiently got the name labels and grumpily stuck them in her shoes. But by then it was too late. Molly was digging her heels in and her anger wasn’t just about the shoes anymore, but had become an incoherent fury with the world in general. And she was still refusing to put on her shoes. There followed more shouting, this time from me, along the lines of, ‘Now I’m going to be late!’ Reciprocal shouting and foot stamping from Molly ensued, until I realized that physically picking her up, bundling her under my arm and forcibly depositing her in the car was the only way I was going to get anywhere that day.
This was no mean feat. Picture me shuffling sheepishly down the road to the car, praying not to encounter any of my neighbours, Molly tucked under my arm like a log, kicking and screaming, with no shoes on. Simultaneously, my eighteen-month- old son D (Chinese for little brother, which is what we’ve always called him), was clinging on to me like an oversized pendant, his arms wrapped tightly around my neck. Assorted nursery-required paraphernalia was haphazardly piled into two bags, which weighed down so heavily on my elbows that they were cutting off the circulation to my fingers, from which dangled the contentious shoes. I must have resembled a demented rag and bone woman with my assorted wares hanging all over me. Meanwhile, Molly’s ongoing high-pitched wails of, ‘You’re hurting me!’ advertised our approach to everyone in the neighbourhood.
It was on that day of model motherhood that I decided I should write a book about parenting. If this seems perverse, I haven’t even confessed the funniest part of the story yet. About an hour after that little episode, I finally took my seat at the meeting. There I sat, solemnly discussing the effects that ‘compromised parenting’ has on the mental health of children. Believe me, the irony was not lost on me.
You see, I am a child psychiatrist. Handling Molly’s meltdown should have been second nature to me, but it wasn’t. After this humiliating escapade, I started to write down the more ridiculous of my parenting moments, because on one level they intrigued me: ‘Surely a child psychiatrist should know better?’ I kept asking myself.
Before having children I probably considered myself some-thing of a ‘parenting expert’. I doled out parenting advice to parents like hot dinners and wore my, ‘I know about parenting; I’m a child psychiatrist y’know’ badge with pride. It was only when I actually became a parent that I woke up to the humbling reality that there is no such thing as a ‘parenting expert’. Parenting is, in essence, often a process of mainly well-intentioned trial and error. The well-intentioned part is important because in recent times parents have been taking their role in their children’s development much more seriously. We’ve come a long way from the days when children were seen and not heard; when it was fairly common for them to be farmed out to wet nurses, governesses or boarding school at one end of the social spectrum, or sent up a chimney at the other. We now know that leaving the administration of parenting to others means potentially leaving the outcomes
Indeed, sometimes it seems we have gone to the other extreme; there has been such a seismic shift in our attitudes towards parenting. Rather than abdicating responsibility for our children, or being ambivalent, we now have an almost obsessive preoccupation with them. I like to think that this is because my profession has done such a great job at promoting the importance of loving and understanding our children, though cynics might argue that it has more to do with the fact that most of us can no longer afford nannies, governesses or boarding schools. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that there is now a genuine interest in giving our children the best possible start in life.
I, like the rest of the country have been left dumbfounded by the cruelty of a terror attack targeting children and their parents. Of course, this is no more tragic than the bombs being dropped on hospitals and schools in Syria or elderly window cleaners being mown down on Westminster bridge, but it is a natural and human tendency to feel more empathy when the people involved are “just like you and your family”. The eight-year old girl that died, could have been Big Sis, the mum’s chatting outside waiting to pick up their children could have been me and my friends. Maybe it’s this that makes me feel it more this time around.
I asked Big Sis and Lil Bro if their teachers had mentioned the recent news at school. They had not. I wondered for a while if I should talk to the children about it. They were blissfully unaware that anything out of the ordinary had happened and I could have left it that way. Why let the world intrude on a “safe and idyllic” childhood living in a fortunate part of London?
Yet I decided not to stay quiet and here’s why:
- Children do not live in a bubble and sooner or later the outside world beyond a loving home and sheltered school will impinge on them. As much as we parents want to shelter our children from hurt; hurt is an inevitable part of life. Children who are shielded from hurt never learn to manage their negative emotions so that when inevitably, they get hurt, they are less well equipped to cope. Better to gently expose children to reality and teach children to manage their emotions.
- Children will become adults sooner than we think and need to have socio-political views of their own. There is talk of extending voting age to include 16 year olds: de facto: children. Whilst the children are young and I have an influence on my children’s opinions, I would like to pass on my ideals of openness, fairness and love so that they are entrenched before the likes of unknown peers and uncensored media get a hold of them. I felt that this terrorist attack was a marker event, so significant that they needed to know about and understand it, to shape their opinions for later life.
But what could I say? No medical degree or child psychiatry training teaches you this. In this, like so many other aspects of parenting, I am like any other parent: a novice. Here’s how I tried my best:
I told them that something terrible had happened in Manchester and we found the BBC Newsround clip together on iPlayer. We watched it together. A good quality children’s news program can convey facts in a way that children will understand and also be counted upon not to shock or overly upset the average child, so this is a good place to start.
I asked the children what they thought about it and I answered their questions.
Big Sis: What is a terrorist?
Me: It’s a person that does things to frighten other people so that the frightened people will do what they tell them to do.
Big Sis: Is it like a bully?
Me: Yes, I suppose so. They frighten people to get their own way or to make other people angry to start a war.
Big Sis: Why would anyone want to start a war?
Me: Well there are already lots of wars going on around the world. We are just lucky that we live in a country that’s safe right now.
Big Sis: Why can’t people just stop fighting?
Me: It’s easier said than done! Why can’t you and your brother stop fighting?
Big Sis [Hmm – recognising this is a tricky]: Well, we should just kill all the terrorists.
Me: It’s more complicated than that. Killing people just upsets more people and often leads to more death. I don’t have all the right answers, but it usually doesn’t involve more death.
Big Sis: What should we do then?
Me: I think we must just help the people that got hurt, remember the people that died and carry on with our lives. We can’t let bullies scare us into giving in or feeling anger and hate, because this is what they would want. Maybe it can help us all feel grateful to be alive and for what we have.
Lil Bro: Will a terrorist come and bomb us?
Me: I hope not, but we live in London so I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that I have lived for over 40 years and haven’t been hurt by a terrorist yet, so the chances are really low. It’s natural to feel a little bit upset and worried, everyone does – even me, but if we let it stop us doing what we enjoy doing then the terrorists have won. So we need to be strong and ignore them.
This was getting rather depressing and I was running out of things to say, so I was really surprised but pleased that out of the mouths of babes can come heart-warming positivity:
Lil Bro: At least they died happy.
Lil Bro: They went to see an Arianna Grande concert and had a good time. The last thing that the people that died felt: was happy.
- Don’t be afraid to tell the truth to children
- Use language children will understand
- Avoid unnecessary graphic and frightening details
- Acknowledge that fear is normal
- Encourage talking about fear rather than suppressing it
- Model a good sense of the risks: don’t get overly worried yourself
- Offer realistic reassurance
- Model a “carry on” attitude
- Continue to spread love not hate
And, if you can, find a glimmer of hope.
If you are lucky like me, your children may find the positive for you.
Sorry for the radio silence, but life has been pretty hectic the last few months to say the least. I have been interviewed by The Times, Country Walking and writing articles for The Telegraph and Daily Mail on-line sites. Crazy. Today a long-held dream has become reality and my little book, which came about from this blog, has hit the bookshops. When I paid my £60 to register this blog domain, little did I imagine that all this would be possible.
This morning after dropping off the children at school, I made a solitary trip to the local bookstore and headed to the parenting section where I have hung out quite a lot in the last few years. My only previous publication was a Chapter in a textbook so specialised that you had to order it on-line, so it was a very strange idea that I could go into a bookshop and see my book on the shelf. I didn’t really believe that I would find it, but there it was….
Thank you so much to all the lovely people that have followed or read my blog. I do hope that now the hard work is done on the book that I will be back on the blog site again! I have missed Big Sis, Lil Bro and Banker, not least because they are transformed into Molly, D and Andrew in the book. Since writing the book, so much has happened and the children are no longer little anymore! I’m really looking forward to sharing the next adventures in parenting with you : Lil Bro is sitting his KS1 SATS and I am forming an excel spreadsheet of secondary schools for Big Sis – where did the time go?
If you have liked my site, please look out for my book: it may be tucked away somewhere next to books on potty training! – (I confess to having spent half an hour rearranging the shelves at my local Waterstones to get that photo above – at least I was decent enough not to sneak it widthways over Giovanna Fletcher).
Thank you again for supporting my blog. I could have not done this without you!
Around this time 2 years ago I ventured into the public library. The library has always seemed to me a calm and comforting place where natural introverts like me can hide without need for social interaction. I have fond memories of public libraries from my childhood.
- My parents did not have much money for books when I was young and so it became a Saturday ritual to take us to the local library. My sisters and I delighted in the weekly routine of 4 books in and 4 books out. The sitting with a pile of books on the library floor to make the book selection was as much fun as the devouring at bed time. Decisions were critical of course as it could never be guaranteed that a book cast away could ever be found again in the bowels of the public library system. I conjured up images of the child that never returned the book that I had set aside for next week. I remember tittering as my precocious sister stole into the forbidden adult library to feed on the minds of Austen, Bronte and yes, Mills & Boon.
- As I grew older, the library routine became an independent journey. There was a Mobile Library that parked on the next road from my house. Come rain or shine, the humble little van would open it’s doors to a wonderful and shifting collection of books rammed onto wooden shelves that seemed to be hewn from the very carcass of the van. It’s purpose? To open my mind. Here I discovered childhood favourites from Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton to Paula Danziger, Judy Blume (who can forget Ralph?), Robert Cormier and S.E. Hinton. From books I spent a childhood learning and yearning to be British and the teenage years aspiring to be American. 2016 has made both youthful aspirations rather less enticing, but I think the core of what I mean still stands: books shape opinions, identities and lives.
- As an adult, sadly the enjoyable public library routines of old fell away to being buried in book stacks of University Libraries. The “downstairs” of the Institute of Psychiatry (IOP) library was in my day a pleasure. Hidden away, accessed by spiral staircase is a room with more books than space where one had to churn a handle to move whole bookcases in order to squeeze between the shelves to retrieve the required tome. It’s fortunate that it was almost always devoid of people, because the one occasion where the bookcase started to move while I was trapped in between stacks brought back Star Wars style nightmares of being crushed by advancing walls. It always impressed me that amongst those books were the first clumsy descriptions of Down’s Syndrome, Schizophrenia and Autism. The pleasantly eerie bolt-hole had an atmosphere that’s hard to recreate. Sadly, it’s all gone now, and the IOP library – like most things – has “gone digital” and now resembles an Apple Store.
A return to the public library was heralded by having children of my own. Although not quite up to the organisation of weekly visits, the public library is a space that my children know and enjoy. Helped by lack of overdue fees on children’s books and Drop-Back boxes for books, sporadic and opportunistic visits to the library are possible. My children, like me before them enjoy the rummage and many of their favourite picture books were bent and battered copies of random and obscure books (for instance one about a girl called Tina and an alligator that trips on soap while doing the Tango and falls down the toilet) bought for 20p from the Library rejects sell-off bins. While the children explored and tried to hack into the library computers, I would wander to the parenting section.
During this particular library visit 2 years ago though, I wasn’t exploring the parenting shelves, I was asking the man behind the desk for the little red book – “The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2014“. The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook is an agency listing for budding writers and artists.
I had decided to take the plunge. I scoured the book for agencies interested in non-fiction and parenting. I took down the emails. I went home and I sent out my story.
I had been here 2 years earlier for the same reason. I had written the beginnings of a manuscript about my childhood and it’s influence on my parenting. I had pored through the agency listings and sent off my manuscript to 5 agencies. I was rejected by all of them, although one had nice things to say. It wasn’t easy to think about going through this process of rejection again, but since the first round of submission, I had started the blog and was warmed by the people that had responded to my writing. Friends and acquaintances would stop me and say “I liked your last blog” or “my wife reads your blog” which was a real encouragement. Also, as I had nothing better to do at the time (as high flying work-places dislike women with young children), there was nothing to lose. Sometimes it takes having no easy option available to force us to take a risk.
And so it came that a lovely young mother connected with my story and agreed to become my agent, followed a year later by another lovely mother offering to be my publisher.
And that’s how I got to meet proper writers: Russell Brand, Joe Wicks, Jack Monroe, Leah Garwood-Gowers, Daisy Kristiansen, Laura James and Eleanor Morgan and pitch with them to media and retailers our books that will be released by Bluebird Books (Pan Macmillan) in 2017.
For those that harbour manuscripts (I know at least one-friend) – please send them out – it really does happen! And if you can, pop in to your local library. Without us they have been closing up and down the country and with their closure the door and mind-opening opportunities for many children.
Now that the children are a little older, I am finding that I finally have time to look in the mirror. This is a very depressing past-time as over the last 9 years, I appear to have aged 90 years. Bags under the eyes, lines traversing the face, spare tyre around the tummy and plenty of black hair turned grey! Some of these aspects I find acceptable (crows feet while not exactly welcome, are a sign of a life spent smiling) or readily remedied (thanks L’Oreal) – and I may finally get to claw back some benefit from that under-utilised gym membership. What I found very frightening was to see the piles of dyed black hair clogging up the plug hole of my bath every time I washed my hair. Hair-loss – extremely frightening. There was definitely a bit at my hairline which looked thinner than previously and I started to find the jokes that I had made about my husband’s retreating hairline less amusing. (When he had denied any hair loss, I had told him that he should tattoo his hairline and then we would have physical evidence of whether or not he was receding – funny I thought at the time, not so funny now that I am suffering the same fate!).
So when I next trotted off to the hair salon to get a hair cut; I wow-ed at the massive poster in the window which promised “Thicker, fuller hair could be yours” with a whole new product range targeted at thinning hair. Even for evidence-based scientists, rationality goes out the window when faced with fear and the potential of hope, however unlikely. The hairdresser was kind enough to doubt my need for the product but was only too happy to sell me the entire range given my disposition. He warned me “It works on your scalp so if you feel it tingling on your scalp, you’ll know it’s working.”
Over the next two weeks, I diligently used the entire product range, and indeed, soon after I felt a tingling on my scalp. “Ooh, I can really feel it working!” I thought to myself and liberally applied more product. The tingling got stronger. I inspected my hair daily. “Hmm” I thought to myself, my hair is looking fuller. More product slapping. Hang about, this product is starting to itch more than tingle now. That must be a sign of all the new hairs that are sprouting out of my scalp, because I know that when new hairs grow they can sometimes itch. More product. What fabulous hair I now have, well worth the itch because as everyone knows: “you must suffer for beauty”.
A week later, I was clearing out the detritus of school letters and notes that had formed at the bottom of Big Sis’s school bag. Oops, I have not yet paid the school dinner money. Thank goodness, I am in time to give permission to a school trip.
Then, I saw it and the penny dropped.
“There has been an outbreak of nits in your child’s class”.
It was quite something other than new-age, hair-growing potion that had been working on my scalp and my vain mis-belief had led me to tolerate it blindly!
For the next 3 weeks instead of gentle, herbal, hair-regeneration and scalp renewal product, I was in the chemist hoarding chemical agents, the more toxic the better. None of the homeopathic agents for me, I was for all-out chemical warfare and instead of wishing for hair growth, I was happily pulling out my own hair with a fine toothed nit comb shouting “Out damn nits!”
Vanity really doesn’t pay.
This half term I am braving the entire week with the kids without the other half.
Despite working 8am-8pm most days, Banker declared he also has to work the half term. I have recently come to the conclusion that the term “working class” to mean a low-waged worker (previously miner or factory worker, but more latterly I’m presuming a tele-marketer or warehouse picker) is now a total misnomer because, let’s face it, only a very few landed gentry or Russians these days don’t work, and the majority of wealthy (rather than Über-rich) people are putting the hours in. Why don’t we update the nomenclature and call a spade a spade? The “Well-renumerated” class and the “Poorly-Renumerated” class; or the overpaid and the exploited classes?
Previously I have taken the kids for 2 days to Brighton by myself and last Summer I took the kids around New York by day by myself but this is the first full 5 days/ 4 nights. I know this is completely wimpy because single parents, widows and widowers do this sort of thing all the time, but hey, I AM A WIMP.
Softening the blow, I decided to check into a luxury family Hotel: The Ickworth Hotel, near Bury St Edmunds. This was a second choice: luxury hotels these days being cheaper (£290 per night including breakfast and adult’s dinner) than Centre Parcs (£390 a night self-catering) which I found surprising. The economy I think is gained by ditching the husband, as in a hotel a family of three takes up only a double room with extra camp bed wheeled in, while Centre Parcs caters strictly to your average family of 4 so you in effect pay for an empty bed if going it alone.
Ickworth was a known entity as my family have stayed here before, albeit the last time Big Sis was in nappies, Lil Bro was on the breast and I was on the Tena Ladies. Then it was all – “Wow, this hotel room has a nappy bin and access to a microwave to heat up Ella’s kitchen pouches” and “Thank God, the staff appear unconcerned that my kid is head butting the antique furniture with a bucket on her head”. So how does this hotel that markets itself to families, particularly of young children fare for a 7 year old, 9 year old and 40-something year old?
We had a small family room: a double bed and an extra camp bed rolled in. Not spacious, but perfectly adequate as we were certainly going to spend most of the day outside anyway. Décor is all old furniture upcycled with modern fabrics: so appropriately country house but grand enough to give city kids a bit of a Wow factor. Not quite the on-trend Babington House, but that’s also reflected in the price tag so I am not complaining. No mini fridge which was a bummer because I had to stash the pork pies I’d bought for lunches (not included in the room tariff) in the sock drawer instead.
The Reception staff are friendly to children and when I couldn’t get the DVD player to work, they sent a nice man around: “You need to plug the DVD player into the TV” – oops.
Food can be taken in the Conservatory for families or in the Candlelit fine dining setting for those that choose to use the Baby Listening Service or on-site babysitters. There is also a High Tea available for toddlers, but we tried this last time we came and I can only describe it as hell. Imagine 10 sleep deprived families each trying desperately to feed babies and toddlers at the same time, with anxiety heightened by the fact that this is “THE relaxing, couple bonding holiday” and the baby-sitter and romantic candlelit dinner has been booked so the baby has to be well fed and asleep in 30 minutes flat come hell or high water. Yeah, that kind of vibe. Thankfully this time, I could go for the Conservatory option. The food is average to good, but the menu stayed unchanged all week so I ate pretty much everything on the menu. Portions are rather huge so the kids were able to share my rather generous nightly 3 course allowance.
Prepare to be Bodened and mini-Bodened. Yes, this is Boden central. If blond kids, check collared shirts and bright cords are not your scene then forget about it. I have the resilience of a stubborn pig so feel not the social pressure, but in the week of people watching I saw only one Black British family venture nervously forth into the Conservatory in their trendy leisure wear and they never returned. Towards the end of the week, a couple of Asian families that had drunk from the Boden cool-aid trough appeared; as did my doppelganger:
Big Sis: Ooh look mum, there’s a lady like you. She’s Chinese but married to a white guy.
Blegh. I am now a cliché.
The ethos is strictly “conventional family” and I noted that I was the only lone parent there in a week. I imagined the other parents looking sadly over at our table for 3 wondering about the death or divorce that had befallen me. “And since our Papa died, we can’t afford Boden clothing any longer…”
One of the attractions of the hotel was the availability of on-site facilities for kids. A literal stable full of bikes and bike helmets meant we didn’t need the pfaff of bringing all our kit up with us, and a navigable, traffic-free country park within which city kids wobbly on their wheels, could safely practice in was ideal for us. An on-site swimming pool heated to the temperature of “warm-bath” is also within flip-flopping distance. Not quite the full on tidal pool and water slides of Centre Parcs, but in the morning and at lunchtimes, it’s possible to get the whole pool to ourselves which at half term is a luxury. Tennis courts, trampolines, croquet and football are all available, as well as a bank of family board games to play in the perfectly crafted “homely lounges” available. Unfortunately, they are all packed in the late afternoons, but hey, it is half term. The kids and I hole up in our room to play scrabble. I make them promise not to cry if I win. Yes, I am that mean mother that won’t let her children win at Scrabble. Cards, chess, Monopoly, sure – but there is no messing about in Scrabble.
The basement hosts kids craft activities and a games room where my tech-deprived two slink off to from time to time to play Wii Bowling and Air Hockey. They befriend a kid who spends the day in his Boden pyjamas; such is the “home away from home” feel of the place. In the evenings there is a cinema, but there were no adults there so I felt a bit of a spare part wandering about my room while my kids watched the movie. Yes, when you finally get rid of the darn kids, you end up moping for them. If Banker were with me, we could’ve hit the bar, but as it was it was kind of lonesome. The rest of the week we opt for borrowing family-friendly DVDs (Harry Potter, Cool Runnings) from the hotel to cuddle up and watch in our room.
On day 1, we ventured out for some “educational activity”. As a Chinese parent, going on holiday without at least one “educational outing” can induce stomach cramps and nausea, so it is best to get it out of the way first thing so that you can breathe a little easier the rest of the holiday. I choose West Stow Saxon Village. It’s basically a couple of mock-Saxon out buildings strewn with what I presume are volunteers dressed in mock Saxon garb pretending to be Saxons. There are some ladies moulding mud to make a Saxon oven, another lady crocheting some Saxon cloth and another whittling wood. There are a couple of teenage boys pretending to be Smithies banging away on bits of B&Q iron attempting to make an iron dragonfly. Lil Bro is fascinated by this and keeps returning to check on the progress of the dragonfly. After 3 hours they have basically twisted one piece of iron and hammered out 2 feet. At the last return they’ve shut up shop and are eating Tesco’s finest buttered raisin toast in Saxon garb. There’s also a child friendly museum where kids (and adults) can also dress in Saxon garb, don a Saxon helmet and look at remains of artefacts that were actually dug up at West Stow. Quite cool except that it brings on lectures from Big Sis regarding the Neolithic and Mesolithic periods and all about querning which they have apparently been learning about at school. Quite the Hermoine Granger our Bis Sis, fantastic yet also slightly wearing. When I had thought about an “educational outing” I had meant educational for them, not for me! I bundle them off to some archery activity just in time as Big Sis looking up at the clouds says “Ooh, look at the Stratus clouds Mummy – we’ve been learning about cloud formations at school…”
On Day 4, I pack both kids off to Barrow Farm Stables (a 20 minute drive away) for a “Pony Experience” day. Sadly Lil Bro is the only boy (why can’t boys do ponies?) but they both seem to enjoy themselves, and this time, no moping about for me as I have booked myself in for treatments at the hotel’s spa. Yipee.
On our final day, we will visit Ickworth House, the National Trust Property next door to the hotel. Hotel guests get free entry and there are family friendly Halloween activities on, so that’s a good bonus. We’ll finish off on afternoon tea then head back to London.
The Children’s verdict
The kids have had a blast. They are requesting to come back again next half term. “The people here and the other children are all so nice”; and it turns out that the kid in Boden pyjamas had asked my kids the question that all adults wondered but never dared ask:
“Is your dad dead?”
Big Sis: No, he’s working in London.
Yes! The kids are finally back at school and the extracurricular circus is almost organised. For those sensible enough to avoid enrolling children into a hundred and one activities, I salute you – because really, the logistics are too much! Having been rather gung-ho on the extra-curricular clubs when Big Sis and Lil Bro were little, I am now paying the price. The plan had been to shove them into as many classes as possible during the 3 days that I work and grandma looks after them. This was a vain attempt to stop said grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans for 3 hours each day. Instead, they were taken to some life-skill enhancing activity: ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess before 2 hours of grandma allowing them to veg on her couch watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and feeding them chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans. Don’t ask me how come my beloved mother who locked me in my room until I could recite my times-tables at the age of 5 years, and who I had been counting on to knock some discipline into my kids has transformed into dobby the house elf.
Anyhoo, the unforseen pig of it all is that as the kids get older, the darn things get better at their life-enhancing skills and progress to different classes which are now OUTSIDE my 3 working days and the kids are back watching Power Rangers Dino Charge and being fed chocolate and hand peeled grapes like mini Romans on my work days, while I am left slogging them to ballet/ street-dance/ swimming/ tennis/ football/ chess on days when I am in charge. Don’t even ask about the crazy timetabling because Big Sis’s swimming now clashes with Lil Bro’s street dance, and I have to fathom if logistically I can get from the piano teacher to the swimming pool in 10 minutes…(I’m thinking potentially possible if Big Sis plays piano in her swimming costume). Man it sucks.
The good news is that not only has daily life returned after the chaos of the holidays because the kids are back in their school routine again, but my blogging life has returned – (Yay!). I’m hoping that some of you may have missed me (yes – I am talking to you dear sister) and will pick back up where we left off for the fortnightly Friday blogs.
In explanation of my long absence, I am pleased to say that much fun was had the last 6 months indulging the fantastic and unreal opportunity to pen a parenting book. Bluebird, the life-style imprint behind the lovely Joe Wicks and his midget trees have backed and bought my story. Thank You! I am so looking forward to this crazy new journey which is a world away from cutting NHS waiting times.
They say that there is a book in all of us and many people harbour a dream of writing a book. Many of us have half written manuscripts in our dusty drawers or notebooks and hard drives of half-formed ideas. For decades I was one of them. My aged computer still contains very early drafts of a parenting book that I had the audacity to pen before even having children. Needless to say, these naïve and sentimental ponderings were a pile of crap and if the me of today had encountered the me of then, I’d have spared no hesitation in giving myself a tight slap and saying: “Have you ever met a child you twat?” Although I don’t think that you need to be a parent to give advice on parenting, an ounce of realism helps.
And so it turns out that although having children was the nail in the coffin of my treadmill professional career, being chucked off the treadmill gave me time and opportunity to explore other areas of myself and take a chance on an old and buried dream. It was the beginning of this new journey. What has been a heartening realisation is that while my having children was seen by my traditional profession as a weakness, for my writing it has been my greatest strength. I can only encourage others that if ever you fail because of a “weakness”, just change the story and it may turn out that your “weakness” is your greatest strength.
And if you have a dusty notebook or neglected files on your hard drive, maybe it’s time to have another look…
Your kid has been a fab goody-two-shoes at school – so what better reward than the “Star of the Day” prize of a germ-infested, grime-encrusted, soft toy to bring home? This cuddly is passed around from child to child on a daily basis, and if what my children do with it (kiss, cuddle, canoodle, throw about the place and sleep with) is indicative of what every child does with it, then I am pretty sure that if Pip the Panda were an adult human, he’d be harbouring every venereal disease going. Not only are we supposed to harbour this bacterial contagion, but we are supposed to show it a good time and document the good times had to be shared with the rest of the class, and more importantly, the rest of the class’s parents in a book that gets handed around.
This has led to what I term “Star of the Day One-Up-Manship”. Pip has been to Disneyland Paris a few times, weekends away in the Cotswolds, holiday homes in Suffolk and has even met the “Housekeepers” of my children’s classmates. I love it as you can peer into the lives of others without being caught out as “nosy”, although of course other parents are acutely aware that their entries will be inspected and the entries have a social media gloss: the children are always smiling, they’ve always done something interesting and it’s all happy days. No one is writing: I went home. I watched TV. I ate junk food. I delayed getting into the bath until my mother screamed at me like a psycho.
In a mini-rebellious streak, I thought about taking Pip to the pub, plying him with alcohol and cigarettes and documenting his “Ted” like night out on the town, returning him to Reception smelling of lager and fag-ash. Sadly, I wimped out. So instead, I photo-shopped him into old travel snaps with Lil Bro in tow.
“After school, we climbed to Machu Picchu, deep water dived, explored the temples of Angkor Watt and visited my mother in China”
Lil Bro enjoyed the dressing up and we could spend the rest of the weekend watching TV and eating junk food instead of taking pictures of us eating super foods and doing healthy exercise in our very well-decorated home. The best thing was that the Reception kids who have no idea of Geography actually believed that this was an accurate depiction of life chez Lil Bro. Too cute.