…And Yesterday I Cried

“The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.”

-Annabel Crabb, Policital Journalist

{Also features on The M Word }

I’m very sure there are lots of us for whom this quote resonates. Most of the time it’s a case of just getting on with it, stopping every so often and wishing things like, ‘if only they could sleep all night’ or ‘if only they could sleep past 6am’; most of my ‘if onlys’ definitely tend to revolve around sleep and the lack of it. For the most part we don’t do too badly, they are great at going to bed at 7pm, following the routine without any resistance, it’s usually smooth enough. Some nights they don’t wake up at all but other nights they’ll wake up for random reasons. But mainly I really cannot complain, they are really great kids.

But this week has really made me feel sorry for myself. This week, I can read that quote and it screams absolute relevance at me, this week has been a big lesson on trying to juggle and balance everything all at once. Thankfully, I’m not talking about major disasters, we’re all ok thankfully, but everything is relevant. I have found this week a big challenge of trying to keep all the plates spinning and I’m not ashamed to admit, this week has reduced me to tears.

It started last weekend when Alex suddenly went off his food and we realised he had caught a dose of Hand Foot & Mouth – a highly contagious virus, but very common viral infection that  most kids will pick up at crèche. It would mean he would need to stay home for the week. The risk of course was that Rian would likely catch it too – however instead, Rian caught a dose of tonsillitis so was also disqualified from crèche for a few days. This meant juggling around work options to be able to make sure they’d be minded, while also needing to get Rian seen to at the doctor.. and following an allergic reaction to the penicllin they prescribed late in the evening, and a very worrying hour as his body broke out in a frightening angry looking rash… things were getting stressful.

Thankfully, I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding manager who relieved a lot of that stress by letting me work from home, and Gavin has enough holidays to be able to look after the other half of the week. It was multi-tasking at a new level. Answering emails whilst wiping a face. Taking phone calls while cutting toast into triangles, and definitely not into squares. Dealing with work queries whilst dealing with various types of rashes that kept appearing on each child… essentially activating the two main parts of myself – the mother me and the work me – working each job in the same place at the same time. The feeling of being pulled in two opposite directions at exactly the same time.

And I’ll repeat – in the grand scheme of things, it’s just life. These things will happen, these types of weeks will come along. I’m thankful it wasn’t anything more serious of course. But that doesn’t mean I should just shrug it off and pretend I didn’t feel like I was really up against it, and really feeling under pressure.

Exhaustion, frustration, stress and worry were the main reasons behind the tears, but also the feeling that I’m inadequate in conflicting ways –

inadequate at being a mother because despite the boys having to be at home, I also had to work, and inadequate at my job because although I had to perform my duties, I also had to be their mother.

And it’s hard.

I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that I’m allowed to find it hard. I’m allowed to take a moment and feel sorry for myself – more than that – I think it’s really important to do it, acknowledge it. Throw in the fact that we haven’t had  much sleep to speak of all week, the fact that I’m most certainly coming down with something myself now, the fact that the commute was extra crappy this week with a two hour delay getting home.. all these little things chipping away and any sense of control I have over things normally.

So yesterday I cried. But also… I did it. I eventually got home last night after that disastrous commute, I got inundated with cuddles and hugs from the boys and from Gavin too that almost made the long delays worth it! I tucked them into bed and I put my feet up and – although tempted by a nice cold glass of Guinness! – had a cup of tea instead and figured I deserved to treat myself to something nice. So I did.

Today, the week continues and we discovered that Rian has also managed to catch the Hand Foot & Mouth virus from his little brother – let’s face it, it was probably inevitable – and so it means a weekend ahead of being housebound. It’s the week that keeps on giving – yes it is hard, and we’ve no doubt another few sleepless nights ahead until they’re virus free – but it was the week that made me realise that yes, the obligation of that working mother is that I will have to work as if I don’t have children, and be their mother as if I don’t have a job.

But at least I’ve learned that I can do it.

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Boys Don’t Cry & Other Gender Stereotypes

{Also features on The M Word }

It was in the news this week that Keira Knightly has decided to ban her three year old daughter from watching some Disney movies because of the message they send to young girls. Naturally, as we see with most parenting-related news items along these lines it causes a little debate, with some feeling it’s all going a bit far now, and others feeling she’s completely right and it’s not going too far at all.

Which side of the fence do I place myself? If ‘Too PC’ is the right side, and ‘G’wan Keira’ is the left side, I’d say I’m firmly placed a bit to the left of the middle of the fence..!
I think, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t place an all-out ban on the movies, BUT, I probably wouldn’t actively encourage them either. Full disclosure – Rian, who is about to turn four, has seen the Little Mermaid numerous times (which is one of the movies Keira mentions) – it was a much-loved movie in our house with my sisters and I as kids, and ironically I wanted to show it to him because it’s deemed as a ‘princess’ movie and therefore, by society’s standards, only for girls. On this vein, Frozen is another hit with him and more recently with Alex too – he loves Sven the moose and will happily go around the house singing ‘for the first time in foreeeeverrrr!’

And I love that. But you won’t find any Frozen toys or t-shirts in the boys’ section of the shops.

However, with that in mind, overall I understand and probably agree with Keira’s reasoning for placing the ban for her daughter, and it has now made me rethink whether showing these movies to my boys might be such a good idea. I really don’t think it’s too PC – so much of the issues towards how we view and treat women and girls are so subconsciously ingrained within us as a bias whether we even realise it or not – that’s all of us, men and women. And we all know that this really needs to change. So when I think about it, movies with these messages about women needing to be saved by men surely have to play their part.

I watched a really interesting documentary on the BBC last year where they showed how studies prove that toys we give young babies and kids will help determine their overall skillset. For example, because logic-based toys are usually more targeted towards boys, like Lego / construction type of things, this will help them to develop skills in these areas. Girls are seen as more empathetic and in tune with their emotions and toys aimed towards them, like dolls, encourage nurturing behaviours. Nowadays people are more conscious of it so it’s thankfully improving and things are becoming less gender biased, or at least it’s much more accepted that boys can play with dolls and girls can play with tractors, as examples. But look at any toy shop and you’ll often see a clear divide of pink and blue.

Traditionally, girls are given pink ‘beautiful’ sparkles and boys are given blue ‘brave’ adventures and so this is what they are taught as correct gender behaviour, and importantly, attitude.

The documentary showed the audience how these ideas are embedded into us, so as we grow up they subconsciously affect how we see the world, giving us bias for and against our peers, across both genders.

When my boys were born I made a conscious decision to try my best not to gender-stereotype them with their clothes and toys. I would not restrict them from wearing something pink, and I wouldn’t only dress them in blue. I think if I had had a daughter I’d have gone a step further and almost avoided dressing her in pink – in my opinion the girls’ clothes are generally awful when you look closely at them. Although I have to admit, I detested being put into dresses as a kid, and I hated playing with dolls too. I’m sure this is having an influence on my dislike now for girls pink sparkly clothing, but I still strongly dislike the message they send.

Go into any kid’s clothes shop and look around – once you notice it once you’ll always see it. The girls will be pink of course – maybe some pastel colours too. If there are slogans or images they will usually centre around ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ or somehow reference looks. There’ll be an abundance of sparkles and glitter and unicorns.
Over on the boy’s side you’ll see almost all blue / grey and black clothes. Their slogans will be all about bravery, adventure, and mischievousness. ‘Catch Me if You Can’, or ‘Here Comes Trouble’. There’ll be superheroes galore.

What do you think this really teaches us, and more importantly, teaches our kids?

If you really think about it. At first it might seem so casual, even a bit ridiculous, worrying about a simple t-shirt slogan. But add all of the pieces together and this is the message we are sending to kids, and it stays with them as they grow up. Not just boys or girls, but everyone.

If, as kids grow older and they can start choosing their own toys, and what they wear, and they WANT to be in pink sparkles or blue adventurous things, then that’s fine. I’m certainly not saying I would enforce anything or block anything at that point, there is no right or wrong if it’s their own choice – because the main thing is – it’s all about doing and being whatever it is you want to do or be. Not what society dictates we should be purely based on our gender.

I want so much for my boys to be feminists – but more than that. I want them to not even NOTICE a need for equality for everyone. I want them to JUST BE EQUAL. Not congratulate themselves if they, for example, are happy to play soccer with girls, thinking they are doing the girls a favour. Or feel they are being ‘in touch with their feminist side’ if they want to wear something pink, but I want them to just DO it and not even notice that it’s a thing.

So back to The Little Mermaid… I’m a bit stuck now between wanting to show my boys that they can happily watch and enjoy ‘girly princess’ movies whenever they want as is their right, but, what if showing them the decidedly un-feminist nature of women needing to be rescued by men and men alone teaches them the wrong message in the first place?

That is the question.

Let’s Talk About Emotions

{Also published on The M Word }

I’ll be clear from the start: Most of the time, I’ve NO IDEA how to handle this situation.

But now that we’ve established our three-year-olds are essentially walking bundles of emotional confusion, what can we do to help them – and ourselves – get through it? Well, here’s what I’ve discovered on my quest to find out.

Last summer, when Rian was two and that all important half, I started seeing that he was randomly slapping other kids, for no apparent reason other than, ‘they’re toddlers, sometimes they just do that’, as people explained when I asked about it, and what I could do about it. It was quite stressful, if he did it to kids we knew, or kids we didn’t know, all I could do was apologise and try and make it clear to Rian in that moment that we do not slap people..however, during some research into it and how to handle it properly, I came across a recommendation for a book called The Colour Monster. Sold.

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Sniffy & The Colour Monster

The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas is a book about identifying emotions for children.

Any research I did about the slapping incidents, or major meltdowns in general which were starting to become more frequent, all told me what we already know – they don’t call them the Terrible Twos or Threenagers etc for nothing. Toddlers don’t know what the emotions they’re feeling are, or how to manage them.

To be fair, and perfectly honest, a lot of the time I find it hard to control MY emotions (specifically, impatience and temper), so how can I expect a two or three year old to be able to do it?

My research also explained how emotional intelligence is something that ideally should be taught from a very young age so that we can learn to control and understand how we feel in lots of situations, not just as kids, but as adults too. So I figured it was worth a shot.

When the book arrived, we started reading it for our bedtime stories. It’s a quick book, a line or two per page with really lovely illustrations. It takes you through five emotions: Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Calm. It assigns a colour to each emotion and explains that sometimes you can feel lots of things at once, when all your ‘colours’ feel all mixed up.

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After a few reads, Rian knew all the words. The slapping continued every now and then, and all I could really do was intervene each time and firmly explain why we don’t slap other people. Of course it was still stressful and I went through all the usual worry of, am I doing this wrong?

Tantrums are par for the course and so they continued, and still happen – in fact we just had one about an hour ago (side note, he’ll be four soon enough… they stop at four, right??!!). But what started to change was that he was identifying how he felt… and I’m no expert, but I think this is the important bit.

For example, just the other night, Alex merely sat on my lap to read a book, so naturally by his three-year-old logic, this was deemed as a valid reason for Rian to have a big meltdown. At the height of a tantrum, (on the days I manage to keep myself calm too – let’s be completely honest; it’s not easy), I just weather the storm and wait for it to pass. Once it does, I ask does he want to cuddle for a minute. Sometimes he does, and other times, its as if nothing had ever happened… like a switch flicking from complete chaos to complete calm..!

But on the days where he takes up my offer of a cuddle, I talk to him about it. This is where The Colour Monster comes into it and where I’ve found it an amazing help.

I started noticing that he’d tell me he was feeling like ‘The Red Colour Monster’ when he was angry. Another day he came over to me, and out of nowhere just asked for a cuddle because he felt ‘like the Blue Colour Monster’. Another time he asked me if I was happy ‘like the Yellow Colour Monster?’… and so I knew that he was at least learning to identify each emotion with a label, to recognise each one and differentiate between them.

Now I’m no expert, maybe this would have happened anyway as he got over each stage of development, I don’t know. But the book most certainly helped us talk about it in a way he could easily understand and picture in his mind. So back to the other night when he had a tantrum over Alex sitting on my lap, without me even asking him he walked over, got the book, opened it on the Red page and told me ‘This is how I feel Mama!’

Thankfully, the slapping phase is over, can’t say I’m looking forward too much to Alex getting to this stage, with any luck he’ll skip it altogether… yeah I won’t hold my breath! But if you’re reading this and are nodding along knowingly, in the same boat, then I can’t recommend this book enough. There’s a similar one too by Dr Seuss called My Many Coloured Days – we came across this one a while after The Colour Monster, and I really liked it too but we had already gotten to know The Colour Monster so I just stuck with that one.

I don’t think there’s a ‘too early’ stage, Rian was two and a half when I bought it – if they’re sitting long enough to look at books for any length of time, then give it a go. Go forth and unravel that little bundle of confusion!

Anyway, don’t forget, the very second you happen to figure out one confusing phase, they’ll leave you behind,  move on to the next one and you can start all over again…

Hello 37

Today, I turned 37.

T H I R T Y  S E V E N.

It’s not that I feel old. I remember turning 27 and for some reason, to me that age seemed like a milestone kind of age to reach. At that time, I thought I was positively heading for the proverbial hill, I saw 30 looming in the close distance and I remember thinking that was ancient. I can remember thinking, right, maybe it’s time to start thinking seriously about what it is I want to do with this life of mine.

And now for some reason, 37 is also a birthday that prompted me to stop and think, and sort of take stock. How have these last ten years flown by so fast? I used to wonder – will I settle down and get married? Will I have any children? It was impossible to think of myself adult enough to do either thing. And here I am, a 37 year old wife and mother of two young sons.

I’m really lucky to be able to say that. And I’m really proud of it too. It wasn’t exactly an easy path but as they say, the things we work hardest for bring the best rewards.

So with that in mind, now I’m 37 and hurtling at an alarming pace towards 40, I have decided that my next project will be myself. For as long as I can remember now, losing weight has been a never ending thing I want to acheive. I’ve done it, then lost it, then done it, then lost it. Then I was doing really well, then I did IVF treatment, then thankfully got pregnant. Then I had Rian, and tried again, and started doing really well again. Then more treatment, got pregnant, and here we are back at square one.

A couple of years ago, shortly after I went back to work after Rian’s maternity leave and 3 stone heavier than I was before I had him, an opportunity came my way to take part in a health programme run by a local fitness studio called True Fitness. I applied for a place on a course, where 20 spaces were available. I filled in the form, convinced I wouldn’t win a place, and congratulated myself for trying anyway and thought that was enough effort for one day. At least I tried.

To my alarm I actually did win a place on the course – and sure then I had no choice but to complete it! It petrified me. But I’m so glad I did because it was the thing that completely and forever changed my attitude to exercise, and why I want to do it regularly now. Then, we decided to try for Alex again so in a way I suppose I would say I put myself on hold for a while too.

And here we are. Life with a toddler and a newborn was full on. It still is, with a toddler and a bigger toddler. Despite getting back to regular exercise as soon as I could after our gorgeous Alex arrived, I never got back into the swing of it properly. It’s more than just losing weight – life was so busy and there were other things to focus on, I never really got back to finding myself again. It’s kind of hard to describe.

But since being back at work, things have been full on. I am convinced, the year between a baby turning 1 and 2 years of age, is the hardest one. (So far at least!) Give me the newborn stage any day. It’s tough going, of course it is. Coming up to Christmas I felt so worn out I kept finding myself skipping going to my training sessions, work was busier, I didn’t even find time for myself to write here, which has always been my way of escaping to myself for a few minutes. The ironic thing was, by skippping the training, I was only helping myself to feel more tired.

And so the New Year came around, and something in me clicked again. This is going to be my year, I will do something purely for myself. I don’t mean to make myself out to be another Mother Teresa – big deal, I had kids. So do millions of people. But I wasn’t happy in myself. That’s not to say I was unhappy in my life, far from it –  but I was piling on weight again, and with each pound I gained, I was less and less happy with myself mentally too.

And out of the blue I discovered that True Fitness were launching a Part Two for the original course I did three years ago. Pretty much straight away I put my name down again – the kickstart I needed just landed right in my lap. This time I filled in the form with no fear of what I was signing up to, in fact the opposite.

Before I even started the course this time around, I felt better. The biggest thing I learned at the very first one, which was a complete revelation to me, was that losing weight wasn’t to be my goal, but a side effect of a different goal. At the time I thought, yeah ok fine, that sounds great and all, but really I’m only here to lose the weight. But slowly I realised I wasn’t only there to lose the weight.

We constantly set goals for ourselves in life thinking if we can just reach this one thing, this one milestone, it will make us happy. But do we ever stop and wonder what we’ll do if we actually achieve it? What will we choose as the next thing to make us happy?

There’s a sort of freedom I found when I entered my thirties, which was that I discovered I give zero shits about what people think. And that just seems to strengthen as I go along. I can totally see how I’ll probably end up being a total embarassment to Rian & Alex the way everyone sometimes thought their parents were. Being uncool around their friends by insisting they consider sensible things and all that sort of stuff. They’ll be morto, I won’t give a shite!

And at the ripe old age of 37 it has finally dawned on me. I need to focus on the things I have and enjoy them, to not assume I’ll have them on my way to get the things that I think will make me ‘happy’. Even the things in life that aren’t so great – figure out ways to either make them great, or learn to accept them for what they are. And I need to do this within myself too.

So 37 years old, this will be my year. I might not make it all the way to skinny, and maybe I will. It doesn’t matter. But three weeks into the course and it has already uncovered bits of the old me. I am already so much happier in myself. This is my goal, maybe the weightloss will follow, that will be nothing but a bonus. After the last few years of IVF and then thankfully getting to grow two perfect babies, I’m taking myself back for a little while. Happy Birthday to me.