Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

Maybe we just need to be a bit more honest about it all because parents rely on the kindness of strangers and behind the Facebook facade we all have our bad days, and so do our kids.

I was in my favourite coffee shop the other day with my son; we were camped out in the window seat and he was 'sitting nicely' with his Dora The Explorer colouring book and pencils whilst I sipped a latte and checked out Twitter and Facebook on my phone. The sun was shining outside and I was lost in the moment when a couple came up to me and asked how old my little one was.

I looked up, slightly startled and replied "19 months ... and a bit ..." and I smiled. They looked at each other and then at me and said "Wow, our little girl is nearly 18 months and she would NEVER sit like that, colouring and concentrating ... she's always on the go and so demanding. He's so well behaved!"

I looked at them for a moment enjoying the praise of my son and could have just thanked them, shrugged modestly and said I'm sure their little girl would do the same soon but still fresh in my mind was an incident from just two days before.

My son has always been an early riser, 4-5am being a fairly standard morning with anything approaching 6am being a miraculous achievement and considered a lie-in. Now, as a result of this he can quite unexpectedly nod-off just before or during playgroup or toddler class and trying to find times that suit his sporadic and changeable sleep patterns just doesn't work so he and I navigate around it as best as we can.

On the day in question I had an 11am toddler group to get to so left the house at 9.30am to ensure he got a little buggy-sleep in before class, thus allowing quick transportation to the venue.

On this particular occasion he fell asleep almost immediately on leaving the house despite the heavy rain and having a complete aversion to the water-proof cover. It was a no make-up kind of day so I ducked into a well known fast food chain for my daily caffeine fix rather than our usual soft-sofa'd coffee haunt as I was feeling decidedly more slummy than yummy on this drizzly late winter's day.

25 minutes into my 'coffee break' and my son woke up quite unexpectedly and started crying. Whether the horror of the strip lighting and plastic seating was too much to bear or the teething and constant snotty nose had finally got too much - but he would not stop screaming, he would not calm down.

He would neither be held, or stand up; no free balloons would pacify him, the offer of juice and a snack from the changing bag merely plunged him into greater distress and prompted cries of "No, NO, NOOOO!!!", as if I'd threatened to cut the head off his beloved Upsy Daisy or Iggle Piggle toys.

Eventually, when I couldn't hold him any longer, I attempted to put him in his buggy but he arched his back and, still screaming, slumped down onto the floor. The toddler tantrum. No doubt in this instance, as it happened spontaneously on waking, brought on by teething, cold, fear or a combination of the three, but a tantrum nonetheless.

Finally I managed to get him into his buggy and wheeled him still wailing from the restaurant, a father with two young children smirked in my direction, others looked on sympathetically or gawped with detached voyeurism. I was mortified.

The meltdown didn't end there. He was obviously in no mood for the class so I thought I'd better take him home for a while and calm him down. Once released from his buggy he started ricocheting around the hallway shouting 'out out out' and stamping his feet. I had never seen him like this before, the odd mini-rant but nothing like this in scale or longevity.

I decided to take him to the nearby arts centre for a run around but he wouldn't put his coat on. I compromised with two cardigans and a gilet and strapped him back into his buggy. By this time I was on the verge of tears myself and the rain outside was getting heavier. Once at the arts centre soft play area my son calmed down, I dried off ... the storm had passed.

Two days later I am heading to my favourite coffee shop, toddler in tow, hoping for a seat in the coveted corner sofa near the toy-box. As it was busy late morning I had preempted my sons crankiness at not being able to play with 'truck' and bought him a new colouring book and some pencils.

We found an inferior window seat and when he looked and pointed over at the corner table where some other lucky children were playing with the beloved toy-box I swiftly whipped out the book and pencils and set him up with them, a snack and his juice in the window seat. Just a few minutes later a couple approached us ...

And, so there I was, with the compliment to my toddler hanging in the air, took a deep breath and said to them "Thank you, he is being a very good boy today, but honestly he wouldn't have sat for even a minute like this a month ago, it's all quite new and two days ago he was having a tantrum on the floor of Mcdonalds, so don't worry about your little girl, they change every day." We all laughed, had a chat about their daughter, local nursery schools, work and other grown-up stuff and they went on their way.

Having children is a wonderful thing, sometimes they are delightful little characters full of charm and whimsy, sometimes they're not. Maybe we just need to be a bit more honest about it all because parents rely on the kindness of strangers and behind the Facebook facade we all have our bad days, and so do our kids.


Saturday, 1 February 2014


I was just thinking about ‘The Withnail & I’ drinking game and wondered how much more fun I’d have at toddler class if I took a hip-flask and had a sneaky sip each time I heard the words “wheels”, “bus”, “bobbin” or “mulberry.”

Becoming a mum is a wonderful, life-changing, heart-bursting, joyful thing … some of it is also tiring, messy and well, quite frankly soul-crushingly boring. There I've said it and you know you've all thought it.

I’m a semi stay-at-home-mum, having worked as a freelance writer since having my son Jamie in 2012 and so I have run the gamut of sensory classes, toddler groups and play centres, coming out the other side virtually unscathed, with a handful of good mum-friends and with most of my remaining brain cells left intact.

My decision to work from home rather than go back out into the big wide world again was twofold; having been made redundant from my job as television producer in 2009 I decided to concentrate on writing and began taking on lesser paid jobs in order to re-train and build up a portfolio. I was lucky enough to start getting freelance editorial and writing work, supplemented by office work, taking it where I could find it in the midst of a global recession.

It was about this time that my partner and I decided to start trying for a baby. Having met later in life we were keen not to waste any time – I assured him that at our age (I was 39 and he 42 at the time) it would take at least a year to get pregnant by which time I’d be back in permanent employment and therefore qualify for maternity pay and leave.

Well as the fates would have it I got pregnant straight away, by my calculations probably on our first or second attempt, so whilst we were surprised and delighted, the realities of having a child and what this would mean as far as my career and our combined salaries was daunting.

I was lucky; I had taken on enough temporary work in my post-redundancy wilderness years to qualify for government maternity allowance, but it was by the skin of my teeth. Once our son was coming up to a year old we came to the conclusion that realistically, unless I went back into my higher paid television career, my salary was unlikely to cover the cost of child care and so, with the help of my parents and partner, I decided to work from home in the afternoons, evenings and if necessary at weekends.

This was not the only reason I made the decision. As much as I had always planned to go back to work full time after having children, having had various heated arguments with my parents over the years about a woman’s need and right to work, the prospect of putting my son into day-care at one was, for me, heart-wrenching and as financially I'd be no better off it seemed working from home was the only sensible option.

I fully respect all mothers’ choices and believe that there are some wonderful nurseries, child-minders and nannies out there, I just felt that until he is 2 or 3 I would rather look after him myself, for me it felt like the only choice. I'm also aware that many people don't have local family support and without this working from home would take up even more of my evenings and weekends so for that and a million other things I am eternally grateful to my wonderful parents.

However, the decision hasn't always sat well with me and there are days when I long for the stimulation and social interaction of the working world; the brief online correspondences with my clients a poor substitute for a chat about last night's 'Sherlock' during a coffee break or some juicy gossip around the water-cooler.

I take my son to various playgroups and classes throughout the week to ensure he has enough interaction with other children and whilst at home attempt to play, draw and read to him as much as I can. Of course the reality is that some days, even after guzzling three skinny lattes and inhaling a full-fat chocolate muffin, I feel exhausted and struggle to keep up the intensity, sometimes relying on the charms of my good friends Peppa, Ben, Holly and Thomas.

Some days I feel like I’m a bad mum as I wheel the buggy round the block a few more times to see if our very active son will nod off to sleep for a few more minutes, because as much as you love them, sometimes you love them just that little bit more when their bedtime comes around and you can see the first signs of eye-rubbing and soft-toy cuddling.

I also miss the nights out; having had a very active social life pre-baby, especially during my TV career. The joy of having an impromptu post-work drink lost to most parents (whether at home or back at work) the moment the little one pops out.

Although I still try to get into town to meet my old friends as much as possible, as many of us have kids now, the times get fewer and farther apart. When we do get together for a long Sunday lunch on the Southbank or evening drinks in Soho it’s a joyous event and for a few hours we forget our responsibilities, drink wine and become our old selves again. Of course there is the inevitable baby talk but our shared history allows us to discuss other topics.

Meeting up with new-mummy friends can be a slightly different affair. Whilst some mums you meet are right on your wavelength (I was cheered enormously ten minutes into my first NCT group meeting to hear a couple of mums saying how much they longed to have a proper drink and missed sharing a bottle of wine with their friends and partners) some mums are not.

Some mums you meet, try to befriend even ... and yet you know they’re not right for you. You bond over nappies and sleep stories but there is little else there. It’s hard enough in life to find friends you have something in common with, but finding mum-friends can be even harder.

You want to build up a network of local mum-mates you can rely on, have much needed nights out with and arrange play-dates for your little darlings with, but it doesn't always work out.

It’s like dating and often you find your texts aren't returned, or it’s you who can’t be bothered, or you have to cancel so many times because your baby has a cold again, that it just kind of just fizzles out. It’s not you it’s me … and my toddler who keeps picking up every bug going and quite frankly doesn't like your kid who just tries to whack him on the head with a sippy cup each time my back is turned anyway.

I attempt to keep up appearances trying to ensure I put my make-up on each morning, brush my hair and find a pair of jeans that aren't encrusted with Weetabix or fruit puree. However, some says I’ll drag myself down the road to the coffee shop with toddler in tow wearing dirty clothes, no make-up and my hair scraped back in a pony-tail that looks as lacklustre as I feel.

Catching sight of yourself on one of those real ‘mummy’ days is a horrifying experience. My mum thoughtfully bought me a padded raincoat last year from Per Una when I was bemoaning how hard it is to hold an umbrella whilst pushing a buggy. Kind gesture though it was the hooded cream coat doesn't just scream ‘mummy’ is screams ‘mumsy’ and I only wear it in emergencies.

When you do glimpse yourself in the shop window on that kind of day it’s a shock, you suddenly see yourself as others do; harassed mum, dark circles under the eyes, in desperate need of a good night out and a stiff V&T. I used to see those mums and swore, if I ever had kids, I’d never become one. Oh the folly of youth.

I remember going to a baby class when our son was around four months old and really wanting to make a good impression. I started to put my make-up on, tinted-moisturiser, blusher, liquid eye-liner … just then he started wailing and demanding my attention. I remember thinking I must remember to finish my face. Three hours later after class a sinking feeling in my stomach and a quick glance in the living room mirror revealed the worst; I had gone to class and chatted at length to a new potential mum friend, with only one eye made up.

Faux pas aside being a mum is hard work, physically more demanding than any job I've ever had and emotionally exhausting. The highs are life-affirming, the lows the opposite extreme. Our son used to sleep for a solid 2-3 hours in the late morning at around three months so I had quite a lot of free time to e-mail and Facebook.

When I started writing again I had visions of myself sitting in the local coffee shop, our little man asleep next to me in the buggy, whilst I tapped away happily on my laptop. Like Carrie Bradshaw except with a designer buggy instead of a designer bag. ‘Sex and the City’? More like ‘No Sex in The Suburbs’. I think I once wrote two lines on my laptop before our son woke up screaming and I had to put the computer away.

So there are days when I love being a mum and days when I don’t. I wouldn't change anything and I adore our son with a love which is sometimes overwhelming, but yes I would like a bit more ‘me time’, to read the odd book or on a more basic level, have a wee without a toddler trying to crawl onto my lap brandishing ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea' in his chubby paw. I guess that’s something you give up when you give birth. Sometimes it’s hard reconciling your old self with you ‘new mum’ self, but each day I strive to blend the two.

With that in mind I was just thinking about 'The Withnail & I' drinking game and wondering how much more fun I'd have at toddler class if I took a hip-flask and had a sneaky sip each time I heard the words 'wheels', 'bus', 'bobbin' or 'mulberry'.

The Parent Trap

Having a baby is a bit like having a dog, you're constantly cleaning up their poop, they love you unconditionally and ... they are great ice-breakers.

Take a newborn out for a walk to the park or the local coffee shops and you'll be guaranteed at least one chat with an old person, fellow parent or curious child (the words 'be gentle with the baby' often a pre-cursor to little Billy, Jessica or Magnus poking your precious new-born in the head as you pull your buggy away in horror.)

Yes, motherhood can be lonely but with all the passers-by exchanges, on-line forums and baby clubs, oh and the obligatory NCT or ante-natal classes, there are numerous ways in which to make friends for glorious days of meeting in coffee shops and taking your little angels for walks in the park. Or so it would appear.

The problem is, there is a catch ... sometimes you'll have nothing in common with other mums apart from the fact ... well they are mums.

I myself have met some lovely mums but also some that I have very little in common with and in other circumstances would not have chosen to share a bottle of wine with on a boozy after-work night out.

One such mummy I shall refer to as my 'buggy buddy'; we bonded when Mr Boo was only about 4 weeks old and I was walking my local streets (still in my baggy maternity pants and no make-up, slightly comatose) and a young mum started chatting to me about our identical 'designer' buggies.

She seemed a bit pushy but friendly enough, not really my type but we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up for a coffee one day soon. I never heard from her again, and at that point couldn't be bothered to get in contact, after all she had made the approach and suggested a meet up and, rather like the rules of dating, the asker should follow up, not the askee.

The months passed by and one day I found myself in Waitrose navigating my way out of the door with buggy and shopping bags when a familiar face started chatting to me; 'Snap, we have the same buggy, I wouldn't buy it again though, would you?'

We chatted for a few minutes before I realised it was her, the girl whose number I'd saved in my phone as 'buddy buggy' months before. Well it took her a little longer and she realised we'd chatted before, we had a good laugh about it and she said she'd forgotten to save my number.

She came over to my place the following week with her little boy and we had a pleasant enough chat, although I still had the niggling feeling that I was trying to make a friendship with someone that just wasn't on my wavelength.

The following week she invited me along to one of her baby-classes, one that as chance would have it I had already signed up to, so after the class I went back to her place for lunch.

Again, we had a pleasant enough afternoon, she made all her own baby food so Mr Boo was treated to some real food as opposed to that which comes from a jar or pouch, and cooed and 'mmmmmmd' enough to make me feel sufficiently penitent at my lack of from scratch baby food making, but a nice enough time was had by all.

We chatted about life, and work and family and again I noticed a few signs that we were from quite a different backgrounds when she said 'I don't know if your mum's the same, but she will insist on supervising the cleaner when she comes round, she doesn't trust her to do a good job if she's not standing over her."

Now two points to this; 1) no my mum has never in her life had a cleaner 2)whilst I think having a cleaner would be great and many of my friends have cleaners as I might myself if we had the dough, the assumption that everyone, especially my mum, must surely have one suggests that we are maybe coming from different places.

She then talked about the nanny who would be looking after her little one once she went back to work part-time and again I realised there was a gap between us, socially and economically.

Whilst I could just about afford to go back to work and pay a nursery to look after my son, it would be a stretch and currently it's easier for me to work from home and rely on some family support. A nanny would certainly be out of the question right now. As would a cleaner.

But again, these differences were small and I have friends from all walks of life so I buried my doubts about the friendship.

A few weeks later we agreed to meet in the local arts centre which has a soft (if somewhat grubby) play area and a coffee bar.

She had suggested the meet-up but stressed that as little ... let's call him Frank ... had to have his nap, at home, in his cot, at a specific time, she could only meet for 45 minutes. Fine, no worries.

As she arrived my little one was soundly asleep (he was about 5 or 6 months old at this point) so we parked up at a table and I left her and the little one's to go and buy us some coffees.

Now I must stress that this particular floor in the centre is vast and open, with no restrictions to who enters or leaves the floor or the building ... so I was alarmed whilst at the coffee counter to look back and realise she had left my son (ok, asleep in his buggy but nonetheless vulnerable) to put her son in the soft play area on the other side of the space where she could not have seen either him or his buggy.

There were other mums milling around so yes I'm sure he would have been fine but I felt annoyed that she had not been able to wait just a few minutes for me to return with our drinks before abandoning him, or thought to wheel the buggy near to the soft play area so that if he woke up crying she could have picked him up until I returned.

Well needless to say I was furious but kept a sharp eye on his buggy whilst buying the coffees and returned to the buggy as soon as possible to find my son screaming and covered in vomit having woken alone in a strange environment with no one to pick him up and let him know all was ok.

I scooped him into my arms and took him over to the soft play area covered in vomit "He's been sick" ... she looked at me with a vague "oh" and carried on making sure her son had full access to the soft play blocks. I let it pass, wiped him down and went back to the table, baby in one hand, to fetch first her's and then my drink.

We met a few times after that and then it just kind of fizzled out. It wasn't her, it wasn't me ... it was just one of those things. No fall out, no argument, baby or no baby we just weren't each other's type.