Diary of an Unfit Mother

Having spent almost 20 years working full time within the creative industries, I had got to a point where I wanted to make a career change. Diary of an Unfit Mother was the start of my novel writing. From day one of leaving a full time career, to pursue the dream…

And so it begins…
So, it’s almost time. Time for me to jack in my job and be a mother. I have that look in my eyes. You know the one, new mother’s excited but slightly terrified at the prospect. Can we do it? Will we bond? Can we remember all the words to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and do we really need to choose re-usable terry’s over throwaway pampers? The pressure is immense… will I be good enough?
The difference here is, I’m not a new mother. Technically I’ve been one for 7 years (7 and 1/4 if you ask my eldest) and thankfully both my children are out of nappies now. I say technically because if I’m honest, I haven’t felt like much of a mother to my children. Ok, maybe I’m being harsh on myself, but I’ve certainly not been around for a lot of the classic firsts. I remember taking my youngest, now 3 (and a 1/2) into nursery proud to tell them she uttered her first word. “shoes!” I said excitedly “she said shoes”, particularly proud of my daughters chosen first word. (It bodes well right!?) Sarah, her key worker looked at me embarrassed “erm… yes, erm…” It was the look in her face that I had recognised from the many times I’d done this with H. She knew M’s first word because she had said it at nursery the day before. She also knew when she took her first steps. She was the first one to take her to the toilet and when H had his first major injury (a metal gate flew into his head on his 4th day at a new school) I was on a train to London.
So in truth, despite 44hrs of collective labour, a few weeks of breast feeding and a body that will never be the same – it sometimes feels like I’ve never really been much of a mother for my children. After a career spanning 18 years, (Not that long, I realise, but god does it feel linger!) I have finally decided – I say I… I did talk to him indoors too – that things need to change. I need to redress the balance. I need to be around the kids. I need to work out some priorities. I need not to be working a fulltime job that sends me away at the exact moment one of my child needs stitches.

So, here goes. In less than a month I will be a stay at home mother. At 7 and 3 (you can add the extra critical months) I have finally found the strength to do this. I’ve observed other stay at home mothers and marvelled at their selflessness, strength, stamina, imagination, creativity and all round brilliance. I’m not sure I’ll ever be as good as them, but for the sake of my children and a life time of memories – I’m going to give it a go.

Diary of an Unfit Mother
One week down, a lifetime to go.

So, as I lay here, practically comatose on the sofa, dressing gown on, gin in glass… (medicinal) Maltesers by my side… (medicinal) I have to admit to needing more practice. It’s the end of my first official week as a stay at home mum and if truth be known, it was a poor show. I was over confident with my timings and poorly prepped for the days. I set my alarm for 7am figuring I didn’t need to get up straight away, I had no work to go to and didn’t have to be at school till 8.45… how hard can that be!? Cut to me racing through the wind and rain nodding conspiratorially at other late parents/children (at least I wasn’t the only one) in order to push my eldest, sodden to his troo’s, into class as they sat down… after morning register.
My youngest has morning sessions at the local nursery. On the first few days it gave me some much needed time to finish unpacking boxes from a recent house move. Instead, I spent the mornings perforating the lounge walls with my over-zealous panel pin hammering as I misplaced practically every picture I tried to hang in an attempt to achieve an on trend ‘gallery wall’.

Collecting M at 11.55am, I took her home and fed her lunch… no problem there – this bit I can do. It was the 2hrs 45 minutes afterwards, before the last school run of the day that I pretty much failed at. Every day. It seems my youngest’s attention span is not quite as long as I anticipated. Our average afternoon was 10mins of colouring, 10mins of jigsaws (those are harder than they look!), 10mins of role play, 15mins of baking – nice to see her attention lasts longer when something is food related – by the end of which she was bored and I was out of ideas. It was still raining, I’ve not yet unpacked the paints and I thought popping Charlie and Lola on repeat was probably a cop out.

Each day we went through this ritual, before ‘winging’ the rest of the day (unpacking CAN be fun…). The relief at having to collect my eldest at 3.15 was palpable – at least I wouldn’t be alone in trying to occupy a 3year old. This was clearly naïve, I now had two of them to occupy and my two could not be more different as far as interests go.
As the last of the bath water trickled down the plug hole this Friday evening, I realized next week would have to start off differently. I’ll pack school bags the night before, I’ll organise some fun things to do each afternoon and I may even get round to organising some of those play date things… I’ve generally avoided them to date for fear of exposing my parental inability. I can, however see the potential, distinct benefit of two heads being better than one – and worst case scenario, they’ll entertain themselves. Won’t they?
I shall do all of these things not least to stop a recurrence of the question I was asked as I tucked up my youngest this evening. “Mummy… can I go back to nursery all next week?”

Diary of an Unfit Mother
Playground Neurosis

So; we are a few months in now and so far so good. Yes, there are days that M’s interest in all things Peppa Pig out does my own particular style of obsessive. Yes, there are moments when, stood on the side line of an ice bitingly cold rugby pitch, on an allegedly spring evening, I wonder why I don’t go back to my proper job… you know, so I could pay someone to take my eldest to training… but in truth – as I slave over a slow cooked stew (i.e. throw everything into the crockpot, switch it on and walk away for 8 hours), I do question why it’s taken me so long. I mean largely speaking, despite the aforementioned, it’s all so lovely.

Walks on the beach with friends; play dates and time for coffee; a pace of life that allows me to meander from car to pick up rather than belt, full pelt, across the school yard to ensure that I am not late, only to be met with the doe eyes of my second born, last to be collected. And yet, despite the many lovely changes to my lifestyle, there is one thing that still I struggle with. One thing that leaves me full of childlike apprehension; one thing that I have to do EVERY DAY;
The school playground.
Is it just me?

A place that used to be a haven for play now inspires fear and dread. A place that, as a child, I felt free and relaxed in now, as an adult, makes me feel inferior and intimidated. A place that enforces lots of people together for a short period of time, essentially because they bore children within the same academic year. As I get out of my car, and walk to collect H the questions start. Where do I stand? Who do I talk to? If I don’t notice someone because I’m in a world of my own will they think me rude and never talk to me again? I mean, I didn’t have this level of neurosis as a kid in the playground, why has it caught up with me now? And am I alone? Does anyone else share this, borderline obsessive concern about conforming in an enforced social situation? Perhaps those of us who do feel it should start wearing a signifier so that we can identify one another. Karl Marx glasses and a flat cap anyone?

So yes, with the exception of pick up and drop off, so far so good. But if you see me in the playground and I ignore you. Or, I’m stood vaguely in your vicinity whilst appearing to frantically check my mobile, please know that I am not rude, or ignorant, or dis-interested in you. Basically, I’m still making the adjustment from mum with no time to mum with more time than I entirely know what to do with. And that is probably why, it took me so long.

Diary of an Unfit Mother
Summer Summer Summertime, Summertime

School. Holidays. Two words that if I’m honest, fill me with dread and delight in equal measure. Delight because for the duration, I don’t have to wake at the crack of a sparrows in order to iron my face free of duvet creases, (…and something about quality time with my beloved children) but dread for the obvious, slightly more pressing matter of having said beloved children to occupy, single-handedly, for several consecutive days. I know. I am a terrible mother – this column is exposing my every flaw.

Like many, my him in doors works away. Whilst this means I benefit from total control of the remote and the glory of a cold bed dance without fear of limbs clashing; it also means that when he’s away – I can’t even look forward to the 6pm arrival of the cavalry. The line ‘wait until your father gets home’ somewhat less impactful when it’s not for a further three days.

So what do we do? How do we occupy this time effectively? How do we all survive the holidays – emotions, relationships and mind intact?

I canvassed fellow comrades in the playground, hoping I might find kindred spirits that shared my fears. It seemed however, that I’m significantly in the minority on this one. A few people agreed with me, (I suspect out of politeness really) it seems most people love them; the chance to lounge around in pyjamas till noon being the most common rationale. So, where am I going wrong? How do they entertain them? Then I realised THIS is where I am going wrong. They don’t.

That’s not true, of course they do. They interact, do fun stuff, meet with friends, enjoy time together, but also – perhaps crucially, they encourage their kids to go off to their rooms and occupy themselves. Now to most reading this, it’s an obvious answer. In fact, I feel sort of foolish discussing it but, truthfully it came as complete news to me. And news that – as you can imagine – I quite liked. So, as the shadow of the summer holiday begins to loom, I shall cultivate my new found parenting technique.

Boredom.

It’s important. It has a role in our house. Whilst I’ve been frantically trying to occupy my children for the last 8 months – which has admittedly given us a rather delightful array of fridge paintings, and an obsession with home-baked biscuits – it’s also been somewhat tiresome. For us all. I now see that children should get used to being bored and working out for themselves how they resolve that. Yes, next holiday I will do things with them, take them places, meet up with friends; but I shall also be learning with them, the importance of them entertaining themselves… In fact, I’m starting this weekend. ‘What’s that? You’re bored? You’ve a room full of toys, go find something to play with’.
Who knew it could be that easy… I know, I know. EVERYONE ELSE KNEW!

Diary of an Unfit Mother
Guilt

Guilt. For some a way of life, for others a passing emotion. For me, a festering feeling in the pit of my stomach that has not left me since the day I gave birth. It covers many things;
Guilt that my nana biscuits are not as good as nana’s; guilt that role-play fast brings about the demise of my will to live; guilt that I have been known to hide the paints from my children so I don’t have to redecorate the kitchen after a 4 minute intensive art session; guilt that I have on occasion used a ready-made Yorkshire pudding instead of making my own – despite the fact I am from Yorkshire, and most recently, guilt that no sooner was one child out of plaster, was the other speeding to A&E to have his head glued back together, (incidentally, making gags to the doctors about times of austerity are often not well received when your child’s head is being pulled back together by his hair). It seems that no matter where we look, how we live our lives, guilt plays a leading part in our story.

This post is dedicated to a woman whose guilt I inadvertently advanced through lazy chat and lack of time to contextualise. It was the look on her face that – retrospectively – I felt most uncomfortable about, the one she had when she ‘confessed’ she worked full-time. Then the subsequent justification she gave as to why when she has children, she continues to work full-time. Despite she says, not needing the money. Her reasons included ‘I love my job’, ‘my career is important to me’, ‘I have worked hard to get to where I am’ and perhaps the most pertinent ‘I don’t want to give it up to become a full-time mother’. My responses to her were clumsy, pressured because of distraction and ultimately – I fear – reinforced her feelings of guilt. I know those feelings because I felt them too – I went back to work when my children were just weeks old because I wanted to; I missed my job and my career was important to me. I left my job last year because I was looking to make a change. That included spending more time with the children, but in truth, was not the only reason. Given that she isn’t from round here, I suspect she won’t ever read this column but if she did, or if anyone like her does, I want to say: Well done. Working full time and being a good mother is possible. Your guilt probably contributes to you doing both well, it makes you conscientious. But please don’t let any other person – mother or otherwise – make you feel bad for the choices you make.
Some of us are not defined simply by our motherhood and we shouldn’t feel guilty for that fact.

Diary of an Unfit Mother
One year down, who knows how many more to go.

Yes, it’s been twelve months since I left work and changed my life, taking what was for me, a pretty big risk. In that time I have tried to emulate the selflessness, strength, stamina, imagination, creativity and brilliance of stay at home parents (let’s not discuss if I succeeded.) I have learnt how to get to school on time. I have learnt that play dates can be a good thing, that the playground need not be scary, that school holidays are great (especially when they are over) and following the feedback from my last diary, I have learnt that practically every parent on the planet feels untold levels of guilt. Perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps that demonstrates we have a conscience and that we care about being the best we can be, that we take responsibility for our actions and how they impact on the small people in our lives.
The thing I think I am most proud of, is realising that I’m capable of staying at home with the children and coming out the other end with relationships, sanity and waistline (almost) intact. I can be the kind of mother that I always wanted my children to have – one who plays, bakes and makes with them (though I confess the leaves for last year’s Autumn picture remain in a bucket outside our front door!); and that I have loved the opportunity to spend time learning more about them and in turn myself. But what I have also learnt is that the mother I wanted my children to have is not always the one that they need. Sometimes they should play on their own, find their own way, and enjoy the feel good factor that comes with resolving their own problems. Equally, the mother that I want them to have is not always the mother I find the easiest to be. Role play drives me crazy, building train tracks has occasionally pushed me over an emotional edge and crafting, well – I’ve already confessed about the official autumn picture.
I will be eternally grateful to my ‘him-in-doors’ for encouraging me to take this time out. For us, it was the right decision at the right time – however challenging I’ve found it at times. Ultimately, I have been reminded of something I already knew, that nothing stays the same or, as that old Greek Philosopher said (not Plato… the other one… google him…) ‘The only thing constant is change’.
So here’s to the next twelve months. Less of ‘an unfit mother’ more of simply ‘a mother’.

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