I have been a stay-at-home mum for four and a half years now, since my first daughter was born. Before she was born I did have a career.
Hmmm…well, ok, don’t get excited- no novels were published, no awards were won. By career, I mean that I held down a few jobs, broadly (*clearing throat*) in the same field.
I think I pretty much knew from the moment she was born that I wouldn’t go back to work. Firstly, I never really loved my job that much (ok....at all). Secondly, I didn’t see the point in busting my gut, spending time sweating on a commuter train to just about cover the cost of a disinterested individual smelling of old fags, filing her nails in some cesspit of a playgroup whilst “minding” my child. Professional nannies would have demanded more than I earned and would probably have demanded that I do their ironing and washing as well as providing only organic food for their lunch. And the schedule would have been strictly around their yoga class. So, yup, you got it, childcare in London is, er…, variable in quality and expensive.
Let me be clear, though (still can’t shake that Blair-ism of “being clear”). I did want to stay at home. But then, I’d always wanted to stay at home (rather than work) so now I had the perfect excuse. It would all have been ideal if not for that pesky baby, just crying, wanting food and interrupting my online surfing and soaps…
There are quite a few misconceptions about babies ( eg. that they sleep, amongst other things), pregnancy (for instance, that it is in any way enjoyable) and about stay-at-home mums and their lives.
Generally, I think women- as always- are their worst enemy. The only people to ever criticise a woman for a decision to either stay at home or go to work are other women. It’s like we’re in perpetual competition with one another. Same thing with weight issues. On the whole, the only people who care about your weight and notice it are other women. Most of us spend time trying to be skinny, yet men keep voting curvy women like Kelly Brook the “sexiest” on earth. There’s a message in there somewhere. I don't understand why we can't be more supportive of one another. But that's a whole other discussion.
One of the many things I have had thrown at me is: do I not find being at home with the kids boring? I can think of many words to describe being a stay-at-home mum but “boring” is not one of them. Rewarding, hilarious, heart-warming, heart-breaking, disappointing, thrilling, exhausting, infuriating, exhilarating..the list goes on.
I used to be a lawyer working in the City of London and I don’t think anything that I do now could possibly rival for boredom the drafting of an exclusion clause in the small hours. City boys all puffed out, braying and strutting like the piece of paper in their hand will change the world, rather than simply save a merchant bank some money. Me? Wondering what brand of washing-up liquid smells the nicest. It was a very motivating time for me.
But I digress. One of the myths of parenthood (before you have kids) is that bedtime is a lovely time of the day. Huggies and Johnson’s adverts show alert, clean and happy mothers looking on as daddy comes in from work (in plenty of time) to read a story in a perfectly decorated room with fresh-faced toddler eager to listen. The way the advert has it, daddy leaves, the four year old turns the light off by itself and goes to bed.
Bedtime didn’t start well for us as a family. My older daughter’s” time” (when she acted as if possessed) when she was born was from 7pm to 10pm. This baptism of fire consisted of her screaming as if she was being branded or scalded incessantly- nothing would pacify her. The size of her open, screaming mouth was way out of proportion with her tiny head and it was impossible to imagine such a hideous and vile noise coming from such a small, previously sweet -looking creature.
We tried everything- feeding, dummy, water, nappy change, picking her up, putting her down, rocking her, standing still and arranging her at a variety of angles. Nothing. A frantic online search and chat with my mummy friends revealed we were all being tortured to varying degrees. So we descended on the shops and bought, between us, pretty much every single item marked “soothing”, “calming” and, crucially “reduces hours of crying”. A friend of mine bought everything until she finally found an electronic swing (although I am not sure whether the crying or the tinny songs combined with the crunching of the swing were worse). We bought a baby sling. Supposedly, it was based on African cultures where the baby is close to the mother…yadda, yadda…. it worked, I couldn’t have cared less about the reasoning. Frankly, as I said at the time, had someone told me that putting meerkat dung in her hair with my bare hands would stop her crying, I’d have been first in line at the zoo toilets.
That’s how bedtime started and, frankly, now with 4 and a half years of bed time experience and 2 kids, I am not sure if bed is any less of an ordeal.
Far from the blissful scene on TV and in magazines, all parents who are at home with kids know that suicide hour(s) begins at 5. Cinderella’s carriage turned into a pumpkin at midnight, children turn into hideous beasts at 5pm. You can set your watch by it in my house. A perfectly nice child one minute, the child from The Exorcist the next.You despair at the thought of the next 2 or so hours: you have to feed them a meal, bathe then and put them to bed.
I’ll gloss over the rejection of the meal, the violent and loud demands for buffet-style TV-focussed dining, consisting of crisps, chocolate and ice cream, the conflict over what looks to the parent like the same plate and the same cutlery. They will demand a bath as they refuse to eat, then refuse one when it’s run. They will fight like the mafia over bath territory, refuse to be dried, reject the chosen pyjamas and leap like escaped prisoners into the lounge to watch a bedtime DVD.
And then bedtime: the final insult.
Children, or mine at least, are extraordinarily talented at dragging out bedtime. They have all the making of complete con artists at such an early age.
We read stories or do puzzles, you know, standard stuff and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. I am almost shaking with anticipation of a child-free period in my day.
They sense my beseeching, desperate manner, and they make a plan. I know they do.
And so it is, we say: “Right, bedtime girls.”. Firstly, my little one exhibits the signs of Hussain Bolt in the making. She’s a flash of yellow in her pyjamas, out the door, hooting with laughter. I leave my dignity in her bedroom and set about catching her, telling her it’s not funny. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch her. If I’m not she’ll do something like wedge herself between her cot and toybox, slip on a toy and head butt the cot- seriously. Cue: hysteria.
We wrestle her into a nappy, then into the cot. First, the excuses come thick and fast: I need a wee, I need to say goodnight to my sister. We’re seasoned veterans though, and we know a ruse when we see one. Undaunted, lights out, she barks demands from her room: “I need me cheetahs”. Silence. “I want my Lion King things”. Silence. “I don’t have so much milk”. Silence. “I need a blanket”. That’s on a good day.
Meanwhile, the older sister, we’re not quite so lucky with. She’s in a big bed and free to roam, which she duly does. We put her into bed only for her to get out again. Honestly, it’s like having a talkative boomerang. She has 2 tactics: either howling in a voice and tone that could clear a stadium: “I don’t want to go to bed…..”. On loop. It’s like a whinge combined with a wail which has the effect of rendering me incapable of coherent thought. At this point, as my evening ekes away from me, second by second, minute by minute I am filled with either a despair that makes me want to collapse on the floor and weep immediately or sends me into a furious rage. Still, the mental patient howls and howls and howls.
If this tactic fails, as it invariably does, she yo-yos up the corridor on the pre-text of hunger or thirst, to tell me information about school that she had deliberately withheld earlier in the day, in the hope it would buy her more time now. She shows an interest in my food and activities which have been mysteriously absent for the whole day.
Between shoo-ing her back to bed and making crucial deliveries to her sister, I reckon I cover about 10km just walking up and down the hallway at night, carrying various weights and receptacles.
I’m trying to see this as a positive- saving on gym fees? Earning my dinner?
Finally, worn down, still trying to swat off a 4 year old, I get to eat my cold dinner accompanied by a room temperature glass of white wine far later than I had dared to hope for. A few tepid moments of peace before the bedlam of the morning
And even so, I'll take this over an exclusion clause any day,