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Monday, 29 May 2017

#32 On Solitude With Children, and How Trying to End Solitude is Hard


I worry I might dirty them if I get too close 


So my relationship with my husband predates Tinder. We’re both very glad about this. When we see references to Tinder culture on TV, or hear about it from our unmarried friends, we think how much harder it must be - how much thicker skin you’d need as a person - to embark on a romance in this way. As if starting to date someone wasn’t hard enough on the old nerves and insecurities, here is a world where you can be swiped into oblivion on a screen, where your written messages, your profile and photographs of your face can all be passed around and laughed at without you even knowing. It’s a tough gig, this modern dating business.

The thing is, I don’t think I’ve fully avoided it, actually. And no - **ANTI-SCANDAL**  - I’m not remotely single again, it’s actually something more simple. I’m trying to make local friends. Mum friends. And I tells ya, on your less-perfect days it can make you feel like a Tinder loser, a left-swipe-ee, as it were.

I’ll explain. Moving to a new area and still currently out of work as there is no work (yawn), I decide I’d better make some buddies to fill the conversational void left by, you know, my fifteen-month old daughter. So one thing it is customary for a mum to do in this situation is to go to a local playgroup. It’s quite an easy set-up: toys and facilities all set out, loads of parents hanging about that you can talk to, though handily - and this is one great thing about kids - the conversation can be very non-committal since you can always use your kid as an excuse to duck out and run off if needs be. Easy, hey. Except if you’re actually trying to make lasting contacts, you begin to worry that if someone does duck off from a conversation with you, it’s because you’re boring them, or coming on a bit strong, or desp. You might perceive a connection and want to hang out again, but feel pushy or pesky if you ask. Is this too soon? Should I wait until I get chatting to them next time? Are they just humouring me until I go away?

What’s more, there’s a statuesque woman at my new playgroup and she always looks so ridiculously well turned-out I swear she must be in those ‘passers-by in the street looking amazing’ pages of magazines. Honestly, she  wears red lipstick and heels and a Grace Kelly backcombed ponytail. To playgroup. Probably on her way to somewhere fabulous afterwards. And the more I look at her the more I’m suddenly aware of my own grubbying around, pre-shower with no-makeup-wax-face. I feel bad that I might somehow dirty her if I go near her. I grubby off somewhere else.

See what I mean about the dating thing?

And the likeness to Tinder is here: it gets worse once mobile phones start getting involved. Even if someone you talk to suggests switching numbers, if you suggest a date and they keep turning you down, are they beginning to regret giving their number to you? Have you become a left-swipee? Is this treat-em-mean-keep-em-keen?

These are all very paranoid thoughts, I realise, and when you’ve never found it that hard to make friends before, you realise why you take all this so personally; you’re low in confidence at the times when you feel a bit lonely, and it makes you feel needy. Because being a mum can be a bit lonely, and it doesn’t matter who you are. You will experience it if you have kids.

Realising this, although not fixing the problem, paradoxically made me feel closer to all mums, in a way. It made me realise that all those confident stereotypes: the celebrity mum, the prettiest or most popular girl at school, those flawless women, if they’d had children then at some point they would have been alone. Even if surrounded by friends and/or adoring yes-people all day and a partner who loved them, at night when the baby woke they’d have left a warm bed and gone to rock a sad baby in darkness, until silence fell again.

And it’s a weird thing, this connection with your baby at these times. When you feel low or rejected, you draw them closer to you as if they’re your protection against the world: they need you, unconditionally, when it might seem that nobody else does. And when you see beautiful, famous mums or walk past airbrushed-looking ones on the street, pushing their designer prams, you know deep down that sometimes they get low too, and sometimes their baby is all they feel they have. It can stop them seeming so shiny and intimidating, or you less scummy, perhaps.

Realising this made me look at Perfect Woman at playgroup differently today. She seemed an ice queen in the same way that Betty Draper is an ice queen: a veneer of perfection with a lonely soul hiding behind it. Or perhaps she’s actually completely fine, always indeed on her way to somewhere fabulous and I’m just an annoying scruff. Who knows.

The real irony is this: just like with dating, often when you’re fretting about being pesky, it’s because the other person is holding back for fear of exactly the same thing. And we should all know this far along the track: that’s not behaviour borne of confidence but the complete opposite. The holy grail, of course, is not to give a crap about what other people think of you then it doesn’t matter either way. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

Those are words easy to believe when we’re not sleep deprived, cash deprived or adult-conversation-deprived, of course. Bugger. Best get back on the mum-Tinder, then. Wish me luck.  


Erica


Seen the book? Take a look! http://lookingatyoubaby.com/
Twitter:  @ericajbarlow
Instagram: @ericajane_20   #lookingatyoubabydotcom
Facebook: Here's Looking At You, Baby https://www.facebook.com/lookingatyoubaby

Thursday, 23 February 2017

#31: On Returning To Work After Having Children




Bleh! Bleh! Bleh!


Your phone alarm sounds. It doesn’t matter what pleasant tune you have changed it to in order to be less unpleasant, it always sounds the same: shrill, bossy, accusing.  And it always produces in you the same bodily response: a feeling of heaviness - the result of sleep deficit, hangover or both -  laced with adrenaline.


Bleh!
Bleurgh.


Welcome to the start of your day.


Or so it was, before you had children. My, how you moaned when all you’d had to do was drink a bit less and go to bed a bit earlier, but that would have been boring so you never did. Come to think of it, that bit hasn’t changed much with having kids (not if you’re me, anyway). But now, in fact, you can take all of this and raise it by adding children to the mix because after your maternal absence, you’re finally going back to work.  Why? Well, in my case it’s not down to any contractual agreement but through pure choice.


!


Yes, all true. Second time around especially, for all the kids’ hilarity you do miss adult banter. You miss feeling vaguely skilled at something that doesn’t involve babies. More than that, you miss the freedom to do with parts of your day what you please.


But more about freedom later. Please note I said ‘parts’ of your day because let us not forget that each day starts with a morning. Morningtime in the working-parent household is a very special time indeed, because on top of all of the above some extra fun elements have been thrown in, namely a minimum of one cherub in particularly difficult/ dawdling mood, an extra-large slice of sleep-deficit pie for you and Husband and all of it pitted against a cruel clock to which chunks of time melt away at some kind of parallel-universe lightspeed.


Anyway, there you and Husband are, juggling and tag-teaming your little socks off, highchairing and feeding the children. Then, like cuckoo-clock figurines, one of you pops out of the shower at the same time that the other one zips in. Shower privacy? There is none, of course, since the door is constantly flung open to shouts of ‘have you seen his shoes/ my keys, etc’ mixed with chirrups, screams and toilet flushes, all set to the constant, gravelly whirr of the coffee machine. You glance at your watch:


‘Argh!!’


It’s already nine minutes later than you’d intended to leave, you’re trying to wipe the children with a stinky flannel and suddenly an inner voice (or maybe Husband’s voice) just yells


‘Leave it! Go!’


And everything reduces to some kind of terrible slow-motion where with each blink and each heartbeat the chaos flashes before you. As if there is a fire, you must simply run. You grab the children, your bag, their overfull bags and head for the door, flinging it open. As you take one glance back, you see the half-wiped highchair/s, the coffee cups, the foul dishcloth hanging off the counter. The scene looks like an oat-splashed Marie Celeste, you think, as you pull shut the door and stride to the car.


Next minute, you blink and take stock. You realise you have just pulled up outside your children’s daycare centre. You have no recollection of the journey you have just made with your foggy, auto-pilot brain and yet here you are. With adrenaline still pumping you grab the children and only just remember their bags, thrusting them into the arms of the lady waiting at the door. Your children may start to cry. And however much you know they’ll stop in about 90 seconds, the cries still smart as you dart back to the car, plonk yourself in, and then, suddenly,


And then.


Something in you changes. Some crazy wave of calm washes over you, like a breath. You know the day will be different now.


At work, when immersed in whatever it is you do to Earn Money, you don’t perceive what’s happening to you. But come coffee break or, even better, lunch break, you see it: liberty. You can go where you please, not having to think about nap time or where is baby-friendly or where has changing facilities. More than that, you have physical liberty: you are not pushing a pram so each time you leave a queue or a shop you almost feel like you’ve forgotten something. You feel so weightless it’s as if with each step your body, full of helium, could float away.


Where to go! What to do with this time! How little you used to appreciate it!


But it’s a strange kind of liberty because you never truly revert to the pre-baby you, ever again. In the supermarket, you mindlessly scan the shelves only to look down at your arm and see that you are gently rocking your empty trolley, back and forth, as if it were a pram in baby-soothing motion. And yet losing wheels altogether, simply carrying your bag/s feels weirder still since you’re so used to having a pram to put stuff in all the time. You begin to understand why old ladies drag those little tartan trolleys around. You may even slightly envy them.


And the end of the day? It comes around quickly and intensely. No swanning off to the shops or work drinks for you. Nope, it’s Pickup Time, from whence you have a flurry of madness until 7pm; think Morning Time but with baths thrown in, more tomfoolery and more peachy infant nakedness everywhere. And once it’s all over, once you finally hear silence replacing their sleepy sounds, you reflect. You consider how mad that all just was, how mad the next morning will be and thus how you need to turn in early, sober and sensible.


Unless you’re me, or Husband, that is. And since we never learn anything, we live in total denial of all of the above. We watch back-to-backs of Whatever Season We Love until fizzing with overtiredness, then repeat all above steps ad infinitum.


But you know the best thing about being in denial? You can be in denial about it and it’s fine. Just ask the US President.


Oh God.


Later,


Erica


Seen the book? Take a look! http://lookingatyoubaby.com/
Twitter:  @ericajbarlow
Instagram: @ericajane_20   #lookingatyoubabydotcom
Facebook: Here's Looking At You, Baby https://www.facebook.com/lookingatyoubaby

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

#30 On Saying The Things You'd Said You'd Never Say, To Children






I became a teacher seven years before becoming a mum. Like many of my teacher-turned-mum friends, I have seen how the former helped prepare me for the latter as there are so many many parallels between the two roles: never really switching off, thinking on your feet, having to cram thirty tasks into a one-hour ‘non-contact’ slot (a free period / nap time), trying to stay psychotically positive in the face of it all. In fact, I shudder to think how the scatty, pre-teaching me would have coped with mumming; the current me can still take two hours to leave the house tots-in-tow. I doubt we’d ever have seen daylight.


And so it was that teaching also prepared me for disciplining kids, but not in the way you might think. Before you go assuming that my kids jump, Von-Trapp style, to my penny-whistled commands, let me set you very straight: I am still certain that I exercised more control in central London schools, in a sea of chewing-gum, graffiti and giant, hormonal teenagers - than I do with my own three-year-old son. No, what I learned was this: there are certain things you will find yourself saying (and doing) to maintain boundaries and they are often things you once vowed you’d never say.


‘It’s your time you’re wasting.’
‘Would you like to come and teach the class?’


I had rolled my eyes with the best of them hearing these at school. At teacher-training college, such phrases informed exactly how I did not want to practice. I will be the new, cool teacher, I thought. The maverick, the fun and funny one. I will not trot out crap old phrases and I will not enforce rules. At the end of the day, why pull kids up on uniform or lateness when there is Shakespeare to be explored, crucially, through mime and dance?  


The result: I was eaten alive, of course. My ‘lessons’ resembling the opening credits to Fraggle Rock, I had become nothing new or exciting but that old parody of the rookie. And so it was then that I sought some old-school advice from those above me, those that appeared to manage unruly classes with an effortless grace. They taught me the importance of tone of voice, postural positioning, facial expression; in short, body language. But as my confidence increased, a certain language-language began also to creep into my practice and there they were, the words I had avoided for so long:

It's your time you're wasting...


Etc, etc.

Etc.



I even found myself standing, waiting for silence, hand-on-hip and emitting, just like all my own teachers back in the day, a loud ‘ERM-’ noise. Is ‘erm’ even a word? It didn’t matter. It was old-school, it was effective and that was enough.


I had become the very teacher I had sought not to be. Or sought originally not to be. But you know what? My original view had been ridiculous, informed by myself as a child, not as an adult. The penny had dropped and I enjoyed having classes who listened now; dammit, it was not just effective to trot out the cliches and the erms, it felt downright satisfying because I realised that I had earned the right. A boring conformist? Nah-  I’d finally shaken off the shackles of giving a shit what kids think. I had come of age and I began to feel how much my previous teachers must have felt the same. Maybe not the most exciting club to have graduated to, but it certainly felt good.


What does this have to do with parenthood? Well, let’s just say it’s fitting that this experience was something I brought with me into more recent years. In my childhood home, once again there were certain phrases said to me that I had winced at every time. Now you should see me as I reel them off with gay abandon. Here’s a run-down of my favourites:



Massive cliche phrase

Why it is in fact brilliant
  1. I want doesn’t get


Almost a strapline, this one is snappy, memorable. It’s slightly undermined by ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ later on but that’s for another day.
     2. Mind your P’s and Q’s
Said by paranoid parents in the car on the way to dropping you off at a friend’s house. A catchy way to stop your kid from acting like a boorish bellend, which reflects badly on you. I am sure I will use this one like there is no tomorrow when the time comes.
    3. Where does he/she live?
Less of a catchphrase but still very popular; actually meaning ‘he/she looks a but common to me.’ The utterance of this one generally rules out the necessity for #2 above.
   4. We’ll buy/do that another day, not    today.
Sounds positive but is in fact ‘sod off/ not on your life/ I hope you forget all about this very soon.’
  5. Please do X/Y/Z boring task. There’s a good boy/ girl.’
Again implying positivity and compliance before the act even occurs. Clever.



So I’m all for progression and all that, but let’s be clear: reinventing the wheel is just one task too many for a busy mother. And speaking of mothers, I most certainly hear my own mum every time I say these phrases but you know what? That’s not such a bad thing if that woman could whip four wayward little asses into shape.


Now I’m off to spread her word(s)



Erica




Seen the book? Take a look! http://lookingatyoubaby.com/
Twitter:  @ericajbarlow
Instagram: @ericajane_20   #lookingatyoubabydotcom
Facebook: Here's Looking At You, Baby https://www.facebook.com/lookingatyoubaby









Thursday, 19 January 2017

#29 On Trying to Have a Home That's Not a Total Sh*thole, With Children




It’s funny, tidying, isn’t it. Like the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, it is a Sisyphean task, started all over again the moment we have finished it and so never really finished at all. Yet unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, you see, where the painters get to stop every so often to eat a sandwich or arse about on their iPhones, for us parents there are children that hear us finally ripping off the rubber gloves or putting down the hoover and, to stop us feeling redundant, fling some food somewhere or push over a basket of something.


You become more efficient at dealing with all this, of course. You develop streamlined systems within your own house. Years of waitressing taught me never to walk around empty-handed; never simply to stroll idly (heaven forbid) from one room to the next but always to use that journey to take bits of mess from one room back to that from whence they came. Ever arrived in a room forgetting what you came in there for? Why, you can at least use it as an opportunity to tidy. No trip is wasted ever again. Genius, continuous efficiency.


So the result of all this? As I stride from room to room, always transporting and delivering goods to their rightful places, always cleaning up before the kids’ arrival and after, stooping here, wiping there and scrubbing smears endlessly, I would like to feel like a hero, a god of systems-down-pat. And yet I don’t. Actually, I realise I’ve spent a whole morning sweating in rubbber gloves, of rolling a very heavy stone up a steep hill and I sometimes muse that if the point of a task is usually linked with its completion, why I should even start this at all (I often take the same attitude to my appearance these days).  


And it’s not with hopelessness or gloom that I think this - thank God - more like a bemusement. In fact it’s the same feeling that overcame me just yesterday; here, mindlessly chiselling away, in my rubber gloves and dressing gown, at some Weetabix cemented onto the high chair, I felt a sense of detached comedy at the glamour of it all, at the fact I’m sure I went to university once.


So it’s now that I understand why parents love hotels. Back in the day I used to turn my nose up at them, preferring a grittier experience. Even these days family holidays in an Air BnB can be great fun: love my kids, never a dull moment, etc etc. But all this is missing the point: I would bloody love a dull moment. Very occasionally. A true, true holiday for me would entail many such pointless moments of wandering aimlessly from one room to the next with nothing in my hands, just because I could. Wiping and clearing away food or anything would be the job of staff, goddammit. It’s not just as you get older that holidays mean different things- it’s as you have kids. What staying in a hotel means is not just a holiday from tasks, it’s a holiday from your (usual) self.


There is a quicker, cheaper fix, Husband would argue.


‘Why don’t you just not care about tidiness so much. Who do you think is judging you?’
‘No-one, I just like it clean.’ I answer.
‘But if it’s going to be so stressful, shall we just not have people over? You’re being a maniac.’
‘I’m not!’ I shout, repeatedly bashing the moaning hoover into the skirting boards as I see we have T minus ten minutes until Guest Arrival. Please God, don’t let them be early.


It’s not true, of course, when I say no-one is judging me. I am judging me. I have always been a bit of a neat freak but it’s not worn as a badge of honour, it’s a curse which I think comes from my mum’s side of the family. And truthfully, before anyone reading this decides never to invite me over again, I do not measure my friends’ houses in the same way. I really don’t. Like some sort of house dysmorphic disorder, I only see the flaws in my own efforts, be they specks of dust or child-height smears.


There is a conundrum here as well.  As I frantically Mrs Doubtfire my way around the house I also have flashbacks to school days where there was always a Dick Mum of one of your friends who wanted their house kept like a show home at all times. You know, the ones where you had to slip off your shoes on arrival then perch on the edge of the sofa the whole visit.  In fairness my own mum did not treat our house like this. I think she managed to do what I am currently working on: being realistic with having kids around. Oh, and actually enjoying your friends’ company rather than worrying about rings on the coffee table.


Because if you’re not careful you create another ironic circle: the tidier you are, the fewer friends you have to impress with your tidiness. And the quicker your kids will leave home to go and relax / make mess elsewhere.  Before you know it, you’re like a character from Desperate Housewives and the clue to their level of happiness is in the title.

I’d best follow the lead of my looks and get lowering those standards, then.

Erica


Seen the book? Take a look! http://lookingatyoubaby.com/
Twitter:  @ericajbarlow
Instagram: @ericajane_20   #lookingatyoubabydotcom
Facebook: Here's Looking At You, Baby https://www.facebook.com/lookingatyoubaby

Thursday, 5 January 2017

#28 On Being Drunk and/or Hungover With Children. Especially at Christmas.

Tots, tinsel and Aldi. Pretty much sums my Xmas up.  Oh, and the boozing.



Drinking, drinking, drinking. God, it’s great. Every time I do it, for the first few drinks I think ‘why don’t I do this more often? Why do I deny myself this so regularly?’ I’m cleverer and funnier. You’re cleverer and funnier. Everyone has a lovely time.


What’s more, your kids love you more. On Christmas Day - a shining example of day drinking at its best, beginning at, ooh, I reckon 10am with a bucks fizz - you may have awoken tired and even hungover, but this morning it’s all very different from normal. Yes, you have that queasy little feeling of exhaustion+booze sloshing around an empty stomach as you unwrap presents with the kids. Somehow, though, with all the general festive atmos and hearing little ones squeal with glee with each RRRRRIIIP of wrapping paper, it all turns into one big fog of joy. Normal, knackered you is nowhere to be seen.


But it gets better still. As the day goes on and guests arrive, more drinks of various types and strengths are consumed and you feel even fuzzier and happier. Your toddler responds to you better because you’re so cheerful and pretty much let him do what he likes as long as he doesn’t a) die b) kill his baby sister or c) interrupt your mass consumption of cheese or roast potatoes. Or your conversation. In fact, you may even get to ‘drunken-show-off’ stage and try and get him to do a merry jig for everyone, or that funny thing he does, even if he doesn’t feel like doing it. You laugh at some of his other idiocy instead of scowling at it. You are Fun Parent in the extreme. Hell, you are Christmas.


When night falls, your tots (or at least your toddler) will no doubt have been allowed to stay up later than usual, sprawling slack-jawed on the sofa and eating crisps, teenager-like. When finally you do a single bit of responsible parenting by putting them to bed, you simply chuckle once again at any misbehaviour as you are truly battered. You are now not just fun, or Christmas, you are invincible.


Eventually, your own bedtime rolls around. Or rather, you and your husband can no longer remain in denial that you both keep rolling in and out of consciousness on the sofa. All good things must come to an end, and so you sway up the stairs. But as you do, you remember that you are still invincible and so you do that thing that you daren’t ever do: you pop into Sleeping Baby Daughter’s room to remind yourself of how lovely she is. And with a heart full of booze and emotion you coo and point at her sleeping caterpillar body with her bum in the air. You have totally forgotten why you never do this. You have missed the fact that she is twitching like a rattlesnake.


All good things must come to an end.


And so, having slumped into bed, you wake up seemingly moments later. It may well be just moments if Daughter has fully awoken soon after you disturbed her. It may well be hours since it is now morning and time to get up. In any case, the amount of sleep you have had feels the same either way: paltry. Utterly.


All good things have come to an end.


Coming to to the sound of her cries, you lift your concrete head. Sunlight stabs your eyes. You hear Son, also awake somewhere, shuffling about cheerfully on his way to you.  There is no way out now. You must get up as between you and Husband it is Your Turn. You look at your phone, desperately trying to calculate in your fat, woolly brain when Daughter can be put back for her nap and thus so can you.

Just a couple of hours to see out.

You can do this.

With eyes that burn and skin that aches stretched over your body, you thump down the stairs to get them some breakfast then seek to be horizontal as soon as possible. Your pathetic form on the couch does not go unnoticed by the children, perceptive little scamps that they are, as they seek to squabble, cry and climb on your stomach. Each time you check your phone only three minutes have passed. It is no good: chaos and all hell have come again.


Or so I’ve been told by some parents who drink. Me? It just makes me invincible.


Happy New Year.


Erica 




Seen the book? Take a look! http://lookingatyoubaby.com/
Twitter:  @ericajbarlow
Instagram: @ericajane_20   #lookingatyoubabydotcom
Facebook: Here's Looking At You, Baby https://www.facebook.com/lookingatyoubaby