5 things I have learnt about being a working parent

When I first went back to work after having Quibble, I only taught two days a week and I hated being there so little. At the start of the new school year I went back to being full time, eventually dropping back to four days and after Squeak was born. I am much happier, which makes me a better parent, but juggling home and work is not easy. Here’s how I try and stay on top of it:

1. Preparation – This is the thing that makes the biggest difference, but is also hardest to keep on top of. In practical terms, Quibble and Squeak’s clothes for the morning are chosen before bedtime, breakfast things are put out ready and nursery bags are checked in the evening. We have a store of children’s birthday cards and suitable presents, to avoid panics the morning of a birthday party, and I use my phone to remind me in advance of themed nursery events requiring costumes, reply slips or payments. And I choose three busy bags to put out for Quibble each day to combat that moment when I’m elbow-deep in cooking and he whines ‘I’m bored of my toys, Mummy’.

2. Share the load – As we both work, Stanchion and I divide up the household responsibilities between us. Some we alternate (early morning get-ups), some we take sole responsibility for (washing or cooking), some we know we just both need to do. Quibble is getting to an age where he can help by laying the table or tidying up toys, for example. Even Squeak will play a game of putting things in a toy bin (although we have to be quick to move her before she empties it again). And if grandparents offer to help, we take it (with lots of ‘thank you’s!).

3. Structure free time – It is tempting to either try to get jobs done or just relax at the weekend, but not only is that not fair on Quibble and Squeak, it means I miss out on playtime. By making sure that at least one of us does some sort of fun outing with the kids (even just walking to the swings), they get a focus to the day and we get to have fun together. During Squeak’s naptime, we try to have a more relaxing time for us and Quibble – watching a TV programme, playing a quiet game or reading books – and having had some quality time, he’s often happy to play on his own for a while so we can get things done. And if either of us need to go and run an errand, we take a child with us – chatting in the car or on the walk gives them that precious one-to-one time.

4. Use cheats and shortcuts – I often read the blogs of stay-at-home mums where they have spent time creating fantastic busy bags or craft activities for their children that I wish I had time for. Luckily, there are hundreds of cheats and shortcuts that can be used, so Quibble’s busy bags contain things jigsaw puzzles, magnet games or stickers. They still entertain him, but take very little time to put together. I buy Mister Maker craft sets when I see them on offer, I steal (‘borrow’) the good ideas that I see my friends doing on Facebook, I shop online to avoid travelling to supermarkets and we also have a cleaner: anything to give us more family time.

5. Cut yourself some slack – This might make it sound like things always run smoothly in the Commonsense house, when of course they don’t. Plans get derailed, things get forgotten, chores stack up. It isn’t possible to do everything all the time. And when time is short, I don’t want to waste it on guilt or worry. In the words of Scarlett O’Hara; ‘After all… tomorrow is another day’.

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Camping for Kids

I suppose a large part of parenting is about putting your own needs aside to do what is necessary for your children. That’s why it took me a while to get my head around the idea of being a parent – it just didn’t sound as much fun as putting your own needs first.

But now that I am a parent, sacrifices need to be made. That is why I am taking a deep breath as I prepare to go camping for the weekend. I am fully aware that around the world there are parents making bigger sacrifices for their kids: giving up careers to look after them, working every hour of the day to fund their child’s education, or even starving so their children can eat. And I’ll admit two nights in a tent isn’t quite up there; but it is still a big deal for me.

I know camping is something that many people choose to do for pleasure, but I’m just not one of them. Mostly this is because if I had to write a list of the things that were most important to me, up somewhere near the top, just below my family, would be my bed and my morning cup of tea. Stanchion is not like this. Not only does he not see camping as a hardship, but he actually enjoys it. He has bought me an airbed and promised to make me a cup of tea as soon as I wake up. So I’m going.

We took Quibble camping when he was two. There were four couples, each with a child. It rained. A lot. And the kids loved it. They loved the tents, they loved the muddy puddles, they loved being outdoors and running (relatively) wild. There’s something about the slight anarchy of camping, where the rules are relaxed and everything is an adventure, that appeals to children.

And the thing I didn’t understand before I had children was the way seeing your child happy, makes you happy. It’s fun to see them having fun. It’s even better when you embrace your inner child and join them jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

So this weekend, while I may spend a lot of time huddled under blankets trying to keep warm or wearing head-to-toe waterproofs, I will get to see Quibble and Squeak playing and laughing with the other children. And I know I will end up laughing with them. If the price for all this laughter is a couple of nights without a real bed, I think that’s okay. I just wish there wasn’t so much rain forecast.

Mum’s not the word

Sometimes I feel invisible. Or, if not invisible, at least that people have categorised me as something generic and made assumptions about who I am so that they are not actually seeing me.

 I find this at its worst when people other than my children call me Mum. People who know my name, who have known me since before I had children, who chose to call me Mum because my children are around. I love Quibble and Squeak calling me Mum – it shows that I have a special place in their life – but there is no reason for anyone else to.  It strips me of my name, my individuality and my identity.

 I know I am a Mum. It is the most important job I have, because even when I’m at work, I’d drop everything for my children if they needed me. It is both frustrating and wonderful (although I like to think there is more of the latter) and it does mean that there are times I have to put myself last or make little sacrifices, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be anything else.

 There seems to be an idea that once you have become a mother, you have to put your children above all else; be a mum first and rarely anything else second. Watching films and TV, I see dads getting to be action heroes, politicians and lifesaving doctors, while mums get to be, well, mums. Or bad mums if they do something else (their juggling always seems to fail). Where are the women my age being more than solely a mum? Where are the people like me?

 This is the reason why love the challenges at work. Why I have booked tickets to Mumsnet Blogfest. Why I was so excited to spend last weekend in Stratford-upon-Avon at the RSC. So that I get to keep being me. So that I get to do things and have conversations that are not just about babies, children and housework. It’s also the reason why I blog: I get to write about the things that interest me; the important things in my life. And yes, that may involve my children. After all, being a mum is part of being me. Just not the only part.

5 things I have learnt about organising a party for a four year old

1. Have a theme
For his fourth birthday Quibble wants a dinosaur party. I have no idea where this request has come from as he has no dinosaur toys or books – I would even struggle to think of any TV programmes he’s seen with dinosaurs in. He spends far more time playing with cars, pretending to be a knight or a superhero. But he is adamant. And so here I am; organising a dinosaur-themed party, sending out dinosaur invitations and buying dinosaur stickers, dinosaur name badges, dinosaur napkins, cups, plates, tablecloth…

2. Invite people
Quibble spends four days a week at nursery. I recognise many of the children in his class and I even know some of their names, but there seems very little consistency in which ones Quibble refers to as his friends. When asked who he wanted to invite, he would happily give me five names, but these names changed every time. After two days of pulling my hair out, I asked his key worker who he played with most who laughed and said, ‘Everybody, he’s a very sociable boy.’. Luckily, by the following day she had narrowed it down to manageable number.

3. Organise some games
Some party games never go out of fashion. A quick internet search reveals the essentials; pass-the-parcel, musical statues, colouring on stand-by. It also revealed the golden-rule for four year olds: kids don’t like being out – give them stickers or sweets to stop the tears. Of course the best thing about having a theme is ‘theming’ the games, which is why we will be having dinosaur books out (for emergency quiet time), dinosaur pictures to colour, little plastic dinosaurs to excavate in the sandpit and be playing ‘Pin the horn on the triceratops’, ‘Feed the T-Rex’, ‘What’s the time Mr Dinosaur?’ and ‘Musical dinosaurs’. Sometimes, I suspect I am the one who enjoys themed games most of all.

4. Feed the guests (not to the dinosaurs)
I have been to quite a few parties now and there’s really only a few things that kids actually eat: simple sandwiches (ham/jam/cheese), crisps, biscuits and cake. I think I’ll do some sticks of carrot and cucumber so the parents can put them on the plate and we’ll pretend it’s a balanced meal. Enough so grown-ups can pick at the leftovers (even though I will be making sure they have drinks and biscuits). The cake, Quibble tells me, must be a dinosaur cake. Really, it’s all about how it looks as he doesn’t eat cake. Buying one seems too expensive and a quick internet search suggests I should be able to make a stegosaurus by making round cakes, cutting them up, sticking them together in a dino-shape with jam, covering the whole thing in dyed-green buttercream and adding toblerone spikes and chocolate button spots. Just a few easy hours of slaving ahead…

5. Be enthusiastic
At this point I am grateful I am a teacher, because it has taught me that kids of any age respond to energy and enthusiasm. You need to be exciting, on their level and ever-so-slightly unpredictable. Then they will follow you, play the games, line up for the party games and enjoy the organised fun. Especially if you keep encouraging (bribing) them with stickers.