When Pinterest Meets Guilt

Pinterest is my mother-so-secret obsession. I’ve had to delete the app from my phone to stop myself from scrolling through the endless images created by people with far more skills than I when I actually have a million other things to be doing. I know I’ll never be able to entirely recreate the images on these board, but I still like to think that pinning them makes me a step closer.

I’m aware that other mothers feel guilt, but I like to keep mine secret. I love my kids and I do the best for them and logically that should be enough. I should not feel guilty and so when I do, because of course I do, I don’t tell anyone. When my friends admit that guilt has stopped them from leaving before bedtime or going on a spa weekend or taking on an extra day at work, I feel slightly smug that I don’t have such problems.

These two things may seem unrelated, but when I came across a this image of a dolls house, I was surprised by the ferocity with which they collided.

Young House Love's homemade dollshouse

I should probably explain that on the rare occasion I take Squeak to playgroup, she makes a beeline for the large plastic dolls house. She doesn’t seem to mind that there are only two dolls, a bed a cot and two chairs, but she minds a lot when another two-year old toddles over to share it. I decide that a dolls house would be a perfect birthday present and find only two problems with this. Firstly, they seem to cost a ridiculous amount of money. And then require you to spend more money on dolls and furniture. Secondly, they are all hideous. Huge, plastic and in three luminous shades of pink. And I look at the tasteful picture and utter the stupidest words possible: How hard could it be?

After a quick discussion with Stanchion (in which it was made clear that any attempt to build my own dolls house would not be salvaged by him), I decided not to build my own, but to buy, paint and decorate a second-hand house. And this is what I found:

eBay house image

It arrived covered in the dirt and grime of years in the attic and I seriously worried about what I had let myself in for. But by this point I was in too deep. Areed with a mixed bag of wooden furniture and an unwise amount of determination I poured a bowl of soapy water and got to work.

It turns out that washing something and painting it white makes a huge difference. Adding in the printed wallpaper to the back wall and the painted furniture makes it bright and colourful. I’m feeling pretty proud of my homemade dolls house. (I mean, don’t look too closely at the edges and corners and really don’t mention how the floor fell off and Stanchion had to screw it back on again meaning that he can forever remind me how I managed to bite off more than I could chew.)

But it’s really not about me, is it? That’s where the guilt comes in. Or rather, not guilt, so much as a worry that my best might not be good enough. And then Squeak ripped the paper off with the biggest grin ever, and I decided that this time, my best was good enough.

Ripping off the paperPlaying with dolls house

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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’.

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.

Busy Bags for Busy Mums

I hadn’t heard of Busy Bags until a friend recommended them to me as a way to keep Quibble occupied when he had to wait; while I was cooking dinner or taking Squeak for her jabs. I look them up on Google and Pinterest and quickly realised that most people who were showing their Busy Bags had at their disposal a colour printer, a laminator and hours in which to put their educational and arty bags together. I have a printer that always seems to be out of ink, no time and I didn’t even know you could buy home laminators.

 Still, the basic idea of preparing some activities in zip-locked bags to entertain and distract kids is a good one and I have been experimenting with what I can do using things I already have. Here’s the results – my top 10 easy Busy Bags: 

  1. Pen and post-its – Any sort of pens (an ordinary blue biro is a winner in this house) with a third of a pack of sticky notes.

Quibble loves scribbling and then sticking his creation on the table, the door, on Squeak’s back…

  1. Coins or buttons – I came across the pot we’ve been keeping foreign coins in and emptied some into an envelope, while a pot of spare buttons from clothes I no longer own has been tipped into another bag. A friend of mine has done the same with a few different bottle tops.

Quibble loves pretending to buy things, looking for the numbers, sorting them by size or colour and counting them into pots.

  1. Duplo patterns – Two or three blocks each of four different colours is enough to make some different towers and if you have a colour printer, add in these printables to get them making specific patterns (I didn’t print them on card or laminate them).

Quibble loves working out the patterns for a few minutes, but then just building towers in different patterns.

  1. Small cars or motorbikes – I use the really little ones that come with magazines or in crackers, but anything small enough to go in a zip bag would work. You could also get a printable road map like this for them to go on.

Quibble loves running the cars over the arms of chairs, across his legs and over his sister…

  1. Magazines – ultimately lazy (and no, you don’t have to put it in a really big zip bag), but Quibble is immediately interested because everything is new. In reality, he wants our help with the stickers, activities and stories the first time, but after he’s heard them, he will just flick through them on his own.

Quibble loves playing with the free toys.

  1. Colouring books and colours – Just a small packet of pencil crayons (ours came free with a pub meal) and a little colouring book or a few colouring sheets, dot-to-dots or mazes (like these) printed out and folded into a bag.

Quibble loves ignoring the picture and scribbling wildly with every colour.

  1. Matching numbers or colours – We have a set of number fridge magnets, but no fridge door for them, so in they went to a bag with some different counters that came free with a magazine. If you had numbers on beads or tiles or just some dice they would work just as well. I’ve also seen it done with coloured card to match the colours of the counters.

Quibble loves well, okay, he doesn’t like matching the numbers to the piles of counters, but he has played an imaginative game of Power Rangers with this bag…

  1. Stickers – We have a great little pack of pirate stickers that came with its own pirate notebook to stick them in, but any stickers would do and a notebook means you don’t have to remove all the stickers from the chairs in a waiting room before you leave…

Quibble loves using every sticker on the sheet including the title and copyright.

  1. Cards – We have a couple of packs of themed cards for pairs games (including one that came free with a magazine – you may be noticing a theme here!) and they can be used for Snap, Pairs or grouping similar ones together.

Quibble loves spreading them all out to look at to find his favourite ones, who quite often talk to each other.

  1. Jigsaws – they pack up very small without the box and for even more challenge when the puzzles are very familiar you could put more than one in the bag.

Quibble loves sorting out all the pieces and then commentating on how he is putting them together (‘So you’ll know for next time, Mummy’).

 Although she can’t have the zip locked bags, I haven’t forgotten Squeak. We put some toys and other objects (mini hairbrush, bangle, food clips, pastry brush, unwanted flyers, for example) into a little box, cloth or paper bag and her curiosity gets the better of her for at least a few minutes.

So spread the word. Busy Bags are useful and they can be easy too.

Easy Busy Bags

It’s too complicated to explain

I find that when dealing with anyone other than my closest friends, lying is a useful way to avoid complicated explanations. This something I feel I’ve done a lot more since I had children, because when people ask ‘How are the kids?’, they want to hear a cute story about adorable children rather than listen to me talk about lack of sleep or fussy eaters. The truth is, of course, that parenting involves a lot of small victories, that are difficult to understand without context (‘I got six hours sleep last night!’) and often impossible to understand if you don’t have children (‘I got him to kiss the cucumber!’), so a simple, cheerful reply is the easiest.

This week, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I feel about going back to work now my maternity leave is about to finish. The answer I give is that I am very excited to be able to have a whole conversation/be away from nappy changes/use my brain (delete as appropriate). It is a flippant response, mainly designed to stop people I barely know from putting their head on the side and giving me sympathy.

The real answer is a lot more complex. I am genuinely looking forward to going back to work, but I am taking on four days paid work without really getting rid of all the things I used to do in those four days. Out goes those mornings where we have a lazy breakfast and don’t get dressed until Squeak’s morning nap and in comes trying to get both parents showered and all four of us dressed and breakfasted (without requiring a change of clothes) and into cars with nursery bags, laptops and lunchboxes as needed. Out goes Quibble watching CBeebies while I put on some washing or cook a big stew and in comes desperately trying to squeeze in all the chores after the kids have gone to bed. Out goes being able steal a quick nap after a terrible night and in comes facing a class of thirty teenagers on just four hours sleep.

Going back to work this time is going to be harder than it was last time. It’s not really so difficult to hand my baby over to the care of a lovely nursery worker who is good at playing with and entertaining babies. It helps that Squeak, who doesn’t ordinarily like people, is completely smitten with her. On the other hand, leaving Quibble standing uncertainly on the edge of a group of three-year olds who haven’t noticed him yet, after he has spent the journey to nursery singing his own special mash-up of Incy Wincy Spider and Baa Baa Black Sheep and telling me that ‘Mummy days are best’, I find much more difficult. I’ve been spoilt by having extra days with him, where we have random conversations and silly games and I look at him helping me to unload the dishwasher and think where did this grown up little boy come from? And hardest of all, I’ll never have those days with Squeak when she is his age, because I won’t have another maternity leave.

It was these thoughts which helped me to realise I wanted to drop from five to four days a week at work. Which made me think that in a year or two, I could try to work just mornings so I can be there to pick them up from school. Which made me think ‘Sod work, my kids are everything’.

Unfortunately, within five minutes of getting in to work last week I had become giddy with excitement. I love my job. I love getting my students interested in subjects they thought were boring, seeing them finding answers and asking questions. I love working with colleagues who are just as enthusiastic as me, but all wonderfully idiosyncratic. And the truth is that I missed it; the teaching, the interaction, even the fights over who used all the paper in the photocopier.

Yes, my kids are everything, but my job is part of who I am. How do I feel about going back to work? Honestly, I don’t really know.