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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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.

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.