It’s Mother’s Day soon. You’d be forgiven for not knowing if you haven’t switched on the TV or stepped inside a branch of Tesco lately. If you have stepped inside a branch of Tesco, you might have spotted that most inappropriate of Mother’s Day gifts – the Bambi necklace. If one of my children gives me that, I’d be horrified. It’s like sending someone a Valentine’s card with a picture of the Baroness from “Sound of Music” on it. How better to say “So long, farewell darling. I’m replacing you with Julie Andrews. Maybe you should have learnt how to giftwrap a villa”?
I digress. I often do when I’m thinking about Julie Andrews. Now, she was a good mother. Step-mother to seven is a rough gig at the best of times, and must be even harder during an Anschluss. Am I off again? Sorry. I meant to say the other reason you may not have noticed it was Mother’s Day is that it’s clashed with Comic Relief this year, so the kids have come home with handfuls of arts and crafts that I can only suppose pertain to one or the other. For example, the matching red nose cards that Eva and Bunny brought back from nursery were probably for Comic Relief but the cupcakes they’d decorated were probably intended for Mother’s Day. You can guess which one made it back to the mothers in question. Roo gets a few more points – presenting me with not just a plant pot of daffodils but also stashing a homemade card under his bed that no child-respecting mother would have snuck a look at while it was still in his bookbag. It says lots of nice things about me in simile, comparing my softness to a cloud and my intelligence to a troodon’s. It concludes that I am the best mummy in the world.
That’s sweet, Roo but I’m really not. For one, I already read your card. For seconds…well, there’s a lot I could say but let’s not go there. What I can tell you is that I’m constantly trying to be the best mother I can be right now. That might not always be super-obvious but essentially, it involves figuring out what is not working and what we can do to make it better. And that’s as much as I think any of us can hope for – to make decisions that make things not worse.
Like me going back to work this week. Yes, my three-year maternity leave with Eva has come to an end (and sensibly, I’ve weaned the baby before starting back). I know I’ve been working through most of the last two years, but this feels different. Being self-employed, even when you have a regular job, is a different ballgame to having a Proper Job where you work for someone else. And I am joyfully embracing the end of freelancehood. No more working in the evenings, no more trying to get finance reports done with a tiny Elsa draping herself across my shoulders. Work is for the office and when I’m home I’m actually home. Well, except for a few freelance projects I’ve kept on. I wouldn’t like myself to get bored. The first evening of unemployment between jobs, I made 20 tiny cards and filled them with poems, crosswords and pictures before shoving them into an envelope of glitter and sweets that would later get opened by a suspicious postal service. That between-jobs gap lasted three days and I think Nathan at least was relieved when I started the new one. Who knew what crazy side project my unoccupied mind would come up with next?
From that you might have gleaned that I need work. I need something outside parenting to focus on. But it’s whatever works. When Eva was a year old, Proper Freelance was ideal – working on my laptop in my PJs of an evening, baby in a sling or on the boob, working on a word count rather than a hourly rate so that I could stop and tend to her whenever she did a giant poo. Another year on and Self Employed at a couple of regular jobs had its attractions – the flexibility of freelance but other people to talk at and a never-ending supply of coffee. Now, Proper Employed again. And that’s the principle I base all my “parenting” on. Do whatever works for you, right now. I wish I’d had that freedom when Roo was a baby, but like any first time parent I was too scared of the health visitors and too intimidated by the “experts” to try anything like co-sleeping that might have snatched us a few precious hours’ sleep.
Because, ludicrous as it sounds, I was all about the future. Supernanny says that if I let Baby feed to sleep, he will be doing this forever. So I must keep both of us awake for feeds, for the sake of Future Kate and Future Reuben and Future Kate’s lack of rods for Future Kate’s own back.
But you know what? Screw Future Kate. I’ll sort things out when I become her. The path of “but if I do x, what becomes of y?” leads to madness. It’s OK to just do things for now and not worry too much about how they work out. You don’t know how you’ll feel in a year. You don’t know what your baby will be like in a year. There’s no point in moving close to a nice school pre-foetus when you might decide to uproot the entire family a week after your child has started Reception (for the record, I am not recommending this as a good life strategy). Parenthood is full of surprises and some things you just need to take as they come.
It’s hard though. Us, as a generation of parents, face pressures that no previous generation has. The explosion of social media in the last ten years has meant that those of us with kids at primary school have raised those kids in front of the world. There’s nothing that’ll rock your confidence like a dozen pieces of well-meaning advice every time you post something on Facebook. Share a photo of your latest sling? Someone will have an anecdote about how dangerous they are. Record your daughter’s latest utterance with the kind of phonetic analness that only a degree in Linguistics gives you? Someone will ask if you’ve seen an SLT about her inability to pronounce /g/. Take a spontaneous video of the kids playing? There will be someone who comments on the state of your house. Guaranteed. The “hide comment” button is useful here.
And it’s not just social media. The internet is so packed with information that new parents have no idea which opinions to listen to and which to discard. A favourite party trick during my first pregnancy was to Google anything I was just about to eat and find out all the reasons why I shouldn’t eat it whilst pregnant. It worked with literally anything, which you might naturally conclude would lead to pregnant women eating literally nothing. I hate to add yet another opinion to the mix but that sounds unhealthy to me.
All this virtual noise just drowns out your motherly instincts, doesn’t it? You end up so saturated with opinions on Gina Ford, Dr Seers, Dr Seuss and all the rest that you have no idea what you actually think any more. Well, try something and see if it works. If it doesn’t, try something else.
Which brings me back to working. I’m in for 4 school days now, which seems like a lot but actually Eva and I were driving each other crazy. The 24/7 closeness we had when she was a baby would be suffocating by now if I hadn’t gently put some distance between us. When she was tiny, she only wanted to be next to me in a sling or a bed. She needed nothing in the way of attention, just closeness and milk and I was happy to keep her physically close so that my mental energy could be spent on Roo. Nowadays, those old tricks don’t work and she wants the kind of attention that I can’t give her while trying to work from home. So, more childcare for her and cleaner work/life segregation for me is the way forward. Let’s see if this works. I think it will. She gets me in the evenings (which are quite long when I finish work at 2:30) and for a 3-day weekend. I get my break by being at work and the time we spend together is more focussed on what she wants to do. Except today when I went to the dentist and then lay on the sofa, barely able to talk from all the anaesthetics. But I think she kinda enjoyed it. The dental nurse admired her Elsa wig and gave her three stickers. Good times.
So, we’re doing what works for us right now. I need to work. Some people don’t. Some people are excellent at being with their kids every day of the week and that’s totally right for them. But that’s something that, really, you need to do because you love doing it – not because a blog told you that you couldn’t be an Attachment Parent if you don’t homeschool, not because you feel pressured into it by society and randoms on Mumsnet. I’d go as far as to say that you shouldn’t even let finance dictate to you what you do. You might feel like you want to work, but will be barely turning a profit. Ah, do it anyway. As long as you’re not actually losing money, why not? And I say that as someone who never makes much of a profit from working but never really expected to. But the profits I’ve made in Kate Sanity have been off the scale.
And that’s it. That’s the simple message I want to give to you this Mother’s Day. Try to be the best mother you can right now. If that means working full-time, part-time, from home or not at all or your partner staying home while you work…whatever particular combination is going to keep you sane, do it. That goes for every aspect of parenting – feeding, sleeping, dressing, housekeeping. Do what keeps you going. That makes you the best mother you can be right now.
(I’ll leave you with a picture of me doing some Earth-mothery biscuit making with the kids for Nathan for Valentine’s Day. Note the completely unimpressed expressions on their faces and take from that what you will)