Embracing snowday chaos

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There’s something about snowdays – they’re a bit like a zombie apocalypse but marginally easier to survive.

The roads in my village were deserted this morning after another heavy dusting overnight and (shock horror) the village first school was shut.

Here in Northumberland the attitude generally is that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing… until today! Our hard-as-nails headmistress reluctantly conceded defeat for what is probably the first time in a decade.

So there was no mad panic to get ready – no last minute rush for World Book Day props (silent prayer of thanks) – no way I was going to hit any of my deadlines.

Instead it was a slummy mummy morning. The girls watched TV, I drank tea and made peace with the fact that I was going to get very little done other than mop up puddles of melted snow, dry successive rounds of soggy splash pants and woollens while constantly dishing out snacks and hot drinks.

It’s not always easy working from home when childcare duties are suddenly thrust upon you from left field (well okay – we did know the Beast from the East was coming). But it still requires lots of juggling, a helpful ex spouse, forgiving clients and a child’s ability to watch endless episodes of Peppa Pig.

It also requires an ability to let go. The deadlines for the most part can wait – the memories will not.

The deadlines for the most part can wait – the memories will not

My New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to do less, prioritise more and stop all the crazy multitasking. Little things, like eating a meal without looking at my phone.

I’ll admit there’s still a long way to go, but I’m determined because I’m convinced it will make me a happier, calmer person and a better mum.

The world we live in is so full of distraction and so very very busy. We’re all guilty, to a greater or lesser extent of spending too much time on social media, trying to do too much all at once and wasting time on things that aren’t important.

It’s about doing one thing at a time and giving that task all my focus. There’s a Japanese word for this: “ichigyo-zammai”, which means giving your full concentration to a single act.

We’re all guilty of spending too much time on social media and wasting time on things that aren’t important

I read an article a few years ago now – which I now can’t find – on this practice and its relevance in a hyperconnected, modern world. The author was visiting Japan and had noticed that even at supermarket checkouts there was a certain ceremony, both hands were used to exchange credit cards with little bows of respect.

Japanese shoppers are not yelling into their phones while dragging small children off each other, chucking items into bulging carrier bags and flinging plastic across the checkout. Well some of them probably are. But certainly I know which image I find more calming.

In his book the Beginner’s Mind, Sunryu Suzuki describes the practice as being fully in the moment.

“We just concentrate on the activity which we do in each moment,” he wrote. “When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat.”

So what does this have to do with a snowday I hear you ask? I guess it’s the ability to be adaptable when there is a sudden change of plans that throws off work and home schedules, but also that (still for me) elusive ability to drop everything else for a little while.

It’s not often children are able to play in the snow in this country, coming home to hot chocolate with happy flushed cheeks, fighting over who gets the best sledge, arranging to meet their friends on the slopes the next day, sleeping deeply after a day of fresh air and excitement.

So today I fought with myself, as I’m sure many working mothers do in these circumstances. What could wait? What could I wing so I could enjoy this unique day of fun and enjoyment?

I’ve ignored plenty of jobs, and it has been worth it. School is closed tomorrow and I am planning more of the same, with a brief respite when my ex arrives to take the girls out sledging.

Next week I will knuckle down, get the jobs done, hit those deadlines and maintain my gainful employment.

Until then it’s all about collecting icicles for the freezer (does anyone else’s children do this?), making snowmen, drinking our bodyweight in hot chocolate and sticking a pizza in the oven for tea.

Our weekend has started early and (while I’m aware of the wider travel chaos this cold snap as wrought across the country) I do find myself hoping the snow stays for a bit longer. Well until Sunday evening perhaps. God, please let school be open on Monday!

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For a blogging newbie I’m feeling extremely flattered and excited at my nomination for the Sunshine Blogger Award. A massive thank you to blog Cooking With Kids (move over Annabel Karmel!) for the recognition! I will thank you properly in my next post, answer your 11 questions and nominate my 11 favourite bloggers. Watch this space!

Viva the Mumsnet revolution

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My friend Hannah has decided to become an internet troll. What she means is that she’s going to wield her wit and fearsome way with words to hold politicians to task on everything from education and gender equality to energy saving and reducing sugar in our diets (she’s a dentist, so this last one’s a biggie).

And I pity anyone who gets in her way.

This is a woman who – while on holiday in Norwich – stood outside the city council building angrily snapping photos on her phone (her husband and children looking on), demanding to know why it was “lit up like a Christmas tree” at stupid o’clock at night.

Returning home she stumbled over a Tory leaflet that revealed it was pushing ahead with its plans to scrap the three-tier education system in Northumberland, even though the consultation on school reform has only just begun.

Cue the next round of angry emails. “Hell hath no fury like a middle-aged woman after a six-hour drive and no caffeine,” warns Hannah.

You’ve gotta love an activist mum. Say what you like about the Mumsnet brigade… these women get shit done.

Say what you like about the Mumsnet brigade… these women get shit done

What happens when you throw a group of highly-educated, under-utilised and fiercely-protective mothers together? You create everyday activists.

My faith in humanity was restored a little bit after I work up this morning to see that – thanks to the indignant mummies (and daddies) across Tynedale – a petition saying “no” to scrapping the three-tier school system in Northumberland has gained over 1,000 signatures.

This was mums doing what they do best in a crisis – sharing the fuck out of petitions in angry posts on Facebook and participating in rants on Whatsapp (most of us are a bit scared of Twitter).

Politicians, corporates and policymakers have come to know, respect and fear the power of Mumsnet, Netmums and other mummy warrior networking sites.

Politicians, corporates and policymakers have come to know, respect and fear the power of the cybermummies

Take Maclaren. It was condemned by Netmums, back in 2009, for recalling one million “hazardous” pushchairs in the US but leaving them on the market in the UK.

The suggestion that a buggy that was deemed unsafe for US tots was considered fine for UK toddlers had mums everywhere up in arms.

The founder of the Netmums website, Siobhan Freegard, said: “Mums are saying that the company is doing more for those in America because they are more likely to be sued over there.” Maclaren’s shareprice, brand and reputation all took a hit.

David Cameron, by contrast, had full respect for the power of cybermummies, signing up for a number of live webchats on Mumsnet.

In these forums he was asked about everything from his favourite biscuit and Cbeebies show to banking regulation and inheritance tax.

No-one does polite fury better than a middle-aged mummy. Actually scrap ‘polite’. We are women who shake our kids’ scooters at passing cars yelling at them to “slow the fuck down”.

We are women who shake our kids’ scooters at passing cars yelling at them to “slow the fuck down”

So the next time you see a gaggle of mums gossiping outside the school gates after drop-off, don’t assume they are talking about nice fluffy things like coffee mornings, baby weaning, tupperware or chick flicks.

In the immortal words of Dewey Finn (Jack Black’s character) from School of Rock, these women are too busy “sticking it to the man”.

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Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your stories about mummy activists

In sickness and mental health

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I was reminded today of the role that mental illness (and addictive behaviour) played in the breakdown of my marriage and the stressful, protracted and expensive divorce process that ensued.

As I mentioned in my last post, the divorce rate for marriages where the wife is the main breadwinner is 1 in 2. And all too often mental health plays a part.

Men who make less money than their wives are more likely to suffer from a range of physical and mental health issues

Men who make less money than their wives are more likely to suffer from a range of physical and mental health issues, according to a study from Rutgers University.

Certainly poor mental health, anger and addiction were all present in my marriage… and divorce.

My ex turned up this morning to take my youngest to her swimming lesson but stank of alcohol. I knew from WhatsApp that he hadn’t gone to bed until 2.30am. So at 10.30am I was not happy about him driving, and certainly not about letting him drive anywhere with our child in the car.

He wasn’t happy with my decision and slammed the door on his way out. But I had to put the safety of my child ahead of what he wanted.

How the legal process fuels resentment and anger

I knew divorce for us was never going to be easy. Some couples split and remain friends. They go through mediation and spend as little as £550 after amicably working through how best to split their assets and raise their children.

For the rest of us, mental health issues, addictions, personality disorders or just good old-fashioned anger and hurt make this impossible. And increasingly, the family courts exploit this.

As I wrote in my previous post, the average cost of a divorce in the UK is £70,000. And that’s excluding London, where it is nearly double that amount (an eye-watering £134, 525), according to legal firm Seddons.

Much of this (>£50k) is in lost assets (eg splitting property and pensions), but next is legal bills with divorcing couples typically spending between £17,000 and £30,000.

In my case, and we’re not done yet, the costs have already exceeded that amount. But I had little choice.

It is impossible to mediate when one or both divorcing partners are behaving unreasonably and/or lack a fundamental grip on reality. My ex walked out of mediation after less than an hour.

Why the ‘at fault’ process leads to conflict

When married couples decide to divorce “unreasonable behaviour” is usually cited, behaviour that is often linked to mental health issues and addiction.

However, the legal need to prove a spouse’s unreasonable behaviour fuels bad feeling between a couple, according to research by the Nuffield Foundation on behalf of National Family Mediation (NFM).

“Outdated laws that mean someone has to be proved at fault creates a bidding war which then often escalates to a full-blown courtroom battle,” says Jane Robey, NFM’s chief executive.

“This is a huge issue,” she continues. “Over 100,000 couples divorce each year. For each and every adult involved, let alone the children, the stress, time and expense involved is staggering.”

It is when mediation is clearly not an option that the costs really begin to stack up.

In my experience, solicitors fan the flames of discord and anger, sending messages back and forth that are designed to keep you warring (and paying).

In my experience, solicitors fan the flames of discord and anger

During our child arrangements battle the onus was on me to prove that my ex was an alcoholic, despite plenty of evidence – including his own admission to doctors – that he had been a heavy drinker for years.

This necessitated blood and hair strand tests and eventually, the fitting of a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor (SCRAM) bracelet. All costing thousands of pounds, with each set of evidence minimised and picked apart in court by my ex’s legal team.

In an effort to protect my children I fought for a Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) Section 7 safeguarding report (more on this another time), which again, added significant cost and prolonged the stressful and divisive legal process.

But it was all ultimately in vain. This is what I realise now, looking back. And I hear similar stories from other women (and some men) who have been through similar ordeals.

The fact is that unless your ex is a complete deadbeat the courts will push for a shared care arrangement every time. Under the Children Act the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

Failing children, failing mental health sufferers

The court services are also extremely stretched. Once they’ve ticked the necessary boxes, they just want to arrive at a non-contentious verdict and put the case to bed.

Which does nothing to resolve the underlying problems, to protect children who need protecting or force addicts and individuals suffering from depression and poor mental health to confront their demons and seek help.

I await the usual exchange of heated emails between divorce lawyers… followed by yet another extortionate close-out invoice

 

I’ve emailed my solicitor letting her know of my actions today and explaining that my children also smelt alcohol on their father’s breath. (It is testament to how badly they have been let down that I needed to explain to my 8-year-old that she must NEVER get into a car with her father if he smells like that).

I would contact Cafcass if I thought it would do any good. It won’t (more on this another time).

Beyond that there is little I can do. So I await the usual exchange of heated emails between divorce lawyers… followed by yet another extortionate close-out invoice at the end of the month.

Fathers in the hood

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The cutest video making the rounds on Fakebook this week is the Daddy Daughter Hair Factory. Set up by Phil Morgese and his daughter Emma, they organise hair workshops for fathers and daughters across the US and Netherlands.

In the video, Phil explains that the workshops are as much about learning a new skill – doing plaits and ponytails – as they are about bonding and providing good male role models.

“Gender roles — that’s just gonna have to go. Fatherhood’s evolving,” he says. “It’s more than just about bringing home the bacon.”

The mummy micro-managers

Increasingly, women are bringing home the bacon. This is the situation in nearly half of UK households, a trend that is expected to grow.

For mothers, this is a huge pressure, particularly in a society that has not kept up with these changes. For more on this, read my blog on the mental load.

But I do sometimes wonder if working mums are deliberately making their lives more difficult. Whether they are making a rod for their own backs.

If they are reluctant to let their husbands take on more responsibility when it comes to parenting and household jobs, because they don’t think their partners can handle it.

The book ‘When daddy did the washing’ is all about dad making a complete meal of it

In doing so, is it sometimes easier for dads to shrug their shoulders and just let us get on with it? Get on with all the juggling and wearing ourselves thin, safe in the knowledge that we probably wouldn’t accept their help if it was offered?

I have so many anecdotal stories. Stories that usually involve micromanaging, criticism and frustration on both sides.

There’s my friend who became a reluctant breadwinner when her husband was suddenly made redundant. She’d get home from work and be greeted by chaos and piles of dirty laundry… but the children were happy and cared for.

There’s the doctor who works long shifts but can’t (or won’t) step back and let her husband make even the smallest of decisions. He has to consult her on everything and is under constant scrutiny.

It’s every time we say a dad is “babysitting” his children. Or when we joke about daddy daycare.

I remember telling a friend that my ex was a stay-at-home parent and she laughed and called him a “manny”.

One of the books on my daughters’ book shelf – ‘When daddy did the washing’ – is all about dad making a complete meal of it while his wife is out doing “important things”.

He puts a red sock in with a white wash, dying everything pink in the process. The story has a happy ending as mummy loves her new pink skirt! But the underlying message is that daddy just doesn’t have a clue!

Learning to step back

It isn’t easy when you’re a high-achieving working mother, used to juggling a million different things, to step back and allow your children’s father to parent… and to do it in a way that may not meet your exacting standards.

This goes for grandparents as well. We might not want our kids getting all those treats, to be napping in the afternoon or watching too much TV, but we have to remember that they are doing us a favour!

More importantly, that our children are benefiting from time spent in their company. After all, nobody cares for your children as lovingly as devoted family members.

There is so much to be gained when we relinquish control. More time for ourselves, less stress and a lightness that comes with letting go.

Empowering fathers to father their children is good for men’s self esteem, offers better male role models for our children and brings that elusive and all-important balance to modern family life.

This has never been so important. The Modern Families Index (MFI) 2018 warns that the stress and strains of juggling work and home are causing more arguments (28%) between spouses.

A third of parents surveyed said they felt burnt out all or most of the time.

Flexible working and parental leave encourages dads to be more involved. MFI argues the creation of a properly-paid, standalone period of extended paternity leave is needed.

“Tackling gendered assumptions about who works and who cares is crucial to broadening parental choice,” it concludes.