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.

Nobody fancies a feminist

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In her speech today marking 100 years since (some) women gained the right to vote, Prime Minister Teresa May spoke of her concern that public debate was “coarsening”.

“It is online where some of the most troubling behaviour now occurs… As well as being places for empowering self-expression, online platforms can become places of intimidation and abuse,” she said, speaking in Manchester, the birthplace and home of famed suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

100 years ago, much of the anti-suffragette propaganda focused on depicting suffragettes as embittered spinsters.

In an effort to offset these attacks on their personal appearance (that sought to undermine their message) Suffragettes deliberately dressed femininely – in billowing skirts, large hats and striking jewellery. To remind everyone that they were still women, mothers, wives…

The #MeToo backlash begins

Trying to wind me up the other day, my boyfriend reminded me that “nobody fancies a feminist”. I had been ranting (I sometimes rant) about the awful behaviour at the Presidents Club annual fundraiser, revealed that day by the Financial Times.

At times I have wondered whether to tone down my twitter activity, particularly on my work account, for fear of coming across as a “feminazi”. But then I remember I’m self employed and think, fuck it.

Today, my father emailed me a copy of an article in The Times, “MeToo feminism is victim culture, not courage”, in which the “most recommended” comments, mostly contributed by men, described the #metoo movement as:

  • “Fickle and dangerous”
  • “Culture of victimhood”
  • “Attention-seeking”
  • “Opportunistic self-advertising”

These were on the whole the polite, educated criticisms of Middle England’s broadsheet readers.

I’ve seen far worse online. The suffragettes came up against cruel cartoons, but these days women who shout too loud are trolled on social media.

When broadcast journalist Cathy Newman attempted (unsuccessfully) to “out” Canadian Professor Jordan Peterson as an anti-PC dinosaur on Channel 4 news she was relentlessly attacked on Twitter by his alt-right supporters.

The attacks were so abusive and worrying the television network was forced to call in security specialists, and Peterson himself intervened, pleading for it to end.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott received almost half the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to last year’s bitterly-fought general election, according to Amnesty International. Among other things she was described as a “fat retarded black bitch”.

In her speech in Manchester today, Teresa May argued that online abuse is disproportionately targeted at female, minorities and LGBT people.

And writing in Huffington Post, Labour MP Harriet Harman observed that “misogynists now use the internet to threaten and abuse women under the cloak of digital anonymity”.

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The f-word

“If you voice feminist beliefs, people are going to call you lonely and undesirable, and ugly,” wrote Jennifer Wright, in Harpers Bizarre last year, after she had been a victim of trolling.

“They are going to tell you—in so many words—that no one could ever love you.”

She urged women to disregard it. Not to be silenced, or to self-censor, for fear of ending up alone.

“It’s a crazy dumb trick designed to make you shut up about wanting the world to be better for women.”

I for one am incredibly grateful to the suffragettes, to these brave women who fought for the right to vote 100 years ago. They endured imprisonment, torture and ridicule in the process.

I remember and honour them in remembering to exercise my right to vote, as should every other woman who is able. But while much has changed in the space of a century, the fight is not yet won and feminism – sadly – is still a dirty word in too many circles.

So this is 41

comic-girl-sleeping-bed-pop-art-illustration-78832051Life as a working mother can be so glamorous! And today, my birthday, has so far been no exception. It began at 5.30am when my youngest daughter (who was, as usual, sleeping in my bed) urgently announced she needed a wee.

Go on then, I grunted. But she couldn’t get the door open, and then the cat started attacking her feet (does anyone else’s cats do this?) and by the time she got back to bed she was wide awake and plotting.

“Mummy, it’s your birthday! We’re going to make you breakfast in bed!”

I begged her not to. I pleaded. “Please just go back to sleep. That’s all I want. Mummy is very old now and needs her sleep.”

We cuddled and I dozed, and while I wasn’t paying attention she’d managed to go and wake her sister up.

The next thing I knew there was lots of banging and clattering coming from downstairs. All the lights were on – including the very bright one on the landing. Sleep was clearly not going to be an option.

Meanwhile, having left the puppy gate open downstairs, there was now an exuberant and hungry cockapoo bounding around the bedrooms. Turns out he also had a full bladder.

The next couple of hours were a blur of cleaning up puppy wee, eating soggy cereal in bed and drinking black tea (the rest of the milk having been sloshed around the kitchen). Exhausted from their early start and busy birthday endeavours, my children had resumed doing what they do best, fighting with one another.

Somehow we made it to school and I kissed them goodbye, responding to half a dozen work emails as I walked home with the dogs. I realised I hadn’t brushed my hair and that my socks were pulled over my trousers.

Walking through the back door I was faced with the catastrophe that was my kitchen.

I went to make a cuppa before heading to my desk. Remembered there was no milk and opened the packet of gin-infused sweets my big sister had sent me instead.

Would I change any of it? No, I wouldn’t change a thing!

41 may be a bit of a slog, but those sweet cuddles, the look of anticipation on my daughters’ faces as I opened their gift and as they presented me with my breakfast are too precious for words.

Time to call time on marriage?

It’s probably not a surprise that I’m not a huge fan of marriage, given my recent acrimonious divorce, however it is well documented that men benefit more from wedlock than women.

The presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed”

Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, this is not the case for same-sex marriage where marriage is mutually beneficial for LGBT couples from physical and mental health perspective.

In heterosexual relationships, studies show that married men have lower rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than never-married men. Meanwhile, married women have higher rates.

Moreover, men live longer when they are married, while their wives’ longevity is impaired.

This is because the presence of a wife may bring benefits for men in terms of household management and healthcare, whereas women are “more likely to feel stressed and find their role restrictive and frustrating,” according to Dr Caterina Trevisan at the University of Padova, who also notes that when men die, their widows often bounce back.

This does beg the question, should women bother getting married? And increasingly, they are not.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics marriage rates for women have dropped from a high of 60.5 per 1,000 in 1972, to 20.9 in 2014 (I’m not sure why they don’t have more recent numbers).

Figure 1b_ Marriages rates for men and women, 1934 to 2014

There are many reasons out there for the decline in popularity of marriage, including the increasingly punitive costs involved in walking down the aisle (the current average cost of a wedding in the UK is £27k, according to hitched.co.uk).

Another driver of the decline in matrimony is women deliberately choosing not to marry.

“We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry,” explains Rebecca Traister in her book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

Where this leaves men is rather more worrying, according to The Good Men Project. Women are more likely to reach out for help when they need it and to maintain their support networks.

For men, their wife is usually their sole best friend. Moreover, men don’t tend to share with other men, certainly not on the same emotional level that women do.

“As men feel unable to meet women’s needs for economic, emotional, and social support, they feel more inadequate and distance themselves even more, often escaping into pornography, increased alcohol consumption, and compulsive work habits,” writes Dr Jed Diamond, author of The Enlightened Marriage.

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Choosing a marriage of equals

The decision not to marry is a bold one for women to take, but a decision that could result in them living longer, happier and healthier lives. But for those who do want to publicly commit to their partners, there is the option to choose a marriage of equals.

When I married my ex in 2008 I’ll admit to being carried away by the romance of it all and pushing most of my feminist ideals to one side.

However, even then I saw little point in changing what was a perfectly good name, one that I’d had all my life, and questioned why I should be “given away” by my father as if I was simply a man’s property.

Some women say they take their husband’s name because they want the same surname as their children. But if marriage is losing its appeal, perhaps children should start taking their mother’s surnames? But that’s a discussion for another day…

 

Shouldering the mental load

Since I split from my husband, my “happily married” friends seem more willing to share their frustrations about their husbands with me. I suspect they don’t feel the need to pretend their relationship is all rainbows and unicorns with someone whose marriage has failed and isn’t going to judge them.

So recently I’ve noticed these stories slipping out. Most have a similar flavour and speak to a deep, underlying dissatisfaction with the division of labour in many modern marriages.

They involve husbands not identifying (or choosing not to identify) when they need to step in and share the load… until it is too late and their wives are royally fucked off.

Husbands or partners needing to be told to entertain their children/bring in the shopping/get the dinner ready suggests these roles are still considered to be a woman’s domain. Even when both partners are working.

 

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Working mothers continue to shoulder more than their fair share of the “mental load” (described brilliantly here by French cartoonist Emma, illustrator of the above image), according to the Modern Family Index, a study commissioned by Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

And these household responsibilities only increase when it’s the woman bringing home the dough, with breadwinning mothers:

  • Three times more likely than breadwinning fathers to be keepers of their children’s schedules and responsible for them getting to activities and appointments (76% vs. 22%)
  • Three times more likely to volunteer at school (63% vs. 19%)
  • Twice as likely to make sure all family responsibilities are handled (71% vs. 38%).

It’s the little things that seem to add to women’s mental load, things that we often don’t even question doing: organising play dates and activities, packing school bags, buying gifts, organising holidays, sorting through clothes drawers. Even trimming fingernails and toenails (which is more challenging than it sounds) and regular bathing.

Much of the most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well

 

Even though my ex is more liberated and hands-on than many men I know in my circle, post-split I continue to feel unfairly lumbered. However, life is much easier now we have a shared care arrangement and both children are in school.

I don’t miss the daily grind of jumping straight from my home office desk into homework/meals/bedtime routine with barely a pause for breath. I did all this partly out of a sense of duty, a smidge of working mummy guilt and because once my working day was over, my ex assumed I would step in and relieve him.

After all, he’d had a busy day attending toddler groups, drinking coffee and chatting to other parents. Well that is how it felt, if I’m being brutally honest. It felt as though as the “stay-at-home parent” he had cherry-picked all the best parts of raising our little darlings, while I was left to do the grunt work… after I’d paid the bills and spent half the night breastfeeding!

Overhauling outdated stereotypes

I don’t have all the answers for how to overcome these issues. However, I have stopped trying to be superwoman and learnt how to ask for help. I pay a cleaner to come once a week, do my supermarket shopping via an app on my phone, never iron any clothes and (shock horror) sometimes send the girls off to school in the pinafore they had on the day before and shoes that haven’t been polished.

I prioritise and communicate. I’m learning a few mummy “hacks”, I cut every corner possible and empower my children to do simple chores themselves (although I am not beyond yelling at them to open their mouths whilst I frantically swish the toothbrush around before pushing them out the door to go to school).

I make fish fingers for tea, rather than something more ambitious/nutritious that my children will turn their noses up at. The school makes excellent cooked meals for their lunch so a straightforward, crowd-pleaser at dinner time is fine.

Ours unfortunately is a pioneering generation and hence, it is our marriages being put to the test. Not that this is an excuse for the dinosaurs out there. Working fathers need to step up to the plate, and parents raising boys need to teach them (through doing) that men and women are equally responsible for running a household.

Change is also needed in the workplace. The Modern Family Index blames outdated workplace cultures and stereotypes for failing to keep up with women’s professional strides. It suggests employers could do their part to ease the load.

“The fact is that for most employers, much of their most valuable talent in the workplace is playing double duty as manager of family life as well,” notes Bright Horizons CHRO Maribeth Bearfield.

“By creating environments where men are encouraged and valued for taking advantage of work/life supports as well, workplaces can start to catch up with the culture this generation of working families demands.”

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