Monthly Archives: September 2012

The working mother, week 1

I’ll tell you what astonishes me – how much quicker I can get out of the house without two children who slow me down with their inconsistent demands and illogical thinking. I have spent what I fear are hours trying to get the Raging Bull to understand that tights don’t function in the same way as leggings. She insists, though, on walking out of the house half naked. Normally this daily routine – she cries, I lose it – slows me down by about 2o minutes.

But, with the English Husband in charge of the kids in the morning, I walk out of the house to work on Day 2 feeling remarkably unencumbered. I am not holding three coats, a change of clothes, two bottles of water, a huge bag, an empty stroller, two umbrellas and someone’s toy monkey. I’m only holding my handbag. A miracle.

My feeling of lightness lasts about one minute. It dissipates the moment I see the bus pulling away from the stop. I spend the next 7 minutes staring at my watch and cursing the rain. Bad commuting memories come rushing back.

My life is full of these little contradictions. I am loving looking in the closet and wearing clothes I would normally reserve for a special night out. Some of these clothes have been worn so rarely I’ve almost forgotten why I bought them. I no longer have to fear that someone is going to come along with sticky fingers and smear my top with hummus (my default lunch staple for the kids).

Yet I feel a little sad that I’m never there in the morning when they eat breakfast. Or that I no longer hear the Raging Bull chant her refrain – ‘I want cheese’ – for the thousandth time before 11am. She could give Tibetan monks a run for their money, I tell you.

I love the novelty of adult conversation. I have discovered that people in the office listen to me and laugh at what I say. I don’t have to repeat myself ten times, wondering whether I have suddenly become invisible or mute. The kids have a remarkable ability to tune me out.

But around 3 o’clock – the hour when I would pick up the Chatterbox from school – I start pining for a bit of time with the mini terrors. I even start to get nostalgic about doing an art project with them. What has possessed me? A three-year-old with sharp scissors and a stick of glue can do more damage to a house than most hurricanes, and yet here I am, almost wishing for it.

This kind of reverie doesn’t last long. Within minutes of picking the kids up, it comes flooding back – exactly why I was desperate to get out of the house in the first place.

The worst thing about my new, responsible working life is that the minute I get home the REAL WORK starts. You know those days when you used to get home from the office and flop on the couch, fix yourself a bit of salad and finish it off with a big glass of wine. That’s OVER.

I get home now and it’s like the day ramps up a notch. The kids need their dinner. There’s nothing waiting in the fridge, naturally, because I never know more than five minutes ahead of time what these kids are going to eat. Then it’s the usual dinnertime disaster, with the kids getting up from the table several times to wander around the house mid-spoonful. Despite my six+ years experience in motherhood, I still don’t know how to get them to sit. I suppose there are always chains, but it does feel a bit cruel…

Then it’s the misery of bathtime and getting pajamas on before bed. Before I had children, I naively assumed that you told a child to put on his pajamas and, lo and behold, the child would do it. Ah, what an innocent I was back then. I laugh at the child I was. Everything takes three times longer than you think it should and normally there are a few threats and tears before the kids are ready for their storytime. I’ve blinked and it’s 8pm.

Then it’s our own dinner, our own dishes and several other chores before I can actually sit down and rest. By this time I’m literally ready to drop into bed and start the whole thing over again.

Some nights I don’t even have the energy for an evening drink – so I know that something is seriously askew with my body clock. I never say no to a drink. Ask the English Husband. But this week I’ve had less than my normal take-the-edge-off-my-day dose.

Today is Friday, though, and I feel like rewarding myself with two vodkas, some wine and good food. I have already indulged my shopping habit and bought myself a new sweater. And I have arranged a night out with a friend. And I have the money to pay for it! How will I manage with so much excitement? Yes, the perks of working life. I hope my eyelids don’t droop by 9pm. That’ll just spoil the fun.

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The return of gainful employment

We would all be happier if we were gainfully employed. This is the conclusion of Wikipedia, so who am I to argue? Apparently, work is only second to relationships as the most important determinant of quality of life. Ultimately, work gives us a sense of identity and purpose.

I suppose how you define ‘work’ is the question. Would you consider raising children ‘work’? I have felt that having children is probably some of the hardest work I have ever done and it definitely gives you a sense of purpose. But it has also negatively affected my sense of identity. I have lost touch with what it means to be me, doing something outside the house.

winter boot

I’m going from wearing something like this every day…

I can’t even remember the person who used to get dressed and go to work every day, armed with the belief that it would one day pay off (or at least pay the mortgage).

These days, getting dressed before 10am feels like an accomplishment. I squander time on inane conversations about the potty, putting clothes on/taking clothes off, brushing teeth, the potty, eating food, washing hair and the potty. I once said to the Chatterbox, in a moment of exasperation, ‘You know, I feel like a broken record sometimes.’ She looked at me confused and asked, ‘What is a broken record?’

I’ve also become an expert in bribery and human manipulation. I could probably lead an expedition through Africa, doling out bribes like some people give out pencils and pens to children in rural villages.

But my circumstances as a stay-at-home mother are about to change. Finally, after more than a year of searching for a job, I am going to return to the ranks of the working again.

office shoe

…to wearing a shoe more like this. Will my feet revolt?

On Monday it’s back to five days a week, on a three-month contract. It’s going to be a shock. People tell me that I will enjoy it. I think there will certainly be an element of that, but after so much time outside the office, I am a firm believer in getting the right balance. Five days a week doesn’t seem like much of a balance to me. I am trying to raise children who won’t turn into neurotic adults, blaming me during therapy sessions for never picking them up from school.

The Pew Research Center in the United States did a survey of working mothers in 2009. An overwhelming majority (67%) said they would like to work part time. Only 37% of working mothers wanted to work full time. According to the US Department of Labor, approximately 59% of women are in employment or actively seeking a job (as of 2009).

Attitudes to women working have also changed. A Pew Research Center survey found that, in 1987, 30% of Americans believed that women should return to their traditional role of staying at home and rearing children. Today, only 19% of American people believe this.

Yet going back to work full time and juggling family life feels like it might overwhelm me. Perhaps that’s why many women choose to make a compromise. They let their jobs and ambitions drift a little, to make room for life outside the workplace. I watched a documentary about working women which stated that 83% of men and only 17% of women reach the level of executive board at companies. Ironically, girls tend to do better academically.

I have no ambitions of trying to be some high-flying executive any more. That is definitely behind me. I still would like to make some contribution to the workplace. Here’s how it seems to stack up for me:

Stay at home (pros and cons):

  • I can lounge around in my pajamas until 11am (any later and I start to feel like A HUGE LOSER)
  • I can’t usually drink a cup of coffee uninterrupted first thing in the morning
  • I spend most of the day picking things up off the floor
  •  I will referree more fights than Muhammad Ali contested in his lifetime
  • I don’t really need to get out of slip-on shoes
  • I will freeze to death in the park for the umpteenth time this coming winter, cursing the swing, the see-saw and the slide for making my life misery
  • I’ll put the Raging Bull in the stroller and will get drenched with rain (this will happen eventually)
  • I’ll continue to feel dissatisfied about how much mental stimulation and adult company I have
  • I’ll continue spending money on frivolous things

Go to work (pros and cons)

  • I’ll need to be dressed by 7.30am, possibly in clothes that are more uncomfortable than fleece
  • I’ll be able to drink a cup of coffee first thing in the morning and sip it leisurely
  • I’ll spend most of the evenings picking stuff up off the floor
  • The only fights I’m likely to witness will be between people trying to get on crowded trains in the morning
  • My feet might hurt at the end of the day
  • I’ll never have to visit a park during the depths of winter (except at the weekend, which is bad enough)
  • I’ll be able to hold an umbrella if it rains
  • I’ll be able to use my brain (if it still functions normally) and talk to adults about things unrelated to children for several hours
  • I’m going to get paid money!

Are you a working mother? How does it stack up for you? I’d welcome any tips/comments/suggestions about how to get through the next few months without becoming a walking zombie.

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A married bachelor

The English Husband and I have spent an entire year apart, the result of living in two different countries. I wanted to move to the United States, he stayed in London. I returned to the UK in July and found that my husband had adopted some curious habits.

Habit no. 1: I discover this one as soon as I open the microwave. It was like the moment I stepped off the plane in India – it’s the odor of the country that hits you first. This odor was most definitely curry, stale curry to be precise. I also found congealed, unidentifiable food stuck/melted onto the microwave walls. You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to deduce that he has been microwaving ethnic food more than a couple of times a week.

Habit no. 2: He’s acquired a lot of men’s toiletries and lined them up neatly in the bathroom. Now, I’ll be honest here, I’d rather a vain man than one who walks around like he is still hunting and gathering food in 50 BC, a time when deodorant was still several thousand years off. But he had left very little room for my toiletries, which weigh about the same as a one-year-old baby. I wondered, ‘Is he staking this bathroom out as his own and leaving me to share the other bathroom with the kids?’

Habit no. 3: He’s thrown a lot of kitchen stuff away. When I question him about the missing lemon squeezer and muffin tray, for instance, he acts like I am speaking Mandarin. The implication is all too obvious: he hasn’t used any kitchen stuff and has probably thrown some of it out without bothering to ask me whether I might need it.

Habit no. 4: He’s thrown a lot of my stuff away. My handbags are gone. This is really like no. 3, but even more annoying. Sometime in the move from one place to another to another, my handbag collection has dwindled. ‘Where are they?’ I ask several times, trying to control the note of desperation. Well, it’s like asking the Pope if he prefers GQ or Playboy. I only get a blank look. Yes, it’s the deer-in-the-headlights look. I sense I’m getting nowhere.

Habit no. 5: There are some bizarre shows recorded on the television. I’m hazy on the exact titles, but this is a close approximation: The World’s Craziest Police Chases, Traffic Cops, The World’s Worst Car Crashes, The World’s Worst Prisons, Russell Brand Live, Peter Kay Live and Nothing To Declare (Australia version). He tries to persuade me that I will enjoy some of this, but I’d rather be staring at my emails on the laptop, which is what I usually do.

So, last night we have a battle about the television once again. Now that the Olympics are over, we are at a loss. We both feel bereft. He wants to watch Breaking Bad, season 4. I’ve yet to watch the third episode of season 1. ‘I’ll catch you up,’ he says. ‘It’s really not that difficult to follow.’ It’s like he’s doing me a favor.

We end up watching a few episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We are tourists in the TV equivalent of Switzerland, neutral territory.

The reality is that I desperately want to watch The Killing, an internationally acclaimed Danish series that first premiered in 2007. I’ve been wanting to watch it for years. There are quite a few things I’ve been wanting to do for years.

I seize my chance – the English Husband was out tonight. Yes! I have the whole sofa to myself. I can gulp wine without getting the ‘you’re not having another glass’ look. Should I be this happy about spending the night alone? If I’m to watch the whole series of The Killing – all 20 episodes – I’d need him to be out for the next three weeks consecutively.

It will never happen. I wonder if I can strike a deal: he gets to watch Breaking Bad while I watch The Killing. If only we weren’t so damn European and had two television sets, like a normal American household. (The average is actually three in the US, as I discovered while writing this post.) We’re in the television Dark Ages around here. At least, though, the English Husband doesn’t smell like he’s living in Medieval times.

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Book review: Nothing to Envy

I don’t often read non-fiction. I suspect it’s because I have always used books as a means of escape, in the same way some people watch soap operas. I like losing myself in a good story with memorable characters. Of course, what I am forgetting is that non-fiction can be just as good, even better, than anything an author can dream up.Nothing to Envy dust jacket

And so it is with Nothing to Envy, a non-fiction account of people who lived in North Korea and later defected. The story had me gripped from the beginning.

I am ashamed to say that my knowledge of North Korea is extremely limited. I know the country is plunged into darkness every evening because of a lack of electricity; I know it’s the last true Communist regime on the planet; I know it had a crazy dictator as head of state, who largely kept his citizens in a state of precarious poverty. When Kim Jong-il died recently, I was aware that he passed control of the country to his young son, of whom the world knows almost nothing.

The book is an eye-opener. It’s part love story, part history lesson and part tragedy. It’s also, ultimately, a story about the courage and resilience of ordinary human beings living in extraordinary circumstances.

In the 1990s famine took hold of North Korea, a country of 23 million. The collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s old ally, caused the creaky economy to totally disintegrate, plunging the country into ruin. Journalist Barbara Demick, who wrote Nothing to Envy after extensively interviewing North Koreans for the Los Angeles Times, estimates that between 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died as a result of starvation by 1998. The numbers are hard to verify because the North Korean government did not allow starvation to be stated as a cause of death.

Against this grim, desperate backdrop, Demick weaves the story of several people who lived through the worst of the famine and who eventually defected to China and South Korea despite threat of severe punishment. It’s incredible to read in detail how they survived in an oppressive and cruel regime.

It’s also astounding to learn how much these people were duped by their government and led to believe that they were living in the greatest country on earth. Because of the intense propaganda, many could not even dream of how different life could be just across the border in China. All of them were fed lies about how people lived in other parts of the world.

In one passage I am struck by how a young doctor, defecting to China, comes across a bowl of stale white rice and scraps of meat left on the ground of a farm. In her constant state of starvation, she cannot comprehend why the food is left unattended; she hasn’t seen white rice in years. It dawns on her that it’s for a dog. It’s then the harsh truth hits her – dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.

I am most drawn to the story of Mi-ran, a young teenager in the late 1980s, who would probably be about my age today. She falls in love with a boy outside her social class. Their love, were it to be discovered, would be forbidden and could have serious consequences. In the nine years they dated they did nothing more than hold hands. As close as they were – they would talk for hours when they could see each other, about twice a year – it’s a sad truth that not even they dared to confess their serious doubts to each other about the world they were living in.

How different life is for me. I was waiting for the bus the other day and the Chatterbox announces suddenly: ‘Mommy, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I thought I wanted to be a tube or a bus driver, but I might want to work in a zoo or be a vet or maybe I could be a doctor or a teacher.’ Mi-ran becomes a teacher in her twenties and watches as her students starve to death before her eyes.

I thought, how lucky it is that we live here, whether ‘here’ is the United States or the UK. As much as I get frustrated by modern life and running myself ragged every day, I am incredibly lucky and so is my child. She can dream about what she wants to be, even if she never realizes her ambitions. It takes an outstanding book like Nothing to Envy to make me realize how many children can’t even contemplate what we take for granted.

Does anyone have any more suggestions for non-fiction books worth reading?

I can recommend two more:

  • Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption (Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo)
  • If This Is A Man (Primo Levi)

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Back to school (update)

After my post yesterday about the difficulty of getting a primary school place in London, I have learned the following from the ITV News:

  • 800 children in the capital still have no primary school place as of today
  • 10,000 applications were turned in late to the local council for the school year
  • 6,000 more children applied for a reception place (equivalent to kindergarten) than the year before, bringing the total number of children needing a school place for their first year to 100,000
  • the shortage of school places in London (primary and secondary) will rise to 90,000 by 2016. The cost to meet the demand will be about £2.3bn in four years

In the news segment, one local council official blames the government for not giving them the money they need to build more facilities to meet the demands. The councils claim they are doing what they can with the money at their disposal. The government probably has a different view, not aired in the program.

These are the big headlines. But beneath these big headlines are people like me, who only want to find a decent local school for their child. Yesterday I blogged about how I didn’t get any of my preferred local schools (there were five of them), so I’ve been given a school a fair distance away with a below-par reputation.

Yesterday someone finally calls me back from this school – the one I didn’t even list on my application form – to ask me why I had been leaving messages for them. I explained the situation for the third time.

Turns out that the staff haven’t been around to deal with any of the potential admin problems that arose over the summer because they’ve been on break. No surprise there. What’s surprising is that they literally don’t return until the day before the new term starts.

The woman was very nice on the phone, but knew nothing about my child, didn’t even know the local council had offered us a place and was wading through ‘hundreds of emails’ to see if she could find something about it.

‘Oh yes, here we go, I think I found an email from someone at the council telling me about your child,’ she informs me after five minutes.

Why is the local council sending emails to people who aren’t around to deal with the problem? They clearly sent the email and washed their hands of it. The council – in this case Haringey – should take responsibility for this until people at the school can pick it up, preferably not the day before the new school term.  The lack of communication is incredulous. It takes a small problem such as this one to expose the utter shambles in local government.

Meanwhile, my child did go to her first day of school this morning. She was very thrown by it all and was in tears, clinging to me and begging me not to leave her. It’s the first time she’s acted this way on the first day of a school year. It would have probably helped if I’d been better able to prepare her for where she needed to go. Instead, I had to explain to her last night that we were sending her to this school last minute. I didn’t bother to add that we are still hoping she’ll be offered a better school closer to us.

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Back to school

September. It was one of those peerless late-summer days. The last week in London has been something of a damp disappointment, and I was thinking that this was it, Summer was packing up her bags and floaty dresses and heading further south to flirt with gentler climes. Today, though, the baby-blue sky was bottomless and there was warm sunshine. If I closed my eyes, I was back in California.

The only thing that was spoiling my enjoyment was the thought of going back to school. I dreaded every September for this reason, but this time it’s my six-year-old child who is going to have to negotiate the choppy waters of making new friends and trying to fit in. It’s her third school in three years and I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about all the moving around. I’m good at guilt – read this post to find out why.

Chatterbox with backpack

The Chatterbox on her first day of ‘big’ school, Sept 2010

I’m also fed up with the London school admissions process. To say it’s shambolic is to say that Kim Kardashian is an intellectual. In actual fact, the system seems to verge on the ridiculous. Here’s how it works in London:

  • you list your top schools – usually a total of six – on a form administered by the local council, which gives parents the illusion of choice
  • if you’re lucky you’ll get your top choice (meaning you are literally a stone’s throw from the school) or you live in a less-crowded part of London where there is a better choice of schools that aren’t full. As far as I’m aware, this doesn’t exist.
  • if you’re unlucky you won’t get any and you’ll be put on a waiting list for the schools you prefer; in the meantime, you might be given a school that could be miles from you. Generally, this school will have a medicore reputation or it will be in a rough area (usually it’s both), which is why it has places.

I’ve fallen into the last category. We were unlucky because we arrived in London in July and everyone who was on a waiting list got allocated their places back in May. So we have kind of ended up in no-man’s land. We got none of the choices we listed on the application form and were told that we could accept a school that was about 35 minutes away by foot (I don’t have a car). It also has a below-average reputation.

Meanwhile, the school five minutes from us by foot has an excellent reputation but is more full than a Baptist Church in the Deep South on a Sunday. We’re currently on the waiting list.

But it gets worse. School starts imminently and I’ve had nothing to inform me that my child has been placed on an admissions list for the school we didn’t even want. I call the school yesterday to try to figure out what’s going on.

‘Yes, my love, what is the child’s name?’ the receptionist asks.

I explain the situation carefully, devoid of emotion. We accepted a place at this school in early August but have heard nothing since. We don’t know whether she’s been allocated a place or not. School starts in two days and I don’t know whether to show up.

‘My love, the admin staff aren’t here today, but I’ll try to find someone who can call you.’

I don’t know whether the receptionist’s tactic of using terms of endearment is to keep me from shouting obscenities. I hang up.

No one calls back. Why would they? I call back again this morning, the day before school is due to start.

‘Oh yes, my love, I spoke to you yesterday. The admin person is now on a training course and our computer system is down. Maybe you should just show up tomorrow morning and speak to her in person.’

Helpful? Not really. In the meantime, what do I tell my child? You might be going to school tomorrow, you might not. You might have to walk into a classroom with a roomful of kids who already know each other. You might be the only one without a uniform.

I try not to get into the whole US vs UK thing too often, because I know it’s useless. This is a different country and it’s better to adjust than to complain. I feel like venting, though. In the United States I would not have had this problem. My mother works at a school in California and all the admin staff return the week before school starts, precisely because there are people like me, who move into a new area in the summer.

Last year when I moved to California in the middle of summer, the school admissions process was straightforward. The admin staff helped me wade through all the forms I needed to fill out before the first day.

How is it possible that, in the UK, no one shows up until the day of the new term and no one can tell you if your child has been given a place? Seems crazy to me. Is it too hard to show up a few days early or are budgets really stretched that tight? I don’t know. Forget trying to ask the local council. It’s like trying to get a straight answer about human-rights abuses from a ruthless dictatorship.

So I give up. I don’t think I will take my child to school on her first day. She will just have to cope with showing up sometime this week or maybe next week. I’m feeling reckless.

I’d be interested to know if anyone in London has had this experience with the admissions process to primary schools. Anyone care to vent frustrations?

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