You can have it all. It just might kill you…

Have you ever played that game where you imagine what your dream dinner party line up would be?

You know the one, where you can invite anyone you like to sit around ‘the table’. (A bit like a normal Saturday night must be for Amal Clooney.)

Well along with Lauren Graham, Bill Bryson, Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron (yes I know she’s dead) and Kirstie Allsopp, I’ve always thought mine would include Emma Thompson.

Because along with being brilliant, funny, just the right amount of bonkers and a great British export, she always comes across as nice, normal and someone who wouldn’t be above feeding crispy chicken dippers to screaming offspring.

But then a couple of years back she gave an interview where she spoke about the perils of trying to have it all as a mum. She talked about how hard it is to juggle career and being a parent, and how having it all at once might not be good for you.

What’s she on about?! I thought to myself.

Surely you should be flying the flag for working parents who are trying to have it all Emma, I muttered to myself. After all I’ve always thought of you as someone who does that.

I said the same to hubby who quickly became bored by the conversation…

Anyway, a while further down the parenting track, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Emma’s words were actually very wise ones.

You see I’ve spent the last two months trying to have it all and the plain fact is I’m bloody knackered, the laundry pile in the house is now so large that it is soon to be named a local landmark and quite simply it hasn’t brought me happiness. It’s made me, and most people around me, stressed.

I haven’t had the time in my life for all the little things I used to love, such as blogging, and what I’ve realised is that, at least for me, having it all at once has not been a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, going back into an office has definitely had its upsides. Tea rounds, office banter and child-free lunch hours being three of them.

But trying to manage full-time hours with other freelance writing jobs, the school run, seeing friends and family, trying to have quality time with Mini-me and Blue-eyed boy and all those little bits of ‘life admin’ that you have to do to keep things ticking over has been really hard.

Plus on top of everything else Blue-eyed boy is facing challenges of his own (more of which another time), and I need and want to be around to give him all the help and support he needs.

So the upshot is that I’m going back to freelancing – for the next couple of years at least.

When I realised that this was the only decision that made sense for us right now I couldn’t help feeling like a failure. After all so many parents juggle much more than I do on a daily basis, and they manage, so why couldn’t I?

Fortunately a very good friend was around to mop up a few tears and give me some more wise words.

‘You tried it, it didn’t work for you at the moment and so you’re making a change,’ she said. ‘At least you gave it a go, and that’s something to be proud of.’

A much better way of looking at it – and another thing this whole journey has reinforced for me.

Like most mums I really rely on my friends, and I’m lucky because they are a bloody brilliant group.

In fact Amal really should invite them over…

Life – with a side of fried brain

It’s been an age since I last blogged. One reason perhaps why I will never become one of these social media whizzes with tens of thousands of followers.

Another being that I’m a total technophobe who would probably be most at home using a typewriter…

It’s not because I haven’t had much to say either, after all there is a reason that hubby moans endlessly about the fact I don’t shut up. No, let’s just say that life has rather got in the way.

In the space of a couple of weeks I’ve stumbled across a job prospect while not actually looking, accepted a full time post back in the ‘real world’ of an office, packed up and moved house and realised that despite their protestations it will probably be weeks before our builders have, well, left the building.

Not that they’re not nice guys, I just don’t personally think foot long saws left lying around and clouds of choking dust mix too well with a two-year-old still rather unsteady on his feet.

And a four-year-old who is seemingly making a profession out of being a nosy parker and who will stop any actual building work getting done by chatting to the workmen all day long.

This all adds up to what I like to call fried brain syndrome. It’s something I’ve discovered since becoming a parent.

The best way to describe it is a gnawing sense of panic if you think further ahead than a few hours, or try to remember all the school activities you’ve got to pay for, fill out forms for, and find clothes for this week, or try to come up with a workable plan for this week’s copy deadlines.

I presume it’s something that people like Victoria Beckham and Kate Middleton don’t suffer from, probably because they pay a team of people to scramble their brains for them. And probably why their hair always looks good too.

Sadly fried brain syndrome doesn’t mix too well with being a bit of a control freak.

The good news is that, in between making tea rounds for people in my house and ensuring the ‘emergency biscuit supply’ is fully stocked, I have two weeks left to dig out some office appropriate outfits and generally get my act together.

Not having worked outside of my study and various coffee shops for five years I’m not really up on the etiquette of work wear any more. But from what I remember pyjama bottoms and furry socks don’t count as suitable attire?!

Better get on it then. If I remember…

Dishwasher-phobia

Hubby had an exciting announcement to make the other day. Brace yourselves, it’s really worth waiting for this one…

‘I don’t like doing ironing during the week,’ he informed me, during a ‘put-upon partner’ lament about his lack of work shirts and why more hadn’t been washed, hung up and basically draped over the ironing board for him in preparation for some steam-filled action in front of Sunday’s ‘must-watch’ football match.

This week it actually featured his own team too which makes a change. Of course they threw away a two goal lead, causing much muttering and gnashing of teeth, but what do you expect if you support West Ham?!

Don’t worry, I of course calmly explained that no one ‘likes’ ironing – even neat freaks such as myself – regardless of what day of the week it is.

The difference is of course that while men expect a gold medal, or at least some sort of badge of honour and a beer, if they help out with humdrum household tasks at weekends (or whenever) we harassed mums expect (and get) nothing in return for juggling a million different menial tasks a day.

It’s just assumed that when something needs rinsing, washing, fetching or filing we’ll do it. Yes that’s right because we’re female.

It’s the unwritten rule of family life that no one ever tells you. Your body has gone to wrack and ruin pushing out a few children, so now you get to celebrate by washing up for the next two decades!

Take this constantly manic freelance journalist and copywriter for example.

While hubby would never need factor sock washing, hoovering or doing the weekly supermarket shop into his working day, I’m just expected to do it. Yes that’s right, because I’m female.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s great at picking the odd thing up on his way home, but when it comes to all those little ‘invisible’ chores that keep family life ticking over, you guessed it it’s down to you. That’s right, because you’re female.

One of my best mum friends summed up the whole sorry scenario very well this week. Apparently her other half is suffering from a serious case of dishwasher-phobia. You’ve probably come across it – the chronic inability to put anything actually inside the machine, just in its vague vicinity.

Hubby does it with his clothes at night. They don’t get hung up, rather slung over the sofa. Clearly they plan to walk back to the wardrobe by themselves.

Now, as I said, I’m pretty lucky that hubby is a fairly ‘new-age man’ – in the sense that he chips in a lot of the time – but I do still wonder what would happen if I went on strike for a few days.

Would he realise that empty loo rolls need to actually be thrown away, and replaced, for example?

The trouble is that my fear of dirt and chaos means I’d crack within hours of course, which is his psychological warfare weapon.

But I’m still not ironing any bloody shirts…

Pondering on the politics of childcare

While I like to think I know what’s going on in the world I certainly wouldn’t call myself a ‘political animal’.

Although I do quite enjoy watching Question Time on a Thursday night – especially when someone like Kirstie Allsopp makes a guest appearance.

But with the General Election lumbering into view the issue of who and what to vote for is suddenly becoming more of a dilemma.

And after having been to the cinema to see Selma t’other night on a rare date outing with hubby, both of us agreed that abstaining just isn’t an option. Not when you consider what hardships other people went through just to be able to put a cross on a ballot paper.

Sorry this is all sounding rather serious isn’t it, but listening to a lively discussion about the soaring costs of childcare yesterday morning on Woman’s Hour (yes, am sad and ageing) only underlined for me that this could well be the issue that swings my vote.

As an ‘always under it’ working mum it constantly amazes me just how much stress, juggling and expense we have to go to in order to simply go about our daily profession.

Yes it’s a choice you make to go to back to work, but when you consider that the Government wants us to return to the daily grind but there’s been a whopping 27 per cent increase in childcare costs in the UK over the last five years (according to the Family and Childcare Trust) it’s no wonder that so many women are actually wondering whether it’s all really worth it.

Now I’m fortunate enough to love my job so much that sometimes I’d happily write for free, but let’s face it that’s just rubbish economics.

Plus when I spoke to a top educational psychologist a few years back for a feature on pre-schools, she insisted that sending your kids to some kind of formal day care setting before primary school is hugely beneficial to them developing good communication and negotiating skills and independence.

So frankly it should pay not only for you to work, if you want to that is, but also for them to go to nursery.

The worrying part about all this is that it’s Labour that has pledged to extend free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours per work.

Not worrying in the sense of supporting this policy you understand, but HUGELY concerning that this would mean actually voting for Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister.

This is after all a man who manages to look uneasy and a little surprised no matter what he’s doing and who, to be blunt, I wouldn’t trust to run a bath, never mind the country.

I mean come on, even Declan Donnelly says he can’t picture him as PM.

Have always had something of a crush on Dec. Hubby also used to get mistaken for him when he was younger and once fraudulently signed an autograph as Dec whilst on a cross channel ferry. I know, shocking behaviour!

Now he gets mistaken for Richard Hammond which massively irritates him and amuses the rest of us. Not that I’m going off on a tangent here or anything…

So getting back to the childcare issue, this is surely going to be one of the biggest factors in any or all of the parties winning women’s and family votes in 2015.

And what I’d like to know is which of them will really be putting the money where their mouth is…

Does anyone really work in their PJs?

At the end of last week I had one of those perfect ‘pick-me-up’ moments that are sadly becoming increasingly rare in the freelance feature writing game.

At least in my (recent) experience, when sometimes even actually getting paid for completed work can be an uphill struggle.

A lovely commissioning editor I work with emailed to let me know when an article I’d written for her magazine would be running and added that the editor apparently loved the piece I’d penned.

Isn’t it amazing how a two-line email can brighten your day?! And after a week when I’d been struck down by some dreaded virus from hell, making juggling work and the little people much trickier than usual, her timing couldn’t have been better.

Anyway all this, plus several days’ experience of trying to type cogent copy with a raging temperature and limited childcare, got me thinking about the big list of pros and cons that adds up to working from home.

It goes without saying that when you’ve always commuted to an office, the idea of running a business from inside your own house sounds incredibly indulgent. After all you don’t have to go out in the pouring rain and cold to get the bills paid, so just that fact alone should improve your quality of life, right?

Not to mention being able to get chores done at the same time, thus surely saving you time, having your fridge and Facebook on tap, plus the enviable ability to work in your grubby PJs without brushing your hair for two days, should you so wish.

This is certainly what I thought freelancing from home must be like – before actually taking the plunge into the self-employment game, with children.

And there certainly are big, BIG pros to ‘lap-topping’ your day away at the dining room table.

The inclement weather factor is certainly true, and that many means many fewer frizzy hair days too. A vain point maybe, but still worth considering (especially when you have hair like mine that looks permanently as if I have just inserted my finger in an electrical socket.)

Quickly ‘grabbing’ lunch is literally as easy as walking into the kitchen and slapping two slices of bread on a plate.

If not too busy I can catch up with a TV programme on planner without the soundtrack of mini-me asking a million questions, or the risk of me falling asleep on the sofa because it’s past 9pm.

I can even make a start on dinner so hubby and I actually get something of an evening after getting the rugrats to bed.

I’m not distracted by office gossip or chatting to colleagues or those meetings you have about other meetings, so my productivity level is bound to be higher.

And finally I don’t have to remember complicated hot drink orders for a large number of people.

Now for the cons:

On a lovely sunny day I often long for the chance to get out, but if snowed under with deadlines the only ‘outings’ factored in are nursery drop-off and pick-up related.

Sometimes it’s really nice, and necessary, to have a quick break from your desk, even if that’s only picking up a bite to eat. Sadly walking five metres to the next room really doesn’t count.

There’s no defined boundary between ‘work and play’ when you run a business from home, and that means you can feel guilty most of the time for doing other things when you should be working. Even when that’s folding laundry at 10pm on a Saturday night.

I often miss sparking off other people in an office environment – it’s hard to brainstorm with yourself after all! Joining a couple of Facebook groups with like-minded journos has really helped with this, but again you get the guilt factor when chatting over social media.

And being part of a tea round of one is rubbish!

I suppose what it comes down to is that home-based freelancing is like most things in life, on certain days you’ve got the world at your feet, and on others the grass is always greener on the other side.

I would like to point out that I’ve never yet stayed in dirty PJs for two days without brushing my hair. But I’m not ruling it out…

Smug Mums Incorporated

It’s been a rather stressful few weeks in the Neat Freak house.

A seemingly never-ending bout of illness finally culminated in a spell in hospital for blue-eyed boy, and although everything’s pretty much back to normal now it’s been a case of muddling along as best we can for a while.

My never-ending ‘to do’ list is now the length of a short novel and I’m actually getting genuinely scared of being eaten alive by the laundry pile.

Being a long-time convert to the philosophy that a tidy home equals a calmer, happier person, I think what I find hardest about being a parent – apart from the lack of personal space – is the lack of space in general.

The plethora of ‘toddler tat’ in our lounge often feels like my biggest bugbear, that and how my kids manage to leave their sticky fingerprints and footprints on everything. But hey, it goes with the territory.

What’s harder to admit is that sometimes I find it hard to remain serene in the face of mini-me emptying out every toy she owns. Or that I love the fact that she does cake making and potato printing at nursery so I don’t have to at home.

Personally I think the sanest thing you can do as a mum is to accept the fact that you’ll never be ‘perfect’, try not to feel guilty about the decisions you make and above all never forget to laugh at yourself – whether at home or in public.

After all being a good mum is many things, but it’s certainly not black and white.

So why do the smug mums brigade, Smug Mums Incorporated if you will, seem to feel it’s okay to look down their noses at the rest of us?

You know the type, the ones who wouldn’t know self-deprecation if it bit them on the arse and who recoil in horror at the thought of feeding their offspring anything that’s not locally sourced, organic and prepared from scratch.

Queen of the Smug Mums, or at least the celebrity face of the campaign, has to go to Gwyneth Paltrow, her of Goop, or as I prefer to call it Gloop fame.

You know that lifestyle website with ‘useful’ tips on the perfect capsule collection wardrobe, the importance of owning a black designer jumpsuit and hearty recipes. Chickpea soup anyone?

To be fair Gwyneth herself has waxed lyrical about how we mums don’t cut each other enough slack. But then she always goes and spoils it by dropping clangers such as how office jobs are easier if you’re a mum than being paid millions to make a film. Or how she only allows her children to watch TV if it’s in French or Spanish.

And while describing herself as a ‘working mom’ as she did recently at a political fundraiser – of course we all host these regularly where I’m from – might be technically correct, in reality she presumably has staff and nannies by the dozen on standby.

Oh Gwyneth if only instead of writing about the benefits of juice cleansing on Gloop you could recount that time when you broke wind in a baby sensory class and blamed your unfortunate offspring.

Or when you let your kids have cheese and a bag of maltesers for tea one night because you couldn’t get them to eat anything else.

Or when you stuck them upstairs for some ‘quiet time’ with the iPad so you could indulge in 30 minute’s uninterrupted trash TV.

We’d like you, and the other Smug Mums, so much more…

The thrill of the morning routine

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that those people who were always running late in their life before children, or LBC if you will, are not going to somehow magically change their ways on leaving the labour ward.

My other half and I have a long-held reputation for horrendously tardy behaviour and arriving at appointments, social engagements, coffee dates and even weddings red-faced from sprinting with literally seconds to spare.

We’re routinely the last people to arrive anywhere, have missed planes, only just made it to several funerals and on one memorable occasion tried to sneak in at the back at the nuptials of a close friend without realising the door we’d chosen would actually reveal our faux-pas to the entire congregation and result in a last-minute speech addition for the groom.

(That was eight years ago and the memory is still cringe-worthy!)

It’s not that we mean to be late. We always have good intentions, discuss when we should depart home  and build in extra time for ‘emergencies’ – now translated as nappy dramas, vomiting incidents and hunting for mini-me and blue-eyed boys’ comfort toys – but it never seems to go according to plan and we still end up rushing.

So it stands to reason that mornings in our house are not calm affairs.

Trying to get two small people to nursery and hubby to the station on time should be simple right? So why does it so often end in frayed tempers and raised voices?

As I work from home I could write in my PJs if I wanted to, but most freelancers I know actually find this rather depressing. Plus I’m quite often rushing to get somewhere myself so add to the mix me getting ready as well as packing everyone’s bags, making breakfast, brushing hair, cleaning teeth, finding shoes and it can often feel like I’ve run a marathon before sitting down to type.

(Not that I’ve run an actual marathon you understand – that would constitute some sort of miracle. And breathing apparatus.)

While it’s too soon to tell with blue-eyed boy, mini-me has definitely inherited her parents’ procrastinating tendencies. Whether it’s ‘approving’ an outfit or saying good morning to her brother it seems to take her an age to do anything before 9am.

I always try to remain calm while glancing with increasing anxiety at the clock, tell myself that getting agitated will achieve nothing, but by the fourth time of asking her to ‘please sit on the potty and do a wee’ the tone of my voice may have reached an octave higher.

Even bribing her with ‘special brioche’ – her favourite food in the world – doesn’t always work anymore. Oh no, mini-me likes to take her sweet time.

Now I have more selfless mummy friends who would happily forgo their own shower in order for their offspring to have a more leisurely start to the day, but I don’t claim to be one of them.

So until some other harassed parent invents some kind of all-natural yet highly effective toddler fast-forward supplement (unlikely!) morning rants in our house are probably here to stay.

And by the way has anyone seen bloody ‘Doggy’??!