Goodbye 2016

cheers-1443534Last year, the big man got all over excited about New Year’s resolutions; I wrote here about how all I could come up with was to carry on, just about, holding it together. 2016 had its high points, but the last few months have been pretty relentlessly rubbish. So I’ve got the inevitable long list of things to improve as we go into a new year which, surely, can only be better than the last one.

I’m going to forget about this long list though for the time being, and just focus on the ones that matter. So here are my two for January.

  1. Sort my shit out.

One of the many universal downsides of becoming an adult is the never-ending to-do list that steals your time. I like lists, and I like categorising, so I’d like to point out that actually there are multiple lists, and sub lists within those lists, organised by urgency and importance and tedium. They grew when I started work, and they exploded when the little man joined my life.

This resolution is about the list which I ignore. The secret one. The worm in the back of the skull that wakes me in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. On a daily basis, it matters less than the domestic list of food, laundry, tidying, or the work list of emails and management. But when this list matters, it really really matters.

I’m a grown up, and I can’t afford to let anything else steal my sleep. So this year must be the year that I finally, properly adult. Tax returns, life insurance, managing my bills properly. Sorting out the bag (yes, that well known filing system of an old Topshop bag) of paperwork into actual files. Stop letting/making the big man carry the burden of our financial management. Step up and grow up.

2. Look after myself

I had this as a sort of resolution last year. But it was too ambitious, and too aspirational. I was thinking of hobbies and spa days and long baths on my own. This year, I just mean to look after the basics.

I’m going to re-name this resolution “Think like the big man”. My husband isn’t a dick; he’s kind, he’s loving, and he pulls his weight. But if he gets a cold, he goes to bed for a day. If it’s his turn for a lie in, he stays in bed until I wake him with breakfast. He cycles to and from work every day, even though it eats up almost an extra hour. I ignored my December cold until it became an ear infection on Christmas Eve. I drag myself out of bed, full of guilt, an hour after the big man does, regardless of what he says. And I can’t perceive how I would fit in any sort of exercise into my day.

Nowhere on my husband’s news feed does it remind him of the importance of “me time”. Because he knows. He doesn’t call it anything so pathetic; he just believes that it’s his right to look after himself. So. Should. I.

Winter

tower-2101355_1920A woman coughs next to me. My nose is running. Lots of hats, no snow boots, just sensible shiny black shoes and commuting flats.

I didn’t see the little man yesterday. The big man took him out on the trains for the afternoon. He was laughing in the photographs. He was calling for daddy when I left the house this morning. He used to call for me.

I didn’t see the sun yesterday. I hear it was ineffective. I hear it was pretty.
I didn’t laugh yesterday. A customer story reduced me to tears of frustration. My team barely speaks. We’re discussing a Christmas meal in January. Nobody has the energy to organise it sooner.

I am dropping a day of work in January. I can fail to do a good job in 3 days just as successfully as I can fail to do it in 4. I can’t wait to have an extra day with the little man. I can’t wait for my career to stop stagnating and start the always inevitable steady decline instead. I hope the decline is quiet. I hope it’s calm. I’m letting the side down. I have been let down.

Juggling

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Last Thursday morning my boss asked how I was. I was exhausted. I’d been up until 3am with a vomiting toddler. The big man had put that toddler into nursery so I could start work early and leave early when the inevitable call came. Putting the little man into nursery was utterly wrong. But I have no cover at work. We can’t afford the big man to have another day off. We have no cover at home. So we dosed him up and sent him off. I was weighed down with exhaustion and overwhelming guilt.

I didn’t say this. I made light of it, but did say that I wasn’t ok. That I’d put a sick child into childcare. That I was hoping to get a few hours work in before having to pick him up.

My boss is a nice man. He has young children that he wants to see more of. He means well. But his work ethics are fucking ridiculous. And damaging: his response, as he went off to an off site leadership day was to ask what my plan for cover was if I had to leave early.

Of course that should have been part of the conversation. I’m committed and professional. But that was the only thing he said. He didn’t thank me for breaking nursery rules. He didn’t ask how I was. He asked me for a plan that he knew I didn’t have. He knew that because his team is chronically under resourced and drowning, and the only solution he can see is to work us harder.

I hadn’t realised how relentlessly difficult working part time with caring responsibilities is. I work for a progressive organisation. My colleagues have weird and wonderful work patterns. We have plenty of role models of working parents doing the school run and passionately talking about work life balance.

But it only takes one crappy manager, one period where you step up to handle an emergency, and never manage to step back down, to undermine all that. I left early that day. But I took the work with me. I logged on in the evening. I worried all weekend.

I’m furious that I’m feeling like this. I’m furious that I’m being told that I should apply for promotion; but there are no jobs that can be worked part time. I’m overworked and I’m angry. The language here matters again. I’m committed to my job; but there’s no acknowledgement of the personal cost of that commitment. I send my team home if I see them working too late. When they’re devastated at having made a mistake I comfort them. I don’t feel I have that support any more. It was all going well; and now it isn’t again. This rollercoaster is exhausting and unnecessary.

When the going gets tough

I’m having a tough few weeks in the office. There should be three people doing my job. Three middle-management, 40, 50 hours plus a week people juggling ludicrous deadlines and unreasonable requests. Instead there’s just me, working full time while being paid for part. There’s just me, discovering what a team looks like when it has been neglected for years. Seeing good people with their heads in their hands at the end of another thankless day. Providing dreadful advice full of holes; facing the embarrassment of being unable to defend my work, or, worse, that of my team.

After one particularly explosive day, culminating in a very public walk out and threat of HR reprisals, I sat on my own in a dark office. I’d missed bedtime again. My inbox was an unruly monster I had zero control over. And the explosion would inevitably lead to weeks and months of uncomfortable performance conversations and tortured management processes.

As I sat there, scrolling through photos of the little man, it was far too easy to revert to default instincts: “Fuck this shit, I’m getting out.” I’ve built a career on knowing when to get out. Knowing when a role will never, ever be ok. Cheerfully abandoning ship if something more promising comes along.

boxing-gloves-and-dumbells-1-1531474But, for the first time, I am different. I want this career. My workplace is full of dreadful management; incomprehensible processes; scared and aggressive people who hide behind these processes. It’s also full of brilliance. Of people so astonishingly good that I want to follow them round all day, riding those coat tails and making them tea just to be in their presence. And I’ve finally, finally found a core of self belief that’s harder to shake; I can do this. And I can do this well. I have to do this. If I can’t face the unpleasantness today, I won’t be able to face it next year, or in 10, 20 years time.

When the little man first came along, I couldn’t come to terms with what had happened to my life. At 6 weeks old he wouldn’t sleep for longer than 45 minutes, day or night. If somebody had given me a way out then, I think my exhausted soul would have abandoned everything I loved for the promise of a night’s sleep.

But nobody offered it. I, obviously, survived, as have millions of mothers before me and millions after. The little man has taken to licking my face instead of kissing it; and squealing with laughter when I shout “Ew, horrible boy!” We have hundreds of these little routines. Each one makes me happier than I have ever been.

Resilience is a buzz word at the moment. It sometimes feels like a cheap get-out clause for working us into the ground: let’s give them some training. If our staff were more robust they would be able to turn the shit we’ve given them into sparkling monuments.

For me, I think resilience is having this core to draw on. It’s understanding why I’m here. Why I choose to be here. It makes me schedule and attend the meeting that I know will make me sweat, and end in angry tears. It means the tears won’t be mine. It’s sleeping on the floor next to the cot when the little man has a fever; and being able to laugh the next morning when he throws breakfast at me.

In the middle of an angry performance discussion, when I take a deep breath, I’m in our big chair with the little man on my knee, reading about Thomas, making him giggle with ridiculous train voices.

In the middle of a supermarket tantrum, sweaty and red faced, I’m leading a meeting in my heels and clean blazer, persuading the great and the good that I can be responsible for millions of pounds.

During the darker times, motherhood has felt like nothing but a drain on every single resource I have. Now, some days, it’s a source of strength. All roads lead to that chair, and that little, giggling man.

Welcome, Autumn

I’ve been away for two, long, glorious weeks. This morning it was dark when I got up. First time this Autumn; I am scared of what this lack of light will do. I usually get excited by Autumn. I love the clothes of it, the cosines as the nights draw in, the excitement before Christmas. This year, I can’t seem to forget that all roads lead to February. I can’t forget that claustrophobic feeling of not being able to do anything, get anywhere without heavy layer upon heavy layer, struggling to see just a few minutes of daylight. 

But today is Autumn. I started the day with a 10 minute sun salutation: I feel strong. 2 weeks away has given me some much needed perspective. I want a promotion. I’m ready for a promotion; I deserve a promotion. I also want more time at home. I am lucky: there is a compromise that I can make to get me both. So today, I will start my search for a job share partner. Somebody newly promoted, or somebody hungry as me. It feels a little like I’m about to start blind dating; who I find will change how the next months and years look, how they feel.

I am luckier than lucky that this is an option. That I have role models and support systems who can help and advise me in how to do this.

I shouldn’t have to feel so lucky. I shouldn’t be looking at my the working mothers around me who are drowning. Simply, slowly, visibly, drowning, while their bosses look on, shake their heads and say “I told you so”. Big organisations who want to nurture talent are still only paying lip service to family friendly work. The mum blogs are full of lessons of how to break free of the corporate slog, go it alone and be happy. They are less full of how to get this corporate world to belong to us as well. 

So today, I will start making the most of being lucky. I will not think of grey February; I will buy a jewel coloured cosy knit and find my boots. I will start the search for the woman who will accompany me on this next stage of my work journey. She’s going to be awesome. 

Opening doors

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A colleague and I were chatting about our weekend, and he mentioned having had a rare night free night out with just his wife. My gut reaction was jealousy and “who did you get to babysit?” Then I realised that the last time we’d worked together was when the little man was no more than a tentative concept in a vague future – but my colleague had had two very young children at the time.

A few things struck me. The last time we’d worked together we were doing big, big jobs – his bigger than mine, and he was far more committed. I had nothing going on at home more pressing than a shopping habit and a holiday schedule: his youngest was the same age as the little man is now, and he had another boy, two years older. This makes him an utter hero. And a complete and utter idiot. No wonder he burnt out of the job within a year.

These past weeks I’ve been reflecting on who I am. On how having a child has completely changed my own sense of who I am. I existed for 32 years before becoming a mother: if I now had to pick only one wish it would be that I spend the rest of my life with this new title. But some days, my identity is definitely still catching up with this shift.

Back to this conversation. Before having the little man, I thought I “got it”. I had close friends and family with young children – I thought I understood what I was in for. I was a fucking idiot. I’m surprised nobody punched me in the face. I wouldn’t have understood how a single meal out to a mid-price, local restaurant with the love of your life could feel like utter luxury. I had absolutely no concept of how much your home life could have its tentacles wrapped around every decision you made.

Sometimes it’s easy to focus on what I’ve lost since the little man changed my life. But it’s opened up a whole new group of people that I can start to understand. It’s closed the door on some things – I can imagine, but not know, how it feels to be a 30 something, 40 something, 50 something without children, for whatever reason. I can envy and pity in equal measures; I can love my child-free, single friends; but I cannot know what their life is, any more than they can really know mine.

I was surprised today because of how much I liked this new knowledge. I’m always affectionate towards the younger, dumber me – she was a bit of a tool at times, but she was very earnest and kind. Today, I felt very affectionate towards the older, wiser, tireder me. And fuck me, she is tired.

Heigh-Ho, heigh-ho


It’s the end of a long, “If Carlsberg did bank holidays…” weekend. The sun came out again and again. We pottered by the river and taught the little man how to ride his scooter. I went for two jogs, both times running faster than the time before. After a shaky few weeks (months? Maybe months) the big man and I actually talked. And laughed and watched trashy movies and ate cake and ice cream and laughed some more.

Now I’m on the early morning underground, and I have the back to school blues. I start a new role today, which is making me nervous. And, if I’m being completely honest, a little disappointed – it’s a sideways move, when it’s about time I looked for an upwards one. I’m not dreading the office though. Grown up conversation that doesn’t eventually wind up back about the little man will be refreshing. I have a few coffees with friends booked in, and a new album on my phone.

There are lots of reasons that I went back to work after the little man. Some easy to justify, some so tightly wrapped up in my own sense of self that I don’t want to explore them in case something unravels. But if I stripped them all away, if I found a way to overcome all those reasons, what would keep me in the office is the loneliness of motherhood.

I expected maternity leave to be full of leisurely coffees and baby classes; new mum friends and cuddles and giggles. A lot of that happened. But parenting days are so long. So damn long. If you over schedule them, you end up with a fractious baby and debilitating mum guilt. So no matter how many “mum dates” you build in, there are long, long hours staring at this amazing thing you created, and wondering what the hell you’re doing. I don’t mind being alone; but I long for another adult to be next to me when the little man throws his dinner at the wall. When I run out of steam and halfway through the wheels on the bus can’t remember what I’m singing. Or where I am.

So that’s what I’m dreading this morning. The big man is going for drinks tonight, so the evening shift is mine alone. And it’ll be fine. In parts it’ll be lovely – the little man will tell me a hilarious story. And he’s free with his great big smacking kisses and strangling cuddles like never before. But it’s just better with somebody else there.

The logistics that make our days work depend on us as individual parents. I left the big man dragging himself out of bed this morning; he will get both himself and the little man ready alone until he hands over to nursery. I will pick him up alone; decide on dinner and baths and stories by myself. It’s fine: but the last four days have been much, much better than fine.

Single parents, I salute you. We don’t have access to the village that should raise a child; but it’s at least better with two.