Thursday, 30 March 2017

What's my job ? Oh, I'm a mum.

On Monday evening I went to an event hosted by Mumsnet in conjunction with Boots No.7 about returning to work with confidence. The panel discussion was interesting as we heard from women from a range of careers including a high level fund manager, a model and a fashion writer. Each of them had taken a break to have a baby with varying levels of financial support and each had to negotiate a return to work taking into account their childcare needs.

It may sound naive, but I hadn't appreciated that so many of us have the same issues with employment. I worked for over 20 years before I fell pregnant with Brown Bear and the prospect of maternity leave was both enticing (a break from work - how little I knew !) and terrifying. What would I return to ? Would I even have a job to go back to ? As it happens I took the full year of leave and when I did return to work I made the decision to take voluntary redundancy and stay at home with my son for longer. I don't for a minute regret that decsion and I am so lucky that I was able to do this, so many mums aren't able to stay at home if they want to. I knew going back into work would be difficult, but I had no idea how much or why.

I've written before about the Motherhood penalty and the Fatherhood bonus. It's a phenomenon that's been studied by academics specialising in gender studies where women who have children find their careers suffer whereas men who do the same are actually rewarded with promotion, pay rises and even flexibility in work patterns. This is not the case for everyone by any means, but I am feeling how real this is right now. Before I had children I earned a very decent salary, had status and responsibility. I was able to pay my own way and to enjoy holidays and to buy things as I wanted. I now earn nothing at all, my status is defined by my children and I don't have the independence to spend money as I could before. I'm not suffering by any means. This isn't a 'poor me' diatribe. It's more frustration at the difficulty I now face in securing employment now I am a parent.

Once Brown Bear started at school I was working in a job I really enjoyed with responsibility and a decent salary. It was a maternity cover, but I hoped it would be a springboard to a career change for me. Instead we found out that we had been matched with Blue Bear and I found myself once again taking leave from work to raise a child. I didn't qualify for adoption leave or adoption pay - I missed out by a few weeks, but there you go. It was the right thing to do and again I'm so glad I did stay with him as it's made such a difference to how well he's settled into the family. My commitment to my children and my family overall is what has kept me going through a period where I have slowly depleted my resources, grown older and become more detached from the working world.

Listening to the panellists on Monday evening I was inspired to try again to get back into work and not to apologise for being a Mum. In the past I've found myself taking on far more hours than I can comfortably manage and neglecting my family as a result. I no longer want to put my sons into breakfast club and creche just so I can work. With so many women in the workplace surely employers can meet us in the middle and make the most of our skills and experience ?

Another topic that was covered by the panel was the concept of asking Hubbie (or whoever is your significant other) for help instead of it being a shared responsibilty from day one. When I went to work we discussed how to make it work. After a few months of being miserable, tired, overworked and feeling like a failure I talked to Hubbie and he suggested a different way of working where he and I shared the childcare. It made such a big difference. We were fortunate that his employer was willing to accommodate our needs, but I am now not so timid to ask for his assistance when I need it. I used to treat his job as having hallowed status and put my own needs last.

Following the panel discussion I had a mini makeover with lovely Rachael from No.7. I talked to her about my love of Boots No.7 and in over 20 years my skin has changed but my skincare routine hasn't. We're told appearance isn't the be all and end all, but it's all part of the armour of going out of the house and being someone other than mum for a while. I left the event with lovely make up on and a confidence that I will be able to go back into the workplace on my terms.

Being a mum is a huge part of who I am now, but it's not all I am or all I can do.

Take it away Dolly.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Two years, two boys, two days.

29th March 2015

"Day 3 of introductions:

We came to pick you up today and you were very funny and sleepy. We got you ready and gave you breakfast then put you in the car seat and to come home to play with Brown Bear. You looked out of the window at what was going on and when we arrived at home Brown Bear was waiting at the door calling you to come in.

You were a bit shy at first, but you soon started exploring the rooms and playing with toys. You like banging things and pushing cars around. We brought some of your toys with us from the foster carers' house. We all ate soup for lunch and you were very good. You were a bit upset and tired in the afternoon and Brown Bear cried because he didn't want you to leave us. You fell asleep in the car and you were snoozing on my shoulder when we dropped you back with your carers.

We missed you this afternoon and when Brown Bear woke up he asked, "where's Blue Bear ?" We can't wait to see you again, I'm still frightened that you're not going to love me, but you do like Daddy and Brown Bear."

28th March 2017:

At 5am you cried out calling, "Mummy !" I went in to see you and your eyes were still closed. I stroked your head and kissed you. I whispered, "Mummy's here, it's ok baby."  You took a deep breath and went back to sleep until the morning.

Brown Bear: "Mummy, I want to hold Blue Bear's hand walking to school."
Blue Bear: "Mummy, me hold baba's hand walk to school."
Me: "Ok, you can both hold hands, just wait for me to help you cross the road please."

the school run

My boys - My heart - My love - My family

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Breakfast in bed and other fantasies

In what can only be a ridiculous trick of fate it's mothering sunday tomorrow and also the day that the clocks go forward for daylight saving. So I get to enjoy an hour less sleep before 'my day.' Of course it's not strictly mine. I'm not greedy and I do realise that I share it with other mothers, grandmothers, carers and special people. Last weekend we took mother in law out for lunch to celebrate with her and tomorrow Hubbie is taking the bears to visit my mum so she can spend it with her grandchildren. We like to spoil the mums and seeing the boys makes them happy so that's two for one right there. 

Movie night with my boy 

On Friday evening me and Brown Bear held our inaugural movie night with popcorn, marshmallows, big drinks and the Empire Strikes Back. I wanted to do something with just him and me and I hope to make it a regular thing. It's little things like this that I love to do and it doesn't have to be on a special day. The other weekend we made indian food together and he tried a few dishes he's never eaten before. You see this is what I like to do with my kids and I'd rather do that on any day than make a fuss on one day of the year. I don't need the album full of terrible ballads that's released for mothering sunday, or a bouquet at an inflated cost and with a high quotient of pink and purple flowers in it. 

For the last week or so the boys have been making gifts at school and nursery and Brown Bear has already given me two cards in advance. He's terrible at keeping secrets and can't stop himself giving things away which is so sweet. Blue Bear is pretty oblivious to it really, but he's going to do whatever his brother does so I expect a hilarious double act to ensue. 

So what am I doing tomorrow ? I'd like to wake up in newly changed sheets, but that means I have to do them tonight. I'd like breakfast in bed, so I've bought everything I like so that it's already in the house and all they have to do is assemble it. Then I'm spending the day at a yoga workshop with fellow graduates of the school where I trained to teach. I will spend the morning with my boys - of course - but for 'my day' I want to do something just for me. This way I don't have to be on my best behaviour for my boys, I can relax and be a grown up with other grown ups and they can brighten someone else's day instead. I'm doing this my way. I'm mum every day so I think I can have one day when I'm off the clock. Also, considering that I'll be getting one hour fewer I don't want to squander it telling them not to argue or asking them to put socks on. 

I will also be thinking of those who will not be celebrating tomorrow and for whom mothering sunday may be a sad or difficult day. 

Right, I've got to get an early night !!

Monday, 20 March 2017

New Horizons and positive futures for young people.

As *Farah talks about her family threatening to kill her and the out of control drinking that has stopped her from achieving her ambitions her stunning smile remains. When talking about her drinking with friends she apologises for an accidental swear word and we laugh until she also mentions the self harm and violence that ensued. Farah's face is perfectly made up and we are mesmerised by her precise eyeliner and smooth skin. When she tells us she is hoping to start a successful beauty business we all admire what a superb advert she is for her own skills. It's only when she mentions the serious sexual assault for which her attackers were not punished that her eyes are downcast and she admits that whenever she's talked about it before she's cried. Today I feel the skin on my face tighten and my eyes prickle as I hold back the tears that are desperately close to cascading at how honest and brave she has been in telling us about her life.

Hazz pictured with fellow bloggers: Liz, Penny, Afra and Marissa.
Farah has just come out of a women's group session at New Horizons Youth Centre in North London. She has attended the centre for over a year having first come with a friend who needed to use their services. Now she is a regular here and the women's support worker Hazz - who is funded by Comic Relief - tells us that at times Farah has sought reassurance that people believe her because surely the case would not have been dropped if they didn't think she was lying. It is so unfair and difficult to explain why a lack of evidence can lead to her attackers walking free when she still carries it around with her. Without New Horizons Farah would still be in a spiral of self harm and drinking that has led to unsafe behaviour and robbed her of every opportunity that has come her way so far. The aftermath of the assault and the lack of justice could have sent her back to drink, but with the one to one and group support offered at the centre she is able to open up and share her experiences instead.

The New Horizons Youth Centre offers a non-judgemental place for young people where they can eat a meal, do laundry, talk to support workers if they want to and hang out with peers. On the afternoon we visited one young man was doing a magic trick in the lounge area involving a playing card and an orange. The reaction he got was fantastic and would honestly give Dynamo a run for his money !

A friendly face at reception is vital to reassure young people they are safe.

We observed the women's group session in progress and noted the empty Haribo and Monster Munch packets on the table as the women took nail varnish bottles out of colourful make up bags. While they painted nails Hazz asked them questions ranging from light hearted to deep and emotional. At one point a woman was talking about wanting to wear a sari then another described how drinking made her feel 'invincible.' It's this approach that makes the women feel safe and it's takes skill and sensitivity to work as effectively as it does. It made me smile when they talked about a future session being Bollywood themed and one of the young women softly enquired, "we can still have Monster Munch right ?" It is so disarming to be reminded that however mature they appear these women are still so childlike.

Later we talk to the young women who facilitated this afternoon's session, *Polly and *Lucy. They are users of the centre and when asked where they'd be if they weren't here Lucy answers that she'd be on the streets or doing drugs. At one point she was coming to New Horizons every day and it was her stabliity in a life where she had none. Now she has a timetable and attends on specific days to give her a chance to develop other interests and she is feeling confident about seeking work. Both talk to us about how the centre staff are more like family to them than their actual families. This is an aspect of the work here that cannot be measured, but clearly is a major contributor to improving the lives of the young people who come here.

picture cards to help young people communicate when they arrive 

Any young person can access support from New Horizons, especially those who fall through the cracks. The young people who the local authority cannot help or who have moved from elsewhere in the country and therefore are not entitled to housing. They will be supported until the age of 22, but are not entirely cut off at this point. A worker will help them work towards independence from New Horizons so that they are not just left with no support once they turn 22.

In the years I've been fundraising with Team Honk I've been proud knowing that we're raising money for great causes both overseas and in the UK. It's wonderful to see first hand how the UK grants are being used to make such a profound difference to the lives of young people who would otherwise be left in difficult or harmful situations. One thing that really struck a chord with me was that all the young people we met have family relationships that have broken down. They do not have the safety net of support that my children do if anything goes wrong. As we left the centre I looked at the young men and women standing outside smoking just before it closed for the day. To a casual observer they seem just like anyone else. The best thing we can achieve by supporting projects like New Horizon is to instil in these young people the belief that they deserve the same chances as anyone else. I am grateful that New Horizons exists for vulnerable young people and has done for 50 years.

We are raising money again this year to support Red Nose Day and Comic Relief.
If you could donate any money it would be absolutely wonderful.
Thank you:

Thank you to Ali at Comic Relief and Stella at New Horizons for making this visit possible. Special thanks to all the staff and young people we met and talked to on our visit. You are all amazing. 

*The names of all the young women have been changed to respect their privacy.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The importance of being parents.

In the last 24 hours I've seen this article posted on both Facebook and Whatsapp. It's an article by 'parenting guru' John Rosemond - a family psychologist who has written a lot of parenting guides and encourages raising 'obedient children.' This article is an attempt to rethink how we place children in the role of the most important members of our family. Rosemond argues that parents are the  important ones who keep children safe and without whom there would be no family at all. When I first read it I felt quite sad as it reminded me of how I was parented. As children we had low to no status in the family and respect was conferred on elders regardless of whether or not they deserved it. As a result I parent my children more with consent than enforcement. It is not easy. At times I would prefer it if I just told them to do something and they did it, however, I'm not like that. It means I get frustrated at repeating myself, but it also means I get to enjoy my boys' hilarious personalities too. 

I'm not especially confident in my parenting. I am, however, the mum they have and I have to trust that what I'm doing is the best I can. I don't always get it right, but I am human. If I could read a manual to make them behave better would I ? Hmm, I'm not sure really. There is a lot to be said for giving my children space to have feelings, to get angry, to be stubborn, to be happy and most of all to love others.

This is all on my mind at the moment because today I visited a project for vulnerable young people and it saddened me to hear how many of them no longer talk to their families. Yesterday morning Brown Bear told me he will visit me when he is older. I said, "but you're going to live with me forever aren't you ?" He smiled at me in a pitying way and said, "No Mummy, I can't always live with you, but I will visit you every week. " I'll take that.

The other reason it's on my mind is because in the run up to Mother's Day I'm aware that some people can't or won't be with their mothers. In a society where we claim to hold mothers in such high regard why is it reduced to mugs with twee phrases on and overpriced boxes of chocolate ? The other morning Brown Bear left his bowl on the table after breakfast so I said, "Your butler isn't here today." "What's a but Mummy ?" "A butler is someone who does what your mother does, only they get paid for it." Still I'm looking forward to breakfast in bed, a box of lemon only fondant fancies and a day out without my children. I think Rosemond would appove.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Honk if you wanna go faster !

This year has already been one of fundraising firsts. I spent February sugar free to raise money for Cancer Research UK - surprisingly no one was harmed in my sugar-free state. Well actually my macbook was on the receiving end of an errant cup of tea, but so far is appears to have survived any long term harm. I figured that as it's the shortest month it would be the best one to do something as radical as give up sugar and I managed it. Ok, there were a couple of notable exceptions - I did have a dessert on Valentine's Day and on the last day of February I had a pancake with sugar and lemon on it. Otherwise I did pretty well and I think it's given me an appreciation of how much sugar I was eating and how little I really need it. 

As if I wasn't a sucker enough for punishment I'm taking part in Dechox this month. Yep, I'm staying off the chocolate for a whole month longer to raise funds for the British Heart Foundation. At least at the end of this it's Easter so I can indulge, but from past experience the anticipation of chocolate far exceeds the need for it once the deprivation ends.

I put on my Comic Relief face on the train 

You will probably have seen by now that I spent yesterday in the company of fellow Team Honkers and we walked ten miles around London wearing Red Nose themed outfits and preparing meals at each stop. This annual fundraiser is for Comic Relief and this year we called it The Honk Line - I've been calling it Honk The Line Johnny Cash style all this time. 

A much needed cuppa and a borrowed tutu 

First up we met up in Highgate and had breakfast in Waterlow Park - just as we were about to leave we bumped into Jamie Oliver with this wife Jools and their kids. He kindly agreed to a photo with a gaggle of overexcited people in red nose day gear. (If you don't believe me check out my twitter feed).

The firepod 

The idea of preparing food at each stop was taken up with gusto by the lovely team at Firepod and they carried this amazing bit of kit around with us for the whole day. When we stopped for lunch they made us fresh and delicious pizzas to eat. 

Red Nose pizza 

Our final meal stop was afternoon tea at Lincoln's Inn Fields. We were all pretty tired by this point and needed the sit down. There were lots of people and dogs in the park enjoying the sunshine and a police helicopter overhead for a bit of local colour. Getting back up to do the final leg was not appealing in the slightest. Not least as my feet were really aching by this point and even today I'm feeling pain in my ankles. In total I walked ten miles and came home for a hot bath. I had hoped for breakfast in bed this morning, but for once the boys didn't wake up at 6am ready to rumble. 

It's not a tea party without a mad hatter 

Ok, so it was tiring and all that, but the point of it all was to raise money so here's as link to my fundraising page: As a team we've already raised almost £3,000 and with more events to come next weekend with Come Honk With Me we hope to exceed our past efforts. Your generosity really will help to make a world of difference to people living unimaginably tough lives. Thank you.

Red Nose Day is actually on Friday 24th March and it's going to be fantastic. I'm thinking of going to this - a crafternoon sounds wonderful doesn't it ?

Of course as this is me it doesn't end here - this walk was mere training for the 26.2 mile Moonwalk in May - I'll keep you posted... 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

How do I talk to my son about International Women's Day ?

This morning at breakfast I talked to my six year old son about International Women's Day. It told him that in some parts of the world girls don't get to go to school. He looked shocked. "I'm glad we live here and everyone can go to school." We also talked about how some women aren't allowed to vote or drive. I left it at that for now. I mean I want to raise considerate men who understand equality, but I don't want to traumatise my children by telling them the whole story just yet.

That women routinely earn less than men. Women earn less for the same work. Routinely. Oh and if you have children there is a motherhood penalty and a fatherhood bonus. I'm not making this up - academics have studied the phenomenon and it's absolutely true.

I still haven't worked out how to explain why women including Michelle Obama and the Williams sisters are described in openly racist terms or criticised as being too 'masculine' for not conforming to a petite blonde stereotype. Don't even get me started on how women in politics are treated in this country. It is inevitable that my boys will become familiar with the fact of life that women are threatened and abused online for speaking out. Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips have been very honest about the level of abuse that is directed at them on a daily basis.

In some countries women aren't allowed to drive or vote. Ok, so I mentioned this to him, but I didn't talk about the fact that women 'belong' to men and are treated as inferior. When he is older I hope he will be as outraged by this as I am. Mind you one of the best things about today has been the reminder that there exists this video about an all female flight crew who landed a plane in a country in which they would not be allowed to drive.

Then there are the social inequalities that I hope they don't have to find out about. A woman is more likely to receive a custodial sentence for a minor crime than a man. If a woman is sent to prison he children may be taken from her and placed into the care system.

That the domestic abuse storyline from the Archers is played out in real life every day and that 2 women are murdered a week at the hands of an abusive partner. It is not confined to soap operas and does not happen to a 'type' of person.

I'd also like them to understand that women can be great scientists, engineers, code breakers, athletes, writers and work in all manner of professions and have many skills. It's not about taking one day to think about the achievements of women. It's about challenging a media that celebrates the 'first British Wimbledon winner' in decades entirely overlooking Virginia Wade's title win. Not least as that man was coached by a woman and this in itself was considered controversial at the time.

What I hope is that as my boys get older they will see real change and experience a positive picture. I was raised in a female oriented household and they are surrounded by feisty women. I hope this gives them a positive view of strong women and high expectations of what women can do.

It's a lot for a six year old to think about, but for now I think knowing that going to school is a privilege is a good start.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ground control to major fun #markwarnermum

Oh wow where do we start when it comes to holidays ? Since Blue Bear joined our family 2 years ago - I know has it been that long already ? - we've loved going on holiday together. We couldn't apply for a passport for him until he was officially adopted so it wasn't until the end of last year that he finally got one. I can't wait for a chance to use it !

So before we had kids we loved going on holiday and would go away about 3-4 times a year. We would have a big holiday (eg. Kerala), then a few short breaks and usually a spontaneous one where I would treat Hubbie or he'd treat me. That's how we went to Morrocco for his birthday the year before we had Brown Bear. We took Brown Bear on holiday a few years ago and he was so well behaved on the plane that an older couple sitting opposite the aisle from us commented that they hadn't even known a child was on the plane. I think that's a compliment. We have taken UK holidays more recently with the boys and it's given us a great idea of what matters to us. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but here - in no order - are our top ten holiday essentials.

Adventure: My boys love to try new things and as Blue Bear has suddenly become a real daredevil a holiday is a great way to channel this. Last year Brown Bear and I tried surfing for the first time and the year before we went skydiving together - on a cruise ship. We're certainly not short of bravery ! A holiday is the perfect opportunity to have a go and often the boys will make friends with other children who inspire them to step outside their comfort zone. Admittedly, so far that has meant feeding rabbits or chasing a goose with a big net, but it's all good practice. Eventually I'm sure they will graduate to some impressive feats in exotic locations. Ok so I'm sure you can do a bungee jump in a car park in Croydon, but I'm not about to. No, sorry I'm just not.

Daredevil Blue Bear 

Don't try this at home: Being on holiday is a great chance to do things you don't get to do at home. That might be to eat food we don't usually eat - Blue Bear graduated from only eating the cones to the whole ice cream last summer. Maybe it's the change of scene that makes it more appealing to do things we don't usually do, or possibly it's the 'relaxation' that comes from being on holiday. Yeah, I know that hardly sounds like a typical family holiday, but just being away from the daily routine can be relaxing. That alone can inspire the interest in having a go at something I wouldn't normally try at home. It was while we were in Rome that Hubbie reminded me that on holiday I could just stay in bed all day if I wanted to. Oh the chance would be a fine thing.

Pancake tossing for the first time 

Delicious food: When we're in Cornwall I make a beeline for a cream tea and Hubbie mainlines pasties for a week. The boys love ice cream of all types and we let them have it pretty much every day because, well we are on holiday after all. Eating is one of the highlights of a great holiday for me.


Time for Mummy and Daddy: We don't always get to spend time together any more so having time to go out for a meal or to hang out together on holiday is just precious to us. Holidays change when you have children. Rather than lying in we're up at early o'clock and instead of strolling through market towns and hanging out drinking and eating we have to find things that entertain kids. So the next essential makes this one possible for us...

Time off from being Daddy and Mummy 

Aah, holiday fun

Kids' Clubs: At first we weren't so sure about leaving our boy with people we didn't know. Then we realised that he prefered to spend time with other children and that it meant we could have a break and just lie by the pool, or take a fitness class, or (now don't tell anyone) just lie in bed. The staff are trained, CRB checked and often much more fun than we could ever hope to be. I don't blame the boys for wanting to go ! 

Busy Brown and Blue Bears

Travel broadens the mind:  We always hire a car when we go abroad so that we can manage transfers ourselves and take day trips or just pop out to the shops under our own steam. We took a road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas years ago and when the boys are older I'd love to do something like that with them. Not least as I think they'd enjoy the soundtracks we pick while we do long drives - nope second thought they'd hate the music, but still it would be funny to hear them complain about our uncool taste. 

Beep beep, make way 

Being in nature: Whether it's sunny or snowy being outside and exploring our surroundings is a huge part of a holiday for us. I want to take the boys skiing because while I'm not the best skiier it is such great fun. We're also keen to take them to India to meet family, but also to see a completely different landscape from the one they are used to. South London and Kerala have very little in common !

It's only natural 

Neo: When we go away it's really important to us that Neo is being cared for and we enjoy our holidays knowing he's happy and being visited by a wonderful catsitter called Lauren who comes in, feeds him and plays with him. I think he actually likes it more than he lets on really as she does spoil him a bit.

We love Neo

Flying on a plane !! What child doesn't love the excitement of air travel ? From dragging a trunki through the airport to the fun games and snacks that we pack to keep them entertained it's all so much fun. I took Blue Bear to Croydon Airport to take a look up close at this plane in preparation for his first holiday. Brown Bear was lucky enough to get to meet the pilot when we took him on holiday and hopefully Blue will get to do the same.

Wow is it a real plane Mummy ? 

Brotherly love: My boys have been brothers for two years now and we've come such a long way in that time. From being two only children who didn't want to share parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, toys or a cat they are now loyal and devoted to each other. Holidays are a chance to bond and often the people we meet have no idea that we have an adopted and a birth child. On holiday they are just brothers. They bicker, they play, they laugh, they wake up ridiculously early and they gang up on us. It's everything we wished for when we longed to be parents.

My gorgeous boys 

There is so much more I'd love to tell you about; How I take teabags with me because I love tea. The meticulous timing of car journeys so that we can make stops for lunch in strategic places. How I make sure I've packed lots of crayons, new magazines and plenty of sweets to make the travelling a bit more bearable.

For now, though, I'll just say that we'd love to be Mark Warner ambassadors. Fingers crossed...

This post is my entry to become a #markwarnermum