Monday, 29 October 2012

Just a Mum

I’m a mum. The day Jess was born, my life changed forever. Being a mum is the biggest part of my life, no question. But it’s not my life; it’s merely a part of it. A huge part, the most important part maybe, but just a part. I was a person before my daughter was born and I’ll be a person after she’s left home, has children of her own and is too busy criticising my child-rearing skills to tell me about her life.

What defines us as people? Is it our children? Our jobs? Our beliefs?

If someone asked you to describe yourself, what would you say? Blonde, tall, slender and rich? (Or if you are me, red-headed, short, with too many lbs and too few £s?) Or would you start with “I’m an accountant / teacher / road-sweeper / housewife”?

Before I had Jess, my focus was my work. Everything was about the next promotion, the next move. Even when I was doing dead-end jobs (and believe me, I’ve done a few), I was always looking to improve, whether that was a pay rise, a better job or just getting the most sought after shifts.

Once Jess came along, as with most parents, my priorities changed. Work became a means to an end. I still look for promotion and new opportunities, but not in the desperate, work-or-die way that I used to. Different things have become important to me. Partly jobs with better hours, a better work life balance, but also jobs that mean something to me. Jobs that make me happy, that I enjoy, jobs that MATTER.

You know the ones I mean. I don’t care if you are wishing dishes for a living, as long as you don’t hate it and you get something from it. I don’t just mean money, I mean that intangible stuff – ‘job satisfaction’. For me that involves helping people, even if it’s in a disconnected way; if you are washing dishes in a café, then you’re helping people have a nice experience (hopefully!). Sweeping roads? Well, you’re improving the streets for everyone.

A housewife, or ‘just a mum’? Any parent will tell you there’s no such thing as just a mum. A mum is a thousand things. Chef, cleaner, chauffeur, entertainer, nurse, you name it. And obviously you are contributing to bringing up another human being, which I hope brings satisfaction of a sort, even when you are scraping dried mashed potatoes off the ceiling or getting up for the fourth time that night to deal with a nightmare while somebody else snores away peacefully.

But this post isn’t about the hard work that parents put in. We all know that parents have a difficult job, but that’s what we signed up for isn’t it? For the most part, we made a decision to be parents and we live with that decision. We knew it would involve sleepless nights, changing nappies and endless readings of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, although any parent who says it is exactly the way they expected is either lying or deluding themselves.

What I’m trying to talk about, albeit in a rather roundabout way, is why we insist on defining ourselves as one thing, why we tend to lose ourselves when we have kids, why we think of our own needs as less important than everyone else’s. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I work for a number of reasons: money, to set a good example to my child, to keep my identity, and (blush) occasionally to escape my darling daughter. What actually happens of course is I just spread myself thinner; I now have more people’s needs to put ahead of my own. Everyone wants something, my boss wants more work done, my partner wants his ironing done, my parents want to visit, my daughter wants dinner, ice cream, a story, a new DVD, the latest toy, a pony. Where do I fit in? What about what I want?

What do I want? I want my family to be happy. I want Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to have no calories. I want two hours more sleep a night. I want to win the lottery. I want someone else to deal with the housework.

Maybe that’s the problem. Everything I want is either impossible or not something I can control. I can cuddle my girl, I can read her a hundred stories and buy her the latest toys, but if she wants to run into the road, or kick another child or whatever, I have to say no. At which point she isn’t happy. I can cook my partner’s favourite meal, buy him a gadget, hang on his every word – but if he’s had a rotten day, I can’t always make him happy. (No rude comments please!). It’s not my responsibility to make him happy either, just like it’s not his responsibility to make me happy all the time. We need to start taking responsibility for our own happiness and stop beating ourselves up when we can’t make everyone else’s life perfect.

The thing is, I can think about stuff I used to enjoy PJ (pre-Jess) and I can promise myself more me time, but where is the time supposed to come from? I used to do loads of crafts, take dance classes, go to the cinema, go to the gym, and read constantly. Crafts now involve ‘painting’ with Jess (also known as three minutes of daubing paint on the paper, 30 minutes of cleaning up). Exercise is a walk to the park or an occasional snatched class. Reading is two or three pages before I fall asleep or repeats of The Gruffalo to Jess.

Jess has finally reached the age where I don’t have to entertain her personally 24/7. I can settle her with some toys or put a film on and she will play quietly for a while. I suppose this is when I should be fitting in my ‘me’ time, but there’s always so much else to do. I can barely fit in any housework as it is, if I neglect it much more the spider-webs will take over! Plus I’m realistic. I don’t want to risk getting out all my jewellery making equipment in the hope of grabbing a few minutes because Jess will want to explore it – tiny beads everywhere and trying to get to the hot glue gun before she burns herself does not equal relaxation!

My solution has been to develop hobbies that I can pick up and put down easily (this blog for instance) and to find things I can enjoy that I can share with my daughter at the same time. For instance, I used to love scrapbooking. Whilst I don’t fancy letting Jess play with my irreplaceable family photos, I’m planning to buy her a kids’ scrapbook and let her loose with the stickers and glitter. Although some of my hobbies might need to take a backseat for a while longer, unless anyone can think of how to put a child-friendly, creative spin on Texas Hold ‘Em poker?

I think it’s time to take a stand. I’m no longer going to think of myself as ‘just a mum’, a ‘worker’, or even a rather rotund red-head. I am more than that, I am more than one thing. I am me, with all my faults and neuroses, and I am doing the best I can. Take it or leave it.

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