Working 9 to 5: What a Way to Make a Living

This week, after working incredibly hard on a project, the general feedback from those in the know was that I had triumphed and it was a success. Music to my ears after the effort I had put in, I have to say. However, since I work from home and have only Mick the geriatric bulldog for company between the hours of 9am and 3pm, I found myself fist-punching the air, whooping in delight and then having no one to share my news with. A balloon-popping moment.

If I were in an office, we could high-five each other then drift off to the pub for a celebratory pint. Of course, where I work, I wouldn’t have received the kudos in the first place as they tend to be a bit stingy with their praise and appreciation.

I have been based at home for nine of the thirteen years I have worked for my company and it has come with distinct pluses and minuses in that time.

The Pros:

  • I never have to worry about appropriate “office wear” and can throw on any old thing as the only people who see me are the mums on the school run.
  • I can wear flip-flops in summer contrary to office policy.
  • Last week, because it was raining, I literally had a duvet day and worked from the comfort of my bed.
  • The commute takes as long as climbing a flight of stairs.
  • The fridge is readily accessible.
  • No idle chit-chat to distract me and no need to be nice to people I find genuinely annoying.
  • I can mute the phone during dull conference calls and catch up on Twitter while they ramble on.
  • I can multi-task the laundry, make dinner, receive deliveries and pop over to school to administer medicine, deliver forgotten lunch boxes and pick up sick children while still completing a day’s work, with the possibility of finishing it off in the evening if need be.
  • No one can hear me scream in frustration or swear at my boss in the face of frustrating office politics. 

The Cons:

  • I spent most of my day conversing with a geriatric bulldog.
  • The call of the Twitter account and Facebook feed is ever present.
  • I essentially never leave the office – and my employees know this and have been known to take advantage.
  • The fridge is readily accessible.
  • It is easy for colleagues to blame a bad day on my home office status.
  • No one is there to share in the successes and triumphs.
  • I miss the days of commuting into London and having an hour on the train just to read my book in relative peace.
  • The longer I am out of an office environment, the harder I find it to return.

As you can see, the pros still outweigh the cons. So I will continue to high-five my successes with the dog, shout obscenities at my computer screen and mute my conference call meetings. Let’s just hope they don’t start insisting on Skype meetings or I will have to start changing out of my pyjamas every day.

The Life and Times of a Mature Student

Last week I went back to school. Not as a harrassed mum dragging tired children into the infant school gates with cornflakes in my hair, but as an actual, bonafide student again. Bearing in mind that I graduated from university in 1995 – *shudder* – this is a big deal for me.

Of course, things have changed somewhat in the last two decades since I was a student, fresh out of high school at the age of 17, eager to take on the world, and with hair that was still blonde without the help of a hairdresser.

One of the biggest changes is that the creative writing course I am currently studying is conducted entirely online. So no more napping at the back of the lecture hall or bleary-eyed tutorials with bespectacled mentors in tiny offices in the bowels of the university campus. These days it is all done via online discussion threads and tutorials on Skype (where I may look respectable from the waist up, but the chances are I am still wearing my pyjama bottoms under the desk). Rather than endlessly searching the library’s shelves, my reading list is downloaded on my Kindle. And while my fellow course attendees are physically strangers to me, I feel that we have done more chatting and sharing in a week through emails than I ever did with the students on my uni courses.

Added to all this is the juggling of running and maintaining a household, holding down a job, parenting (often single-handedly) two small children and cleaning up after a geriatric bulldog, and this is where I really notice the difference. In 1995, I only had myself to worry about – and even then, health and safety were not at the top of the list. It was an endless round of parties; impassioned theological discussions in dingy bars; cramming through the night before a final exam; forgetting to eat, then eating Rice Crispies for a week to save up beer money; thinking I knew the answer to everything and that the world was waiting for me to make an impact; and experimenting with every fashion trend from Goth to Grunge. Don’t tell my old tutors, but some of my best papers were written while drunk or sitting on the steps of the building ten minutes before the submission deadline passed.

Nowadays, I find myself getting up an hour earlier than usual just to get in some study time in the peace and quiet of a sleeping house before the terror of the school run begins. Or elbowing the kids away from gaming time on the computer after I finish work, and having to wipe jam and sticky fingerprints off the mousepad before I can start.

But the biggest change for me has been trying to remind my brain how to think again after years of housework, monotony and motherhood have beaten it into submission. When I stared at the blank screen contemplating my first assignment last week, I had a moment of sheer panic that I wouldn’t have anything valuable to say, and that I was a fool to think I could do this again after nearly 20 years, but a stern talking to myself (and an entire bar of Galaxy) and I ended up surprising myself. Once the gates had very slowly creaked open, I found that I had too much to say and actually got a bit carried away. And I loved it!

To celebrate, I spent the rest of the afternoon nostalgically lounging in tracksuit bottoms, eating Rice Crispies and rereading Thomas Hardy novels (until the school run rolled around again, of course).

(And if my daughters ever read this, university is not all fun and parties; studying is a serious business… cough… cough…)

A Fine Line Between Laughing and Crying

Last week, my 89-year-old nana passed away and her funeral was held in her hometown of Cramlington in Newcastle, which presented me with a number of challenges (what do I wear? Smart or casual? High heels or mid?), not least having to meet up with my extended family.

On Monday, the family gathered at my aunt’s house, drinking copious amounts of tea and eating chocolate digestives while we watched the clock tick slowly towards the hour of my nana’s small funeral service. To pass the time, we chatted about our memories of her and laughed at old anecdotes of some of the things she would get up to, such as refusing to eat pasta as she considered it to be “foreign food” and her penchant for a gin with just a splash of tonic at the end of the day.

We also reminisced about my grandfather’s funeral six years ago after he died suddenly. My parents’ best friends came to show their support that day and all I can remember about what was a very sad day was looking up to see them standing outside the chapel, wearing brightly coloured Bermuda shorts and neon Crocs on their feet as they were on holiday and had no other clothes to wear. It was so inappropriate that I couldn’t help but laugh until tears (whether from mirth or sorrow) were rolling down my cheeks.

My mum went on to tell us about choosing a simple nightdress for my nana to be cremated in rather than an outfit as such, and without thinking, I replied, “Probably for the best as anything polyester is going to burn really quickly.”

Once it was out there, there was no taking it back. An awkward silence ensued, following by a snort from my mother as she collapsed in a heap of giggles.

It then became something of a free for all, almost like a release valve on a pressure cooker. At one stage, my mother was complaining that she only had a pair of wool trousers to wear and that the day was very warm and she would be too hot in her outfit, to which my aunt replied that she should change as “crematoriums are always hot”. Cue more guffaws and snorts.

It’s not that we are callous and unfeeling; rather, humour is my family’s way of dealing with any stressful situation, with the most overused phrase being, “Well, you’ve got to laugh!” However, once we arrived at the chapel and got down to business, the mirth evaporated, and we respectfully remembered and said goodbye to a formidable, stubborn, fun-loving woman who has left an indelible imprint on our family.

But I would like to think that my nana was looking down on me and laughing just as much as I was at my numerous faux-pas because, whatever else she may have been, she certainly loved a laugh.

Working Girl

I admit I have neglected my blog of late, and I would love to say it is because I have been on a whirlwind of excitement, immersed in a new project that makes me bound out of bed every day… Alas, no.

My three-day job as an editor recently became a five-day post and I suddenly find myself a full-time working mum for the first time since I had my youngest daughter in 2003 (yes, my oldest spent most of her infancy in childcare while I was still under the illusion that I could have a career and be a contented mother – but that’s a story for another blog post).

And I have to admit it, the transition has been very difficult. I was under the impression (supported by other people) that I used to do very little on my two days off a week – maybe a little laundry, some shopping, meeting friends for coffee… But now that I no longer have those days, I realise just how much I actually used to achieve.

At the moment I have five days of juggling the morning school run, starting work, household admin and grocery shopping in my very short lunch hour, more work, interspersed with various trips to school to pick up various children and deliver them to extracurricular activities, as well as a fair number of muted conference call meetings on my mobile in the school playground, cooking a number of meals depending on whether OH is home or not, cleaning bath crayon graffiti off the bathroom tiles, fitting in a run or a trip to the gym in order to maintain some semblance of sanity, logging onto the network in the dead of night to catch up on something I missed while on the school run, and holding sensible conversations with colleagues, friends, my husband….. It goes on.

I look at my friends and we are all in a similar boat in that on top of trying to remain active and viable in the workplace, we have the added pressures of having to remember that it is Victorian Dress-Up Day and child #1 needs a themed lunchbox; child #2 has a friend coming for tea who doesn’t eat cheese, meat or fish; homework needs to be supervised; child #2 spilt ice lolly down her ballet leotard and will have to have it washed before her next lesson; both have a number of birthday parties that require suitably educational yet fun presents – all of this is what my two days off were for!

Having said all that, would I have it any other way? Probably not. I took time off for maternity leave with each of my children and was a vacant, blubbering mess by the end of it, with OH begging me to return to work for his and my sanity. The good news is my current work-life balance will resume in August when the project I am working on concludes and I can return to my happy, balanced, three working days a week. As they say, everything in moderation – even work if you are lucky enough.

In the meantime, I have learnt some valuable life lessons during this hectic period: eating Haribo for breakfast because you don’t have time for anything else will lead to a stomach ache; always check you are not wearing your slippers before you leave the house; sprinkling magic calming dust over yourself, closing your eyes and counting to 10 really does help to calm you down when in a full-blown rant (courtesy of my 9 year old); and never trust the mute button on a mobile phone.


Notes from my Bookshelf #4: “Just What Kind of Mother Are you”

I often wonder what people think when they see me on the school run. Some friends say I look calm, unfazed and in control (give me a minute while I laugh hysterically that idea); others have commented that I don’t smile enough (whatever that means). Only I know the truth: that sometimes it feels like I am juggling so many balls in the air that it is inevitable that one will fall, bringing the rest down with it.

When faced with remembering all of the kit that extracurricular activities require, lunch bags, play dates, meetings at work, feeding the dog, cleaning the house, paying bills – the list seems endless – I sometimes think back to my carefree, independent twenty-something years with a pang of envy. All I had to worry about then was which pub I would meet my friends in that night.

I know I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed and out of my depth sometimes. I have discussed this with my friends and we all feel relief when we hear that we are on common ground and floundering, but trying to do our best. When I am at my lowest – usually experiencing a bout of guilt over something I have not done effectively or a situation I have not handled well – I remind myself that my children are happy, always laughing and full of fun, so I can’t be doing too much wrong.

This is why Paula Daly’s debut novel, “Just What Kind of Mother Are You”, struck such a chord with me. Lisa Kallisto is just like me: a working mum juggling a job, the house and a husband, and trying to raise well-rounded and balanced children. One day the unthinkable happens and one of her juggling balls falls. When her daughter stays home from school ill, Lisa forgets to collect her daughter’s friend, Lucinda, from school and Lucinda goes missing.

Lisa’s feelings of guilt, fear and self-loathing are brilliantly conveyed through the narrative as family secrets are revealed and a friendship is put to the ultimate test. The story grips you from the start to the twist at the end, and is unputdownable.

So if you can find some time in the chaos to put your feet up and grab a cuppa, give this one a read. It will be time much better spent than on ironing, promise.

International Man of Mystery?

My husband travels a lot for his job and doesn’t know from one week to the next what country he will be visiting. As his wife and mother to his two children, I accept my fate and get on with the day-to-day running of the house with good grace – in my opinion – and a certain amount of humour. 

However, sometimes the day-to-day monotony and reality of my life brings with it a smattering of resentment at my Other Half’s glamourous, jet-set life of hotels, exotic destinations (apart from Brighton last week) and fancy restaurants (although he says it is all conference meeting rooms and dining alone).

This week I have single-handedly supported my children in a variety of end-of-term concerts and showcases, from singing festivals to gymnastics competitions. It was during such an event – the orchestra concert in which my oldest was playing the flute and performing a recorder solo – that a good friend of mine enquired where my OH was this week. He happened to be in Manchester – not that thrilling – but she then casually questioned whether he is flogging lasers to doctors for eye surgery as he claims or if he is really a secret agent on various missions for queen and country.

That evening, I looked at him in a slightly different light when he staggered in, complaining about an apparent traffic jam on the M1. His hair was ruffled – perhaps from the wind thrown up by the rotor blades of his helicopter? Other things were apparent: he always has a suitcase packed and ready to go in the corner of the bedroom, so that he can leave at a moment’s notice, and he often gets urgent calls “from work” late at night… 

Of course, there are also a few minor holes in my friend’s theory. First of all, my husband is South African and therefore feels very little allegiance to the Queen. Secondly, he gags and retches just taking out the bins, so would be useless in the field amid the carnage of battle. And thirdly, he is never on time for anything, so would likely miss the action by a good half an hour.

Even so, I won’t use his new pen in case it explodes.

Notes from my Bookshelf #3: “Gone Again”

I finished reading “Gone Again” by Doug Johnstone last night and I have to say, it took me a matter of days to read it because I couldn’t put it down. A really fast-paced, no-nonsense thriller in which you find yourself in the shoes of the main character – just the kind of book I love.

This is a clever thriller that starts with Mark Douglas discovering his wife has gone missing when she doesn’t collect their six-year-old son from school. The police are disinterested initially, especially since she has disappeared before, but Mark takes it upon himself to try and find her. There are some startling twists and turns in the narrative, and you really empathise with Mark, praying he doesn’t do anything silly, but feeling for him when he does and acts on instinct. What really struck a chord with me was how Mark has to juggle worry for his wife with managing his son’s feelings and expectations.

It is a cracking read from start to finish – highly recommended!

Laughter is the Best Medicine

My six-year-old daughter has been trying to make me laugh all afternoon. However, because I do not find her silly faces and ridiculous dance moves in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket the least bit funny, she declared, “Mum, you never laugh.”

This is not true. In fact, I have been known to laugh until a little bit of wee comes out on numerous occasions, usually inappropriately. However, upon reflection, it is true that I don’t laugh as much when it comes to my children, which is quite a sobering thought. This is usually because I am the “bad cop” of the house, the one who instills law and order, who lays down the rules, and dishes out the punishments, while my Other Half is Mr Fun, the Tickle Monster, the “let’s run through the lounge throwing a rugby ball to each other” guy.

My children don’t get to see my silly side very often – when I am a bottle of prosecco down and laughing with abandonment while dancing at a friend’s birthday ceilidh, or sniggering uncontrollably at the school quiz night. When we went on holiday with friends over the Jubilee, I laughed so much that I literally returned home with aching cheeks and sore stomach muscles.

I do find my children funny, but usually it is at something they have done that shouldn’t be funny. Like when my toddler, when toilet training, sat on the loo without checking her training seat was in place and fell into the toilet. Or when the same toddler ran full-speed into the glass doors in the Apple Store in Boston and knocked herself off her feet. Or when my older daughter sledged into a tree, closely followed by her father.

All of these things are very funny; listening to a nine-year-old’s attempts at telling jokes is not. That said, I really should just let my hair down and relax a bit more with the kids as I’m sure they think I am dull and boring. Recently, I suggested we have a handstand competition late one Friday night and their faces lit up (yes, I had had a couple of glasses of wine and it seemed like a good idea t the time until I fell on my head) because Mum was being silly.

Of course, if I start playing the “good cop”, Mr Fun is going to have to take over as “bad cop” and I sense it could go all “Police Academy” in our house. Chances are none of us will make it out in one piece.



Notes from my Bookshelf #2: “Life After Life”

I recently became a fan of Kate Atkinson’s work after stumbling across a copy of Case Histories in a charity bookshop and loved it so much that I then had to go on and read everything else she has written. So I was thrilled when I received an advance copy of her new novel, Life After Life.

The novel follows the life of one girl as she is given the chance to relive her life and correct whatever mistakes have been made. Ironically, as I look out of my window today, everything begins (repeatedly) on a snowy 11 February – a date that becomes a central navigation point for the narrative.

In true Kate Atkinson style, we follow Ursula Todd through two world wars and various relationships as she tries to correct the mistakes of the past and future, all with humour and depth. The story is gripping, unusual, clever and thought-provoking, and told with an abundance of emotion and empathy. I couldn’t put it down.

The book is published in March 2013 and I cannot recommend it highly enough. One of her best.

Notes from my Bookshelf #1: Two Very Different Takes on the Crime Genre

I recently read two very different crime novels in quick succession and, although very different in every respect (apart from the presence of a corpse or two), I loved them both, which got me to thinking about how broad the crime genre is.

One was my first foray into the investigative world of Bryant and May with “Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood” by Christopher Fowler. This was not something I would’ve chosen to read initially, but I was looking for a thriller for my mum as a Christmas present and came across it, then decided to read it myself as I was intrigued by not only the fact that the detectives themselves are elderly, but also by the context of the London theatre scene and Punch and Judy.

Basically, the story revolves around the murder of a theatre company owner’s infant son one night at a party to celebrate the opening night of the company’s new production. All of the main players are reluctantly in attendance; however, the murder is committed behind a locked door with no obvious way in or out, and is somehow connected to the presence of a Punch and Judy puppet. As the investigation unfolds and the bodies stack up, apparently mirroring the narrative of the play itself, it begins to look like the puppets themselves may be committing the murders as there is no other explanation.

Not only does the book look in-depth into the history of the theatre and Punch and Judy, it keeps you guessing until the last page – I am usually pretty good at sussing out the perpetrator by about halfway, but with this one I couldn’t figure it out.

The characters are interesting, multi-dimensional and quirky in many respects, especially Bryant and May who are unlike any other detectives I have encountered. Additionally, as this was my first read of a Bryant and May novel, I was expecting to struggle to get to know the characters and their back story, but this novel could easily stand alone from the rest of the series. Having said that, I will certainly be reading more.

At the other end of the scale is “Sorry” by Zoran Drvenkar. The story unfolds around a group of friends who decide to open an agency that rights the wrongs of their clients. However, when a serial killer hires them, they find themselves involved in a series of murders from which they cannot extricate themselves. The book is written from a number of the characters’ viewpoints and, once you get into the narrative style, it is full of shocks and surprises.

And there are plenty of shocks; in fact, often the narrative is very disturbing and graphic, but you find yourself unable to stop reading until the end. This novel has a very different feel to the Bryant and May story: it is more gripping, edgy and brutal, with all sorts of twists and turns to the plot in a “race to catch the killer” kind of way, whereas the Bryant and May is a safer, gentler and more intellectual whodunnit, and more comparable to a good Miss Marples mystery.

However, albeit very different takes on the crime genre, I absolutely loved both books and would recommend them highly to anyone looking for a cracking thriller.