30 July, 2011

Two Jobs. Two Kids. Too much?

For the last month, my wife has been at the office 65+hrs/week. Long days. Especially when you consider she works 4 days a week. Long, long days. So, for 80% of Monday-Friday, I’ve effectively been a working single parent (encouraged by the bravery, grace and achievement of those who’ve gone before - Erin Brockovich, JK Rowling, Peter Andre, etc).
I too have occasional heavy work hours, which then puts my wife in the same transitory single-working-parent situation.

Whenever one of us is in a crunch at work it restricts the commitment the other can show at the office. With more women continuing to build their careers rather than being full-time mums, this must be an increasingly common situation. Does the fact that we both get to continue our careers outweigh the frustration we both feel at frequently never quite having the time to deliver gold-standard during the working week? Would it be better overall if, for example, my wife went full-pelt into career and I stayed at home?

Generally, on a given day, if I drop-off the kids then my wife picks them up - and vice-versa. So every day one of us is scrambling to make it to work by 9am and the other is leaving early. We’ve both got demanding jobs and delivering our objectives within those constraints is a struggle. Routine and efficiency between the kids waking up at 7am and going to sleep at 8pm has become really important during the week…

We’ve got a system honed with the kids in the morning. Then, at work, knowing that you’ve got limited hours really makes you concentrate and prioritise. I never let little, unimportant things take any significant time now, focusing only on the key things required to deliver my objectives successfully. Also, we both ride scooters to work to save commute time.

So, with our week days now involving less casual internet-surfing and more nervous glances at massive-and-uncomfortably-close lorry wheels, we’re able to perform our jobs ok.
Plus, once the kids are in bed - if it’s really necessary - there’s the option of logging on to do a bit more work from home. (Though not, I suppose, if you’re a train driver, fireman, astronaut...)

Career expectations have probably reduced somewhat for both of us. But I believe that is better than one of us being completely without the achievement/sense-of-identity that comes from career, and the kids never getting to see the other.
My work-life might not hit the heights it would have done in a different situation. But the secret handshake my daughter and I invented now has seven different actions (and growing). Plus, my little boy is at the age where he does something new every day and I’d hate to constantly miss those things. 

The main challenge we have now is that, given our schedule during the week and us both focusing on time with the kids at weekends, it’s very easy to neglect our relationship…

Learned Wisdoms#10: Refining the routine to get everyone ready in the mornings as efficiently as possible is a good thing. But if your refusal to deviate from the most streamlined order of initial actions (out of bed > down to kitchen > milk from fridge > milk in kid's cups into microwave > turn microwave on > then go to toilet > microwave beeps > take warm milk up to kids) causes you to wee yourself a tiny bit in the kitchen, then it’s probably time to relax the protocol.

#11: Everyone knows ‘face-time’ in the office shouldn’t be important as long as you’re delivering your work. But these days we seem to be in a culture where everyone is expected to look busy. If you feel uncomfortable with the passive-aggressive “Half-day?” comments when you’re by far the first person to leave the office, take solace in the fact that anyone who makes jibes like that will almost certainly die alone. And unloved. And will probably have had a significant proportion of their face eaten by their cat before somebody finds them.

#12: When you’re trying to keep things together at work as an acting-single-dad, you may dash in without noticing the baby vom deposited on your shirt. If a colleague, having spotted the white residue, asks “What’s that?” just tell the truth. Everyone will have a little chuckle. It’ll be fine. Do not get flustered by second-guessing what they might be thinking and blurt out “It’s not cum” while going bright red. This causes a degree of awkwardness.

24 July, 2011

Get Help

Rightly or wrongly, neither of us wanted to give up our jobs when we started a family.  My wife’s got a very successful career and I think that continuing it makes her a good role model. (Back in 1913 that pioneering horse didn’t go to all the effort of trampling that woman for our daughter to grow up believing her only option was house-wifery.) Plus we live in London where a pint of milk costs £7.99 and we would really struggle to manage on one income.

That meant we had to make the nanny vs child-minder vs nursery choice.

Nursery was ruled out as we needed some flexibility on the days/times covered. Nurseries are entirely rigid - smartly enforced by lateness charges of ~£5-per-minute. Given my wife was 20 mins late for our wedding this didn’t seem like a fiscally-viable option. So, nanny vs child-minder…

Having a good nanny must be brilliant. They come to your house and are very flexible in the hours they cover (with a child-minder you drop the kids off with them and pick-up at agreed times). However, a nanny in our area would have cost us ~£2500/month (vs ~£1000 for one child, ~£1700 for two with a child-minder). Also, I believe there can be additional nanny complications if you look like Jude Law (this, however, was something we had precisely zero need to consider).
Additionally, child-minders have to pass certain qualifications and are Ofsted monitored. Anyone can just decide to be a nanny. (Hence you hear horror stories of them making your children prance around singing in outfits made out of your curtains. Or turning out to be Robin Williams in heavy latex make-up and drag.)

Keeping our options open, we advertised for a nanny on Gumtree. Within a day we had 200 CVs and no solid way to rank the teenage girl against the 50 yr old women against the man from Manila who wanted to come over and live with us. Whereas, with child-minders, we were able to search the council website for local ones with spaces and could review their Ofsted ratings. Maybe we were lucky, but we found a fantastic child-minder remarkably straightforwardly who had the flexibility to cover the days/hours we needed.

With our new hectically-full routine, and given an unfortunate frequency-of-creating-mess to enthusiasm-for-cleaning-mess ratio, we bought a dishwasher and booked a cleaner to come for two hours a week. This was after significant deliberation as it did feel like luxury spend at a time when finances were tight. But to come home on a Friday and find all the week’s residual jumble gone is absolutely worth the cash (and all the games of ‘Find-the-thing-I-left-just-over-there-on-the-table-which-I-now-need-really-urgently-but-which-has-been-tidied-away-somewhere-undoubtably-neat-but-frustratingly-unlocatable’).

At this point we’d found a solution that could get us out of our tidy-ish house knowing the children were being well looked after. How we’d both fair at work while trying to align our hours with the kids’ needs each morning and evening was yet to become clear…

Learned Wisdoms
#7: As a child-minder, you may find that (despite dropping your asking price to £3 per hour and living conveniently just round the corner from us) you struggle for business if you answer the door to prospective parents with a fag in your mouth while holding back a gigantic f*cking rottweiler.

#8: Towards the end of maternity leave, my wife was increasingly worried about the prospect of having to leave our child with someone else. I wasn’t. It’s not a big deal. Everyone knows it’s just what you do when you’re working parents. And, after I dropped off our daughter for first time, it became clear that crying your eyes out all the way to work must also be the done thing.
You get used to it though. I now only cry during the commute in on Mondays (which I used to do anyway).

#9: Despite agreeing guidelines, during the hours your kids are in child care you lose direct control of their diets. When your child-minder shows you pictures of their afternoon at the bowling alley, she’ll probably notice your visible concern at the photo of your 18 month-old daughter swigging from a Pepsi-branded cup the size of her head. When she comfortingly says “Oh, don’t worry – it’s not Pepsi” you’ll feel relieved. Until she follows up with “… it’s Slush-Puppy”

17 July, 2011

Give* & Take** (*Birth) (**Drugs)

When our little girl was born in late-2007 we lived in SE London and planned a home birth. A nice, big inflatable birthing pool; soft music; candle light; aromatherapy oils; and as few drugs as possible, just a couple of canisters of gas & air and some paracetamol to ‘take the edge off’.
Contractions started on a Thursday. Our baby was born at 7am on Monday morning. In hospital. After my wife had breathed gas & air for 56 hours and had 2x pethidine injections. Plus an epidural. Like Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Or contracted in the cervix for 72 hours.

Our experience has been that anti-natal classes are quite scornful of drug-use during labour and that midwives seem to very reluctant to offer epidurals. Even during such a tough labour I had to do an excessive amount of midwife-badgering to get the epidural requested. After that it took 11 hours to get an anaesthetist and a doctor available at the same time to come do the job.

We found out later that NHS hospitals have targets around maximum numbers of epidurals, hence the discouragement from midwives. And part of the issue with getting a doctor and an anaesthetist was because of it being Sunday, when there’s less staff. Someone should tell the uteruses about rostering.

Once it was clear that my little girl had 10x fingers and 10x toes, my main concern was leaving the hospital with the right baby.
Yes, supporting my exhausted wife was important, but I’d seen loads of American TV shows with 20 seemingly-identical new-borns in matrix-formation behind a pane of glass, just one disgruntled hospital worker away from being shuffled. And I’d read about the two Eastern European families finding out 3 years later that they’d each been bringing up the wrong kid. I wasn’t taking my eyes off our little one for a second.
Paul Daniels could have come in with two other babies, covered the three of them with oversized plastic cups and shuffled frantically. I’d still be leaving with the one my wife pushed out.

As it goes they get wrist/ankle name-tags pretty quickly. And there’s no American-style baby showroom. That said, a couple of years later when our little boy was born, I noticed all his tags had fallen off. Spotting one wedged down the side of his little cot, I pulled it out and put it back on his wrist. My wife later pointed out that it read “Little Girl Wójcik”. I went back on correct-baby vigil.
I cut the umbilical cord of both our children. Not really out of any need to get more involved in the process, though that was nice. Largely just so that, in the future, when the kids won’t do as they’re told I can say, “Show some respect. If it weren’t for Captain Freedom here, you’d
 still be dangling off your mum”.

After the labour of labour it was nice for my wife to get looked after in hospital (and for me to catch up on sleep at home) for a day. But after the births of both our kids we were pretty eager to get the enlarged team back to our house. And to our awaiting lifestyle changes…

Learned Wisdoms
#4: During labour, be prepared for crazy talk after a decent stint on gas & air. My first experience of this was my wife’s vehement and surprisingly accurate deconstruction of British rugby’s inability to develop the strength in-depth in key positions, which ultimately led to England’s 2007 Rugby World Cup final defeat. She didn’t watch the final. And openly has no knowledge of or interest in rugby union. Later she expressed concerns at having to give birth to the twins… believing she was about to deliver her 34 year old brother-in-law Ali and his twin brother Benny. “I don’t mind about Ali, but I don’t even know Benny that well”. Tremendous.

#5: Having an additional birthing partner (my wife’s sister) made our second labour much easier. I was able to focus all my attention on supporting my wife, while her sis took the role of convincing our midwife to request an epidural (after a business plan pitch, a cash-bribe and an attempt at hypnosis had all failed, a dossier of compromising photographs from the midwife’s college days finally provided the necessary leverage). Then later, keeping the waiting doctor from leaving until the anaesthetist finally arrived.

#6: One thing no-one tells you about childbirth is the swollen genitals. They’re disproportionately large at birth due to hormones in the womb and ‘science’. They really should mention this in the anti-natal classes (maybe instead of the ‘drugs are bad’ bit). At my little boy’s birth my train-of-thought as he came out was, “It’s a boy… wow… f*ck… it’s definitely not mine.”

15 July, 2011

Blunder Yourself Pregnant

Getting pregnant is a big decision.  Career-wise there’s never a good time to have kids. Travel-aspiration-wise there’s never a good time to have kids. Financially there’s never a good time to have kids. Even sitting-&-watching-a-film-wise there’s never a good time to have kids. (My wife & I sat down on a Sunday evening to view Apocalypse Now. We finished watching it on the Thursday. I don’t believe Coppola intended it to be punctuated by repeated pausing to trudge upstairs and quell cries. But it did make for a deeper experience. Getting through it was certainly my Vietnam.)

In our late-20s, we smartly avoided this difficult call by getting pregnant accidentally. Not due to a lack of biological education or even heat-of-the-moment passion, just a sizable menstrual-cycle mis-communication.

We’d been living in Australia for a couple of years and, one afternoon, made the decision to travel home to England via a couple of months round North & South America, to then buy a house and to spend a year-or-so catching up with our friends enjoying a splurge of big nights out, before subsequently attempting to conceive. Within about three-quarters-of-an-hour of us making that decision, my wife was gestating.
According to our experience, all the pregnancy literature is broadly right:
-- First trimester, sickness & tiredness
-- Second trimester, more energy, feeling ok-ish
-- Third trimester, heavy, uncomfortable, can’t sleep… really not what you want directly before acquiring a new-born

The biggest surprise during pregnancy was our discovery of the Epi-No. Recommended to us by a nurse friend in Australia, it’s a hand pump attached to a thick rubber balloon, which you – to paraphrase the instruction booklet - push up inside you and inflate to increasingly eye-watering breadths. From my wife’s experience, and those of the pregnant friends she’s subsequently lent it to (having given it a bit of a wipe), it does a good job of avoiding tearing or episiotomy. Sprinters stretch before a race to avoid tearing a hamstring. It stands to reason that ladies benefit from warming-up for child birth, the show-piece event of the Vaginal Olympics.
Overall, there’s certainly no doubt that pregnancy was hard work. (I double-checked with my wife. She agreed.) Especially second time round when any “This is a spellbinding miracle of nature”-novelty is replaced with “Oh. I remember this bit. It was rubbish”-monotony.
But then the end of it brings energising/tiring/inspiring/spirit-crushing/enriching/ degenerating/vasilating changes to your life.

Learned Wisdoms
#1: You’re playing with fire if you rely on the rhythm method at the best of times (even just occasionally, for a condomless treat). If you then take the passing comment “I feel like I’m getting my period” to mean “I’m absolutely getting my period. I’ve checked the calendar and everything. Go right ahead and enjoy yourself”, then you deserve the consequences.

#2: It might be cliché, but I did miss sexual intimacy with my wife during the later stages of pregnancy. Funnily enough, frantically pumping up an inserted balloon while she held it in wasn’t the satisfyingly-sensual alternative you might have thought it to be.

#3: Once the idea of the Vaginal Olympics has occurred to you, prepare to have most of your brain’s background processing power inescapably applied to creating puerile names for its events. [synchronised quimming; gashketball; rugby poonion; cross c**try; boxing…]