Wednesday, 29 July 2009

At least someone's happy about the rain...

I love the logic of children, it can throw such interesting perspective on what we say and how we behave.

Today was a good example. After listening to a radio news item about the Met Office changing their summer forecast from "barbecue" to "rain" my five year old said "yeah, I'll get more television and time for artwork rather than you saying it's a lovely sunny day go and play outside."

There's lots to interpret from this, I'm still pondering it. But with the rain STILL hammering down outside the window and me frazzled after a day of being cooped up with hyperactive children, I'm desperately hoping for more sun this summer.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey

In 1935 a young mother wrote a letter to Nursery World asking “Can any mother help me? I live a very lonely life...can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude “thinking” and cost nothing!” Through this letter the Cooperative Correspondence Club, CCC, was formed by a group of women who wrote to each other through a private magazine that was circulated between them. Jenna Bailey was researching material for her Master’s thesis and came across the collection of correspondence. Can Any Mother Help Me? is a selection of what she discovered.

The women came from different backgrounds but were united by their roles as housewives and mothers and their isolation within those roles. In the 1920’s “marriage bars” were implemented so that women had to give up some professions, like teaching, when they married. Many resented this and struggled with negative feelings about what they had sacrificed to raise a family. Some were isolated from communities or family and rarely had the opportunity to speak with other adults or mothers. Thus the CCC became a lifeline for them to share emotions and experiences.

When researching for the Suzanne Kamata interview I started thinking about “mummy bloggers” and their networks. Reading this book it occurred to me that the CCC was the original mummy blog network, just through a different medium. What I love about this book is that it demonstrates how the issues of motherhood transcend time; what members of the CCC were writing, I could be saying to my friends today. Mothers always have and still do find great emotional benefit through sharing and communicating, all that has changed is how they communicate, and the immediacy of that communication.

This book offers unique unedited anecdotes about how life was really lived, without the sheen history can give. The women were born at the end of the Victorian era and lived through two world wars so saw enormous change in their lives. Some are still alive today. It is a great book to help me put things in perspective. I felt humbled by their struggles. If I ever start to moan again about how hard my life is I shall think of Accidia who had seven children, “made” her own electricity, had no washing machine or vacuum and very little hot water - it took thirty minutes to boil the kettle!

It also helped to read the snippets of her children’s behaviour and so realise that children of history behaved in exactly the same way as ours do today. So often I chastise myself that my children are riotous compared to the Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard generation but from what Accidia wrote I take comfort that all children are just children “frequently maddening, infuriating, worrying, silly, exasperating...but extraordinarily interesting and delightful beings”.

Reading what these mothers struggled with has made me realise how relatively easy we have it in our modern world and wonder whether we moan too much. With modern conveniences to help us we have time and energy to complain; we are almost encouraged to complain, call our dissatisfactions “syndromes” and seek therapy.

We are also liberated and enlightened in comparison. We have choice, maybe too much choice, about how and when we work, how and where we give birth, what we expect from our husbands and what we expect from ourselves. The women of the CCC could only dream of some of the freedoms we have but these freedoms have just created a different type of pressure and expectations for mothers of our generation.

Ultimately the power of this book for me is that it highlights how important a support network is for mums of any generation or culture. Whether through extended family living together in a compound, a toddler group, blog network, Internet chat room or correspondence club, there is such therapy in sharing experiences. The CCC wrote to each other “in an effort to escape their isolation and make connections with other mothers”. When you realise you are not alone and that the problems you are experiencing are normal, suddenly you don’t feel so bad. There is such danger in isolation.

I also felt inspired by this book to enjoy my role and domesticity and make the most of my life in its current form. Despite their limitations these women were not “just” mothers; they showed extraordinary resourcefulness in what they did with their lives.

Being an obsessive writer I could really relate to these women, to how they read and wrote and thought and worried and shared these emotions with each other. One noted “I write to CCC to help clarify my thoughts” and I can understand that entirely. In fact, reading Can Any Mother Help Me? has given me lots more to think about while I ponder (probably too much) motherhood; what it means and how I do it. There will, no doubt, be more blog posts to follow on the issues it's raised...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Interview with Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata is the editor of Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering. This is a thought-provoking anthology written by mothers from across the world (including me!) which I reviewed on this blog in May.

Suzanne is a fascinating person. She lives in rural Japan with her Japanese husband and bicultural twins and writes to “keep herself sane”. On her blog, Gaijin Mama, you can read about her every day struggles to comply with the rigors of Japanese life.

The Weekly Telegraph asked me to interview Suzanne and the feature is published this week. I asked Suzanne about the concept of “home”, her reasons for blogging and whether her Japanese in-laws approved of her first novel...

“Raising a mixed-race family in Japan can be hard” – Expat Telegraph

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Save the Children

Like all households we get a lot of mail shots pushed through the door; advertisements for carpet cleaning, conservatories and pleas for money from various charities. I am guilty of gathering it all up and shoving it in the recycling bin. I have no compunction about the conservatories but I’m sure that some of the charities deserve more attention.

This morning one caught my eye. As always it was by chance. The leaflet was in a corner of the kitchen, on top off the stack of papers waiting to be filed in the recycling bag. Drinking a cup of tea I saw a picture of a baby with the phrase “the first time she got sick, there was nothing I could do”. I turned the page and saw a little boy up to his knees in grey water surrounded by rotting rubbish. He was smiling and sailing a homemade boat. This was Kroo Bay in Sierra Leone and the leaflet told me that 1 in 4 children won’t make it to their fifth birthday. They die of malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea because they go to the toilet in the river they must drink from. When the river floods, sewage pours into their homes. There is one clinic for 6000 people and they have to pay for every bit of their care, right down to the needles.

Drinking my tea in my waterproof house with electricity and three healthy children I suddenly felt very guilty. How could I look at those pictures, read those facts then put it in the recycling bin and carry on as if it didn’t matter?

The leaflet was from Save the Children. I usually avoid giving to large charities because I fear my small donation will get lost in administration. I feel helpless, an individual against such a huge problem, and tell myself what I send won’t make much difference or solve the situation so what’s the point. But this time I feel compelled to help, thinking that surely the result of lots of little bits of help has to be change.

This mail shot caught me at a vulnerable moment and made me remember the miserable conditions so many people live in. What can we do? Be aware? Donate if we can? Appreciate what we have and ensure we don’t waste the resources, like food, that we have. Living in Kyrgyzstan taught me what an incredible standard of living most of us have in the UK and to never take things like the NHS for granted, however imperfect we might sometimes consider it to be.

I know there will always be inequality but I’m not sure I feel happy carrying on in my comfortable life knowing the extent of the gulf between my children and the children in Sierra Leone.

Earlier this year Save the Children launched a global campaign to help children in Kroo Bay. The leaflet was asking for £3 a month but on-line there are innovative ways to encourage us to help, such as sending texts to make small specific contributions. The cynical part of me has to wonder how they can administratively ensure their promise that if I text “NET” to a certain number they “will deliver a mosquito net straight to a child at risk of catching malaria”. But today I’m of the attitude that if we don’t try, things will never change.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Mother's Day by Kirsty Scott

I’ve just finished reading Mother’s Day by Kirsty Scott. I came to it with scepticism for I am a book snob and derogatory about anything with large, pastel italicised writing on the cover. I only chose it for research – I’m trying to read other “mummy-lit” to learn about the competition for the book I’m planning to write – and had dismissed it as trash before I’d even started.

I was pleasantly surprised. I hate clichés in writing and was expecting many; in mummy-lit we are all neurotic and constantly swigging Chardonnay. I nearly gave up on page 3 when Alison, working mum, starts moaning about being 11 rather than 9 stone. Weight is another obsession of mummy-lit; I’d already discarded one book after the third whine about how terrible it was to be so disgustingly huge at 10 stone 4 – I was ecstatic to get down to 10 stone 4!

However, if you overlook the few clichés, there are some great characters in the book and I became completely absorbed. It was easy to read, a great distraction. I was drawn in, thinking about the book all day – always the greatest compliment to any author. I tried to get into bed early to read. I failed, to get into bed early, so just ended up reading too late into the night to be healthy when at least one of your three young children will think it’s fine to start the day at 6am.

The story follows three mums who meet in the playground of a posh private school. Don’t be put off by the back cover blurb; it’s much better and less clichéd that it sounds. There are some fantastic observations about relationships with children and partners, some sharp dialogue and comic moments all mums can relate to. There’s a slightly contrived happy ending with everything working out for everyone, but it’s not the sort of book that wants to leave the reader feeling disatisfied for a character.

Enthused by this mummy-lit experience I will go back to the 10 stone 4-loathsome selfish character and see if she has any more to offer...

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Gardening with Children

The purpose of this blog entry is to link to a piece I wrote for Gaijin Mama, Suzanne Kamata’s blog (Suzanne is editor of Call Me Okaasan). It’s a “day in the life”, a series Suzanne did featuring contributors to the anthology. I meant to post the link when it came out in May but I was busy and distracted and time passed.

I post it today because it mentions my gardening efforts with the children at B’s nursery – we planted carrots when I wrote that piece, they all died. Only two out of nine sweet pea plants survived transplanting. The slugs ate all the lettuce. Gardening with toddlers, I wrote, is a balance between the children enjoying the experience and successful growing. They have to participate therefore the planting won’t be perfect. They might eat blue slug pellets therefore you can’t use them (and the organic child friendly ones don’t work!) They love to water so some plants are swamped – or poisoned by the bubbles in the water-play water they all enthusiastically used one day!

Today, at last, was different. I decided it was time to harvest the potatoes (the second batch we planted because the first lot rotted!) The children loved groping around in the soil and were so excited to pull out potatoes and carry the basket of our harvest proudly into nursery. I’m glad to be passing on my burgeoning love of gardening. I find it therapeutic and satisfying (when things grow). I’ve found that being interested in the garden helps me accept different weather and enjoy all seasons – I’m now pleased when it rains! Right now it’s boom time; raspberries, broad beans, sweet peas, courgettes, gooseberries, all picked with Baby J grizzling at my feet because she’s yet to appreciate their appeal.