A Mother’s Place is (Still) in the Kitchen

[It’s been a while since I opened this dusty ol’ blog. It could be forgiven for thinking I’d abandoned it for good. Shhh – don’t tell it but I think I had. Then one day this week I realised I missed it; I missed the writing, the knowing that my jumbled words can reach other people leading just as jumbled lives as my own (though most likely only get read by myself marvelling at my own words gracing the wider world of cyberspace). So I started spilling forth my inner dialogue like an escaped convict embracing his (her) freedom. I posted this over on a recently discovered blogzine Selfish Mother and it feels good to be writing again…]

A Mother’s Place is (Still) in the Kitchen

All through childhood I wondered what could possibly lure my mother into spending 90% of her waking hours in the kitchen; seamlessly segueing from cooking one meal, to tidying up then washing up that meal, to preparing the next meal and so on and so on, like some relentless ground hog day.

Ha ha! I thought when I lived my joyous, frivolous, utterly selfish life as a single gal, whose spotless kitchen saw about as much cooking action as a Magnet showroom and who proudly wore her kitchen incompetence like a badge of honour. “Haven’t a clue how to turn on the oven!” I’d brazenly declare when guests came round for canapes that couldn’t be cooked.

Similarly don’t even ask my confusticated husband about the time I offered to make him dinner and tried to make his favourite dessert of sticky toffee pud – without scales (bathroom scales aren’t interchangeable it appears). Oh, and without any preceding main course. Clearly he didn’t marry me for my culinary prowess.

More importantly though, it marked the unsaid pronouncement that I didn’t need to know about such piffling trivialities as cooking and cleaning – I had restaurants to go to, a steep and glittering career ladder to scale, glass ceilings to demolish in my high heels and sharp tongue. In short my pre-baby fabulousness scoffed at the mere though of scullery duties – pah!

Fast forward days, weeks, months, years, decades, to a marriage, two children and a proper house, with not one but TWO ovens (and a steam oven that seemed so indispensable at the time of installation but has seen about as much action as the fondue set lurking in an upper cupboard since circa 1995). And all I can think is that my mother must have accidentally left her shoes here because it appears I have accidentally stepped into them.

Having in my youth positively spurned all but the bare necessity of crossing the threshold into the ‘dungeon of female domesticity’ (bar the very necessary trips to the fridge/freezer for champagne or icecream), it is now the room in which I reside, oh, let’s be generous, and say 70% of my waking hours (I have more school runs and afterschool activities than my mother did in the ‘80s). I have even adopted a favoured spot in the kitchen (by extension, this is therefore my favoured spot in the whole house?)

My husband has dubbed this square foot in the kitchen, within which I nigh-on perennially reside, as my ‘docking station’. At the time I remember thinking, ‘Too right, if only I had a real docking station to recharge my permanently waning/ flat battery,’ until the shocked realisation of how many hours a day I actually spend in this spot struck me dumb.

This is where I, among other things (and in no particular order of importance):
• make breakfast
• prepare the kids’ snack boxes
• test spellings
• fire off times tables questions with the relentlessness of a fully automatic firearm
• listen to random chapters of David Walliams offerings intermixed with who knows which number Storey Treehouse, with a smattering of Hobbit appearances to liven things up (an interesting book indeed this collaboration might make)
• order my weekly online grocery shop (and sort out the delivery when it arrives)
• deal with all comms and consent forms from school (the children know to dump said letters exactly as if a giant X marked the spot, straight from their schoolbags – on the days they think to empty their schoolbags that is)
• open the post (and at times, gaze longingly and nostalgically at the luxury holiday brochures that are about as useful as a chocolate teapot in this season of my life)
• fill in my daily bullet journal to ensure the next day is planned with military precision so as not to fritter away a precious nanosecond
• talk on the phone (reception permitting, plus I don’t mean chatting conversationally with old friends but rather, perfunctorily organising the services of plumbers/painters/electricians etc, or barking complaints down some customer services line, or listening to elevator music on hold with NHS appointments)
• scarf down Naked bars, green Nutribullet smoothies (and a host of other less healthy snacks that I don’t care to brag about) whilst simultaneously doing at least one other task on this list
• decipher recipes to make any dinner that isn’t on the regular rota of bolognese/ risotto/ jambalaya/ everything chucked in the oven masquerading as a feeble take on a weeknight roast
• make dinner (not confined to the docking station per se as this generally entails covering every available work surface in the vicinity)
• organise birthday parties/ presents/ write cards
• sneak a read of the latest Waitrose magazine under the guise of doing something more productive (less selfish)

Sometimes I’m known to just stand in this spot – at the counter in the corner of the kitchen, by force of habit, wondering what it is I’m meant to be doing. My husband jokes that this is my Sleep mode and that I have worn size 5 shaped Ugg slipper grooves into the tiles.

This, I have come to realise, is my ‘safe spot’ – whether this is because it roots me to my childhood, my mother and where I’m from, who knows. Possibly a reminder of who I am in the chaos of a life I often barely recognise and a self I no longer truly know when I look in the mirror. Or maybe it’s simpler than such psychobabble analysis and is solely by virtue of having spent so many cumulative hours in this spot that it now evokes a sense of attachment. Chicken or egg?

What I do know is that back in the day, the kitchen tasks my mother tackled in the kitchen were just that – kitchen tasks. Now, looking at the tasks tackled in our kitchen it seems the entire organisational web of our family life is orchestrated from this central hub, with my docking station as the beating heart. It’s quite literally the server (does that make me the glorified head servant?)

As a mother to a daughter now, I wonder whether she will view my relationship to the kitchen with the same curiosity, followed by determined defiance, followed by comfortable acceptance, in some inevitable circle of destiny. It’s always been my hope that she will carve her own destiny; one that will have only an upward trajectory rather than a loop with a foregone conclusion.

Yet I look around me now, from the vantage point of my docking station, and I can’t think where else I’d like to be (aside from that idyllic 5 star Maldives retreat in the latest tantalising Abercrombie and Kent brochure maybe).

Then it strikes me that our kitchen holds the most memories of any room in the house. Christmas dinners scorching in the oven(s) while kids zip in and out with new gifts. Birthday cakes, lit and resplendent, emerging to the many renditions of Happy Birthday. Tears over homework and cuddles to comfort. Crafting and baking with the kids. The summers in the garden seen through the kitchen window. The afterschool chats. My dear husband making my first and last hot drink of every single day. This is us. And that’s why this is my sanctuary; surrounded by family and the familiar, a sense of purpose mixed with belonging and just a touch of pride.

Mundane my younger self might justifiably argue but this older, wiser (and quite possibly marginally wider!) version of me recognises that fast forward another decade or three, it is this time here and now, in this kitchen, which I will hold close to my heart.

Now you must excuse me while I come out of Sleep mode and venture off the docking station to pick up the kids.

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What age is deemed too old for a woman to return to work after a career break?

Apparently it is forty. So I have been reliably and rather bluntly informed this week by a head hunter.

Actually, the way he phrased it (“can I ask you a delicate question”) made him (note, ‘him’) come across as conspiratorially in my camp. He backed this up with declarations of his honesty and desire to minimise my disappointment in rejection.

My response followed a vague timeline of emotions.

The initial response was a typically British manner of apologetic embarrassment. I am terribly sorry to be wasting your precious time when you could be speaking to a more worthy (younger) candidate; do please forgive my imposition.

This was probably concurrent with the second (or joint first) sense of shock. It had never crossed my mind that I might be deemed technically over the hill when I am hell-bent on still viewing myself as in my thirties.

Which leads to my third reaction of defensiveness. Not wanting to labour the technicality but I am technically speaking still clinging on to the vestiges of my thirties, albeit by a few fingernails.

Calming the rising flush (not menopausal before you ask), I responded in a deliberately controlled tone, that surely a woman in her forties is no less employable than one in the 25-35 age bracket (his specified optimum hire-ability age range); posing the question, is it really better to hire someone likely to embark on a career break or someone returning from a career break? Neither of whom deserve to be discriminated against for heeding the call of nature to reproduce.

Mr Headhunter, not enjoying the direction of conversation, proceeded to chivy along the call to a close. I offered him my contact details (again) in the hope of being considered for any future roles that arise, which he was polite enough not to decline. Whether or not he even jotted them down I don’t know. Hastily wishing me luck in my future ventures (a true indicator that I shall not hear from him any time soon with any job offerings) he hung up.

With the passing of adequate hours to stew over the accusation and implication that a five or so year career hiatus, combined with being on the precipice of my Big Four-Oh, renders me ultimately redundant and unemployable, now gives rise to a sense of injustice. A twelve year career reduced to scrap fodder.

Would a man having taken a similar break be deemed equally unfit? I can’t answer that.

Despite the ongoing talk of encouraging women back into the workplace, the evidence is glaring that there is a long way to go. Mindsets need to evolve and embrace not just the notion of mothers reintegrating into careers they spent hard years building, but also the reality.

It is no new news that women are breaking glass ceilings left, right and centre, as the business pages tirelessly and tantalisingly remind us. And certainly there is nothing new about women engendering the next generation. But if depicted in my six year old’s Venn Diagram, I wonder how big the overlap set would be? And if we added a third hypothetical circle, ‘women who take a career break to raise a family’ to the diagram as a subset of ‘women who have children’, how would that affect the overlap? (Note Diagram is for purely hypothetical illustrative purposes and is not based on scale nor statistics).

Answers on a postcard.

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Twiddling Thumbs

It’s been exactly one week since I remembered what silence sounds like. A week to the day the 2 year old officially started pre-school and the 4 year old was upgraded from pre-school to the fully fledged version. Albeit the silence is just for a precious 3 hours 3 times a week, I now appreciate that it is more than golden – it is priceless! The tapping of the keyboard actually resonates round the room – I never knew that. Thoughts can run without interruption and toilet trips can finally be taken alone.
But at the same time, their voices echo continually in my subconscious and in the stillness of their rooms resound the patter of their little feet. I think of the 4 year old, brave and bubbly (and often defiant). The 2 year old, full of love and laughter (and more often than not, selfish and possessive). And how incomprehensibly and comprehensively I miss them…
Then too soon, my brief respite is over and they are home, shrieking, arguing, wrestling, playing. Silence has taken cover away from the line of fire in a war zone. But I don’t mind too much because I know it will be back soon and there will come a day when it comes back and never leaves, when the children are grown up and gone. And I don’t want that day to ever come.
But for now it begs the question: aside from the groundhog day style drudgery of washing up, laundry, tidying, cooking and gym sessions to ward off mid-life spare tyre-dom, how best to fill that time?

The Good, The Bad and The Short

In a bid to squeeze in some warm Waltons-family type of weekend activity, I booked tickets for us all to see Snow White (the panto) at the local theatre. Pantomimes have never been my viewing of choice. Even when within the target age group, the garish getups and cross dressing characters made me cringe rather than laugh. German mum of one thought that a pantomime was a silent theatre show (a ‘mime’) – if only. The idea of the quintessentially English panto is so diametrically opposed to the restrained, stiff upper lip English reserve that it’s almost like the  Mr Hyde alter ego.
Actually, despite the very amateurish performance and the man a few seats along from us with VERY dubious personal hygiene issues, oh, and the fact there was no chocolate icecream available in the interval, it was, dare I admit it, most enjoyable.
Tinkerbell is now an aspiring dancer (preferably more Black Swan standard). Mr A is now experienced in dealing with the wrath of fellow audience members seated in the row in front when Golden Boy gleefully grabs handfuls of their hair (useful for our impending holiday flight). And I (just about) managed to explain (a) why it’s okay to be a dwarf and (b) why the Queen (Snow White’s mummy) wanted to kill her daughter without engendering any paranoia in my own two year old.
Two and a half hours later, Golden Boy was officially getting restless and Mr A was late for a conference call (yes, on Sunday evening – boo hiss – sorry!) so our Waltons–esque family outing was officially over.
Today, after I confiscated her new 10 colours-in-one Hello Kitty pen as punishment for defacing my favourite White Company duvet cover, Tinkerbell now believes I am the ‘mean Queen’ personified.

(Thirty) Seven Year Itch

My parents have been married for 37 years. It has recently become apparent to my father that his itch has now reached such insurmountable levels that it can no longer go unscratched. Who better to provide said scratching than someone only a handful of years my senior with no child bearing scars, stretch-marks or indeed any familial duties that make so many of us only a shadow of our former fun selves.
My mother is distraught; my father dismissive of the depth of his betrayal; my siblings and I are wedged firmly in the unenviable position of choosing a side.
Apparently we are to view our situation as fortunate – we could have faced the prospect of single parent syndrome while we were still dependents. Instead, we all now have our very own set of dependents. The family unit is knitted together to tightly yet so precariously – like a precious winter woollie: one snag could potentially unravel its entire existence.
But every hurdle is a life-lesson. As I one-knit, one-purl through my own relationship, I am ever more vigilant about its tenacity.