The Secret to Happy Parenting

When I was offered my new teaching job, I was asked to consider how many hours I could do, and when. I was initially just going for evenings, but I thought how nice it would be to do a bit more, perhaps a morning or two as the Boy will be starting pre-school after Christmas.

“Oh,” said a friend of mine with 6 children, “I’ll have your kids for a morning.”

It would never in a million years have occurred to me to ask her – her plate already seemed quite full. But, well, she offered. So I said “great” and now the Boy and the Girl have a wonderful time with her and whichever of her kids are at home on Friday mornings.

I pick them up after lunch and if time allows, linger for a cup of tea.

And I watch and study and try to learn.

How does she do this? How does she have six children who are fed and clothed and in school on time and happy AND have a clean house AND all her marbles? How come she is so calm?

And she is. Like all of us, she can get cross or impatient with bad behaviour, she has busy and stressful days, but generally she is very calm, laid back and most importantly: in control.

“We hide all the mess upstairs” she says. This is one of her secrets, but doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

She has everything organised, has shopping delivered on regular days, plans all the week’s meals ahead in her diary. “I have to,” she says, “you can’t just whip up a meal for 8 people from what you find in the cupboards”.

When I arrive at her house to pick up the kids I usually find her wearing some fetching marigolds. “I was just cleaning up after lunch,” she smiles. “Come in.” I guiltily think back to my own house, where breakfast is still congealing in bowls on the table – that is, if the cats haven’t licked up all the milk by now.

She hoovers regularly throughout the day, the washing machine is always on, her kids don’t sit in front of the TV all day but play together and have fun, she takes them on outings and meets friends. She plans full weeks but also knows her limits and says no if she needs to.

I could pick up her good habits (or try to) and that would improve my life, but they are all things that I try and give up on after a few days or weeks.

Why? What is her secret?

I worked it out the other day while watching her make lunch for five children and two adults while putting away the shopping and checking on the dinner arrangements:

Acceptance.

My friend has accepted that motherhood is what she does. When you are a stay at home mum, you clear up each meal after it is eaten. You make sure that there is food in the house to cook dinner every day. You make sure the floor is free of tiny icky things for your one year old to find. You clean your bathroom and fix things that are broken and make sure the kids are happy and healthy and educated. This is what you do, and you get on with it. It is the baseline.

The reason I consistently fall off the wagon with my good intentions is because I haven’t accepted the reality of motherhood. I hate cleaning anyway, so perhaps I have a little further to come in this regard, but I am still resisting the inevitability of it now that I have two small children. My head says: hygiene. The rest of me sticks two fingers up at hygiene and says: I want to have a cup of tea and write poetry and chat to friends on Facebook. I’ll do it later.

Cleaning aside, now that life is very busy with work as well as motherhood, planning and organising has become even more essential than before. I need to plan meals, and then make sure I have the ingredients in the house for us to cook them. When I do, my life is so much better, but still I loiter and linger and prevaricate. Do I really have to?

I do notice that my head-in-the-sand technique just seems to result in more mess and less food in the house, but that doesn’t seem to spur me into action by itself.

Clearly, I need to look at my life and accept it as it is. More than that, perhaps there is some enjoyment to be found in the little details: a clean table after a meal, ready to do craft on; a lovely clean carpet, just for half an hour; the smell of fabric softener on children’s clothes; roast dinner, everything ready at the same time, on the table before the kids get so hungry they start to eat the sofa; toys, tidied away in boxes and hidden upstairs; toys, chosen by excited children and brought downstairs in the morning; post-nap cuddles; middle of the night cuddles that won’t be available in a few years’ time.

It’s a pretty great job, really. Have you accepted that you are a parent? Or is that something you are still working on?

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Housework: The Kingston Way

For me, the moment that summed up my approach to housework was at a regular weekly meet-up at our house. One of our friends came in, noticed the stairs and said: “Oh wow, new carpet?”

“No,” I said. “I hoovered.”

I had some vague hopes of instilling more of a work ethic and perhaps even some house-proud-ness in our kids, but when I saw our Boy (then about 20 months) spill some milk on the floor, stop to contemplate the drops, rub them out with his foot and continue walking, I realised that they were just going to follow in the family tradition. At not quite 2 years of age, the Boy was already well versed in The Kingston Way.

In case you are looking for a housework avoidance system, I will sketch out the basic rules and principles:

1. Keep things out in case you need them again.
No point tucking them away in boxes and bookcases, most things you use or bring into the house will be needed again within ooh at least a month. Put them in plain view, like say on the dining table, so you can find them again easily – that is, until the next person comes home and puts their important papers and bags of stuff on top. Same with toys. You are never quite finished playing with toys. Just leave them out, ready for next time.

DSCF4401

All things we will definitely need at a moment’s notice

2. At all cost, avoid bending over.
It’s not good for your health. If something falls on the floor, just take a moment to say goodbye and leave it. The kids or the cats will get it eventually.

3. Quick fixes are better than long term solutions.
When you tidy, it’s probably because someone is coming to visit. No time to find permanent homes for all those objects in random places – just find different random places – preferably somewhere the guest is unlikely to come.

There. Tidied away.

There. Tidied away.

4. Designate a Bluebeard room.
Just in case you haven’t come across this folk tale: Bluebeard had a room in his house that was always locked and warned his young wife never to open it. But curiosity got the better of her and she looked anyway – tumbling out came the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. If you determine to adopt The Kingston Way, it is essential to give one room in your house up completely to mess. This is where you shove all the junk from the other rooms of the house when tidying in a hurry. Make sure it has a door that shuts. Preferably, a door that locks. It is also acceptable to hide away unpresentable family members in this same room (with snacks to bribe them to stay quiet).

5. Appearance is everything.
Nobody (except perhaps my Dad) is going to check under the microwave or behind the toaster. Just clean the surfaces/bits of floor people can see at a cursory glance. Leave the rest for when you move out of your house and the absent furniture reveals entire civilisations of spiders and other mini beasts who have made a vast metropolis out of missing toys and mouldy bits of bread.

6. If you leave something for long enough, it becomes interior design.
After a while, you just don’t notice the stains on the kitchen wall or the batteries in the decorative bowl anymore. The wires in the corner are mess for a while, but then they become Modern Art.

Beautiful. And so original. You too can make a wire feature for your living room!

Beautiful. And so original. You too can make a wire feature for your living room!

Congratulations! You have now been fully inducted into The Kingston Way. Following these simple rules should ensure a minimum amount of housework-related stress in your life, allowing you to spend the time on things that really matter, like the Internet.

Pretend Living

I love being a grown up. I love the fact that sometimes people believe what I say now, that they seem to think I know what I’m talking about. And I like having a house of my own and filling it with stuff. I just sometimes wish I was better at keeping it tidy and clean. Sometimes there is a run of several days where I have occupied myself with more interesting things than housework and it becomes so bad that it really gets me down. It is on those days that I wish I was a child again, when even cleaning had a mysterious sheen of glamour about it, something special that grown-ups did that meant you were Big.

This poem is about how really I’d quite like to move into my children’s Wendy house.

Doing pretend washing up

Doing pretend washing up

Pretend living

My dream house is standing in my garden right now
Blue roof, pink door, little shutters
open shut open shut
endlessly
spend the day
just open shuttering
Then hiding away inside in the shade
Plastic tap, pretend cooking, a pretend cup of tea

I spent most of my childhood pretending to be
Mary Poppins, ballerina, a barmaid,
or just an older version of me
older smarter
spend the day
rowing my bicycle like a canoe
pretend nineteenth century laundry
teaching skating to students only visible to me

Real life isn’t always what the Wendy house promised
Real cooking, real laundry, real washing up,
cycle recycle plodding on
endlessly
spend the day
making money and plates dirty
Then hiding away under the duvet: can it just go away?
If I wish really hard, will it all turn to plastic and back into a game?

(c) Judith Kingston, 2013

Linking up to Prose for Thought.

How to be a Domestic Disaster

I couldn’t sleep the other night. I was thinking about housework, and deciding that Something Had to be Done, before one of our friends called Kim and Aggie on us. Or Social Services.  So the next day I drew up an ambitious schedule for the week and got going. I managed to tidy the living room, reorganise it so my nappy-storage-location was no longer the space between the sofa and the French windows and did some long overdue filing. I decided I absolutely had to hoover every day, no excuses, and got going straight away – I even hoovered under things. Yes, well you might gasp.

I couldn’t sleep any of the subsequent nights either. It was as if I had flicked a switch that was normally set to ‘Rest’ and ‘Twitter’, to an unfamiliar setting named ‘Feverish Activity’. Even while lying in bed, I was still planning which load of laundry needed to be done next and how I might occupy the Toddler while I hoovered the stairs and tidied the dining room table.

Three days into my personality make-over, I found myself sitting at the breakfast table, bleary eyed and drained, staring at my schedule. I’d only managed half of what I’d planned, but I’d planned for that, too. Aim for the stars and you might land on the moon. The Toddler’s chatter broke into my thoughts.

“Mummy, biscuits?” he said.

Junior baker at the ready

Junior baker at the ready

I suddenly had a vision. I was Nigella Lawson, in a spotless house, looking gorgeous, baking immaculately beautiful biscuits with my Toddler, teaching him about cooking, measuring, enjoying food and keeping him away from the TV at the same time. Somehow, in my sleep deprived state, this seemed completely within reach.

“How would you like to make your own biscuits?” I asked.

The suggestion was met with pleasing enthusiasm. We went into the lovely, recently cleaned kitchen with an optimistic spring in our step.

Fast forward half an hour.

There are dirty dishes absolutely everywhere and the floors and surfaces are covered in flour, sugar and butter. The baby is crying in the high chair which I put in the kitchen to keep her close, bits of rice cake stuck in her hair. The Toddler is standing on a little chair, wearing an apron, crying because I told him off for licking the spoon that was meant for stirring and then took the spoon away. The first attempt at creaming sugar is in the compost bin (butter too hard). I am in a corner of the kitchen doing all the mixing myself, because the Toddler was doing it wrong, too slowly, and trying to stick his fingers in the mixture. In between the crying, the Toddler keeps asking me if we can bake biscuits now.

“We ARE baking biscuits!” I snap. “Now the dough has to sit in the fridge for an hour. We can finish making the biscuits after your nap.”

Only had one biscuit cutter. We made the other shapes with tupperware.

Only had one biscuit cutter. We made the other shapes with tupperware.

The crying goes up another notch. “No! Not nap!”

I bury my face in my hands, getting dough in my hair as I do so. Through my fingers I look at Nigella’s book, the one with the biscuit recipe I am using. It is called How to be a Domestic Goddess. 

Lies, all lies. It just tells you how to mix ingredients for biscuits. Nothing about managing two small children while doing so, as well as keeping the kitchen clean and your sanity in tact.

We finished the biscuits after nap time. They tasted a bit salty, and I had to chuck away half the icing as the ‘pink’ food colouring came out brown. I tried to remember how long I’d had the bottle but when I’d narrowed it down to ‘definitely since before I got married’ I thought it best to throw it straight in the bin.

The whole thing, I decided, had been a disaster.

Left: definitely green. Right: erm, no. Bin.

Left: definitely green. Right: erm, no. Bin.

But the next day, the Toddler proudly took his biscuits to a play date and shared them with his friend. Today he wanted to eat more of them, and do more baking. It occurred to me that perhaps I had been a domestic goddess after all. There are, when I think about it, very few activities the Toddler can get through without crying or having a tantrum at least once. He is two and does not need a reason. So he cried. So we made a mess. So I lost my rag and ended up doing most of it myself. So it was all done to a soundtrack of ear-splitting screaming from the Baby. He seems to have come away from the episode with positive memories, a sense of pride in his achievement and tasty biscuits.  Job done.

You want to know what happened to the housework schedule? I decided that putting in lots of extra effort is great and definitely worth it, but one also needs to know when to quit. While the biscuit dough rested in the fridge, I followed its example in my bed.

Iced and ready for sharing.

Iced and ready for sharing.