Churchquest 2010: an update

Short post this one – we’ve found a church.

Everyone seems lovely, we’ve been made very welcome.

And we guessed quickly.  My husband said as we walked into the village hall in which the service is held that he had a good feeling about it.  And for me, his happiness there is a fundamental element.

Sermons are interesting, bible-based and on the passage of the day. While the services do go on a bit, it’s ok and nothing that choosing shorter passages wouldn’t cure…

Child-friendly songs with actions are sung as well as more devotional and upbeat adult ones.
My son waves ribbon banners with other kids because he wants to and says “I like church!” completedly unprompted.  He mainly likes the carpet with the toy box – the Sunday School is for children a bit older than him…
There’s a worship band, an overhead screen, coffee after the service and sometimes bacon sandwiches beforehand.
The service is 11am, so the Sunday lie-in is not completely gone.

We’ve already been invited to social stuff – I’ve had a women’s social evening, and there’s just so much going on.  And there’s a whole world of old people visited, families guided and more that I’ve not even mentioned yet.

This seems to be a church with the holy spirit working within it.  And we can see that it is good.

Some things I learned about “real” life, work and childcare…

image from http://www.boloji.com/women/0103.htm, please do read the excellent article there

I’ve met so many lovely, intelligent women this week.  We’ve been talking about working and childcare.  (This is probably because the common theme to the various groups I’ve been meeting is children rather than because it’s a particular preoccupation…)

It’s been a real eye opener.

In my working life, I am surounded by highly educated, ambitious people.
Most of them live in London. Many don’t have kids.
They pretty much reflected my real life when I was newly married and lived 20 minutes from the office and everyone I knew was terribly high powered and some were (self?) important and the office would not be able to do without them.
The other people I met then were living in a tower block with 5 children with at least one called Kayden or Precious.  But I never really knew them, I just got chatting to them at the Health Visitors’ clinics as we waited to have our babies weighed.

That’s no longer real life.  I mean that in the sense of, if I woke up one morning and the office wasn’t there any more, I wouldn’t be walking past the site of it each day.
Real life for me is in my hometown.
And that means that real life people are the ones I now meet.
The musings below are widescale generalisations.  There’s no stats included because I’ve been chatting with new friends, not interviewing research interviewees.  Becuase of the way things have worked out socially, I’ve not really met single parents so that side of things doesn’t feature.  And I guess it is right to focus on those in most need.
But I wonder if it’s given me access to a group of women who don’t often get heard about and so their norms get overlooked?

The women I meet here that don’t work seem to have three or more children.
And there’s a lot with three children.  I’m beginning to wonder if the logistics of three are actually slightly simpler than two, because the stats show that once you pass three, one parent is then pretty much forced to take on the role of the stay at home car driving, child-oriented parent while the other brings in the money…

So most women here work.
But I’m not meeting high powered business women – presumably I need to do that by talking to them either at their workplace or on the train to London when I commute rather than behind a pushchair in the town centre?
No, most of us here seem to work part time for someone else.
Some are, say, working a few hours in the evening when their partners can do the childcare.  Or working the lunch shifts in town to fit in with the school run.  Or volunteering. Or supply teaching.  Another has a husband in the sort of job where she’s expected to take on the pastoral side.
I’ve met so many teachers too, often married to other teachers, fed up with the 9-3 jokes and wondering how to fit their own kids in.
So many have stepped down, either in terms of their actual jobs or their ambitions.  Local jobs count.
Most think I’m insane to have a roundtrip commute of over 100 miles.

Most of the women I meet work part-time. We know there are disadvantages to this in terms of lifelong earnings, pension, and career prospects.
So why not do more hours?
The response is who’d look after the kids?
The primary concern is not the long term but the day to day logisitics.

But surely the answer here is childcare?
Well, when we talk childcare, the response is that, even with the staff pretty much on minimum wage, the cost is too high.  We’re talking nurseries really.  Talk about nannies and you’ll hear what a guffaw sounds like.

I tested the idea that seems popular in feminist circles that actually even if the cost is the same as or slightly more than what one working parent can bring in, the parents should take the hit now, so to speak, for the sake of the future earnings potential and pension provisions.
This was greeted universally with horror.
The issue might make sense to economists, who apparently were touting the same approach to saving for pensions on the radio this morning, but the main question from the real people I know is what on earth do the people who suggest this think we live on that we can “take a hit” in the short term?
I’ve heard stories of taking in lodgers, the ruination that going a few pence overdrawn the day before being paid and losing your whole next day’s pay to the bankcharge. I’ve even heard about not being able to afford to pay into the state pension, let alone a private one.  And yes, that’s even with tax credits in play.  But what can you do if the available jobs don’t meet the cost of living – a living wage if you like?

There is also an issue of childcare availability.
It’s not really a question of provision for 3 and 4 year olds, although the thing that upsets parents is not getting the place they want for their child when parental choice is the most touted concept in education.
I know some mums taking their children to two different schools each day because they’ve not got places for both at the same one.  Not only is that disruptive for a family, but it has an impact on whether parents can work. Logisitics matter.  Not to mention the carbon footprint issues of this sort of thing!

Actually, work-wise, the availability of wrap-around care is the most difficult – a limited number of nurseries are available for children 6 months plus and fewer still offer the full wrap-around hours, and even fewer of them are conveniently located for commuters.
I’ve only had one actively recommended to me by the parents who send their kids there – and that’s the most expensive, naturally.
And the school-level wrap-around care provision appears not to be at every school but for some it is at a centrally-designated school a good drive away!

But finding a childminder to wrap around other nurseries or schools is also a nightmare – finding someone you are happy to leave your kids with, who has space for children of the right age, and who takes and collects from the right schools is not simple, even with the information available from Kent children and families information service

Family matters
Because leaving your child with someone is not just a matter of that person having a paper qualification.
You have to be happy that your child is looked after as you would wish, and often even the best is a compromise at heart because it’s just not you doing it.  Is it any wonder so many of the parents I’m meeting seem to seek to avoid doing this?
And while mostly we all seem to be begging time from the grandparents, we shouldn’t be counting on it as who knows when it might suddenly not be available?
And there’s the big unspoken secret too – parents actually want to spend time with their children, see them grow up, see the firsts, help them learn and develop.  However much childcare is available, ultimately many parents are going to want to raise their own children directly if they can.

So what are people doing about all this?
The majority of people I’ve met are married or in marriage-like long term relationships.  That affects the approach that’s taken.
Basically, those that can, seem to think as a couple – whose job or career takes precedence, how to handle the logistics, even to the extent of working out how to live with each other’s pension provisions.
For the majority of people I’ve talked to about this, they recognise that this isn’t ideal for them as individuals but they see it as part of the reality of being a family and having children.
While with one eye on the divorce stats this may not seem wise for individuals. Just as pre-nups are not popular or common in the UK, I think there is still an innate social (small “c”) conservatism and a dash of romance in the country overall.  We don’t want to think about marriages failing.  And we don’t want to plan on the basis that ours would be one of them.
So families balance the childcare between them, prioritising local over high paid, working out sometimes complicated logistics, choosing between them who gets the career rather than both trying to in order that they get to see their children rather than have someone else raise them.

But that raises a small question for me.  If families are doing all this, then how will the need for better childcare provision that would allow them to do otherwise be identified?  And which companies are going to do that research with parents in order to see if there’s a viable business?

Unwrapping this one is going to be a bit more complicated than even I’d thought…

So are you going to have another one?

I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question.

At best, it’s when my adorable toddler is running around being cute.

At worst, it was during a job interview – something which I think it is actually illegal to ask me.

But every time I wonder what exactly I’m supposed to answer.
Generally it’s a well-meaning question.
But actually it risks being quite personal and intrusive.

Think about it in the context of work.
Now I’ve had some months to think it over, I think the correct answer would have been: “would you be asking that if it was my husband sitting here in this interview and not me?
If it’s a question that an employer might want an answer to from a thirty-something woman, then there’s a whole load of assumptions that go behind that.
It correctly assumes that I would have to take time out of the office to have a baby and deal with the immediate issues with breastfeeding a newborn and postnatal maternal health – that’s one thing a father can’t do instead.
But I suspect it goes rather further than that, assuming that I would be taking the parental leave for any future child all by myself.  While for a couple, you may think of yourselves as a unit, at the moment your employer almost certainly doesn’t.
It’ll be interesting to see, if our law changes in 2011 to a system of shared parental leave, whether the assumption shifts from being that one parent will take all the leave to an assumption that each will take half.
And what did I actually say when I was asked?  Well, it was suffixed by, “I hope you don’t mind me asking…” and I think I said, “no it’s fine, and not at the moment“.
But it was sufficient for me to feel negative about the idea of working in that team.  What would’ve happened if I had joined and then got pregnant?  A sense that I’d gone against what I’d said before joining the team and therefore betrayal and untrustworthiness?

But it’s not just parental leave that figures in that sort of thinking.
What if my toddler or newborn was ill and I needed to take time off to be with them?  The rough truth is that childcare doesn’t do child illness.
You hear about “pink medicine babies” – the guilty reality that if the child is just a little under the weather most parents will shove a spoonful of calpol down their throats and deliver them to the childcare provider anyway.  They then spend the day dreading the call to say that their little bundle has a temperature and needs picking up NOW.  It’s not ideal from an employer’s perspective.  It’s not ideal from a parent’s perspective.  It’s certainly not ideal from the child’s perspective.
But – particularly in a recession, where it’s a financial imperative that people are in work- it happens.  All because people are afraid to take time off work to be there when their child is ill in case their work decides it can do without them, permanently.
Is it any wonder that the lesser-earning parent is often the one that takes the time out?   But again it is not always a matter of choice.  I keep hearing about employers who don’t exactly say to fathers that they can’t take time with their children but imply that they are letting themselves and the team down. But wouldn’t it be better if that didn’t automatically mean Mummy had to let hers down?

So are you going to have another one?
Is the question any better in your personal life?
It happened to me yesterday.
I was just getting my hair cut, and my toddler was pushing one of the chairs around the salon.  I’m sure she only meant it in a he’s-cute-wouldn’t-it-be-lovely-to-have-more way.
But it’s a risky question.

What happens if the answer is “Good God, no!  Awful little blighters, don’t know why we had the first one!”  Not the case for us, thank God, but how would the questioner feel if that was the answer they got?

Who knows what circumstances the family are experiencing?  May be they are sandwich generation, with adult caring responsibilities as well as a small child?  Not having a second one might be a matter of necessity rather than choice.

Who knows if the person they’re asking has tried and failed for months? Miscarriages are not exactly a bundle of laughs and not usually the thing to share in smalltalk situations.

The thing is, unless you are already pregnant with the next one, which I am not, it is impossible to answer that question without sounding defensive.

And you get all kinds of advice offered to you as if to compensate for the embarrassment caused.  Sometimes it just digs the hole deeper.
But ultimately the old platitude is the best: “it’ll happen when it happens“.
I don’t think you can really go wrong with that, as when it happens may be never…

So we just cross our legs?

Two days on and I’m still feeling cross about it!

Yes, it’s the Daily Mail again with the outrageous headline that babies born just one week early risk serious health problems.
On how many levels can a story be hurtful?

It’s carefully presented as being a warning about the dangers of elective caesareans which tend to take place at 39 weeks (and in so doing again perpetuates the attitude that having a caesarean is about being too posh to push). 
But look at the statistic it presents… when it comes to caesareans, up to 7% are elective, apparently – so that means that about 93% of caesareans are emergency or planned? 
That’s hardly an overwhelming level of too-poshness
There is a question though over why we have such a high level of caesareans over all – double the World Health Organisation’s recommended level (but why is there a recommended level?  Surely this was about demedicalising birth in e.g. the former Soviet Union? Could this be a formula babymilk style issue where something recommended for a good reason and has unintended consequences for some mothers?). 

But hold on, it gets worse… “the full 40 weeks”? 
My son arrived at 38 weeks and I was assured that he was full term. 
A day or two earlier of course he would have been premature, but I needn’t worry as 38-42 weeks is full term and perfectly normal. 
That of course assumes that my due date was correctly calculated in the first place (I didn’t know, when first pregnant, that the length of your menstrual cycle plays a part in those first calculations – why would I know that?) 
I didn’t expect my waters to break at 38 weeks and my son to arrive less than 12 hours later. 
I’d have preferred him to hang on in there.  I wasn’t completely ready, the house was not tidied and I hadn’t even got my overnight bag packed!
But I turned out to have pre-eclampsia, and he had IUGR, plus some placenta problem so his hormones triggered labour so he could survive.
How was I supposed to keep him in there longer, exactly?
And, given the risks we were both facing, surely it would be ludicrous for me to worry about anything more than ensuring we could both live and thrive?

The thing is, there’s no real consideration in the article about why a baby might be arriving early.
It is entirely possible that babies arriving earlier than 40 weeks are doing so – like my son who was a natural birth and my niece who was an emergency caesarean – because they are experiencing difficulty in the womb.

But how much does that extra week really matter?
If children born 24-27 weeks tend to have a greater propensity to special educational needs (and if the article is right that the level is nearly 7 times more than those born at 40 weeks, then roughly 300 in every 1000 born that early), then it seems reasonable to say that prematurity brings risks. 
But there’s a huge difference between saying that,  and stressing about the following statistic:  for every thousand children born at 39 weeks, 47 will have SEN. For those born at 40 weeks it’s 44 children.  By the way, overall in the school population, in 2008, 2.9% of children had SEN.
I just wonder – given all the other factors that can affect SEN, whether this is actually sufficiently clinically significant to change from planned caesareans taking place at 39 weeks to planned caesareans at 40 weeks?
In any case, the article itself makes clear at the end that respected medical opinion is divided on whether caesareans at 40 weeks would actually be any safer anyway!

But the thing we tend to forget in the developed world is that birth is not a safe thing. 
The truth is that birth is a process over which we have less control than we like to think. It’s raw and bloody and painful and a reminder that what we are doing has significance.
And we still have very little idea about how children develop their mental faculties at such an early stage.
But I’m pretty clear that stress is a Bad Thing – overall, and in pregnancy in particular.
So please Daily Mail, don’t run this sort of scare story.
It upsets parents on something over which a phenomenally high number of them have absolutely no choice or control at all.
It’s not as if we can all just cross our legs and keep the babies in a little bit longer.
Babies come when they want to.  And if they don’t – that’s why the caesarean help is available.

Guilty Pleasures – a good read

Part 1 of an occasional series.

This post was inspired by @Dotterel‘s creative writing course.

Just occasionally it is good to go somewhere else, get away from the work pressure, the toddler demands, the housework, the feeling that you ought to be doing something worthwhile with your time.

Reading gives me somewhere else to be, a place to escape to when things are tough, a place to relax in when I need to calm down before bed, a place to find inspiration, to set my mind racing through new ideas, to gain new learning, understanding and new ways of looking at the world, or to make me laugh. 
I can’t imagine not being able to read.  I dread losing my sight and having to rely on audio books where the pictures in my head would always be affected by the voice of the narrator.
Reading is a source of pleasure, a luxury, some time that is just for me in a world that makes so many demands on me.  I’d rather read than watch TV. But often I do both at the same time.

I’m trying to encourage my son to love reading – he already loves Doctor Who and reading is the closest he’ll get to being able to travel to other worlds. It might also buy me some more uninterrupted nights and a bit longer in bed at the weekend, if he can be persuaded to read in his own bed if he wakes up.

But what to read? 
There’s a box on Facebook asking for your favourite books.  Mine lists Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Philip Yancey, Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, political fiction and non-fiction stuff.  I really must update it. 
Now I’d add Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Neil Gaiman, Alistair McGrath, Seth GodinLibby Purves, JK Rowling, Maureen Lipman, social anthropology such Watching the English, Andrew Rawnsley… 
Basically, it’s a bit of a mixture of faith, sci-fi, fantasy, classic crime fiction and politics. 
There’s a bit of chick lit too, but old school.  I hate the way that chick lit is marketed to us with the same pastel coloured books and sexy woman covers, Mills and Boons for the divorce and singleton generation. 

I read pretty widely.  But I like faith, politics, anything that allows escapism, comedy.  I like the fairytale and romance, but I like to feel that I’m learning something too – hence why I prefer the Jilly Cooper “Polo” or “Score!” where I learn the rules of polo and about the opera Don Carlos to Jill Mansell, Cecilia Ahern, Sophie Kinsella etc. etc. 
I don’t like in-your-face social realism but real issues wrapped up inside writing I’m enjoying on another level (the Captain Vimes boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness occurs in the middle of a story about dragons…).
I prefer a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet one, but I hate deus ex machina… I want to have had the chance to work out if it is going to happen the way it turns out.  That’s where Agatha Christie is such an inspriation.  It’s always there, from the start, woven throughout the story, not just dropped in at the end.

I don’t want to feel pressured to take on the author’s worldview, or to feel manipulated by the author – Ian McEwan is a particular bugbear of mine, I hated the end of Atonement, and I resented the way Enduring Love equated religion faith with mental illness. 
I want believable characters, or at least characters that react believably to the situations in which their authors place them.  
I have a Christian worldview and as a result I think I tend to want to offer my characters redemption.  I want someone reading it to think about a situation in a slightly different way as a result, even if it’s only to find a pun dropping into their heads…

In fact, literature is to change the world, in the head of one reader at a time. 
It doesn’t matter whether it is for a mind altering two hours on an emotional journey or setting your mind fizzing with a new way of looking at the world.  Literature takes people on a journey and they come back a slightly different person. 
That’s why so many people want to share their reading with others, from reading out paragraphs to an increasingly annoyed husband, to joining a book group, to writing their very own book blogs (like Norfolk Bookworm).

What’s wrong with being a feminist?

Today’s Stylist magazine (terrible name for what’s actually quite a good magazine)  had an article on what it means to be a feminist today and why we should all be feminists.
Rather than argue it all through again, I’d recommend you read their article, and consider whether you think the conclusion is a bit weak?

Also consider this… it’s not feminism that gives you hairy legs, it’s marriage (where you’re loved no matter what) and childrearing (time to pamper yourself is the casualty when trying to hold down a job, run a house, raise a child with their own activities and priorities etc. etc.) – feminism merely means saying do you know what, my legs get hairy sometimes.
That’s normal in women.
I’m not making a big deal of it so nor should you.
But it’s funny how it still has the power to shock!

Yes, it’s worth seeing

Let’s get that out the way, up front.   It is very funny indeed.

We’ve just come back from Mark Watson’s pre-Edinburgh warm up show.
I’m not going to give away the material really, because that’s his. 
Even if I did though, it’s a preview show so it’ll probably have changed a bit by the time he gets to Edinburgh. 
It is still a bit of a work in progress.
( But we’ll hold him to the three quid thing!)

So, what’s it like? 

Well, when we arrived I still had sunglasses on, and that was a bad move as they’re prescription ones. 
I made my way to a seat and was ferreting in my bag for my normal glasses when my husband says “the warm-up guy is already on stage!”
Once bespectacled, I pointed out that this was actually the headline act himself (but without his glasses which make him more recognisable).

Very excitingly for a social media geek like me, he was commenting on well, stuff, on a big screen behind him.  
Hooray I though, a Twitter wall!   What’s the hashtag to join in?
But actually it looked like a normal Word document on screen. 
Never mind. 
I suspect it’ll be a Twitter wall by the time the show hits Edinburgh.
On the plus side, he was actually on Twitter and was answering Tweets from the audience.
On the minus side, it seemed I was the only person in the audience actually on Twitter. 
It made me wonder – is Twitter a 30-something thing?
He got a bit of material out of the first one (have you ever been to Ashford before?) but my combined spelling-and-predictive text problem on the second one I sent caused a bit of confusion…
Maybe it reminded him, maybe it was me feeling a bit sensitive about it, but he did actually have some predictive text jokes in his routine even though he called it out of date. 
But then, who uses predictive text these days except me?  Clearly I need a much hipper phone…

My husband and I (I say as if I’m the Queen) had both had tough working days, so absolutely the best compliment I can give was that I forgot all about my rubbish day and just laughed for a hour. And my husband stayed awake.  For the dad of a toddler who works long hours, that’s high praise indeed. (My toddler doesn’t work long hours, obviously, he just stays awake all evening).

Bad language?  Not much more than I’d routinely use (sorry Mum!), but I’m not sure whether it was a bit toned down for li’le Sha’e…
Having established that the audience age range was 11-67, Watson asked 11 year old Shane if he had ever heard much bad language.  
This was met by the best audience response of the night: “he’s from Ashford!”

Later on you could see why Watson had been a bit worried.  One whole sketch is built around the C-word and its application on Watson in the comments on a YouTube clip Mark Watson.  I hate that word – but it was a funny sketch.  And if he is a c***, does that make his show a vagina monologue?  (Sorry again Mum!)

But poor Ashford’s Future… you can make us twice as big and much flashier as a town, but essentially we all start from the perspective that Ashford’s a bit shit.  It’d be great if we could all feel a bit better about ourselves.
Still, at least we’re not Maidstone…

And that’s pretty much the show’s theme – what can we do to make a difference in the world and feel a bit better about it all? 
While you might expect a bit of the Watson environmentalism here, the focus is (currently) on one of the biggest changes anyone can have in their lives – impending fatherhood. 
Just for a moment though, with all the talk of death, I wondered if he’d found religion.

I mentioned the show is a work in progress and what it lacks at present is a clear ending – yes, the Mark Steel-style approach of taking something local-but-a-bit-away and getting a slightly snobbish laugh about it (yep, it was Maidstone) worked, but that story was an afterthought.   The actual last scheduled story was a bit weak.  a shame as the rest really brings home the bacon…
(I wonder if there’s a different special word each show?)

Final thoughts – we arrived 5 minutes after doors opened and were practically the last people in. 
Ashford has a comedy club but it is only held once a month at the Ashford International hotel.  And this show (held, weirdly, at the local private school) was absolutely packed out.
Mark Watson finished by trying to remember where his tour was going to visit, but there was nowhere in Kent. 
There never is once comedians get properly successful – Tunbridge Wells at a push if you are lucky, otherwise it is the 60 mile trek to London. 
But it’s obvious from tonight – this town is starved of the chance to have a good laugh!    
So Ashford’s Future is consulting on what we need in the revamped town and what we need is a decent theatre that can be a comedy venue, get the touring plays, Peppa Pig Live, lectures, proper gigs with bands we’ve heard of – that kind of thing. 
But if we were focused on comedy and music, then that differentiates an Ashford venue from the Marlowe in Canterbury.   
There’s no real comedy festival in Kent (not sure there’s been once since The Mighty Boosh played the Hop Farm near Paddock Wood in 2008?) but given the Continental climate, and huge distance from Edinburgh, that’s got to be worth considering… 
Come on, we need our bread and circuses.