Would you have a baby to stay on benefits, and is all really fair in a world where ovaries & testicles co-exist?

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I heard on the news last week about a man who got divorced 20 years ago. He has since won the lottery, which is probably irksome for his ex-wife, but surely, decades on, doesn’t mean that much?

However, his ex is taking him to court in an effort to get her greedy paws on his millions. How on earth does that work? And do some women have no shame in terms of what they’re willing to take from a man, simply because they’ve spawned some kids?

As far as children go, if you’ve given up a glittering career to have them, then I think you’re entitled to some financial recompense, especially when it comes to the issue of pensions.

My husband’s pension will far exceed mine for example – because, via staying at home once our youngest was born, I have essentially facilitated his career, whilst ignoring my own. I have therefore missed out on years of private pension input. I gave up work when I was slightly further along the career ladder than him… By the time I went back, he had shot up to the heights of head teacher, whilst I stagnated. I have been fortunate enough, since returning to work, to find myself in a school that just happened to need a department lead soon after I joined; this is rarely the case for many of us females, who often have to go back a few career steps, if not to the bottom rung.

In fairness we did discuss the idea of him being the one to give up work for a few years, but I think this was a conciliatory nod to his testicles – in that he wanted to keep them and knows my views on the Man As Hunter Gatherer/Woman As Domestic Slavery debate.

Furthermore, if you’ve both studied hard for years to become qualified, made it in your own careers, and then mutually decide that the female will stop working in order to have children, then that’s a vastly different kettle of fish to if you’ve given up nothing – and have, until divorce, enjoyed not working, with no intention of ever returning.

I’ve been divorced, and I may have been young, but it was traumatic and heart-breaking, racked with a guilt that lasted for many stubborn years. Our families were broken, and luckily we had no children – but even if we had kids, and he won the lottery tomorrow, I would, hand on heart, not be interested in his millions. That would be my fictional children’s entitlement; not mine.

I wonder would the story be different if the lottery winner were the ex-wife? Would she be taken to court? Or agree that she should give him a substantial portion of her winnings? I very much doubt it.

In this age of equality, I cannot fathom that we are still bringing girls up to believe, somehow, that the world and the testicles in it owe them a living. Where is the wish to stand on your own two feet? And why should it be the man’s sole responsibility to support children? Ovaries do play a part in conception.

A ruling came in recently that means anyone with a child aged 5 must go back to work, and if they don’t, then they’ll have to sign on and be monitored in their job hunt. A friend of mine has told me that suddenly, a lot of Year R mothers are sporting bumps again; anything to stay on the benefits. Nothing financial would induce me to have a child in order to avoid work. It’s not even the financial benefits of work that I enjoy so much; it’s the sense of self, the ability to function as ‘me’ and not ‘mummeeeeee’ 24 hours a day.

Benefits are a good thing for those who need them – but there’s a world between ‘want’ and ‘need’. If you’re working as much as you can, whilst turning off the heating so your kids can eat, and going without yourself, then you’re in need. If you’re physically or mentally unable to work, then you’re in need. If you are made redundant or you’ve left education and are job-hunting, then you’re in need. If you have a child who is disabled or you are a carer, then you’re in need. If you have been bereaved, or your life torn apart, or have been diagnosed with an illness, then you’re in need. Maybe you’re a teenage mum with no support from the father of your baby, or you’ve been brave enough to have left an abusive relationship with nowhere to turn. Perhaps you’ve left a relationship your child was being abused in. The scenarios are endless: it’s unquestionable that there are, and always will be, myriad people in society that society should look after, whether long or short-term. After all, who knows when it could be any one of us in need? There but for the grace of whichever god/goddesses you do or don’t believe in.

But if you’re having a financially fine time at the hands of those of us who are working their backsides off to fund your lifestyle, then perhaps you need to take a look in the mirror and consider what your contribution to society actually is? Because it isn’t the government who are paying you – it’s me, and the other squillion workers out there. For each monthly pay check I get, I can divide into hours the exact amount that I’ve gone to work, in order to pay you your ‘income’. And if you fall into ‘need’, then I am happy to do so.

As far as I can see, there are only two sets of people who get heated under their collars during the benefits debate: those who are working hours in order to donate their tax to people who are not legitimately in ‘need’, but simply in a state of ‘want’, and those who are in a state of ‘need’ and know that they are reading this whilst paying for their wifi with PAYE contributions. Those in a state of ‘need’ know that they are entitled; those who are fiddling the system should perhaps take a look in the mirror that the workers of the world paid for.

First published in the Portsmouth News, Tuesday 24th March 2015

Green Salt Soup: What Happens When Partners Can’t Cook

Image courtesy of blog.bookrenter.com

Image courtesy of blog.bookrenter.com

When my husband and I first met, cooking was a shared task, but nowadays the responsibility falls mainly to me.

This arrangement made perfect sense when I was at home with babies, but now that I’m back at work, it seems impractical. However, whereas my cookery skills have progressed during the intervening years, his have, shall we say, stagnated.

I have learnt to bake, use spices, source ingredients and try new things. I am far from Heston Blumenthal, but I have evolved, whereas my husband is the kitchen equivalent of Primordial Swamp when compared to my high-functioning 21st century Kitchen Sapien self.

(I am laughing to myself as I type this, picturing his face when he reads my column next week. Luckily Mothering Sunday will have already occurred by the time it is in print, and any cards or presents will have been gratefully received before he can threaten to withhold due to my teasing.)

In a gallant effort to brush up on his skills, he has claimed Saturday nights as Cooking Night. For the record (and the sake of future birthdays, Mothers’ Days etc), he is usually triumphant in his culinary endeavours. However, last Saturday was a different story.

After meticulously researching a recipe (creamed cannellini beans with spinach and lamb steaks), and after spending quite some time in the kitchen with the food processor, my husband presented me with what is best described as Lamb Steak Surprise. The surprise being that there were any lamb steaks, as one had to dig beneath the layer of Green Salt Soup in order to find them.

Even now, days on, he is adamant that no salt was added, and that the recipe called for a runny texture. I had already seen the online photos though, and remain unconvinced. The photos did not, for example, suggest that the meal would require a bowl and spoon.

The consumption of this meal (partial on my part, though my husband plowed on eating his, merely to prove a point of stubborn pride, I feel), led to much merriment on our parts, and the kind of marital laughter that leaves you doubled over, sides aching, and eyes watering.

Good times – which led me to reflect that laughter, in any family, is underestimated. My husband makes me laugh more than anyone else ever has, and only he will know what it means when I end with 5 little words: “Number 7 on the list.”

First published in The Portsmouth News, Tuesday 17th March 2015

Removing Toys from Their Packaging: It’s Like Disney Does the Krypton Factor

Image courtesy of divinesecretsofadomesticdiva.com

Image courtesy of divinesecretsofadomesticdiva.com

My husband I decided when we first moved into our house, five years ago, that we would one day invest in a cabin bed for Amelie, and that day finally arrived. However, once we had chosen the bed – and paid for it – I thought I’d best have a little look at the online instructions. Which, disturbingly, totalled 24 pages.

The Bed Beast arrived last Sunday at 12.30pm. Luckily the girls were off out for the day, and we cleared Amelie’s bedroom in advance. And yet, despite laying out each numbered pack, and sorting out each different screw into organized piles, The Bed Beast was not complete until 9.15pm.

That is nearly 9 hours of bed construction. 9 hours of life, disappeared down the flat-packed plughole. Which leads me to wonder, how many other hours of my life have I spent constructing, dismantling, or merely undoing, objects for my children?

Take toys, for example. The average toy takes approximately 30 minutes of time, 20 gallons of sweat, and 10 expletives to open. It is easier, and perhaps preferable, to gain entry to North Korea, than it is a Barbie doll.

The plastic ties; the wire ties; the plastic casings; the hermetically sealed boxes. It is like opening Tutankhamun’s tomb, only with less quality riches and a mummy in (only marginally) better shape. I’ve suffered broken fingernails, broken kitchen scissors, and a sizeable contribution to the destruction of our environment due to being festooned in a shroud of plastic wrappings.

And all the while, there is the pressure of your children, who are sat, watching you, whilst you battle on through gritted teeth, pretending to smile at the sheer family fun of it all. It is like Disney does the Krypton Factor.

Once you are red-faced, and slightly teary, with splinters of cardboard embedded under your fingernails, the toy finally emerges from its casings. You remove yourself from the swathes of polythene feeling a little bit heroic, the faint strains of the Chariots of Fire soundtrack reverberating in your ears. You tear aside the caul of polystyrene sheeting that is glued to the sweat on your eyelids, and stumble to your knees at the feet of your offspring. With a flourish of parental pride at the duty of motherhood that you have bestowed up on them, you present The Toy.

At which point, you realise, they’ve already gone, having been distracted by something that Great Aunt No-One picked out of a local skip for them when they were two, and the box that the flatpack bed came in.

First published in The Portsmouth News, Tuesday 10th March 2015

Telling your kids about death. (Hard as hell.)

Image courtesy of itsmoh.tumblr.com

Image courtesy of itsmoh.tumblr.com

It’s a tough day when your kids get hit by the reality that the ‘everyone dies’ rule will not be broken by their own family.

My husband and I have always followed a routine with our girls at bedtime, and each night we tuck them, with wishes for sweet dreams and, usually, a question from our youngest, who uses this as a sly ploy to prolong her awake time.

However, a few months ago, Amelie looked rather more solemn than is usual when posing her bedtime Q. As I leant over to cuddle her, she wrapped her twiglet arms around me and wedged her little face to mine, eyes wide and fervent in the dark.

“I’ll be sad when you die, Mummy.”

Her eyes blurred with puddles of the saddest tears, and she held on tight.

I lied smoothly – for as all adults know, there are no guarantees as to the nasty surprises that life will throw at you on an otherwise mundane Tuesday – and did my best to reassure her that this wasn’t something she need worry about for a long while.

But as I walked away and plodded back downstairs, the unfathomable tragedy of what she’d realized hit me full blow: her innocence is gone, she knows all life will end.

Having experienced the loss of my dad at a young age, I am no stranger to this knowledge, but I sometimes feel an extreme melancholy that I have brought my children into a world to face this fact. I have shown them the wonder of the world in which we live, only to blow it up in their faces by shattering the fantasy with my sharp shards of reality.

There are no easy answers when we discuss life, and I am always blown away with how my girls are, in essence, a tiny pair of existentialists.

I have always been a fan of the philosopher of Heidegger. In moments such as these, we need to remember that there could just as easily have been nothing – and isn’t it astounding that there is, actually, everything.

A particular egg, a particular sperm, a particular split-second in time, and here you are.

And yes, we won’t be around forever to experience this everything, so make sure that whilst you are here, you grab on tight. In fact, it is only by recognizing the sourness of death, that we are truly able to appreciate the sweetness of living.

First published in The Portsmouth News, Tuesday 3rd March 2015