Mamamia! (Part 10) – Am I wasting my education?


This one was published on Mamamia last week.  The topic  means a lot to me (and many of my friends). I hope you like it too:

The article was inspired by remarks made by the Danish Prime Minister – you can find out more about the debate in the UK here:

xx Shanks

A Beiger Shade of Beige

Over the summer, Husband said I had to stop reading porn. He said it was unhealthy for our relationship, it created unrealistic expectations and stimulated desire at inappropriate times. He thought I should be happy with what I’ve got, instead of feverishly pouring (or is it pawing?) through this porn, seeking the unattainable.

He was right of course. I hate it when he’s right (but that’s a whole other blog post). And so, last month I put all my pornography in the recycling bin. Every last magazine: Home Beautiful, Vogue Living, 25 Beautiful Homes…I kept Better Homes & Gardens on the grounds that one day we might get a pet and I may need Dr Harry’s sound advice.

I am ashamed to admit that until recently, I suffered from what could only be described as a First World malady that is self-caused and can be self-cured. It’s called Beige-itis (in psychiatric journals it is also referred to as Immuno-Style Deficiency or I Wish I Could Afford Your Interior Decorator-itis). All around me, I am surrounded by stylish women who live in stylish houses. These houses have the over-sized glass candleholders, the faux-Victorian birdcages and the thigh-high vases with artistically-placed twiggy things in it.

The thing is, I know that:

  • Newborn would impale himself on the over-sized candle holder whilst eating the over-priced organic soy candle it contained;
  • Tercero would use the birdcage to catch lizards; and
  • Secundo would use the twiggy things to toast marshmallows over our cooker.

I know all this, and yet, when I read these magazines, there is something so soothing and seductive about the creamy, antique white, hogs bristley, mocha, latte, beigeness of it all (see pages 5 and 6 of the Dulux colour chart). The walls match the floors which match the sofas which match the curtains which match the cushions which match the rugs which match the abstract art which match the candleholder, birdcage and twiggy things.

I have never been able to match anything with anything. My mother dressed me until I was 18 and after that, my cousins took on the difficult responsibility of choosing my clothes and accessories. If I can’t do clothes, can you imagine me trying to do decor?

Recently our neighbour (an interior decorator who lives in a completely beige house), staged an intervention. She said it was time we stopped “styling” like university students and started styling like adults. She used the inverted commas, not me. She didn’t think that my original Millenium Falcon should have its own display cabinet and she thought we should cover up our bookshelves as they made our living room look like a library.

I have always wanted to live in a library (or the Millenium Falcon).

She also said that your interior decorating has to tell a story – about you. And then I started listening to her and I learnt a tremendous amount from her. You see, I like to tell stories.

My great-grandfather was one of the first people in his small village in Sri Lanka to live in a house made of stone. If we’d stayed in Sri Lanka, we’d be living in a Red Cross tent. Today, our children are not even aware that much of the world still does not live in stone houses.  Or any house. I should remember that.

We are keeping the bookshelves and the Millenium Falcon, we rearranged the furniture instead of buying more and now, when I visit my neighbours, I don’t long for the beige, I see beyond it to the beautiful stories their homes tell me about their lives.

Last night when I bathed Prima (8), Secundo (6), Tercero (3) and Newborn (almost 2), I noticed the different colours of their soft skin – mocha, latte, milk chocolate and beige – my very own Dulux Colour Chart. I didn’t design them, but I co-created them – they are beautiful, they are safely housed and they match.

Perhaps I should have clarified

Husband, hearing and fearing the words “domestic servitude of motherhood” go from my mouth straight to the information superhighway (ie. my grandmother and her speed-dial), decided it was time to staff up and hire an au pair.

This first au pair experience was such an abject failure it was nearly our last. I am currently working through my bitterness using sarcasm. The following is an account of the au pair’s job interview and her answers, which perhaps we both should have clarified.
1. Do you have experience with children?
AP: Yes, I have looked after my young nephews many, many times.
Perhaps I should have clarified: Watching TV whilst your nephews slept after their parents put them to bed, does not count.

2. Do you have experience doing light housework?
AP: Yes, I help my mother at home.
Perhaps I should have clarified: raising your legs as your mother vacuums around you, does not count.

3. Do you have experience cooking?
AP: Yes, I cook for myself at university.
Perhaps I should have clarified: reheating the food your mother prepares for you every week when you return to university, does not count.

4. What do you think the role involves?
AP: Being a part of your family.
Perhaps I should have clarified: watching TV with my children whilst I clean up for you and make you dinner the way I do for my own children, is not part of the job description. Nor is having a tantrum like my 2 year old when you don’t get what you want.

5. Are you able to complete a list of simple tasks by the end of the day?
AP: Yes of course.
Perhaps I should have clarified: “Yes, if some one else does most of it.” does not count.

6. Are you able to help the children with their French classes?
AP: Yes of course, I’d love to.
Perhaps I should have clarified: Swearing under your breath in French does not count.

7. Do you understand English well?
AP: Yes of course.
Perhaps she should have clarified that she understands it very well unless it involves me asking her for help.

And my personal favourite-
8. Do you understand basic child safety and welfare?
AP: Yes of course.
Perhaps I should have clarified:
– leaving the bath tub full of water and the bathroom door open, whilst you go watch TV, and Newborn is walking around, desperate to get into the bath tub, is dangerous;

– leaving Tercero in the bath tub alone is dangerous (he may be a duckling but he can not swim);

– scalding hot bath water is dangerous (here’s a tip: if it burns your hand it will burn their skin);

– leaving sausages cooking unattended on the stove whilst you go have a shower and get dressed is dangerous;

– cooking meat so fast that you serve it raw (because you are in a hurry to sit and “rest”) is dangerous;
– giving Tercero milk in a dirty milk bottle because you are too “tired” (?) to wash yesterday’s fermented milk out is dangerous (although not as dangerous as drownings and house fires I suppose);
– sitting, “resting” and watching whilst Tercero wrestles a crying Newborn (around the neck) is dangerous;
– sitting, “resting” and watching whilst Newborn tries to abseil out of his high chair is dangerous.

By the end of week 1 it was clear we had a problem. I tried various strategies:

1. The Passive Aggressive Approach of doing her chores for her, in front of her whilst breathing deeply in an annoyed manner. This approach didn’t work with husband ten years ago and it didn’t work with the au pair.

2. The Explicit Approach of a clear, simple list of tasks, taped to the kitchen door, with a polite request to use this as a check list to be completed by the end of each day. This approach does work with my children who are genetically list-orientated. It didn’t work with the au pair as she stopped reading after the third bullet point.

Finally it was husband’s approach that worked. We call it the Combined Approach of:

– husband stopping me from doing the au pair’s jobs for her (I was sent out of the house for a few afternoons as husband feared I was about to blow a blood vessel);
– husband observing the au pair do the occasional task in slow motion and then “resting” indefinitely;
– husband giving the au pair constructive feedback which she responded to by watching more television with the children, leaving him to clean the kitchen (I was sent out of the house remember);
– husband feeling like he was going to blow a blood vessel;
– husband actually stopping her from going out on a Friday night until she completed the tasks on the list;
– me finding a replacement as soon as possible.

If we were to give our au pair an Exit Interview, it would have gone something like this:

1. What was the worst part about being an au pair?
AP: Looking after the children.

2. What was the best part about being an au pair?
AP: Watching children’s TV and eating the cupcakes you lovingly made for them.

3. What was the most memorable part about being an au pair?
AP: In the middle of the night I ate two of the 24 cupcakes you made for your daughter’s second grade class, despite a clear request not to. As two children missed out on cupcakes (including your daughter) I had to maintain my lie throughout your attempts to trick me into confessing.

It was the cupcake that broke the mother duck’s back. Actually, it was the negligent endangerment of the little ducklings. The missing cupcakes just gave me something less fatal to focus on.

I find choosing who to entrust our children to very stressful. No, it is terrifying when I think about all the things that could go wrong. I remember returning to work in London after each baby and childcare (not my job) being the hardest part of my professional life. I have always known what an economic privilege it is to have some one help me at home, but this recent experience has reminded me what a blessing it is to have the right person.  It makes me long for our old nanny Nellie. Whilst controlling the Philippina Nanny Mafia of North London, Nellie also loved and cared for our children (and us) as though we were her own.

Through the other information superhighway, I have met the Au Pair Guru, a wonderful mum who is writing an e-book about au pairs for hapless mummies like me. Armed with her very helpful, practical tips on recruitment, the Duckformation Family has entered the au pair world again and another au pair has entered ours. Hopefully this time the experience will be better (and safer) for everyone, most importantly the children. Comfort cupcake any one?