Family travel with flair

The stay-at-home inequality

TweetDavid and Elisabeth* seemed to me a practically perfect couple. Urbane, fun and attractive, they moved to Paris when David’s company transferred him and his girlfriend Elisabeth moved with him. I met them after I’d spent months drinking carafes of red wine alone in cafes, being buffeted by Parisian bureaucracy and inscrutable French mores. They threw dinner parties and cocktail parties and were just generally marvelous. One day, when Elisabeth and I were having afternoon cocktails (a luxury enjoyed by trailing partners and freelancer writers) in some new cafe near the Bastille, she suddenly glanced at her watch. “Oh I have to go,” she said. “David will be getting home soon.” I protested – Have him join us! Let’s eat out! But she was adamant. He would be tired and she wanted to be there and get dinner ready. They were a couple with a most equitable relationship but it was the first glimpse I had at the way expectations (yours and your partner’s) start to sneak into the relationship when one of you is at home during the day. It just makes sense, for example, at our house when a package needs to be picked up from the post office that I swing by. If there’s a prescription to pick up on the way to the Tube, sure, no problem. After all, I’m at home at least part of the day, most days. But then we all get used to those things getting done during the week (instead of eating into valuable family time on the weekend). They become less optional, more compulsory. And one day you have this conversation: “You didn’t pick up my suit at the dry cleaners?” “No, sorry. I didn’t have time.” “I need that suit for tomorrow. You didn’t go down to the High Road at all yesterday?” You can see where this is heading. It’s no one’s fault. But more and more you find yourself taking over the administration of the home until you’re the manager in charge if a quota is missed or a deadline blown. Why does the buck suddenly stop with me? I want to stress that my husband is incredibly supportive of my home-based career and 9 times out of 10, if there’s dinner in the oven it’s because he’s put it there. In fact, I don’t think this is a gender issue at all. It starts out as a logistical necessity and through the daily give and take, one partner just takes it over. So what’s the...

Is being a mother an important job?

TweetAt a school careers day a while back, my daughter knew what she wanted to dress up as: “I’m going as a mother!” she said. Of course that’s FINE. But we talked about how mothers can also be other things, like, y’know, Freudian analysts. In the end she decided to go as Amelia Earhart, whose flying attire is jauntier than that of mothers or shrinks. But in recent years – and indeed recent weeks with the emergence of the “Tiger mother” – the “job” of being a mother has been hotly debated. The mother’s role in her children’s lives and development has been analysed, focussing on one question in particular: How do you best do your job as “mother”? Often it’s described as being the important job in one’s life. And like any job, there are targets to hit, career goals, as it were. Your success is measured by your children’s success and the desired result – violin virtuoso, scholar, what have you. There’s been so much emphasis on the “mother” in that concept and what she should be doing that we’ve overlooked the obviously dysfunctional word: “job”. We would never say our marriage is our most important job or we’re making a career of our role as sister or daughter is. So why define the relationship we have with our children, with all its emotional nuances, as a results-oriented role that we apply ourselves to? All relationships require work. But I don’t want to reduce a rich and varied interplay of personalities and responsibilities into some kind of vocation I’ve hired myself into. This attitude also promulgates the idea that the only opportunity to teach kids is at the piano or over a stack of schoolbooks. Yet some of my most vivid “lessons” from my parents came from watching how they conducted themselves and how their values played out within the family and without. One time, I remember my father and a colleague discussing a university official in their department where they taught design. “He doesn’t know much about art,” they scoffed. “He’s all politics.” I knew in that sentence the importance of study, of earning your position, of focusing on things of value and aligning yourself with people who share your values. Defining parenting as a job ignores the profound influence parents can have on their children by being role models and being present. There’s another thing I don’t like about the idea of parent as job description. With jobs you’re always looking forward to your time...

How much should you supervise playdates?

TweetAnother day, another playdate, another late afternoon wrestling with the dilemma: how much do I need to supervise these little monsters? When it’s just my daughter and her older brother, I’m content to let them disappear for ages, knowing that the older one will keep the younger from practising flying out of upstairs window, and the little one will tell on the older one taking scissors to the soft toys. But when it’s not your own children, the consent forms at hospital can be a bit tricky. A big problem is that tiresome measuring-up-against-other-mothers kind of thing. You know when your child goes to their house, the children play outside in the sprawling garden while mum (it’s usually mum) and possibly the au pair/nanny/resident childcare slave as well oversee the action from the pristine open-plan kitchen. Your child comes back knowing new tricks or having learned how to bake bread, whereas theirs returns with a few tips for effective arson. My husband’s no help, as his attitude veers more toward the “no haemorrhage, no foul” school. And I hate to haunt the children’s social interactions like some Poindexter at the prom. They should explore free play, negotiate their own conflicts. Plus, six-year-olds’ game can be boring. So I’m trying to explore the parameters of playdate supervision. Within earshot but out of sight is OK. What about downstairs when they’re upstairs? What about in my upstairs office while they’re in the garden? Do these rules hold when they want to try some facepainting or holding the pet gerbils? So far the only problem we’ve had was the mysterious disappearance of a bag of sweeties. Is that something I can tolerate in exchange for being able to catch up on email and make some phone calls? Absolutely. (Just don’t tell their mothers.) Image: Boaz Yiftach /

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