Cotton fleece drifts across a blanket of newly cut green, Easter blue above and below he floats so you cannot see his legs. I climb rapidly to pitches only bats can hear, shriek like a crazy lady, hysterical squawking and frantic scrabbling for long-lost marbles. It’s a fuse-lit hormonal reaction, all-consuming and out of my control. Clifford slouches faux-casually away, hurried to appear as though he’s not actually with me. The cause, a miniature Pomeranian, bouncing at speed towards me in Hyde Park. It was two years ago. I was broody as fuck for dogs.
We’d recently returned from India, bellies full of old monk rum with Goa Sunsplash vibes, and a few months previously from Ibiza; The Big European Road trip down to Barcelona in the Gold Honda Civic. That had been my third time to Goa and for many years it had been this time of year I’d be away, trading freeze for sizzle, gloom for space and air and freedom.
Number One reason not to get a dog: they tie you down. Number Two: splitting from a relationship with a dog is a whole painful custody mess I already knew about. But still, I was broody.
We pass the cherry-screw, plump-and-squish-face of a newborn and I don’t feel a thing. Most babies look like old people, freaky Benjamin Button types with big gapping mouths and puffy skin. They register only with mild irritation at the noise or smell.
**Fast forward two years**
Rather than Goan sand between my toes, glugging a strong dark and stormy, I feel toast between my feet, Frank’s breakfast littered across chilly laminate, the only thing dark and stormy is the January grey knocking and sliding against the window frame. And how do Clifford and I now respond when we see a newborn on TV or meet “a small” in the supermarket? We go mushy as fuck. Real squishy gooey sap. We still go a little cray cray over certain dogs but also we can’t get enough of the old-man, alien-looking, furless breeds either. The type of bizarre enthusiasm that used to weird me right out in other people.
But if you have been paying attention then none of this is new information. I guess my point is: A lot can change in two years.
But also, a lot doesn’t.
It’s a head fuck.
At the beginning of the year I returned to work, which in Covid times means a desk in Frank’s room where we rotate around nap times. I’ve got so much annual leave accumulated over two years (you keep all your holiday when you go on maternity leave) that I’m taking every Friday off until September.
Frank has a spot at nursery for two days a week, but we decided to postpone him starting until some of the madness has shut up. We don’t want him bringing anything home for the Grandparents apart from colourful abstracts and pasta glue contraptions, and we don’t want to go through the upheaval of settling him into nursery for it then to shut once we’ve all adapted to the new way of life.
I need to stop here to say: BIG UP THE WORKING MUMS.
I have nothing but total and utter respect for these incredible women who juggle insane amounts daily with probably little recognition. Being a mum is a job that I love and one that I’m proud to be doing well at, especially on top of working. It feels so satisfying when you are smashing it and so stressful when you aren’t. There always seems to be an element of surviving but now Frank’s a bit older it feels more about thriving and developing too. I can hardly put myself in the working mum clan after just a few weeks, but these are some proper impressive cats.
I was content to return to my nine to six, but that was probably due to lockdown and still doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have taken longer off if I could. My work offers Statutory Maternity Pay* (see below for RANT). Originally, with zero inkling and a whole packet of naivety, I told my work I’d be back after six months. Considering how much a six-month-old baby still needs their mum (possibly even more so for us because of all the lockdowns and social distancing) when it came to it, for us, it was unrealistic that it could ever work without a drenching of tears and a battering of stress on all fronts.
Even now, the grandparents come to my house to look after Frank while I work. Sometimes we go to theirs. Gradually I edge further out of the picture. Slowly he goes whole days without seeing me. Little by little it all becomes slightly more manageable. Working from home, although often chaotic, has allowed for an ease of transition that would have felt brutal had I been back in the office.
While these lockdowns have undoubtedly made our lives trickier they also prevented much spending and therefore allowed me to extend my maternity leave to the full 39 weeks (9 months) that Statutory Maternity Pay offers. Our bank accounts retained some fat and our savings stretched.
One thing people LOVE to tell you when you are knocked up is just how destitute your impending offspring is about to make you. More than once this uninvited exchange left me wondering, exactly how can we have a baby when the Netflix account still gets frozen?
Fortunately for Clifford, I am a million times better with money. Ask Clifford for a packet of fruit pastilles and he’ll come back with two sharing bags and a Cheshire-wide beam. It’s one of my favourite qualities about him, the “everyday should be like a holiday” mentality that makes life worth living and me, I like to think, a better version of myself… But if you are trying to save money or just keep money around it’s also annoying as fuck. Money is a mysterious energy that ebbs and flows about him, one that he doesn’t seem to have much control over. It comes from all directions, always appearing although sometimes much later than required** Clifford refuses to take me out to dinner unless I promise not to look at the prices because I always trash the mood by commenting that everything on the menu is too expensive and attempting to order the cheapest thing without him noticing.
**Insert Note: To his credit, now Clifford is on PAYE and is much better with money these days.
From the instant that blue line appeared on the piss drenched stick we both frantically pooled money like it was going out of print. But we also rapidly learnt that it (well this part at least – we will get to nursery when Frank starts there!) doesn’t always have to be the expense people make it – money is always relative. You can shell out for painted stalks and duck egg changing tables or use a plastic changing mat from ASDA for under a tenner. Even before the baby comes you can do all the pregnancy classes, go on the baby moon, kit yourself out with a whole new expanded wardrobe and bankrupt yourself quite easily with so many gadgets, so much unnecessary “stuff”. I’ve seen things since that I wished I’d had at the time but at the time I never wished for anything more. We were given so much second-hand treasure that we were rich. The baby will be a baby regardless. They don’t care, they just do their baby thing.
**Fast forward two years**
Covid is a two-metered distant dream. We rarely look back although the world is a more sanitised, healthy and balanced planet because of it. We mix and blend and fuse, we come together at parties and move freely through venues and countries. Sound systems boom through gardens in blazing sun as Frank toddles about, pushing the pram of his baby brother…
HAHAHA – joke! Seriously, joke.
There’s no way I can think about anything like that right now. All I’m saying is, a lot can happen in just two years.
In case you don’t realise just how terrible Statutory Maternity Pay is (I didn’t), it’s 6 weeks on 90% of your pay (or £148 a week, whichever is lower) and then £148 a week from the Government for 33 weeks. This makes a total of 39 weeks. You can take up to one year off work for maternity leave, but the remaining 13 weeks would be unpaid.
I’d get the £148 per week if i was unemployed, so there isn’t any contribution from my work past the difference of those first few weeks, which they have to pay by law and which kick in the moment you leave work, never mind when the baby cannon decides to go off. What I mean is you could quite likely be on maternity leave for three weeks before your baby comes, then only have 3 weeks left at 90% pay after the birth. And why not full pay? Why 90%?
The £148 is the same anywhere in the country and in London that really doesn’t go far. It doesn’t cover my half of the rent and bills, let alone food or anything else I’d need for myself or a baby. Formula milk is kept behind the counter in supermarkets because it is one of the products most often stolen. While there are benefits and council homes for single mothers (which of course I am grateful for) if the Dad’s about and earning options drop dramatically. Your regular working Dad is now suddenly expected to widen his wages across three mouths instead of one.
I’ll admit that I’ve made some possibly unorthodox life choices by “normal” standards. I’ve followed my heart and creative pursuits over money but I stand by those decisions today (and I always paid my national insurance!) Maybe you never fucked it all off to go travelling like me or never spunked your wad on a motorbike or two like Clifford. We are, I would say, inherently dreamers and advocates for living in the moment. Any dream or ambition I have ever confided in Clifford, no matter how ambitious, he has never told me I cannot do it – another stellar quality and something I hope Frank understands from us both. But maybe you did play it safe. Maybe you climbed that career ladder and maybe you don’t work in the arts sector. Maybe then you can pop into the Lava Java every morning for smashed avocado while the baby gurgles his daily babyccino.
But I’m not talking about expecting a maternity leave full up of Tibetan singing bowl meditation classes for babies, Starbucks Honeycomb Macchiatos and weekend family getaways to the country. What I’m talking about is just plain SURVIVAL. The very basics of living, of being able to make rent in the same city your employer pays you to live in, to care for your baby properly, to eat healthy home cooked meals and to have your partner around instead of working all the hours they can to make ends meet.
We’re two people who both work hard in 40-hour-a-week relatively “okay” jobs (higher education administration/events management). I don’t think surviving should be too much to ask. But we had to sit down, as I’m sure many people everywhere have had to do before us and work out how we were going to make it work. And that felt scary. We have a strong support network but I am so aware that not everyone can be as fortunate.
I was deeply disappointed in the government, but it came as no shock from the Tories. I was let down by my employer for not supporting me when they claim to be like family.
FUCK STATUTORY MATERNITY PAY.
That is all.