Until last week, I hadn’t been in a classroom for two years and three months. It’s safe to say, I am not at the top of my (teaching) game. In fact, when you take my maternity leave into consideration, I have only spent eight months out of the past four years teaching.
Before I had Noah, I was responsible for Key Stage 3 in English (that’s years 7-9 for non-teaching folk). At that stage in time, it was exactly where I wanted to be and I gave it everything I could. When I went on maternity leave, I didn’t dream that once I had a child, I would want to abandon my post and work part-time. But once Noah was here, I could not bear the idea of being away from him so many hours of the week, let alone doing a job where I had to give so much of myself. Teaching is a blood, sweat and tears kind of job and I was already bleeding, sweating and crying profusely just being Noah’s mother. So I left. Temporarily.
And now I’m back. I want to pick up where I left off. When I saw a job advertised for second in department at a secondary school that is a mere hundred footsteps away from the primary school Noah will hopefully be going to in September, I decided that was the job for me. Obviously. What could be more perfect? So I went to the interview and the Head came over to introduce himself to me and the other candidate. As he shook our hands, he clearly wanted to acknowledge that he knew something about each of us already. I was “the one who had been abroad for two years” and the other guy was “the one who had achieved ground-breaking GCSE results at a school where he was already second in department”. And I realised, quite calmly (a bit like how I imagine having an epiphany would be with sunshine and soulful music), that this was a one horse race: I was the horse who didn’t even cross the starting line.
The whole experience of applying for a job, preparing to teach a lesson, standing in front of a class for the first time in two years and going through the interview process (as well as the epiphany) was all a bit draining. A lot draining.
Here are ten differences between a job interview before and after having Noah (and a career break):
Difference 1: Location
Before – I’d pretty much have worked at any school within a 45-minute radius of my house. I’d have had a look at the most recent Ofsted report, browsed the school website and if the role was right and the kids weren’t terrors, I’d have gone for the job.
After – I want to be close to my Noah. My husband works in London. My Dad works in London. My Mum works all over the place. I feel that someone has to be close to Noah whilst he is at school and naturally that person should be me. I’m not sure why my conviction is so strong on this point. It’s what I call my Mother’s Random Logic: weird and probably ungrounded, but intense nonetheless. I don’t want to be more than 20 minutes away from his school. And 20 minutes is a push.
Difference 2: First Reference
Before – When applying for a job in teaching, your first reference needs to be your current employer, i.e. the Head. It’s fairly obvious who to put down.
After – In absence of a current employer, your most recent must be approached as first reference. Unfortunately, the head at the school I worked at for four months just before going to Vienna has retired. I had to send several e-mails before I could ascertain who my first reference actually should be and it turns out it was someone who I have never met…
Difference 3: Availability
Before – When a school rang me up and offered me an interview, I could go. All I had to do was ask for the day off.
After – When the school rang me up and offered me an interview, I informed them I was free between 12.30 and 3.30 on that day. When the school informed me the interview process was actually a day-long thing, I had to find someone to look after Noah. My Dad was working, my Mum had a pupil on a driving test, my husband was going to a funeral. The nursery couldn’t take him for the morning because they were at full capacity. My aunt was a possibility but the issue was with the car seat and ferrying Noah to nursery. In the end, my husband missed the funeral.
Difference 4: Interview Attire
Before – I had a wardrobe full of work clothes. For all of my previous interviews in teaching, I wore a black suit with a jazzy accessory to show, you know, I really am quite jazzy. For the interview at my first school I accessorised with hot pink shoes. At my second, I accessorised with a cobalt blue blouse. At my third, I wore a frilly black and white blouse with a slightly Victorian feel about it.
After – I had absolutely nothing to wear. Absolutely nothing. All of my work clothes have spent the past two years festering in my Aunt’s loft. In anticipation of getting an interview, I ordered three dresses from the Oasis sale. When they arrived, every single one of them was too low cut to wear in the vicinity of teenagers. I then had to drag Noah around the high street, buying outfit choices from Next, Marks and Spencers and Dorothy Perkins, none of which I had time to try on until the morning of the interview. Luckily, one thing fit me: a black and white dress. There was nothing jazzy about it.
Difference 5: Level of Polish
Before – I was pretty well polished when I rocked up on the day of the interview. My hair was blow-dried, my make-up was subtle, my black suit was pressed.
After – I only put mascara on one eye because Noah came in and distracted my attention from the other eye by showing me he had put his own vest and socks on.
Difference 6: The Lesson
Before – I would plan the best lesson it was in my power to create. There at the forefront of my brain would be all the things I needed to include in the lesson: engaging but challenging activities, differentiation, SMSC elements (spiritual, moral, social, cultural), progress, learning objectives, assessment criteria…The list goes on. As soon as I found out the topic of my interview lesson, my brain would be buzzing with ideas. I would be nervous about the lesson, but once I got in front of the class, I switched into role and things came naturally.
After – My lesson was distinctly average. Things did not come naturally.
Difference 7: Interview Questions
Before – I could answer the questions. I knew a time when a child hadn’t done what I had asked of them because it had happened just the day before. I knew how the department would be affected by upcoming changes to the curriculum because it had been the topic of department meetings for months. I knew of a time when I had done something in my role which had made a significant change because I had done it last week.
After – I had a hazy notion I could deal with behaviour and had made positive changes in the past, but the details escaped me. When asked about a time a child hadn’t done as I asked, my Noah’s face loomed into my mind. I am yet to meet a teenager as obstinate as Noah. Teenagers at least pretend they are going to do what you have asked.
Difference 8: Truth and Lies
Before – When asked where I see my career going, I said Head of English. That was what I eventually wanted to be.
After – When asked what I want to be in 5 years’ time, I said Head of English. This is a lie. What I want to be in 5 years’ time is semi-retired from the profession. I want to be standing at the school gate as Noah walks into school and to be there again when he comes out. I want to be a professional writer. I want to have had two books published. I wouldn’t mind having a trophy on my bookshelf for best debut novel or something like that.
Difference 9: The proof was in the pudding
Before – I proved myself at the interview for teacher training, therefore I could train to be a teacher. I proved myself whilst training, therefore I could get a real teacher job. I proved myself at my real teacher job, therefore I could get a promotion with responsibility.
After – The pudding was at a banquet eaten two years ago. In fact, because of changing schools and going on maternity leave, the last set of GCSE results I got from a class that was mine from the beginning to the end of the course was in 2010. And those results were okay. But they weren’t ground-breaking.
Difference 10: The Job Offer
Before – I got every teaching job I went for. I am not blowing my own trumpet. First of all, before I was a teacher, I wanted to be an Editorial Assistant at a publishing company. I went for thirteen interviews before I actually became an Editorial Assistant. Secondly, I was the only candidate at one of my teaching interviews and the only sane candidate at another. But still…
After – Nein.
Have my seven years of teaching really been wiped off the slate? Maybe not all of them – I have had several people contacting me about jobs since I came back. But not jobs that put me right back in the spot where I abandoned my career path. This is all part and parcel of the decision some mothers make to stay at home with their children. It is part and parcel of the decision I made to go to Vienna. For, after all, I was the one with the deciding vote. The hardest thing about being in Vienna (apart from being away from my family), was the feeling of being in limbo: I felt like I had left my life behind in England and had to live in a kind of in-between state of nothingness for two years. I thought we would come back to England and everything would magically be okay. Whilst I thank God every day that I am home, I hadn’t anticipated that settling back in would be so hard. There are so many changes, so many things that have to slot back into place. It will happen. I know it will. But it is taking longer than I thought. And I don’t regret leaving teaching to look after my Noah. I don’t regret it one bit, no matter how much it may have set my career back.
Anyone who knows me, knows my mum even if they have never met her because I talk about her all the time. I talk about her because she is what is commonly known as “a character”. But when I started to think about what to write about my mum on Mother’s Day, I didn’t know where to start. There is too much material. My husband calls her “omnipresent” and he has taught Noah to call her that too. (He has also taught Noah to call her “doolally”…).
To put my thoughts into some kind of order, I am going to write ten (slightly random) facts about my mum which will hopefully serve both to depict her character as well as show what she is like as a mother.
- She always gets what she wants
I am my mum’s first born child. She wanted a girl, a princess, a dolly to dress up. When she was in labour, her midwife was listening to my heartbeat and told my mum that she was having a boy because of the heartrate. “I’m having a girl,” Mum said with absolute certainty (obviously, they never used to tell you the sex from a scan in 1981). The midwife disagreed; she was sure I was going to be a boy. Mum was more sure. Experience and expertise amounts to nothing when my Mum is sure about something. Obviously, I was a girl. In my Mum’s own words: it’s better to be born lucky than rich. Mum was definitely born lucky. She somehow always comes out on top. As my nan used to say, if my mum fell down a manhole, she would come up with a bunch of flowers. My family like a good proverb.
Except there was one time she was wrong…She was convinced Noah was going to be a girl. She was so sure that she bought girl’s clothes in the Monsoon sale almost as soon as she knew I was pregnant. When I had my 20 weeks scan and found out I was having a boy, I was in a state of disbelief. “Are you absolutely sure?” I asked the sonographer. She pointed to his hazy little willy on the screen (which I couldn’t make out myself but trusted she knew what she was talking about). I had so much faith in my mum’s certainty I was having a girl, that I felt a bit shaken. We had actually been referring to the baby as “Nellie” after my Nan. Then I went into Baby Gap and bought lots of boy’s clothes and all was fine with the world. And I wouldn’t change my Noah for no girl.
- When I was pregnant, I nicknamed her Granzilla
My god was she excited she was going to be getting a grandchild. She was, quite literally, delirious with excitement. She bought him several £60 baby grows. Here is an excerpt from one phone conversation a month before Noah was born:
Granzilla: (excited tone) The knitted outfit I ordered to be made has come. It’s so cute! Knitted hat, cardigan, mittens, leggings and booties.
Granzilla: He needs to keep warm. It’s so cute!
Me: What colour?
Me: (incredulous tone) MINK?
Granzilla: (stern tone) You’d better tell me if you don’t like it because it was expensive.
Me: I don’t like it.
Granzilla: Wait until you see it first. Nina thinks it’s cute, don’t you Nina?
Me: I don’t want my son looking like a giant squirrel.
In the run up to the birth, she couldn’t sleep a wink. She said if she could give birth for me, she would. At the time, I thought she was being ridiculous. And then I gave birth. And I understood.
- She could have been anything she wanted to be
She has the kind of brain that can wrap itself around anything. If something’s broken, she will tackle it until it is fixed. When she is reading a detective novel/watching a thriller on TV, she always knows who dunnit. But she left school when she was 15 without any qualifications. She went to work in the family driving school business and later became a driving instructor. She is like one of those cartoon characters whose eyes scroll over with pound signs. She has expensive tastes (e.g. one babygrow for the price of six) and that was no different when she was a teenager. She would save her earnings to buy designer items. “Buy cheap, you buy twice,” she often tells me, lover of Primark and Asda that I am. She has always worked hard, sometimes seven days a week for seventy hours. Even now, approaching 65, she shows no sign of slowing down. Her work ethic is incredible. My sister has inherited it; I have not. I work hard to be the best teacher I can be but I am not interested in making any more money on top of that doing hours of tutoring. I’d rather be poor and have time to read a book.
Of course, she is the best driving instructor there is.
- She is a glamorous woman
My Mum’s outfit for my sister’s wedding cost more than my wedding dress (and my wedding dress wasn’t cheap). She saw a picture of Helen Mirren in a magazine at some awards ceremony and admired her dress. She admired it so much that she scoured the internet until she discovered the source of this dress. My Mum, my sister and I traipsed up to London to this exquisite dress maker and looked at her designs and materials. They were beautiful. Mum designed herself an outfit with minimal help from the shop assistant and picked herself a matching hat. As we left the shop, she decided she wouldn’t get that dress, it was too expensive. A few days later she had decided that yes, she would have that dress: your daughter only gets married once (she hoped). Imagine how many driving lessons she has had to do to pay for that dress. But it made her happy and that’s what’s important in this life, right? “You’re a long time dead,” she says. It was the dress of a film star or a Queen and she deserved it.
- She delights in winding people up
In December, I received a text message from her informing me she had bought me a new set of bathroom towels for Christmas. Towels?? Towels? I didn’t care whether they matched my new bathroom perfectly. I phoned her straight up, full of outrage. I didn’t want towels for bloody Christmas. Ha ha, only joking, she said. Wind up. Noah can often be heard roaring at the top of his lungs, “STOP WINDING ME UP NANA!” and she loves it.
- She is the most generous person I know
My sister and I have always had everything we wanted, as well as everything we needed. We both had sparkly new cars sitting in the driveway on the morning of our seventeenth birthdays. We had the best education. We had the best clothes and the best toys and the best birthday parties and the best holidays. There was nothing we didn’t have. (Of course, this is due to the generosity of my Dad as well as my Mum). It’s the same with Noah. My Mum loves to give. Everyone she knows gets a Christmas present. Do you have to buy that person a present, I ask (usually because I have been tasked with finding the present whilst “nipping” to Lakeside)? Another thing about my Mum: she like to delegate.
- She had the worst gallbladder that Princess Alexandra Hospital had ever seen
A week after my sister’s wedding, my Mum took herself to A&E and was admitted to hospital. Her gallbladder was choc-full with gallstones. They had spilled into the bile duct and were blocking it. Her gallbladder was inflamed and infected. It would have to be removed. Because she was born lucky rather than rich, it was a week after the wedding and not a week before. Last February, she went into hospital to have it removed. It was a procedure that would take 45 minutes. She would be out later the same day. Except it didn’t and she wasn’t. It took five hours and later that same day, she was in intensive care. The surgeon started to attempt to remove the gallbladder by keyhole but had to call in his superior. It was the worst gallbladder they had ever seen. The nurses later told her that she was the talk of the hospital. Hadn’t it been causing her any pain? She shrugged. What is pain to my mother? A minor inconvenience.
It was the worst day of my life. My dad was prowling the corridors of the hospital trying to find out where she was, what had happened? I was at home with Noah and my sister, waiting for news. When she finally came out of surgery, we kept being told “she’s in recovery”. This went on for seven hours and I came face to face with my biggest fear: would she recover?
But she did. After the surgery, she had an infection. The thing that scared me most was that she was out of radio contact. Usually, I hear from her several times a day. She was in hospital for two weeks. She had a week off after that and then she was back on the road. She’s my superhero.
- We have no secrets
It’s hard to keep anything from my mum. She asks a lot of questions. She likes to be aware of every little thing that’s going on. I speak to her every day, sometimes several times a day. Even in Vienna, we Skyped every day. When I was at university, my mum and dad went on a cruise. Mum told me to call her, rather than the other way around because calls from the ship were £4 a minute. My phone bill came to £350 that month. It seems that calls to the middle of the Caribbean ocean cost £8 a minute from a university landline.
She was there at Noah’s birth. Yes, she likes to be involved, but it wasn’t just about that. She’s given birth twice and she wanted to be there to oversee what was going on. It wasn’t just that she wanted to be there for the birth of her grandchild; she needed to see with her own eyes that her daughter was okay, rather than waiting in the corridor for news. Every time I had to be examined by the midwife, I sent my mum into the corner or behind the curtain. Even I have to draw the line somewhere.
It’s unusual to have a mother who knows everything about you, but that’s not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge is that she can’t keep a secret to save her life. One of her sayings: “I know something you don’t know!” said in a singsong, delighted voice.
- Her family is her life
My husband calls us “hillbillies”. My Mum is one of four children. I am one of eight grandchildren. At one stage, we were all living off the same road: us, my grandparents, my two aunts’ families and my uncle’s family. Now my grandparents are gone and my uncle has moved away, but my mum and her sisters are still there, the three witches (Mum being Chief Witch).
- Her love is fierce
It’s the fiercest thing there is. I didn’t really understand how fiercely you could love someone until I had Noah. Sometimes, when I have contemplated whether I will have another child, I have wondered aloud how I could possibly love it as much as I love Noah. How would I find the space inside myself for all that love all over again? How could I carry that much love around with me? Surely it would break me? “Don’t be ridiculous,” my husband once said in response to these musings. “You have your mum’s capacity to love.”
My mum’s capacity to love. But I am not as tough.
I hope I can be half the mother to Noah that she has been to me.
Mum, when I’m with you, I’m standing with an army (as Ellie would say).
Please note: The photos of my Mum in “the dress” were taken by the fabulous David Michael at David Michael Photography who was the photographer at both my wedding and my sister’s. Mum chose him without consulting me. “I’ve booked the photographer, ” she rang me up and told me one day. And I’m very glad she did.