Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at King's College London

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It’s time to give ourselves a break: How to overcome parental guilt during the COVID pandemic

Emma Warnock-Parkes, Clinical Psychologist and exhausted mum of 2, shares 5 strategies for overcoming parental guilt.


Emma and her children smiling and laughing

I’m sitting in a lunchtime zoom meeting of fellow parents working at my university. The topic of discussion is how the pandemic has impacted on us. I’ve never met any of these people before but looking around I know we have one thing in common: we are all knackered. Many of us sit with a child on our lap or one repeatedly appearing in the background requesting more snacks. We simultaneously shovel down some lunch and keep an eye on our emails. As I half listen (a skill many of us have acquired thanks to COVID), I’m struck by the fact that in addition to all being exhausted and desperately needing a haircut, we are plagued with a common problem: guilt.

‘I’m not spending enough time with my kids’; ‘I feel bad they are stuck with me and cannot see their friends’; ‘He should have had a better birthday’; ‘I’ve given them too much chocolate’; ‘they are on screens far too much’, ‘I’ve shouted’, ‘I’ve sworn’, ‘I’m irritable with them’, ‘the house is constantly a mess’, ‘I’m not helping them enough with their school work’; ‘they are falling behind’. The list goes on.

I listen to other mums fighting back their tears as they beat themselves up over what has undoubtedly been the most difficult year of our lives. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with sadness and deep compassion for these amazing women, and for myself. This last year parents have faced unprecedent challenges. We have managed the anxiety and uncertainty of a global pandemic, alongside performing an impossible juggling act that no generation of parents has faced before. We have done all this while adapting to remote working, without our usual social supports, while being stuck inside our homes in an unrecognisable world. Many of us have had to worry about job or financial security, had friends and family who are struggling, coped with illness and loss. So why are we all being so hard on ourselves?

Given what a common experience it is, there is surprisingly little research on parental guilt.
Some psychologists argue that women feel more guilt than men, and that maternal guilt has an evolutionary basis motivating us to provide care (Rotkirch & Janhunen, 2009). One would hope this would change as parental roles become more shared. That said, I just asked my husband what he has felt most guilty about during the pandemic: he has eaten too much ice cream and not learnt enough Italian apparently. As this is a sample of one, and I happen to know Dads who have struggled with COVID parenting guilt, I’ll say no more.

As I listened to other parents talking, it struck me that as a psychologist and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) therapist I know quite a bit about helping people overcome guilt. Yet, like many good psychologists, I’m terrible at taking my own advice. I vowed that later that day I would get out the chocolate biscuits, put on yet another episode of Paw Patrol and give my pangs of guilt a self-therapy session. Here is what I found:

5 CBT tips you may find helpful for addressing COVID parenting guilt:

1) Spot your guilty thoughts.

Guilty feelings are driven by guilty thoughts, so spotting what you are feeling guilty about is the first step to overcoming it. Guilt arises from the perception that we have done something wrong or harmful to another: “should” thoughts. “I should be spending more time home schooling my children”, “I shouldn’t have got so angry” etc. These thoughts leads to feelings of guilt, and at times anxiety or low mood. This can understandably impact on what we do. We might dwell on our guilty thoughts or withdraw from others. This can become a vicious cycle, leading to more negative thinking and guilt:cycle, negative thoughts lead to feeling guilty low, anxious. cycling to behaviors and then back to negative thoughts

If you feel parental guilt about many things since COVID began, try to spot the thoughts that
makes you feel most guilty. For me this is not spending enough time with my kids.

2) Are you as responsible as you feel?

Feeling guilty does not mean that we are guilty, it may mean that we are taking on too much responsibility. A helpful CBT technique here is drawing out a responsibility pie chart. It can help you to see that there might be other factors that have some responsibility. This is done in 3 simple steps:

Step 1: Start by writing down how responsible you feel. For me, as Netflix helpfully asks whether my children are still watching Paw Patrol, I write, ‘I feel 100% responsible for not spending enough time with my kids during the pandemic’.

Step 2: Write a list of all the other factors that can take some responsibility. Here I write down: the COVID virus; the government for poor outbreak management leading to childcare closure; people who did not follow guidelines early on; my work; my husband; myself.

Step 3: Allocate percentages of the pie to each thing on your list (make it add up to 100%). Give a percentage to all the other things first, ending with yourself. Then draw out the pie chart. This is what I ended up with:

My Responsibility Pie Chart: 

pie chart of my responsibilities: me 5 percent, my husband 5 percent, governtment 30 percent, covid-19 40 percent, people not following guidance 10 percent, my work 10 percent.

Drawing it out is a powerful reminder that despite feeling 100% responsible, we really cannot blame ourselves for a global pandemic and the impact it has had on our lives.

3) Focus on what you have done, not what you haven’t.

The pie chart helped, but I still feel some guilt. Guilt is often maintained by discounting what we have done, and instead focusing on what we have not. I spend a few moments writing down the things I have done for my children during the pandemic. I find this hard, so ask my husband to help. I also look back through the photos on my phone for the past year. This surprises me. I half expect to see nothing but photos of my children screaming through my zoom meetings as I throw snacks in their general direction. What I see instead is smiling faces in the garden, happy walks in the park, a couple of outdoor meet-ups with friends and family last summer, even a few shots of them eating fruit, instead of chocolate. All of these memories have been totally blocked by my feelings of guilt.

What strikes me is I how much I have done this last year to get us through. If I had time to frame or make a collage of these photos I would. I clearly don’t (cue more guilty thoughts). Instead, as a reminder of what I have done, I save one of us all smiling as my phone screensaver. It is an exercise I thoroughly recommend you try.

you have done much more than you think. Give yourself some credit.

4) This year has been hard enough, so do what’s helpful.

Self-criticism and guilt go hand in hand and may have become a bit of a habit. It can help to explore what impact this is having on you and your family. Ask yourself:

a)Is being hard on myself helping us at all? For me, the answer is no.

b)Are there any disadvantages? For me, it makes me feel rubbish and much more in my own head, which in turn makes it harder to have fun with the kids.

If beating ourselves up is not helping us, or our children, it is probably a good idea to try to notice when dwelling on it, and to let it go. For me this includes dropping my standards. The kids won’t be getting any home-made hummus this year, and that’s ok (to be honest they only did once before COVID and, on account of it tasting like Polyfilla, nobody ate it anyway). I realise comparing myself unfairly on social media has not been helping. An Instagram photo only shows a one second window into the lives of others. You may see little Jessica eating a rainbow food bowl or practicing her phonics, but what you don’t see is the tantrum and screen time that come after. I decide to unfollow all the mummy food accounts on Instagram that tend to make me feel bad about myself. Quite frankly, if any of us manage to throw the occasional bit of broccoli in with the fish fingers this year, we are winning.

“Try not to compare yourself to other parents on social media.”

5) Be kind to yourself – What would you tell any other parent?

Thinking of the compassion I felt upon hearing my colleagues’ struggles, I remember how key it is to tune into kindness for yourself when struggling with guilt.What would we say to any other parent who has gone through/is still going through what we have? I spend a moment thinking of a close friend of mine who has had a hard year juggling work and kids. I first imagine what I would say to her. When I tune into my feelings of compassion, I then start writing a note to myself:

‘Dear Emma, give yourself a break! You have done the best you possibly could in the hardest year of your life. You’ve juggled full-time work and childcare for two children during a global pandemic. All while getting used to working at home, away from family and friends, with little sleep and no break. You deserve a medal rather than being so hard on yourself. Extra TV and snacks is essential COVID survival. You are doing a great job, even if you don’t feel like it. Be kind to yourself.’

Writing a compassionate message to yourself and reading it back may feel like a strange thing to do, but I wholeheartedly recommend trying it. Once you have, try to plan in a regular small act of self-kindness. I make a plan to take a proper lunch break away from the screen each day that week and read a little of my book (and when I managed it, it felt amazing). Our children can only benefit from treating ourselves a little better.

Feeling a little lighter, I close the laptop and turn off Paw Patrol. Once the whinging about the TV going off has stopped and I have mediated another row over Lego, my eldest son digs his elbow into my tummy, “squidgy mummy” he reminds me. He spots the exasperated look on my face and corrects himself: “you are the best mummy” he says.

For once I decide to let myself believe him. And you know what? The rest of the afternoon felt a little better for it.


If you are struggling with excessive feelings of low mood or anxiety, do reach out for help. Many employers, including my own university, offer psychological support through employee assistance programmes. There are helpful resources, including information on accessing talking therapies, on the Every Mind Matters NHS page.

NEST is our dedicated staff network for supporting parents and carers at King’s. they provide support to staff with parental and/or caring responsibilities through a range of events, an online community, and by offering guidance and representation at a strategic and policy level. You can find our more about NEST here.

LGBTQ+ History Month: Oh What a Privilege – On Being a Bisexual Mum

For LGBTQ+ History Month, EDI Consultant Nicole Robinson writes about bisexuality, being straight passing and motherhood. 


My new portfolio leading King’s work on LGBTQ+ equality has been an exciting opportunity since I returned from maternity leave in September after the birth of my son in May. My new programme of work, whilst being very early into my new role as a mother, combined to reinforce and refresh in my mind my role as someone who is straightpassing. Someone who is straightpassing is someone who, in their dayto-day life, is presumed heterosexual. 

I identify as bi. I have been with my husband for ten years and my entire adult life, since we were 17. I understand that I have the privilege to hold my husband’s hand and walk down the street without fear, that our marriage took literally days to plan and was uncomplicated (I highly recommend eloping to your nearest registry office with no guests), and that our decision to be together is respected and not questioned.

I also know, and feel deeply, that my life could have been very different if the person I fell in love with, and chose to spend my life with was different. It is very strange to deny a huge part of my life; the confusion of working out who I was attracted to (thank you for your help in those early years Sugar Rush and Skins), the women I’ve loved, the challenges of coming out and being outed and of course, the feelings and attractions that I continue to have.

I often wonder if my relationships with friends and family would be the same if my partner was different, if I would have the same conversations. In most circumstances I know that wouldn’t be the case. It’s also working out who my son will understand me to be. In the years ahead I’m more likely to be covered in glitter at messy play than at Pride, and my Friday nights are currently less Soho streets and more likely ending up reading depressing forums about what mums would do if their children came out to them during night feed number 308537Being in a long-term ‘functioning heterosexual relationship’, whatever that is, a mother, and someone who is quite introverted, means that my life and my lifestyle don’t often match up with what is understood to be LGBT or queer culture. 

When you’re straight passing, it isn’t that you’re unaffected by homophobia or biphobia, it is that it affects you in a different way. Instead of it being immediate and direct, its being stuck in conversations where you must run through several decisions. Do I correct them? Do I call them out on their behaviour? Do I come out to them? Will that put me at risk? What will that mean for this relationship going forward? For my place in this environment?  

Motherhood is a powerful time where ideas around your own identify are thrown into a whirlwind. Returning to work can complicate this even further, and so now more than ever, its important to reaffirm my identity and my sexuality. Being bi is an immutable part of who I am, and an important part of my work as an EDI practitioner.  

I hope that with more visible people at King’s sharing their experiences, more of our colleagues will start to question and acknowledge their own assumptions around who LGBTQ+ people are, what our experiences are, what our families and lives look like, and what we contribute

If I could turn back time…

I turned 48 a few weeks ago and tomorrow one of my daughters, the first one that I physically grew in my womb, turns 16. In between, I had the enormous pleasure and privilege to see the wonder that is Cher. An iconic performer who defies every stereotype as she kills it at the O2 at 73 (nearly the same age as my mum!)

These life events have me pensive and reflective about age. We don’t talk about Age as a protected characteristic so much. Let’s start with the Equality Act 2010 that says that you must not be discriminated against because:

  • you are (or are not) a certain age or in a certain age grouppare
  • someone thinks you are (or are not) a specific age or age group, this is known as discrimination by perception
  • you are connected to someone of a specific age or age group, this is known as discrimination by association

Age groups can be quite wide (for example, ‘people under 50’ or ‘under 18s’). They can also be quite specific (for example, ‘people in their mid-40s’). Terms such as ‘young person’ and ‘youthful’ or ‘elderly’ and ‘pensioner’ can also indicate an age group.

My own attitude to age and aging is something I have been thinking about. It’s both really important and at the same time totally irrelevant. I regularly find it hard to believe I am a grown-up, with a driving licence, mortgage and children, let alone that I’m 48. Sometimes I try and deny it. Other times I am proud of it. I both love it when people say that they can’t believe my age and feel annoyed with myself for caring.  In some ways, age equals experience. The older you are, the more you have had a chance to accumulate amazing and interesting life experiences. In other ways somehow, a greater age makes you more irrelevant and takes you further away from the zeitgeist. Don’t even get me started on what is considered stereotypically or acceptably beautiful or attractive, though I am not stupid enough to believe that I am not affected by those stereotypes!

Today as I write, I think back to this time 16 years ago. I was in labour from the evening of 3 Nov to the early hours of the 5th.  So, on the 4th of November, I was mostly rolling around on a birthing ball in my bedroom and then languishing in the birthing pool at St Georges Hospital in Tooting as medical students came to study me and the wonders of birth. Part of me remembers it vividly and that memory is helped by having found a video of bits and pieces of the day.

I look back amused. At the time having the baby was a big mystery to me. That this person that was growing inside me had to be delivered safely; that it would be painful, possibly traumatic or dangerous, then I would have a year off work: these were all I could really get my head around. Some things were so real – the size of my tummy, the fact I hadn’t seen my feet for some time; some so abstract –  motherhood, parenting. And no one tells you about the amount of physical discomfort and unsavouriness involved. I will still never forget waddling to the shower to try and clean up post-birth.

It’s a total cliché to talk about the difference children make to your life. I was already a step-parent, so I had some idea. But knowing someone from the second they arrive in the world, and someone who is entirely dependent on you is a whole different ballgame.

In the parenting lottery, I’d say we’ve had a relatively easy ride. We were both earning decent money and have continued to do so. We both have supportive families. We both have supportive employers. Kaela has been a pretty healthy child – no more than the odd cough or cold. We did have to work through some speech delay and hearing loss issues, all of which – courtesy of our lovely NHS – were addressed by the time she started school.

The day-to-day chat about being a parent revolves around, money, childcare, feeding, providing, choosing schools: all very tangible stuff.

What we miss in the everyday chat is what a  remarkable thing it is to be responsible for someone and to watch them grow and develop. From emerging from your body and finding your breast, to discovering their own limbs and moving independently. I didn’t realise those early months when I felt utterly overwhelmed and constantly terrified were the easy part. Yes, I didn’t know what she wanted or was thinking but I could guess and I could keep her fed, warm, safe. She was portable and stayed in one place when I put her there.

Once a child progresses into toddlerdom – into independent thought, but not yet reason and rationality – the angst and emotion they express and explore through learning about the world is both hilarious and stressful. This shifts to the joy and heartbreak as they enter school and start to make friends or learn that not everyone likes them, all the time, and that the warmth of their home is not universal.  Through the difficult moments when your adoring children start to realise that you, ‘Mummy’, are not perfect, you don’t know everything, you can’t make everything better. Until the point where they really start to pull away from you and want to assert their agency.

That is when as a parent you are slightly relieved of responsibility but start to worry more because, in many ways, they are even more vulnerable in their teens than when they were new-borns. They are viewed and judged by the world as young adults, independent capable beings, while they still lack the life experience or tools to work out what to do.

Then they turn 16 and get all these ‘legal rights’. The ones we tend to know about are legally being able to buy tobacco products and consent to sex (here’s hoping that everyone gets to make educated, safe, consensual choices). But also a range of stuff including applying for legal aid, receiving a youth rehabilitation order, being detained in custody, leaving home without a parent’s permission, getting married with a parent’s permission, choosing their own doctor, consenting to their own medical treatment and starting to have to pay for prescriptions, earning minimum wage of £4.20, drinking beer, cider or a glass of wine with a meal in a restaurant, buying a National Lottery ticket or Premium Bonds, flying a glider, ordering their own passport and riding a moped with a maximum engine power of 50cc.

How on earth can there be this cliff edge where they go from being children to adults? Googling that list has made my mind boggle – how can so much become possible because of an arbitrary day in the calendar?

Needless to say, I love Kaela very much and her turning 16 will be a source of family joy and celebration. It is also a sign of my age and stages of my life progressing.  It has made me think a lot about my mum who I haven’t always had the greatest relationship with. I know she would lay down her life for me, but parenting in the 70s and 80s wasn’t about building a relationship in the same way as it is now – or at least it wasn’t in my family. The years pass quickly and soon Kaela will move on to her independent adult life like her two older sisters, and Lyra (currently 13) will follow her. Our family dynamic will change, and we will all adapt and form new relationships but as I type here with tears in my eyes there will always be that memory from the first moments I saw her after she popped out in St Georges.

As I said, the law at work protects us from age discrimination – and from being discriminated against when we are pregnant. These are important protections. But what the law can’t account for is how each and every one of us has a different parenting experience and family dynamic. That’s where we as individuals and as employers need to develop our working practices and support so that everyone feels able to be themselves and can discuss what is needed to accommodate them and help them be their best at work.

So happy birthday to all those children turning 16 out there – launching out onto the new stage of life. And a big shout out to all the parents and carers who have guided them to that stage. As I know now with two children in their 20s, parenting, like diversity and inclusion, has no endpoint. It is all a series of stages, adjustments, and adaptations – and hopefully each day we find the joy.

Love Equality #Tellyourlovestory

I’ve been in a particularly reflective mood recently.  This last May saw a personal milestone that simultaneously filled me with joy, surprise, pride, and a little horror: my partner and I celebrated 20 years together!

Horror, because to have reached 20 years in a single relationship makes me feel ancient. I have a particularly difficult and incongruent set of thoughts around age (which for the record is a protected   under the Equality Act). Age is just a number and shouldn’t in and of itself be loaded with intrinsic value.

But! We all know it is.

On the one hand, age has given me experience and seems now to automatically lend me credibility at work – several colleagues have mentioned their youth giving them imposter syndrome, feeling as though they are taken less seriously.  At some point, as a woman, in your 40s, there is also some weird voodoo that occurs where you become invisible or irrelevant in many circumstances.

As well as the existential navel-gazing about age prompted by a 20-year anniversary, marveling at a chance meeting at a fancy dress party themed around song titles (I dressed as 99 red balloons – Jon for the record came in his everyday work suit claiming to be a ‘Sharp Dressed Man’!). It was also 1999, hence the celebratory balloons, that baffled most, that Jon bought in a grand romantic gesture.

I have come to recognise our achievement in being willing and able to work through the ups and downs and often unbelievable challenges of having 2 (mostly) full-time careers whilst co-parenting our blended family of 4 daughters (step and birth for me).

If life has taught me anything it is that there isn’t any ideal. There is what works for you, what makes you happy and brings you joy – if you are fortunate or for many, there is simply what life serves up. Married, heterosexual, monogamy is not an ideal it is just what we are (mostly) brought up to believe is expected!

I celebrate this anniversary recognising that we are conditioned to believe certain things are  ‘ideal’ and that what we enjoy isn’t always been a legal possibility, for all people.

Growing up it never occurred to me that I (or anyone else) would have a relationship with anyone other than someone of the opposite sex. As I have matured and discovered more about myself and considered more honestly what attracts me to people, I believe that given ‘permission’  I would have explored a wider range of relationships earlier in my life and would do should I ever find myself open to new romantic relationships.

At the time we decided to get married, the law defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Neither of us practiced a faith and neither of us was that enthused at the idea of getting married per se, but we did want to celebrate our relationship and give each other the benefit of legal protections. Plus, we wanted to demonstrate our commitment to each other publicly as well as share our love with our friends and family (despite the fact my mother told several guests at the wedding that she had ‘given up’ on me getting married). That same year our brother’s in-law celebrated their love but couldn’t ‘get married’ being two men.

It’s heartening that today the choices of marriage and civil partnership are available to many more people regardless of sexual orientation.  These are also characteristics protected by the Equality Act.  Though, let’s remember, it is still not yet a right available to our Northern Ireland brothers and sisters though hopefully, this will change this October!

In 2019, it might seem archaic, but we also need to remember that it was not so long ago that married women, or women with children, had to leave employment. This piece of history is part of the reason we have female underrepresentation in our workforce.

So back to thinking about age and time, my life philosophy is that there’s little point in carrying around regret – we should learn from our experiences but not dwell or wallow in them. I am who I am because of all the experiences I have had the chance to have, not least, the 20 years of my relationship. They accumulate into me being the middle-aged (47-year-old) woman,  mother of 4, who, against all odds, doing a job I love at an institution that fills me with pride, whilst sharing my life with someone who has been willing to work with me day by day to build our mutual life. A living, breathing example of intersections, age, parenting and marriage that can get lost in the regular diversity discussion.

How one parent-carer started a PhD at King’s (and managed to keep her sense of humour)

In recognition of Carer’s Week, we are publishing a very special, anonymous story of a PhD student at King’s, who is also a carer for her son. You can find out more about Carer’s Week on their website, check out the many events happening at King’s, and see the many messages of support for carers from the King’s community on the KCL Diversity Twitter


I became a carer when I became a parent. I was a carer when I returned to academia to become a PhD student. I have been a carer for 19 years and a PhD student for six years. I will be a carer for the rest of my life.

I am also a researcher in a ground-breaking, exciting multidisciplinary field, working an exciting new discipline, with a public engagement track record and sought after as a lecturer at a number of universities in the London area.

But I need to take a break to appeal my son’s PIP decision. This is the second time I have had to do this during my PhD. The last appeal took eight months. My son won, of course. I have also spent the last two years trying to get our local Adult Social Care team to recognise that he is eligible for support under the Care Act. If I stop supporting him, who will?

I was genuinely astonished when I came to King’s in 2013 to find that there was no support for and no recognition of carers. No financial support: no bursaries and no fee waivers for example. And no support networks. And I looked everywhere. I went from faculty to department to doctoral studies to funding office to various student advice and support teams and representatives and so on. One year I was introduced to the KCLSU president who said to me: ‘Oh I know about you – you’re the student carer!’ It was as if I was asking to go to the moon. Except for the Chaplaincy – they got it, and they were great.

In my life outside academia I had led parent-carer support and advocacy groups, I had considerable experience in engaging with statutory authorities and policy makers, and was a trustee for the national charity supporting my son’s disabilities.

After all these years of campaigning – it was about 12 years or so, I really thought we had managed to make a difference in this world – why was I having to start campaigning again and alone for my own case as a self-funded PhD student carer? Does it piss me off that there is no discretionary funding or scholarships to support carers to do postgraduate research and that we are competing with straight A students, with no space to disclose our circumstances? Why yes, it does!

After a few years I decided not to be angry and to find my own way through academia, and I am happy! I found my niche and my tribe, people who share the same view of academic working style and research outputs. I no longer feel inadequate and excluded when someone talks about their 60 hour week as a lecturer.

I have started to develop a research methodology and output that engages with diversity and has public engagement impact on diversity. This is one hundred percent related to my experience of raising a child with a life-limiting illness, brain injury and disabilities that meant he was often hospitalised, sometimes in intensive care, frequently excluded from school until he was sent to a residential boarding school and lived in a children’s home setting from Monday to Friday, and from the violence I have experienced from him.

But for now I have managed to keep my sense of humour and my health. I love my son, I have a supportive supervisor, partner, dog, and a strong network of like-minded researchers, I take my daily anti-depressant, I am happily plodding along with my never-ending PhD, I enjoy my new career as an hourly-paid lecturer in my unique and ground-breaking multidisciplinary specialty (I put that in twice on purpose, makes me feel good to say it), my son is staying safe and out of hospital, his seizures are under control … it never ends.

 

#WomenofKings: Em Flemming

To celebrate International Women’s Day and #WomenofKings, we have invited the panelists who will be speaking at our Elevate – Gender Equality Network launch, to reflect on finding their own leadership. Em Flemming, one of our Parents & Carer’s Network chairs, speaks about leadership as having a vision of success AND a strategy for everyone to be able to be part of it.

I never planned on finding myself in an official position of leadership, so sitting down to write this feels both exciting and a bit scary. Imposter syndrome’s whiny little voice loves to ask me why I think I have the right to hold forth on, well, any topic really but this one in particular is a doozy. What do I know about leadership?

I know what I value in a leader – someone who knows where they want to go, and is committed to bringing others along with them. Someone who can see the bigger picture, and communicate it clearly to those around them. Someone who is excited for the future, for change, but doesn’t forget that everyone will be at a different stage in the journey.

It’s a leader’s job to get to the top of the hill, check out the view on the other side and shout back to the whole gang to come and see how amazing it is. It’s their job to work out how everyone is going to get up there, and down the other side. Even the people who really hate walking up hills. Especially the people who really hate walking up hills. Good leaders look out for those guys.

Leaders are those people who see when things aren’t working so well, and bring people together to make them better. King’s vision is to make the world a better place, and mine is to make my bit of King’s a better place – whether that’s for my immediate team, for the part of the university I work in, or wider as part of cross campus initiatives like the Parent & Carers network.

So perhaps I didn’t plan on becoming a leader, but I know what kind of leader I want to be. And I was brought up in the Pennines, so I’m pretty good at getting up hills. Watch this space!

Have you heard the one about two parents, two teenagers, a preschooler and a toddler?

To launch the Parents & Carers Network at King’s, Sarah Guerra has republished an article she wrote with her husband, Jon, eight years ago on the logistical roller coaster of co-parenting and career management:


SARAH: I work three days a week: the other two I have off – lunching, drinking coffee, doing my nails! Ha!

Yesterday, awoke at 6:30 to the sounds of pouring rain and raging wind. Threw on clothes, dashed around in the peace and quiet before the children got up – first load into the washing machine. Assemble lunches for the two older (step-)children (Martha, 15, and Flora, 13) – set them out so they practically trip over them and ‘cant’forget them. Got Kaela, 4, ready for nursery. Suggest Jon (partner) drop M & F off as the weather is so horrid.

Then get youngest, Lyra (18 months) up and breakfasted whilst whizzing up some soup and a chicken pie. Oh, what’s the time? 9am – rang the garage to check when a replacement car is arriving – ours needs repairing. Eventually, I discover it will be after 2pm. Then I luxuriate in my ten minutes of peace before Lyra and I are off swimming. It is now a beautiful spring day. Post swimming, shovel lunch into Lyra and race to collect Kaela at 1pm. Now (of course) it’s pouring – so decision to wear sandals and no coat is regretted!

Get home, pop Lyra into bed. Have given up filling this time with wholesome activities – so settle Kaela at TV while I sort the laundry and reload with the third and (please?) final lot! Swallow some soup while supervising the making of daddy’s birthday card.

2:30pm: off to speech therapy (a helpful mum arrives with her two children to watch Lyra). Kaela loves these sessions and though it’s of real benefit, it is yet one more thing to factor into the already mad schedule. As luck would have news of the replacement car’s availability arrives in the middle of the session. To leave Kaela, I have to scribble a written consent and dash back Starsky and Hutch style to swap cars. I retrieve Kaela and return home – it’s our turn to host ‘tea group’, which began as four or five stunned mothers and newborns and is now the utter mayhem of five mothers and nine assorted children ranging from one to four and a half.

I get tea on the table for all the children at 4.45pm – and have to say am very pleased when my chicken pie is wolfed down by everyone, apart, of course, from Kaela – who (as children do) has developed a bug in minutes and is shortly asleep! So, I despatch all the invaders and dash around tidying with my shadow Lyra. Have definite pangs of guilt over my conflicted emotions – if Kaela is ill, my week will be spoilt. I’m supposed to be at the Women’s TUC for two and a half days, which I have been really looking forward to, and that rests on Kaela going to nursery; if she’s unwell she can’t go. This spirals into a panic about what byzantine arrangements might be needed and weighing up how evil it would be of me to go when she is ill?

Martha and Flora arrive home – starving. In goes another chicken pie, meanwhile Kaela wakes, eats some toast and an unfeasible amount of jelly. I’m relieved, our schedule will not be disrupted.

Get two ‘babies’ in bed by 7.30, organise other’s homework, lunches, school trip forms etc, gobble chicken pie with my husband, then do the supermarket shop online, make some desperate attempts to manage our finances – shifting money from one place to another – but we are really in a deckchairs-on-the-Titanic situation. Unload that last load of washing. Then, in the vain hope of switching off, settle down on the sofa! But no, my mother (our unpaid childminder for tomorrow) decides now is the time to estate plan. It really brings home how effective the anti-IHT lobby is: my mum is so worried, and seems little reassured by my ‘you’re not rich enough to worry about it’ line.

Finally, at 9.30, I slump on the sofa and force Jon to watch Delia use various forms of frozen potato to conjure up “good meals”.

JON: I’m part-time too – four days a week. I spend the other day reading the paper and going to the pub… What? Oh all right then, not really: I do the same sort of thing as Sarah  – but in a manly way (that means I do less of it).

Typically, up at 6.30ish, unload the dishwasher. Then I wash all the dishes (must get a new dishwasher). Kaela is up around 7.00, demanding to watch some highly educational TV?

Martha and Flora come down 7.20ish – head off to school, might even take coats if the snow is more than a foot deep.

Under Kaela’s strict guidance, I select and bring down clothes, facilitating dressing whilst glued to the screen – pause viewing (aren’t hard discs wonderful?), and force her upstairs to clean teeth. Get Lyra up and dressed to take Kaela to nursery. If things go well (manageable nappy change; no last-minute, 20-minute session on the loo – for Kaela, not me), I can drop Kaela off by 8.00 and be back for breakfast shortly.

Then I consult ‘The List’. The importance of this document in the harmony of our household cannot be overstated. It tells me jobs that I ought to know need doing and the events of the day that I ought to remember. Needless to say, this is written by Sarah, who after years of waiting for the fog to lift from my mind about knowing what’s going on in the house, knows life is easier if she spells it out to me. So, I’ll then maybe empty the washing machine before spending some time with Lyra. It’s possible that Sky Sports might be on while we play – what can I do? It’s Lyra’s favourite!

Then I might take Lyra to music and/or push her through a couple of shops (she’s in a pushchair – it’s not abuse). Home for lunch, which she generally wolfs down although a full body bib is required. Then up to nursery and back to get Lyra in bed.

Kaela watches more telly or does some drawing or a puzzle while I do more from the list, including making tea because time gets compressed later in the afternoon. Then I join Kaela, trying to bring some order to her play. When I’ve completed my Lego hospital with fully-functioning operating theatre I realise she went to do something else a while ago and it’s time to get Lyra up and head to Kaela’s swimming lesson.

Pre-swimming they go in the playzone – cages with padded bars, slides and lots of plastic balls. Lyra loves it but is a bit small, so I end up having to squeeze through gaps too tight for a man of my dignity to rescue her at the bottom of the slide; at which point she goes back round and ends up stuck at the bottom again. If I’m quick getting out between each round I can sit down for as much as 30 seconds at a time. Martha and Flora arrive to do something healthy – swimming or gym – although I suspect that, just as school seems to be a place to chat with their friends, swimming is chatting in water and gym is chatting on treadmill. On to Kaela’s lesson. Lyra objects violently as I strap her into the pushchair to help Kaela into her costume. Getting a swimming cap on over long hair is a skill I’ve picked up recently!

Kaela has become firmly opposed to going in the boy’s changing rooms, so to avoid arguments I let Martha and Flora get her showered. Between 5:30 and 6:15, we go home for tea. As Sarah has ensured I’m very organised, tea is ready and two, three, four, five or six of us sit down to eat, depending on who’s home. Time for Lyra’s bath – Sarah might get home and the pace considerably increase – we get them into bed and sort the debris of the day, and the older girls’ and maybe have a chat. But I’ve opened a bottle of beer by now, so everything’s good. It’s back to work the next day. I can’t wait!

Milestones

So it’s been a pretty epic month.

There’s been a huge milestone in my life, in my family’s and in my daughter’s. Lyra our youngest child, our ‘baby’ finished primary school! Starting there at the age of 3, she’s barely missed a day of in nine years is now leaving that stability and familiarity behind. I personally changed primary school 3 times and have often felt that didn’t enable me to establish really strong roots or relationships.

  

This milestone, whilst common, has been precious and emotional. It requires me as a parent to recognise that it is a period of change and that I need to support my child through it – something that takes time and energy alongside a busy working life. As a parent I spend a lot of time willing my children’s lives forward as each step of growing up and gaining more independence makes the parental work-life juggle just a little easier (usually!).

But with each step forward, each milestone naturally comes more change. Franciscan School has been part of my life for about ten years. Both as a parent and a governor, I have built relationships – and friendships – with staff and parents. This change, losing that everyday connection that her primary school gave me, left me an emotional, blubbering wreck, barely able to speak as I collected Lyra for the very last time.

This milestone leads me to reflect on being a working parent – the joy and richness it brings but also the energy, rigour and planning it takes. I’ve been a parent since I was 28. Firstly, as an on-and-off-again ‘step’ parent, then giving birth to my own children in my 30’s. In those 20 years I’ve taken the lead responsibility of scheduling our lives around drop offs, pickups and the amazing scheduling jigsaw that life of a school age child is. And as soon as you have all the pieces in place, you hit another milestone – another life stage or activity, changes to  childcare or illness that throws out all the pieces of your carefully pieced together puzzle.

It should then come as no surprise that I am an advocate of supporting new parents take time to celebrate and cherish those milestones. At King’s we have the Parents’ & Carers’ Leave Fund, which is designed financially support academic and research staff take time out to experience these precious moments and then get back on their career path.

It really does take a village to raise a child and I am forever grateful for my hodgepodge network of grandparents, older sisters, extended family, friends and childcare – Lyra goes on to a new phase and that is super exciting. I know it doesn’t actually get easier but I am going to take a short time to both mourn what is gone and celebrate the next milestone to come.

 

Home and Kawaii

It’s my first day back after a fabulously, mind-blowing family holiday in Japan – Tokyo and Kyoto. I am a mum of 4 in a blended family – I am step mum to Martha (25) and Flora (23) and ‘birth’ mum of Kaela (14) and Lyra (11).

The trip to Japan is one of the many bonuses that arise out of this blended family – Martha and her boyfriend George are living in Australia and we couldn’t afford the time or money to visit them but as luck and serendipity (and some clever scheduling) would have it, five out of our family of six were able to reunite in Tokyo at Easter just in time for cherry blossoms. Sadly Flora  couldn’t join us – a hazard of growing up – not being able to take the time off work or afford it.

While I was away I reflected on our family journey and my professional life. I have written untold blogs and speeches about how important it is to support working parents, what the difficulties we face are and how our productivity and contribution can, and should be, maximised. In fact, this week sees a King’s Parent and Carer’s Network Ideas lunch come into fruition. You can also find out more about how King’s supports working parents through our Pregnancy & Maternity Toolkit.

Those pieces whilst true, necessary and relevant can often make it seem like parenting is nothing but a chore. However, I want to also reflect on how brilliant being a working parent can be too. Practically, there is no way I could afford a family holiday in Japan if my partner and I hadn’t had successful careers. I know, in many ways, we are privileged and in part this is thanks to employers, such as the Civil Service that had good maternity and flexible working policies, so we were able to develop our careers and be parents.

I used to see family holidays as hard work; planning, preparing, packing and paying for six people ground me down and took the fun out of the trip itself, but I’m glad we persevered as time has gone, children have grown and the whole dynamic has changed.

Japan was like a sci-fi movie, where someone travels in time and returns to where they started – everything is familiar yet distinctly different and generally somehow incomprehensible. Tokyo is vast, endlessly frenetic and makes next to no accommodation for tourists. In that truly foreign environment I found it really lovely having time off with our children. The challenge and adventure we faced together was great fun. Watching each of us negotiate each new surprise, supporting each other through the tribulations of the Tokyo subway or the surprises of Japanese food (like ‘cod organs’ – an indescribable culinary experience) was really uplifting.

I love watching how each of the people I have had a hand in bringing up see and experience the world.  Observing what is important to them, what causes them to pause with excitement or fear alongside the sometimes deeply intellectual and simultaneously hilarious discussions we had every day was such a pleasure. We covered all sorts, feminism, puns, Harry Potter, racism, Hello Kitty, gender identity, puns, Disney, politics, The Princess Diaries, world history, sexual orientation, is water wet, gendered violence, UK football, family dynamics and puns to give just a sprinkling of topics. I haven’t felt so relaxed or laughed so much in ages.

Life as a working parent can be hard with the constant juggling and feeling like you are not doing anything properly, or to anyone’s satisfaction, but overall I am glad to have taken this path and how great my family is. So next time I feel the working stress monster I am going to have this blog to look back on and remind me that life can be brilliant too.

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