Ladies Who Lunch?

14th March 2009

Heather Harris looks at what Mums really do after they leave the school gates…

Lunch! Today I had cold parsnips from yesterday’s roast which tasted worryingly good (although washing them down with a coffee made for horrendous halitosis). Some days I even manage a sandwich – hence the crumbs on the computer and the salad cream on the steering wheel.

A recent study – by people in a University, who no doubt have a full lunch hour in a palatial canteen – discovered that we are now a nation of nibblers and grazers, with more food eaten in cars, at desks or at a trot (presumably on foot rather than horseback) than at a table.

The stereotypical ‘lady who lunches’ has now been replaced by ‘ladies who latte’, with a quick coffee replacing the traditional sit down gossip over a good two courses.

These days ‘two courses’ is more likely to describe the number of Open University Degrees and Adult Education Studies that the modern school-run Mum is juggling.

The fact is, though, that the options for women wanting to use their brains during daylight hours are limited. Returning to full-time work through desire or necessity is a struggle because of this country’s lack of affordable childcare; options for managing this include nannies whose tax liability alone is more than my weekly income, or nurseries with day rates higher than those of your standard health farm.

Working part-time is seen as the ideal solution, according to a survey of the 100,000 members of netmums.com, the on-line parenting website. But, practically, the jobs just aren’t there for women who can, on average, work only from 10am until 2pm on any weekday that’s not a school holiday, inset day (or ‘insect’ as I thought it was for the first three years of my son’s school life, assuming the teachers were all going on nature walks), Bank Holiday or Royal Wedding Day. Or any time when your child hasn’t been sent home with nits/ phantom stomach cramps or an unidentifiable-but-assumed-to-be-highly-contagious rash.

Then there’s the unwritten rule that whenever you’re working from home the school never rings, but the minute you step on a train or join the fast lane of the M25 that dreaded number always flashes up on the screen. And heaven help the parent who doesn’t immediately drop everything to go and collect their desperately ill – but usually recovered by the time you’re out of the school gates – child.

So, why is it that ladies who have eschewed or been denied the option of paid work (and therefore must have lots of free time…) no longer lunch? Why is it that the viewing figures for the 2pm showing of Inspector Morse are not higher among stay-at-home mothers? To find out, I went undercover to find the real answer to that question asked by men on returning home to their ashen-faced wives, “What have you done all day?”

The results were exhaustive. And exhausting.

“The trouble is by the time our children have got to school age we’ve lost the art of relaxation. With babies there’s no time to sit down and when they hit four we’ve forgotten how to do it,” says Wendy, mother of three boys.

Hannah feels the same. “I felt so much pressure to get a job the minute they started school and when I decided against this, I felt I had to justify my existence by filling my day with 87 different activities.”

For many of the mothers In interviewed the day’s agenda includes physical exercise. The gym has become the morning meeting place. Convoys of cars driven by Lycra-clad ladies head off daily to the local Leisure Centre or Fitness Emporium, where the credit crunch is discussed during ‘Legs, Bums and Tums’ and the knife culture during a quick length of breaststroke…

…because contrary to popular – ie male – belief, the female conversation is not limited to Cheryl Cole, the nine egg diet or Secondary School Transfer. On the contrary, most of the women I spoke to spend so long driving their children around that they hear the radio news at least 17 times and are more clued up on the politics of the day than Barack Obama.

Dogs also featured heavily in many a mother’s daily timetable – offering the perfect opportunity for social interaction, exercise and maternal fulfilment. Certainly, in our village a lead is the new Must Have leather accessory, and brown is the new black with chocolate Labradors soaring high on the canine best seller list.

And people aren’t just walking their own dogs. “In the winter I walk three or four of my elderly neighbours’ dogs, and it gives me an excuse to check up on them at the same time,” says Lisa, a stay-at-home Mum of four – two daughters and two spaniels.

Such philanthropic acts were also reassuringly prevalent, but surprisingly secret, among many of the clearly misunderstood ladies I talked to.

“I went straight from dressing and feeding children to washing and dressing my father. We couldn’t leave him so whenever my mother had to go out I had to be free to sit with him”, explains Paula, whose youngest child is six. A significant number of other women remarked that we are the first generation to really have dependents at both ends of their lives.

“We are having our children later so our parents are older – and both need looking after,” says Lily, who has two young daughters but drives 40 miles twice a week to visit her mother who is in a home and suffering from Alzheimer’s.

She echoes a commonly held belief that it is the ‘emotional strain’ of being a mother which gets more difficult when offspring start school. “I don’t work because I feel I have to have some energy for 3 o’clock when the children come out of school and all need my undivided attention!” she says.

This is the same reason why so many of our Jamie Oliver generation spend a ridiculous amount of time preparing food. The old adage ‘Life’s Too Short To Stuff A Mushroom’ seems to have passed by the parents of today’s organically reared youngsters.

“We had a school dinner, so my Mum would give us boiled egg and soldiers for tea, but these days this seems to be tantamount to child neglect,” says one mother, admitting that her mornings are generally taken up with shopping and cooking so that there’s a nourishing hot meal ready for when her three come out of school and have completed their 47 after-school activities – all of which she is naturally on the sidelines for (another parental pastime slotted in the schedule and requiring trips to windswept pitches in far flung corners of the globe).

And then there’s admin. A number of mothers did suggest replacing the letters Mrs with PA when asked for their ‘title’ as every day, up and down the country, women are donning their crampons and tackling the north face of their paper mountain.

“Order cheque book, organise mortgage, book plumber, BT, insurance, MOT, summer holiday, reply to reminder letters from orthodontist, dentist, smear test nurse…” and that’s all before this particular part-time aerobics teacher and mother of two responds to the daily letters from school that require signing in triplicate and a DNA sample. (Education establishments seem to be the last to click in to the paperless society, using on average a couple of rain forests a term on permission slips alone).

As well as general ‘Life Management’ – or as Debbie, mother of two, politely puts it ‘The xxxx that just won’t get done if I don’t do it now!’ there’s also the family social life to plan.

With children this involves a clever colour co-ordinated matrix, stuck on the fridge and totally incomprehensible to everyone, including the people involved. For adults, it usually involves text messages or e-mails with suggested dates and venues (we’re all far too busy to have a dinner party) sent and acknowledged by women, copying in their husbands… who on the day deny any knowledge of the event.

“I usually end up telling my husband where we’re going and who we’re meeting on the way out the door!” says Annabel mother of five (four children and one spouse), who admits that if it was left to him they’d never have left the house in 20 years.

At least we’ve all been given an extra pair of hands thanks to the phone companies who’ve now made multi-tasking in the fast lane (hands free and legal, of course) a reality. If only they’d invent an iPhone that also shopped, hoovered, washed, ironed and cleaned around the U bend – we’d all be happy.

But then, as men and children know, the housework is all done by magic. Just a wave of the motherly wand, a sprinkle of fairy dust and hey presto we can head off to The Ritz for six slap-up courses…

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