Successful working Mum Fiona Severs of www.lexingtongray.co.uk tells us what it’s really like living with two teens and how she achieves a balance between career and family.
Almost exactly fifteen years ago my life changed forever – I walked into hospital a career woman and I left a mother – with a tiny, snuffling newborn wrapped warmly against the January chill in clothes that were still a little too big and strapped into a rockatot car seat that would take her father and I half an hour to secure into the back of the car. We were woefully ill-prepared for parenthood but we had youth and optimism on our side and thought we could muddle through. I knew then that no matter how important my career had been to me before I had my daughter (and it really had been VERY important to me) it was now just a job and I would always put the needs of my child(ren) first.
Don’t get me wrong, the baby months were tough and it wasn’t quite the idyllic time that I had pictured. I was ill-suited to being the fulltime stay at home Mum that my mother had modelled so brilliantly for me. Ten months on and I had to return to work….for all our sakes. Back then, returning to corporate law on a part-time basis was impossible so I found a part-time role in the same law firm managing all of the voluntary work that was done by the staff in the local community. I also found a fantastic nanny who knew much more about looking after a baby than I did. The situation worked very well – my daughter was very happy and well cared for three days a week while I got my fix at the office and I was able to spend four days a week bonding with her at home. Two years later a baby brother was born and we continued with our winning formula. My children were safe and happy – all their needs, simple as they were, being met by a team of three adults – one expert and two rank amateurs though my husband and I were doing our best and learning from our nanny.
Fast forward 15 years and that winning formula no longer works – and indeed hasn’t worked for some time. Why not? What changed? As babies, my children simply needed food, water, shelter/warmth and affection – it didn’t really matter if that was provided by me, a nanny, a grandparent or anyone else. As my children have increased in age, their needs have increased in complexity. When they were toddlers quality time could be dictated by me – so long as I gave the children my attention when I got back from work in the evening before they went to bed and on the days when I wasn’t working, all was good. When my children started school, I wanted to be around more in the holidays so I changed jobs and found a role that involved working as a lawyer 15 hours a week ( during school hours) term time only. Perfect – or at least it was for a while. These days the hours that I work are even more flexible and can fit exactly with the needs of my children- I run my own business helping people to negotiate flexible work with their employer.
As the mother of any teen will tell you, if you’re not available when an issue comes up, your teen may not choose to discuss it with you later…..and the issues that teenagers are grappling with today are BIG – life has become so much more complicated. Do I want my teenager making important decisions on their own at exactly the time that neuroscience has demonstrated that their brains are going through the biggest transformation since toddlerhood – while hormones are raging and before their frontal lobe is fully developed and online? As one American neuroscientist has described it – the adolescent brain is like a car that has the accelerator fitted several years before the brake is installed. Or worse – do I want them seeking the advice of their peers when research has demonstrated that teenagers are far more likely to engage in risky behaviour in a group scenario. Absolutely not!
I fully appreciate that adolescence is about a transfer of power and responsibility from parents to young adult but just because my teens think they know it all, it doesn’t mean that they do and they still need parenting and structure. But boy is it tough! Teenagers will not thank you for being around; they will meet all advice with a huff and a rolling of eyes (if you’re lucky) and they will be very vocal in their criticism of you. There are no shades of a grey in a teen brain and they will be harsh in their judgment – no allowance will be made for the fact that you have no relevant experience or training in parenting a young adult. So how do I make it work?
I changed my job and working hours several times to allow me to be around when I’m needed most. It’s been essential for me and it’s why I’m so passionate about helping people to negotiate flexible hours with their employers to enable them to do the same. You have to be present to parent and you need to share in their triumphs and disasters equally – even the small ones.
At each stage I have found wonderful childcare that exactly fits with the needs of my family at the time – whether it’s an experienced nanny three days a week or an educational mentor to help my preteen to organise herself at school when she was drowning in work and too proud to take advice from her parents. It is almost impossible to focus on a job unless you are confident that your children are happy and well-cared for at home. Parental Choice are experts at finding exactly the right fit for your needs – if you need childcare, speak to them!
I have done my research on the science of the adolescent brain. I find it helps me to cope with the moods when I understand that the hormone changes at puberty have huge effects on the brain. For example the development of more receptors for oxytocin ,the bonding hormone which acts on the limbic system and increases feelings of self-consciousness, makes teens feel as though everyone is watching them – which can make them seem very self-centred. It’s really not their fault! If you’re interested, there’s a great article in the journal Developmental Review in 2008 which explains this and other changes which, taken together, make teens vulnerable and prone to experiencing intense feelings of rage, fear, aggression, excitement and sexual attraction. You can be as careful as possible in the way you communicate with your teen but you will still experience tears or anger at times simply because they are slaves to their limbic system (which deals with experiencing emotion) and their prefrontal cortex (the area just behind the forehead that deals with planning, impulse control and higher order thought) has not yet come on line – they will simply have misunderstood what you have said!
I also attended an excellent parenting course in the dark hours of the teenage dawn when we first felt the presence of a strange new and very volatile creature in our home. The course was run by Practical Parenting and over the course of ten weeks I learnt the importance of descriptive praise, reflective listening and consistent, appropriate discipline (in the form of consequences) when dealing with children (of whatever age). If you’re not yet battling a teen, I would strongly encourage you to attend a course or find out more about their techniques – building a strong relationship and parenting structure in the early years will reap huge rewards later on…..and you’ll be more practised at praising and listening in a beneficial way. If you were to ask my children I’m sure they’d both say that I need a lot more practice (once my son had stopped complaining about his 3 day screen ban) – and they’re right of course. I comfort myself that although I’m a little late to the party for my own children, I’ll be fantastic with my grandchildren!
Finally, when all else fails, I return to the best parenting book that I have read. Zagazoo by Quentin Blake. The book is beautifully illustrated and through the guise of a humorous children’s book, Blake tells the story of George and Bella, a happy couple that receive a strange parcel in the post that contains ‘a pretty little pink creature as pretty as could be’ called Zagazoo (and looking suspiciously like a baby). The story follows George and Bella as they struggle to cope with the changes that Zagazoo goes through (a screeching vulture, a clumsy elephant , a muddy warthog and a bad-tempered dragon) on the way to becoming an adult (with beautiful manners!) . It reminds me that whatever is happening, good or bad, it’s all just a stage! The final line of Zagazoo is worth remembering whether you’re facing parenting triumph or disaster: ‘isn’t life amazing!’ And for all that I’ve written of the challenges, parenting teens can be an exhilarating and uplifting experience with many very positive experiences – but no one needs advice on how to cope with them! Enjoy your time with your children – it really is only for a short time – and never forget – they may choose your care home!