Thursday, 23 January 2014

Arty by Association

There are a lot of things I love about returning to study. For a start the learning is great, I'm sucking up knowledge like the proverbial sponge. Testing and stretching, challenging my brain, which has been largely ignored for the best part of three years due to the baby onslaught (by the way, secretly very relieved it's still able to function in any sort of intellectual capacity), on everything from PR professionalism, to contemporary practise, organisational strategy and social theory. Frankly, I can't get enough.

But there is one small area of my university experience that is slightly lacking. For those who know London you will likely be familiar with Elephant & Castle, the less than salubrious location where I have chosen to attend school. For those who don't know of its charms let me paint a picture.

The Elephant is an area ripe for redevelopment, as an estate agent might tout. Like many parts of London it is up and coming, it's just lacking tangible evidence of being either up or coming at this stage. Huge amounts of cash has been earmarked to regenerate the area but any significant improvement has yet to materialise. Demolition of the once notorious Heygate Estate has started in earnest, however, and once those iconic blocks of flats are gone the area will be irreparably changed. Strangely it feels a little sad to think those graffitied monoliths, all stark architectural testament to urban decay, will no longer be there.

So every morning I enter the Elephant through a tired looking shopping mall where the litter-strewn escalators are frozen in time, the entrance doors are busted and the windows smashed. I step outside into an acutely unfashionable market, somewhere you probably wouldn't want to venture late at night, then on through an underground labyrinth of tunnelswhere cheery homeless chaps sheathed in cardboard greet me whatever the weatherto reach the hallowed halls of LCC. To say it has been a shock to the system for some of my colleagues coming as they have from the leafy, well-healed campuses of North America, Europe and Asia would be an understatement.

I carry on into the council estate-esque tower block that constitutes our learning space, where fully-functioning heating and plumbing and toilets that flush are the stuff dreams are made of. A clunky, overcrowded lift carries me begrudgingly up to the 14th floor; I sit in drafty rooms with taped up windows listening to the sound of sirens far below as police cars on a continuous loop play chase with London's law-evaders. I can safely say I've earned my gritty and urban stripes.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's no campus feel at LCC. We do have a couple of old picnic tables on the dirty footpath in front of the building where you can look out on the belching mass of cars, endlessly circling a giant roundabout, spewing out noise and pollution 24 hours a day. It's nice. But I've been to the beautiful, canal-side, architecturally designed converted granary in Kings Cross that is Central Saint Martins college and I know where my tuition fees are being spent (I'm looking at you UAL administration) and it's not on LCC's dysfunctional boiler.

But despite its aesthetic failings I wouldn't want to be anywhere else not least because I will leave with a very well regarded master's degree, all things going according to plan of course. The external trappings belie a vibrant, creative hub, every spare inch of which can and is used as exhibition space for a continuous cycle of art installations. The latest sees a selection of works celebrating the life of influential graphic designer Tom Eckersley from the archive which is held by LCC. Amazing posters from the 1940s-1980s which I can't pass by without stopping to appreciate. Makes coming to uni worth it.

Confession time: I still get excited each time I arrive at school, a small self-satisfied swelling in my chest occurs as I pass through the electronic gates knowing that I'm a student at University of Arts London. I know, I'm such a dork but the novelty of being a student again hasn't yet worn off and to be studying PR in a creative environment is so much more appealing than being stuck in an uptight business school. So I can forgive the dodgy location and the lack of green space, just surround me with art and artistic types and it's all OK.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Rampant Consumerism

As I sit in class pondering the nuances of 19th and 20th century social theory and how it relates to contemporary PR my mind invariably begins to wander onto thoughts of the kids. When the discussion moves to the finer points of Marx's treatise on communism and his work dissecting materialism and the political economy I indulge in a reverie about materialism in my own life, namely my obsession with baby clothes.

Yes, I can finally put my hand up and admit it. I have a problem. Not so much an addiction (though some might class it as such) more of an obsessive habit. But I blame society. Or maybe biology. Whichever external force dictates that a woman of a certain age should chuck in her job and have a baby. I mean what was I supposed to do on all those long days at home alone with a new baby but shop? Does a one-year-old boy really need a designer tweed coat (albeit heavily discounted)? Probably not. Did mine have one? Yes he did.

It's a strange adjustment to make going from being a career focused woman of independent means to becoming the full-time mum of a small infant and there's very little that can prepare you for it. Suddenly life as you know it empties and all that's left is this helpless, all-consuming, wondrous little being filling up your days.

And if your self worth came from your erstwhile career then bad luck as the adjustment will be doubly hard cause now you've got a baby, people will judge you for your choices. If you stay at home and look after said baby then somehow you're anti-feminism; your independence goes out the window and you become reliant on others, in my case my husband, for financial support. On the flip side if you go straight back to work then you're pilloried as a neglectful mother and have to deal with the guilt of abandoning your offspring to child care from an early age.

There are no winners in this game not least because of the guilt and pressure we place on ourselves and our own hang ups about what a woman's role should be. The first time I had to write 'unemployed' on an official form asking for my occupation I felt a deep sense of inadequacy, though that was infinitely preferable to labelling myself a 'housewife' or the more cringeworthy 'home-maker' which for me was too great a leap. I no longer felt like a fully-functioning member of society, a bit of a wastrel, unable to contribute or pay taxes. Frankly I found it disempowering.

So there I was, some kind of desperate housewife (and not the hot, rich kind you see on the telly) keening for the loss of a career that never was, struggling with my newfound identity and needing a creative outlet. And in front of me my child, my muse, my new raison d'ĂȘtre and an unwitting participant in my most recent pursuit. A mini clothes horse to be primped and preened and manipulated into the latest in Scandinavian baby chic. And for what? To fill a hole, relieve boredom? Who knows?

Of course being an unemployed student puts a serious dent in any ambitions I may have to turn my children into miniature fashionistas and as a result most of my activity is limited to online window shopping. It's a sad fact that I can spend hours poring over the websites for purveyors of stylish baby clothes, coveting things that I a.) cannot afford and b.) possess sufficient sentience to know there's no point spending large amounts of money on as a baby has little to no use for statement pieces in their wardrobes that they will no doubt grow out of within a couple of months. To that end I now have a Pinterest board that I use to propagate my obsession instead. And I have two followers (which is more than can be said of this blog and my twitter account combined). And one of them isn't my mum! That must make me some kind of opinion leader in the baby fashion stakes? If my career in PR falls through I'm seriously thinking of becoming a baby stylist. Surely there's a market for it!?!

There's no denying it, I'm hooked. I'll probably continue to scour the websites until I am gainfully employed once again and it's unlikely I'll ever pass by a baby shop without wanting to go in. But there are worse addictions to have and at least I'm not acting on my urges to spend. Well, not all the time anyway.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


This week, after some intense pressure from one of my tutors, who basically implied no self respecting PR wannabe would dare otherwise, I have joined that popular interface Twitter. Yes, I am now officially a tweeter or a twit or whatever the terminology is. Late to the party and feeling wholly superficial, signing up to something I have no interest in for the sake of my burgeoning profession, I have tentatively begun my career as a microblogger, one of the millions spewing forth short bursts of inconsequential social commentary into the ether.

Like any good shameless self promoter I have begun stacking the list of feeds that I follow with the names of popular opinion leaders, high brow cultural institutions, intelligent writers, satirists and credible world news purveyors. Anything that makes me look just that little bit more in-tune than I actually am, or could ever hope to be with two small children. Am I really hip enough to know who the cultural editor of the New York Times is, let alone follow him on twitter? Probably not. But isn't that the point of these social media channels? They provide us with an opportunity to construct a representation of our best selves for the world to see and hopefully accept. Forget citizen journalism, we're all doing citizen PR and boy does it make us feel important!

So here I am tweeting, retweeting, liking, sharing, pinning, blogging, posting, following. But not only that, now I can blog about my tweets and tweet about my blog, pin my blog to my board and tweet about that, share my tweets with my friends then like them and blog about the fact that I've shared my tweets with my friends, I can even follow myself if I so desire. Blog and tweet and pin and share ad infinitum. I'm a veritable what's what of connectedness.

And in amongst this frenzy of online profile constructing my two-year-old sits on the floor screaming at me because his toast is too floppy. Oh the things that make toddlers cry. If I ever start taking my ideal social self too seriously my children will no doubt ensure I remain tethered firmly to reality. #whatamIdoinghere

For what it's worth I can be found @ameliafishstar

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Vagaries of Sleep

Sleep is a funny thing. I imagine one takes it for granted until it is forcibly removed through the seismic shift that is having a baby, and then it quickly becomes a distant memory, something you think upon with longing during the succeeding months of broken nights.  You operate in a kind of fog, a haze, where your memories become altered, you can no longer complete a sentence and you can and do fall asleep happily in the most unlikely places. You take what you can get.

It is in this fog I have opted to start a masters degree.

One child who didn't sleep I could handle and I would tell people how well I was coping and how you run on hormones, or maternal instinct or some such thing. But two kids who don't sleep, now that's another matter entirely. A whole new level of sleep deprivation.

To give you some idea of what I have been dealing with in the early weeks of my course I will attempt to set the scene.

It is 8.30pm on Sunday night and I have finally got both children off to sleep after a two hour bedtime routine which involves baths, books, pyjamas, cuddles, feeding (in the case of Child 2), half an hour of singing, soothing, patting, falling asleep hunched over a little bed (me), waking up to find Child 1 staring at me with what appears to be pity, more singing, an ultimatum, falling asleep again (still me, this time standing propped up in the door frame) and finally an extended period of silence and regular breathing. I withdraw stealthily into the hallway trying desperately not to stand on the creaking floorboards and sigh with relief.

Dinner, cooked by my outstandingly supportive husband, is next which takes us to 9.30pm then it's on to reading academic texts in preparation for the following day's lectures. Attempt a Habermas' paper on the Public Sphere and fall asleep after one page. Manage to rouse myself and struggle through to the end of the chapter but not without falling asleep a further six times over the course of an hour's reading. Unsurprisingly nothing sinks in. Express milk for Child 2 for nursery the next day and fall into bed exhausted at 11.30pm.

It is at this point Child 2 wakes (teething) and requires feeding. Half an hour later I am back in bed and it's midnight. At 12.30am Child 1 wakes (heavy cold) and needs comforting back to sleep which takes half an hour. When I do manage to get back to bed I am sleeping cat-like, coiled, with one eye open, ready to spring up at a moment's snuffle or cry which comes at 2am from Child 1. This time he's quite upset, so I end up remaining in his room for the next two hours, falling asleep on the wooden floorboards beside his bed when exhaustion takes over. At 4am I am back in my own bed. At 5am Child 2 awakes for another feed. As soon as she is asleep, Child 1 gets up chanting 'morning time, morning time!'. It is 5.30am and so he spends the next hour entertaining himself with the iPad beside me in bed. At 6.30am we officially get up and the day begins.

Once we're all showered, dressed, breakfasted, lunches made and dog walked (did I mention we also have a dog?), I load up the kids (one on my front and one in the pram, backpack on and school bags attached, doing my best impression of a packhorse) and walk 15 mins uphill to their nursery. En route we see a boy of about 12, in uniform, heading to school on a unicycle carrying a violin and I am unsure if I am imaging it. If he's not a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation then the alternative is that he's just a remarkably precocious child with painfully hip parents, all of which I take an instant, irrational disliking to.

I arrive at uni bleary-eyed and exhausted, keen to impart my sorry tale of the previous night to my classmates in order to illicit some sympathy and/or admiration. However, for the most part they, being decidedly younger and with far greater freedom than I, have spent the weekend in a fog of alcohol and all manner of other intoxicants, making the most of this great city of London. They too are bleary-eyed and exhausted so offer none of the sympathy I am after. I like to think my excuse for not having completed the required reading for class that morning is somewhat more noble than those of my classmates but at the end of the day both situations, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum, are self induced. Can I really expect any pity?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Spilt Milk

One of the pitfalls to being a full-time student and a mum to two young children is that you constantly feel a bit inadequate. To help address my shortcomings as a mother and to alleviate some of the associated guilt I have tasked myself with the job of continuing to provide breast milk for the 6-month-old while she's at nursery. This, of course, entails expressing milk multiple times a day at university to keep up with demand.

Now I'm no earth mother and expressing milk is possibly one of the least fun things you can do with your funbags (one can only assume it is exactly like being milked as a cow, all rather unpleasant and certainly nobody's idea of a good time), but I dug my own hole as Child 1 was breast fed till he was 12 months old and all being fair I suppose Child 2 deserves the same. Well, that was my reasoning anyway for setting myself this exhausting, time consuming and logistically challenging mission.

One particularly fraught Thursday last week, as I was still coming to terms with the newness of my surroundings, workload, timetable etc, I found myself in the unfortunate position of it having reached 3.30pm and not having had an opportunity to express. Needless to say I was up to my eyeballs in unexpressed milk and feeling decidedly woozy.

At that point the tutor suggested we have a 10 minute break. I saw my chance and dashed upstairs to the Equality & Diversity appointed expressing-cum-first-aid room; a sparsely furnished cold, grey box of a room, littered with old filing cabinets with the only defence against a rogue intruder and a hallway full of staring students being a flimsy 'do not disturb' sign on the door.

I whipped out my double action, super suction, hospital-grade breast pump (a frightening contraption) and set to work. Ten minutes later, feeling suitably drained and having produced a pleasing amount of the good stuff I was feeling quite smug about my university/baby-rearing juggling abilities. Of course what should happen two seconds later? In my haste to get back to class I proceded to drop the entire contents of the bottle, causing a veritable tidal wave of milk to spill all over myself and the floor. What a dick.

I returned to class somewhat less smug, but certainly more damp, and feeling decidedly despondent about whether or not it was all actually worth it. But as my husband so glibly put it later that evening, there's no point crying over spilt milk.

Onwards and upwards.

Sunday, 20 October 2013


Damien Hirst once said, you have to reinvent yourself every day. I must say I've been doing a fair bit of reinventing of late.

Making the leap from full-time mum to full-time student has been an exciting and liberating challenge if for no other reason than I've been able to redirect some of my attention away from the kids and onto more intellectual, selfish pursuits. But starting uni in middle-age with a class full of bright, young twenty-somethings is not without its drawbacks.

One of my main problems is that I've opted to attend an art school and art students are so effortlessly goddam hip. I, on the other hand, have spent the past two and half years operating in the role of frumpy house-frau; covered to a large degree in varying amounts of baby food, vomit and other bodily outputs, wearing shapeless, oversized clothing and struggling to maintain any semblance of a decent hairstyle. Now I've suddenly found myself out in the world again, amongst functioning adults and I need to get it together or at the very least remember to look in the mirror before I leave the house in the morning.

As a result of my desire to fit in I've been recently trying to marry the sartorial styles of both mother and student into a whole new look. An updated me.

My latest attempt at art student chic has been to invest in my very first pair of SKINNY jeans. This statement should be accompanied by some kind of elaborate, theatrical sound effect such is the enormity of the occasion. The reason being I've always felt a certain disconnect between myself and anything with the name skinny in it, predominantly due to the size, or perceived size of my midsection. My brothers once helpfully told me as an impressionable teen that I had 'monster truck' thighs (reference to 1990s sumo superstar Sally The Dumptruck) and the image has kind of stuck since.

Anyway I've got to the age where I'm slightly less concerned about how I look. My body image has reached a state of equilibrium with actuality, aided in part by the fact I've now had two kids so couldn't possibly be expected to look as I might have done in my twenties. I'm OK with being a little soft around the edges given what my body has been through over the past couple of years and being able to not only wear skinny jeans but feel pretty good about it is a huge step forward.

As to the new look, am I going to impress anyone with my hip-ness? Probably not. But I'm quietly confident I won't be totally ostracised as an over-the-hill wannabe by my university peers and come home time when I have to line up at the metaphorical school gates I should be able to hold my own with the other mums. That's not to say the odd bit baby vomit won't still make its way onto my clothes every now and then but I guess that's still part of who I am. For now.

To reinvent yourself every day? Nah, too much effort. But every once in a while is fine by me.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Diary of a Part-Time Student/Full-Time Mum...

...or should that read full-time student/part-time mum? Officially, I guess, I'm full-time at both endeavours but as with anything in life don't really have enough time for either. So with that in mind perhaps we should leave it as somewhat of a student and a sometime mother but in all likelihood partially failing on each front.

Some scene setting then. I'm a 30-something (now disappointingly closer to mid than early) married mother of two young kids; a terrific, if emotionally fragile 2-year-old boy henceforth to be known as Child 1 and a (dare I say it?) beautiful 6-month-old baby girl aka Child 2. I recently started a one year full-time masters degree in Public Relations at the London College of Communications in Elephant & Castle and thought to myself what could be better for a sleep deprived, hectically busy student/mum type than adding blogging to my list of things to do. Why not, eh? I'm a woman, I can multi task surely? She says trying to write and eat breakfast at the same time and choking on the latter. This does not bode well.

So everyday, more or less, after dropping the kids off at nursery I enter the Elephant as a frazzled mother of two infants and emerge on the other side a born again student, trying desperately to hold my own in a class with an average age of much younger than myself and not fall asleep during lectures.

Take this blog as a starting point, a statement of intent to document my year long adventure in juggling home and school life. I hope to update once a week but given I intended to begin this three weeks ago we may have to adopt an 'as and when' approach.