The wannabe toddler at 9 months

On Tuesday, Joel will be 40 weeks old. That means he’ll have been living outside of me for as long as he was living inside of me – he was born on his due date, so exactly 40 weeks of pregnancy. Time seems to have flown by quicker now that he’s here than when I was pregnant, probably because I didn’t enjoy pregnancy and I’m much preferring having a baby to look after, even if it is hard work sometimes.

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Time also seems to have flown by faster than it did with Andrew at this age. I went back to work when Andrew was pretty much exactly 9 months old, so that would be the equivalent of now if I was going back to work this time. The thought of going back to work right now seems crazy – if I was I don’t think I would be ready, but that could also be because I’ve known from the start that I’m not going back (for a few years anyway), so I haven’t prepared myself as there is no need. I’m loving the often challenging but highly rewarding role that I’m currently in but not being paid for 😉

Looking back at the past month or so, Joel has come on leaps and bounds in his development – literally! He is now crawling at a rate of knots everywhere and anywhere, and also cruising if there is furniture in the places where he wants to go. He’s trying to climb on things and getting stuck under chairs when I turn my back for just a minute. He loves the bouncer in the doorway and jumps really quite high in it for a little chap.

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As for food, he’s shovelling fistfuls into his mouth like there’s no tomorrow, and has an appetite to rival that of his hungry big brother – both of them seem to take after Daddy in that they eat a lot for their size but must burn it off in all the activity they do. Joel’s lack of teeth don’t seem to be hindering his progress on the eating front; the first one on the bottom left is just beginning to poke out now. Andrew was the same at this age, with no teeth until nearly 10 months, eating what we eat with little trouble, it just took him longer until he had teeth to help him out with chewier foods.

The amount of time that Joel breastfeeds for each day has reduced quite dramatically recently, and he only really wants much milk first thing in the morning when nobody else is up (5am usually) and last thing before bed. He’ll have a bit here and there in the daytime, but nothing to write home about. The amount of formula supplementation that he is taking is now very little compared to what he was taking at the peak of milk intake just before he started eating solid foods. I’m happy about this and it won’t be long before he ditches the formula all together and I’ll let him continue to breastfeed for as long as he would like. Some days it feels like that won’t be much longer the way he’s going, but I think Andrew was similar at this age and he is still going now, albeit just 5 minutes or so before bed. Neither of them have been remotely interested in feeding when there is stuff going on and when we’re out and about since they were about 4 months old!

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As I look back on what life has been like since we became a family of four, I realise that the first few months were in fact easier than I feel things are now. Of course the sleep deprivation was worse, but it was actually easier to look after one energetic toddler and one sleepy baby who would stay still if you put him down and generally didn’t complain much at all. Now I’m looking after two energetic kids – a fully fledged toddler and a wannabe toddler who still hasn’t figured out the cause and effect thing: if you let go of what you’re holding on to whilst standing and turn around, you will fall down! This is hard work for me.

It’s probably also got harder because Andrew is now wearing pants and we’re having mixed success with some days being mostly dry and others being a complete wet disaster. One saving grace in all the running around after two of them is that Joel is now having a good afternoon nap which he never used to, so I do get about an hour on my own when they are both napping in the afternoon and I can rest.

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It’s all good though, and I think their activity and interest in everything around them can only be good things in the long run. I knew having 2 children with a 21 month age gap would be challenging, and in many ways it is, but overall I wouldn’t change our situation for the world. My boys are now interacting with each other and it’s so cute watching them discover how they can brother the other one – mostly this involves smiles, giggles and hugs, with the odd disagreement of course.

Next stop – a first birthday!

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King’s College Family Fun Day – #CountryKids

There are many perks of working for King’s College in Cambridge as Tom does. One is of course that he gets to walk past the amazing chapel every day as he goes into and out of his office in the old building next to it. Another is the free cooked lunch that he is entitled to every day. One that we all get to enjoy is the Family Fun Day, which takes place on the Sunday after exams finish in June every year. This year it happened to coincide with Father’s Day. It starts at 1pm and goes on to the evening with a barbecue and music.

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It’s organised by the JCR – the undergraduate student committee, a kind of college-based student union – and they invite all the students and staff of the college. There are several bouncy castles/ inflatable games (suitable for both big and small people), giant games like Jenga and Connect 4, face painting and ice creams during the afternoon. Last year Andrew was still a a little young to really appreciate it, but this year he loved it!

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First up were the bouncy castles. As we came to the lawn, where for once we were allowed to walk, we saw the big inflatable fun things and immediately Andrew decided to run towards one shouting “It’s a bouncy castle!” excitedly. Daddy dutifully followed and took their shoes off, and that’s where they stayed for the best part of a couple of hours, running between the different ones. I do think it looks slightly incongruous to see big red and blue bouncy objects in front of the historic buildings that are King’s College with Chapel, but I also think it is lovely that for a few days every year the college are not afraid to do this kind of thing (there is also the May Ball where this kind of thing is allowed).

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Meanwhile I sat on the lawn and had a rest while Joel was napping in the buggy. Once he’d woken up, we went and joined the older boys and had a bit of gentle bouncy fun. I even went on a few times with Andrew while Daddy had fun with Joel. I particularly liked racing Andrew along the assault course inflatable – he was actually far better than me at climbing up the cargo net to get to the slide at the end!

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We then spotted that the man who was doing face painting had arrived and west up and was starting to paint some faces – there was a chart queue of girl students who wanted various things done from pretty flowers to a dalmatian dog! Andrew decided that he would like a face paint too, and he wanted to be spot the dog. So we waited in the not so orderly queue, half hoping that one of the girls would take pity on an impatient toddler every time one of them got up with a finished face, but they were all too keen to get it done.

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Spot then decided that he liked the look of the ice cream cart that had arrived when we were queueing for the face painting. We had been thinking that it was probably about time to go home, but as Spot saw more and more people flocking to join the queue for a Toni’s Ice (famous around these parts), he insisted that we should get an ice cream. And it wasn’t too hard to persuade us.

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So we got the boys back in the buggies and got an ice cream each (except Joel) to eat on our way home. We’d had a great time, but Andrew was getting tired and Joel (as usual) had refused to feed when out so would soon get grumpy. We weren’t as hardcore as the student revellers who would stay until it got dark (and who probably wouldn’t be woken up at 5am the next morning). Sure enough, Andrew dropped off after he’d finished his ice cream and Joel fed enthusiastically when we got home. It really was a family fun afternoon for us all.

Linking up with #CountryKids over at Coombe Mill’s blog again this week 🙂
Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

The train & the dip (& other tresting tales) – wot so funee?

Last weekend we visited Duxford Air Museum (you can read all about it here) with Andrew’s grandparents, and he received a few lessons in aviation engineering from Pop. One fairly basic one was on those things that spin around on aeroplanes that were designed and built before jet engines came along; Andrew can now very accurately tell you how many pellors” a plane has! He found this plane stuff all very “tresting” – not testing but interesting of course!

And this is interesting from a linguistic point of view. Until he said “tresting”, I had noticed that for most words of more than 2 syllables, he would say the stressed syllable and one other, usually the one after it. A good example of this is “pellor” – he misses off the unstressed first syllable and starts with the stressed second syllable and also says the third unstressed one. From what I’ve read, this is quite normal and logical for English acquiring toddlers. But “tresting” really is interesting, because he misses off the stressed syllable “in-” and makes the second unstressed syllable, which I normally say with a ‘reduced’ vowel (‘uh’ sort of sound), the stressed syllable with a full ‘e’ (as in egg) vowel. Sorry if you don’t find the science as fascinating as me, I just can’t help but write about it!

Apart from plane talk, we’ve had a few funees involving characters he knows from DVDs this week. It seems that in Andrew’s world, Bob the Builder is a genius who can fix literally anything. If Andrew sees something broken, anything broken, he proclaims Nevermind, Bob’ll fix it!”. Apparently Bob’s talents extend to broken train tracks that little brothers have destroyed, broken bananas, and much more that I can’t remember off the top of my head! And apparently his talents even extend to finding lost things (or rather things that have been deliberately lost), as Andrew reassured me that “Bob’ll find it” after he’s pushed a xylophone stick through the small holes in the decking that is the balcony floor!

Whenever he’s said goodbye to someone leaving our flat recently, he’s informed me that they’ve gone to work. So when Granny and Grandad left last weekend, he said “Granny and Grandad gone to work”, and when Grandma and Pop left the day after, they went to the same place apparently: “Grandma and Pop gone to work.” And when he said bye bye to the Teletubbies the other day on his DVD, he shouted loudly “Teletubbies gone to work!” I’m just imagining Tinky Winky with a briefcase now! I presume he’s extending the fact that he says bye bye to Daddy when he goes to work to everyone he says bye bye to at home.

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Finally, I can’t forget the incident with Thomas (of Tank Engine fame) one lunchtime this week. The day before I’d whizzed up some chick peas, olive oil and yoghurt in the blender to make the classic dip made from chick peas. When Andrew asked what it was, I told him. Fast forward to the next day and as I was sitting Joel up for lunch with said dip already on the table with some rice cakes, Andrew (who was already sat up ready and waiting for his, of course) suddenly started repeating “Want Thomas” over and over again, getting louder and louder, as I tried to ask him why he was saying that – “Where’s Thomas?”, “Can you see Thomas the Tank somewhere Andrew?” etc. Eventually it dawned on me – “AH you mean HUMMOUS Andrew!” “Yes Mummy, that’s right, fummous” Cue lots of laughter from me….. Since then I have overheard him on a few occasions saying “Thomas, fummous, Thomas, fummous (etc.)” to himself 🙂

Wot So Funee?

 

Pregnancy diary: week 26 – birthday (mine, not bump’s)

This week has seen us on the approach to 30, in more ways than one: I’m 26 weeks pregnant, so I’m sure 30 weeks will be here before I know it given how fast this trimester has gone; and I celebrated my 29th birthday, so only 1 year left to go before I turn 30. I say ‘celebrated’, but this consisted of a very quiet celebration just the 3 (or 4 if you like) of us. In previous years I’ve always organised some sort of get together with friends and family, like a tea party or pudding party or bar evening. But this year I feel like my birthday has crept up on me without me realising where time was flying to, and I’m sure the main reason is being pregnant and not having much energy to think of things other than getting through each day and week as it comes and not planning very far ahead at all. We did have a small celebration on Saturday with my parents. Maybe next year I will have more energy and organisational ability to plan a party for my 30th…. we’ll see!

Wearing one of two dresses that I own which fit over bump! This week has been too hot to wear jeans and t-shirts/blouses like I have been since bump started growing.

This year was also the first time in my life that I worked on my birthday! Having a summer birthday meant that as a child I was always on school holidays, and quite often we were away on our family summer holiday. As an undergraduate and Masters student I also managed to escape working in a summer job on my birthday itself. Then during my PhD (when I could have taken the day off anyway) my birthday happened to fall at the weekend for the two summers. The first year I had a ‘proper’ job was 2 years ago, when I was pregnant with Andrew, but we’d booked a holiday for the week of my birthday, so I escaped yet again! Last year I was on maternity leave, and that brings us to this year. I toyed with the idea of booking a day’s annual leave, but then I thought that it might actually be interesting to experience working on my birthday for once, being as I’m not going to be working for the next few years once baby arrives and I’m a stay at home mum. I have to say that it really wasn’t a bad day at all! I had a productive morning working, and then met Tom for lunch in town where we both work. Then my work friends and I went out for cake/ice-cream treats later in the afternoon, and they presented me with some lovely gifts (chocolates, non-alcoholic wine, flowers, notecards) and a pretty card. The hardest part of the day was roasting in the office! We are on the top floor of 4, and there is very little air circulation. Being pregnant doesn’t help as I’m already warmer than usual. It was great to cool down with a nice relaxing swim after work, and then my boys and I had a quiet tea together at home. We’ve decided to go out for a family meal on Sunday, because I’d rather sit in a restaurant with the smell of food at lunchtime than in the evening when I still feel nauseous.

Although I’m approaching 30, this doesn’t seem to bother me (yet!) I guess I don’t think of my age in numbers, but rather how old (or young) I feel. When Tom and I discussed our thoughts on having children, both before and after we got married, I said that it would be amazing if we could have two by the time we were 30. Given that Tom is 6 months younger than me, it’s my age that was the limiting factor. I didn’t take it for granted that we would be able to have children as quickly as we did once we decided the time was right to start a family, but I’m very happy that in the end I’ll have reached my (what once seemed like a) dream of being a four-person family by my 30th birthday.

Since I’ve had Andrew (I was 27 when he was born), and we’ve met new parents and their children at groups, I get the feeling that I’m on the young side for being a first time mum amongst the mums that I’ve met. Of course this is a big generalisation, and there are of course mums younger than me in Cambridge, but on the whole it seems like there are quite a lot of mums older than me. As my own mum was 24 when she had me (her first child), this has got me interested in how the average age of first time mums has changed over just one generation. So I trawled through loads of birth stats on the government’s Office of National Statistics website. The latest published data I could find was for 2008 (so 3 years before Andrew was born), and the earliest published data in the same format that I could find was for 1988 (so 5 years after I was born), but this is close enough for my interest here. Below is a graph showing what I found (I love graphs, I’m such a scientist!)….

The blue line shows the average (mean) age in years of mums when they gave birth (whether that was their first, second, fifth, fifteenth etc. child). We see that it rose steadily from about 27 in 1988 to 29.5 in 2008. Then if we look at the red line – this shows the average age of mums when they gave birth to their first child – it rose steadily from about 25 in 1988 to about 27.5 in 2008. The green line shows the average age of married mums when they gave birth to their first child. Interestingly, this line starts below the blue one at about 26.5 in 1988 and then crosses the blue line to end up at just over 30 in 2008. Then, just out of interest, I plotted (in orange) the average age of dads when their baby was born (all births, so whether it was their first, second, fifth, fifteenth etc. child) – I could only find more recent data on this, from 1998 onwards. We see that generally dads have been older than mums when their children were born, over 30 years old on average since 1998.

So where do I stand in relation to the ‘average’ then? Well Andrew was my first, in 2011, when I was 27, and I was married, so I’ll look at the green line. I see that I was well below average (given that it is likely to have risen beyond 30 years since 2008, given the general trend). Even when I look at all first births, including those to mums who weren’t married (red line), I was still below average. So my anecdotal evidence of feeling pretty young as a mum around here could have some truth. I’d be even more interested to see these kind of stats just for our area, because I suspect this kind of thing might differ by area, depending on the demographics of the mums living there. It seems also that my mum was below the average age to have me at age 24 in 1983 when she was already married (imagine the green line extending downwards to 1983 at the same angle as where it starts). Interestingly, both Tom and my Dad were even further below the average age of dads when their first child was born – Tom was 27 (exactly – Andrew and he share the same birthday!) and my Dad was 25. I guess there are many reasons why people are having children later these days than in the 1980s, one of which could be that women are choosing to start in their career first and then have children. For the moment I am happy that being a mum is my career, and I will pursue other career interests in a few years time, most likely when our children are at school. For us, 27 was a great age to have a baby, but I know that every family situation is different and that there is no ‘right’ age to have a baby – what’s right for one family isn’t the same as what’s right for another.

I hope this little excursion into statistics and graphs has been interesting for you as well as for me. As I said, I love looking at numbers like this – one of the best parts of analysing results from the research project I’m working on (and others I’ve done in the past) is making attractive graphs that show the information more clearly to me than a table of numbers. If graphs aren’t your thing, I hope you’ll come back for more pregnancy news next week – I promise not to put any graphs in! 🙂

Pregnancy diary: week 22 – work

The past two weeks have been incredibly busy. There haven’t been one or two things in particular eating up my time, rather lots of things (ranging from small to big) that have all come together at once. One thing I mentioned last week was the BritMums Live conference, which was fantastic, and I’ll write  post about it when I get chance. But I came home even more exhausted than when I left after a busy week, and this week hasn’t given me much chance to rest yet. On top of everything else, Andrew has oral thrush and is most definitely not a happy bunny because he can’t eat without it hurting his mouth, poor thing. The medicine seems to be working already though, as he’s started to eat more again.

Part of my busyness is work-related, both actually doing the work and thinking about the practicalities of leaving. Last week I got my MATB1 form from the midwife. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of figuring out the paperwork involved with maternity leave and pay, this little (honestly, it’s A5) form is a crucial piece of paper. It is a pregnant mum’s gateway to Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP), if she is entitled to it. According to the government website Directgov, a pregnant mum can claim SMP through her employer if (1) she has been working for the same employer continuously for at least 26 weeks into the 15th week before the week the baby is due (this basically means if she wasn’t pregnant when she started the job – though I was nearly caught out by this with Andrew because you’re already 3 weeks pregnant when baby is actually conceived in terms of how pregnancy is measured from the day of your last preiod!)…. and (2) if she earns enough to be paying National Insurance contributions.

If she’s not entitled to SMP, she can instead claim Maternity Allowance, which is essentially the same amount of money, but it comes direct from the government (like a benefit) rather than the employer sorting it out. In fact SMP also ultimately comes from the government, but the employer gets the wonderful job of sorting out the paperwork and paying it in the first instance, before the government later pays it back to them – sounds a bit complicated to me, but I’m not a politician who makes the rules.

I think bump looks pretty big in this dress, the design must accentuate it! I don't think it's grown that much in a week 🙂

With this pregnancy I’m in a different situation to last time with regard to work. My contract is due to end on 31st December this year, so if I were to take maternity leave, my contract would end during it. I’d already decided after going back to work part-time after maternity leave with Andrew that I would not want to go back to work for a few years after having another baby, for various reasons. For one it would make no sense financially as my wage wouldn’t cover childcare costs for two. But the main reason is that I have realised that looking after my children in their pre-school years is what I want to do more than any other job. I feel like it’s my calling for this stage of our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the research that I do for my current paid employment, but children don’t stay this young forever, whereas there will always be work to do, whether that be research or something else. This means that I am happy to simply leave my job rather than take maternity leave, which would only last a few months anyway, unless my contract would have been extended.

Interestingly, I thought this would mean I wouldn’t be eligible for SMP, but I am, as long as I don’t leave work until less than 15 weeks before baby is due. As the plan is to work up until early October (with baby due at the end of October), this means I can claim SMP from the government via my employer, even though I won’t be going back to work after baby is born. That’s how generous the maternity provision is in this country – I do feel like it could be a lot worse, and I know some other countries are not as generous with this. I mean SMP/Maternity Allowance isn’t a huge amount of money, but considering I’ll be getting some money for quite a few months after baby is born, even though I won’t have a job and don’t intend to for a while, I think this is pretty nice! As my midwife pointed out though, I’ve been paying National Insurance contributions for a while, and this is what I get in return, at a time when we’ll need it the most.

So in the next week or so at work I need to fill in some forms and get the ball rolling for SMP. But for now there’s plenty of work to be getting on with, making sure I leave everything in a way that others will understand when I’m gone. So far I feel happy that things are going well on this front, but I know I’ll be busy beavering away over the summer to finish things off.

And look at that, I’ve just managed to get this post out on Friday, to keep the routine of my regular pregnancy diary slot on a Friday. With all the things going on, and Andrew not napping as much due to his mouth being so sore, I’ve got a bit behind on my writing this week compared to usual. But that’s what’s nice about blogging, and how it’s not like work – I can do things as and when I want and have time to, with no pressure, because I do it for fun. Hopefully things will calm down a bit over the next week, and I’ll be able to write the next installment about pregnancy before the end of the week…..

The balancing act of life: revisited

Just after I started blogging, and not long after I went back to work part-time after maternity leave, I wrote a post about balancing everything I do in a week, including being mummy, working as a researcher, doing housework, and having some time myself to go swimming, blog and bake etc. Then a while later, having settled into this balancing act a bit more, I wrote a guest post for The Family Patch on a similar topic. This last week has reminded me of these posts; as I’ve been thinking and reflecting on how the balancing act is working, I thought I’d revisit my thoughts from back then and write about my thoughts now.

Us chilling out on the sofa when Granny and Grandad visited recently

This week has been a lovely week. I’ve had a week of annual leave, which has meant my little boy and I have been able to spend a whole week together. It’s been so fun! We’ve not been away anywhere (Daddy gets less annual leave than me, well, pro-rata as I work part-time), but we just enjoyed a normal week of activities around town. It reminded me of being on maternity leave, and I’d almost forgotten how fun the groups are that I used to go to with him then. I joined my boys at their regular music group on Tuesday morning, we met up with friends, went swimming twice, and hung out at the park a few times.

At the park - what is this weird satellite dish thing?!

It’s not that we don’t usually get chance to do any of this, but it was so good to have a whole week of quality time, just Andrew and me. We didn’t have to rush off to the childminder on two mornings, nor did I have to race on with dinner straight after getting home in the evening from her house. Life has been more relaxed than the usual racing about making sure we’re in the right place at the right time with the right things packed in our different bags (i.e. no nappies in my work bag and no laptop equipment in the change bag). This week has really made me appreciate just how busy I’ve been working part-time as well as being a mum.

Recently over at BritMums, there’s been a discussion about whether mums can ‘have it all’, in other words can they have successfully juggle life with kids, work and time for themselves? I think there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this. We’re all different with different personalities and different situations. As others commented on this BritMums discussion thread, I think it’s partly to do with how you define ‘having it all’. I mean it’s possible to have bits of time in your week devoted to kids, work, home and yourself. How you prioritise each of these, and things within these broad ‘categories’ will of course differ from family to family, and that’s not to say one family is any worse off for it than another. But I’m not sure it’s possible (for me) to ‘have it all’ in the sense that each of these categories would not end up being lived out to the full in the same way as they would with someone who didn’t have one of these categories in their life (e.g. didn’t have kids or didn’t work). Again, not that this is necessarily a problem, it’s just a question of what outcome one prefers to have, and therefore what has to give and take a little in order to get there.

Swinging in the sunshine

At the moment I know that the equation life = being mum + working + doing housework + having me-time results in a real balancing act. Some weeks I feel I pull this act off, other weeks I’m not so happy with myself for how I’ve handled it. This past week has brought it home to me how taking out ‘work’ from the equation has not only left me with more time for being mum and being myself (during toddler naps), but has meant less rushing around from one place to another, and less stress over getting ready for the day and for bedtime. I don’t think I appreciated just how hard this is until I didn’t have to do it for a week.

Must all good things come to an end? Unfortunately the good thing that was this week must come to an end, and I must go back to work next week. However, I don’t want to give the impression that I hate work or that I’m ungrateful for having a job, because these two things couldn’t be further from the truth. There are several good points about my job which I blogged about before. It’s just that I don’t feel I currently ‘have it all’ – I don’t have as much time with my boy as I’d like, and I don’t have the longer term motivation at work because I don’t have the aspiration to work my way up in an academic career (which is what many people with jobs like mine go on to do). But I know this feeling won’t last forever, and that’s what’s helping me through. My job runs until the end of this year, at which point I won’t look for another. I feel like my primary role in life at the moment is to be a mum, and in order to do this most effectively given our current situation, I would like to not have the extra pressure of a part-time job.

Learning our rainbow colours - in three languages of course 🙂

And finally, something that has encouraged me this week to be patient with how things are at the moment, and trust that this is not how it will always be. As I wasn’t at work, I was able to join in with the weekly women’s Bible study group at church like I used to on maternity leave. Andrew loves playing in the creche there with his favourite children’s worker Matt – he even walked into the room himself and started playing as soon as we got there. This gave me an hour to myself, and time to reflect on a short Bible passage that we read and discussed together. We looked at a chapter from the letter written by James, including these verses which spoke to me:

See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. (James 5: 7-8)

This reminded me that I can’t necessarily have things exactly how I want right now, and that I need to be patient. I’ve never been great with patience; it’s certainly something I need to work on and have asked God to help me with a lot. The analogy with a farmer in these verses was clear for me to relate to; I need to wait for the autumn and spring rains, the right moment when God says to me that now is the time to move on to the next thing He has planned for me. And until that time, I trust that He will give me the strength and perseverance to do my best at the balancing act of life.

So you’re a linguist…. how many languages do you speak then?

This post has been on my (never ending) to-do list for aaaages! It occurred to me that the linguist part of who I am might not be as immediately obvious as other parts. I mean you’re no doubt aware exactly what a home-baker, a craft lover and a swimmer are, but do you know what I mean by a linguist? Usually I find that people’s responses to ‘I’m a linguist’ are something like, ‘oh that’s nice’ or ‘OK I see’, but I can almost see their brain thinking it through, saying ‘I know it’s something to do with language, but I actually don’t have a clue beyond that, and it would be awkward if I let on!’ So if you can imagine yourself in this scenario, let me help you out.

The other response I get, if not the one above, is ‘ah, so how many languages do you speak then?’ In my case I can actually say that I speak a few languages (though how you define being able ‘to speak’ a language is not a clear-cut thing – I’ll come back to this later). But speaking several languages is not necessarily a prerequisite of being a linguist. Let me begin to explain why.

The word linguist is often used amongst (undergraduate) students to mean someone who is studying a foreign language (or languages), and this usually means they are learning to speak and write the language(s) to an even higher standard than they did at school, and they’re probably taking various courses as part of their degree, like, for example, translation, literature, and history/politics/geography etc. of the country (-tries) where the languages are spoken. I know this because I was once one of these ‘linguist’ students: I did a BA in French and German at Nottingham University, and graduated with a fluent level of spoken and written language in both, having also learned along the way some random facts about the history of France, the ins and outs of Satre’s Existentialism, what politics in Austria is like, and how the Berlin Wall came to be built and knocked down. All very interesting (well actually not allthat interesting I found) but my favourite extra courses beyond getting on with learning the languages in more detail were those which came into the category of ‘Linguistics’.

Linguistics written in the International Phonetic Alphabet

This Linguistics thing can be simply defined as ‘the science of language’, but does that really explain what it is? Not sure…. It’s about studying the ‘make-up’ of a language, without necessarily learning to speak/write it for the purpose of communication with a particular community of speakers. What do I mean by ‘make-up’? Nothing to do with Max Factor or Maybelline, what I mean is its structure, what it’s made up from, how it’s made up. This has several levels, from sounds as small as individual vowels and consonants (in technical jargon – phonetics and phonology), to parts of words like the -ing ending (<– like here ‘end’+’ing’) (more technical jargon – morphology), to parts of sentences and whole sentences (the wonderful world of syntax – note the irony in my ‘voice’ there), to the meaning of words both on their own and in wider contexts and specific situations (semantics and pragmatics). And someone who studies any of this lot is a LINGUIST – there we go, I’ve finally got to the word. Although it usually helps to know how to speak the language you’re studying in this way, if nothing else for getting by on field trips in another country, it’s not absolutely essential, because what you’re more interested in is figuring out some detail of its sound/word/sentence structure etc. than being able to converse with other speakers of it.

In my case, I’m a sounds girl. Ever since I took some French and German linguistics courses for my BA, I realised that I loved finding out all about the sounds of languages, including how they are produced in the mouth, how they differ within one country (e.g. different accents of a language), and how they change over time. After I graduated, I knew that I wanted to carry on and study for a Masters in Linguistics, so I took a year out to figure out exactly which course would be best for my interests. In the end Cambridge University was my preferred option, and after a brief interview that I didn’t even know was coming on the day I was informally looking around the department, I was in. The Masters (MPhil) course started with doing a bit of all sorts of areas of linguistics, and then allowed me to specialise in phonetics (which is about the sounds of speech) for my dissertation. I chose to compare the consonants spoken by monolingual and bilingual speakers of French and German in Switzerland. If you’re interested, you can read all about my MPhil research here. After that I thought it would be a good idea to carry on with the research as I enjoyed it, so I applied to do a PhD, got funding, and so spent the next 2 and a half years researching how speakers of French and German in Switzerland hear rhythm in speech. Again, if you’re interested, here are some articles and my thesis (warning: not for the faint-hearted reader!)

That was a bit of a digression off the main point about what linguistics is, but I thought it best to explain my background and where I’m coming from. When you get into the nitty gritty of phonetics, the sounds of speech, it’s actually a rather obviously scientific area of studying. As I started to study speech production and perception (how we speak and hear speech) for my MPhil, I found myself revising basics concepts of Physics and Biology that I hadn’t looked at since school. For my MPhil and PhD research I worked with ‘real data’ – looking at acoustic waveforms and spectrograms (aka pretty pictures of recorded speech) on computers, measuring various statistics, and devising ‘experiments’ to try and figure out how listeners hear certain aspects of speech by playing them particular recorded sounds/sentences and analysing their responses.

In doing all this it became clear to me what I thought all along at school but didn’t quite know what to do about it then: I’m actually a scientist, but one who also has an aptitude for languages, precisely because I approach them in a very ‘scientific’ way. At school I never enjoyed English literature, history or human geography, but my favourite subjects were languages (we did French and German at my school) and sciences (including biology, chemistry and physical geography). I was unusual for my time in my school for taking mixed A-Levels: French, German and Biology (this was just before the new-fangled AS system thing came in to encourage this mixing of subjects). Later as an undergraduate, once I’d seen that I could in fact marry these two loves of languages and science, I knew that linguistics (and more specifically phonetics) was my thing. A good friend of mine, who did her PhD at the same time as me in the Phonetics Lab (look, we even call it a ‘lab’!) put it very nicely when she said that we’re not linguists, but ‘Speech Scientists’. I see her point too.

Just after finishing my PhD I was offered a job as a Research Associate (similar work to my PhD, but I get paid :)) in a Psychology lab. One of the main reasons I was employed was because my boss felt that some phonetics input into the lab’s research on language impairments would be valuable, because the backgrounds of people already there were in psychology and neuroscience. So now I find myself well and truly integrated into the world of scientific research in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge University. If you’re up for it, here’s some info on what we do.

I hope this journey through what linguistics is has been enjoyable and enlightening. What did you think linguistics was before you read this? Were you far off? To finish I thought I’d leave you with a funny (to me!) picture that I saw recently on Facebook: it hits the nail right on the head! (Except I don’t agree with the ‘What I think I do’ one – it’s Noam Chomsky, a famous Linguist, but I don’t do anything along the lines of his work, nor do I aspire to do so. You have to be a linguist to understand why, and I’m not going into it here.)

Balancing act

My day starts when our alarm clock (aka Andrew) goes off at about 6am. I get up, play with Andrew for a while before giving him a milk feed around 6.30am, and then it’s family breakfast time at 7am. After that, it’s time to get washed and dressed. When we’re ready, it’s at that point that things have to be done differently depending on the day of the week. My brain is (usually) conscious of the next step:

  • it’s Monday/Friday = no rush, play with Andrew some more before putting him down for a morning nap, then do some things around the flat and get ready to go out for the rest of the morning;
  • it’s Wednesday/Thursday = pack up some lunch for Andrew and myself, put nappies in the change bag, wrap us both up warm in coats/gloves/hats etc., and walk round the corner to Tracy’s (our childminder) to arrive as she’s leaving for the school run at 8.25am, then cycle to the office;
  • it’s Tuesday = leave Andrew in Daddy’s capable hands and head straight off to the office for the morning;
  • it’s Saturday/Sunday = have some family time, then do some housework or go to church.

We’ve been in this routine for over a month now, since I started back at work half-time after 9 months of maternity leave, and it seems to be working. Two and a half days a week I work as a post-doctoral research associate (fancy name for the fact that I do research and have a PhD). I’m based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, as the resident phonetician in a lab of psychologists and neuroscientists. The project that I’m working on is looking at how children with a language impairment perceive rhythm and pitch in language and music. I should go into that in detail in another post, but for now I’ll stick to the balancing act of being mum and going out to work.

Before I went on maternity leave, I loved my job and felt very privileged to have been offered it, given the competition for academic jobs when funding is relatively limited. I planned to go back part-time after 9 months, though I found it hard to return once those months were up, because I enjoyed spending so much time with Andrew when on leave. There was a feeling of being torn between two jobs I loved doing, and there still is most days. Being with Andrew all day really makes me happy, but I do see advantages to going out to work too. I thought I’d share some of the things I like and don’t like about splitting my week in half.

At the office I get to drink hot cups of tea, eat my lunch when I like, and there’s not a nappy in sight. As I work in town, it’s very handy to pop out at lunchtime and go shopping for a few bits without the buggy. I have such lovely work colleagues who are great friends and make the office environment a happy, sociable and productive one. It feels good to know that I’m taking part in research that ultimately aims to get to the bottom of something that affects many kids, and one day may make a positive difference in individual lives.

My computer is easy to spot if you know what Praat looks like on screen 😉

People talk about being able to ‘use your brain’ again and get ‘mental stimulation’ at work after having a baby, and that is true to the extent that I get to put to use my ‘training’, i.e. the skills for research that I gained by doing a PhD and continuing in an academic job. But I would say my brain gets put to good use looking after Andrew too. I mean there’s no training for being a mum, so you figure things out as you go along, and that uses a fair amount of brain power I find. All the things that I’ve started to think about and get interested in since having him certainly keep me mentally stimulated. An example is doing my own ‘research’ on baby-related matters, by reading up and talking to other parents about issues like breastfeeding. I can do this either at groups when Andrew is with me and happy to play with the toys and other kids there, or at home when he’s asleep and I need to put my feet up. So I feel like I get enough brain usage on both Andrew days and office days.

Big boy on a trike - at a group where there is a great outdoor play area so Andrew can unleash all his energy

My Andrew days are fantastic because I get to see him develop and start doing things he couldn’t do the week before. He is such a good-natured baby, so I get lots of smiles and cuddles. There’s never a dull moment as he’s so active too, making me and himself laugh at the latest thing he’s managed to find/do/get stuck in or under. We go to fun groups where he can toddle around, play with different toys, sing, hear stories, make things and get messy, whilst I get a cup of tea made for me (which might go cold admittedly) and can chat with other mums (and dads) about the joys and woes of parenthood. I get lots of fresh air and exercise, which comes naturally in our routine because we walk everywhere.

Wrapped up warm for a ride out in the buggy to get to a group

So that’s a lot of good stuff so far. The hard part is having to split my time between the two jobs. I worry that I’ll miss out on one of Andrew’s ‘firsts’, that I’ll be impatient with him because I’m too tired after a day or two in the office, that he’ll miss me either lots or not at all when I’m gone (the former being detrimental to him and the latter to me and my identity as his mum). I also worry that my heart might not stay in my research like it was, that I’ll be too tired to function properly, that I’ll not do my research to the highest standard I set myself. These worries on both sides basically come down to the fact that I’m a perfectionist, and by splitting my resources it might not be possible to do either job at 100%. So far I’m pleased to say that none of these worries have actually been an issue, but they are always in my mind.

Look at me, I'm so good at standing. Mummy loves watching me grow up and do things like this for the first time.

When I think about it, I’m not splitting my week exactly in half. In fact I’m a full-time mum, and always will be, as I do my mum thing before and after going out to the office (including in the middle of the night if he wakes up – what am I supposed to say? ‘sorry Andrew, work tomorrow, no soothing back to sleep for you tonight’); walking out the door to go to work doesn’t stop me being mum. I just do interesting research for about 19 hours a week on top of that. I’m happy with the way things are for now, but it’ll be interesting to see what’s in store for the future, especially as my contract ends in December 2012 (the research one that is – I don’t think Andrew will terminate my contract as mum anytime soon 🙂 )

Andrew loves 'helping' me hang the washing up to dry