I’m pressed up against the front door – the only place in my daughter and son-in-law’s house where you can get decent mobile reception – trying to take notes from my book editor who is discussing my next novel.
Little George, who is still recovering from chicken pox, and his sister Rose (just back from nursery) are either screaming or laughing in the room next door. It’s hard to tell which. Don’t worry. I haven’t left them unsupervised. My husband is doing his best to keep them safely entertained while I attempt to sound professional down the phone.
“It sounds a bit chaotic at your end,” says my editor who, luckily, is very understanding.
“No problem,” I say airily. “Actually, do you mind hanging on for a second?”
I put my head round the corner. My husband, who isn’t showing any signs of chicken pox thank goodness, is doing a great job by telling a story in a very loud perfect-for-the-stage voice. George is beating a tune with his toy bricks against the wall and Rose is dressed up as a red fairy, racing round the room while wielding her wand like a sword slicing through the air. All three of them look as though they’re having a great time. That’s all right then…
A little help from Pam Ayres…
Being a working granny is a real juggling act. It was just the same when I was a freelance working-from-home journalist mum. In those days, we didn’t have email. I would conduct magazine interviews on the phone with celebrities while keeping an eye on the children. Occasionally, if I was desperate, I would take them with me to do the interview in person. In fact, I’ll never forget Pam Ayres who kindly got her nanny to look after my eldest while we chatted in the other room.
I did, on several occasions, try out formal childcare. We had five au pairs over two years at one stage but none of them worked out. To be honest, I don’t think we were very good at living with strangers. My mother had died by then and the two remaining grandparents weren’t able to help out. So this is one reason why I volunteered to look after little Rose and George all these years later.
“But how are you going to work and be a hands-on granny?” asked all my friends when I announced my new unpaid role.
“It’s only for two days a week,” I replied confidently. “There’ll be plenty of time to write on the other days.”
In fact, I generally manage to average one and a half hours on the laptop keyboard while George has his morning nap. My perfect position is to write on the sofa with one eye on my little grandson asleep in his pram in the hall. Writing has always been something I need to do. On the other hand, when you have children, they have to come first.
Nowadays, it’s the emails and necessary work phone calls which aren’t so easy to slot in – especially after I’ve collected little Rose from nursery when everyone’s a bit tired at the end of the day and my attempt at reasoning falls on deaf ears. (“Let’s share that toy, shall we, George? Rose did have it first!”)
Yet the interesting thing is that attitudes have changed since I was a working-from-home mum. Some of my magazine editors back then didn’t understand if I said that actually, I couldn’t take on a commission until after the school holidays because I had no-one to help with my three children.
Now, it seems more acceptable to tell people that I’m not available on Wednesdays or Thursdays because it’s a granny day. In fact, I even have a journalist friend who has an auto message on her emails, announcing that she’s not around because she’s looking after her grandson. It’s almost a badge of honour.
Love and responsibility
The other bonus of being a working gran is that you get lots of fiction ideas from your grandchildren! My new novel, which comes out this summer with Penguin, is about a granny who makes a mistake. I don’t want to spoil the plot by telling you what happens. But it’s been described as “a heart-warming story about love, tragedy and hope”. I couldn’t have written it without having experienced at first-hand, this extraordinary overpowering love I have for little Rose and George as well as the huge responsibility which goes with looking after them.
I also think that being a working gran helps to keep the “me” part going strong. Much as I love to discuss potty-training with my granny friends (as well as chicken pox incubation periods and whether we should allow the grandchildren to eat tea with an iPad on their laps), I’m glad I’ve hung onto the other side of my life.
Meanwhile, little Rose and George already show signs of following the family writing tradition. My granddaughter loves making up stories in her head and has her eye on my laptop. (I’m thinking of buying a children’s typewriter to set up next to mine in my study.) Meanwhile, my grandson, like his sister, absolutely adores books, especially the touchy-feely ones where you use your finger to trace the different textures. I’ve also secretly started writing my own stories for them, about all our adventures!
Having said that, you need to be very organised if you are going to be a reliable working gran. Although I try to keep Wednesdays and Thursdays free for the children, there are times when I simply can’t move dates such as when I’m speaking at a literary festival. Usually I tell my daughter well in advance. But the problem is that George, bless him, is quite clingy and simply won’t go to anyone else.
“Just leave him with someone,” advised a non-granny friend of mine recently. “He’ll soon get used to another face.”
But we don’t want a stranger to look after him. It’s also very flattering to be needed.
I also know that this time doesn’t last for ever. Children grow up so fast! In September, little George starts nursery for one day a week. I can hardly believe it! What will I do with all that time?
“Are you still there?” asks my book editor on my mobile loudspeaker.
Whoops! I’d forgotten she’s still hanging on…