We recently spoke to journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer about parenthood, her busy career and how she manages to combine the two. Miranda is the radio critic and a feature writer for the Observer, she is a regular presenter on Radio 4′s The Culture Show, produces radio documentaries, and has written about music and culture for Smash Hits, Select, Time Out and The Face. She is also the author of Park and Ride, a book about Britain’s relationship with its suburbs. She is married to the actor and comedian Michael Smiley. She has two children, a son P (aged 7) and a daughter F (aged 2).
As a busy creative couple with young kids and careers that involve all sorts of late nights, deadlines and other atypical working hours, how do you maintain a routine with your kids, and have you devised any devious strategies for making things work better for you both?
MS – The routine is provided by P’s school really, everything in the morning revolves around whoever’s on the school run getting out of the house at 8.35am with both kids, all necessary accessories and without actually murdering anyone in the process. P goes to school, F to her child-minder’s and then everyone gets on with their day… P does various things after school – football, swimming, gym, art or goes round to a mate’s house. Seven year olds have pretty full-on social lives. Both kids are picked up by one of us around 5pm except for Mondays and Fridays when it’s 3.
The problem hours are always 5-8pm – quite often work requires us both to be out of the house then, and it can be tricky getting a babysitter at that hour. Also, with both of our jobs, things get sprung on us last minute: my first question with any job that involves me leaving the house isn’t ‘What does it involve?’ or even ‘How much?’ but ‘What time, EXACTLY, TO THE MINUTE?’. F’s child-minder helps us out a lot. Our kids go to bed a bit later than some of their mates but that’s because we want to see them before they do, and because we live two minutes from the school and child-minders, so they get up late (7.30am).
Did you find yourself applying your skills of journalistic analysis to the vast swathes of parenting literature before P was born? Or were you content to learn on the job? Or a little of both?
MS – I went into absolute shock when P was born. He slept OK at night, but he had colic, so every waking hour was full of him yelling. Three days after he was born, I bought 12 books about parenting. They were all pretty useless. Parenting is a skill, it can only be learnt through doing it. A friend told me to put P back to bed about an hour and a half after he woke up, that really helped. Learning that babies like naps at certain times sorted everything out really.
And learning what you don’t care about helps too. I couldn’t stand being in the house all day, so I ignored all the palaver about him sleeping in his cot at lunch and just let him sleep in the buggy while I went out. And I never warmed up his milk, ever. He stopped shrieking after four months. I think, anyway – I can’t really remember. Dealing with your first-born is like the first time you have your heart broken. You have to forget the pain and the panic and the terrifying feeling that you’ve lost who you actually are or you’d never continue to live.
What are your rules concerning TV / computer / iPad? Strict rationing, or a grudging acceptance that it’s a battle that can’t be won?
MS – I’m pretty relaxed, because I learnt a lot from pop culture when I was growing up. F loves the Wizard of Oz and Tom and Jerry and I have no problem with her watching them on repeat, because I think they’re great stories that provide a perfectly good grounding for life. Obviously, you don’t let your kids look at screens all day, because it’s boring and no one wants a zombie for a child, but I don’t regard iPads as the devil. They’re really useful on train journeys. Also, kids are going to have to know their way around a computer, so why not let them at ‘em?
Thoughts on pink?
MS – I’m a tomboy myself, so it was a shock when my daughter suddenly decided she liked pink. There was a weird few months when she started talking about pink without actually knowing what it was: she just knew the word had currency. She’d point at anything – a hole in the ground, Shrek – and say “Pink! I like pink!” And then, just after she turned two, she caught girliness. They catch it like they catch colds, off other kids. Now she goes nowhere unless she’s festooned in bangles and beads and bags and she prefers pink versions of all of those. She’s like a mini Barbara Cartland. It’s OK by me. As long as she grows out of it by the time she’s 95.
Do your kids seem to like the music you listen to? Or have they (especially P) started to develop their own opinions about what they prefer?
MS – P likes chart music: pop, dance, grime. He worships Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah, Plan B. Also Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. He hates indie, unless it’s Nirvana, he can’t stand The Beatles or anything acoustic. He’s like the anti-6Music. F likes stuff she deems suitable to dance to, which is pretty much whatever she hears, from a police car siren to Taylor Swift to me drumming my fingers on the table.
What are your favourite parks / museums / places to spend time with your kids in London?
MS – We live in Brockwell Park. Even before I had kids, I spent a lot of time in the park and now there isn’t a blade of grass there that I’m not familiar with. It has a brilliant play park, a paddling pool, the lido, the secret garden, tennis courts, a BMX track… Plus the café does an E number-full bright blue ice-cream that is adored by every child in the world and there’s always an impromptu football match on the grass out front.
Where else? The Science Museum, if you get there early. The zoo’s OK, if you’ve got membership and you remember to bring a packed lunch (the food’s a massive rip-off). Sydenham Woods. Herne Hill Velodrome. Tate Modern and the Southbank.
And what are their favourite books?
MS – P went through Roald Dahl (read to him by me) and on to David Walliams. He started reading by himself because of Ratburger by David Walliams – I caught him reading in bed – and I was so chuffed I got David’s email address off a mate and sent him a massively gushy email. I think I was actually crying when I wrote it. Anyway, David was really brilliant about it, invited P to one of his readings and met him afterwards. P has no idea that David’s a comedian or does Britain’s Got Talent or anything. He just thinks he’s a brilliant author.
Now P is on to Harry Potter and it’s kind of taken over our world. We’re reading them together, then he reads in bed and tells me about it the next day and when we’ve finished whichever book we’re on, we watch the film.
F likes The Gruffalo, a book we call Uh-Oh that’s about a little owl falling out of his nest and We’re Going On A Bear Hunt. She also likes me telling her about the time we went to Peppa Pig World. I have to repeat what happened, blow by blow, joke by joke, every single time she goes to bed.
What do you think about dads and the shift in their attitudes regarding parenting over the last generation or two?
There are a couple of fathers at P’s school who are the chief child-carer, either because their wife works, or because they’re divorced and the kids live with them. Surprise, surprise, they are great at it. Gender has as much to do with parenting ability as class does. It’s just irrelevant. You either love your kids and get on with the job, or you don’t.
I don’t really know any dad who doesn’t get involved with his children, to be honest. My male friends aren’t the type who stay out all day working and expect their wives to do all the kid stuff. I meet some of those men through work. They do high-powered, long-houred jobs, have a flat in London and park their families in a big house in the Home Counties somewhere. It seems like a recipe for misery and divorce to me.