Being competitive only works if you’re good at something. That’s why at school all the most competitive people were the ones who were good at netball. Or hockey. Or the hurdles. Let’s say sport generally. I didn’t hate PE enough to skive (I was also far too much of a goody-goody) and was alright at most activities: not on the netball squad but not picked last; fast enough to make the team for the 4x100m relay at sports day, but not running the coveted final leg. I was average. I was good at exams, but at my Derbyshire state school it wasn’t the done thing to admit you even tried, never mind be competitive about it. So I didn’t really have anything to be competitive about – unless you count making it to the front of the standing area at a Blur gig in 1997.
It was only when I started trying to get into a notoriously competitive industry – magazine journalism – that my rivalry gene really awakened. For the most part, I’ve found professional competition positive. My bosses and colleagues have inspired me to work hard and bring my best ideas, even if there’s the downside of the comparisons with the many talented people with fabulous ‘better than’ careers, bagging dream commissions that I’m envious of.
Which brings me around to parenting. Something that basically takes your biggest achievement insecurities, throws in a bucketload of hormones, and subtracts 50 nights’ sleep (the amount new parents are thought to lose in the first year) from your mental wellbeing. Under those circumstances, I defy even the most laidback of souls not to become obsessed with getting parenting ‘right’. During maternity leave, my big worries were that I wasn’t enjoying every minute – as strangers remind you to almost constantly – and that I clung to our daily routine at the expense of ‘experiences’.
Facebook posts from women on maternity leave at the same time as me showed them taking their babies on far-flung holidays. A former colleague who had her baby a few months after me went travelling around South America – just hoisted the baby into a sling and off she went. Meanwhile, at three months ahead of her, I found it nerve-wracking enough to drive up the M1 to visit my parents. I was not winning at maternity leave.
And that’s just the start. There are so many milestones – sleeping through the night, crawling, talking, toilet training – that ‘should’ be happening all the time. “She loves books,” someone will announce at a playgroup, as you freak out thinking, “Do they mean chewing on them? Or, like, disseminating the themes of What the Ladybird Heard?”
What’s the aim of this non-existent competition we’ve signed up for anyway? Presumably our charges will all be able to go to the toilet and identify a farmyard animal by themselves at some point, so in 20 years’ time how do we measure who has won?
Next month, we start the next round of the competition: school applications. Having just written an entire novel about this topic, I do know a bit about it. The School Run (“Funny and frank,” says Dawn O’Porter, FYI) is about the lengths mothers will go to for a school place. It’s fiction but the competition is most definitely out there: a Sutton Trust poll last September found one in three middle-class parents “know someone” who has resorted to “dubious tactics” to get a school place, with religious fraud being the most common form of cheating. In the book, I’ve used such reports – about sucking up to the local vicar or pretending to move house – for comic effect, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t become one of those people when the time came.
Then came the rumour that our local primary already has 21 younger siblings on the list for its 2020 intake, meaning there could be very few places left before we even apply. And so my competitive gene is tingling again.But let’s see, I did make it to the front of that Blur gig after all.
You can follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter at @itshelenwhitaker and @helbobwhitaker respectively. Helen’s debut novel, The School Run , about the comic lengths parents will go to for a school place, comes out on 8th August and is available to pre-order now.
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