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Mother's reinvention, The National, 10.02.2009

As social commentators claim that the global credit crunch will bring about the end of the ‘yummy mummy’, Jo Wadham meets a group of Abu Dhabi women with different approaches to parenting, but who still manage to lead fulfilling lives of their own

Tomorrow the British DJ Fatboy Slim – also known as Norman Cook – will perform a hotly anticipated two-hour set at Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Resort in Dubai. For the crowds of fans who will be there Cook might be a superstar DJ, but he’s also a father with an eight-year-old son, Woody, and a wife, the TV and radio presenter Zoë Ball. Woody’s was the first in a rash of celebrity births which saw such high-profile British mothers as Kate Moss, Sadie Frost, Victoria Beckham and Liz Hurley all have babies and define a new type of glamorous parenthood. Not for them the unwashed greasy hair or the slopping around in maternity clothes months after the delivery.

This new breed of yummy mummies made it look so easy. Above all they didn’t seem to let becoming parents change their lives. But recent reports from the UK suggest that the recession is putting a dampener on the Bugaboo, Boden and Blahniks lifestyle that they epitomised. For some mothers, this news will elicit a sigh of relief, but there are many more who think the era of the hip parent is far from over.

Ros Alston, 28, who has a seven-month-old son, Rex, says: “It’s all about recognising that you don’t have to let it go and that everything is still possible.” Alston has worked hard to keep her old sense of self following Rex’s birth. “There is such a fear of losing your freedom and identity when you have a baby. I’m just trying to maintain what I had before,” she adds. She and her husband both hope that their efforts to keep up with trends will have positive benefits for Rex. “I like to try new things and I hope Rex has that zest for life,” explains Alston. “Not losing who we are is important but equally it is about making sure that children have a sense of their own individuality, too.”

This summer they are taking Rex with them on their annual trip to Ibiza. “We’re going with friends and our nanny,” Alston says. “We’ll probably have two big dancing nights, then go to the beach and relax and listen to music.” For Emily Marsh, 35, retaining her identity when she had children was natural thanks in part to her training as a nanny. “In my working life, I had to look after children all day and I still had a life outside. It didn’t have to be any different when I had my own children,” she explains.

Marsh also found that her attitude to parenting was influenced by what her friends were doing at the time. When she had her first daughter, Phoebe, she was 25 and none of her social circle had children. But this did not present problems, especially as far as socialising was concerned. “I didn’t want to miss out, so Phoebe came with me,” Marsh says. Luckily, Phoebe, now nine, and her six-year-old sister, Maisie, have always slept well, so Marsh had no problem attending dinner parties. She would simply put her children down to sleep at the friend’s house and then take them home again at the end of the evening. As a result, Marsh and her husband continue to have a very active social life, though the girls, now older, tend to stay at home with a babysitter.

Travelling has always been important to Marsh and her husband and it remains so. Even with the children to consider, they still avoid family-friendly package holidays. In 2006 they all travelled around Sri Lanka and then, the following year, Cambodia. “The children loved it,” she says. The older your children are, and the more children you have, the harder it can be to keep your own life a priority. Alston admits: “With subsequent kids it will probably get more difficult and we will end up letting go of some things. But we are also getting older, too, and changing what we do anyway.”

For other parents, the divide between life before and after children is more absolute. “You are never the same again once you have had a baby,” says Harriet Baker, 39, mother to Angus, eight, Monty, seven, Oscar, five, and Miles, two. “You are no longer the centre of your own world. Neither is your husband. He shares that spot with the children. You are not your own first concern any more.” Baker finds it hard to keep up to the minute with fashion and music, due to a lack of time, but also a lack of inclination. “Your priorities change as you get older and your tastes change. There is only so much time in the day… only so much emotional space. You can’t fit everything in.”

When Angus was born, Baker was working for a large international investment bank managing a team of people. She stopped after Monty’s birth as she found it hard to combine her high-stress job, which involved lots of travel, with being a mother. “To do the job properly, I needed to put in long hours,” she explains. Doing the job properly is something that concerns her now that she is a full-time mother. “I’m just trying to do the best I can. I can’t do something in half measures, I have to do it properly. But as a mother you realise that whatever you do is never 100 per cent right – they’ve never eaten enough veg or been quite good enough.”

Baker admits that she has become defined by her children “People don’t see me, they see them. People think the children are the most interesting thing about you: ‘There’s that woman with four children’.” However, she does make an effort to maintain her sense of self and has recently started working part-time at the boys’ school. “It’s nice to feel you’ve achieved something that is not revolving around everyone else, she says. “I never lost sight of myself. I could have done, but I always made sure that I had something else to think about.”

For a while, Baker sold baby shoes with a friend, but maintaining your personal identity can be achieved by something as simple as curling up with a good book. “I read a lot,” she adds, “that helped a lot.” As for being perceived solely as a mother, Baker has understandable reservations. “How dull have I become?” she asks. But then she adds: “Is it any worse than being defined by your job? People say, ‘There goes that investment banker’. You are known for the main thing you do, that’s all.”

Still, concerns about other people’s perceptions can have a huge influence on how we live our lives. Alston admits that part of her fight to stay up to date and sociable is to show that she is coping with parenthood. “I suppose it’s very human to want to make it look like you are holding it together,” she says. “It’s part of the normal person’s make-up to want to be perceived as still retaining a bit of your old pizzazz.”

After having two children, Jackie, 42, (not her real name), found that it wasn’t so much other people’s perceptions of her, as her own perception of herself, which had been affected by child rearing. Despite making a point of keeping her own life, socialising and making sure that her children’s routine fitted in with her own, when it came to how she looked, she no longer saw herself. This led her to resort to plastic surgery.

“I often had to accompany my husband on work dinners, but before we went out I would be in floods of tears. I felt I looked horrible despite my husband saying I looked fabulous.” Having a family had taken its toll on Jackie’s body and she found that after her second child she needed some extra help. She knew she wasn’t going to have any more children and went to see a plastic surgeon for a nip and tuck. She went on to lose the few remaining extra pounds through diet and exercise. “I’m now enjoying the chance to be glamorous again. I feel I’m a funky mum, not a beige mother,” she says.

If you think being a trendy parent means borrowing your daughter’s tops or hanging out with your son’s friends and listening to the latest Green Day download, think again. According to Kate Hargreaves, aged 14, it’s more about relating to your children, talking to them and doing things with them.: “My mum and I talk a lot and we go out to malls together occasionally. I think that’s what makes a cool mum,” she says. Kate likes that her mother has her own social life, work and still makes time for her. “I look at what she does and see where my life can go. She’s a good role model.”

Clearly, having children forces parents to make changes, but it is always possible to hold on to something that is yours. You may not have the fleet of nannies, trainers and publicists that celebrity parents can fall back on, but if in some aspect of your life you are doing what you want – whether that is following the latest music and fashions, holding down a job, or travelling to a country you’ve always wanted to visit – you are keeping part of you a priority and setting a good example to your children at the same time. As Emily Marsh says: “It’s difficult to say that having children doesn’t change you, because it does. But I still feel like me.”


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