Q&A with Joanna Gosling
Joanna Gosling, author, mother of three and broadcast journalist for 20 years, was our Q&A guest to coincide with the release of her new book. Simply Wonderwoman is a survival guide to 'help you have the life you want, not the crazy muddled one that's foisted on you once you have children'.
You asked Joanna for housekeeping tips and quizzed her on the best way to tackle that huge pile of paperwork, as well as her views on feminism and women in the home.
Zinfandel: The book looks really interesting but what makes it stand out from the other 'guidebooks for busy women' already available? Or even from going on to Mumsnet when you need some practical advice?
Joanna: When I was writing this book, I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve - to pass on the eureka moments, where I've stumbled across something that has made my life so much easier, and I've just thought, "Wow, all the time, money and effort I'd have saved if only I'd known that before!"
At the same time, I love making things and being very practical around the house with DIY and decorating, and friends always ask me how I do it. The answer is always: it's really simple and quick, no skill required. The question was, how to combine the two? On one hand, write a book that's about freeing up time; on the other, include stuff that you don't have to do. Isn't that a contradiction?
Maybe for that reason - and to answer your question - there isn't another book that covers all of these things, which has made it very hard to pigeonhole. For me the unifying theme is not contradictory, it's a book about how we spend our time - whether it's making something nice, or doing something boring that has to be done. We want to do things the quick and easy way, because all of us are time-poor.
I try out pretty much every tip I ever read about - and hate it when I waste time doing something that really doesn't work, or isn't worth the effort. My goal with this book is that everything really is worth doing because it will either make your life easier, or just a bit nicer - like a cherry-picked version of everything that's out there swirling around us!
PJFanclub: I really enjoyed reading the extract from your book over the weekend. Not all of us are fortunate to have a partner around all the time, so any tips on how to spend less time on the never-ending tasks such as cleaning, cooking, laundry etc, are very gratefully received (by me at least). What was it that inspired you to write this book - have you always lived your life this way or were you once a disorganised mess?
Joanna: I decided to write this book because I had felt too long feeling like my head was full all the time, skimming along, coping (just) but always feeling like I was at my limits and any little extra thing would make me collapse. Too often I was the mum at the school gate with children in uniform on no-uniform day, or racing off to work covered in baby sick or cat hair, feeling like my head was already full.
So I needed to re-balance by getting systems and strategies into place to clear headspace - hence a focus at the start of the book on getting organised. Other than that, I have always been very practical and have always tried to work out quick and easy ways of doing things, to save time, money and effort. I'm absolutely not perfect (and nor is my house) - none of us are - but that's not what life's about.
ZapharineDrouhin: Your title, Simply Wonderwoman, obviously echoes Shirley Conran's 1975 Superwoman. How do you feel that working mothers' lives have changed since Superwoman? And what do you feel that Simply Wonderwoman adds to the debate over having/doing-it-all (other than bunting and salt dough of course)?
Joanna: I think that we have gone from "having it all" (ie combining work and motherhood) being something that was fought for, then it became a choice and now, for many, it's a neccessity. On top of that, I think the notion of "having it all" has gone a step further, in that being a 1950s-style domestic baking/homemaking heroine is back in fashion, which brings a third dimension to having/doing it all. What I wanted to do with Simply Wonderwoman was to address these issues, with practical tips and advice on how to make life easier and simpler.
So the book is divided into two sections: the first deals with the boring stuff, the things we (or our partners) have to do to run a household; the second half is the "nice stuff". I am not saying every woman has to embrace the "domestic goddess" element. And I know a lot of women absolutely don't want to. The point of feminism is having the choice. However, the reason I think it is appealing is the simple fact that making something for yourself or others is pleasurable, because making something is when your mind clears.
Justaboutstillhere: Is "too much to do" a choice or a necessity? And which kind of "busy-ness" does your book discuss? Are you writing a book for the cash-strapped family who are trying to keep everything going and do it all themselves because there is no alternative, or is it more for the "send out the ironing" brigade?
Do you feel that there are different kinds of busy-ness due to lifestyle choices and income levels, and that your book might be more aimed at those who can afford to delegate boring household chores/bring in a significant income and hence do more of the fun stuff? Genuine question, because I haven't read the book and would be interested in how you see it as being pitched.
Joanna: I wouldn't actually pigeonhole the book in either of those categories because I think that all women feel like they never have enough time, whatever their financial situation, and so I wanted to write a practical guide about how you can maximise your time. It's absolutely not about paying other people to do the jobs for you, but about smart ways of saving time, money and effort.
LetTheSlaughterBegincognito: Any tips for dealing with paperwork? I need a system or something... I'm drowning!
Babysignmum: What do I do about my piles? I mean those paper ones that seem to multiply all over the kitchen table, work surfaces, desk, chairs, floor... How do I get on top of paperwork and filing when I never have time to read anything? All help gratefully received - if I can find the computer under the paperwork.
Joanna: A bit like the laundry, it's scary how quickly piles of paperwork can mount up isn't it?! So here's how I try to keep a grip on it. If you don't have time to deal with mail as soon as it arrives, put it somewhere you won't overlook it, ready to be opened when you do have a few minutes to sort through. Immediately bin the rubbish. Split the rest into two box files - one of stuff that needs to be dealt with, like bills. The other is stuff that can be filed.
Try to set aside 15 minutes each week to sort through the boxes, so they don't get out of hand. With receipts, keep an envelope in your bag with the month written on it. At the end of the month, put the envelope in a file, so they're easy to go through when you need to catalogue them. Anything that doesn't need to be kept, bin or shred immediately.
It's easy to forget about email, it's virtual paperwork, but still gets nightmarish when it piles up and you can't find something important you need. So get in the habit of sorting emails into files on your computer as they come through. Again, delete anything you don't need straight away. And, to try to keep the clutter down, unsubscribe from any junk emails that keep littering your inbox - just follow the instructions in the email.
MummyDucks: Do you have any tips for getting things out from behind radiators? I've tried the unravelled hanger - but is there a simpler way? It's the bane of my life! Also, you mention using bicarbonate of soda - is there somewhere I could buy this in bulk? I've only seen the ones in shops that are quite small - it looks like it could be the wonder ingredient!
Joanna: You can buy a special radiator brush - which is a long, wriggly soft brush - just do a search online. It'll get anything out from behind a radiator in a flash!
I also buy bicarbonate of soda online - again, just do a search. It's very cheap to buy in bulk. I keep it in jars all over the place - under the sink, on top of the washing machine and in the bathroom - it's a brilliant and gentle skin scrub, too! And, if a room is stinky - like after you've cooked fish or something - leave an open jar on the side and it absorbs smells like magic. It really is a wonder product!
Witchofwoo: I need around 17 clones in order to get things done - fulltime work, children, cooking, cleaning - my family all help yet we never get out of the bit. Any tips on laundry and storage before it takes over the house?
Joanna: Here are some of the things I do, which hopefully hope might lighten the load a bit:
For cooking, I've always found one of the most arduous parts is actually thinking about what to do for each meal - especially with children, when they're eating earlier than the adults, so you have, not just one, but two mealtimes to think about. Joy!
So, to make things easier, I get the kids to come up with a weekly meal-planner. I've found they are really creative and great at coming up with good, healthy, simple meals. They like being in control and it makes my life miles easier.
I always do very simple meals - ie something like a chicken just put in the oven and left to cook itself, plus salad and potatoes. I don't know if you've got a partner, but in my case, my partner is a great cook, so at weekends when he's around, he'll sort out the meals. We switch around, depending on who's working, but if I'm cooking it'll be simple, basic cooking - if he is, he enjoys producing something a bit more creative, which is great.
With cleaning, job avoidance is the trick. I don't mean never doing it, but I mean little tricks that cut out work actually being created). Here's another of my faves - never having to clean the oven. Boil the kettle just before you turn off the oven, then stick a bowl of boiling water in the oven when you switch it off. It steam cleans the surfaces so that next time you open it a quick wipe with a damp cloth is all you need to do to maintain a permanently clean oven.
It's incredible how crazy amounts of laundry pile up, so I try to do at least a load a day, and with the ironing I will do short, regularish bursts so it doesn't get out of hand. And yes - to the Mumsnetters concerned that I do everything - my husband does iron his shirts, too, sometimes; it depends which of us is at home the most and that is invariably me.
And for storage, wooden wine crates are my fave thing for books and shoes. You can pick them up free from off-licences - around now is a great time, because they get lots of boxed wine for Christmas. Just go in and ask them to call when they've got empty ones. Put them in the kids' rooms for their shoes and stack some up as a bookcase. Totally free storage.
JHart0: In trying to juggle everything, are women victims of our own disarray? There are only so many hours in the day, but in trying to accomplish everything so many tasks get left unfinished.
Joanna: I think it's very easy to get to the end of the day feeling resentful that you've spent it juggling like crazy, doing chores, running kids around, maybe doing a paid job on top of it all - you look back at the day and think "what have I actually achieved?" The jobs pile up, and the headspace shrinks, as you can't focus on what needs to be done.
Hence, exactly what you're saying - so many tasks get left unfinished. I spent a very long time feeling like I was always failing on at least one front, whether it was leaving tasks that really needed to be done, or not seeing enough of family and friends. Finally, I realised (something my husband had told me all along, but I'd never managed to do) it's about prioritising. By that I mean, not feeling like every job is important, you just have to decide the order in which to do them. Decide what can actually be cut out.
So the laundry, for instance... I barely iron anything, the trick is to fold everything really well as it comes out of the dryer or off the line, and most things - shirts and sheets excepted - won't need ironing. To avoid the drudgery, I specialise in all sorts of tricks to avoid it (and I don't mean paying someone else to do it, I mean literally ways of cutting out jobs or minimising them).
You've got to be realistic about what can be achieved. Getting organised underpins everything. So:
- Write everything down the moment you think of it - it clears headspace and helps you focus
- Make a to-do list of a max of three things per day
- Stick a peg on your frontdoor where you can put things that you mustn't forget - like the shopping list, school permission slip etc
Madwomanintheattic: Apologies for my lack of manners, but why target women specifically? (I mean, I know it's dead obvious - to play on their insecurities about not being good enough and make some money, camouflaged neatly under a 'helping them make their lives easier' banner). I'm sure you're robust enough to defend your choices in a pithy one-liner. Do you believe that such books directed at women are helping to effect cultural change, or do they continue to enable outdated media perceptions of gender roles?
Joanna: I would hate for anyone to think that I am saying that running the home is the sole task of a woman. As a mother of three girls, that is absolutely not the message I wanted to send out. What I'm passionate about is lightening the load, passing on tips and tricks to make life easier.
I don't think anyone - male or female - wants to spend more time than they have to doing the drudgery, or anything else, we're all time-poor. The title Simply Wonderwoman was meant to be slightly ironic. The crazy image of perfection that we see portrayed in the media where a woman is an effortless superhero running a perfect life - too many of us put ourselves under pressure by aspiring to an illusion, or else feel resentful that our lives aren't anything like that.
The reality is that mothers still, whether we like it or not, are the ones at home more than fathers. Obviously there are stay-at-home dads, but they are still very much in the minority. Two-thirds of mothers work, but almost half are working part time. So, women tend to take control of running the house. It doesn't mean men shouldn't do their fair share - and it feels sightly depressing that there's even a question that they don't or shouldn't in 2011.
One of my reasons for writing this book was because I do a lot of stuff around the house - like DIY, decorating and making - and friends always say I must be some sort of wonderwoman. I am absolutely not, no-one is. I just wanted to show how easy things can be - anyone can do it, no special skills required - it's about being empowered.
Thinking other women are wonderwomen can be an excuse, as if they are managing it through special abilities or powers. The only thing they have is the know-how and shortcuts - or else a raft of staff running the show, which obviously is not the reality (or even a dream) for most of us.
We are all juggling different, but essentially the same pressures, and we can make life so much better by helping each other out and sharing what we've learned about how to make it easier. The reason I include nice things to make is because I find it therapeutic to create something that lasts longer than a day.
Also, the book's about living simply - and making things makes you realise how much of our culture is about disposable materialism. Take the bunting. (I get the clear sense it's not that popular around here!). My point with bunting is that it takes minutes to make, but you can keep it forever and pull it out every time there's a party or you want to prettify a space, with zero effort.
One thing I learned from my own childhood is that children love continuity, traditition and routine - so putting up the bunting - like putting up the Christmas tree - is a sign there's a celebration on the way. It's about simple pleasures.
I don't outline in the book exactly what gender roles should be, or how much my husband does, because I really don't think it's helpful - I don't know what each reader's individual circumstances are. What I did want to offer up is a whole lot of practical ways to make our lives easier and simpler, because for a long time after my children came along and my workload shifted accordingly, I was drifting along in need of some help.
Scootergrrrl: How do you handle the getting-out-of-the-door-on-the-school-run chaos?
Joanna: Giving my kids tasks has helped enormously because the girls are now very good at getting themselves ready in the morning. What always drove me crazy was the last-minute hunt for a single shoe, or coat, or schoolbag, or any other vital bit of kit that had disappeared into a black hole somewhere.
So my best tip on this front has been to get a big box in the hallway, where everything is deposited when the children come in from school - shoes, lunch bag, coat, schoolbag etc. That way everything is kept together so they know exactly where to retrieve it all the next morning. Packed lunches are also a hassle. My tip for this is frozen bread! You never run out or find the bread is mouldy, plus it's so much easier to spread on frozen bread.
Missorinoco: What would your top five tips to an organised life be? (Other than get a nanny and send the kids to boarding school?)
Joanna: 1. Labelled boxes for everything. It's great to clear clutter (like toys) away, by throwing it all into boxes, but to make sure it doesn't become a jumbled mess of everything piled together - and so you know where to find things - stick labels on the outside of the boxes.
2. Clear out the clutter. OK, that's not a quick job, but by keeping cupboards and drawers free from stuff you really don't need to keep, it makes putting away - and retrieving things - soooo much easier.
3. A door peg - stick a peg on the front door with double-sided tape, so that you can put everything you must remember - like a shoppping list, letters to post, or a school permission slip - right there in front of you for when you leave the house.
4. Write everything down. Shopping list, to-do list, plydates etc. It clears headspace when you write everything down, because then you're not constantly panicking about what you've forgotten!
5. Get up before everyone else. This is controversial I know, because frankly, who feels like they ever get enough sleep? The thing for me, is getting up an hour, or even half an hour before the kids, means I can start the day with a clear head and have time to focus on my own thoughts before the deluge begins.
TootaLaFruita: I'm a stay-at-home mum and my DH works full-time, so boring household jobs fall to me. I would like tips on how to stay sane when my family trash the house at the weekends. It makes my blood boil but they're not going to change so I need to somehow rise above it without ruining my weekend.
Joanna: It sounds like you are in the classic position of being the stay-at-home partner, wanting to take the strain off the breadwinner and therefore taking on all the pressures of running a home. Even if you don't necessarily mind doing all the house stuff, the worst thing is feeling like no-one appreciates you. There's nothing tangible to show at the end of a day where you've been flat out, because the result is order.
So number one, the best way to show what you do when you're at home while everyone else is out is to occasionally not do it. There will soon be an appreciation of what you do if there's no clean washing, no food in the fridge etc etc. Come weekends, everyone is tired - you included. If everyone is at home together, and equally capable of doing what needs to be done, you need to get out of the habit of being the one who does it all.
So supper, for instance. Wait until everyone's hungry and asks what's for supper and say, "Oh I hadn't really thought about it. I'm not very hungry. Why don't you see what there is and sort out whatever you like." Leave the mess - put your feet up and read a book. Or make a hair appointment, or say you need to go out for a bit. Pretty quickly the others - and hopefully without confrontation - will realise that they can't take you for granted. Good luck.
CaptainMartinCreiff: I see that you're a mum of three kids. Do they have chores? If so what do they do, and are they rewarded for doing them (eg pocket money)?
Joanna: Indeed they do! Having been through all sorts of 'reward' systems - stars, treats etc - the system we've come up with (and it seems to work) is a chart with ticks, where each tick is assigned a value. My children are aged three, seven and nine so the tasks/chores vary, depending on age.
With the three-year-old, we'll use it to target bad habits - for instance, like waking up in the middle of the night and waking us up. Each time she sleeps through the night she'll get a tick. Seven ticks = a treat.
The older girls have specific tasks, including clearing up after breakfast/supper, making their beds, getting ready in the morning (including cleaning teeth) without being nagged. Their ticks accrue pocket money.
SSD: How do you reconcile your life with a cleaner/housekeeper/au pair and so on helping you out each and every day (and you having the finances to pay for all this help) with writing a book aimed at overworked women with zilch in the way of help or extra finances available? Or are you just remembering what it's like when the help is on holiday and you have to cope with the kids and the cleaning for a few days by yourself?
Joanna: Ha ha, I wish I did have live-in help and a housekeeper, but I don't. I think we are all juggling different pressures, whether it's combining working with motherhood, looking after other family members - whatever it is. What unites all of us is that we are time-poor, and that is why I wanted to share the things that have made a difference to my life in terms of taking the pressure off.
Bizyashell: What is the one change that you made in this book that made the biggest difference to the wellbeing of the whole family?
Joanna: Getting organised! Once the fundamentals of running a house (and I don't just mean cleaning, I mean planning and being one step ahead, rather than several behind all the time) are in place, it makes life so much easier, and frees up time and energy to focus on what's important - enjoying being together as a family.