It was never my intention to update this blog all the time, or turn it into a ‘thing’, chiefly because that would’ve entailed finding out what a ‘thing’ is, and then doing it. It’s more a place for diarising life with young kids (because I am extremely forgetful), sharing the funny stuff (because I don’t have colleagues), and venting (because I usually do that quite angrily and out loud while I’m having a shower and I’m not sure if the neighbours can hear me through the wall – this is quieter).
I’m finally sitting down to write this post about life as a stay-at-home parent slash freelance journalist slash can you be a stay-at-home parent with a job slash no not really. It’s been percolating in my brain for a while and, unlike any notions I’ve had over the years to get tattoos, hasn’t gone away. It’s about the overwhelming blanket of nothingness that can drape itself over you when you stay at home with kids, and what it feels like to be under it.
This isn’t really a post about parenting. There’s so much shared ground in parenting and everyone deals with things differently, which is great. I mean, it’s not chartered accountancy, it doesn’t have to be done in a certain way, we’re all just weird humans raising weird little humans in our own weird ways. Routines v attachment parenting, bottle v breast, that weaning where you give them slop and they get it everywhere v that other weaning where you put food on their high chair and they get it everywhere – to be honest, I don’t really give a shit about any of that. Humans pop out sprogs then grow them up, it’s the most basic thing that we do and, judging by the huge number of us scurrying around on the planet’s surface like flies on a dead squirrel, we’re reasonably proficient at it. Go us. I’d rather watch Gangnam Style again than work myself up into a state of angst because I saw somebody give textured puree to a four month old.
This is more about the effect that parenting and the period of our lives where we are caring for small people has on us as individuals. Specifically, those who don’t go back to a career, or take a different path, start working from home, leave the area they were living in for somewhere more ‘family friendly’ (translation: a town where you can afford enough bedrooms). Maybe it applies to those who go back to their old jobs after maternity leave too, I don’t know because I didn’t.
When I first went on maternity leave and was lumbering dolefully around the house with a massive bump waiting for the baby, like Mr Greedy caught in a bout of ennui, I had a horrible sensation of not knowing who I was or what I was for anymore. I’d always worked, since I was old enough to babysit (possibly not quite old enough, looking back), unable to resist a poster in a window asking for staff (I still have to hold myself back from applying for junior hairdresser positions and waitressing gigs) and my job had been a full-on one; full time, late nights, lots of deadline drama. I spent more time with my colleagues in London than anywhere else, then suddenly there I was, alone, sloping about in my new suburban home feeling guilty because I wasn’t doing something productive. I would preemptively bite my husband Will’s head off when he came home from work and ‘caught’ me sitting down watching TV, marching him off to see the baby grows I’d washed and dried, when really, he couldn’t have given a toss if I’d spent the day eating Turkish delight in bed and, like any reasonable human, wanted his soon-to-be-labouring Weeble wife to get some rest.
I phoned a friend: “I’m having an existential crisis!” We went for lunch (at Waterloo, so I could get a train then a cab straight to my designated hospital if labour commenced) and I was hugely cheered up, realising that feeling freaked out by an epic life change was, durr, completely normal, and that epic life changes were exciting.
The baby came, I got on with that, took redundancy and decided to go freelance, then was pregnant again before I’d had a chance to really make a go of it. Baby number two arrived, the statutory maternity pay ran out and I started working again, this time at the kitchen table instead of in the office, as I’d been ousted from my office by the new baby.
During those two and a half years, I’d slowly been getting used to being a parent. The idea of going up to London every day now felt like a bit of an endeavour, rather than normal. When I did get into the City, I’d run around like a kid in a sweet shop, laughing gaily at people on Boris bikes (they were red now, not blue!), marvelling at everyone’s futuristic metallic shoes while feeling very conscious about my own not-metallic plimsoles and standing outside Pret, wide-eyed with wonder at all the treasures inside.
But while one identity had slowly dripped away, there wasn’t really another to take its place. Being Mummy is really lovely, but it doesn’t feel quite real. There can’t be many parents who haven’t marvelled at their kids, wondering, ‘Where the hell did you come from, exactly?’, despite mums having the scars to prove exactly where they come from, and dads being forever haunted by the image of a crowing head after an enthusiastic midwife dragged them around to the business end. I can’t take credit for my kids, they grew themselves and are slowly converting into adults with very little input from me. I haven’t had to divide a single cell, or fire up a single neuron. My job is simply to put fuel in the top, deal with the byproducts of digestion that appear at the bottom, amuse them, clothe them, wash their skin, hair and teeth and stop them from running into the road etc. It’s hard work, but it isn’t particularly cerebral.
And therein lies the problem. Having two little kids is all-consuming. They rarely stop, and when they do, it’s time to leap on the chaos they’ve created and try to get a grip on maintaining basic living standards before they power up again and start trashing the place. The sole purpose of my existence is maintaining the children, 24/7. My job is to carry out the same simple tasks over and over, I’m not required to have thoughts or opinions – there’s nobody to share them with anyway. And when the children are out of the house, at nursery/with my mum two days a week, I must race back to my kitchen table and pitch, write, organise, try to generate some money to pay my share of the mortgage. I shouldn’t be writing this blog post. I should be pitching and writing and organising. I’ve been wanting to write this for five months.
Will’s life has changed as much as mine, he’s been whammied by the financial responsibility as I struggle to make contacts, get bits of work, wait for payment. As soon as he comes through the door, he whips the kids up for a bath, then we put one kid each down for the night, cook as the other one tidies, slump in front of the TV for an hour or so then get up, carry on tidying, planning for the morning and living though a night of kid-broken sleep before his alarm goes off at 6am. His end of the bargain is just as tough as mine – I don’t even have to put shoes on if I don’t want to.
But oh, how left behind I feel. Left behind as he goes off to work, to a salary, sometimes managing a trip to the gym at lunchtime, being part of ‘it’, whatever it is. While my career is a notion, his role at work is just the same. While my body has changed to an embarrassing pile of failing slop, his is just the same. We both got Fitbits for Christmas and he had to unfriend me as he was smashing, nailing and crushing (it’s an American product) the daily goal of 10,000 steps with ease on his daily commute while I’d had to lower mine to 6,000 and was struggling to reach that (although I did once cover a mile before 1pm without even leaving the house). Much like our careers, all he needed to do was head off to work in order to succeed while I marched on the spot, trying to synthesise exercise and professional relevance in the kitchen.
I read the Hungry Caterpillar to Alex a lot. On holiday last year, short of books, I even read it backwards. And what I hope is that the lost feeling – my ‘existential crisis’ – which turned into a scary nothingness then a smothering nihilistic blanket, is actually a cocoon. I knew, when I went out for lunch with my friend in Waterloo, that life was about to twist into something unrecognisable. What I underestimated was the impact, or lack of, on me, how wiping, sweeping, reading, bathing, cooking, playing, keeping them safe while wearing the same dull, forgiving uniform day in, day out leaves no room and no time for self. How ‘me time’ isn’t something that’s achievable for those of us, like me, who are disorganised or natural night owls and struggle to sleep, struggle to wake, struggle to get out of the house and keep the ship afloat. I’m not instinctively good running a home and the lives of two small people, and I’m fine with that now, I’m not an instinctive banker or opera singer either. I love my kids, I love being with them and while I find it hard, I don’t want my old life back. I’m learning to be OK with muddling along. Really, it’s the mothballing of my brain that is required in order to get things done that’s the most difficult part.
I just have to have faith that, when the kids are a little bit older, I’ll be able to nibble a hole in the cocoon, push my way out and find that I’m… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, a beautiful butterfly’s probably a bit much to expect. A nice moth? That’d do me. A nice moth, who doesn’t wear elasticated jeans or a no-longer-needed but comfy nursing bra. I’m trying to think of my cocoon as somewhere safe and hope that the metamorphosis will be a doozy. I’m hoping that accepting things as they are will dispel the stress of having become invisible, irrelevant and left behind, of not having the energy to care about life beyond the front door. In a weird way, I know it’s going to be OK. They’re not little for long enough, really, and when those chubby faces and baby smiles have given way to gangly limbs and oversized teeth, I’ll long to go back to the cocoon and lie on a rice cake-covered carpet watching Bing with my babies. In the meantime, I need to be kind to myself and admit, yep, this is fucking hard, being patient is hard and sometimes, that makes me sad.
Oh well. Oppa Gangnam Style.