And so here we are, thrown back into the deep pit of lockdown confusion. Each of us with a different and unique inconvenience or disaster: some have lost jobs, some are caring for the sick or elderly, many are suffering with their mental health, lots are working in risky situations or working when they shouldn’t be working. Some people are incredibly bored, others can’t find enough hours in the day to get everything done, there are people who have found their lives largely unaffected and those who have welcomed the changes, others who have refused to make any changes whatsoever…
(A few have “all the time in the world” and are learning how to cross-stitch, speak Cantonese and correctly prune Bonsai trees but we shall ignore them for now.)
My own personal Mastermind specialist subject (Lockdown Edition) is “working from home with two very young kids”, a specialist subject shared by many and only truly understood by those with first hand experience. It’s like being in a high-energy high-stakes gameshow, let’s say Crystal Maze, but a gameshow that never ends. There’s Richard O’Brien standing at the door playing the flute as you try to conduct a crucial work call and wipe a child’s bottom at the same time, he’s constantly telling you that you’re running out of time and that the door’s going to lock and you’ll be trapped in the room…the door’s already locked Richard!
I learnt from Lockdown version 1.0 that to survive being trapped with small children 24/7 you need to consciously kiss any kind of freedom goodbye. And try be OK with that. You have to wipe all plans for any kind of personal development or achievement, even if the height of your ambition is “trying to find some new recipes so that the family can get more nutrients into their diet”.
You have to learn to function on a reduced service – essential tasks only – and not be frustrated if you can’t fit any of the other stuff in. Like sleep. Reading. Leaving the house for exercise. Talking to an adult human that isn’t sick of talking to you.
And that’s just about doable, but bloody hell it’s tiring. Bone-deep exhausting, in fact, and the sort of mentally draining trial of endurance that makes you want to drag yourself up into a tree and hide there for an indefinite period of time.
But anyway, you plough on as best you can through the exhaustion fug, until you see annoying comments underneath online articles saying things like:
“why have kids if you don’t want to look after them?”
“erm, how did these people who are desperate for schools to open not know having kids would be hard?”
and then, the inspiration for this post, one that sent me cross-eyed with incredulity:
“all these parents whining about being stuck with their kids: what do they think people did in the olden days?”
Ah, the olden days. What did people do with their kids in the olden days, “Ducati821”? Enlighten me. Just the fact that you’ve managed to squeeze the entire history of humankind pre-2020 into one easy category suggests to me that you won’t have properly thought this one through.
Is it “the olden days” of the eighties, for example, which I have firsthand experience of? Because I can tell you that we used to spend most of the day playing on bits of old carpet, sliding down an embankment that ran alongside a busy road. We stayed out for hours. In fact, most kids I know who were brought up in the eighties barely saw their parents in daylight hours, unless it was for a quick lunch.
And speak to Mr AMR, brought up in the seventies, who used to play on the motorway with his siblings and walk himself to school. (The way he tells it he was frying his own cooked breakfast at three and chainsawing trees down by the age of six, but I suspect he is prone to exaggeration when it comes to childhood memories.)
How olden days shall we go, Ducati821, because I think you’ll find that the further back you delve, the less time parents probably spent with their kids. In centuries past, if you were rich then you didn’t look after your own offspring at all – poor parents sent theirs out to work as soon as they could convincingly wield a set of dangerous-looking tools. And if the kids weren’t working, they were running about the manure-strewn streets getting kicked in the head by a horse, or shot through the thorax with an errant arrow or enslaved by an evil Sheriff.
Basically, children have for the most part either gone to school or they’ve been put to work, depending on historic era and/or socioeconomic circumstances. Very rarely do people voluntarily decide to spend every single waking hour with their progeny once they have graduated from nappies.
Look at my parents’ generation – their parents used to boot them out of the door at about six in the morning with a heel of granary bread and an apple. And they used to get into all sorts of mischief finding horrendously dangerous places to amuse themselves. Marshes. Train tracks. Quarries.
The parents knew that the kids were up to no good but they kicked them out for the whole day anyway. They basically had the option of swimming in an old, deep sinkhole, swinging from rusty, broken scaffolding or shooting at tin cans with the rifles their dads had brought back from the war. The safest playtime activity was probably having picnics in the scary wood where the “strange man liked to watch them”.
“Will you be away and out of my hair Liam and don’t be getting sucked into that bog like wee Patrick and little Malachy before him and Jerry before him and all of those other poor boys who keep getting sucked into the bog I should probably tell you not to go and play in.”
I digress: my point is that spending all day and every day with your kids is quite wearying. 100% of the time is…a lot of time. No relationship is designed to be that relentless, even if the other person is Tom Hardy. (Ha! Had to get him in somewhere.) You can see why women with many, many children (my granny had eight, that wasn’t unusual or even notable) got the eldest to look after the youngest and then sat there chain-smoking roll-ups and staring forlornly at the mangle.
Tell me, as a sort of sociological/historical factfinding experiment: how much time did you spend with your parents when you were young? Did they constantly play with you, sit and watch films with you, make dens and forts with you, or did you get sent out into the garden/street with your siblings and the boy from Number 9 who was eight years old and owned a replica Rambo knife? (Complete with sewing kit in the handle.) Comment below, please, and update me on your lockdown status: Bored, Surviving or End of Tether.
Crikey. If there’s anyone else out there who’s been trying and failing to do the whole work-life-balance thing over the summer holidays, can they please make themselves known? That’s right, hold your hands up high: I need to do a full and accurate head count here. The more people the merrier. Anything to make me feel less bad about myself – less like a neurotic malfunctioning android. And more….well. More like a human.
Yes, I’ve reached Basil Fawlty levels of stress and irritation and I’m not afraid to admit it – I feel as though I’m hanging on to my sanity by my fingernails and that normal life, if anything could be called normal these days, will be forever beyond my grasp. The many, many months of the “new routine” (ie trying to keep work going whilst also becoming a very shit version of a primary school and pre-school) have taken their toll.
I adore my kids. Obviously. They’re funny, they’re cute, they’re close enough in age that they play together for hours, they get excited about tiny things like going to a cafe or getting one of those extortionate magazines from the supermarket, the ones with useless plastic tat sellotaped to the front and a pull-out page of crap stickers. They give the best cuddles, the slimiest kisses that you have to surreptitiously wipe away when they’ve finished, they put their shoes on the wrong feet and they have tiny high voices that make them sound like they’ve been playing with helium balloons.
I love them unconditionally, which isn’t anything remarkable for a parent, but I feel it has to be said nevertheless, because it’s always a touchy subject when you talk about having to work or simply needing time to yourself. Never mind the fact that bills need to be paid, or that you need a little respite just to be. In this case both, although it’s definitely the work element for me that tends to send my stress levels soaring.
The worrying thing about how difficult it is to work through the summer holidays is this: the summer holidays happen every year! Six weeks! At least with lockdown you could console yourself that they were unprecedented times, everyone was in the same boat: there’s nothing unprecedented about the six week holidays. Suddenly you’re plunged from a relatively acceptable work-life situation (six-ish hours a day, five days a week in which to work or catch up on sleep or go to the toilet unaccompanied) into what can only be described as a childcare abyss. It’s like falling off the edge of a life cliff that you simply weren’t prepared for!
One week you’re calmly typing away on your laptop, getting on with your work from about ten until two, maybe with a cup of tea or even a lunchtime sandwich, radio playing downstairs and perhaps a little twenty minute power nap at your desk to look forward to; the next you can’t even find your laptop because the Barbies are using it as their drive-thru cinema.
Trying to work from home is the absolute singular worst thing you can do with children around. They sense it when you try to work. They sniff it out. You can be at your computer watching stupid kitten videos and they won’t disturb you for a full forty minutes, but open a desperately important Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (still can’t read or edit them and I’ve been trying since 1994) and they will be mountain-climbing your back within twenty-five seconds.
“Can I do some typing?”
“What does this button do?”
“Why doesn’t the screen work when I press it?”
“Play Optimus Prime!”
If you’re working from home then good luck trying to switch into professional-person work-mode when a small person is having a poo in the bathroom next door to your office. If you’re trying to conduct a Zoom meeting then pat yourself on the back if you manage to get through it without having to mute yourself to shout at one or more kids to stop them from eating plaster of Paris or snipping at the leaves of the houseplants with the fabric scissors. (“It’s a haircut.”)
The only way I can work from home is to shut off all noise and distraction, which means either wearing earplugs and locking the door in the daytime (and obviously having someone to supervise the kids!) or shifting the working day into the evening and forgoing any sort of relaxation or Netflix binge.
But none of this is particularly a bad thing – at least not for me. I have to say (ooh, big reveal) that the last few months have taught me to do something I’ve never managed to do successfully before, and that is to completely detach myself from work for longish periods of time. Consecutive days. A whole week, even. It’s a revelation. You immerse yourself fully into domestic life and suddenly everything slows down – you still fill the day with chores and looking after other people, but you’re just a bit more present when you do it. Rather than frantically going from task to task and seeing the day as some sort of giant, tickable to-do list, you just sort of deal with things as they are presented to you. When I try to do too much at once, every element of the day becomes a challenge – breakfast, getting dressed, answering the doorbell, but when I allow myself to just chill out (which doesn’t come naturally, I’ll admit) everything is suddenly a little bit easier. And a bit more fun.
So to cut a long story short, I’ve been really trying hard to be less rigid about what I need to get done on the work front. Or actually, that’s not accurate: I’ve been trying hard to be less rigid about when I get things done. This, I think, is going to have to be my mantra each and every school holiday from now on; go easy, set the bar reasonably low and be flexible with timings.
And with that pearl of wisdom to myself, I’m going to bed. It’s a quarter to eleven and I’ve already had my sleepy tea, which I have to say doesn’t do my writing any favours. It makes me quite soporific and my brain goes spongey and refuses to think of anything witty to say. I also know that the kids will be up at 6am – although they have started to do this amazing thing where they sneak off and play together for an hour before they wake us up. How incredible is that? The only thing is that they quite like to do a jumping game for the aforementioned hour and the room is directly above us, so the light in the ceiling shakes and all the glass bits jangle and it sounds like the entire roof is going to fall down on our heads.
Nothing like being woken up by what you initially think might be a serious earthquake. Keeps you on your toes. Who needs relaxation anyway?
I am writing this whilst leaning back – reasonably heavily – on my cat cushion. Not a feather-stuffed, velvet-covered cat cushion, mind: it’s a real life cat cushion. Living and breathing. Slightly more supportive than an inanimate one, if you must know. And the constant, heavy purring is incredibly relaxing – those vibrations, along with his occasional squirmy rearranging of the limbs, provide a sort of low-key massage chair effect.
Not at all like one of those massage chairs that you get at some hairdressing salons or nail bars. Where on earth do they get those monstrosities from? I don’t think I’ve ever felt safe in one, let alone relaxed. The clanky rollers that move up and down beneath the pleather surface, the “fingers” that knead at your shoulders…it’s like being massaged by Edward Scissorhands, except that he’s doing it crouching on your back wearing rollerskates.
Anyway, I don’t know why the cat has suddenly taken to squeezing himself behind me as I sit at my desk – it’s as though he’s developed some sort of squashing fetish. The more I lean back, the more he loves it. It’s all very odd and I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it, despite the fact that it feels really nice. I just worry about his little bones, or that he might suffocate. But still, he jumps in and crawls into the space behind my back and then pokes at me with his paws until I lean back and exert some pressure…
I’ve been at my desk a lot. I know you probably think I’ve been off having a lovely old time, but I have been working. Just not online. No checking Instagram every ten minutes, no Twitter notifications or Youtube alerts: just good old-fashioned typing away on Microsoft Word, typing like it’s 1999.
I say “working” but I use that word loosely because my brain is still very firmly in lockdown mode, despite the country starting to open back up for business. My brain just won’t seem to exit itself from the emergency energy saving programme it entered back in March; whenever something pressing needs to be done, it replies telepathically with oh, don’t worry about it. Life’s too short. There are bigger fish to fry. And other clichés. A rolling stone gathers no moss.
That last one wasn’t really relevant but it’s always been a favourite. Mainly because I don’t fully understand it. Why would you want to gather moss? It always sounds a bit like some stuffy aunt saying to you, when you’re young and all you want to do is go to Bali and get shitfaced on a beach with semi-naked hot guys wearing shark-tooth pendants, “oh, all of that gadding about! You’ll never be able to collect a load of rubbish porcelain dolls and put them in a dusty glass-fronted cabinet in your lounge if you carry on travelling to exotic places! Where’s your ambition, girl? A rolling stone gathers no moss! Don’t you want to stay in one place and know the same set of thirty-three people for your entire life? How will you ever know Maureen from number sixty-four’s business if you keep up this relentless penchant for discovering the wider world?”
I had some notes on what the kids have been up to, because this is supposed to be a life update. They have been making little things from modelling clay (an elephant, a toadstool garden, pictured above – guess who actually made them both? Thank you, yes, I know they are brilliant), making dens around the garden, populating the dens with every single toy they can find and then leaving them out overnight to go soggy and finally, bringing stuff inside that should be outside. Leaves. Stones. Snails, dead or alive.
I feel as though this is a very particular parenting era that we are experiencing right now, with its own set of rules and quirks. It changes every week, but I think I could sum up the current era (daughter: just turned five, son: three and a half) with the following headings: inflexibility, warm hands and continuing exhaustion.
Inflexibility. There is suddenly a real lack of wriggle room when it comes to negotiations. I find it so frustrating, trying to get two small, loud people to do stuff they don’t want to do that I frequently resort to a) making threats I later don’t have the energy to uphold (“I will take all of the toys from your bedroom and put them in a bin bag if you don’t stop whacking her with the space robot!”) and b) telling minor fibs. Usually my little lies involve something being closed or something needing batteries. “Can we watch the iPad?” “No, it needs batteries.” “Can you make us a den in the living room?” “No, the living room’s…closed.”
Warm hands. I’m trying to appreciate the feeling of small, warm hands in mine. Because my daughter is now almost as tall as me, seemingly, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pick her up. She’s just suddenly quite long and unwieldy. It’s like trying to walk along carrying an olive tree, or, I don’t know, a small hat stand. A clothes airer. Everything’s angular, rangy. Limbtastic. And so I know that soon I’ll be weeping over that poem – how does it go?
One day you will carry them on your hip then set them down
And never pick them up that way again
(If you ever want to have a maudlin old weep then read the whole thing – it’s called The Last Time. In fact I’ll type it out below for you. Hankies at the ready.)
So yes, even though she’s still grabbing my face for kisses, and the three year-old still likes to be picked up and carried now and then, and both of them still curl their little warm hands into my palm when we walk along, I know that they are growing up faster than I can process and that I must remember every tiny detail. Perfectly round tummies sticking out of the gap between outgrown pyjama tops and bottoms, messy, sweaty night-hair, tiny arms that seem as fragile as bird bones when you rub them with sunscreen, mispronounced words (favourite of the week is Trinoceros, which I personally think is an excellent replacement for Triceratops), the instantly-recognisable little call of “Mummy? Mummy?” from up the stairs, the spilt drinks and dropped food, the theme tune to World Kitchen on CBeebies (every day at noon on lockdown, the soundtrack to our luncheons), the very particular bedtime routines…
Continuing Exhaustion. My final defining characteristic of this particular life era: ongoing, relentless exhaustion. Sometimes I try to look back on the baby years and work out whether they were blissfully relaxing in comparison, or horrendously tiring. Maybe as things get easier, and you get more sleep, you become spoilt and you think you’re more tired, but on the other hand, babies are pretty low-maintenance in comparison to small children. You feed them, you change their nappies, you (eventually) get them to sleep, but for the majority of the day you can manage to do stuff like make a cup of tea, fold some laundry, write a few emails, and you can do it all whilst the baby stares at a shadow on the wall and catches invisible butterflies and drools on itself. Not possible with kids. Maybe things change, but at the moment, 5+3, there’s a window of approximately eight minutes when they will quietly and enjoyably play and then all hell breaks loose. And if hell isn’t breaking loose then someone is asking a question, repeatedly, with exactly the same intonation and rhythm, over and over again until someone answers, and quite often it’s not even a question it’s just a statement phrased like a question, which is irritating and incorrect at the best of times but when it’s on robotic repeat for over thirty seconds it’s easy just to absolutely lose your mind:
“Mummy he put lego in my ear? Mummy? He put lego in my ear? Mummy he put lego in my ear? Mummy? Mummy he put lego in my ear?”
But then in the quiet moments, you miss that incessant background noise, it’s as though all of the life has been sucked out of the room. The sound of a dripping tap is suddenly mournful, rain upon the window panes just feels a bit empty. You sip on your tea/read your paper/pick dirt from under your nails with a butter knife/insert any other enjoyable activity, and the silence is almost deafening. And you think to yourself, ah, isn’t it lovely to have a house filled with kids’ noises, and then one of them comes in and clangs a metal spoon along the radiator and you almost self-combust with the ferocity of your conflicted emotions.
I’ll leave you on that deep and uncharacteristically profound note. Oh and here’s the poem:
The Last Time (author unknown)
From the moment you hold your baby in your arms you will never be the same
You might long for the person you were before
When you had freedom and time
And nothing in particular to worry about
You will know tiredness like you never knew it before
Days will run into days that are exactly the same
Full of feedings and burping
Nappy changes and crying
Whining and fighting
Naps or a lack of naps
It might seem like a never-ending cycle
But don’t forget…
There is a last time for everything
There will come a time when you will feed your baby for the very last time
They will fall asleep on you after a long day
And it will be the last time you ever hold your sleeping child
One day you will carry them on your hip then set them down
And never pick them up that way again
You will scrub their hair in the bath for one last time
And from that day on they will want to bathe alone
They will hold your hand to cross the road
Then will never reach for it again
They will creep into your room at midnight for cuddles
And it will be the last night you ever wake to this
One afternoon you will sing “the wheels on the bus” and do all the actions
Then never sing them that song again
They will kiss you goodbye at the school gate
The next day they will ask to walk to the gate alone
You will read a final bedtime story and wipe your last dirty face
They will run to you with arms raised for the very last time.
The thing is, you won’t even know it’s the last time
Until there are no more times. And even then, it will take you a while to realize.
So while you are living in these times, remember there are only so many of them and when they are gone, you will yearn for just one more day of them.
For one last time.
My children (three and a bit years old and almost five) have been learning to ride their bikes and it is at once a massively rewarding experience and a very new, very fresh hell. On the one hand, seeing them learn a new skill and become fully-functioning mini-people makes me brim with joy and pride; on the other, my nerves are shot to hell and I have more scratches on my lower legs than an intern at the Big Cat Sanctuary.
You have to wonder at the wisdom of putting very small humans in charge of what amounts to a welded-together collection of metal bars, sharp spikes and hard rivets. If you deconstructed a kid’s bike and threw all the pieces into a sack, it would be the sort of thing you’d have found being passed around the tavern before a medieval uprising. So you have to ask yourself whether it’s sensible to let a three year-old, who likes bashing pan lids into walls, sit astride this scaled-down weapon of destruction.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy that they’re racing along without a care in the world. Any milestone the kids reach makes me brim with joy and pride and seeing my only-just-stopped-being-babies careering away down a cycle path is somehow ridiculously liberating.
But at the same time I’m proudly watching them power away on their own steam, I’m usually pondering the new depths of pain and discomfort that I’ve managed to plunge myself into. It’s almost as though, as a parent, you have to give yourself something to make life more awkward. Sleeping through the night? Tick! Nobody biting on your nipple? Tick! Stopped having to wipe poo off the carpet? TICK!
What can we introduce now, I wonder?
I’ll tell you what: bike riding. The fear of them falling off and smashing something or other on the path, the fear that they will wobblingly meander into the path of a proper cyclist, like a drunken badger staggering into a dual carriageway. And then there’s the worry for your own wellbeing – the worry that you’ll trip over their back wheels as you jog along behind them, or get your shoelaces caught in their spokes, or have a nasty run-in with the stabilisers.
Oh, stabilisers. Stabilisers are terrifying, with their jagged metal hinges and their fast-moving wheels of certain laceration. Pushing along a child using stabilisers (this is the four year old, actually – the three year old has a balance bike) means taking the survival of your ankle bones into your own hands. You thought you were going for a pleasant Sunday jaunt to breathe in the scent of meadow flowers and look at the freshly mown fields, but really you’ve agreed to sacrifice the flesh on your shins, ankles and possible knees. But once you’re out there, with an enthusiastic cycle maniac, there’s no turning back. There’s no escape. It’s like finding yourself inside the Colosseum with one of those chariots that had the spikes sticking out of the wheels – if you’re taking a kid for a bike ride with stabilisers then you’re basically Gladiator.
And that’s not the only physical torture involved. Remember Quasimodo? That’s biking-expedition me, pushing a four year old up a hill when she’s too tired to pedal the bike. Bent double, shoulders hunched, face twisted into a terrible expression of pain and humiliation, staggering sideways in great, ungainly leaps.
“Here she comes everyone! The troll of the tow path! The bells, the bells!”
The three year old on the balance bike presents less of a problem, physically. He just races off, his little legs working away as though he’s powered by clockwork. But then his batteries run out and he gets tired and Mr AMR ends up with child on shoulders, child’s bike in one hand, dog lead (with dog attached) in the other. Like some sort of circus act.
And I’ll be bringing up the rear, huffing and puffing along, near-prostrate in the wake of the Queen of Sheba who is oblivious, upright on her cupcake bicycle and singing songs about how wonderful the world is.
“And I wake up, yeah, and the birds are amazing, the birds are great, the birds know my so-ong and the birds love my dolly, oh yeah, oh yeahhhh.”
Not a care in the world, just comfortably watching the hedgerows whizz by as I expend approximately the same amount of energy as a small shire horse ploughing a field, pushing with a gentle hand on the small of her back. She obviously has no idea how tiring the pushing is – she had the audacity, the other day, to actually yawn as I was navigating a particularly steep slope.
I fear, though, as with all things child-related, this phase will be fleeting and before I know it we’ll be onto the next level, where they race off without us, and another tie will be painfully cut. Another phase will be just a beautiful memory. I’d take lacerated ankles in exchange for a slowing down of time. Any day of the week….