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?
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….
Four times in the past week my children, who are almost-five and three years old, have unknowingly grabbed onto one of my nipples to stop themselves toppling over. 75% of the time it has been when I’ve been putting their shoes on, which is always a precarious sport – and also explains why my nipples have been within grasping reach – but there was one particularly memorable case that saw my right nipple used as a sort of living climbing hold so that my youngest could scale my body like a mountain and sit on top of my head.
I’ll stress again that neither child has the faintest idea what they’re holding onto in these fleeting moments – for all the world it could be a button or the end of a zipper. On reflection, it took me a few seconds to work out what they were grasping in their little hands, mainly because after two solid years of being gummed and chewed at (referring to breastfeeding, obviously – Mr AMR isn’t some kind of low-key sexual deviant) my nipples tips have almost no feeling.
They may as well be steel-capped. If I was into body piercings, I’d have no qualms about getting some hoops through them – maybe then I could thread a dainty rope through the hoops and tie it around my neck, giving myself a free breast lift!
So anyway, the nips seem to have suddenly gained an extra practical use. And I’ve realised why it’s sudden and a brand new phenomenon: it’s because for much of the day I can’t be bothered to put a bra on. Previously my nips would be incased in a t-shirt bra, safely behind moulded cups. And now they are swinging free, a good four or five inches below me as I duck and dive to successfully complete the Crystal Maze Shoe Application challenge.
It’s a tricky old manoeuvre, isn’t it – putting small kids’ shoes on? There you stand, prone and vulnerable, your face necessarily next to the back of their head, which is for all intents and purposes a huge, solid, fast-moving canonball, ready to smash into your nose or eye socket at any given moment.
For it is impossible for a child to stand still whilst being shod; they toss their heads around, bob up and down, jig on one foot like a demented goblin. And the one time that you want them to move – “bend your leg! BEND YOUR LEG!” they stiffen every muscle like a board, knees locked out, so that you have to give up and plonk them on the table to get at their feet.
And even though you couldn’t be more clear which foot you’re tapping for them to raise – “THIS ONE” – they always lift the other one. And then they lose balance, because it’s all so overwhelmingly complicated, because their brains are (rightly!) wholly concerned with the mystery of “why bees don’t ride about in helicopters to stop their wings from getting tired”, and then a tiny hot hand shoots out and grabs onto the nearest convenient thing.
Pendulous, available, dangling right there like a welcome hand-strap from the ceiling of a packed London Routemaster. Topple, tipple, grab my nipple. It’s a wonder they’re still attached.