I was standing in the garden hanging washing on the line when I heard the sound of a fork being stirred around a glass in the kitchen. And I realised that I knew without looking exactly was happening in that room.
I knew that Leon had cracked two eggs into a glass to make an omelette. I knew which pan was on the hob, and that there was a tortilla wrap warming in the microwave. And I knew that in a few minutes there would be grated cheese absolutely chuffing everywhere.
After almost 17 years together, there’s not much that surprises us about each other. Some might say that’s a bad thing, but I don’t think it is. I take great comfort in the predictable. It’s taken us years to build a life we can depend on, and that helps us handle whatever surprises life throws our way.
It occurred to me how many unknowns we’ve had to face in order to end up here. How many risks we had to take. All the times we had to be brave. How much of life starts with walking into a room, telling a bunch of strangers your name, and seeing what happens.
I found myself thinking about all this because our daughter starts school this week. A whole new chapter of unknowns is about to begin. I’m excited for her and I believe she will flourish. But I’m also nervous as there’s so much I don’t know. Who she’ll be friends with, what she’ll like, what will make her feel happy, sad, and every emotion in between.
So big and yet so small
One of the things I’ve found hardest since having our daughter is how little I can control. Like any mum, I want an easy, happy life for my children without even a moment of turmoil. But of course I can’t promise that. We created life, and life is unpredictable.
But what I can do is let her know what she can depend on. That we believe in her. How loved she is. That she can talk to us about anything. And that if she asks if she can watch an episode of Hey Duggee I’m pretty much always going to say yes because I LOVE Duggee.
I’ve been quite enjoying going through the multitude of administrative motions that come with preparing your child for school. Buying the uniform. Participating in class WhatsApp groups. Having her feet measured. Printing name labels. I like getting organised, and I also like distracting myself from my emotions with tasks. Don’t we all?
But then I found myself putting a little name sticker inside her school shoes and suddenly felt the need to cry.
Our little girl is simultaneously so big and so small. Big enough to wear a pinafore and carry a book bag and head off for a busy day in Reception. Small enough that I’m worried she won’t know which shoe to put on which foot after P.E when I’m not there to show her.
A new pattern awaits
I don’t doubt that she is ready for a new environment, to learn, and to form new friendships. I’m just not sure that I’m ready to accept the pace at which children grow up.
After she was born, I took a year’s maternity leave and I’ve had every Monday and Tuesday free since to spend with her. They’ve been quite the rollercoaster as we’ve moved from the baby years into toddler town, from lockdown chaos into life with her baby brother in tow. I thought that time would last forever, but here we are. Now it’s her brother’s turn to join me for playgroups and park trips while she ventures out into the world.
I am aware that she’s not moving out, and that we’ll be together a lot of the time still. I’m just a bit stunned that the pre-school period of her life is over already. What they say is true – the days are long but the years are short.
I’m looking forward to what a new routine will bring. To school drop offs and pick ups. To wandering back down the hill at the end of the day, holding her little hand and asking what she learnt. And to bringing her back to our house that contains everything she knows – home comforts, people who love her, and a kitchen that’s somehow always coated in grated cheese.
I’d decided on a girl’s name before I was even pregnant, but the boy’s name took time, debate, discussion.
We thought we’d better have it nailed down before I went into theatre, just in case all those people who said I was definitely carrying a boy were right. Good thing we did.
The fact that I’d had a c-section before only made me more nervous about it. I knew what was to come, which bits I liked, which bits I didn’t, and that you never quite know what your body is going to do after a human being is removed from it.
I also knew how incredible it is to be presented with your baby. I didn’t dare let myself look forward to it until we were on our way there.
There were two of us on the surgery list that morning. Two second-time mums who knew everything and nothing about what was to come. We wished each other good luck. She may well have been in the bed next to mine for the next few days, but we never saw each other again. Maternity wards are funny like that. I hope they’re all OK.
So much of the prep felt familiar. There were the same gowns and compression stockings for me, the same fresh blue scrubs for Leon. The same paper bracelets on my wrists.
But some things had changed. They give you little white netted knickers to wear now, so the surgeon can just cut them off when they’re ready to start. No more wondering whether you should walk down to surgery pantless like we did in the good old days (2017).
I was first on the list and before we knew it, they were ready for me. Time to go.
I took my last pregnant waddle down the corridor, wearing the same flip flops I bought for our stay when we had our daughter almost four years ago. Where on earth did all that time disappear to?
From the moment we got into theatre it was ON. This is a room full of people who bring babies into the world everyday. They know what they’re doing and they know the pace required to make it happen. The momentum alone carries you through.
I tried to take it step by step, ticking off all the little bits that scare me. Cannula – done. Spinal – done. Weird lie down on the bed with a quickly numbing lower half – done.
The radio was on and Lewis Capaldi was playing. The anaesthetist asked everybody to say their names and I confirmed mine, she read out my NHS number and it began.
I kept a tight hold of Leon’s hand and my eyes on the flowers painted on the ceiling. I like this bit. When there’s no turning back and I couldn’t run away even if I wanted to.
My blood pressure dipped and I panicked. The anaethetist worked her magic then got back to chatting to us about our house move, our daughter, our jobs. I almost forgot that people had their hands inside my body. Almost.
She peered over the sheet shielding us from the procedure and said “It won’t be long now”.
I started to cry because this was it, what the last 39 weeks and three days had been building up to. When you’re cut open on the operating table, pumped full of drugs and awaiting the arrival of your child, you’re allowed to feel a bit overwhelmed.
‘Gooey’ by Glass Animals came on the radio. We weren’t organised enough to arrange a birth playlist, but later agreed that was more perfect than anything we could have come up with anyway. The second I hear it now it takes me right back to that room.
All of a sudden the surgeon said “Good morning!” and we realised that somebody new had come into the room. He was talking to the baby.
I looked up at the light above where they were operating and I could see a head in the reflection coming out of my body. I could see his hair. Before I knew it they were holding him in front of us. A boy! A beautiful boy!
I remember my mouth was wide open in amazement, my face soaking wet. They whisked him off to clean him up and sort him out. He screamed, as you’d expect, and I could hear Leon telling him everything would be OK.
They brought him over, placed him on my chest and he calmed right down and closed his eyes. Like you do when you get in after a long day, take your shoes off and lie back on the sofa. Nothing to worry about here, you’re home.
I hope I’m always that place for him. For them both.
Someone said “I think he likes that.” And so did I, so very much.
After months fearing my creativity had gone forever, all of a sudden I found writing ideas coming back into my head. Thank goodness!
But then when I tried to get them down, I found I couldn’t until I’d first typed out what it feels like to live in the world right now. I can get conceptual and maybe even have a go at a funny or two when I’ve worked through my lockdown state of mind.
So that’s what this is. A lockdown diary entry, you could say. An acknowledgement of the vast level of emotions involved with pushing through the beginning of 2021.
I’m normally relatively balanced, but it’s tricky to remain so all the time through a global crisis.
I find I make too much of the good moments that occur – which of course they do – because joy is at a premium right now. My daughter will laugh at something in the park and I’ll say to my husband: “She’s having fun, isn’t she?! I’m so glad we came out! This will really set us up for the rest of the week, don’t you think?!”, whatever that means.
And when the lows occur – because I watch the news or run out of play ideas or I see that it’s raining AGAIN – I get lethargic, grumpy, and I can’t even be arsed to put my socks on, because what’s the point? I lose perspective and dive into my phone, where I can assure you the answer absolutely does not live.
Having so little variety in our lives is exhausting. The end isn’t quite in sight, but it is there in the distance, we know it is. That’s a huge motivator to strive on and keep the faith, but it’s also a while away. It’s perfectly normal to be struggling right now, however big or small the difficulties this pandemic brings you.
I saw a post on Twitter that said “We should assume that nobody is OK right now” which has stayed with me. I try to keep it in my head when I go for a walk or collect my daughter from nursery. Everybody is, at best, sick of this, and at worst, having a truly awful time. Whichever end of the scale you find yourself on – and I consider us to be at the very lucky end – it’s still all right to acknowledge that this is hard. Most people are going to find living through a pandemic difficult.
One of the things I’m finding hardest about lockdown is how much bigger disappointments, mishaps and imperfect interactions feel than normal, because our usual distractions aren’t there to give us perspective.
I’ve found myself becoming oddly nervous when we do leave the house to go to the park for the 4000th time. I’m scared I’ll have an interaction with a parent that will go badly and I’ll think about it day and night for the next three weeks. I get nervous when I drive in case I do something that makes another driver think I’m an idiot. I worry that I’ll make a bad call in the supermarket, get too close to another person also in pursuit of hummus, and chastise myself for days for putting my chickpea consumption before public safety. It’s a tiring time to be alive.
I think it’s the lack of connection in our lives that’s making me lose faith in my ability to interact successfully. We’ve all gone from seeing friends and family everyday/week/month, to, in most cases, not seeing them at all, and not knowing when we will again.
I didn’t realise until it stopped being an option the extent to which I used to top up on conversation, laughter, relationships. Those connections inform who we are. They fill is up. As I’ve written before, there are so many things that I like, I don’t like, I miss, and I don’t miss about the life the pandemic has forced us all to lead. I don’t want every element of our previous world back, not by a long chalk. But I do want the freedom to help create a world we all like more. I want that back right now.
It dawned on me this week that as well as feeling distant from the people and places we love, this time will have made us feel distant from ourselves too. Without structure and variety and the option to make plans, I’ve definitely felt a part of myself fade.
That’s not to say I don’t love being with my husband and daughter. They are my entire world. But not being able to experience different things either with them, by myself or with others has had an impact. We’re all a product of our environment and when that environment shrinks, we do too.
How I feel changes day to day. Sometimes I’ll get some fresh air, chat to a friend or play really mindfully with my daughter and I’ll think ‘Yes, I can do this.’ And then others I won’t have such clarity. Everybody says it, but the only answer is to take it day by day, and to be kind to yourself as you do.
I try to keep this in mind when I feel a special kind of parenting guilt that the pandemic is happening at all. A global event that is in no way my fault. I think a lot of my anxiety and emotions are wrapped up in wishing that I could give our daughter a better time. More options. Time with the people she loves. She’s absolutely fine and hugely fortunate to still be going to nursery a few days a week. It’ll just be nice when we can do more again.
My focus on her means I don’t always have time to feel my own sadness about not seeing Grandma (my mum). Or Uncle Adam (my younger brother). Or Auntie Lexa (one of my very best friends). Because when I’m done saying “Soon! We’ll see them soon, I promise!” to her, I realise that I have no chuffing idea what ‘Soon’ means, and that I hate that.
When normality – whatever that looks like – returns, I’m sure I’m going to be nervous and awkward as hell when I finally get to spend time with people beyond my household. I’m going to fret about losing the aspects of restricted living that suit me and that I’ll miss the guaranteed family time that has bonded us more than ever.
I’m also going to be ecstatic to go further than my local park. To see London again in all its glory. And to hug the people I love.
Mixed, complicated, messy feelings are all part of the deal when you’re a human being. I write this blog because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a go at expressing them all. In fact, I find it really helps. I hope you do too.
I woke up one morning and realised that my thoughts are constantly swinging between the things I like, the things I don’t like, the things I miss, and the things I don’t miss in this strange new world. So I thought I’d write them down.
I haven’t included ‘I don’t like that coronavirus exists and that people are suffering because of it’ on this list. Hopefully that’s obvious. I’ve focused instead on the more trivial, everyday highlights and low points of living through this time.
I found turning them over in my mind and noticing how closely they live alongside one another a useful, grounding process. I hope it makes for a nice read for you, too.
I wonder – what would your list include? Sending you much love and strength for the coming months. Here we go:
I like having a dishwasher.
I don’t like that emptying and refilling the bastard will probably qualify as my most consistent form of 2020 exercise.
I like going to the park.
I don’t like only going to the park.
I like looking at the plants we bought when lockdown began and knowing that, with the right levels of sunlight and hydration, we’ve all got through this together.
(I don’t like to talk about the fern accidentally scorched to death on the bathroom window sill during the heatwave. I let everybody down that day.)
I like being a mum more than ever.
I don’t like how frequently I’ve heard myself say ‘Soon!’ to my daughter when she’s asked when we can see her family and friends, despite having no idea what ‘soon’ means.
I like that, thanks to all this time at home, I’ve finally managed to put together a proper skincare routine.
I don’t like that it hasn’t taken ten years off my face yet. To whom should I address my letter of complaint?
I miss having a diary populated with things to look forward to, and the confidence that each one will happen.
I don’t miss living in such a fast-paced, demanding world that time at home as a family felt like a luxury rather than a given.
I like that there are so many ways that we can connect with people these days.
I don’t like that, at the moment, there aren’t many that don’t involve a screen.
I like working at home, not having to worry about public transport, knowing I’m going to be able to collect my daughter on time, and having ready access to all my biscuits, all day long.
I don’t like never having the option to go and do my work somewhere else, hang out with nice colleagues, read a book all the way there and back on the tube, and experience the novelty of returning home again.
I miss going out for nice cocktails in nice bars.
(I have a child, I’ve been missing that for years.)
I like that I no longer feel daunted by empty days ahead at home. We’ve found a new rhythm and learnt that just a handful of components make up a good day. If we can have some play time, fresh air, music, stories, space to ourselves, and parenting support from Hey Duggee, most of the time, that’s enough.
I don’t like to think about the impact that hours and hours listening to the Peppa Pig playlist on Spotify during lockdown will have had on my ‘Most listened to’ list for 2020.
I miss hugging my family.
I miss hugging my friends.
I don’t miss not quite knowing how to make physical contact with acquaintances, getting it wrong, and having the embarrassment wake me up every night for a week.
I really miss my nephews.
I like the excuse that cooler weather (and my now eight-month long sense of entitlement to consume ANYTHING I LIKE if it makes living through a pandemic easier) gives me to drink a hot chocolate packed with marshmallows every single day.
I imagine I’ll miss my teeth when they’re gone.
I like evenings where I leave my phone upstairs and spend a few hours pretending it doesn’t exist.
I don’t like that every time there’s a change or bad news, I descend into a scrolling frenzy, like perhaps the answer to all this is in my phone somewhere if only I could find it.
I like the incredible impact that just a few minutes with a book before I go to sleep has on my sense of calm.
I don’t like the insane effect this year has had on my dreams. Can a girl not take just a few hours off this chaos?
I like how much more time we’ve spent outdoors this year and that it’s made me stop and appreciate the incredible beauty of trees, flowers, blue skies, squirrels, autumn leaves, reflections in a river… I’d better stop before I break into song.
I don’t like having to cross an outdoor catch up with a pal out of my diary because the weather’s decided to be a TOTAL DICK and make it impossible.
I like that my husband is now here every evening to help get our toddler ready for bed and to have time with her at the end of a working day.
I don’t miss receiving a text message from him at least once a week to say he wouldn’t see her before she went to sleep.
I miss the freedom to have my mum to stay, to go to the café near me that she loves, and to see her fall asleep on the sofa with her arm around her granddaughter in front of Stick Man on the TV when we get home.
There’s nothing I don’t miss about that.
I like that we grabbed at precious opportunities to spend time with some of our favourite people whilst we could and that they felt exactly that; precious.
I don’t like worrying about whether my friendships are still going to be there when all this is over.
I miss believing that the only thing standing between me and an orderly home was more time in it.
I don’t miss being upset about having a messy house. Why not get every toy in the world out at once? We can’t pretend we don’t have plenty of time to put them all away again.
I like that one of the most unexpected discoveries of 2020 is that our daughter cannot get enough of dancing to Think About Things by Daði Freyr. No matter what else is going on, that always makes me smile.
I miss dancing at weddings.
I like going for a walk around our local area first thing in the morning and feeling 3000% better for it.
I don’t like how few opportunities we’ve had to wander around the rest of London this year (but I do know that we’ve appreciated it so much more when we have).
I like that months without childcare showed us how much our toddler likes going to nursery, how much more content she is when she has time doing her own thing, and that we don’t need to feel guilty for doing the same.
I don’t like that just as she’s starting to really enjoy playing with her friends – and I can start having slightly more substantial chats with their parents whilst she does it – playdates are off the table.
I like how much more acutely aware I feel of the amazing ways our little girl has changed during this period, because we’ve slowed down and had time to notice.
I don’t like that there have been days and moments this year that I’ve wished by, but I’m sure she’ll understand. It had nothing to do with her, 2020 has just been a bit odd.
I like every second of every day that we’re safe and well.
I don’t like it when the grind of living through this time makes me forget how grateful I am for that.
I like that there was a boiling hot day in the summer when my husband and I managed to drop our daughter off for a day of fun at nursery, drive down to a pebbly beach, swim in the sea, eat fish and chips, down an ice cream, and then drive home in time to pick her up. We’ve not had much time to ourselves this year, but when we have it’s been wonderful.
I don’t like that it sometimes crosses my mind that only seeing my face/hearing my voice/tolerating my anecdotes about the trouble I had locating the correct bin bags in the supermarket might drive him up the wall, but I really haven’t got time to worry about that on top of everything else.
I like how firmly all this time together, these highs and lows, and all these lessons we’ve learnt about what we each need to be happy, has bonded us as a family.
I don’t have a downside to share to that.
I like that despite the relentless madness and sadness of this year, there have still been so many lovely moments, and how much good it does us to stop and notice.
I don’t like to focus too much on how long it’s going to be before we can share more of them with the people we love, but instead on how good it’ll feel when we do.
So it is possible to be organised enough with your meal planning and food shopping to avoid going to the supermarket twice a day, everyday. Who knew?
My husband has done truly wonderful and thoughtful things for our family during lockdown. But I’m sorry to inform you that removing his empty coffee cups, plates and chocolate wrappers from our office at the end of the working day is not one of them.
When I thought perhaps my daughter would enjoy doing an online workout with me I was wrong. She lies down the moment it starts and doesn’t get up until it’s over, and I respect that decision.
Buying a set of houseplants is a bit like having a load more babies to look after. Except these ones come with INSTRUCTIONS.
Though spending so much time at home with a toddler is far from easy, there is no human being on earth who could make me laugh so frequently as she does – and laughing helps.
The best way to check how stressed I’m feeling is to fall asleep and see what my dreams look like. Oh hello ALL OF MY FEARS ACTED OUT IN TECHNICOLOUR. Perhaps I am a little closer to the edge than I realised.
I can write with my daughter bouncing up and down on the sofa next to me, leaning on me, attempting to push me off my chair, saying “Can I help you, mummy” and punching my keyboard… you name it. It’s not my preferred way of working, but I now know I can do it. She is simultaneously the cutest and most destructive co-worker I have ever had.
Related: I have also learnt the importance of the ‘save’ function.
My phone is both crucial to keeping me connected to the outside world, and the item most capable of making me feel disconnected from myself when I forget to use it wisely.
There’s a reason everybody is baking so much during lockdown – it helps. You can look at it and say “Well, if I achieve nothing else today, at least I made that.”
…There’s also a direct link between my husband saying he’s going to exercise, and me wanting to bake something unhealthy. My commitment to balance in this marriage knows no bounds.
There is no greater high than coming up with an activity to do with your toddler and seeing them actually engage with it for more than three seconds.
Related: melting chocolate and using it to make chocolate buttons was a great thing to do with our daughter because a) she seemed to genuinely enjoy it (particularly the part where she poured the whole bowl of hundreds and thousands we were using as decorations on the kitchen floor) and b) I got to eat everything we made.
It’s astounding how much simply tidying up a shelf or sorting out the cutlery drawer can do for morale when you’re spending this much time at home. Of course we have little time do such things, but when we do find a window – wow, what a boost!
Finishing the day with a walk by myself with my headphones in and a podcast on – the sillier the better – does more for my sanity than I ever could have imagined.
…And when I feel I don’t have the energy to go on that walk, that’s when I need it most.
Limitations on the amount of time you can spend outside make you appreciate the insane beauty of flowers, trees, birds, the sky… all of it. I won’t be taking those things for granted any more.
If your two-year-old insists on listening to their audiobook of The Gruffalo enough times, you will become able to recite it on demand. I’m not sure this will prove a useful skill beyond my lounge, but I’ll chuck it on my CV anyway.
I can ask my mum to hold the phone a bit further away from her face so that I can see more than just her chin during a video call as many times as I like. It’s clearly never going to work.
Just because you found being a parent difficult today, it doesn’t mean you will tomorrow. Hang in there.
The bar for what classes as a life update worth sharing with other people has never been lower. I’ve got some new address stickers for our wheelie bins! I’ve started adding mascarpone to meals and it’s great, isn’t it! I thought there was a spider on the kitchen floor but it was actually a ball of my hair! I don’t care if you care, I have to talk to someone.
There’s a time and a place to let your husband know how much it irritates you that he doesn’t tidy up as he goes whilst cooking, and the second he places the meal he’s kindly made in front of you is not it.
There’s nothing like spending every hour of every day with a toddler by your side, copying your every move, to make you realise how much of your life you spend with your hands on your hips (the entire time, apparently).
My capacity for guilt as a parent is so huge that I even feel guilty that my child is having to cope with living through a pandemic, despite the fact that I PLAYED NO PART IN BRINGING IT ABOUT, OBVIOUSLY.
I don’t need to spend anywhere near as much time explaining myself as I thought. Don’t want to have a video call tonight? Don’t. Need a night off your phone? Have it. Only free to work at set times because you have a child? It’s all OK. This period has taught me how much better I feel – and how much more helpful a person I am to know – when I own my circumstances and stop apologising.
There’s something touching and heartbreaking about seeing your child step aside to let strangers pass in the park and say “We need to give people lots of space” even though they have absolutely no idea why.
No, I probably shouldn’t be letting my daughter chuck the tubs of water filled with food colouring she plays with in the garden all over the flowers we’re attempting to grow. But I’m just so happy that she wants to help, who cares if the sunflowers come up blue.
It’s incredibly difficult not to let the vast levels of anxiety involved with simply leaving the house during this crisis spill out into your parenting. When it inevitably happens, noticing, slowing down, and taking a moment to be kind to everyone – including yourself – helps.
It’s been said a billion times before but this is unchartered territory. If you feel like you’re not great at this, it’s because there’s no way you could be.
No matter how many weeks and months we spend at home, it will never be enough to get all the laundry clean, dry and put away, so I may as well stop trying.
Our marriage is at its best when we take the time to spot ways to make life easier for each other. And that can only happen if we keep talking about how we’re feeling.
There’s a difference between both being at home all the time, and actually spending quality time together as a couple. We still have to put the effort in and that currently takes the form of a takeaway and a chat on a Saturday night. I look forward to it all week.
A typical day as a mum for me right now looks like this – I’m knackered all day, unsure as to what we should do most of the time, delighted when there’s calm, ecstatic when there’s joy, gutted when there are tears, game for every cuddle I can get, and so very ready for a break when bedtime rolls around. And then the second she’s asleep, I miss her. Get comfortable with feeling 45 emotions at all times and you’ll be the greatest, most content parent there’s ever been.
It is entirely possible to be both grateful for everything that makes your life good and your problems manageable, and free to mention that you’re finding this situation somewhat trying. We are all a lot of things at the moment.
Whatever you’re waiting for – whether it’s the delivery of a new office chair, some much-needed flour, or for the time when you’ll get to hug your family and friends again, it will come. Hold on.
I had an idea last week to write a list of things I wanted to keep in mind while we all stay at home to help reduce the spread of Coronavirus. I’m so glad I waited until we’d actually experienced a full five days at home trying to live and work and look after our toddler before I wrote it. Optimism is essential right now but so is a strong dose of reality, which I think we all got this week.
This is not an attempt at advice. There is no pandemic experience on my CV. This is just a list of stuff I want to keep in mind to help maintain my perspective (and sanity) in the weeks and months to come.
It’s also an excuse to communicate with the outside world. Hello out there, I do hope you’re OK and staying safe. If nothing else, this should at least help you pass a few minutes.
1.You don’t suddenly have to become a different kind of parent
When this all kicked off, the internet became flooded with tips for things to do at home with children, which is great.
But as always, if we’re not careful, we can suffer from the flipside of social media: comparison syndrome. As I’ve discussed before, since becoming a mum I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time feeling inadequate because I don’t have the exact same skills and ideas as every other mother on the planet.
But I want to remember that I don’t suddenly have to become a nursery nurse, children’s entertainer and Blue Peter presenter all rolled into one just because we’re suddenly spending so much time at home. Yes I will try some new things and find nice ways to entertain our daughter. And we’re adapting our routine to make the best of the current constraints. But that will do. Normal life was working well for us, so the closer I can keep our days to feeling like they usually do, the calmer we’ll all feel.
2.Television is not the enemy
People talk so much about children and TV so I won’t harp on – all I want to say is this: my toddler, just like me and her dad, needs to wind down sometimes. She gets tired, she needs a bit of space, and she likes to catch up with the characters she loves. So at certain times of the day, we let her watch some telly.
This period we’re facing is bizarre, unsettling and weirdly knackering, so I’m sure she will end up watching a bit more than usual, should it make sense for us and her in the moment. An excess is bad for everyone, but the odd dose of comfort won’t do anybody any harm.
3.What I wear has a huge impact on how I feel
I gave birth to our daughter in November 2017 and we were then indoors most of the time for months. That period taught me (along with a million other things) how strong an impact my appearance has on my mental wellbeing. To feel like the day is worth doing, I need to look in the mirror and see somebody who would be happy to open the door to a human being who doesn’t love them unconditionally.
I don’t mean I need to put on a chuffing dress and heels to feel like a person, I just need actual clothes. My pyjamas are the best things in the world at bedtime, but if I’m still wearing them too late in the morning, and I’m not doing so because I’m resting, I start to feel sad. So getting up and dressed like I’ve got somewhere to go is a must for me.
4.We won’t all feel the same way at the same time
At separate points this week, all three of us had a moment when our current living situation proved too much. Leon got stressed out. I had to leave the room as the mess, noise and unwillingness by some residents to just EAT THEIR DINNER was doing my nut. And then – because why should she be left out – our toddler declared, if only through her body language and disproportionate irritation with her snack bowl, that she too was finding this situation to be bullsh*t.
It sounds ridiculous, but I hadn’t realised that we wouldn’t all necessarily be in the same place emotionally at the same time, and that that would be a challenge to manage in itself. Sometimes our daughter just needs us to hold her. Sometimes Leon needs to go out for a run by himself. And sometimes I need to eat an entire easter egg in front of The Mindy Project undisturbed. If we can all just do our best to give each other what we need during this time, it’ll make getting through it easier.
5.Any amount of time outdoors is worth having
We can’t go far and we can’t go within two metres of other people, but we can still go outside. Even just ten minutes outdoors can make all the difference. It’s easy to feel like it’s not worth the effort, that if you’re not going out somewhere proper then you might as well not go out at all, but even just a small dose of fresh air can make everything look brighter.
We’ve started going for a run about in our local park in the morning to let off steam and it’s become the highlight of our day. I hope that when this is all over we carry on treasuring every opportunity we have to play together outdoors.
6.Gratitude does everybody good
It’s good for people to know we’re grateful for the difference they make to us, and it lifts our spirits too to step back and acknowledge the things we appreciate. I said at the start of the year how grounding and therapeutic I find jotting down a list of things I’m grateful for each week, however small. I definitely want to keep doing this, to help me spot all the lovely moments that are punctuating our days as a family during this peculiar time, whether it’s fresh air, good health, cuddles with my daughter, or every bite of Cadbury’s chocolate I can get my hands on.
7.Make time to read
Reading makes me feel calmer than pretty much anything else. Because this crisis is so distracting, I’ve found that I’ve defaulted to sitting and scrolling through my phone rather than thinking about what would be a more relaxing use of time. The more lost or unfulfilled I feel, the more I find myself on my phone but it usually just makes me feel worse. So I want to actively decide to use the rare chunks of time I have to myself to read a book instead.
I always feel a lot more fulfilled when I’ve found time to make something. Whether I’ve tried a new recipe, drawn a picture with my daughter or written a blog, I feel better for it. I’m not overwhelmed with free time – that concept flew out the window the second I became a mum – so I want to make the most of any opportunities I have to be even slightly creative. For example, baking a batch of rice crispy cakes could class as a form of artistic expression, couldn’t it…?
9.I will never regret having extra time with my family
Extra time together in all its forms, however tricky to navigate it may be, is a gift. I’ve another blog brewing about how much I already know I’m going to miss our daughter being two years old, so I want to remember that this is actually all bonus time with her. And though I wish it was in different circumstances, having her dad around so much more than usual is great.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re a week in, I’m shattered and would not say no to a bit of space if it was available to me. But there are numerous lovely moments to be found amongst the chaos, and we’re lucky to have them.
10.Make the time to communicate
Just because Leon is working here, it doesn’t mean I’ll know how his day went unless I ask. Sure, I’ll know that our daughter decided to join him for a conference call and serenade his colleagues with a rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep, but there might be other stuff he needs to unload. We still need to talk to each other.
Our daughter remains a two-year-old and, as such, not the best at articulating how she feels. Although this situation is exasperating at times, I need to make sure I stop and explain to her what’s going on, and help her tell me what’s up too. This will never stop being true, our current situation has just highlighted how quickly things will crumble if I don’t.
And regular check-ins with other friends and family are important as well. Finding the energy to get back on your laptop after a day’s work for a video call is a bit tough. But it’s worth it to share laughs and updates with people I don’t get to see everyday. A pandemic is a crazy and scary thing to live through. I want to remember how important it is to stay in touch and help each other through it.
11.If we look back on this time and our biggest complaint is that we felt bored and cooped up, we will be the lucky ones
There are thousands of people who are putting themselves at risk everyday by carrying on doing their jobs. And there are plenty of others for whom this crisis is much scarier than it is for people like me.
Having to stay home, work without childcare and cope with how strange and apocalyptic life feels right now is hard, and I’m all in favour of allowing ourselves to acknowledge every feeling we experience.
I also know that it will help me to keep going when this period feels endless if I remember that these are all entirely bearable hardships, and that if we all just keep doing as we’re told, we’ll help bring this crisis to an end.
We spend a lot of our adult lives learning how to tell people that we want things to change.
We go on training at work about how to give feedback. We listen to radio phone-ins about how to ask fellow commuters to be more considerate. We read agony aunt column after agony aunt column about how to get our spouse to PLEASE JUST CHANGE THE TOILET ROLL FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE FOR THE LOVE OF ANDREX.
And whilst there is of course value in finding ways to make the imperfect better, my plan for 2020 is to spend more time pointing out the things that make me happy just as they are.
A couple of years ago I started keeping a gratitude list. Every week I make a note of the things – big and small – that have happened that I want to remember and that prove that life is great. I’d seen somebody on Twitter recommend it, so I thought I’d give it a go, and it’s done me the world of good – not just because it’s healthy to be grateful for what you have, but because it’s made me realise what really matters to me.
I kept a list every week in my 2019 diary, and though the exact words differ from week to week, the same themes come up time and time again. Cuddles with my daughter. Seeing her laugh. Time chatting to my husband. Moments to myself to read or watch TV. A catch up with friends. A really excellent cake. A visit from my mum. Managing to stay awake throughout an entire film (this happened approximately twice in 12 months). Proof that I’m keeping my mental health in check. Space to do the work I want to do. Our home.
There are weeks when I’ve noted down special events – new exciting projects, birthdays, trips away – but most of the time, each item on the list is a reminder that it’s the simple things I’m most grateful for. It’s a written collection of all the day to day bits and pieces that could easily go unnoticed, but that are actually my favourite parts of all.
The importance of acknowledging the good became even more apparent to me last year when our daughter got a nasty eye infection. All of a sudden we were in paediatric A&E being told we’d be there overnight so that she could have antibiotics pumped into her little veins through an IV. We caught the infection straightaway and the necessary steps were taken, so all was largely fine, but it was also a bit scary. And it involved spending time in hospital, which is always difficult, particularly when children are involved.
All I wanted the entire time we were there was to go home and back to normal. It made me realise how much I loved our life and that all I need to be happy is to be free to live it, together.
And though that thought process wasn’t new, I wondered if I’d ever actually mentioned how much I liked things, just as they were. I KNEW I’d mentioned how much better life would be if only the bins were emptied more regularly and if we changed a lightbulb more than once every DECADE, but had I said: “Actually, everything we have is everything I want. Nothing else matters”? I’m not sure. So I started.
I’ve tried to take the time to stop and acknowledge when we’re having a nice time, and to tell my husband and my daughter how much I enjoy our time together. I’m an organised person, so I spend most of my time living in the future, planning for the next meal I need to cook, groceries I need to buy, or stain I need to try and fail to remove. And though the world must keep turning, I don’t want to forget to engage with what’s happening now. I don’t want happiness to be something I only recognise retrospectively – I want to notice it in the moment. The future will be here soon enough.
We’ve tried to make it the norm as a couple for us to tell each other when we’re struggling. We let each other know how we’re feeling, we talk about why that might be and what (if anything) can be done, and then we try to move on. It’s not about brushing tough stuff away, quite the opposite. Discussing hard times is as normal as chatting about what’s on TV, so the hurdle isn’t finding the courage to bring it up, but figuring out how we can tackle it together.
And I want it to be just as normal to chat about what’s great. It’s not about living some smug, insufferable life where we pat ourselves on the back all day long, it’s just about making sure we don’t forget that we’re lucky to have each other and that we’ve not forgotten the time when all we wanted was everything that we’ve got now.
My husband reminds me regularly of this Kurt Vonnegut quote, which I love: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
So that’s what I’m trying to do, this year and beyond. Notice. Life can be incredibly difficult. Surprising in glorious ways, and shocking in others. So the least we can do is acknowledge when it’s good, and let the people around us know how happy they make us.
And I’ll be keeping up with my gratitude list too. Stopping to note down the funny, touching, meaningful joys I’ve taken from each day is the cheapest form of therapy I’ve ever known, and I strongly recommend it. And it’s a lovely thing to look back on at the end of the year, too.
So that’s my intentions for 2020 officially documented, and I’d love to know what yours are, too. Happy New Year.
Our daughter was born and all of a sudden all those moments of time to myself that I’d never realised were such a big part of my day evaporated. Goodbye solitude, I’ve got company.
You don’t appreciate how many parts of your life constitute alone time until they reduce down to seconds grabbed between feeds, cuddles, and attempts to persuade your child not to dive head first off the sofa.
I look back on all those times I went to the toilet without somebody there to squish my tummy. On all those showers I had where I didn’t feel the need to poke my head out of the cubicle every 30 seconds to shout “ARE YOU OK?” to the little person in the cot in the next room. On all those train journeys I spent reading a book rather than supplying snacks to the small dictator in the pram, perched on the edge of my seat, waiting to see which of the items I’ve selected will be deemed acceptable today. (Fruit, mummy? Really? Try again.) Did I appreciate all that freedom? Of course I didn’t.
Nobody appreciates time until something changes your relationship with it, and becoming a parent definitely does that.
But while I find the lack of freedom hard, having such limited windows to myself has forced me to make the most of the time I do have more than I ever did before.
I’ve learnt to snatch moments to myself, however brief. Ten minutes with Friends on in the background while Leon gives our toddler a bath and I cook dinner. Forty minutes on my laptop on a Sunday morning before everybody else wakes up. Thirty minutes slumped on the sofa on a Friday evening in the gap between my return from work and Leon’s arrival with our daughter after nursery. I don’t mind admitting that I LEG IT home for that sit down. You’ve got to get your rest any way you can in this game.
When time feels so precious, you don’t let yourself waste it. I now know just how much it’s possible to get done in half an hour. Want the house tidied, a tray of brownies baked, and a week’s worth of washing put away? Get a parent whose toddler is taking a nap on the case – and they’ll still have time to negotiate you a new mortgage deal, too. I’ve been amazed and delighted by how the limits on my time have helped me focus my mind and get sh*t done, because I simply don’t have time to fanny about.
I’ve also changed how I think about how I use my days off work. I used to think annual leave had to be used for a holiday or a trip away, or at least for a fancy meal out. And of course it’s great to keep some for those treats, but now I also keep a handful to do the things I can’t do the rest of the time. To sit in a café and write a blog. To go to the cinema by myself. To listen to a podcast with swearing in it without worrying that I’m going to damage the next generation.
I adore my girl and value our time together more than anything else in the world. Being her mum is also the hardest work I’ve ever done, so I do my best to take moments to myself where I can, so I can give her all I’ve got when we’re together.
Because we’re together a lot – most of the time in fact – which is exactly how I want it to be. Nonetheless, one of the other things I’ve found most surprising about life as a parent is how lonely it can feel, despite the fact that you’re in company almost constantly.
It’s the weight of the responsibility, I think. On the logistical front, it’s being the one in charge of deciding everything that we’ll do, when we’ll do it, and what we’ll need to have with us so that we survive the day/avoid significant social embarrassment.
And on the emotional side, the desperation that (when it’s just the two of us) only I feel to get things right for her can feel a bit isolating, too. All I want is to make her happy and to create days that make her feel loved, inspired, amused, interested, and, let’s not forget, sufficiently pooped so that she’ll sleep well, for all our sakes. It’s a lot to be responsible for getting out of a day, and when things don’t go to plan – which is all the time, by the way – it can get you down.
I am of course not on my own. My husband is just as much a parent as I am. But for two days of the week, he’s at work and I’m at home looking after our daughter. And on the days when I do go to work, I do the majority of the childcare around it, because he works longer hours than I do. As a result (and because we live in the society that we do), it’s me who takes responsibility for most of the bits and pieces that keep us going day to day. The meals we eat, the endless supply of milk our daughter requires, the admin that gets our bills paid and keeps the roof firmly over our heads, and so many more things that find their way on and off the ever-growing list that lives inside my brain.
I am incredibly happy and grateful for our life and feel appreciated for my efforts, I just sometimes feel a bit alone in my role, too. I expect we both do.
But as our daughter it getting older (all of a sudden she’ll turn two next month) and she’s getting better and better at communicating, she’s taking an increasingly active role in our time together, and it’s making me feel so much more… accompanied in everything that we do.
She can now express opinions (which, of course, can be inconvenient/tricky to manage, but let’s focus on the positives for now, shall we?), so she can tell me what she thinks of the ideas I have for us. The other day I told her we were going to the farm and she said “Yay! Yarm!” and it made the whole trip that bit more joyous because we were in on the decision to go together.
For a while, parenting feels like something you do ‘to’ your child, rather than with them, because you just have to make decisions on your own. It can be a lonely job, being in charge all the time, so it’s nice to start getting some feedback. It’s most definitely not always positive, but when it’s good, it makes the meltdowns worth facing. And every meltdown teaches me more about how to empathise and communicate with a child who still has so little control over her world.
When you’re expecting a baby, you understand that you’ll probably feel pain during the birth, tiredness after sleepless nights, and a relentless need to go for a wee every 20 minutes for the rest of your life, but you don’t think about what responsibility for your child will feel like in practice. I didn’t realise how much effort I’d have to put into feeling content as an individual (as well as a mum), but I’m glad I have as it’s made all the difference.
Though a lack of time to myself can be trying, knowing that I’m making every moment I do get count helps me feel like I’ve had a break, even if it’s a short one. And when the pangs of mum-life loneliness kick in, I’m lifted by how much more confident I now feel to make decisions for us, to try new things, and to talk about what a roller coaster motherhood can be.
You’re about to discover just how strong you really are. That’s the sentence I find myself saying to friends about to have babies.
I say it because it sounds wise and reassuring, but also because it’s gentler than saying “That child is going to DESTROY YOU – but don’t worry, you’ll cope.”
The trick to parenting is resilience. Without it, you’re screwed. But the good news is, you can’t help but develop it.
As I see it, these are the three main things that simultaneously test and build your resilience when you’re a parent.
1. The fact that you don’t really have a choice
My daughter is almost 16 months old and at no point in her life so far have her demands been negotiable.
When she wants milk, she wants it now. When she wants a snack, she wants it now. When she wants me, for reasons only she understands, to let her into the bathroom so that she can grab a clean nappy and wear it around her neck like a scarf, she expects this opportunity to come about THIS INSTANT.
Since the moment she was born, it’s been our job to give her what she needs, when she needs it. No matter how tired, emotional, confused, scared, fed up, distracted or lost we felt, we had to keep going.
What it means to be truly at someone’s beck and call 24/7 takes some getting used to. You know that’s what you’re signing up for, but not what the reality will feel like.
I’m grateful that I don’t have a choice in the matter, that it’s my duty to serve her, and that I’m unable to function if she’s unhappy. Because it means I don’t have time to stop and think.
I don’t take a moment at 3am when she’s calling for me, to ask if this particular moment is convenient. And I don’t make time to notice that I’ve made her breakfast everyday for almost a year and a half now and never once has she even offered to make mine.
This is my job and I need to show up for it, rain or shine.
But of course that doesn’t mean your wellbeing isn’t important. Strength comes from giving yourself permission to matter too. To speak honestly about how you feel, to do activities with your baby that fill you both up, and to acknowledge that if you’re happy, they’re happy.
2. The fact that the best and worst bits will be a surprise
Your resilience is tested every time something happens that you weren’t expecting. Which is all the time.
Every single one of our best and worst moments has come out of the blue.
I didn’t expect to find breastfeeding so difficult.
I didn’t expect to realise in the middle of Heathrow Airport after we’d checked in our luggage, been through security, and ordered an ill-advised salad with a well-advised side order of chips, that those spots on our daughter’s ears were chickenpox and we wouldn’t be flying anywhere today.
I didn’t expect to spend 28 hours in hospital with her whilst she had antibiotics pumped into her little veins to rid her of an eye infection.
I never expect her to fall over but she does, all the time.
I often lie awake at night worrying about all the things that could happen and trying to work out how I can become organised enough to ensure that they won’t.
It’s a tough moment when you realise that there are only so many to-do lists you can write and parenting articles you can read. Surprises will still occur. But with every one that does, you gather more evidence that you can and will cope.
3. The fact that your heart lives in your child’s hands, and they can crush it whenever they like
I can find the words to describe most things, but I can’t describe the way I feel about my daughter.
When she was born, the love was so overwhelming that it broke us; more than the sleep deprivation or the attempts at feeding, or the c-section recovery. The hard and fast tumble in love with this baby was almost more than we could handle.
But of course, only almost. You get used to functioning in a world where you feel this way.
You get used to feeling genuine physical pain when your child cries.
You get used to how brutal it feels every time one of your efforts to give them a good start in life is rejected – a homemade muffin chucked on the floor, an attempt to get them dressed that ends in tears, a lovingly-read bedtime story during which they get up and leave the room.
You get used to feeling guilty every time they get ill, sad, hungry, thirsty, too hot, too cold, frustrated you won’t let them eat paper, displeased with one of their socks… basically every second of the day.
All I want on this earth is for my daughter to be happy, but because she’s a human being, she’s going to experience a lot of other emotions as well. As her mum I have to become resilient enough to handle that reality.
Because it’s not just me who needs to be able to cope. I have to help her grow up ready to face the highs and lows life will throw her way, too.
‘Should’ can be an unhelpful word, particularly when we use it as a weapon with which to beat ourselves.
Life is fast and competitive and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our awareness of what other people are doing. I enjoy feeling connected to people I know and people I don’t via social media, and getting little insights into lives that are different from mine. But I can also feel myself drawing unhelpful comparisons. Noticing things that other people do that I don’t, and interpreting them as evidence of my failings.
But just because something exists as a possibility, it doesn’t mean that you should do it. It’s just one of the options. Do it or don’t, no-one cares.
My problem is that I hear ‘should’ when it’s not even being said. I confuse hearing somebody say “I am doing XYZ” with “You should be doing XYZ.” I see people talking about how they’re raising their children or building their careers or decorating their homes, and forget that what they’re saying has no relation to me.
I’ve always struggled with the fear that I’m not doing the right thing. I don’t mean morally or legally – fear is such a dominant emotion for me that I’m always pretty confident I’m on the right side of the law. No, I’m worried about doing The Optimum Thing.
If we’re on holiday and looking for a restaurant, I’ll worry about choosing the ‘right’ one. What if we’d have had a better time elsewhere? What if that table by the window would have enhanced our experience? What if sitting this near the loos ruins the ambience? What if it’s actually this thought process that’ll ruin our night?
And now that I’m a parent, I – like every single mother on earth, probably – worry that I’m not doing everything I ‘should’ do for my daughter. Should we be at a class? Should we be socialising? Should we be playing educational games indoors? Should I be doing more to make the most of her – whatever that means? As if just loving and caring for her with everything I’ve got isn’t enough.
Parenting is relentless decision making. And what’s harder than being the person who has to make them all, is the realisation that nobody’s going to come along and let you know if you’re doing it right. You just have to trust yourself in the moment.
When our daughter was very small, I used to imagine there would be a time in years to come when she’d say to me: “Mum, you know that day when I was so upset in January 2018? It’s because I wanted you to heat my milk up/put me to bed/ turn off that unbearable episode of Gossip Girl.” But as the sleep deprivation started to wear off, I realised: That’s not going to happen.
You’ll never know if you did the right thing, because the right thing doesn’t really exist. There’s no list, charting all the options in order of preference, nor is there a jury waiting to judge you on your choices. We have to be our own adjudicators.
It’s true for all areas of our lives. There’s no adjudicator who’s going to come and tell you which career path you ‘should’ have taken, which date you ‘should’ have gone on, or which Netflix series you ‘should’ have chosen to best entertain your baby. We did what we did based on the information we had at the time – there’s no other way to do it.
Since becoming a mother I’ve learnt that, to be happy, I have to accept my choices as I make them, one by one. Decisions require my attention quickly; I don’t always see them coming. I can’t always nail it, and, if I’m not careful, I’ll spiral into a long and pointless thought process about what I ‘should’ have done instead.
But now I’ve realised how unhelpful that is, and how many moments with my baby I’ll miss if I spend all my time analysing what I’ve done in the past.
Instead it’s better to focus on making decisions that suit us both today. My daughter is the most important person in the world to me, and I’m that to her, too. So when I’m deciding how we spend our time, it’s OK that I do so with what I need in mind as well – my energy levels, my mental health – because if I’m well, so is she. As I’ve written before, the inherent guilt of parenting makes it hard to prioritise yourself, but with nine months of experience under my belt, I can tell you: you must.
So I want to park the ‘should’ and have a little more faith. In myself as a parent and as a fallible human being, and in the need for there to be healthy differences between how we all lead our lives.
Because time will pass, no matter how we spend it. And to hand more of our precious hours over to regret, rather than to joy, and to self-criticism rather than kindness, feels like the kind of waste we should all do our best to avoid.