I had a little incident last week. I ran away from home. I didn’t pack a bag or anything, I wasn’t serious about it. I just grabbed a book and my purse and got in the car and drove. I went to a bar that I’d been wanting to go to since it opened about six months ago. I ordered a coffee which came in a matching cup and saucer with a little piece of Scottish tablet nestled under the handle and I drank it while reading my book.
It all sounds rather unremarkable, doesn’t it? ‘Woman drinks coffee alone in bar’. Well, what if I say that I’m a stay at home mum? And it’s the school holidays.
I recently went to get my eyes tested. Advancing years are rendering me ever closer to the day I admit defeat and reach for the reading glasses. The optician, a man of around 30, asked me what I did for a living. I always struggle with this. It’s not completely accurate to say that I don’t work, yet none of the occupations that demand my attention day to day can really add up to anything that might have a job title. And generally when people ask that question, they are looking for a snappy answer, not a justification of my existence.
So I answered the way I usually do. ‘I’m just at home with the kids.’ Followed by a slightly defensive ‘Though I am involved in a few things’.
He smiled at me kindly and said ‘It must be nice to have things that pass the time.’
I completely froze. I couldn’t even respond. I wouldn’t have known how to respond had my mouth been able to form itself into any shape other than a gormless circle. Something to pass the time. That’s what a stay at home mum needs. What on earth do we do all day without something to pass the time?
I realise at this point that there is a different blog to be written by someone else; a working parent. I have no idea how they do it. People who work long days in stressful jobs, then come home in time to make dinner, referee a couple of fights, wrestle the kids into the bath and fall into bed ready to do it all again the next day. I chose to stay at home because I just didn’t think I could do all that. But our choices, even when made freely, don’t come without a cost.
After my little AWOL episode, once I’d kissed the kids goodnight and assured them my disappearance had nothing to do with them or, incidentally, their rather wilder than usual behaviour at the shopping centre that afternoon, I sat on the sofa and watched something mindless on the telly. My husband came to join me. He let me finish watching whatever thing I wasn’t really watching before asking if I was ok.
It had, we worked out, been nine days since I’d had a moment of time without at least one child hanging off me. It didn’t really seem that long to me. I’ve gone much longer than that without losing my mind! The thing I find the most ridiculous about having had no time alone is that my husband had been off work that week. But while men, typically, are free to dip in and out of parenting as the mood or need arises, Mum is always there. The ever-present parent. The constant in their world of constant change.
My son is 6. He’s in his second year of primary school. I wrestle him out of the house at 8.30 every morning and don’t see him again till 3.15. My youngest is four and in pre-school. I have two hours and fifteen glorious minutes in which I can drink tea at a temperature other than luke warm, enjoy solo trips to the loo, ‘nip’ upstairs to fetch something without tripping over the 4yo who has stealth followed. I can also, on occasion, actually accomplish something meaningful.
I was alerted to the fact that this was a window of time sufficiently large to begin achieving things within a fortnight of the youngest being settled into preschool, when I was unexpectedly offered two jobs. People around me eyed these two hours a day with suspicion. Surely I would want to work? What else could I possibly be planning to do with my time? With both offers, I played through the scenarios, pushing against the idea that I didn’t have time to work, yet fully aware that other people seem to treat children and jobs as though they were not mutually exclusive.
If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re in a similar boat, even if it’s painted differently, and going in a different direction. Life is busy. Whatever our circumstances, for people in the family stage of life, busyness is inescapable. So I’m not going to run through what happens during those two hours. I will admit that the fifteen minutes often gets taken up with a quick chat with school mums on the way home, making a cup of tea or two, and standing, vacant minded, in the kitchen wondering what I should be doing next.
And I work. I do. I run two businesses. Sometimes they take up a lot of time, sometimes not so much. But I rarely mention them to people I don’t know or have just met, because I don’t have a natty sounding job title.
For me though, it’s what happens after those two hours that renders me useless. I pick 4yo up at 11.30. She dawdles home examining every snowdrop, or conker, or stick along the way. And I let her, because it’s good for kids to be outside. I read somewhere that children are supposed to have three hours of physical activity a day. That’s a lot. So this counts. If a five minute walk lasts half an hour then I congratulate myself on my wonderful parenting, even if my patience has become a little eroded.
Then we’re home and thinking about lunch. With the menu finally confirmed, I set about procuring appropriate ingredients from the fridge, and my heart plummets as I hear the scrape of the stool being moved from its usual resting place over to the work surface. The 4yo is ready to ‘help’. And I let her, because it’s good for kids to develop skills, and to learn to cook, and gain independence. ‘It’s good for her’ I tell myself, my patience only slightly less intact than it was.
After lunch, sometimes there is a class of some sort requiring chauffeuring and a wait in the car doing admin on my phone. Or maybe there’s a playdate involving coffee with another mum. These are not the relaxing meetings of ladies who lunch. Conversations are peppered with instructions barked at children to not mash banana into the carpet, or jump on someone else’s sofa. Extensive mediations take place between two girls who both want to dress up as Elsa, or want to play with the only light sabre that isn’t broken. Someone invariably has a pee related incident and, on a good day, no one will be sick. I like a playdate. They are often chaos, but I get some adult company. Neither of us will finish a sentence during the whole shebang, but I feel less alone.
On the days no activity is forthcoming, we play. The 4yo is a big fan of imaginative play. I prefer a jigsaw myself. The other day she informed me that I was Pinkie Pie, and she was Rainbow Dash – My Little Ponies, for those not in the know. I was up for it, because it’s good for her, isn’t it? To have a parent play with her, to feel valued and important and like I wouldn’t prefer to be checking Facebook on my phone or fiddling about on my computer. I’d rather be with her. And that’s good for her self-esteem.
I asked what I should do in my role, and she looked at me sympathetically, and told me to just do what I normally do, but do it as Pinkie Pie. I thought my luck was in as I made to put a load of washing in the machine. ‘No!’ she shouted. ‘Pinkie Pie wouldn’t do that. She likes to organise parties!’
So I scrabbled round on the floor, wearing holes in the knees of yet another pair of jeans, gathering up toys to come to a party. And another chunk of patience fell away.
By this point, I’ve probably remembered the article I read about kids these days not knowing how to deal with being bored. So, for her own good, I’ll tell her that I have a few things to do and she should play by herself for a while. That generally doesn’t go so well, so after a few tears and whines, and a vice-like grip on my leg, I usually decide that it might be time to put the telly on, just for a little while, before we pick up the 6yo from school.
I might get that load of washing on or reply to an email before I remember that she won’t be little for ever, and that she gives really great cuddles. So I’ll join her on the sofa, and snuggle with her while watching Moana for the millionth time.
We’ve usually just got to the good bit when it’s time to leave to get the eldest from school. A biscuit normally helps this process along. One for her and eight for me. We look at seasonally appropriate things on the journey again, a bit more hurried this time; partly because we’re running late after the disagreement over whether a pee was a good idea before we left the house, and partly because another fragment of patience was casually discarded somewhere around the time the shoes were being put on the wrong feet.
Chat outside the school ranges from exasperated to manic depending on the unique, yet similarly themed experiences of my parent colleagues. My 6yo bounds out of school, smiles all round, delighted to see his ever present mummy. And I am delighted to see him. I love seeing his happy little face running towards me, and I want to know all about his day.
But he’s not ready to tell me all about his day. He wants to charge about the playground, do a circuit of the trim trail and run away from his little sister who is desperate trying to give him a cuddle. I’m looking at my watch trying to remember what day it is and which of the myriad after school activities are on today. Swimming, football, ballet, Beavers? Thursdays are free. We do nothing on a Thursday because, you know, it’s important for them to be bored, so that’s that scheduled in.
My last bit of patience usually falls out of my pocket in the playground so I’m already on edge as we battle through the bottle neck where two schools meet at the narrowest part. We march forward, me holding the 4yo’s hand firm so she doesn’t get distracted by the sandpit near the gate. And we’re out. The kids are racing and the 4yo is crying because she didn’t win, again. And I shout at the 6yo for not letting her win. ‘Why do you never let her win?’ I ask, accidentally wiping the victorious smile from his enthusiastic face.
They are hyper when we get home. Jackets and shoes are flung in random directions as I bribe them with a move up the reward chart if they put everything in the correct place. More tears as they can’t reach to hang their jackets up. It’s far easier to do it myself, but it’s good for them to learn to do things for themselves, isn’t it?
Snack time, and on a good day we share some fruit, or a piece of toast. Something healthy. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I just dive right into the biscuit tin and distribute them liberally until everyone calms down a little bit.
Then we’re either into the car for an educational, self-esteem building, opportunity-providing class of some sort; or we’re into ‘free play’ namely, bouncing on the sofa (yes, it’s my children those words were uttered to) using every cushion and chair in the house to build a den, playing ‘tig’ or just racing from one end of the house to the other. I work hard to keep my temper under wraps, aware that this is my time with my son. My actions of the day are, to him, like the tree falling when he wasn’t there to hear it. He’s ready to enjoy some Mummy time, while Mummy eyes the sofa like the marathon runner’s ribbon.
It’s a blessing to be a stay at home mum, albeit a working one. I’ve been there for every milestone; every first word, first step, first day at school. But it is a sacrifice too. Sometimes I long to put on a suit and join the rat race again. I got sent a generic email recently inviting me to a health and safety course. It was utterly irrelevant to me, but the course included lunch. How lovely, I mused to my husband, to spend a day learning about something, and have a pre-packed sandwich with a bunch of strangers at lunch time. He woke me from my reverie with a long stare. I didn’t book it.
Whatever choices we make for our family carry rewards and sacrifices. So next time you meet someone who looks after their own kids all day, don’t judge, don’t make guesses as to what exactly they do with their time. Just stand in awe. Stay at home mums – you are awesome. And working mums – you are too.