I was, I had been, waving… bobbing around on the sea in the choppy water. Waving for help. Here! Over here! Help me.
And then about a fortnight ago I surrendered. I gave up and stopped treading water. Goodbye world, hello to my watery Other Life. I slipped under the surface, silently. Hands up, pale fingertips the last you would see of me, leaving only a few bubbles, like the prow of a slowly sinking boat.
I find myself not caring if the schools go back or not. I find myself, in fact, reluctant for them to go back. The children, my children belong here. Here with me: forever! I am Gollum-like, hissing, crabbed and jealous of my two preciouses.
This is not me, this is not the me that I know. I am embarrassed to confess this. Usually I am first in line on Day 1 of term, shouting See Ya! And then Woohoo H&M Oxford Circus, here I come! Ray Bans on, chewing gum, WhatsApping everyone GIFS of Eddie Murphy doing the PERFECT! sign.
I am generally suspicious of women who declare they don’t want their children to return to school. Back in September I spoke to a woman I hadn’t seen for a while. She has three school-age children. Or is it four…
“How was lockdown?” she said.
“Oh my god, awful,” I replied.
“Oh no!” she said. “Why?”
I didn’t know what to do with my face. Why? WHY? This thing, this I Love My Children, Just Not All The Time thing, it’s a shibboleth and a complicated one at that.
But now I’m confused. My lizard brain strongly doesn’t want to release my little lizards back into the world, any world, let alone the un-mappable and unknowable expanse of… school. Anything could happen, anyone could say anything to them! Their peers might not understand the Validation Of Feelings process to be applied when they have a Bad Feeling. Their teacher might not understand that they’re a bit sensitive about that thing.
The only reasonable course of action is to set fire to my house with all my family trapped inside. TOGETHER FOREVER.
There’s more: children can be such a brilliant excuse. For loads of things. For anything petty that you don’t want to do or want to wriggle out of. But they can also be a ginormous get-out-of-jail-free card for larger commitments, too.
For example, why am I not Helena Morrissey or the new presenter of Woman’s Hour or nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes or the Editor of The Sunday Times? Despite being totally unqualified for and not even interested in any of those jobs, at the back of my mind, there is a nagging question. Why aren’t you more? And a convenient and true answer even at the best of times is: my children. Right now, they are the answer to every question.
And I have this wonderful excuse, also, to eat what I want and drink what I want and buy myself whatever I want because IT’S AN EMERGENCY and the thought that we will be cracked out of this bubble and have to do the school run and find the right uniform and deal with the mean thing that Jeremiah Bumbrain said in the playground is unappealing.
I will have to deal with other things, too – other big questions I don’t want to look directly in the face. And it’s so much easier just to clean the kitchen and do the cooking and make the beds and charge up the juiceboxes and print out the resources and offer hot chocolate and just be. Not try to do anything else, just this. It is, in its own way, peaceful.
I feel like a traitor. I don’t want to make you feel bad if you’re semi-hysterical every minute of every day, a gin zombie from 6pm onwards and the need to get your children back to school feels like the need to breathe. I have mostly felt like that, too.
But now something has changed. Perhaps I am peri-menopausal. Maybe this is a sign of my own poor mental health. Maybe it’s the weather.
I don’t know, whatever.
As you were.
I’ve said this a thousand times- Esther I love you. This is such a good article. I have struggled so much with the lockdowns, but I also struggle with lockdown easing because my anxious mind likes living a simple life with all my loved ones under one roof, it’s easy in its own way. I do want the schools to go back. I do want my children to have a normal life and an actual education. I do hate homeschooling. I know learning social skills is brutal but necessary. But it is simple here at home. I quite enjoyed the first lockdown. Sunny, only a wee bit of P1 homeschooling (reception for England?), got the paddling pool out lots and drank wine in the garden of an evening playing top trumps with the 5 year old. You’re so good at your numbers darling!! My anxiety went through the roof in summer as a sort of rebound then just as I got it vaguely under control they announced schools would not be opening after Christmas and I was devastated and I’ve struggled so much more with winter lockdown. I hate it. It is not fun. We are all so so bored. But it is simple. My two go back to nursery and P2 on 22nd February (apparently) in Scotland and I’m so happy for them really, it is best for them, but so scared too. And not (just) of coronavirus. I can’t really remember normal life at this point and I was a bit rubbish at it anyway. Elaine x
Oh, and I was supposed to go back to work when the wee one started nursery but covid hit just a few weeks later and the full time caring/ homeschooling has been an excuse not to have to do that.
A weird sort of Stockholm syndrome has set in here too.
Perhaps it’s just a resigned acceptance. That this semi-living, semi-feral state is just HOW WE LIVE NOW.
Its all just ‘whatever’ now isn’t it?
And yes, there’s a happiness in survival mode. No room for anything more, no room for self improvement, for ‘looking up and out’. Because I’m busy looking down, as I cleaning the kitchen for the 20th time today….
I’ve got to the point of melancholy wandering around the house… whilst simultaneously thinking ‘what the fuck did I used to do? I don’t even remember where I used to go…? Why am I so depressed? Maybe life was always this bleak and I was just distracted and didn’t notice…??’
My boys are in school because a wise woman told me not to be a hero and take the damn keyworker space if we were allowed. And they’re happy as larry. I’m now just left at home staring at walls.
This is a fantastic piece of writing. A slice of life most difficult and complex. Motherhood, womanhood and the slide of mental heath. I want it in the Sunday Papers! Post lockdown fears and ‘ real life ‘ fears are very real. Hang in there x
I don’t think I’ve ever read something before that resonated with me as much as this. I also feel like I’ve surrendered. I don’t want to homeschool but the thought of them going back to school doesn’t appeal either. The thought of the school run and making an effort fills me with dread. On the one hand, I hate this stagnation, this survival mode, but on the other…it gives me the perfect excuse not to challenge myself, not to try new things, not to meet new people.
Finding this situation so hard, but the alternative seems even harder..
I think it’s called acceptance. I’ve recently found it too…
Yes and yes and yes. I often berate myself that I haven’t launched a multi million pound business or written a Pulitzer Prize winning novel or even gotten a six pack yet. All I can do is binge Netflix and cook dinner. I am mentally drained from my own incessant internal monologue. I just want to happily sink into the role of housewife and mother and not worry about whether I’m achieving anything all the time. If you’re ever bored you can read about my battles with myself and the rest of the world on my blog : ruminationsofyasmin.com
Yes to all this.
I wonder if this is what institutionalisation feels like. Inability to even see or imagine a different life outside the current confines.
When I quit my intense Whitehall job, I felt a really visceral sense of satisfaction at making and seeing my children eat dinner I made. And knowing they were at home with me from 3pm. This phase is a both utterly dementing and also a bit like that satisfying chickies in the nest feeling.
I simply *cannot* hold a thought when my children are within earshot. My husband can. He’s stuck in the front room on Zoom 12 hours a day, which is no fun, but he can do it. So I’ve almost just given up. Why even try to maintain a professional presence? Why try to do anything that requires sustained thought, effort or energy. I’ll only get interrupted so just go wipe the kitchen benches for the 19th time this morning, unload the dishwasher and sweep the floor. Takes no mental energy and it doesn’t matter if I get interrupted
I have been interrupted 4 times trying to write this.
So true. Love this. Hate lockdowns, hate the kids being away from friends, activities. But there is currently no pressure to HAVE IT ALL, get the kids to school, organise their schoolwork, go to all their activities, cook all meals clean tidy the house, pick stylish outfits, do my hair/makeup, turn my part-time gig into an empire(!), see my family, see my friends and on and on and on. FOMO doesn’t exist.
Even though I hate the boredom of it all, the removal of choice is liberating. It’s why Aldi is popular, no 80 jams, just one good jam!
Does anyone think this is why there are so few anti-lockdowns protests? Imagine if lockdowns were suggested in the 70s? It wouldn’t be the same without the internet and takeaways!!
A couple of years ago I briefly met the Leader of the House at Lords with my best friend (her husband had accidentally become an MP and we went for a yomp around the Houses of Parliament after a champagne-fuelled-zig-zag down Bond Street where I embarrassingly fell up the stairs in Asprey). I may have fan-girled with said Leader of HoL over her office being ‘just the same as when Disraeli worked here’ and squealed with delight at her having the only balcony in the Palace of Westminster, looking out over College Green.
BFF & I left her office, both of us moaning why neither of us were Leader of HoL. Until we realised that neither of us had ever ‘done anything’ and nor could we be bothered to. Have to say, that escapade was one of my BEST DAYS EVER.
Was chatting with pro Coach & friend Phanella Mayall-Fine recently when we decided that I am under-achieving & over-fulfilled. Since coming to that conclusion, I feel much more at peace. Over-achieving is over-rated, and rarely seems to make for a happy & content mindset.
But you’re right. It probably is the weather. February is always the shittest month.
…. who HASN’T fallen up the steps of Asprey, am I right?
Kelly Mocarski says
Underachieving and overfulfilled!! I love it! My new goal in life
This is exactly me right now – it’s taken me 3 lockdowns to get to the point of grudging acceptance and also accept that I’m ok with it right now. I’m finding it hard to admit I’m slightly terrified of everything going back to ‘normal’. And yet……..
You’ve nailed it. Again. The way I see it is this: I need this whole situation already to be a distant memory, because I can’t face the actual process of getting to that point. The thought of having to come out of my introversion hole, dragging the kids with me, facing back up to getting that “all my kids are now in school” job (having lost 2 opportunities to do so, owing to lockdowns 1 and 3), explaining to youngest son (who hasn’t yet completed a full academic year of schooling, despite now being halfway through Year 1) that he genuinely DOES have to go to an actual school building every day and do actual school – it just seems too overwhelming. Thanks for expressing so well what I’ve been unable to.
Perfectly timed & articulated description of where I am as well.
A strange ocean bobbing around and finally being turned over by a huge wave has happened here. The first lockdown I didn’t find *too* bad as my then Yr 1 child was mostly compliant with the minimal work set and was able to spend most of the day outside. This time round I was starting to make ground in my new self employed status which all just stopped and felt crushing after years at home. Throw in now also homeschooling a 4yr old in Reception as well and after the first week I just went under.
My concentration for most things is equal or worse than my 4 yr old when being taught digraphs, but i’m not allowed to worm off the sofa and roll on to the floor which sometimes seems appealing!
My surrender came after conversations with a friend who was previously a primary teacher and a friend who works in children’s mental/emotional health. If the school work happens it happens. If it doesn’t I’m not pushing, they are not behind. They are exactly where they are in the midst of a pandemic. We get outside as often as we can wrapped up warm and head to toe waterproof. Seems to be helping.
I am dreading the return to school as I wont be able to protect them from the push to catch up.
Esther this is just brilliant, thank you. I don’t feel like I have any high-highs or low-lows anymore, just a middling ‘pandemic fine’ mood. I’ve actively stopped hoping which sounds incredibly bleak but I felt utterly bereft when we went back into lockdown on Boxing Day as I had expectations of things being ‘better’ this year so I’ve canned it. I’m in Scotland so my daughter is due to go back on the 22nd (in theory). We’ll see, whether she does or doesn’t we will be OK, and OK is OK right now. x
Caroline F says
Just brilliant writing, Esther. I’m glad to know I’m not alone, grappling guiltily with these sorts of feelings.
I think your brain is in survival mode. Now that you’re not allowed to let them go to school, it thinks: this is better. It’s like Stockholm Syndrom.
As soon as you will be able to let them go, you will think: yessss. Although I do recognize the Need To Be Something. During lockdown (in Holland they just went back to school) it was so clear what I had to do. Now that I can work again, I immediately wonder what ambitions I should be chasing. Which is annoying.
But I must say: I was so sorry for all those involuntary housewives of ages past (and present). They had no choice, just like us in lockdown, but also no perspective of ever getting out of fulltime house and child care.
yes it puts it all into perspective
Perfect piece of writing, in so many ways.
Wonderful, thank you. I’ve decided I’m a plant, not moving and just sucking up nutrients.
I think it’s like mat leave where you can’t imagine the other life and dread it, then turn up at the office, turn your laptop on and it all comes back…
Btw I am going through menopause (tmi) and have turned from a super ambitious 16 hour day (with two kids) person to someone who doesn’t give much of a sh*# anymore. Really strange but honestly happier overall.
Cindy F says
Well said (yet again). You articulate so brilliantly what we all seem to be thinking and feeling. I don’t have small children any longer and only have one of our slouching 20-somethings at home to lecture us on trans rights and cancel culture and…well, everything really, over dinner. Just the other day I could see this lockdown lasting forever, when the one of the few joys is shopping weekly in Tesco Extra (or ‘The Gulag’ as I think of it). It was quite a peaceful feeling.
Kids are a good get-out-of-jail, as you say. A friend put off getting a dog because she couldn’t stand it when people left dinner parties early to get home to the dog, which got me thinking ‘maybe I will get a pupply after all, then’.
On a side note, I am reading up a storm, and saw in an interview that you were reading Sorrow and Bliss. Finding it hard to put down, but am almost finished it, and have ordered her earlier novel on Kindle. Such a treat, a book like that.
Cindy YES it’s very good. I was going to put it all in a post, just as soon as I’ve done lunch and cleaned the kitchen and folded my children’s PJs into fun shapes
This is me now. I used to be out and about all the time with my kids. A day at home felt suffocating and frustrating. Now it is all I want. On the upside I feel I am more at peace at home, on the downside, I might never leave it. I think everyone is feeling similar, in Lockdown 1 our Class WhatsApps groups were going crazy – this time round communication is, at best, sporadic. I live in a village and occasionally bump into friends (really good friends) on my walks and can hardly raise the energy to say hello. I have given up all forms of Zoom communication too other than watching my kids on it. Maybe the sunshine will cure this?
I had a bad moment last Thursday where mistakenly the kids and I skipped down to school to pick something up at throwing-out time and I saw just how many people are sending their kids to school. I have three primary aged kids and chose early 2020 to get back to work (FML) so am in weird juggling mode most of the time, swinging from one room to another while we try to get the English and maths done, making everyone lunch/a million snacks, then fucking off to my office to do my freelance work thereafter (then feeling guilty they haven’t had any fresh air and are on screens for the rest of the day) so seeing them all pouring out of school made me super depressed (why have I not become a KEY WORKER). I’m over it now, I’m not angry, I’m flat and sometimes a bit hungover and sometimes I go for a run, and then I cook to make myself feel like I’ve achieved something. I am enjoying the feeling of looking at a pile of stuff that needs sorted and thinking screw it, no one other than my immediate family are going to see it and literally no one other than me cares (or will notice) whether it is there or not so that’s a win.
Someone said at the beginning of Jan, trying to cheer me up: don’t see it as lockdown see it as hibernation and I think that’s what’s happening here. The longer it goes on the less I fight it. I can see it in my kids too. On the one hand that’s good I guess: we’ve had to resign ourselves to it; on the other hand it’s sad. Half- living isn’t what I’d wish for for my kids and I worry where we are going to draw the energy to get ‘back to normal’ whatever that looks on.
Esther, what a totally bloody brilliant piece of writing. I think this is where most of us are at the moment. We’ve been under stress for nearly a year now and even if you loved the first lockdown with the weather and the cocktails and the gardening, it was still very weird, and this lockdown is just a slog. I don’t have any of my twenty-somethings here for this one, so no exhausting lectures on politics, just me and my husband and the blessed dog, and we’re hunkering down more with every passing day. I’m a school Governor and our Safeguarding Lead said in a meeting yesterday that a lot of the kids she sees online have anxiety about coming back to school, they’ve got used to being safe at home on zoom and tho they can see it will be better to be with others it feels like too much of a lift, too many unknowns. I’m hopeful that we will get through this but no-one should apologise for not feeling ambitious at the minute, and goodness to anyone who’s been home schooling, I salute you.