You know how many coffees I drink and how often I really stop for cake.
You watch as I hide paperwork in books so that I don’t have to file them away.
You hear me sing out of tune and dance out of time.
You know that I cry at the news and at reruns of early millennial dramas.
You see me at my best and at my worst.
You share the days when I sing and laugh and play. You share the days when I am silent, removed, sombre.
You have seen me spend too much time trying to smooth that one piece of hair only to smudge yesterday’s mascara under my eyes for today’s smokey look.
The best of it? You don’t mind. If I am happy, you laugh along too. If I am sad, you look at me with those innocent eyes and pull me into the light. When I am dressed in pyjamas at 11 am, hair greasy and face unwashed, you love me just the same as the days when I am dressed and pressed and looking my best.
You know all my secrets, all the shades in which I exist. You know my good, my bad, and my ugly. Yet you don’t seem to mind. You don’t object as you take so much from me, but give so much back: my sharer of days, my attentive listener, my keeper of secrets.
I am looking neither for praise nor sympathy. I have a comfortable life with privilege and support. In the first hours of the day, other people are out there saving lives, inspiring students in schools, or just surviving. This post is simply what the title says it is: it is my life, just how it is, with everything from the immense joy and hilarious “problems” to the silly moments and harsh upheavals. It exists because I find my new life with a child amazing and impossibly hard, because every time I see a parent striding comfortably and happily down the street, I know at some point, be it now or in the past, they’ve dealt with their own set of ups and downs, and because you don’t always hear how it is with complete honesty.
The day starts between six and six thirty with a cry from the baby’s room. Sometimes we let him try and get back to sleep, but after a night of more crying than shut eye, peace trumps sleep. Thus, I often find myself at 6.15 am on the sofa nursing my son who doesn’t really need nursing anymore, staring into space, and secretly hoping that we both fall asleep in this awkward position. It wouldn’t be the first time, afterall. Sleep, as if so often does at the moment, evades us, however, and that leaves only one thing to do: play. Out come the blocks, the plastic keys, and the keyboard. What does he want? My phone, the tv remote and his Dad’s actual keys. Cue half an hour of shuffling, pulling himself up, and grabbing the forbidden items while I munch down some cereal and try to swap out non toys for actual toys with the cunning of a thief replacing the crown jewels with an identically-weighted fake to avoid setting of alarms. It is great fun though, watching him explore, and I sit enjoying it, not worrying too much about the day ahead.
By 7.15, the toys are getting boring; we need a change of pace. What could be more fun than getting dressed? Manipulating a ten-month old in and out of clothes is like trying to get tooth paste back in the tube, although at least the baby can be distracted with a toy car, which is great when you’re dealing with trousers but trickier when it’s time for a jumper. Still, dressed and pressed, it is time to move to the kitchen.
While the porridge cools, and we play an apparently hilarious game of peek-a-boo, I chop a few veggies for some baby food and make myself another cup of coffee. The cookbook of exciting baby meals has been replaced by my internal meal planner entitled Easy Stuff I Know He’ll Eat. I mess about on my phone because, for some inexplicable reason, that seems more important than anything else sometimes. Breakfast eaten, dad waved off to work, and I need to shower and etc. Babies do not like it when you leave them alone and disappear behind a closed door. Also not leaving a baby alone is like rule four after feed baby, change baby, and try not to drop baby. This baby, however, does really like paper. Therefore, I reach into my parenting reserves and pull out the game Let’s Play With the Paper Recycling In Front Of The Open Bathroom Door. It’s unconventional. It involves a lot of irritating mess. It provides a few minutes of peace. (Peace is relative: peace is singing Twinkle Twinkle around the shower curtain and gambling that you have thirty seconds to also condition your hair).
Getting myself dressed and pressed involves some tricks too. Based on his current speed and turning rate, when placed in the middle of the bedroom I have about three minutes to get dressed before he reaches a non-baby proofed space (i.e. our entire flat). I can do my hair in peace if I accept that all the towels will be removed from the cupboard during the very minimal styling process. It’s worth it though; you get sick of looking a mess.
The next hour or two passes off peacefully: another cuppa, some play time, a few errands between a few rounds of no, that’s not for you, here’s your singing alligator. Then, with nap time closing in, things get tense. It’s too early, really, but the alligator just isn’t cutting it any more. Thus, we turn the radio up loud, I scoop up Mr Grouchy, and we whizz around the living room singing and dancing to Taylor Swift. I am not embarrassed. Sometimes you gotta just shake it out. It’s one of my favourite things to do. It earns me smiles and the feeling of excited little legs bouncing against me as if to say keep going, mama.
When the yawning starts, it’s time for calm and a little sing song as we snuggle baby into sleeping bag. I’d love to say the calm remains. I’d love to say that I have a self-soothing champ who just drifts off, but I am in the majority. My baby is not a great sleeper. We lie down and he fights the sleep he so desperately wants. I fight the voices telling me to just leave him. I take a few deep breaths and wait, knowing sleep will come and yet finding it as hard as yesterday to wait it out. As he settles, his head lands on my stomach and the only thing spoiling this peaceful, perfect moment is the nagging whispers that I am too soft. Transferring him to his bed, I recall all the tears of the night before when, after an hour of perseverance, he went to sleep in his space, and forgive myself. The nights are hard enough. I’m cutting myself some slack in the day.
By 9.30 am, we’ve done lots and nothing. We’ve had fun and frustration, got the necessary done, and played too. With the house in quiet, it takes twenty minutes to straigten up, to hide most of the mess so that anyone coming round will be tricked into believing we’ve got this under control. Then it is time for another coffee and half an hour with myself – my tired, busy, not busy, happy, overwhelmed self.
Even though I believe that a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body,
And even though I advocate for taking mental well being as seriously as physical well being,
I feel guilty. I feel a fraud.
I should have snapped out of it. I should have been stronger.
Even though I believe that our emotions can be as fragile as our immune system,
And even though I know a bought of depression or anxiety can hit as unexpectedly as a bought of sickness or flu,
I feel apologetic. I feel responsible.
I should have been more prepared. I should have coped.
Because looking back, I don’t understand why I felt so bad. I don’t understand why it hit so hard. I can’t even remember what it felt like. So like the flu, like a sickness bug, even though you know you felt awful and like it’d never pass, it’s hard to clearly capture how it felt when you’re no longer feeling it.
So even though I feel ashamed and embarrassed, even though I want to promise to do better next time, a modicum of forgiveness is needn’t. Even though I’d rather not repeat it, I have to accept that these things happen, that all the mental vitamins tablets, that all the healthy choices won’t always protect from being poorly sometimes. Even though you wish they would.
I hated this city to start with. Long before the streets became a second home, they were a maze of old buildings and dead ends. Everything seemed so spread out and unreachable, and it all reminded me of one thing; that I was no longer at home. I came here as a child, an awkward eighteen year old, naive and immature, not ready to face the world alone. After months, years, of believing that a new start would offer freedom from childhood anxiety, a move only added to the weight I’d carried around since infancy. The university, which would eventually become safe and familiar, was a mass of corridors, tall, face-less buildings, and echoing lecture halls. The first weekend, a bag of nerves and a shell of the woman I’d become, I booked a train ticket home, desperate to see my family. Only a mother-who-knew-best convinced me to stay it out, driving the two hour trip to take me out for a restorative Sunday lunch.
Thirteen years, several local postcode changes. and an eventual international move later, and the city that scared me now holds part of my heart and always will. Just seeing the sky line, the old, the new, and the ugly, brings a smile to my face. Half the shops have moved or closed forever. There is newness all around, with a plush shopping mall dominating the centre with its high-street stores, a noisy, over-styled food court, and restaurant chains. There are modern additions slotted into spaces you’d never noticed existed. These structures are all angles and metal, gleaming in the sun, some with grace and some awkwardly against the old city backdrop.
On a sunny winter’s day, as sale shoppers scurry about scrabbling for bargains that don’t exist, we (for not long after that almost trip home, I became part of a we) are an oddity, ignoring the bright sale posters and heading north, out of the city and back to campus, back in time.
Old Parkinson is visible from afar on the sloped approach from the centre. To get there, old haunts look as fusty and unappealing as I remember them. Friday night’s watering hole is open but empty, as much in need of a coat of paint as ever. There’s a new library, a new car park, and a whole lot of new coffee outlets. Much is the same though. Buildings whose names I’d long forgotten come rushing back on approach, named after famous academics or local heroes.
It was never a dry night
Walking around the deserted campus, there are memories everywhere. Our social lives played out in the unions and bars where we spent more than we should of on fun and hangovers. From the vast lecture theatres where everyone was a nameless cog in the machine to the converted houses where old-school lectures quizzed you on reading that you may or may not have done, snippets of knowledge creep back, reminding me of the breadth of information gained and long forgotten.
From the campus back to the city, the town hall stands out against the sun. For years it was just a landmark until eventually it to became part of the narrative. Under a similarly cold winter light, we lined up with family and friends four years before, having signed a promise into law, husband and wife, married in the city that brought us together. That huge clock face forever became more than just a useful reference point.
On a day like today, it’s easy to remember all the good days; the fun, the new experiences, the first flats, first jobs, and successes. There were plenty such days and plenty to remember. But, the ghost of that first weekend hovers in each corner. It reminds me of that girl who was intimidated by the busy bars, lost in those lecture theatres that all looked the same, and who was a fish out of water in those seminars where everyone else seemed so much wiser and learned. It’s okay that the ghost is there, though, in all those little corners; she’s a reminder that first impressions aren’t alway right, that people can change, and things tend to have a way of working out for the best.
Scattered toys and a play mat in pieces – the A is under the sofa and the number 6 is no where to be found. Must get it sorted before the next round.
Look at the fun we had. A whole morning of scrabbling around on the floor, eating the blocks, knocking down towers, and laughing. Oh, the laughing.
Clothes folded haphazardly on the chair, outside bedroom doors, and in front of the wardrobe. Must get them away; they don’t belong there.
What nice things we have. What a volume of things we have. The piles are neat and out of the way. Let’s go for a walk to the playground or into the forest. The piles will be waiting patiently when we get back.
Washing up by the sink: coffee cups, wine glasses, and bowls with crumbs idling in the bottom. Better get them washed up. Better get them put away.
What a lovely evening with friends, enjoying a tipple and a bite, catching up on the state of our lives and the state of the world. We should do that more often.
More scattered toys and books pulled from under the coffee table. Blocks litter the floor, ready to bite anyone who ventures this way without slippers.
But look, look at the fun we had. An afternoon of practicing new tricks, trying, desperately trying, to crawl and to walk and to grab and to build. The amount you can learn when you put your mind to it.
It’s chaos. It’s untidy. What if someone comes over? There are no clean cups, and the path to the sofa is a mine field. Must get it cleaned up. I must. I must.
What a day we’ve had, exploring and adventuring around the coffee table and under the sofa, prioritising the things that matter, pushing the to-do list to one side.
Tomorrow won’t be any better. There will be more mess to clean up and more errands to run.
Let’s do it all again tomorrow and let’s enjoy it: nothing new was ever created by leaving the page blank and clean.
Spiralling down, you’d at least expect to find the bottom eventually. As the path winds tighter, you’d expect a place where you can spiral no more. A perfect point to rest your weary bones and work out how on Earth to get on back up.
Except, sometimes in the spiral there is a secret door, a portal, that, if you’re lucky enough to find it, transports you to a place you’d never expect: a place of calm, a place of recovery. The trouble is, it’s easy to feel like you’ll never find the door. It’s easy to believe the door doesn’t exists as you spiral your way down further and further and further. It’s like a lost key; you can never find it when you’re actively looking, rather it turns up out of the blue when you assume it is lost forever.
The door can be a well-timed hug. It can be a moment of clarity that allows you to finally verbalise how you’re feeling, halving the problem in one short share. It can be a good night’s sleep that reveals that everything really does look better in the morning.
The door doesn’t always take you out of the corkscrew completely – if such a place even exists. It doesn’t land you outside in the sunshine in mid-summer. It just resets you a little. Gives you a leg up. Lands you on a wider, less steep arc, so that you can edge your way up, a bit at a time. Damn, you might even slip back down a bit; but you’re starting from a little higher, and that’s always a good thing.
Time is an antique cut-glass vase resting perilously close to the edge of the coffee table. A distant door banging would send it tumbling to its demise. It is in short supply, too. There are forty something minutes, an hour perhaps, to turn away from everything and everyone else. There are thousands of seconds to be selfish and indulgent. To spend doing whatever the heart desires.
It’s so delicate, the peace, so fragile. Every second that the house remains quiet is a second closer to when it will be loud. The tension courses through every vein, every nerve, every cell. Desperation for the quiet to last a little longer fills the space with a deafening drumming that beats just inside the ears and the chest.
The pressure builds and the gift is too precious to use. Fear of breaking it or wasting it take away any chance of enjoying it. There are too many things that could be done, too many chores that should be done, too many treats that would be enjoyed if only the seconds of quiet wouldn’t tick-tock past so loudly, if only the hour or so for yourself wasn’t consumed by thoughts of others and otherness. So the time slips away once more in a whirlwind of indecision. By trying to do everything, nothing gets done. By expecting great things when a warm drink and a good book would be the greatest of treats, nothing gets enjoyed.
By treating the time so reverently it becomes that worthless, priceless vase, collecting dust in the cabinet, looking nice but serving no purpose.