You know you’ve hit a low point when you start crying over pastry.
Last week I attempted to mimic my own mum’s easy domesticity by following her apple pie recipe with my son. It didn’t go to plan. Rather than the calm, domestic scene I had envisaged, I ended up sucking back tears and profanities as my attempts to roll out pastry were hindered by the presence of a giant pregnancy bump. The more the pastry broke and crumbled, the angrier I became and, tipped over the edge by yet another pointless ‘Whyyyyyyy?’ from my toddler, I snapped and burst into tears.
This is what being overdue and hormonal does to you.
Enough was enough, said my husband. I needed a rest. By that evening he had cajoled various relatives into helping with childcare and I was forced to relinquish control.
2 days later I had an entire child free day. I had no idea what to do!
‘Eat chocolate and watch films!’
‘Sit on the sofa and do nothing.’
…came the suggestions via Facebook and WhatsApp.
What my friends and family failed to remember is that I am completely incapable of relaxing. Always have been.
My son left with his Grandad at 9am, and by 11am I had:
- Washed up
- Cleaned the kitchen
- Made a vat of chilli
- Done some washing
- Put away the ironing
- Taken out the rubbish (including a rather embarrassing and time consuming stop to scrabble round and clear up the mess as one of the bags broke all over the floor outside our block)
- Begun to defrost the freezer – a completely unnecessary and unplanned activity
Tired and achy, I imagined my disapproving husband’s face if he could see me buzzing around and forced myself to slob for a few hours in front of the telly.
I couldn’t do it. No matter how much chocolate I ate or how many episodes of The Good Wife I lined up, I could feel my brain making a mental to do list, silently analysing and categorising all the jobs I could be getting done in the house free of a meddling toddler. There was only one thing for it: if I was going to relax, I’d have to go out.
As I packed my bag, I paused briefly to check the progress of the freezer. Slow going. Doubtless it hadn’t been defrosted since years before we’d moved in and some shelves resembled sections of the Antarctic more than they did a household appliance. If I left it like this I’d either come home to a swimming pool on my kitchen floor, or it would still be a giant block of ice and I’d have achieved nothing. I couldn’t have that!
I’d just give it a helping hand. Scrape a few bits off with…erm…a knife! That would work. Almost like an ice sculpture.
10 minutes later and I’m manically Googling ‘hissing freezer’ with every window in the house wide open, having pierced a tiny hole in the side which I was convinced was spewing toxic gasses certain to kill me and the baby within seconds. Why was I such a moron? Why couldn’t I just watch Loose Women like a normal person?!
Thanks to the internet, I quickly discovered 4 things:
- I was not going to die
- I’m a moron
- Lots of other people are equally moronic
- I have broken my freezer
And so I realised that I am not simply incapable of relaxing, I am dangerous. It wasn’t my pregnancy or my hormones that ruined the apple pie, it was me! I am no Domestic Goddess; I am a Domestic Devil!
The sooner I accept this fact, the better. But I won’t, because I am as good at being stubborn as I am bad at relaxing.
I’m tired now. I should go put my feet up. But our washing machine has been playing up. Maybe I could have a quick look before I put dinner on…
Ask anyone to list the most important things in life and you can bet any money that ‘family’ will come way up there, if not on the top spot.
Yet, particularly in our younger years, many of us make the decision to prioritise other things – career, social life, travel, friends, love – which not only detract from our focus on family, but actually physically take us away from them. For many people it starts with university; a young adult keen to strike out on their own, discover who they are and prove their independence – a task which is much more easily done if you are well away from the supervision of your parents. For others it may be different influences, or just a sudden desire to explore the world away from their home towns.
For some of us, our home towns are a reason in themselves (I have many happy childhood memories but, let’s face it, Bradford was hardly the most exciting place in the world for a woman in her 20s!).
The opportunity to move is one of the great aspects of modern life. Easily accessible transport means we can move further away than ever, often with little planning, whether it be to another county or another country. Ever improving technology means we can keep in touch with people easily and cheaply, with Skype and FaceTime meaning you can see as well as hear your loved ones at the touch of a button, making separation so much easier to bear.
But however close the modern world might make you feel your family are, in reality they’re still miles and miles away.
As we get older and start families of our own, our younger decisions are thrown wildly into question. Having children of our own makes us reflect on the family we already had before our kids came along.
I moved to London 9 years ago on nothing more than a whim. After working for 6 months in France (another expedition entered into on a whim), I returned to my mum’s house with a recently earned degree, a backpack full of filthy clothes and no life plan whatsoever. After one day in a terrible temp job I knew I couldn’t stay put. I panicked, called everyone I knew and within a few hours had lined up a crappy job and an even crappier hostel in London for just three days later. My plan was to stay for one year: enjoy the sights, appreciate the museums and visit as many pubs and clubs as I could manage. One year later I was having far too much fun to leave. Another year on I had a new boyfriend, two enormously fun flat mates and no good reason to go. 6 years after that I realised that I had somehow gotten married, had a baby and bought a house in a city I had sworn I would never settle in. A whole life dictated by a bored whim on miserable Thursday afternoon in Yorkshire.
I have never regretted my decision. I have grown to love London in a way that I could never have imagined, and in just as many ways I can’t imagine ever leaving.
However, there is a nagging doubt in the back of my mind, fuelled entirely by motherhood.
It is regularly one of my greatest sources of sadness to look at the pictures of my beloved Nana and think my son will never get to meet her and know how much fun she was; how great her stories and how strange it seemed that such a clever woman could appear to have no common sense at all! I miss her, and wish she could have met my little boy.
Then it occurs to me that while I no longer have my Nana, he does have his. A woman with whom he bakes apple pie, learns silly songs and who taught him a long lasting lesson that sometimes the most fun thing you can do is just sit in the wash basket. He also has a Grandpa who he loves to read stories with, a Granny he adores and who has seemingly endless patience when it comes to his bedtime antics, and a Grandad whose bad jokes will perhaps, at some point in the future, provide some silly entertainment.
I like to think that we’re doing something great by bringing our son up in London, giving him all the culture and excitement my husband and I missed out on. It’s amazing to live in a city where there’s always something happening, where you have access to hundreds of museums and theatres whenever the mood takes you, and where you can meet people from all over the world just walking down the street.
Still, the more we get used to family life the more I notice what we’re missing. The truth is, when asked ‘what do you want to do?’ my son never answers ‘Let’s go to the portrait gallery, mum’ or ‘I really fancy a wander round Covent Garden and people watching over a coffee’. His answer is inevitably ‘let’s go park!’, occasionally joined by an out-of-the-blue request to see a relative who lives several hours away. His preferences are much simpler and more instinctive than my own.
So we have some big questions to ask ourselves. Should we stay in London and let our son only see his grandparents every couple of months? Or move out, to somewhere near them or where they may be able to afford to move and see him grow up as Grandparents should? How much are we living in London for our family, and how much just for ourselves? I’m not quite ready to give up on my big city dream, but at what point do we have to stop being selfish and put family back on the top of our list?
Over the last couple of years, I have noticed more and more signs that I am approaching middle age. Not so much the fact that I am married, have a child and own a house (How did that happen?). No, I can exist alongside all those things and cling onto the belief that I am still the same person who used to stay up to 5am on a Saturday night, wine in hand, dancing to Motown on my sofa.
No, it’s the little things that remind me I’m getting older: the fact that I now mainly listen to radio 4; the occasions I opt for flats over heels for work; the fact that I now prioritise speed and practicality by cycling to work in 20 minutes where before I would happily have put up with a 45 minutes busy commute just to be sure I had good hair for the rest of the day.
The onset of middle age is a slow, sneaky process. Yet there is one issue for which my middle aged-ness abandons its cloak of secrecy and runs screaming down the corridor of my life, proudly announcing its existence.
I knew it was time to end my maternity leave when I saw my husband’s face when I first told him about my bin campaign. The first time we’d brought my mother-in-law to see our new home we’d been apprehensive (as an ex-local council in a fairly on-the-edge-of-ok area we knew it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d see Kirsty and Phil gushing over) but excited – it was our first proper home and we loved it. I’d expected her to question our decision to live on the first floor with no lift when we had a new baby, and the graffiti on a nearby wall was badly timed to say the least. But I had never expected her actual first comment: “there are a lot of bins”.
Fast forward 18 months and I not only agree with her, it’s become a personal vendetta. There are a lot of bins – big, ugly metal monsters which sit outside our block overflowing with black bags. It’s not pretty, but it’s practical for an area housing lots of people, and reasonably well hidden round the back and out of sight. No, it’s not necessarily the system of bins that bothers me, it’s the people who don’t use it. The people who are too lazy to take their rubbish to the big ugly bin area. The people whose lives are so full they don’t have time to walk the extra 30 seconds to the other end of the block to dispose of their household waste and instead feel it is appropriate to just dump it on the floor in front of the main door, providing a veritable feast of old tea bags and half eaten chicken bones to local cats and foxes, and an almost irresistible, bacteria-ridden temptation for a nosy toddler.
(Even as I type a small surge of self-loathing is coursing through my veins. ‘Stop typing’ shouts my inner, younger self. ‘Stop ranting at strangers about your bins. Stop it and get a life!’)
One day, while on maternity leave, it all got too much. I got in touch with the council and the housing association and complained. 2 days later a letter was sent to everyone in our block reminding them of proper procedure. My husband looked at me and groaned. Still things didn’t change.
I complained again, suggesting perhaps they should provide more big ugly bins in more easily accessible locations. This time there wasn’t a generic response. It was a personal phone call from someone asking to meet me to discuss the bin situation. Where did they want to meet me? By the bins of course!
“You need to go back to work” sighed my husband, “You’ve got too much time on your hands”.
He was right. I couldn’t spend the last weeks of my maternity leave literally hanging around by the bins moaning. I made up an excuse, cancelled the meeting and hoped it would all somehow sort itself out.
Still, aside from a few grumbles on the way in and out of the house when the rubbish situation was particularly offensive to the eye, I had managed to put it all in perspective. Until yesterday, when an incident so foul occurred that it brought my middle-aged angst crashing back upon me with more force than could have been achieved had I spent a year listening to Vanessa Feltz’s radio show whilst watching Location, Location and Grand Designs on a continuous loop, throwing olives at the screen every time some smug rich git appeared looking upset about the lack of skylights.
On the way out of the house I noticed two dirty nappies (in nappy bags at least) had been dropped on the stairwell. Keen to remain positive, I assumed perhaps they had been accidentally dropped and not noticed. I went to pick them up, but balancing a wriggling toddler on my hip and a heavy bag on my shoulder decided bending down in the middle of a concrete stairwell was not a good idea. ‘I’ll sort it when I get back’ I thought, ‘though someone else will probably have done it by then’.
Returning a few hours later I noticed that they had indeed gone; perhaps our rubbish issues were finally abating. Then, as I put the boy down, I noticed something unusual by the door: two small carrier bags. It was the nappies. It took me a moment, but the realisation slowly dawned. Someone in the block had picked up the nappies and carried them, not to the bins, but back upstairs and placed them clearly and deliberately on our doorstep. Why would they do that…? Unless… OH NO, THEY THINK IT’S ME!
18 months of grumbling, complaining and carefully ensuring that all our rubbish is put in the right place and not only have I failed to sort out the problem – people actually think I am the problem! Someone equally frustrated by the wayward rubbish bags has noticed that they contain nappies, noticed that we have a small child, put two and two together and come to the conclusion that WE are the rubbish fiends! I am mortified!
What to do? Obviously they had to be gotten rid of immediately, but I still had the toddler whose current favourite activity is trying to cause himself mortal injury by playing with anything and everything dangerous the second my back is turned. It would have to wait until his bedtime. But what if that looked like I was trying to sneak out under cover of darkness? Covering up my crimes? And what if I ran into someone? I’d be wondering if it was them and want to explain myself, but if it wasn’t them I’d just persuade a completely nonplussed neighbour I was totally insane! What could I do?
That’s it…a note. A public note declaring my innocence. I could put it on our door: ‘Whoever dumped dirty nappies on our doorstep, please be aware that they were not ours’. But that wouldn’t really address the bigger problem, and it would mean people peering at our door to read it. Maybe on the main door to the block? Then I could address the person who dumped them at my door and also publicly declare my disdain for whoever is actually leaving rubbish lying around. Would have to be worded carefully, and I’d have to sign it with our address so they’d know who it was…
Then I imagined my husband’s face again. I thought about him coming home from his lads’ weekend to find his wife had gone mad and started pinning notes about bins to the communal door. I imagined him coming home happy having indulged his young, hedonistic side and despairing that I had simultaneously slipped into the most hideous, grumpy stereotype of middle age. I couldn’t do it.
Now, don’t think I’m giving in. I will not be stigmatised as some kind of neighbour from hell, throwing soiled nappies around just for the fun of it. And I’m not putting up with walking past mounds of mouldy tea bags every time I come home either. I’m just going to take my time. Think things through a bit more. Tactics, that’s what I need, tactics…
I may have lost this battle, but the war is not over. And this is a war – in every possible way – a rubbish war.
If cleanliness really is next to Godliness, my family are stuck permanently in purgatory.
While we are a long way from the horrors of student days – when my husband tells me a girl was once sent screaming from his flat after noticing a distinct rustling in the pile of takeaway boxes which had become a permanent fixture next to their kitchen bin – I’m hardly a domestic goddess. If you were to turn up at my house uninvited, or even invited, you’re far more likely to be greeted by a mound of un-ironed shirts and half-read newspapers than a freshly brewed pot of tea and a slice of homemade cake.
I am not a domesticated person. I eat cake, I don’t bake it. I buy clothes, I don’t iron them. I can cope with cooking up and – more importantly – eating a family meal, but don’t expect me to wash up as well. That’s just ridiculous.
I hate housework; I hate it.
Housework is a necessary but mind-numbingly boring evil. A task approached with begrudging acceptance and minimal satisfaction on completion.
Sadly, housework when you have a baby moves from an occasional inconvenience to an eternal occupation: cleaning and sterilising bottles; washing dirty clothes; picking up half-eaten food from the floor; scrubbing baby sick off the sofa; picking up half-eaten food off the floor; washing more dirty clothes; drenching every surface with anti-bacterial spray when someone who visited turns out to have a stomach bug; picking more half-eaten food off the floor; putting away toys; hanging out washing; ironing; picking up yet more half-eaten food off the floor then sweeping and mopping it before collapsing, exhausted and miserable in front of ‘Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, ‘The Great British Bake Off’, ‘Great British Sewing Bee’ or some other prime time reality show designed to highlight how crap you are as a homemaker compared to these inane, grinning buffoons, who periodically fawn over a particularly well-constructed cross-stitch or sobb over a rogue macaroon which isn’t quite the same shape and size as the rest. Oh for God’s sake, grow up and get a real life!
I hate housework and homemaking; I hate it!
King Sisyphus angered the gods through his trickery and deceit, and so was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it fall straight back down and have to start again. In the first few years of our courtship, I lied continuously and pretended to be interested in my husband’s crappy football team. Perhaps that deceit is why I seem to have been sentenced to a lifetime of mopping the kitchen floor, only to slip on a sludgy piece of brown banana ten minutes after I finish and start all over again.
I really hate housework; I HATE IT!
Throughout my pregnancy, there was a constant stream of doomsayers, desperate to tell me how shit my life would be once I became a mum. Gems such as “Ooh, enjoy sleep while you can. You won’t get much once the baby arrives!” or young single people gloating “We won’t see you down the pub again soon” or women who already have a brood of children taking pleasure in telling me, in detail, all the ways in which my body would fall apart and begin to resemble that of an ogre after the ‘joys of childbirth’. But no one told me that I’d be perpetually chained to the kitchen sink and essentially have to superglue marigolds to my hands just to get through the day.
My biggest concern when going off on maternity leave was that I’d be bored away from work. “Oh you won’t have time to be bored” chimed the doomsayers. Well, they were half right. I don’t have time, but forgive me if I don’t find dusting that stimulating.
I hate housework; I REALLY HATE IT!
Like most people, as a child I went through numerous phases of wanting to be all sorts of things: a lawyer, an actress, an astronomer, a singer, a fashion journalist – once in middle school I even did an art project about wanting to be a dentist! I didn’t really know what I wanted to be, but I always wanted to work and, to quote the great feminist thinker Beyonce, I wanted to be an ‘independent woman’.
I have always worked, ever since I got a part time job at the age of 15. For most of the time my husband and I have been together, I have been the greater earner (not by much, but still!). The idea of being at home and being reliant on someone else, of having to go cap in hand to ask for cash to go shopping whilst on maternity leave was galling. It’s something I’ve never gotten used to. Many people would say I’m doing a valuable job by staying at home to raise our son, and I’m sure that’s true. But when raising him on some days consists of going to some cutesy named playgroup to sing nursery rhymes, then round to a friend’s for lunch and a coffee, I do feel a bit guilty. So I feel it’s only fair that I take on the lion’s share of the housework. The problem being, just in case you’ve missed it, I HATE HOUSEWORK. I HATE IT!
So, in two weeks, I’m heading back to work. Full time. I thought this was the norm but chatting at the local children’s centre tells me this often isn’t so. Everyone else is sorting out flexible working arrangements, cutting down their hours or giving up altogether. It’ll definitely be hard to leave the little one, but, oh to engage my brain again! To talk about something other than nappies and weaning. But most of all, to escape the housework: the wiping, the mopping, the sweeping. What’s that you say? It’ll still be there to do when I get home? No it won’t. I’m getting a cleaner! Yes, sod the expense – I’ll dye my hair at home and we’ll eat more beans on toast. Sod the middle class guilt – I’ll get over it when I see how shiny the sink is. Sod what other people think – it’s money well spent if I can pick the baby up from the childminder and head down to the park rather than picking up the duster and heading to the living room furniture.
So take that Sisyphus. If only you’d thought to hire help and sneak off back to work, perhaps eternity wouldn’t have seemed so torturous.