LONDON: A text from my mother reads: “How’s the home schooling going?”
I mentally compose an answer: “Oh, it’s like The Waltons meets a TED talk round here.
“After a nutritious breakfast of homemade granola, we’ve logged seamlessly on to the school’s ‘learning portal’ and my five- and seven-year-old have dutifully sharpened their pencils, clamouring to be taught. They are seated at the kitchen table with their 20-month-old brother, who is using War and Peace to practise his phonics.
“I leave my husband overseeing the calm scene as I slip upstairs in cashmere loungewear to my remote office, complete with its mid-century desk and artful arrangement of peonies. The smell of fresh sourdough wafts up the polished parquet stairs.”
That’s the fantasy version.
Instead, I text back: “What home schooling? In meltdown.”
Life for many parents has been a juggling act since UK schools and nurseries shut in late March.
It turns out that combining three kids aged between 20 months and seven years and my job as deputy fashion editor at the FT isn’t quite the Sound of Music 2.0 presently populating my Instagram feed.
Granted, I am in a significantly better position than many parents right now because my employers are understanding and I’m able to work reduced hours from home, with a garden.
But still. Chuck in an uneasy alchemy of anxiety and boredom, then remind me: Why did I feel frazzled before?
As I write, my working day has just begun. It’s 8.30am. I open my computer, which is propped on a pile of books about dinosaurs on a table in a spare bedroom.
My dictaphone, which has yet-to-be-downloaded interviews, is missing from my “office”. My son is using it as a makeshift walkie-talkie.
At 9.45 it’s time for an office Google Hangout. I haven’t managed to brush my hair or shower, and have the startled look of a police line-up mugshot, so decide to leave the camera off (the lockdown equivalent of wearing sunglasses with a hangover). I tell my husband washing is a non-essential activity.
At least I have a delicious homemade coffee that hasn’t cost me £3.20. I slurp some while decoding whether the screams from downstairs are childish indignation or injury.
Distracted, I leave the microphone on, and two people in this chat message me to say that my coffee-slurping is audible.
It’s a relief knowing that I’m not alone in my mishaps. One of my friends managed to send her son’s maths schoolwork to a client in place of an important document, and another answered a Zoom call on the loo.
A PR director friend has taken drastic action to separate work and family life by using a beaten-up camper van as an office. It is parked on his front kerb.
Although the constant, unholy racket can make it hard to concentrate, I do like being able to see my toddler out of the window with his dad, beetling up and down the garden like a wind-up teddy bear.
If I’d been in the office I would have missed all his new words: “Zoom”, “sourdough”, “pandemic”.
Caroline Britton, a UK-based life and career coach, has been extra busy with virtual consultations during lockdown, and says that while many of her clients find combining children and work “a frustrating rollercoaster”, a number are seeing this as an opportunity to re-evaluate how they work and whether they are happy.
“I know one lawyer who has realised he never gets to see his children,” she says.
PANGS OF INADEQUACY
Numerous minor domestic dramas later, it’s 2pm and my husband’s turn to work. But it’s OK, because despite the manic pinging of Slack and WhatsApp messages, I am going to be “fun mum”.
“Hey kids, who wants to read about the ancient Egyptians? Hieroglyphics are a bit like emojis . . . ”
There’s a lot of talk about how social media affects the mental health of young people, but that doesn’t mean ancient Gen X parents like me are immune to pangs of inadequacy, especially when our real horizons have shrunk and our digital ones expanded.
Social media is rife with glossy-haired influencers tapping away at a laptop while balancing fashionably dressed children on their knee. The worst offenders might even caption their improbably tidy domestic scenes “chaos”.
Solidarity is easier to find on the school WhatsApp groups or parenting sites such as Mumsnet, but they too can perpetuate a rather filtered take on day-to-day reality.
One mum from my kids’ school shared photos of the rainbows her children had made from twigs. She later admitted this was the only 15 minutes of calm in the whole day.
The conspiracy of stylishness is understandable. Who wants to advertise that their feral kids are running the show, and that they long for the heady days of eating a Pret sandwich in peace?
And this particularly applies to mothers.
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DESIRE FOR PERFECTION
Even in a pandemic, it can be hard to block out the desire for perfection.
Britton suggests taking charge of how we experience this new reality. Lockdown, she says, is not “another opportunity to judge and criticise ourselves”.
She told herself at the start “that I wasn’t available for judgment from myself. You can change your perception of the situation and your reaction to it. If you believe your best is enough, you can choose what filter you see this through.”
In moments of frustration, she recommends asking yourself: “What do I need to do to react positively? Punch a pillow? Go for a run? Breathing work?” And doing it.
Or aim low and bring the cocktail hour forward. No judgments here.