Nobody told me that being a good friend would mean leaving my kid at home
Back in the time before Corona, I wrote a piece on Medium about the difficulty of combining friendship and parenthood. Of course, now it feels hopelessly dated and quaint, with all the talk of actually meeting other human beings in person and frequenting bars and cafés. You may still enjoy it, as a relic of a more innocent time, and a reminder of the problems we’ll hopefully encounter again one day.
Three years ago this month I fell under a train. It was both extremely dramatic and strangely anti-climatic at the same time. Over on Medium, I’ve written a story about what happened, and the (lack of?) life lessons I learned.
Has the impossible happened and you have found yourself unexpectedly possessed of a chunk of child-free time? Are you standing frozen, mouth agape, utterly bemused about what to do next? Fear not! Presenting for your perusal the ultimate hierarchy of child-free activities!
10. Staring at a blank wall while intermittently scrolling on your phone
Feels relaxing in the moment but only contributes to the deep ennui and despair within your soul.
9. Washing dishes
It’s amazing how relaxing doing chores can be without a toddler squeezing your knees and yelling ‘Up. Up. Up. Mummy!’ until you give in and stop.
Obviously, it’s work, but I hear that some jobs allow uninterrupted hot beverages.
A crossover activity, for when you want to feel productive but you also very much need a reward.
This differs for us all. I’ve actually seen some parents suggest a trip to the dentist qualifies, which I can only view as symptomatic of how deeply they’ve been destroyed by their children. I know that a haircut qualifies for others, (see https://caitlinwrites.com/2019/11/21/the-secret-to-surviving-a-haircut/ for my thoughts on this) or perhaps a manicure. Personally I find getting my nails done anxiety-inducing – from the moment the polish is applied I’m plagued with worry about preserving it/painstakingly removing it/living for weeks with chipped and fraying nails. I’m extremely lazy and so I enjoy wallowing in a bath and ignoring the chaos behind the locked door.
5. Watching TV
Arguably, this should be higher on the list. But I don’t feel that I fully enjoy watching television now; I’m always too conscious of all the other things I should be doing. I end up unsuccessfully multi-tasking, doing life-admin on my phone whilst my overstimulated brain flicks all a-flutter from screen to screen.
4. Creative activity of your choice
It’s amazing how rewarding origami in a darkened room can be when the alternative is wrestling an overtired toddler.
It took a while but I have finally realised that endorphins do in fact exist and that exercise does make me feel good. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an internal struggle each and every time I contemplate it.
More deeply escapist than TV, and so higher up this list. Who doesn’t want to occasionally (always) spend an hour in somebody’s else head, living another type of life?
1. Time with friends
That rush where you remember who you once were, and who you still are when not mum first and foremost, can carry you through a lot of lonely and tedious times. Plus, there’s often alcohol involved.
My name is Caitlin and I’m a procrastinator. I want to say a recovered procrastinator, but in my darkest moments I fear that real recovery will forever be beyond me. The difficulty is, along with the screaming panic of the encroaching deadline, there’s that sweet hit of adrenaline when once again you get the work done just in time. The giddy triumph of the near miss, which makes it easy to forget the torturous process of getting there.
There are epic moments of procrastination I look back on with both a shudder and some measure of smug satisfaction. Sitting in physics class and hiding a half-written English essay beneath my textbook, writing feverishly against the clock to hand it in in the next lesson. So many university nights of starting an essay at 11pm and finally finishing at 6am for a 9am deadline. So many exams I survived under the influence of caffeine and sugar, having eschewed sleep to study through the night in sweaty pjs.
Post-uni work life only exacerbated the problem. In television advertising, every deadline is urgent and every job rushed. There’s no fighting it – get it done early and the client will only ask for more. It gets to be so that work feels impossible without that panic. You reach a place where you actually don’t know how to do anything unless you’re terrified it won’t get done.
There was no one moment when I dramatically hit rock bottom, but rather the horror of the gradual dawning realisation that I, a fully grown woman, was fully capable of avoiding all responsibilities in favour of playing The Sims for eight hours straight. The shame becomes corrosive. Things escalated to the point where I couldn’t ever write because I felt so guilty about all the times I hadn’t written, and writing itself seemed like an acknowledgement of my failure.
I’m trying now to take it one day at a time. I’m notching up days of writing, trying to wean myself off all the small distractions which I use to avoid work. But where’s my incentive to keep going now that I don’t get the delightful rush of pulling it out the bag? (Obviously the satisfaction of the work itself doesn’t count, don’t be ridiculous.)
I’ve genuinely been wondering whether I can make myself some sort of sticker chart. Could such a thing ever be acceptable as an adult? While I’d love a garish board covered in hearts and shiny gold stars, I’m reluctantly envisaging more of a spreadsheet with tick boxes. Perhaps green tick boxes for a bit of added excitement.Unfortunately, this spreadsheet has taken on such epic and grandiose scale in my imagination that I can’t bring myself to start creating it. Is there a support group for procrastinators who want the whole of life to wait until tomorrow, while they hide under the covers and gently sob?
My hatred of going to the hairdresser’s stretches a long way back. I remember increasingly sharp commands to sit still, as a child with an aching neck and feet dangling a metre from the floor. I remember the pain of the comb being tugged through my forest of hair. The shame of the time the hairdresser whispered to my mum that I had dandruff. I first learned my ears stick out slightly from a hairdresser, as that comb scraped unpleasantly against them with each downward stroke. I once fell asleep in a hairdresser’s chair, overcome with ennui at the sheer awfulness of it all.
With adulthood came a new kind of discomfort: the cringingly awkward realisation that my face surrounded by wet, scraped-back hair resembles nothing as much as an underdone baked potato. The hour spent staring in the mirror is a useful opportunity to scrutinise the progress of my chin multiplication but I don’t enjoy all the dirty looks I keep getting from myself. I find myself gazing around the room, desperate for anything else to focus on, and so I find myself staring with fixed dead eyes at some other poor potato-face. Inevitably she catches my eye and communicates silently that my gaze puts her in mind of a hungry and soulless sea creature, seeking human flesh to devour. At which point I look away and pretend the whole thing never happened.
Of course, the real low point of any trip to the hairdresser is the obligation to make small talk. My socially awkward soul revolts at it every time. I would rather go back to school tomorrow and sit the maths higher that I didn’t even do at sixteen than speak to a stranger about my holiday for two minutes. No Gemma, I’m not going away anywhere nice this year. And while we’re at it, I’m not doing anything exciting tonight either.
Any hairdresser I have is always as reluctant to engage as I am. They know.* They clock I’m not the kind of person they need to bother with as soon as I come in, with my hair I’ve dyed at home and my eight months of regrowth. (*Hairdressers multiple, because I’m not the kind of person who has their own particular hairdresser. That prospect horrifies me – imagine having to form an ongoing relationship and worry even more about my hairdresser’s judgement of exactly what the state of my hair says about my life.)
But with my most recent trip came a revelation. I brought up my toddler as soon as I could, basically ramming her into conversation. ‘Oh hi Lorraine, yes wet outside, also I have a small child at home.’ It turns out that’s the answer to everything! It explains away satisfactorily my laziness in not going for so long, even though I also did this pre-child. It provides an answer to all those small-talk questions: no, I don’t have a life. And best of all, it provides all the excuse you need to sit in silence for the entire visit, whilst intermittently turning the pages of a magazine and necking wine. This is I assume the best it can get until it becomes acceptable to read a kindle in there. I did ask my husband if that day had already arrived to be told in no uncertain terms that it had not.
There’s still the horrendous hurdle of the tip to negotiate on exit, but once managed there’s the glorious realisation, even better than the admittedly enjoyable swishiness of the new cut, that another six months of freedom has been bought before the whole ordeal must be endured again. Yes, I’m a weirdo who also hates manicures and massages – how ever did you guess?
You walk down the street and find yourself looking at people, random people, shiny happy people, and sourly wondering how much sleep they had the night before. You are certain that it was more than you. Your resentment is as bitter as it is unwarranted.
You turn to caffeine and sugar, in the hope they will help. They do, in that you actually survive the day. But the tiredness is not so much banished as smoothed over. It’s still there, gritty and burning, beneath the sweet rush of your instant coffee and chocolate hobnob. You still feel exhausted, but now hopped up and nervy too.
You fantasise over how much you could get done in your life if only you were less tired. You would do pilates every day. You would have planned and prepped every meal for the next three weeks. The house would be immaculate. The novel would be finished. You would probably be singlehandedly sorting out Brexit, if you could just get another couple of hours every night.
When you are eventually able to go to bed you will lie there, desperate to sleep, utterly unable to sleep.
It’s hard to remember a time when you weren’t tired. Surely you’ve been this tired since you were a baby yourself. Memories of sleeping for eight hours are probably just sleepy hallucinations.
Everything feels insurmountable and unbearably tragic. Scrolling idly through your phone and reading the news is disastrous. You will cry real tears over the death of a guinea pig in Gloucester.
Naps are alluring, so alluring, but to be treated with caution. They should only be resorted to in cases of extreme exhaustion. If indulged in when only very tired rather than one step away from legally dead, they merely result in extreme grogginess and a descent into greater irritability.
The internet will tell you that your baby needs around 6 hours more sleep a day than you. And yet somehow they seem to be awake constantly. Especially at 2am, when you’re ready to crawl under the cot and die.
These are confessions because in real life there’s nothing you want to talk about less than baby sleep. You don’t want anybody else’s advice. You’d rather not hear about what they did or didn’t do. Deep down, you don’t believe things will ever get better. Part of you genuinely feels that this will still be your life fifty years from now.
You cling to anything you can blame. Teething. Jabs. Summer evenings. Leaps. The phases of the moon. Anything, because the only other option is to blame yourself. (Should have taught them to self-settle. Should never have held them while they napped.) And there’s nothing as damaging to the possibility of sleep as lying awake at 3am wracked with guilt about your failings as a parent. My findings – a glass of wine works nicely to dispel such uncomfortable notions and to put you to sleep, for as long as the tiny dictator allows.
I’m sure there was a point in my life when the prospect of going on holiday didn’t fill me with an all-consuming dread. I definitely recall there was a time when it was enjoyable, exciting even, to speculate over where to go and then look at lots of over-filtered sunny pictures in the process of narrowing it down. I have a friend who told me years ago she found the whole holiday-booking process horrendous. I laughed politely and murmured agreement, not actually getting it at all. I’m sorry, Liz. I understand now. It’s truly terrible.
My husband and I have spent the last few months talking about going on holiday. It’s now August, and we’re not going on holiday. To sum up the issues involved: I wanted somebody else to plan and book the entire thing for me, but I wanted it to be perfect and cheap and I didn’t want to pay this person or have to interact with another human being because I’m also tight and suspicious and I know I’m capable of using Google.
Post-child, there seemed to be so many more factors to consider. For the first time as adults we’re living within visiting distance of friends and family, and now that we have a toddler they’re paying us more attention than they have in years. I believe the solution to fitting a holiday in between social engagements is to plan it in advance, but that’s for people who can manage to get through a calendar year without having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car.
All we could seem to agree on is that we wanted to go to a villa or an apartment somewhere in the world. Anywhere with a separate room for the baby. And we wanted to be able to cook because the thought of hotel buffets made us both very anxious, food being the essential point of any holiday. Genuinely, a bad meal has ruined many an evening out and created much relationship drama, so this is an important consideration.
Aside from that, the whole of Europe was up for grabs. We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know where to find anywhere to go. We didn’t know how to manage all the logistics of going abroad with a baby. We knew there were answers to be found, but the time involved in finding them seemed always to be beyond our grasp. When it comes to research, D and I approach it from a position of competition. We both secretly feel we are better at it, and distrust everything the other person comes up with. Any suggestions must be researched by us both individually. It’s a time-consuming process. We felt like we needed a holiday to plan our holiday.
The entire thing was making me feel exceptionally anxious whenever I thought about it. It was really almost a relief when we realised it was entirely a moot point, as the whole having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car scenario had rendered our available holiday funds basically non-existent. Instead we’re staying in Edinburgh for a week. We’ll go to festival shows every day and the only decisions involved will be gin and tonic or white wine. I can’t wait.