I have used the expression “I’m so sorry to be a let down, I’ll make it up to you” twice in two days. But really, it is probably my most commonly used phrase (other than “I love you”, “turn it down” and “will you just get your shoes on…”) And this is a real problem for me. Because I hate letting people down. But seem to do it on an hourly basis. And, as I promise to make it up to the people I am so grateful to have in my life, there is a little voice in my head snort-laughing, asking “eh…and when exactly are you going to make it up to them – 2042?”
I see so many people on my little hand-held screen, living the life that seems impossible to me. Nights out, nights away, girlie weekends, cocktails, romantic breaks…holidays – God, the holidays and hot dog leg photos that kill me a little inside, as my own pasty skin turns a shade of green – and of perfectly happy children, clean and content, eating meals in fancy restaurants that I want to go to, of teenagers spending happy quality time with their mums having girly lunches, mocktails, manicures and memories. And I just think “how do they do it?”
Because I just can’t seem to. I’m not at all a jealous person. It is not that I yearn for extravagance on a monetary scale. But I would like the extravagance of time. I used to compare myself to other people in terms of their age and their perceived wealth: the size of their house, the car they drove, the clothes they wore – where were they at their stage in life compared to where I was? Why was I not where they were? I felt unworthy of friendship where I was unequal financially. But not any more. That’s a self-poisoning approach. The size of your house and the car you drive has no bearing on my life at all. If we’re friends and you live in a dream house, then I can guarantee that I’m still more delighted for our friendship than for your house, beautiful as it may be, while secretly being grateful that I don’t have 4 bathrooms to clean – seriously, how do you do that?
Because I just can’t seem to. (And I only have one bathroom). I can’t seem to keep on top of anything. But it occurred to me that, from the outside looking in, my life might look different through someone else’s little hand-held screen. The fact that I feel so lacking in most areas in life, especially the things I do with my kids at weekends, during school holidays, the fact that they moan about me “promising to take them swimming, to the trampoline park, to the cinema, paint pictures, tie dye t-shirts, bake cakes…*infinity*” but don’t, means that whenever I do manage to leave the house with them, do something with them, I feel that pressure of ‘checking in’ and hashtagging in a moment of self-indulgent “hurrah, I am winning at motherhood today, look what I achieved.” The same goes for the rarest of nights out with my partner, my family, my friends. So rare these victorious moments of life seem to me that they are celebrated on social media. “Look, I can do it too – do you see me smiling…?” But they are illusions of reality. They don’t show the piles of washing, of folded clothes lying in wait of a cupboard or a floor (or a return to the washing basket still folded in some cases), the unemptied dishwasher and queue of patient plates on the sink waiting for their turn to be clean; pink mould (guarantee you’ll never hold a Dulux colour chart containing the spectrum of pink to discover a small rectangle entitled ‘pink shower mould’ and think “aha, that’s the very colour for the nursery…”). I used to feel like I was doing just about the bare minimum to get by. Now I’m not even managing that.
The victory of ‘life’ for a few hours is always at the sacrifice of something else: work, my mum’s free time to provide childcare for me, ‘quality’ time with the children, a clean toilet; sleep. Cleanliness.
But, what will my kids remember – the pink mould in the shower or the impromptu “fuck it” outings? I’m actually not sure because I don’t have any comparison. I grew up in a house quite often referred to by others as ‘The Waltons’ – something I always hated and didn’t appreciate until later just how lucky I was. But I think I may have actually been some distant relative, acquired from some wayward aunt somewhere that nobody spoke of. Because I am definitely not of Walton descent. I grew up in an immaculate home, where my mum wallpapered, could apply specialist plaster effects to the walls and ceilings, baked, cooked, made ball gowns, bridesmaid dresses, knitted, painted masterpieces, threw dinner parties and never once – not once – produced a meal that was ready prepared or pre-cut in any way, shape or form. Not even her shortbread for the coffee was shop-bought. All while running a business, going to college and being the sole housekeeper, magic kisses provider, confidant and having dinner on the table every night for my dad coming home from work at 5:33pm. There was never anything out of place, never a time when someone could knock in the front door unexpectedly and it not be ok for them to come in.
And now there’s me.
I couldn’t actually tell you the last time my house was worthy of entertainment (other than for the summer ants who enjoy my kitchen annually), the last time I cooked joyfully or enthusiastically and not for speed and necessity (which is a real shame as I actually love to cook), the last time I made anything by hand (which is also a shame as Halloween used to be my favourite time, a time to be creative and expressive), the last time I spent time with someone and didn’t look at my watch regularly because I have 38 other places to be; The last time I cleaned pink mould off the grout in the shower. The last time I didn’t sacrifice something important to me because something else was ‘more important’.
We are sold the dream that it is possible to have your cake and eat it – but, in reality, it is only possible if you stop off at Marks on the way home from work for a lemon drizzle and eat the crumbs off the plate left by your children as you wipe the worktop and shut the dishwasher with your foot. For me anyway. I can’t have it all – the career, the idyllic family life with a healthy dose of ‘me’ time. It is just not possible. Maybe, if you have an even split of domesticity, extended family to help with the children, a large network of friends to share running around to all the clubs, the hobbies, the discos and the parties, then maybe there is more eating of cake and less crumbs.
But when you work all the time, you don’t meet the other parents often, so the network is small. Extended family is different for everyone – if you have it, cherish it. You are the lucky ones. And as for domesticity, well, I suspect I’m not alone here but, the house, the kids and all that goes with it is still primarily the main concern of the female – not in all cases, I know this. I also know that I have created my own cake-eating monster here by creating the allusion of being a crappier version of Nigella Lawson some 15 years ago when I met me partner, who was the very embodiment of a workaholic. But a version of Nigella that was good enough to eat cake with…and now? Well now I am more desperate housewife, scooshing bleach on a toilet and promising myself that I’ll see to that mould in the shower once I’ve cooked dinner and done some work…
And something has to give. The illusion that we create, that I have created. It is not sustainable. We cover the reality so often of just how hard it is to be everything to everyone (I know how dramatic this sounds – I am not everything to anyone really. But I do my best for the 6 people in my life who I share blood with and love fiercely). But we don’t share with everyone how difficult it is. We smile and relish an escape from reality. But sometimes the reality seems to be that everyone else is coping with the things you are not; other people don’t have the life you have; some people tell you “I don’t know how you do it, I couldn’t work full time” when, well you do, and you joke laugh that “ha, you should see my washing pile” while dying a little inside. Some people tell you that their men do all the cooking/ironing/ kids activities, that they spilt everything in the house, and I think (100% genuinely) “that’s lovely” while silently knowing that my partner will put in 70 hours this week and I’ll just be happy if he doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel coming home to me. Sometimes, the reality is that you see friends become ‘old friends’ because you couldn’t ever return their evening of being a host, the afternoon of having everyone round for coffee and cake with all the kids, and you know that you can’t possibly accept another invitation when you haven’t had your turn. Because your partner has worked 70 hours this week and Friday night on the couch looms invitingly, and not handing him a hoover nozzle, while shrieking hysterically about the time, about the pink mould and the fact that I forgot to get tonic, when he walks in the door. All to create the illusion of the woman who can have it all.
And over the last month or so, I have accepted that I can’t have it all. And something did have to give. It’s just that I’ve realised it is not one thing, but a little bit of everything. It is my smile being a little less full around the edges; spending less time – real time, not lip-service – to the people I truly and whole-heartedly love; my friendships being a little less of a presence and more of a promise for the future; my house being a little (a lot) more of a Channel 4 documentary; my secrecy, as my children become regular witnesses of silent, stressed tears blobbing onto work surfaces and steering wheels; my passion for a job I love; my life. I have effectively skimmed out of every piggy bank in my house, left everybody short-changed then realised that I still don’t have enough for what I needed in the first place.
So, as I fed my children their dinner out of tin trays in the back seat of the car tonight as I drove them to basketball having come home from work late (which they loved and I told them it was just like being on an aeroplane), I realised just how extremely grateful for the people in my life who accept, without words, the lack of invitation, the lack of communication for large periods, the mood swings , accompanied by intermittent wailing, amateur dramatics and lightbulb moments of running off with the circus and learning a new skill while travelling the world in a caravan (caravans and travelling seemed glamorous in ‘Riders’…) The people who accept my reality.
And for the realisation that reality is always better than illusion. Illusion is a trick and, once you know how it was done, never seems just quite as special. Surviving reality sometimes is a much cleverer trick.