When my child was about a year old, I suddenly realised that having worked full time for about seventeen years, and now being lucky enough to take a career break, I hadn’t really used my ‘work’ skills for ages. I was sleepless, plodding one foot in front of the other, hoping that I had met the needs of my baby come the end of the day and living through box sets in the evenings. My partner was generally asleep by nine pm and, whilst I felt tired, I also felt ready to think about something else.
When working full time without children, I heard endlessly about women who had taken time out of their career to parent and disappeared down a professional black hole. Now, here I was, in the perceived abyss of ‘parenthood,’ learning so many new skills everyday with most people thinking I was professionally ebbing away…. Little did they know how well I could function day after day without any sleep; the emotional resilience it took to turn the day around when all had gone to hell; to plan interesting things to do by 10am everyday, build in a nap, bake or procure and pack healthy snacks and get the child bathed and in bed without falling asleep myself.
Everyone is different and takes a different approach to having a family. Be it part-time/full time work/parenting, single parenting, divorce/separation, borrowing money to scrape by that month, paying another extortionate mortgage/rent for childcare, changing career, working night shifts, re-training, doing Phds, travelling all over the country to get work, setting up their own business that involves babies – you name it. Look around you. In our eighth year of austerity in this country, with the odds of breaking even pretty much stacked against them, parents are proudly somehow making it work. Regardless of any parent’s choice, if you are at home full time with a child under four, it helps to have something else on your mind, something else other than parenting all the time and it gives your partner, if you still have one, the chance to experience the pressure of what it is like to be in charge of the baby when you are out doing something else.
So after a year, I set about making a change, adding something else into the mix.
The first thing I did was to form a book group with a couple of friends who were also interested in doing something and complained of not reading as much as they thought they might when their children were born. Of course, before my child arrived, I assumed I’d have the time to be reading all the time, had the books all ready lined up on the shelf. I assumed I’d be able to attend the odd day course, getting out there and doing all the things I wanted to do when previously I couldn’t because I had been at work. How wrong I was… I barely had time to finish a cup of tea before I had to do the next thing. But an evening once a month seemed viable and it would force me to read an actual book, not just the first page.
I contacted some neighbours, some of whom I now saw daily and am embarrassed to say I had not made time to get to know before even after many years in my local area. I combined them with parents who might quite simply want to read a book. We are almost two years on now and, whilst not everyone, including me, gets round to reading the whole book, it is a way of connecting with people who are also juggling lots of things in their lives.
The second thing I did was apply to be a voluntary Trustee of a charity. I knew very little about charities, but having contributed socially in my previous employment, it felt like I could still be contributing to society in some way or other. The voluntary trustee commitment was to meet once every two months and it was an evening meeting. That seemed manageable, even if tired, so I went, shared my skills and met other people (who didn’t talk about children very much.) Now: I can talk about my child all evening if need be, so it changed my mindset to just think about something else. I started focusing objectively about how this charity might tackle some of its challenges with very little money and a growing social and health problem. In addition, I met some other lovely people whom I would never have met if I had stayed in my sitting room watching Netflix or been in the local playground.
Pick an issue, choose a charity – they could really do with some volunteers and I would argue that full time parents have valuable skills to share. I also wrote to the editor to start this column. My advice: get involved. Do something else if you have the resource and energy; it’s a great contrast to parenting.
Never underestimate the power of planting a single seed.