First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 25.1.21
Schools and early childhood centres are so close to re-opening, you can probably smell the freedom from here. This is not because we don’t love our kids, or don’t love having them around. It’s just… ooh, a bit of quiet between breakfast and dinner would be terrific wouldn’t it?
The best description I’ve ever heard of what it’s like to be a parent is that it feels like part of your heart is now living outside your body. So there’s that visceral drive to protect them, wrap them up, keep them safe and close. But also, they’re loud and messy and outrageously bossy, plus expensive and needy, and they climb all over you and nick your sandwich when you’re not looking, and it is so hard to find a moment to complete a thought process you will occasionally resort to locking yourself in the loo for a bit of Me Time.
It all came flooding back to me this summer when, for a week, I had my seven-year-old granddaughter to stay. We had a terrific time and I loved every second of it – even though in some of those seconds I would catch myself gently suggesting to her, “Darling, you don’t have to talk all the time”. I’m pretty sure I might have said this on occasion to her mother when she was little, too. Certainly, I can clearly recall that my mother had reason to say something very much like it to me. “You go on,” she would say (sweetly, but you could tell what she was feeling) “like the clatter end of goose’s rump”. I can’t help you with a literal translation of this phrase, but it was accepted family code for making an incessant noise.
All this “come closer so I can bury my nose in your hair” happening alongside a deep wish that they would please be in another room so I can Get Something Done is perfectly normal. Once you are a parent, you can never experience one emotion at a time. The trick is finding the balance – which is why we invented grandparents and aunts and uncles, and sleepovers at friends’ houses. Sure, some of it is about socialising our kids and encouraging independence, but also it’s just so we don’t go mad.
I read a piece recently that quoted a parenting expert who opined that you don’t need a break from your baby in the first two years – an idea that made me snort-laugh the green tea I was drinking in the short lull between cooking breakfast pancakes and scraping breakfast pancakes off the furniture. I’m not an expert on anything, but I’m pretty sure no-one should do any kind of thing round the clock for two years without regular breaks and the chance to be other versions of themselves, no matter how much they love being that thing. I love being a mother, and a writer, and a performer, and a partner, and I wouldn’t survive if I could only be one of those things 24/7. It was being happy and fulfilled in my work that made it more likely I would come home and be a present and engaged parent. Plus, it paid the bills. And being a parent gave me things to say when I went out in the world, and taught me all kinds of things about patience and empathy and negotiation and care.
Every parent feels that tension between the need to be at home, and the need to provide a home – again, there are only moments when any of us feel we’ve got the balance right. What we need less of is being told we’re doing our parenting wrong, and being judged for the choices we make. What we need more of is actual hands-on help – from our partners, from wider family and friends, and from government and businesses – and more real choices. Better access to affordable childcare, and workplaces that understand most of us will be parents as well as employees. And fewer kids and their families living in poverty, which offers no choice at all.
We had many moments to treasure, my granddaughter and I. Sunshine and beach swims and the zoo. Movies on wet days – one at a theatre where they have couches and blankets, and where we were the only two there. It was, we agreed, like we lived in a huge house with a massive television, and she could wriggle about and give her usual running commentary on the action without disturbing any strangers.
And then she was gone – back to her mother and brother, and the peace was extraordinary, measured in the absence of noise and endless questions and things being knocked over and demands for food that was not fruit or vegetables. And I simultaneously revel in the quiet and cannot wait for her to come back.