I asked on Instagram recently if the people who watch my stories have any blog subject requests. A sole suggestion was made… ‘juggling everything [exploding head emoji]’. I could almost feel the overwhelm through the screen. I know this woman has three children and I suspect ‘everything’ in this context is about being a mum, a wife and her own person. So here it goes… Spoiler: I don’t have the definitive answer. But I think it begins with challenging some assumptions.
Every year the ‘Calendar Stall’ appears during the run up to Christmas in our local shopping centre. Year on year, the number of ‘Mum calendars’ appearing on the racks seems to increase and for me, this feature of kitchens everywhere sums up the overwhelm pretty well. Titled ‘Supermum’, ‘Do-it-all-mum’ and ‘Mum’s Busy Day’, the pages are illustrated with cartoons of frazzled women and have text in ‘fun’ fonts. The calendars have a column for everyone in the household, sometimes even pets! In the calendar world, mums exist to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time with the things we need and ultimately… they are responsible for no one ever forgetting anything. Ever. ‘Cheery’ wall calendars are sold as the project management tool of choice for unpaid work done by a workforce of women increasingly feeling overwhelmed by the mental load. Perpetuating the idea that this is our job. Whether you are a man, woman, put-upon child or anthropomorphic pet, IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO DO EVERYTHING WHEN YOU LIVE IN A HOUSE WITH OTHER PEOPLE. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.
I am watching the world around me confront a new reality brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every life lost to this virus is a tragedy and the scale of loss is devastating to the entire global community. I realise the worldwide severity of this illness and I, in no way, would or could ever rationalise or minimise that devastation. Today, on the 22nd of May, the number of lives lost is 333,000 with over 5.1 million people found to be infected. One-third of a million families grieving a loss due to COVID-19.
I am watching this unfold in Scotland as a parent of one of the one billion people in the world with a disability (and as a big sister to another). I have seen my life change dramatically as a result of steps our Governments have taken to limit the loss of lives and prevent overwhelming our NHS. For one billion people who were already coping with the challenges disability created in their everyday lives and their families, things have become even harder. Until this point, I have been fortunate enough not to have anyone in my immediate family become ill or lose their life to coronavirus. That is the one thing I focus on when people ask how my family is. Commenting anything other than “well” can feel indulgent. Despite the fact we are without nursery, therapies and clinics, not to mention the circle of supportive family and friends we usually have around us, it does not occur to me to complain. It’s no one’s ‘fault’ and we work around it.
I have observed how the people around me, and the wider public have behaved through the emergence of the virus and the lockdown. I have seen my own thoughts and behaviours metamorphise as we move through the weeks. I have been shocked, saddened, angry, moved, thrilled, delighted, bored, frightened, grateful and exhausted. Like many carers, feeling all of these things in a week is not that unusual.
Seeing your child ill in hospital is one of the most difficult things you will encounter. Whether a premature baby or a teenager approaching adulthood, seeing your child dependent on the expertise of a hospital team to save their lives is the most vulnerable you may ever feel. Your priority is their recovery and wellbeing. Your waking thoughts are focused on charts, stats and test results. You measure time in doctors’ rounds and nurses’ handovers. You may be going home to sleep, creeping into parent accommodation or camping out on a folding hospital bed. You get through it, because you have to, and your child needs the constant in their life to be well, constant.
If you are lucky, like I am, then you will have people around you in life who want to help. People who want to support you and make sure you are fit and well for your child. They will check in on your child’s progress, but they will also be concerned for you. Unless they are medical specialists, there is often little they can do to actually help the child.
If someone you care about is currently spending time with their child in hospital, you may not know how best to help, even if you really want to. You might be worried about causing offence, appearing nosey or interfering. Imagining yourself in the situation might provide clarity. There are things that have undoubtedly helped me. I am fortunate enough to be able to share a list of kind things my friends and family have thought of. I want to share them – as a resource for those facing spending time with their children in hospital, for their loved ones and as a reminder to me, should any of my friends ever need the same in return.
It was Sunday afternoon and I was stressed out. I was overwhelmed, and Leo was crying. He was looking at me like I had utterly betrayed him. I cuddled him and told him I was sorry, I was just trying to help him, but I had got it wrong. How had this dramatic scene come about? I had taken him to a baby swimming class.
Leo had not been swimming this year until we went to the hotel pool last month. He had been ill, and we had been busy at weekends. He hadn’t enjoyed the hotel pool – it was cold and noisy. I knew swimming was very good for him – the water would support him, and he would enjoy greater physical freedom than he is used to. I was determined that we would get back into swimming with him.
A visit to our local leisure pool went better and I was looking forward to the swimming class. It takes place in a hydrotherapy pool which is great for his muscle tone and there would be no older kids jumping around and shrieking. I had a vision of a lovely mother and son bonding moment in a cosy pool while Leo grew confident in the water.
The reality was 30 minutes of fast-paced activities, feeling like I didn’t have enough hands and a very upset Leo. I felt quite stressed trying to keep up and I felt very guilty that Leo was having such a rotten time. At the end of the class, the stress subsided, and I felt very upset. First of all, I felt very bad that I had put Leo through such a miserable time. Then I felt disappointed that I had failed to find the right class for him. Finally, I felt demoralised. I had acted with the best of intentions and I had upset my son.
I am what you might call a ‘summer person’. I love light nights and going out without a coat. I used to feel dragged into autumn kicking and screaming. Wishing for one more day dashing about in flip-flops. But not this year. While autumn always felt like the end, this year it feels like a new start. Like a new term, but for family life. While I used to crave excitement, now I like order, routine and knowing my plan from one week to the next.
Our transition from spring to summer was sheer relief. Leo spent eight weeks of spring in hospital and he was discharged in May. He had been gravely ill – more so than I would allow myself to reconcile with at the time – and were just so grateful that he was well enough to go home. I looked up and noticed that the trees were full and green, the sun was higher in the sky and the grass was regularly overgrown.
I was feeling a bit frazzled this morning. I don’t know how getting two humans out the house feels like such an ordeal, but most parents would agree it’s a challenge. Leo was up too early, and he had to entertain himself just a little bit too long when I did unreasonable things like having a shower, drying my hair, tidying up, putting the washing on, getting all his stuff together for nursery and packing the car. His little toy giraffe was shouted at and the poor wee wooden animals were decanted from their ark. I do a lot of singing in the morning to keep the entertainment going while I try and sort things out. Leo’s little applause at the end of each song keeps me going.
Despite being up for more than two hours, I left without time for breakfast. That wee emoji with the steam coming out, that was me. As usual, once we are in the car, we both calm down. We chat about our day, sing songs and practice animal noises and arrive at the nursery. We are always greeted with a cheery welcome and Leo brightens further when he realises a fun morning awaits.