It’s stupid past midnight and I’m trying to get a spoon of Calpol in to my toddler’s firmly closed mouth. His fever’s 39 and rising. I approach with firm confidence but he bucks like a bronco and my face, hair, him and the sheets get splattered with copious amounts of sticky pink stuff. A 5ml dose goes deceptively far. Down the hall, I hear my six year old son’s bedroom door open and his bare feet pad along the carpet, I hear the rapid breathing that indicates a night terror, the snap of the safety gate opening as he descends the stairs for his second walkabout.
Both of my children need me at the same time more times than you can holler ‘Muu-um’ in every 24 hour period. Childcare on your own is gruelling whether you’re a single parent or your partner works away but you have to crack on regardless. My nearly-husband’s away every week, and whilst I’m blessed to have him return at weekends to share the load – and not all of us have that luxury – being lone ranger can feel like a bad reality version of Challenge Anneka.
Acquaintances know me as the perpetually tired mum who presents as scatty and distracted. My proper friends and family know I’m super organised, always two days ahead and that I can’t go for a run, the pub or even ASDA on my own without block planning in advance or it’s a given that I’ll have two kids in tow. The hamster on wheel aspect of lone childcare is the dilemma. You can’t get off. Being thrifty with time helps me survive:
If granny has the kids whilst I dash to the supermarket, I take a lap top to write an article in Sainsbury’s car park and pluck my eyebrows in the driver’s mirror.
Brushing teeth on the loo saves me hours
Reading really scary bedtime stories means I always have to wind up a few chapters early.
In a stroke of brilliance, I told my son, aged 3, that a vagina was a vagina because I correctly anticipated that I wouldn’t have time to tell him it’s not called a foo-foo much later.
6am-7am daily is mummy’s time for writing. It’s a special sibling period where they have free rein to duff each other up with any saucepan or book they choose – but they’re not to bother mummy unless they smell smoke.
Any ‘me’ time I get is spent picking dried breast milk off Duplo, editing proper writers’ work or composing poems about a post-feminist with a mohair beret. I intend to paint my toenails, and oil my neglected winter legs. But if I start off shattered on a Monday, by Friday I’m considering a flask of gin to get through the school run and my toenails remain the dodgy crimson I did them in May for a funeral.
The beauty of such a lifestyle is that kids become independent and fiercely helpful because there’s no time for mollycoddling. My six year old makes us butties, cuts his nails, shampoos his own hair, gets his brother’s shoes and socks on before we go out and programmes the telly: a domesticated prince. He always gets the short straw for bringing the Tampax when I’m caught short with the toddler licking the toilet seat. Drop your standards or die. If my kids sleep in sheets without snot, eat two broccoli trees and we’ve laughed really hard together, I’m doing V signs at Jo Frost.
There’s a gendered complaints culture about who does most in parenting and I understand it because women, by default of our vaginas, are biologically designed to win. Women are in rivalry: ‘Mine only takes the bin out once a week! But mine boozes at The Stratford Haven then wakes the house when the Scuttlebug legs him up! Well, mine has the audacity to gorm at tits in Game of Thrones with Pringle dust on his goatee!’
Suck it up girls: My wheelie bin stays where it is unless I take it for a walk. When I leave the house, inside stays untouched until I come back to fish the crunchy nut cornflakes out the bath and even the walls look blank when I talk politics to them. For me, Daddy’s eye contact through the back door glass on Fridays is a telepathic orgasm.
Women who look after children for any period of time without someone else to take up the slack have an innate understanding of each other’s dilemma. We’re hardened to it. We embrace routine, we know that we can’t crack the wine open at 8pm in case we – the designated and only driver – has to race off to A&E or the pharmacist in the night. We keep golf umbrellas under the bed in case we have to stove the shit out of uninvited intruders. We can peel an orange one handed whilst showing the nursing toddler how to tie shoelaces on our spare nipple. We can’t ever turn off (unless some hero feeds us good red wine and rocks the baby) Sometimes it’s overwhelming, as close to losing your grip as a woman gets. I take my mohair beret off to you all. We’re doing a magnificent job.
Rachael Smart is a writer. She also wings it as a mother of two gorgeous boys and is frequently found writing about the mystical world of child-rearing where grown-ups frequently lose their shit (but manage to hide the brown stains remarkably well.)