(or not care that you can’t do everything)
A few weeks back I received an email from one of my university professors asking if I’d like to submit a poem for a special feature in The Manchester Review about writing in the pandemic. The poem I submitted, which was later published in the feature, was centred around my own experience as both a mother and a student during the UK’s Coronavirus lockdown. I’m sure it is the experience of many a writer, to be simultaneously proud and critical of their own work, but as proud as I was and am of that particular piece of work, it could never quite capture the experience which I was trying to communicate through it. But it got me thinking about what it actually means to be simultaneously a mother, a student, a wife and a writer during a global pandemic.
For my family, our lockdown started a week earlier than everyone else’s because my six-year-old child had a mild fever; no cough, no trouble breathing, and the fever only lasted for three days. I am now almost completely certain that he did not have Coronavirus – it was simply one of those fevers that very young children sometimes have for seemingly no reason at all. Perhaps it was some other virus, albeit a very mild and very poorly timed one. Though, as I’m sure you can understand, I was in a complete state of panic when that fever first appeared.
Anyway, the start of lockdown came just as I was finishing up the final year of my bachelor’s degree. I still had online poetry workshops to attend, a poetry portfolio to put together, numerous online lectures about Anglo-Saxon riddles to attend along with an essay to plan, research and write, and of course a dissertation to complete. Back when my class had been deciding upon dissertation topics, before words like “pandemic” and “social distancing” became a part of our everyday speech, I had decided to undertake a rather ambitious translation of a one thousand year old Anglo-Saxon sermon into modern day English, along with a lengthy commentary on how to blend foreignisation and domestication in translation. And if none of that made any sense then you can just read it as “I had bitten off a pretty big chunk of dissertation pie.” My husband stayed home for the recommended two weeks once our youngest child’s fever had subsided before having to return to work, leaving me with one very full university work schedule, two children at home 24/7, and the brand new post of “teacher” that the government had seemingly just awarded me.
I suddenly found myself in a world where I was expected to be a teacher, a student and a mother, all at the same time, all of the time. I think I was lucky in many ways because my eldest child was fifteen and relatively independent and able to help out in various ways around the house, but he did have the bad habit of choosing the very moment when I was half way through a paragraph about “how to define what a soul is” or “what part a functional hierarchy plays in the translation progress” to try to strike up a conversation with me. I shouldn’t complain; a lot of teenagers don’t ever try to converse with their parents. But, at that time, interruptions were the last thing I needed and I would simply look up from behind my laptop and glare at him until he left the room and closed the door behind him. Of course, mere minutes later, almost perfectly timed to the point where I had just finished re-reading my last few lines to figure out where I was up to before the interruption, my younger child would emerge in need of a drink or the name of my favourite x-man. And so it went on: Slowly. Painfully slowly.
We tried to have a routine; getting dressed each morning despite the fact that we weren’t going anywhere, forcing my children out into the tiny yard after breakfast because I read that the morning sun was the best for you, I would sit on the door step with a cup of tea cluthed in two hands and hoping it would give me the energy for another day. We spent hours of the day at the dining table; dragging out the worksheets that the school had sent out, pushing them to one end of the table not an hour later once the tears started (not always the children’s tears, you understand) making room for lunch, making room for my laptop, making room for craft materials; empty toilet roll tubes, glue stick, sheets of brightly coloured plastic and packets of googly-eyes.
That was where the poem was born: Somewhere in the midst of wishing not only that my house was bigger, but that I was bigger. Or maybe not bigger but just – more. You see, it wasn’t just that dining table that we kept having to try to find room on – it was me too. I had to keep trying to find room in myself to be the person who made sure my children saw the sun for a few moments each day. I had to find room in myself to keep pulling out those worksheets, knowing that it was always going to end in frustration. I had to find room in myself to encourage my children to engage in activities that didn’t involve a television screen. I had to find room in myself for my own studies, knowing that there were mere weeks left to get through that seemingly impossible workload. I had to find room to cook and to clean and to smile and to shower, and that whole time I felt like I was not only inside of my house but I was becoming a part of it: I developed a strange sense of affinity for that dining table: It, like myself, had to be everything all at once; a classroom, a desk, a library, a lecture hall and, sometimes, just a dining table. I felt dirty when it was dirty, I couldn’t focus on one task when there were always so many other tasks still to do, and some days there was simply no more room. Those were the worst days.
My social media newsfeed had become inundated with pictures of happy children having fun with their educational activities and weekly zoom zumba classes. Their parents, my friends, seemed to have rose to the challenge of home schooling like giants. I felt small in comparison.
Now that lockdown is beginning to ease and I have completed my degree things seem a little easier, but that’s not just because there is less to do and less to be, but because I learned to let myself be small. I can’t exactly pinpoint a moment when things changed but at some point in all of that I realised that I was being far too hard on myself and expecting far too much from myself, and that almost everyone I spoke to was feeling the exact same way that I was: Despite all of the Instagram pictures and Facebook statuses to the contrary, no one was actually achieving everything all of the time. And if everyone else was feeling the same way that I was feeling then surely I wasn’t small at all. I was just… normal.
Something else I realised was that somewhere, in all of that panic and stress and feeling like there was far too much to be done, it all actually got done – or, at least, the important things got done. All of my work was submitted on time, my children are still able to read, meals kept appearing on the table and everybody still has all the teeth they started out with. (I’m a huge believer that as long as you brush your teeth then everything else can be fixed later, but that’s another story) I did not join an online fitness class nor lose any weight, I never managed to keep screen time to under three hours a day, the craft box has not been touched in weeks, some days we never change out of our pajamas. And that’s fine.
I think that the world has a way of making us feel like we need to be all things at all times, and that’s just exacerbated by social media and the constant inundation of the pictures and stories of our friends and family members on their best days. It’s ok to let yourself be small. If you’re feeling like there is too much to do and be, then let me give you a new daily “to do” list: Tell someone a joke (even a bad one), read something (anything, even if it’s just the instruction on a food packet) and brush your teeth. Everything else can be done later!
If you would like to read some of the poems that myself and some of my colleagues have written you will find them here.
Take care x