It’s ten-thirty in the morning and she’s standing on the step stool at the sink in the utility room in her mismatched pyjamas: the top is age 7 to 8 and the bottoms are age 9 to 10. I don’t get to choose what she wears these days. She hasn’t shown any interest in eating yet, but she’s only been awake for half an hour so there’s no hurry. She’s humming to herself as she cleans out her painting stuff. She does this unprompted now. The cough she had at school last week has nearly gone and there’s a gentle, wholesome, restful feel to the day.
I ask her where she is on the contentment scale. I don’t know if she’ll know what I mean. I don’t even know why I asked – well, I do know, I’m just wondering why I asked in that way. I guess it seems less intrusive. It’s become an instinct not to pry too much and instead wait for information to be offered.
‘Seven point nine,’ she responds, taking it surprisingly seriously and providing me with a proper thinking face.
‘Oh. What’s bringing that number down?’ I want to know.
Apparently there’s some crusty stuff in her nose that’s bothering her. She can’t pull her chin right down and completely stretch out her face – like that: I get a demonstration. That’s all that’s wrong. She needs to wash her face with warm water, I offer. But it’s not bothering her that much apparently.
I’ve spent all week feeling guilty that we don’t take family holidays when everyone else does, that we don’t organise play dates every week, that we don’t have any kind of plan or itinerary to get up early and traipse around a country pile or a theme park, a museum, a mountain or a cycle track every day, or even every other day, for the whole of half term holiday. There are no long car journeys, no trains, no planes, no boats planned. No foreign shores, foreign foods or foreign sounds to experience. I feel guilty for being me, for being us, for having a business that can’t be left in school holidays, for having anxiety, for not driving, for struggling with the phone, the doorbell, and the pace of life other people seem to keep. My guilt is endless and repetitive; my comparing myself with others comes back time and time again even though I’ve told myself it’s wrong to do this to myself.
And it is wrong. It’s not necessary.
Because right now, right in this moment of peace and quiet humming and trickling water sounds; watching that face in concentration, feeling the planning and the self-organisation going on in that small body, I wonder why all the guilt?
Is she not loved?
Is she not well-rested?
Is she not warm?
Is she not well-fed? (she had breakfast five minutes later)
Is she not calm?
Is she not content? (seven point nine)
Does she not get to make decisions for herself?
Does she not know her own mind?
Does she not have freedom?
Does she not laugh and joke?
Does she not get fresh air and sunshine?
She’s an autonomous girl with some great creative skills that need the quiet and space we provide. Whether we always provide that peace through necessity, circumstance or out of choice, it suits her. She has grown calm and thoughtful and imaginative.
And it’s not like I didn’t try all the other stuff. I spent years thinking the best thing for our first two children was to be busy, busy, busy. It turned out I was wrong and I had to scale down all the constant activities. It turned out they didn’t want or need ballet+gym+football+tennis+swimming+musiclessons+dance+horseriding or even activity-packed family holidays. They were much nicer and calmer and easier to communicate with when they enjoyed a far greater chunk of more unorganised, unscheduled time. And they slept better too. It isn’t fact that a big, deep sleep follows a crazy-full day.
It’s almost as if people have become afraid of being at home these days and I had let myself get sucked into that fear. And yet when I don’t let myself get dragged into the latest habits of the modern world I find being at home is amazingly good. Keeping your kids close and chilling out is super-rewarding and leads to superbly restful sleep.
Mostly I find myself feeling glad I don’t drive, glad I am forced to keep my own rhythm. I’m mostly happy with the pace of life we have settled into. We take our busy days when we feel it’s a good day to be busy. We can’t completely arrange ourselves around the weather, the mood in the air, our health, our guts, our inclinations and our children’s spirits because of the laws around school attendance, but we have found something close in this crazy world of routine, clock and calendar slavery.
If my guilt is associated with comparing myself to others rather than measuring our own happiness then it’s pointless: a wasted effort, and time I could have spent feeling blessed for what we do have.
In two days’ time, the law says it’s time to get your children up in the cold early mornings again and kick them out of the house for six and a half hours. When they come back tired, cold, grumpy and hungry they will no doubt have homework or after school clubs and will be well on their way to the next virus, sulk or temper tantrum but for today life is brought to us by pale green paint and an easy-going vibe.