I’m tired of always having to juggle, and dropping at least some of the balls

Written on
Contribution by
Naomi Launders

7th March 2020
I climbed onto the train, folded my scooter away, swung it up onto the luggage rack and slumped into "my" seat. Taking my helmet off and placing it on the table, I paused. How many surfaces have I touched? The train had a faint smell of hand sanitiser. I take mine out and squirt a blue puddle into my hands. The bottle reads “best before 2014” – the year my youngest was born. The train continued its stop-start journey into London, and the sense of unease is growing. The couple next to me sanitise their hands in silence. I decide to do mine again. A ripple effect of sorts. Does sanitiser stop working after its 2014 best before date?

12th March 2020
I've decided I'm working from home. I sip my coffee and relax into our study chair, laptop poised. I check the BBC, and then my phone. As I plan the next stages of my PhD, the days are mapped out in front of me, a balancing act of study, jogging, childcare and school runs.

Still March 2020
We're all at home. Four of us. "I guess I'll teach the kids while you work?", I say. "Lucky I can be really flexible." There’s no hint of sarcasm in the word "lucky", though I feel anything but. My mind flashes back to those long days with two tiny children. The freedom of waking up with a sunny day ahead and no set plans, the crushing lack of direction, every day the same. I hadn't planned on going back to that.

March 2020 continues
I haven't gone back to that, anything but. When my alarm goes off at 6.15am my husband, ever the night owl, groans. I dress in the dark, and creep downstairs, all stealth undone by the mechanical whir of the coffee machine. I inhale the coffee, and listen to the quiet. My small piece of alone time. In the study, I painstakingly print off half a tree’s worth of worksheets and activities, plan outdoor learning, and read the national curriculum while also drafting a paper. I can totally do this for a month or two. Work-home school- work-sleep. It’ll be fine.

April 2020
To my surprise the kids love home school and are flourishing. But I’m tired. I’m tired of squeezing in my work to unsociable hours, I’m tired of not finishing things to quite the standards I’d like. Most of all, I’m tired of always having to juggle, and dropping at least some of the balls. Tired of COVID, always at the back of my mind.

May 2020
May comes and goes in a blur. There is home school, and half-term, which is like home school but without the structure. It is warm and we walk. Walk and walk and walk. But even the nicest of outings is still punctuated by hand sanitising or a sign saying "please don't visit our village, we're scared". COVID is always there at the back of my mind. And I am still tired.

And then, sometimes, I had a few hours to work. Suddenly the cacophony of home school is replaced with the silence of my mind. Everything stops. I stare at the screen and try not to drown in the weight of what I have not done for the last three months and what I likely won't be able to do for the next three. I try to press ahead in those small snatches of time, try not to be distracted by the BBC or Twitter reporting on just how bad it all is.

I try to remember “PhD student-me”. For years I had happily sacrificed the work-me and replaced her with mum-me. But with the kids getting big, I had recently made a very conscious decision to find work-me again. I read a book on my commute, bought myself an overpriced coffee flask and lunch box, and sometimes went to cafes without needing to drag two kids to the loo or mop up spilled fruit-shoots. It was good.

Summer 2020
Childcare in the summer holidays is a mixed blessing and for most of the summer, instead of relaxing in the sun and getting much needed vitamin D, I am in the study clawing back time lost during the first lockdown.

In between working we manage a holiday. Plans of far-flung places are replaced with wet, but character building, camping. We all needed the break, though COVID is still at the back of my mind. The holiday becomes tightly scheduled as we book all our activities and meals in advance, though I wonder how COVID-safe they are likely to be. In a lorry park on the edge of the M6 we argue about who last had the hand sanitizer. After a particularly cold and wet night in the tent, we spend the best part of an hour debating on whether we can go get a cooked breakfast in a café before deciding to “risk it”. The queue outside the toilet block is reminiscent of the 11pm line waiting to get into a club. One in one out, as strangers chat about where they're from, and someone at the back gets rowdy, demanding to skip the queue.

3rd September 2020
Back to proper school and my youngest declares it’s more exciting than being given a million sweets. They both go in happily and I sit and stare at my computer screen. 3pm seems both an eternity and a matter of seconds away. I pick the children up from school and COVID is on my mind. I try not to treat the kids like biohazards.

11 September 2020
5am: Someone is coughing.

5.06am: "Can I come in your bed?" The government advice of keeping a distance and ask them to wear a mask if they can tolerate it, seems comical in the half-light.

5.10am: He wraps an arm around me, pulls back and grins. I can feel his warm breath, smell it, hear the slight rasping. He coughs in my face and kisses my nose. If he has it, I have it. I think about the plans I had for the day; analysis now replaced with admin. We'll have to cancel swimming lessons and drama classes, ring the school, book a test. Have we seen anyone vulnerable recently? Who else should I tell? I close my eyes and listen to him wheezing.

8.00am: We've watched 5 episodes of Teen Titans Go. There are no COVID tests to be found anywhere. I guess it’s nearly time for home school.

15 September 2020
He’s COVID-negative and feeling fine, so back to school he goes. But the disruption has thrown my week out. I am daunted by how easily plans are disrupted.

3 October 2020
Someone I know has COVID, and despite no contact it makes me nervous. We have family over at the weekend. What if I infect them? My chest feels tight with the weight of responsibility…or perhaps COVID. That afternoon I begin to cough. I spend a while debating whether it is “tickly”. It’s almost imperceptible to the outside world, possibly more akin to “clearing your throat”. As I cook dinner, I notice it seems to have disappeared.

4th October 2020
After a good night’s sleep, I’ve decided the cough is psychosomatic or stress-related. I go for a jog. If I can run for an hour without coughing, and have no other symptoms, I reason I’m pretty unlikely to have COVID. As I pass another runner (at a distance) I wonder if they are also testing their lungs? Do other people do this? Is it as bad as testing your eye-sight?

6 October 2020
Just as we’re getting back on our feet, one slip up brings it all crashing down; quite literally. As I begin to think about picking the kids up from school, my husband is collecting tools and ladders from the shed. The next thing I know he’s up on the roof. And then…he’s not. I call the ambulance, bring him water, do the school run, check he’s OK, reassure the kids, sit with him, get the kids snacks, sit with him, ring the ambulance again, sit with him.

He is sent to minor injuries, query sprained ankle. Minor injuries send him to A&E, query broken heel. I get him a wheelchair, say goodbye at the door of A&E and roll him into the hands of another.

Then back to sorting the kids.

Once they’re in bed, I slump on the sofa. The cough has come back. I turn on the tv but watch my phone instead. Dinner is a lump of cheese and a tangerine; I can’t concentrate long enough to cook. I cry when I think about the walks we wont be able to go on, and then fret about who would feed the children if I got COVID.

November 2020
We settle into life with my husband on crutches. Now he can’t do the school run, or help in the morning. My husband can’t drive so I am now taxi for all 3 of them. No time to jog, no time to talk to friends, not enough time spent on the PhD. I feel suffocated, unable to leave the children with anyone now, not even my husband, and weighed down by yet more responsibility.

Christmas feels a lifetime away, but is a glimmer of hope. In the dark moments I count down the days until I can go to my parents and have a glass of wine while someone else cooks the dinner. I don’t count on it though. I order the “backup bird” for Christmas day. Just in case. The “backup bird” brings some much-needed light relief, but also reminds me it is the only bit of Christmas I have planned.

December 2020
As I listen to Boris give his announcement, selfishly I am devastated. I tell myself it’s just another day, and it is. Its another day that I have to make the breakfast, lunch and dinner, manage everyone’s emotions and expectations, battle the kids into clothes, battle them out of clothes and then battle them into beds. It really is just another day, and that’s the problem. I’m lucky, I tell myself. And I know it’s true. But in March I had the days mapped out in front of me, I had a plan, I had a juggling act I could manage. Now I feel like I always have a ball too many. Just as I master three balls, someone throws me a fourth. Sometimes, and without warning, that ball is on fire or made of lead. I make plans, but they are out of date and useless by the following day. I long for the predictability of the late running 7.11am to London Victoria; the human contact of the crush for the tube; my to-do list; and family planner packed full of 8th birthday parties, school trips and after-school clubs.

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