The maths of school holidays and being a parent don’t add up
I am counting the days until the school holidays end – and I have space to think
The first time I encountered the school summer holidays as a parent I experienced that very real sense of something having gone quite, quite wrong. Like when you stumble upon an eclipse and the birds stop singing or you take a hot swig of cold tea. If there was a manager to complain to I would have called her within a second. Less! The maths of the thing simply did not add up. Six weeks without school, set against, first the paltry reality of everybody’s annual leave from work, the equivalent ratio of water to Ribena, and second, the temperaments of both adults and children, carefully balanced to withstand only (I find) fairly specific conditions.
These conditions include, but are not limited to: the presence of other people of the same age-group, sleep, time alone, culture, three meals a day, two snacks, dessert, intimacy, etc. Any deviation from the list, any absence of an element however tiny sets off a chain of storm-like chaos. This summer, daily adventure has quickly become essential, too – so far the children have gone on a “tube adventure” (get on the tube, get off again), a “pizza adventure” (order a pizza), a “boat adventure” (failed due to queue) – but the power of the word is unfortunately waning.
You find me today a week away from the end of the holidays, nipple-deep in devastation, and unable, or unwilling, to try and fix it. Look around and you will see a parent in a similar position. To you, she is smiling glassily in a playground, inside she is a climber stuck on a mountain, considering chewing off her own foot. The dad in Tesco explaining to his daughter why she can’t open that yoghurt right now, he’s crawling through a desert in bloody rags, promised a far-off lake. Everywhere, loving parents are developing sharp little twitches in their left eyes. Small earthquakes have been recorded across the UK as parents working from home bounce their legs against the bottoms of desks with increasing force and frequency, bonk bonk bonk. Suburban homes are shrinking – walls close in at an imperceptible pace.
Personally, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the bathroom. We recently put down a new floor in there – my partner (head of childcare) taught himself how to do mosaics, spending weeks cutting his hands to a kind of fleshy lace. And then one day, through the blood and tiles, I came home to find he’d laid three delicate pictures down beside the bathtub, and I was too pleased even to conjure a metaphor for parenthood. We knocked down a wall in the bathroom, too, revealing a new kind of light, generous and buttery, which streams now into the hallway and creates warm new patches for the cat. Not when the door’s shut, though, which it is now frequently, as I perch on the side of the bath, or on the toilet seat, or lean against the mirror, and meditatively scroll through my phone until someone shouts for me for a third time. It was here, as my children raged through the house, that I first discovered the newly public Instagram of one Carrie Johnson.
Having recently given birth to her third child with husband Boris, she appears to be using social media to position herself as a tradwife mumfluencer, complete with fashion recommendations and radiant pictures of floral, rural “fun”. One photo had me particularly transfixed – she’s sitting in bed in an elaborate white lace nightgown gazing down at her newborn baby. It was partly the white linen serenity that held my attention (absent of husband, as all the photos are – either he has transitioned to behind-the-camera Instagram boyfriend or his absence from the narrative is intentional, who could say) and partly the comments, where, when she asks for boxset recommendations, someone suggests The Handmaid’s Tale. The aesthetic was immediately recognisable.
Traditional femininity often appears in my various feeds and, just as incel culture presented itself as a cure for modern men’s problems, content like this suggests that being a housewife and having lots of blonde babies might cure modern women of theirs. The aesthetics of modern motherhood were evident, too, an image of the good life, that glamorous, graceful, commercial balance of selflessness with self-care. It appears she is having the good kind of summer holiday. There are photos of idyllic country walks beside a hand-wringing video of a son scribbling on a wall, the frazzled-ness of motherhood essential to document in service of both feminism and clicks. I scroll on in loving disgust.
As I write this, having excused myself from the house to find a café with wifi (my son somehow flooded the new bathroom this morning, another story), it occurs to me that, upon writing about the unfathomable depths of the summer holidays, I am doing similar work to Johnson. Am I mumfluencing, though with fewer affiliate marketing links? By writing eye-rollingly about my children am I mumfluencing, cynical, petty and constantly shocked that my actions and choices have resulted in… living outcomes? Is it possible to document parenting today without it reading as mumfluencing, a business decision and one held in contempt, sometimes for presenting motherhood as an aestheticised lifestyle choice, and other times for revealing it, through those links and sponsorships, as, awfully, a job?
I am counting the days until school begins. Partly because the house will be empty again, allowing me to think, and partly so that I will no longer have to think about this. Until Christmas, anyway.
Email Eva at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman