How are you doing?” chirp messages from friends, and I scream into the text box, “NOT OK. I’M NOT OK.” For a while there I was coasting on my own privilege, sliding over the surface of fury and boredom by reminding myself of all the thousands of ways in which it could be worse – but even the deepest well has a bottom.
There has been an airless quality to the last few weeks. “Family time”, once a precious fantasy just out of reach, is now a sweaty weighted blanket under which four of us must live. Like potholers we shuffle our bodies from room to room, looking for escape routes – a chink of light, a foreign sound, anything that means we do not have to stare into each other’s beloved faces for another year-long minute.
Until this month, I could count the number of times I’d lost my temper on a blunt thumb. Now, all it takes is a morning of “home learning” with a six-year-old for the rage to rise in me, climbing up from my pelvis like a hungry dog I forgot I’d eaten. All the while the poor baby, nine months old now, watches us as if it’s a bad soap opera. “Why is the nice lady shouting again? Why are there so many broken plates?”
We have all become accustomed, over these many lockdowns, to prefacing our grumbles with the acknowledgment that thousands have it worse, partly to preempt the scolding that comes on social media, or in the tight smile from a neighbour. But, look, it turns out that just as there’s more than enough virus to go around, there’s enough complaining for everybody, from the girl who misses her one-night stands to the father who misses his freedom.
It turns out, that instead of shaming or silencing each other when we start to share the minutiae of our particular awful reality in that wet moment, instead of replying, “Mmm, but if you’re finding it difficult, imagine how hard it must be for…” we listened to each other, and groaned along, and cursed the frozen ground or the cold government, and held together, then we could, if not be happy, at least be sad together. One big writhing mess, like a rat king, bound by honesty, tails and rot.
It’s my turn now. To describe the fragrant hell of another day dawning with a vampire baby still determined not to sleep, the morning screams of a child who’s charmingly built a new routine around her tantrums, the vibrating arguments of her parents about how best to navigate them, our rush to throw clothes on to prevent a nipple falling into shot of her class Zoom, and all before 9am.
By 3pm home learning is… what’s the opposite of accomplished? It is strangled. It is humiliated. Literacy, maths, science – it is poured like batter into an icing bag and piped very badly round the edge of my daughter’s consciousness, then spread pink and thinly. Her dad and I divide our days like a bad dieter with a soft apple, rationed into joyless slices: school, baby and then the treat, our own work, which we attempt to complete on our phones or while brushing our teeth. And, of course, food. I dread the question even as I utter it – “What should we have for lunch?” The filthy train of bodies that we must constantly stoke with coal – this relentless fuelling, hot meals for four people three times a day, not including snacks in between to try to stave off tears. Some days we bake to forget.
Where once I yearned for parties, now I only yearn for peace. I’ve found myself working out what parts of my body I’d give for a weekend alone with a Kindle and a pack of biscuits. It varies: sometimes toe, sometimes tit. At home, all the things we could be doing stare at us in disgust. From their shelves my unread books sneer as I fail to drag a full sentence from my daughter’s pen while at the same time typing a regretful email to, ie, HR.
Friends, meaning well, advise we bin off the curriculum and instead do “yoga” or “art”, ideas which were fine in lockdown one, but now land on our doorstep like giftwrapped turds as I realise I’m not the fun mum I thought I’d be. “Babe,” I say, trying, as she builds a rainforest out of Amazon boxes, “for literacy, how about replying to this letter that’s pushed my neurology appointment back to June? Use plenty of adjectives (describing words).” I bathe each night in milky guilt.
Occasionally, for a laugh, my brain will drop a little migraine into the mix, resulting last night in a conversation where, sitting numbly amid the mess, we wondered whether we’re depressed or whether life is just depressing. In this jolly way we slide from day to day, our eyes sometimes meeting across a kitchen, or fingers across a sofa, and gripping each other painfully.
There. Do I feel better for complaining? Tell you what, I don’t feel worse. Now, you go.