This article first appeared on Red magazine, April 2020

‘I got my first job when I was twelve, sweeping up hair and applying anti-dandruff rinses to old ladies at the snappily-titled Snipping Image salon, near my home in north London. It was a fifteen-minute drive away and my mum, who had brokered the deal for my first spot of gainful employment, would drop me off around the corner at 8.20am every Saturday and collect me again 6.40pm. If she was my agent now I might wonder about the wage she commanded on my behalf – a princely £12.50 per day – but the truth is I would have paid to be there.

From that first shift, eavesdropping whilst guzzling peanut butter sandwiches in the staff room at break, earning fifty-pence tips for delivering cups of instant hot chocolate to clients, I was hooked. As well as the prestige of having a job, the sense of satisfaction and mental independence derived from those precious hours away from home was as gratifying as the financial reward – just as well, given my salary at the time.

Writing was an escape from the drudgery of the domestic world in those early days, a way of exploring places and thoughts that the constraints of motherhood wouldn’t allow

Fast-forward two and a half decades and my working environments have varied in the intervening years from shop-floors to pubs, by way of a summer spent handing out free samples in supermarket car-parks across England dressed as a Ribena berry. But my voracious approach to work has never changed.

Now a full-time novelist, I spent eight years after graduation working my way through the ranks of a national newspaper where I was often first to arrive and last to leave, before starting my first book in my spare time, after having my third baby. At the time I was also running my own business and writing freelance articles to top up my income, and latterly working in-house at a magazine. I recognise that this sounds notionally ludicrous – no mother of three children under the age of five, let alone one who is also working, has ‘spare time’. And if I’m honest with myself it wasn’t spare time – it was time I chose to fill, at the expense of cleaning the house or resting or, dare I say, playing yet another game of peek-a-boo.

Amidst the chaos of endless laundry, dirty nappies, undiagnosed rashes and constant nits, writing fiction became my solace. At first as a hobby and then as a career, it was an escape from the drudgery of the domestic world in those early days, a way of exploring places and thoughts that the constraints of motherhood wouldn’t allow, and – crucially – one aspect of my life over which I had some control.

When lockdown was announced just over a month ago, I was coming to the end of the first draft of my third novel, plotting my fourth, and about to publish books one and two in various formats.

This joint undertaking was already pushing my quite flexible limits when, like parents across the land, my husband – who runs a graphic business – and I were suddenly facing the prospect of home-schooling our children, aged nine, six and four, whilst maintaining our careers, producing the requisite twelve meals per day per child, maintaining a basic level of hygiene and not throttling each other. I wasn’t just worried, I was terrified. One month in, I can report that I was right to be.

That window of time without them when they were at school was not only about personal satisfaction and earning a crust, it enabled me to give myself to my children more fully when we were together

It seems ludicrous that I have to offer any kind of caveat for this statement but here it is: I love my children more than anything, I love the fact that I have three of them but – for all their wondrousness – they are also deafeningly loud and utterly chaotic en masse – and I would be lying if I said I didn’t love them even more in moderation.

Six months before lockdown my youngest started school full-time. Then there was no more precious moment than hearing the front door close as my husband took the kids to school each morning. Those hours while the kids were out and I was writing was the perfect foil so that by the time I picked them up again at 3.30pm, I was desperate to see them again. That window of time without them was not only about personal satisfaction and earning a crust, it enabled me to give myself to my children more fully when we were together.

In the five weeks since our incarceration began, I have spent only a few hours apart from my family. The level of my workload now means that even with my husband and I splitting childcare between us – which puts me in a better position than a lot of parents – but there is still not enough time to do everything I need to do. While there have been frequent moments when I’ve found myself pulling my hair out, and wanting to do the same to my partner, there have been lessons learnt about coping amidst the chaos, which I am keen to take forward once some semblance of normality returns.

When I drill down into my being a workaholic, I realise that a large part of it is about deriving a sense of achievement and creating a sense of control. With the world as we know it in chaos and little more than occasional chunks of work now possible – particularly between five and seven in the morning, before the kids tend to wake up – there is no way I can hope to control anything. Instead, I’m trying to slow down and scale back my short-term ambitions, attaching merit to small things that I now see are the big things. That might be remaining calm in the face of a mega-tantrum, or drinking a cup of tea whilst listening to the birds.

My kids won’t suffer long-term from lagging in their academic studies for a few months, but they will if I lose my mind over something that was never attainable in the first place

In always keeping myself busy, over the years, I’ve deprived myself of the ability to relax, to just be. More than ever, this is a skill I’m having to learn. Slowing down and making space for things that for so long have seemed superfluous has really helped me take stock more widely, to understand what is important and what is possible right now.

The fact is that we are not homeschooling, we are surviving – and having to prioritise for the sake of ourselves and our children. By lowering expectations in terms of how much I hope to get done with my children academically, and how much work I can achieve, I alleviate the pressure on us all, making space to nurture the things that really matter right now like stability and love.

My kids won’t suffer long-term from lagging in their academic studies for a few months, but they will if I lose my mind over something that was never attainable in the first place. Above all, I am trying to remember that this period of time, in all its madness and sadness, is finite. We have no control over what happens to us – no crutch to hide behind, or work to escape to. The only thing we can control is how we respond.’

Part of the Family by Charlotte Philby, published by The Borough Press, is out now in paperback, ebook and audio.

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