From Stay-at-Home to Stuck-at-Home: a young mum’s lockdown story

Taping over the speaker of yet another Fisher Price instrument of torture, I’m momentarily envious of those in childless lockdown with all that free time – to create and knit and feed their sourdough starters. I’m also wondering, scanning the images I’ve uploaded of today’s cobbled together lessons: have I made a successful leap from stay-at-home mum to trapped-at-home teacher? Will my writing survive the endless demands of being a lockdown mum? And have I too learned anything in lockdown? 

As a stay-at-home mum (with a side of aspiring novelist) my schedule has not changed all that much since the lockdown began. My day-to-day was punctuated by the school run, playgroups, the park, and the gaps between when one, or occasionally both, of my children were someone else’s problem for a little while. Then I’d maybe get a bit of breathing time to myself, or I’d manage to get some writing done.

Now those gaps are no more, and neither is the writing life that once existed in a few snatched library hours, or an evening or weekend class that allowed my novelist-self to thrive and connect. I’ve returned to a pre-school-mum age, where I’m a constant source of all things; attention, food, cleaning, clothing, entertaining, justice and learning – only now I’m expected to have more advanced teacher moves, to be the source of all knowledge for things I barely understand. To top it all, I, and every other parent living in lockdown, have had to find ways of meeting old and new needs without showing our children the cracks where the struggle and mundane horror of the pandemic-seized world can wiggle through.

“…like every other parent living in lockdown, have had to find ways of meeting old and new needs without showing our children the cracks where the struggle and mundane horror of the pandemic-seized world can wiggle through.”

But, enough of my first-world moaning, I know my stunted creative-self and my teacher-mum roles are not a real problem in the face of the behemoth that our NHS heroically holds back, and that the virus has taken much more from others than it’s taken from me. But there’s no denying, it has touched us all, and will do for a long time to come. My children, thankfully, are too young, at one and four, to comprehend Covid19 and its winding, grasping influence. For them, it translates to my eldest, Robin, periodically asking why can’t we go out? and me telling her it’s so we don’t get sick. And when can I go back to school Mum? And me answering, soon, sweetie (at this point teaching an entirely new understanding of the word ‘soon’). Thankfully, my one-year-old, Darcy, is just happy that Daddy is home all the time.

Like many of us, I’m starting to realise that this may remain, to some extent, life beyond the end of this school year, and that, at least for now – I am school. Although, let’s be honest, that’s a somewhat grand term for the hour a day Robin and I sit and scratch our heads together over phonics worksheets or other exercises sent by her beloved nursery teacher. We sound out letters and count out beans. And we’ve made some progress too, and even found some joy in this academic shakeup.

And the best bit? Robin read her first words. I cried, of course, marveling at her brilliance. It’s strange to say it, but, without this lockdown, I would have missed out on that moment, seeing her knit one letter into the next. I’m grateful I got to witness something important that would have been smothered under the hectic days of ‘normal’, something to reflect on and smile back at.

“I’m grateful I got to witness something important that would have been smothered under the hectic days of ‘normal’, something to reflect on and smile back at.”

I’ve come to the conclusion, as all quarantined parents-cum-home-schoolers no doubt have, that from now on all teachers should be paid a million pounds a year. But even as I try to comprehend how difficult doing this same job with not one but thirty children simultaneously no doubt is, I also realise how rewarding it must be, too. Seeing a lesson you’ve devised click into place in a room full of young minds – what a wholesome kind of magic! And knowing you’ll be forever part of their faint childhood memories of the time they finally got it. 

I hope I get to be part of the memories of this time for Robin, and not the news cycles and the cardboard piling up under the weight of canceled collections, or the swings tied up in her favourite park. Instead, I hope she remembers the bug hunts and the peekaboos, the good times exploring in the woods we’ve lived by for five years, but never entered before our government issue walks.

It’s not all idyllic, of course, and I wonder if Robin will remember dislocating my toe. One apology-laden 111 call later, and I found myself at a hospital in a scene not dissimilar to the TV show Chernobyl. A green tent occupied by a doctor and nurse, head to toe in blue PPE, laughing and distracting me while they reached over and squeezed the offending toe back into its socket. A moment of awkward apology for taking up their time quickly dissolved into extreme gratitude with the realisation they are both shouldering intense new challenges while still dealing with the everyday mishaps of human biology. The reality that people are still having heart attacks and babies and concussions, and they are dealing with it all from within the mountain of Covid. Our frontline protection in a new world where one thing has changed, but everything is different.

“A moment of awkward apology for taking up their time quickly dissolved into extreme gratitude with the realisation they are both shouldering intense new challenges while still dealing with the everyday mishaps of human biology.”

And everything is different. As if we have slipped sideways in our slippered feet into a parallel universe. Our world’s shrunk to the size of our homes and the device screens that we stare through, desperate to emulate the social connections integral to our species that once came so easily to most of us. We exist in a vacuum of time, off to the side of real life, and it feels almost like somewhere, out there, I’m going through the motions of my pre-lockdown life. That in some other plane of existence, I am standing, chatting at a bus stop on my way to Barnsley’s Lightbox Library to squeeze out a few hundred hasty words of a novel that might never be finished. That afterwards I will walk down a car-clogged street to get my beetroot-laden Subway sandwich, then rush to retrieve my children from their teachers. And they’ll tell me about all the fun they had with their friends that day.

But for now, I’m this person, living this timeless, time-drenched existence and wondering if Mother Nature will ever let us out of our time-out and back into the simple luxury of freedom. So this is where my thinking is, entering our 7th week of lockdown, but what have I learned? I’m not fully sure yet. But, for starters, I am capable of being more than I thought. That, even though I cannot for the life of me remove ‘uh’ from my phonemes, at least I know what phonemes are! I’ve learnt that my partner is amazing, and that I can be trapped with him for weeks and be happy and thankful that he is there and that, even through the haze of fear, we have laughed until our faces hurt. I have learnt that we are resilient, and adaptable, and the longer this goes on, the more I sense that when it’s over, I will miss the pause it has offered, even as I’m relieved to be back to my old life. And I’ve learnt that I am grateful for the distraction of my children, the little joys are sometimes the largest, and their bubble of Covid-less serenity.

“I have learnt that we are resilient, and adaptable, and the longer this goes on, the more I sense that when it’s over, I will miss the pause it has offered, even as I’m relieved to be back to my old life.”

So although yes, I may have some fleeting moments of envy for those who have no children trapped inside with them, I know that really the gratitude I feel outweighs it all. My life running alongside theirs means my life is running, that I’m functioning, eating lunch at twelve and tea at six. Even getting dressed some days in clothes that aren’t pyjamas! Without my children, I suspect that I would have been in bed since mid-March, waking mid-afternoon for my daily walk to the fridge and back. They are my lilo of real life, keeping me afloat in this sea of time and fear and, although I may not have yet figured out how to dig my creative self out from under the endless tidying, felt tips and games of hide and seek, I feel myself finding a new rhythm in the joy of them splashing in their paddling pool like it’s any other sunny day.

And as for writing… well, there’s this isn’t there? 🙂

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Ellen Uttley is a 28-year-old stay-at-home mum and aspiring novelist from Barnsley. She’s currently working across a number of different genres, with novels-in-progress spanning far-future fantasy, to the mythology of Ancient Greece. She loves to explore genre and form, and takes any opportunity she can to learn more about writing. Her work has appeared in the Hive anthology Surfing the Twilight available to buy here.