‘I take out my calendar and cancel all non-essential events’
Jennifer O'Connell on the diary-busting juggle of parenting, work and everything else
At the best of times, my diary represents a triumph of optimism over experience. This particular morning is not the best of times.
Today my diary more closely resembles a physics experiment. Or a live event on telly, hosted by illusionist Derren Brown. How many large, immovable objects can one woman attempt to fit into the ever-diminishing space that is a single day? Text in with your best guess! Will she lose it? Is this plane going down?
There are two significant deadlines. There are two meetings I scheduled weeks ago when this very same diary masqueraded as a vast, beautiful expanse of nothingness. There is a charity fashion event I am delighted to have been asked to host, but which requires me turning up to a venue outside my house, ideally wearing something fashionable – or, at the very minimum, free of Petit Filous stains – armed with a list of questions to stimulate an interesting discussion. The theme, ironically, is juggling. This, at least, I can do.
There is a child to be picked up at a venue 17km away and delivered to another destination 20km away. There is a workshop I’m delivering tomorrow that, in a faraway parallel universe, would require quiet preparation in a silent room. There is the crossfit class that I have not managed to attend in three weeks. There is a favour I promised to do for a friend a month ago and I can no longer postpone, if I ever want to look this friend in the eye again. There is the small matter of the fact that I am moving house in 48 hours and I have so far packed a grand total of two boxes.
The 11-year-old walks into my bedroom and looks around pointedly.
“In books,” she says, “when people move house, they start thinking about it at the beginning of the book. They move at the end of the book. The entire book is about the house move. We don’t even seem to remember we’re moving house until the week before.” The 11-year-old is not including herself in this because she packed everything except her school uniform weeks ago.
“That’s because we’re so good at it,” I lie. “We have so much practice.”
“If you need help with anything, let me know,” she says, with the air of a chief executive giving an underperforming employee just enough rope to hang themselves.
And now, there is a catastrophe. The three-year-old has a temperature. “I’m hot,” she says, brandishing the thermometer happily. “I’m melty.”
My husband is standing behind her. The look passes between us. It’s the look that says, will we dose her with Calpol and plead ignorance when the Montessori calls later? We gaze at where she is lying, freshly collapsed on the couch, pale and listless and adorably helpless. We don’t, of course. We wouldn’t. (Please don’t write to me to give out: we have never actually done that. But we’ve never not at least considered doing that.)
I say, stoically, that she can stay with me. I have deadlines, meetings and events, but I also have Netflix and jellies. It is a charity event, people will be charitable. It’s fine, I say. I’ll be like a real life case study in what happens when juggling goes wrong. The husband, who stayed home the last two times this happened, is already backing his car down the drive.
The three-year-old perks up miraculously the second the house empties. We’ve got this, I tell her. “Let’s play shop,” she says. “Can I have a biscuit?”
When we’ve finished playing shop, I sit at my laptop and pull out my calendar to start figuring out what I can cancel, postpone or otherwise gracefully withdraw my services from. I draw a line through the crossfit class. That’s it. For everything else, there’s winging it.
Help comes in unexpected ways. One of the women on the panel at the charity event, a beautiful successful woman – we’re talking a cross between Sheryl Sandberg and Grace Kelly – calls to discuss plans. She tells me that she regularly used to bring her child to meetings.
“Wear your clothes like a suit of armour,” she says. “When I’m most stressed, that’s when I dress to kill. And make time for yourself. When you’re on a plane and it’s going down, you’ve got to put your own mask on before you can help anyone else.”
“Not that I think your plane is going down,” she adds before she rings off. I hear Derren’s voice.
My phone pings with a message from another friend, offering to take the small girl for a few hours so I can attend to the deadlines. My husband emails flight confirmation for a holiday he has booked for next year. The event organiser texts encouraging words and tells me to breathe. “You’re amazing,” she says.
I’m not amazing. But, amazingly, I do make my deadlines and get to the event in time, with a small girl in tow, but no Petit Filous on my dress. I breathe. I have fun. And when I get home I take out my calendar and start cancelling all non-essential events for the next three months. That’s the crossfit gone so. firstname.lastname@example.org