Growing pains

His world is growing, oh so fast.  Smoothly and gently, with no cracks or creaks, like a balloon being blown up.

The only cracks are within me.  Deep inside, I feel them – I swear I can almost hear a creaking and a cracking in my breastbone as my heart swells along with his world.

From a distance, I watch him climb on a bus to what will be his new school in the town several miles away.  I listen and nod and agree as he and a friend hatch a plan for him to ride his bike to the friend’s house, several streets away from home.  No parental involvement required.

I step back and step away, because this is right.  I will not stifle this growing independence.  Instead, I sit with the pain in my heart and know it for what it is: growing pains.  His expanding world brings growth for us both.  But oh, some days it hurts.


Comfort zone? What comfort zone?

  • The day begins with internet connectivity problems.  This is not the IT department’s problem.  There is no IT department – there is just me.

I end up having conversations I barely understand with people in different call centres who contradict one another.  Then it starts working again of its own accord, at least temporarily.

  • A client hasn’t paid on time.  This is not the Finance department’s problem.  There is no Finance department – there is just me.

I spend ages trying to word a polite but firm email which encourages action without sounding begging or threatening.

  • I’m not feeling motivated or something about a task is annoying me.  This is not something I can moan about over lunch or coffee with colleagues.  There are no colleagues – there is just me and whatever random leftovers I can cobble together into something resembling a meal.

I end up venting to the husband and the boy over dinner later on.  They are (well, one of them is) politely sympathetic.  The other continues to tell us in great detail about a computer game that neither of us has ever played, or wanted to play.

  • Someone points out a spelling mistake on the company website.  (Which has been there for years.  Oh the shame.)  This is not the Marketing department’s problem…

You get the idea.  I’m not complaining, mind.  I wouldn’t change my situation for the world.  (And I do happen to have a pseudo-IT-department in the shape of the husband, to whom I’m very grateful!)

My point is that sometimes I start to feel as if working from home in this way is a bit too comfortable, a bit too easy.  I do something I enjoy and feel is worthwhile, and I get to do it at home and be at the school gates for the boy every morning and every afternoon.  I start to feel that I should get out of my comfort zone and do things which challenge me a bit more.  Then I realise that I do – most days.  Because there’s only me, all of the jobs are mine, whether I’m naturally good at them or not.  This comfort zone can get pretty uncomfortable at times.

Of course, what I’m best of all at is knowing when I absolutely can’t – or won’t – do something.  Then I’m brilliant at either finding a reason why it doesn’t really need to be done, or finding someone else who’s better at it than me – and paying them.  Enter my accountant – who doesn’t chase late payments (I can do that, even if I don’t enjoy it), but who does sort out my accounts and tax returns (which would drive me round the bend).

Then there are the times when I’m asked, “do you do such-and-such?”, where ‘such-and-such’ is something which I’m sure I could do if I put my mind to, but have never actually done before… and I hear my own voice say, “yes, I can do that.”  Then there’s no-one except myself to blame for the huge learning curve I suddenly have to embark on.  That’s pretty uncomfortable, and very good for me.

This glamorous life/keeping it real

Suffolk is apparently one of the driest counties in the UK.  Ha, not this week.  In our village, walking the half mile from home to school these days involves super-human feats of leaping across (or wading through) ankle-deep mud-puddles that cover the whole pavement.  Then there are the high-speed dashes to safety to avoid the car-induced tidal waves that threaten to engulf you.

It’s a glamorous life.  Waterproof coats and even waterproof trousers are essential.  Wellies too, of couse, otherwise you may have to choose between wet and muddy feet or an undignified piggy-back over the lakes that are spreading everywhere.

But it’s real.  Heavy grey skies and cold, driving rain may not be everyone’s (or, indeed, anyone’s) weather of choice, but it’s part of the seasonal cycle and I’m privileged to be able to get outside in the fresh open air to experience (if not always enjoy) nature doing its thing.

I spent most of yesterday – when I wasn’t paddling through the village in my wellies dodging the waves and sliding in the mud – on dry, over-heated trains and in draughty concrete and steel station buildings, and I felt grubby and stuffy and not-quite-real.  Give me a bit of good honest mud and sheeting rain any day.  Just promise me dry clothes and a hot cup of tea afterwards!

Keeping the boundaries actually works

I always prided myself on being able to balance home and work without being rigid.  I’d congratulate myself for getting the laundry done or the dinner made between work tasks.

Then it all got too much.  Work was bleeding into the evenings and I wasn’t getting going on paid jobs until mid-morning because I was finishing up home admin or emptying the dishwasher.  I told myself home always came first – but somehow, everything was becoming a blurry, unsatisfying mess.

So, on the advice of a wise friend, I tried boundaries.  Working – and only working – between fixed hours.  Doing home-related tasks – and only home tasks – in set times too.  I know, you’ve heard this suggestion before.  It’s hardly rocket science.  Call me slow, but I finally realised that this time-honoured advice actually works.  I was flying, clear-headed and amazingly productive.

For a whole week.

Then the boy was home from school for a few days and I went back to an endless mixed-up mash of emails sandwiched between story-reading and working in front of kids’ TV to keep him company and lessen the Mummy-guilt.  And I knew that, for that week, that’s the way circumstances meant it had to be.

But I also knew that, once we were back to normal again, the boundaries were definitely coming back into force again.  They help me to think clearly.  They comfort me by saying, “this task you are doing now is exactly what you should be doing at this moment.  This is home time. (Or work time.)”

I can recommend it.  Boundary your time.  Don’t do laundry at work or check email at home.  It seems so simplistic and obvious – perhaps too simplistic and obvious to work – but it works wonders.

Reasons to work at home

Days, sometimes weeks, go by in a blur of thinking and doing.

Then, on a hot (yes, hot!) September day, something clicks and I remember why I work at home.  For the walk or bike ride to school and the nonsense conversations that happen during those times.  For the garden. For the freedom. To live as well as to work.

And so I wander out to the greenhouse and pull away the yellowing tomato leaves and the dying plants to give the remaining green tomatoes space and light to ripen.  (Spending the next ten minutes scrubbing the weird yellow stuff from the tomato leaves and stems off my hands.  What is that stuff?)

It may not look like much from the outside.  But those few minutes in the garden in the September sunshine are grounding, a reminder of the reasons why: my boy, my garden,  my life.


Back to school

Back to school is not pristine exercise books, wickedly sharp pencils, juicy ink in new pens, or even squeaky new shoes. Back to school is a door.

I walk the boy to school, watch him run into the classroom without a backward glance, and I walk home, as so many times before.

Always, the part I remember is standing in front of my own front door, key in hand. Beyond the door is a strange stillness. Behind it stretch seemingly endless hours of productivity – hours in which I can achieve so much, hours of opportunity…

I’d like to stay on that threshold, imagining everything that might be beyond the door, dreaming of what could be. Once the door is opened, reality rushes through it and there is laundry and a desk piled high with books and paper and barely legible notes on post-its and telephone marketing to ignore and a sudden compulsion to tidy and an inability to focus on one thing at a time and a mountain of tomatoes which really should be used before they rot and did I send that email?

Dreaming is easy when you stand outside the door. As you open it and step through, the challenge is to carry the dreams and aspirations with you, and do the things you need to do to make them happen, regardless of all the other things clamouring for your attention.

Because Benjamin Franklin was wrong; it’s not death and taxes which are the only certainties in this life – it’s laundry and distractions.  And it’s not a wildly different vision of the future that’s behind that door; it’s my home and my life. If I’m going to do new things, they have to be done here and now.  And now we’re back to school, there’s no excuse.

Validation revisited

I’ve been digging in my blog archives and learned this about myself: I always think September is going to be a turning point.  I will Make Plans, and Do Great Things.  This year’s no exception, but this year I really hope new things might happen.  I’ll share them if they do.  In the meantime, here’s an ‘old’ thing I wrote a couple of summers ago (the original is here):

A friend of mine remarked recently that she wanted to be ‘that mum who, when the child says “can we do painting”, answers, “well, I was going to clean the house, but yes, we can do painting!”‘ The boy, who was playing nearby, seemingly oblivious but actually with ears on stalks as always, remarked, ‘my mum’s already like that.’

It made my day. As a home business owner, there’s no boss to give you a pat on the back for a good piece of work or for landing an exciting contract. And as a parent, you don’t ever hear your child say, “Mum, you’re a great mum and I know you always do your best for me, so thanks. I’m going to grow up to be a creative and well-rounded individual.” (And wouldn’t you think it was a bit odd if you did?!) But the boy came pretty close that day, validating so many of my choices:

Making the school drop-off and pick-up a non-negotiable part of my day.
Working much less in the school holidays and spending hours wrestling and playing scrabble instead of sitting in front of the computer.
Dropping everything when he says ‘read me a story’.
Deciding to work from home in the first place, in order to put life first and work second – even though that work is fun and an important part of my life.
Using the recent gift of some free time for family time, rest and pondering

The thing is, though, there was never a long term plan; it has always been a case of doing what worked best for us at the time. When the boy was little, I used to say that I would one day write a childcare book entitled “If it works, do it.” (In other words, don’t listen to other people, the millions of experts or their books, just do what helps your family survive the day. Assuming it’s not illegal or immoral!) Maybe it shouldn’t be a childcare book at all, but a kind of life/work manual. What works changes from day to day and from year to year, but for now, this rhythm seems to work for us.