I was sitting drinking a cup of tea at playgroup the other day when it suddenly struck me – I was coming to the end of the era of playgroups.
The toddler gets her 15 free hours at preschool after the end of the Easter holidays, so she’ll add in an extra day to the 3 she already does (we’re keeping one day free for swimming lessons), and the last remaining playgroup we go to will be a thing of the past.
It’s no big change for her, really – preschool is in the same building as playgroup, going through the same door, using the same toilets and playing in the same garden. She’s been there since September and only cried at drop-off once. Going there one extra day won’t make a big difference to her.
But for me, it has felt like the end of an era – when the big girl left preschool, I was able to think ‘there’s still one more to go, still a few years with a baby and toddler ahead of me’ – and now that time has gone. I won’t ever sit in that hall, making small talk to mums I know slightly, or get dragged up to the craft room to ‘help’ paint another picture or make a collage.
So much of my life spent in those halls, drinking tea, watching babies grow from tiny things to toddlers charging around. That time has gone, completely: it won’t ever come back again.
And it’s also made me question what I have done with all that time – so many mums have moved on, those who had to go back to work or wanted to go back, those who’ve moved away from the area, have not been in the same halls and community centres, week in, week out, like I have – and I wonder what else I could have been doing with myself?
Six years of being a non-working parent, and I haven’t written a novel (probably best all round, that one), or made my children their clothes by hand, or managed to teach the big girl to read before she started school, or taken 6 months, (or even just a month), to do some exciting life-changing travel experience with them.
Instead, their lives have been made up of the very ordinary, everyday things – the park, playgroup, the local museum, gym class, swimming, library, soft play, the park again. And yet I look back on that time, especially when I had a preschooler and a baby, before we were tied to the school routine, before Brexit, as the golden age.
Ok, so there was no sleep being had, that bit wasn’t good, but it now feels like a more innocent, carefree time, and at the time it was happening, it felt like exactly what I ought to be doing. I wanted to be with my children while they were still young, I had not wanted to go back to my old life commuting in and out of central London, and there were golden moments when it felt like it would go on forever.
I was still working alongside all this, which kept me feeling like I was keeping some other part of my brain active and interested, but it was voluntary work – work I loved, work I wanted to be doing – but the guilt of not contributing financially to the household still bothered me, and even the thought I was no longer a proper taxpayer in my own right.
I used to pay my way, do my bit for the NHS and schools and keeping this sorry country afloat; now I was an unwaged mother by choice, a ‘lifestyle choice’ according to George Osborne (huh!). Sure, we’ve saved a lot on childcare by me not working, but increasingly, this past year, the voice inside my head has been telling me I do actually feel like I want something more. I finally wanted to work because I wanted to, not because I had to – and that took a long time in coming.
And, in one of those moments which did feel like the universe presenting me with an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, work appeared. Suddenly, I am doing freelance work for a couple of local organisations, and I realise what it is all my working mum friends have been juggling all these years.
The diaries that have to be scheduled, the rushing off to meetings after preschool drop-off, the time working in cafes noted by the hour, and then making a conscious effort to switch all that off when I am actually with the kids.
And no longer being the ‘parent at home’ means struggling to keep on top of household things – when can I be home for the boiler to be serviced, or get a quote for new windows, or plan a birthday party, or find time to get things done around the house? How do parents manage to do all that when both of them work? The plan is, eventually, I can justify getting a cleaner, now we have the extra income. But even sorting that out has slipped to the bottom of the to-do list.
The good bit, though, is that I still have a girl at preschool for a whole year and a bit, so we still get our lunches and afternoons together, and a whole day on Thursdays when we swim – she is still my baby (sort of) for a while – and I have a chance to build up a career (and my confidence) in the meantime, so I won’t be completely floundering when she does start school.
And – the bit where I have to try not to blub – even though the Golden Age has finished, I had that time, we had it all together, I got to be with my girls whilst they were small – and it was good. I have that golden time locked up in its golden box, and I get to keep it.