M was taking care of the girls over the weekend whilst I got some paperwork done. They were being what they are — loud, boisterous, excited little girls, filled with the joy of just being alive — and chasing each other around the playroom and the kitchen like lunatics, screaming at the top of their lungs. If you could get past the chaotic and ear-piercing nature of it, it was a truly delightful site — but M could not. I walked into the room just as he clapped his hands over his face with exhaustion, leaned back against the kitchen countertop and then slumped his upper body forward, so he was bent double and his elbows rested on his knees. The girls ran past again as he mumbled through gap between his palms, slowly and deliberately, “I don’t know how you manage it every day.” At that moment, I found it hilarious. Couldn’t he see this was one of the good moments? Wasn’t the girls’ joy spilling over into his heart? But M’s capacity to handle these things is less than most — where others have a gallon jug, he has more of pint jar, and life is most often wearisome for him. In that moment, he didn’t see the joy, but the chaos and the ear-piercing shrieks went straight through him.
My mother gave E2 some chicken for the first time the other day (without asking me first, but that is another issue) and I have subsequently had three of the worst nights I’ve had in a long while — it would appear that chicken is another food we shall have to add to her ever-growing avoidance list. Last night was particularly torturous: I got eight hours’ sleep, but it was broken up five times (I’ll do the math for you — that’s 90min, 90min, 90min, 90min, and 2 hours), and when it comes in short spurts like that, you might as well have only had half the amount of sleep, as rotten as it leaves you. Rolling myself out of bed that last time, I could almost feel my brain rattling around inside my skull and I wondered how, after three nights like that in a row, I would ever make it through the day to come.
As if to teach me a lesson in counting my blessings, the pain set in about an hour later. It wasn’t that bad today, but it was enough and, on top of the tiredness, I really struggled to keep it together. I prayed for patience every time I felt it start to slip away, and I was given it. We got through the day — and the lunch that ended up splattered across the floor, and the bathwater that missed the bath and landed on the rug and my trousers, and the oatmeal that got forgotten and burnt to the pan — unscathed for the most part, until at last — at last — their naptime arrived, and I got them down and dragged my aching head to my own bed. How do I manage it? He doesn’t know the half of it!, I thought to myself. I get through it with all the same chaos that he struggles with, but with pain and shattered sleep to boot. The question isn’t how I manage it, but how — without those extra handicaps to contend with — he doesn’t.
M got the girls up when he got home — noisily — and let me sleep on. It wasn’t the best nap, interrupted as it was with the girls’ squeals and whoops, M’s occasional outburst, and once, E2 toddling in to find me when her daddy wasn’t paying attention and planting her inexpert and poorly-aimed kiss on my eye. I struggled on though, so precious was that elusive sleep to me, burying my head deeper and deeper under the covers with every thud or yell from the other end of the house. Eventually I admitted it was in vain and got up. The girls had been fed and it was still early enough, and my head was filled with cobwebs that needed to be swept away, so I asked M if he fancied a good brisk walk. To my astonishment, he agreed. Twenty minutes later, the girls were in the pushchair and we were taking in great lungfuls of the cool night air, heading up the hill into town and, if I was lucky, to a nice decaf latte from the local coffee-house.
I did get my coffee, and we had a relaxing walk with a beautiful sunset, but we took too long and got back far too late, rushing to get the girls ready for bed when we returned. E1 was so overexcited by the walk that getting her into her PJs was a near impossibility, and E2 was distressed that her feed had been delayed and screamed inconsolably. What had been a refreshing and invigorating evening was quickly turning into a disaster.
I settled down in the bedroom to feed the baby, she suckling as if she thought she’d never see milk again and then, slowly, slowly, starting to fall asleep as she fed. It took ages, but I didn’t mind. M would be making dinner, she needed me, and things were calm and under control again. Disaster averted: one child in bed, the other nearly there, dinner on its way.
When I finally got her down and came back into the kitchen, dinner was not made — nothing was even started. M was asleep, face down on the table, resting his forehead on his folded arms. It had just gone 10pm, I had had three miserable nights on the trot, a day filled with pain, and had just finished my “work”, only to find he had clocked off before his job was finished. My never-ending pool of patience had finally run dry. I rapped on his skull with my knuckle and asked loudly, “Why aren’t you making dinner?!?” He raised his head listlessly and reported there was nothing to make. Rubbish! He was just being too lazy to think! I opened the fridge and surveyed it, then closed it and opened a cupboard, incredulous that I was having to pick up the slack and make dinner at this ridiculous hour. I grabbed a bag of pasta, a jar of pre-made sauce kept only for such emergencies, an onion, and some spinach. M, unwisely, started to explain that I needed to heat up the sauce in one pan and I should cook the pasta in a separate pan. I considered bringing the jar of said sauce down on his swede, but refrained and emptied it into a pan instead. We ate at nearly 10.30, in deafening silence.
He doesn’t know how I manage it every day. He doesn’t know how I manage it. I’ll tell you how I manage it. I don’t “manage” anything — I just keep going. I just do the next thing that needs to be done: I make lunch, I wipe lunch up off the floor, I change nappies, I pull poo out of the baby’s hands and hair when E1 forgets to use the toilet in time, I comfort them when they are screaming after a fall, I feed the baby, I get up at 2am, and again at 3.30am, and again at 5am, and again at 6.30 because she needs me to — I have not had more than 4 hours’ sleep in a row in over 15 months — I silence tantrums and broker the peace, I think think think about what they are putting in their mouths, I make dinner when there’s nothing to eat. I just keep doing the next thing that needs to be done, and it never ends. It doesn’t end at 5pm, it doesn’t end when they go to bed, it doesn’t end when I go to bed, it doesn’t end when I’m tired, and it doesn’t end at 10pm, when my husband — he of the full night’s sleep — is crashed out on the kitchen table, succumbed to his own weariness without having made any attempt at dinner. It’s nothing so fancy as “managing” anything — I am tethered to a treadmill that never stops. Giving up just because I’m exhausted is a luxury I don’t have.