I really hate this question. At social gatherings, in the school playground, chatting to people at the park, occasionally even when I’m doing the shopping – it keeps popping up like a particularly persistent meerkat. And I never know how to answer it. “I’m unemployed” or “I’m a stay-at-home mum” are both true statements but they only cover part of what I do. The same goes for “I do volunteer work” and “I write”. The trouble is that people usually only ask this question as a way of politely extending a conversation or so they can mentally file you in the appropriate box. They want a brief, concise answer and I don’t have one.
So what do I do? Well, the main thing I don’t do is have a paid job. I haven’t since the birth of my daughter in 2009, when I had such severe PND that I was unable to return to work at the end of maternity leave and eventually lost my beloved job as a result. Since then my mental health has never been good enough for me to return to formal employment. Many (including myself in harsher moments) would label me a benefits scrounger, someone spongeing off the state and hard-working taxpayers.
And yet I work hard. I work hard to support and care for my husband as he struggles with bipolar disorder and what can sometimes be crippling anxiety. I work hard to look after our two children, ensuring that they are healthy and happy. I make sure our meagre income covers the bills as well as paying for healthy food and adequate clothing for a pair of ravenous, growing youngsters. I keep our home clean and relatively tidy. I do voluntary work a couple of mornings a week, I write, I take the children to playgroups, parties, parks, the beach, days out. And I do all of this while dealing with my own mental illnesses (and hiding that fact from the children), and suffering from chronic back pain. Of course DH does these things too when he can but there are often times when, through no fault of his own, he can’t.
It’s hard. It’s really bloody hard. I’m lucky to have supportive family close by who help out when I need them. I have supportive friends at the end of the phone or online, and a brilliant GP who always makes time to see me if I need her. But I don’t fit into the neat little box that society would like me to. And I still don’t know how to answer the question.
So. This is it. This week my family’s lives change forever; DD starts school on Wednesday and our cosy time as a preschool family comes to an end. But before that comes another big change as DH starts work tomorrow after 14 months unemployed.
In practical terms we’re ready. DD’s school uniform is bought, washed and named; the ridiculously oversized Spiderman backpack that she begged to have as her schoolbag is ready; DH’s shirts are washed and hung up, ready for the week ahead.
Surprisingly enough I think we’re almost mentally prepared too. DD is still nervous about school, although she’s looking forward to playing on all the cool stuff in the special Reception playground again (we didn’t have climbing frames, tricycles and mini racetracks when I was at school!). I’m nervous too – I know I’m going to miss her dreadfully, even though as a summer baby she’ll only be going for the mornings at first. I’m going to miss DH as well, I’ve enjoyed having him at home and his presence has helped me to cope better than I otherwise might have done. My anxiety is going full throttle but I’m mostly able to mute it to an annoying buzz.
However, part of me is looking forward to the challenge. I’m looking forward to having proper one-to-one time with DS, and maybe even finding a half decent toddler group to take him to while DD’s at school. I’m looking forward to having some routine to our lives again. I’m feeling more socially acceptable; while DH was unemployed I felt like a lazy, benefits-claiming stereotype despite the fact that I am unfit for work at the moment. Now I feel as though my position as a stay-at-home parent is more justified, that I am going to be pulling my weight properly in this family instead of coasting along relying on DH.
Over the last few days, as we’ve put the finishing touches to DD’s pirate-themed bedroom and gone on a family day out, I’ve even felt happy. Right now though I feel nervous. Scared. Sad. But I also feel cautiously optimistic and strangely hopeful. It’s as though there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. I think and hope that this is the start of a positive new chapter in our lives, that in years to come we’ll look back and say “That’s when we started to get back on our feet, when things finally started to improve”.
DH starts his new job in 10 days time, leaving me solely responsible for the children for the first time in a year and a half. This is a massive change in our lives and while it’s a positive change it’s also a terrifying one. I am scared, I am nervous and I am cowering. But I am also searching.
I am searching for the woman I used to be.
I am searching for the woman who spent her nights moshing in underground metal clubs.
I am searching for the woman who survived the death of her fiancé at just 19 years old.
I am searching for the woman who worked for the government for 6 years, often working 10 hour days with a 75 minute commute each way.
I am searching for the woman who had the confidence to travel abroad to lecture at an international conference.
I am searching for the woman who survived the loss of her most trusted friend while suicidal with post-natal depression.
I am searching for the woman who managed to take care of her 2 year old daughter while heavily pregnant and suffering from ante-natal depression, with her husband working nights and studying at university during the day.
I am searching for the woman I used to be, the woman who has somehow become lost in a fog of depression, cyclothymia and anxiety. I used to be capable of so much; now even the thought of going out to see friends sends me into a panic.
Somehow I need to remember who I used to be. I need to find my strength, my confidence, my resolve and most of all, my self.