Escaping the parent trap

School started again last week, but I was so dazzled and desperate I got the day wrong. New uniform was laid out cat-like on the bed, work was stacked until evening in half-hour blocks, and then the cold light of Wednesday morning arrived shaking its head. An inset day. So once again the toddler was forced into an extended nap and the seven-year-old was handed the warm TV remote, and I sat on the stairs next to my headache for a minute to catch my breath.

There’s a video going round where a New Zealand politician is interrupted during a live TV interview by her son who is wielding a phallic carrot. I paused on her face – chuckling, exasperated – as she tries to bat him out of the room, then looked in the mirror to check my own expression. Blank. Muddied. Last year I wrote about the realities of work and childcare at the start of the pandemic, and while much of our practical life has changed, inside our bodies much is the same. The biggest difference is that now, nobody asks how we’re doing.

What this time has clarified for me, quite meanly, are the differences between parenting and having children
What this time has clarified for me, quite meanly, are the differences between parenting and having children. The former being an activity and a skill, one I’m yet to quite master, the latter a fact, a state of being which is layered with so many contrasting shades of love it’s tempting to chip it away to find the original wallpaper beneath. When I was fresh out of hospital with the new baby, I reread Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, her raw account of early motherhood, and then straight afterwards read her response to reviews that called her a bad mother. I was struck again at how it is still taboo to say: I have a child, but I want to be more than a mother. And I continue to be struck by how conservative, black and white, how lacking in empathy these conversations (if ever allowed to continue) must be. When I’ve written greyly in the past about wanting time away from my family I inevitably brace for the many angry responses. If a person chooses to have a child, they’ve made their bed and there they must lie in silence among the crisp wrappers and crayons.

Since Cusk’s book came out Instagram has happened, where the 2021 versions of her angry reviews (“Believe it or not, quite a few people enjoy motherhood, but in order to do so, it is important to grow up first”) are reflected in blessy hashtags, “My Guy!” “Best pal!” “Proud mama”. Parenting is captured in bright sunlight, a photo from the mother’s gaze, and its framing makes it even harder to talk honestly, Cuskily, about its small hells, let alone the occasional moments of doubt or regret.

In June, a YouGov survey of 1,249 parents revealed one in 12 say they regret having children – similar polls around the world suggested many millions feel the same. Which suggests that rather than seeing this as simply individuals’ unspeakable sickness, we might recognise that there is a larger problem. We might consider the benefits, both of restructuring society to make things easier for families (such as improving childcare and work policies) and encouraging a cultural shift in our expectations of parenthood to allow those with children to feel less guilt on bad days, and of course, relieve the pressure to have children at all.

This question was asked at the tail end of a year that saw job losses, sickness, isolation
But among the shock that follows these sorts of revelations there’s rarely the acknowledgment that many surveyed might change their mind. Remember, this question was asked at the tail end of a year that saw job losses, sickness, isolation, loneliness and school closures, anxiety and melancholy as standard, a wet and awkward grief covering everything like dew. Parents were not in a good place. Many, in fact, were in pretty terrible ones, made sharply out of Lego and sticks. Why do we choose to forget this thing about humans, this fact, that we change? That our minds and moods adapt, that what seemed fun at midday is actually awful at 10pm? We evolve, our tastes alter, our politics, our partners, our guilts. But we are adults, and we deal with it, and try not to hurt anyone else in the process.

There’s an exhibition in Bath this month where artists have collaborated with their children for a show called My Kid Could’ve Done That. Sculptor Harriet Bowman told the Guardian she’d planned to make a piece about sharing a studio with her young son, and while she started with an idea of a work in clay, she couldn’t stop thinking about less artful moments they’d spent together, like when she was too busy to play and put him in front of the telly. So the back wall of the gallery is covered in screenprints of Yakka Dee! and Alphablocks, and a text about his tantrums and her shame.

As I sat on the stairs, school still shut, I thought about what my wall would look like, all those shades of love, thickly applied, the kids TV shows about magic girls, angry notes on rainbow paper, the still lives of relentless domesticity. And then, because it was a fantasy, I added a door.