It might have been when I pressed EXIT on my three kids’ class WhatsApp groups, or maybe it was when I finally deleted my Instagram (aka Gloat-gram) account with a toxic feed of fellow mums’ humblebrags, or maybe it was when my youngest grabbed my hand to say, “STOP TALKING ABOUT NO-THINGS!” as we zigzagged through the playground pickup.
All I know is, after five years at the school gate, I had to make a radical shift before I lost the last vestiges of myself. I had been so consumed by fitting in to the London school playground that I’d obliterated my ambition and my sense of humour, whilst accelerating my anxiety to an all-time high. Something clicked when I witnessed a child tugging at his mum at the end of the school day, and her whispering, with a smile solely aimed at the class celebrity, “Not now, this is mummy’s time.”
It isn’t her time though, is it? My mum, in the early ’90s, viewed the school gates as a necessary evil for her children and their burgeoning world, in which we were turfed out of her ancient Volvo anywhere near-ish the school, and she would drive off at speed to work, normally with our packed lunches still on the back seat. By age 11, I was walking myself and my younger sister home, and so by that point, she’d only make an annual school pilgrimage for Parent’s Evening. My mum was always very clear that this was my world, and she was the willing support team, but not the main star.
In the chaotic, early years with my three children, I had swapped social drinks for a potent mix of sleeplessness and anxiety about our tumultuous finances. I had worn my vulnerability as a huge smile plastered across my face. I’d become part of a network of mums who were fortunate enough to have financial freedom, and despite my first class university degree and hard-won acting career, I totally immersed myself in a world of women who didn’t work. I look back incredulously, and wonder if it was a combination of post-natal depression (three children born within five years), and not having family who could offer any practical or emotional support, that propelled me into this echo chamber of boozy dinners, and raucous cocktail nights where we yelled at each other that we could pass for 25, rather than middle-aged mums who had left our purpose somewhere in the changing rooms of Harvey Nichols.
Don’t be envious reading of these endless margaritas. Really. You need your lows, your struggles, your fight to hit those highs, those top notes of self-worth and achievement. But if you decide to float through your life, you start to feel very little in your silken mobius loop. There were moments in this self-indulgent whirlwind where I felt things weren’t right; the moments when my stomach flip-flopped if I thought I’d been excluded from a social event, when I realised I had stopped reading novels, or for a brief moment of clarity after crafting an Instagram post in which I’d pimped my kids out to look suitably beautiful, my heart racing, until the comments started coming in, validating my family PR drive.
When I write this down, I wonder what my 30-year-old self would say? She would ask what on earth happened to you? You see, she was pretty fearless, worked hard and loved laughing at jokes often at her own expense. She made friends from all walks of life and didn’t care about what others thought of her, as long as she felt good about what she was doing. She had friends who called her out on being a dick, rather than ghosting her in the playground. She would wonder about when I had started to mute myself to such a degree that I was unrecognisable, even in moments to my own husband, who had rightly begun to call me out on my new friendships, asking if I was having some slow breakdown or midlife crisis.
I think both were true, and I had created the role of my lifetime, a performance which was eroding every cell of my being, but was unfortunately nothing to do with my actual career. Covid hastened the demise of these flirtations, when I realised I wasn’t much use in my unvarnished — and frankly depressed — state. I began to realise our friendship only existed if we were high-fiving each other. Mindless cheerleading is the easy way out in relationships, and I was reminded of that when a friend told me some hard truths to which I didn’t initially react well, mainly because I’d forgotten that grown-up friends are there for you even when you’re not wearing your high heels and sparkly dress. They’re there when you’re cantankerous and ugly-crying into the sleeve of your grubby sweatshirt.
I wish I could tell you there was a moment or reckoning, one which you should look out for or head towards if any of this rings true. It was just a series of events that made me wish for authenticity. I think the collective playground schadenfreude masquerading as emotional intimacy was a seductive call to someone who was pretty lost in her career and raising a young family in a world of privilege that was a long way from her own upbringing — a world to which she was really hanging on to with white knuckles.
A dear friend sent me a birthday bottle of gin with a quote sellotaped to it: “Our children will become what you are; so be what you what them to be.”
I began to realise I was abiding by a set of school rules. Thou shall not bring others down. No words of illness, death, bankruptcy (moral or physical) or anything that signals the end of the party. No news that is too visceral, too close to our blood and bones, nothing that will remind us of mortality. Dampen your lows into submission, but also the highs. ‘She’ will come out you with her first round of ammunition, sending you POSITIVE THOUGHTS, Instagram comments for everyone to see, but if you aren’t going to follow the rules and let her positivity get you better, then she will need to leave.
We are all used to debating good mums vs BAD MOMs, working vs stay-at-home, tiger vs laissez-faire, helicopter vs free range, aspirational versus trust-ifarian mums. But we are not used to acknowledging the mothers, like me, whose freelance careers require a rocket booster to get them and their self-confidence back into a profession. I think I took the coward’s way out, and hid. In plain sight, but nevertheless hiding. I was using my children as a shield, and that isn’t good for anyone.
A dear friend, who had already staged a mini-intervention when she’d asked “When are you going to do SOMETHING?”, sent me a birthday bottle of gin with a quote sellotaped to it: “Our children will become what you are; so be what you what them to be.” It was exactly what I needed to hear, and it reminded me that my actual tribe was men and women that I had been lucky enough to find over the years, who live in every far-flung part of the globe. However different they may be to me, they all live life to the fullest and were all equally horrified by the prospect of social one-upmanship at the school gates.
The night before I stepped back onto set last year, in my first acting job for many years, I felt like I had somehow conned my way back into a career that was long gone — that I had somehow blagged my way back into a world that was no longer mine. But after those first few moments of fear, I felt more me than I had done for years.
There still seems to be an idea that there are neat divisions concerning motherhood. You raise your kids, you take maternity leave, you “juggle” — a term which nullifies that feeling in the pit of your stomach — the frequent polarisation of kids’ needs, and your own. Where does one look for validation when you’re no longer sure if you’re blagging it or if you actually can do it anymore?
I had started to look for reassurance from women I barely knew. That wasn’t fair on them…or me. It’s the friendships of old, as well as an unexpected network of fellow school mums and the authentic connections I have made through mutual loves of work and shared values, that have cherished me throughout this weird, transitional time.
I thought I could protect my children from playground drama, by standing there and making small talk. But I am now trying to let my children make their own mistakes and be there to guide them through those inevitable tricky moments. I love my children, but I also love my own hard-fought-for life. I’m getting older. I’m trying my best. I can’t tell my children to reach for the moon, but I can be the mum that reaches for it myself. And leave the kids to the playground games.
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