by LARA CAIN GRAY
This morning I walked out on my family. I picked up the keys, strolled out the door and locked it behind me, so that no one could follow. Just when we were about to head off on the school run, I threw my hands in the air and left three young children to fend for themselves. But before you go ringing the authorities or some exposé style TV show, let me assure you I already put myself on the naughty step. I should explain.
No parent is a stranger to having ‘one of those days’, but for the past few weeks it’s seemed like every day was one of those days. We’ve been beset by winter cold and flu bugs at our house. They’ve been running a baton relay around the family; just as one of us starts to feel better it’s ‘Tag! You’re it!’ and the next one goes down. It has left all of us depleted and irritable, making our way through a pharmacy of remedies and needing extra cuddles and extra personal space in equal doses.
At night, there’s been more bed-hopping than a swingers’ party as my husband and I run the production line of tissues and sips of water and taking turns in the Big Bed. I can’t remember the last time my husband and I touched; when our three children are awake they’re between us and when they’re asleep we escape to separate ends of the house craving precious solitude and silence.
This morning, after another night of chaos, I waved good bye to my husband as he left for work and unwrapped my limbs from the assortment of sleepy kids and cuddly toys in my bed. It was 6.30. Miss 4 began whining about a lost doll at 6.35. The baby boy was crying inexplicably by 6.37. Miss 5 was yelling indignantly about being woken by the others. By the time I went to the toilet I felt like the last survivor in a zombie film – trapped behind the locked door as the living dead banged and clawed, with their eyes drooping and fluids streaming from every orifice.
I emerged from my carapace to wipe noses and assess Miss 5 for school-worthiness. She was feeling OK and didn’t want to miss a dance rehearsal – which meant the whole plague-ridden tribe had to be fed and dressed so we could get her to school. Miss 4 was ‘not hungry’ until Miss 5 started tucking into her toast, on which I’d used the last of the peanut butter. All hell broke loose. With the diplomacy of a UN negotiator I brokered a strawberry jam substitute deal. She took two tiny, begrudging bites and continued to scowl. The baby boy’s full cereal bowl had already hit the floor and was being lapped at by the cat.
I wrestled the baby boy into clothes, while he practised his Olympic gymnastic floor routine on the change mat. Miss 4 dressed herself in completely inappropriate mismatched attire. By the time Miss 5 finally got her school shoes on, the baby boy had taken his off again and was flinging them down the stairs. As I went to pick up his shoes, the girls started fighting over a broken pencil – each, naturally, blamed the other – and the squeals were on the verge of being audible only to dogs.
I snapped. So I left. I just got up and walked out the door. I made no dramatic announcement; in fact I suspect they didn’t even notice I was gone. It was easier than I thought it would be. And then…
And then I sat on my front steps for about three minutes. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I reminded myself that in a few days’ time, all this illness and lack of routine and bad temper would dissipate and I’d be back to having three smart, funny kids who are pretty helpful in the mornings, on the whole, and who I love more than I can say. I let my mind drift to an imaginary life where I was sipping champagne on a yacht in the South of France. It was nice there, but it wasn’t my life. And the life I’ve chosen can be just as lovely some days. Just not this day.
I’m glad I made the decision to put myself in ‘time out’. It let me gather my thoughts and saved me from a lot of fruitless yelling, which was only escalating the drama. I wasn’t looking forward to going back inside, but I was looking forward to getting the day over with and hoping for better days ahead. And we still made it to school before the bell went.
Dr Lara Cain Gray is an academic, writer, librarian, curator and mother. The order depends on the day. She has held research and curatorial positions in Australia and the UK but is currently on a career break to look after her beautiful, maddening offspring.