I’m not even a little bit famous, but every now and again, I give an interview. Maybe it’s for my books (I Give My Marriage A Year, available in all good bookshops now, tish-boom). Maybe it’s another podcast wanting to know what it’s like to host Mamamia Out Loud. Maybe I’m on a panel talking about… having really, really blonde eyebrows. Whatever. If I am ever asked questions by a professional interviewer, they always ask the same one*.
“How the hell do you do everything?”
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I know exactly what they’re asking because I also ask that question all the time of people whose lives seem incredibly busy. The people who output a lot of stuff and also manage a family. The people who look like their lives are a bit… complicated.
What they’re asking is - You look like you work a lot. Do you ever see your children?
And what they’re asking is - How do you do all of that stuff, well?
The answer to the first question is, “I do.”
And the answer to the second question is “I don’t.”
When people ask that question of mothers (and mostly, they do ask it of mothers), they’re bringing a set of assumptions of what mothers do.
That assumption is: Everything.
In many women’s cases, that might be true. But not in mine. When I wrote my I Don’t List a while ago now, I meant it. I don’t do all kinds of motherly things. I don’t bake cakes (except very occasionally, and very badly), I don’t cook all the meals (my partner Brent does a lot of weekday dinners), I don’t do homework every night, I don’t do lots of school organising, volunteering and sports duty. Not proud of it, just true.
But maybe a new list is needed. A working parents’ list of what I do... do. Because if people are always asking women how the hell they do it, maybe we all want to know each other’s non-negotiables. So we can begin to whittle down our lists to what matters.
My list will look different to yours, and yours will look different to the next excellent woman’s. But her is my list of I Dos for a day.
1. I do exercise at an unholy hour
My young workmates think that exercising early in the morning is a sign of smug superiority. It’s not. 6-7am is literally the only hour in the day I have to myself. If that puts anyone off having children and a job, I have worse news for you. Until my youngest was about six years old, 6am would have been a luxurious pipe dream. You take your “me time” (ha), where you find it - I find it at sunrise. Only three times a week, mind. The other four, I find it in bed.
2. I do shout a lot.
Never at work. Always at home. Once I lost my voice and my ability to parent along with it. I communicate between rooms at the top of my voice. And then, when the kids are yelling at each other, I march in and shout, “Why is everyone SHOUTING?”
3. I do come to work smiling.
Syrup alert: I love my job(s). I am exceptionally privileged to do something that genuinely lights me up. Both in my “day job” - running the Content teams at Mamamia - and my night job - books. But do I always feel like smiling when I walk into the office (or get on the first call of the day)? Of course not, I’m not a psychopath. But I’ve been working in offices for almost 30 years and I know that the boss’s attitude in any team sets the tone, so if you want the tone to be positive - smile. (This really annoys Jessie Stephens, by the way, which is all the more reason to do it).
Listen: Holly Wainright speaks about her latest book in Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.
4. I do do everything at speed.
Talking. Cooking. Getting the kids dressed in the morning. Eating. Preparing for shows/meetings/writing emails. Walking. This is not efficiency, it’s panic. And this is why that question: How do you do all those things well? stings a little. I am NOT a perfectionist.
5. I do insist on daily treats. For me, and the kids, if they're lucky.
My very wise mum says that the key to happiness is a “series of small treats” and I agree whole-heartedly. I need things to look forward to or I sink into glum. Those things can be as small as my 3PM coffee, or a weekly friend-date, or a margarita on the couch on a Friday night, or some non-rushing time in the school holidays. When I was a kid, very, very occasionally my mum would pull a Cadbury’s Cream Egg out of her pocket when she got home from work - I would swoon at the magic of the surprise. I do it to my kids, too. Some would say I (and my mum) are buying affection and alleviating our guilt at not being around all the time. I say, so what?
6. I do get resentful about doing things I don’t like doing.
At work, that’s planning, budgeting, building presentations, and having difficult conversations. At home that’s any kind of cleaning, folding washing, yelling (although I do it constantly) and cooking (except the fun kind, like, slow, Saturday night, adult cooking, that’s fun). Seeing a very grown woman sulk is not pretty, but it happens… a lot.
7. I do love family dinner time, but not at the table.
Every parenting expert I’ve ever interviewed on This Glorious Mess says family dinner is essential bonding time. So we do it, like, three times a week. But I have no affection for it. It feels like forced intimacy. Personally, I am happy with the family eating in front of the TV on our knees as long as we’re all watching the same thing. And it’s not Teen Titans, every episode of which I have seen 25 times. I wish Lego Masters was on all year round, TBH, it makes my cooking taste better.
8. I do work at night.
Of course I do. I used to “stay back at the office”. But since kids, that’s shifted to a mid-evening break. They need me at the end of the day, so I am there. Lying in bed with them is often my favourite part of the day. But once they’re in bed, I get back onto my computer. Either to tidy up work stuff, or to write. Which is hard on my MasterChefhabit. But I never, ever work on Friday or Saturday nights. Never, ever, ever. Those nights are for kids’ pizza and movies and wine and Brent. That might be my only consistent boundary.
9. I do “switch off”
Again, of course I do. I love the news cycle, because I’ve been living in it for so many years. The constant thrum of forward momentum - who’s said what now, what’s happened where today, what are we all to make of that - is the background to my work days. But a few years ago, I crashed with the relentlessness of it all. As I age, I realise how different we all are, and that the force that drives some people forward can pile up and bury someone else alive. Happily for me, and the people who love me, I worked out that if I pulled on that plug when I needed to - on the weekends, on holidays, on a day when someone needs my focus elsewhere - it would be OKAY. Now, when I do need to pull that plug, I feel no guilt. It’s a gift.
10. I do dole out many, many hugs.
For my children. And my dog. And yes, for Brent. Cuddles and hugs and “I love yous” are massive in my house. Annoyingly so, and unusually so, considering I come from the north of England, where we don’t like to be mushy. But one of the rules I live by is that no-one should die wondering how you feel about them. Nothing like squeezing that love into the people who matter every opportunity you get.
It’s perfectly possible that this might be the most self-involved thing I have ever written, but also, it’s perfectly possible that if anyone reading this ever looks at a person on their Feed and thinks, ‘Why can’t I do all that?’, they… don’t.
None of us are even a little bit perfect. Promise.
* That is by no means a diss. I always ask this question when I’m interviewing people. I ask men, I ask women, I think we should keep asking it, over and over and over, as the only way to understand that really, no-one does everything, no matter how it looks from the outside.
Feature Image: @wainwrightholly - Instagram.