We are supposed to believe women can Have It All because that’s the dictate of modern feminism, the battle cry of today’s contemporary women; you can have a career, a marriage, children. You can keep all the balls you’re juggling safely up in the air and at evenly spaced distances so you can manage them with predicable and assured tempo. Never dropping a single one.
I have never been in any doubt that I’d let at least one slip through my fingers, probably two and quite possibly all three at the same time. Because life isn’t like that, it’s not an easy game squared away with numbers and precision. Having It All means much more than managing your children, your career, your partnership. It means remembering to have a leg wax, plucking your eyebrows, buying dog food. It means not forgetting a friend’s birthday and making note to self to pay health/house/car insurance. It means making a choice: nativity play or conference call? It might mean, at some point, assuming some responsibility for a parent. You can’t be sure how many balls you’re going to need to keep up in the air at any one time, another can easily be chucked in, quite unexpectedly.
In the past month, my husband has started a new job, we are obliged to renovate a new home (which was gutted and the roof ripped off), two of my children began at new universities, I had a magazine to edit. And then my mum had a stroke.
Had I had a real career (as opposed to a part time job I can do in my pajamas, from bed, at 2am if needs be – a job I can farm bits of out to a budding journalist daughter) I’d have dropped balls, for sure. As it was I had to run my eye down a pressing list of priorities, each jostling for attention. And I had to acknowledge that not only could I not Have It All, I could only have a really small bit of it.
And so my husband embarked on a new job without my presence or any support from me bar the very rare text, hope all going well, love you; the renovation has taken – sometimes – an interesting and unexpected shape, squat loos for western style ones (I did manage to effect a turnaround there), peppermint green exterior walls instead of off-white (that we’ll have to live with). My son began his fourth year at a new university in London and had to secure a place to live. I could lend no support, only solace when he miserably called to tell me he had been shown yet another London broom cupboard at hundreds of pounds a month – all I could offer were spareroom.co.uk links to the next broom cupboard. Hat began university and I could not be there to take her, to help her unpack, to admire her new room. Instead I funded her big sister to accompany her, unpack her, tell her it would all be alright. And – as I say – I farmed out much of the editing to the same new student who leapt at the chance to supplement her allowance.
And whilst they all got on – mostly perfectly well – without me (bar those loos, of course), I sat in a rehab facility in a beautiful city and coaxed my mum to break down short words, letter by letter, and celebrated with her when she managed to link them up as language. That, then, for those weeks, was the most important thing to do, the thing on my list that demanded the most urgent attention. And it was all I could do; there just wasn’t enough of me to go around. Spread thinly, that’s the best I could manage.
And that might be a kinder, more forgiving mantra to live by; do the best you can do with whatever you do do.