When my youngest sister was born my Mum was in her forties. Me being a teenager I had zero sympathy for anyone. Instead I sat for hours ruing the fact that I'd wasted all my savings on a Molton Brown perm that made me look like a pensioner. I never noticed how tired my Mum looked. Or the fact that she rarely had time to eat. Sometimes I'd point out that she hadn't brushed her hair and it was embarrassing to be seen in public with her. Mostly though it was me, my bad perm, dumpy legs and fantasies of eloping with Michael Hutchence.
So what would I have seen if I'd been paying attention? I would have probably seen a woman working in a high-powered office job and struggling to bring up two children under the age of three and a surly teenager. Who between commuting an hour and a half to work each day spent her time shopping, cooking, throwing clothes into the machine, hurling the hoover about and stirring huge saucepans of ratatouille (it was always ratatouille). She made my sisters clothes. She even made yoghurt with a weird machine. Her one luxury at the end of the day was a hot bath. And even then she usually re-used the water the rest of the family had bathed in, topping it up with 'a slosh of hot' (a hangover from her post-war childhood and an all-encompassing fear of waste). This was usually the time we'd talk. Or rather... I'd talk. Perched on the side of the bath I'd scrub her back with a giant brush until it looked red raw. Whilst scrubbing I'd offload how miserable I was, how I wanted to go to art college but every portrait I drew looked like Ronnie Corbett, that I had spots so bad that no boy would ever snog me and friends who were kind one day and bitches the next.
Mum would sigh, ask me to scrub harder and close her eyes.
She told me things would improve. She listened. And she never betrayed the fact that she was up to her eyeballs with needy people and their demands. She certainly never let on that this stingy pocket of time was the only time she had to herself.
We had a series of pets and all of them died. I'm not talking cats and dogs... no these were usually smaller creatures and at face value relatively easy to look after. But all too often another goldfish would float up to the top of the tank and stay there until somebody noticed they'd croaked and tossed them into the bin. One hamster escaped and went to live in the sofa (we never saw him again). Two budgies popped their clogs in mysterious circumstances. It was all a symptom of Mum not having any time. These creatures were too far down the hierarchy to enjoy a pampered life. It was too easy to miss a fish suffering from a deadly infection when there were piles of soggy tights to be hung over the radiators to dry.
Now I'm a Mum myself I can fully appreciate how hard things can be. But my Mum never worked part -time (it wasn't even on the radar of employers) and so both my sisters went to childminders from a very early age. Mum had a partner but nothing was split fifty/fifty. In fact it wasn't even seventy/thirty. She never had a facial or went to the gym. She never had a Mum's night out. The whole concept of 'ME TIME' didn't exist.
The reason I'm thinking about all this stuff right now is I'm struck by how challenging Motherhood was back then. And the fact that things have definitely changed for the better. Certainly the Mums in my immediate circle are lucky enough to share some of the domestic chores. There are flexible working hours available. It's not necessarily career suicide to take a proper maternity leave. And yet nevertheless everyone STILL seems to be knackered. All we talk about is how tired we are (I'm not referring to Mums of newborns because they can say whatever the hell they want). And then that common refrain - 'I just don't have any time to myself!'
I should flag up that there are actually plenty of women out there who are damned right to complain about how knackered they are. They deserve to lie down for a week and have butlers bring them thin slices of smoked salmon on crumpets. (You know who you are and I salute you.)
And yet I'm pretty sure that many of us don't have the type of schedule my Mum and many Mums in the past did (all of those who combined challenging jobs with family life or had rubbish partners who did nothing or simply ran away). So what's with all the complaining? Is it perhaps the whole concept of 'ME TIME' that has sullied our expectations? Is it the new crop of celebrity Mums that make us feel tired at the idea of having to stay sexy till we die?
What about if we just got on with it and forgot the tiredness? What about if we thought about how tired Florence Nightingale must have been instead? Or our Grannies when they got up at five in the morning to shove all the clothes through the mangle ten times? How about lowering our expectations and being happy with the fact that everyone in the family is healthy and the goldfish are still swimming in their tank?
This culture of 'Mum fatigue' makes me tired. It's not healthy. So I'm going to ban it from my conversations. I'm also jacking in the whole idea of 'ME TIME'. What does it mean? And is it really aspirational to lie in a bath contemplating your navel? Do you really need more time so you can watch another boxset?
And anyway surely it's more rewarding to use that time listening to your teenager complain about their bad perm?