I’ve started work. I have a desk in a chaotic collective studio that is mine, two days a week. Obi is 22 months old and has never been apart from me for a full day. She is breastfed to sleep and has been babysitted exactly twice, for a few hours, by a grandparent.
I say goodbye and drive away with a sense of exhilaration, that first day. I have my packed lunch in Tupperware containers and my laptop that’s never been mobilised. Then spend the morning in a welter of anxiety and frustration at things not moving fast enough; at not being productive enough. I can’t get the wireless internet thing happening. I can’t find the words.
I call T five times. Obi falls asleep in the Ergo on his back and wakes up when he tries to put her on the bed. But they’re fine, he says. She hasn’t asked for me. I wonder if he’s lying to make me feel better.
I’m so used to rushing from one thing to the next, while Obi sleeps, each activity jostling to the front of the queue in my mind; the list of Things to Do that feeds my insomnia. Once the daily meditations are done – pick up toys, scrape poo off nappies and/or carpet and dried porridge off table, wash clothes and dishes, prep food, attack spider webs, mould etc, I stand paralysed with indecision.
How much time do I have left? Should I read, lie naked in the sun on the verandah, stare into space, check my email, write, sort that giant box of photos into albums, finishing knitting the vest for my sister-in-law’s new baby, wax my legs? I pick up my book and sink into the hammock and as I turn the first page, I hear Obi calling me from the bedroom.
Two weeks into the work thing, I get in the flow. I stop worrying about what’s happening at home. I still find it hard to sit on the grass under the tree outside and eat my lunch, it feels so aimless; so unproductive. I marvel at the meandering days of my fellows at the studio, who rarely arrive before lunch. They are still making their plans for the day at 3pm, when my thoughts return home.
I take on a deadline that is more than I can comfortably chew because I need to prove, to myself and the editor, that I can. I squeeze the work into every hidden moment. Then T’s grandfather dies and he goes to Sydney for a few days and suddenly I am struggling. Obi, perhaps sensing the redirection of my energies – too much too soon – hangs off my leg while I’m talking on the phone, forgets that she loves to play alone, and stops sleeping.
One day, when she won’t go down for her midday nap, I drive up and down the winding road that climbs our valley for half an hour, watching her yawning and rubbing her eyes and fighting it every inch of the way, until I give up. She is triumphant and exhausted. I am furious at her. I drive to the beach and put her on my back and we walk. A trickle of understanding begins to cool my anger. What am I doing? Making her pay for me taking on too much. I begin to understand the phrase ‘work-life balance’. I want to work, but I want to enjoy her.
We chase the seagulls along the shore, dig a paddle pool in the mud. I build sandcastles, she knocks them down. I let my ready-made plans for the day go. She falls asleep in the car on the way home.
My studio begins to feel like mine. I inch towards rediscovering the self that is not enmeshed with being a mother. The self that had her license cancelled for unpaid fines, that walked around Kailash in a blizzard, that danced in a thousand dawns, barefoot and flying, that was ideologically opposed to Tupperware. I find the words.
I bite my tongue when the nappies are unwashed and the dog is asleep on the couch when I get home. Obi is covered in paint and a huge smile. ‘Mama come home work!’ she says and runs toward me with open arms.