Today I packed my three year old daughter’s suitcase for her summer holiday. She helped me pick out which clothes she would like to wear, which books she’d like to read at bedtimes, which toys she thought would enjoy the trip. I packed her toiletries, nappies, medicines (just in case), some sticker books, pens and pencils, and snacks for the journey.
Then I waved her and her father goodbye as they drove off, and my heart broke.
We don’t have any money. After being made redundant during my second pregnancy last year, I’ve been a stay at home mum to my two girls, while my partner has been working as a nursing assistant, which pays a little above minimum wage. We knew we wouldn’t be able to afford to go away any time soon. My partner’s ex-wife and her husband had booked a holiday home in Norfolk, an hour and a half away from us, and were planning on taking his eldest daughter who is seven and their new baby girl away for a week, and very kindly invited us along. We are very fortunate that relations between all of us have always been warm, and I was very touched by the offer. I know how much my eldest loves her big sister, and they would have a blast on holiday together. But I knew that, for me, the trip would be nightmarish. Away from home, daytrips out to crowded, unfamiliar places, little privacy, among people who, as lovely as they are, have fairly old-school views of mental illness. I agonised over the decision, but made my mind up not to go. Me and baby would stay home and my partner would take my eldest.
I’m trying to rationalise the decision by telling myself that the danger would have been that if I had forced myself to go, my anxiety would have been so acute that it would have risked spoiling the trip for everyone else. I try very hard to hide my own anxiety from my kids, to make sure that they don’t pick up on it, and to ensure that they still get to the experience fun, exciting stuff being a kid is all about. It was better, I thought, for her to have a great time with her dad, sister and extended family, without me bringing everyone down. Kids are far more sensitive, far younger, than we tend to think: I suspect she would pick up on my discomfort and it might sully her own perceptions and experiences.
I’m hoping to use the time while they are away to do some back-to-basics self care: eat as much as I can, nap when baby naps, get out for walks, maybe see some friends. All the stuff that seems to go out the window when I’m trying to cope with running a household of four – it seems far more doable when it’s just me and the baby. Maybe by the time they return I will be a little braver and I can make up for the lost time by taking the girls out myself.
This illness (or whatever it is) feels like it has sucked the very core of who I am away from me. I am not by nature a timid person. I traveled a lot, by myself, in my late teens and early twenties: North Africa, Asia, Australia. I moved to big cities. I took risks, and while there were some hairy moments, I generally had a blast. But it feels so different now there isn’t just me, but two extra parts of me out there in the world. It’s like my responsibilities have just crushed me: I am full of self doubt and fear and panic. I want to do the best I can for my children but when I get outside my comfort zone (an area which feels like it has shrunk to a few cubic meters), I experience such intense anxiety I can barely focus. How can I possibly keep them safe if my brain has turned to grey, spikey clouds (a weird description but that’s what it feels like), and my body is urging me to find the nearest toilet?!
So I’m going to bed this evening feeling like a failure – it is my job to be alongside my daughters as they experience the world and the fact that I’m just not brave enough right now makes me feel like a sack of pathetic shit. I know that her father will take excellent care of her, and will be the kind of fun, spontaneous and joyful parent that she needs. Meanwhile, me and her youngest sister will have a quiet but enjoyable time close to home. I hope it will be restorative, healing maybe. I hope so. But I don’t think the guilt I feel will go away any time soon.