Elusive freedom

I am 40. It is raining. I have no car keys, and I am too pregnant to walk more than half a mile each way. The shops I want to go and hang out in (like some bored teenager) are 1.5 miles away. So I’m listening to Smooth Radio, which right now features Bob Marley, and drinking decaff tea.

It being February, I generally spend a lot of time thinking about how to be happy, about what life I want to look back on when I die. It’s very hard to think about being happy in general at the moment, because most of my life seems an unrelenting onslaught of life-sapping, repetitive and easy jobs to do around the house, punctuated with the destructive habits of small boys, and their emotional thumbscrews. I don’t know how I’ve manged to let a 2 year old question everything about myself, but his relentless rejection of anything I try to do for him, in favour of Daddy doing it for him instead (like, holding his hand in a car park) is really hard. Maybe, I sometimes think to myself, he can see the thoughts I sometimes harbour, the yearning for freedom and self determination.

One of my greatest pleasures in life before I had children was running; sometimes just going out for a half-hour jog twice a week, sometimes running more like 35 miles a week, doing 10k races every 2 weeks, half marathons every few months, one marathon. Then I had kids, and that was all gone.

I enjoyed spending my evenings at the bouldering wall, facing failure 25 times before I succeeded.  Or some days I’d stay in all evening and write my blog, assiduously. Or organise photos. Really cool, groundbreaking stuff, clearly. I rode my bike to work, which in London is a bit like a daily adrenalin rush. I broke my wrist, and it didn’t particularly matter. No one depended on me, so I just typed with one hand for a few weeks and rented an automatic car when I went for a weekend walking in the Lake District, no big deal.

I didn’t actually spend that much time with friends, unless they happened to at the climbing wall, but of course if I did want to meet up with a friend, I texted them and we met somewhere within a 20 minute tube ride. I had a selection of other single friends who I’d meet up with quite regularly for drinks. I went to a friend’s wedding in Cambridge, and decided I didn’t want to shell out for a hotel, so I took a tent, only when I got back to the campsite at 3 am, I drunkenly thought sleeping in the car would be way more fun, set off my own car alarm and couldn’t work out how to switch it off.

What do I do now? I get frustrated about potty training. Worry about speech. Get sad that I’m not giving my children the childhood I had, and start to question everything about my life choices, when in fact this is a happy life, which I would only damage by changing. Looking through photos of the last year, that is quite obvious, which is partly why there is nothing more daunting than another child. I’m looking forward to it, but I want freedom, I want to not be pregnant on Valentine’s Day. I used to more or less hate Valentine’s Day, and of course it’s still a completely arbitrary marketing opportunity, but in a lifelong relationship, I suppose it’s a way of marking the passing of time, and of noticing what has changed. In our case, we have now spent five Valentine’s Days together, and for three of them, we have been at various stages of expecting a child. I’m not sure we would even know what to do with freedom any more. I used to write wistfully of wanting to be with someone, of having someone to face my fears with. I am not stupid enough to think that another person can change my own fallibilities, or fix me, or make the fundamental fear of living go away, but I did want very much to form a unit, to have a family, to leave a legacy even if I never achieved anything in my life. It’s just that, whilst I’m very grateful, I never really appreciated that the act of having children seems to remove achievement altogether. If we were younger, it would perhaps be easier to believe that when they were older we could pick things up again, but we will be in our 50s when they are older. If I’d had the kids younger, maybe I would also have had more time to reply to my dying father’s emails, to phone him back, and let him know how much his pride in his family meant to me. He wrote me such a beautiful, really short email six weeks before he died so suddenly, saying he was proud of me for the way I had brought up the boys. I never replied, becuase I picked up the email when I was running for the train home to make sure I wasn’t late for the nanny (as usual), and then forgot to reply. He would have loved to meet the granddaughter he never knew about. He loved little babies, even if he did somewhat abdicate the hard stuff to other people himself. Even if I can’t really tell those people who I am fairly sure have been trying for a few years for their third child at  40 that we just wanted a bit of distraction before my father’s funeral, and made a single mistake. I can’t really tell them how hard that was, how much a new life felt like fate laughing at me. Or maybe there really is a life after death, and my father figured that what I really needed in my life was a little girl. Anyway, it is what it is, and we have found our way to being just as excited about it, and to be gracious about the silly comments.

Still, apparently younger parents find the transition to parenthood harder., perhaps  “because younger first-time parents aren’t totally grown up themselves, and there is more risk for a “disordered transition from adolescence to adulthood.””

Maybe it is always hard, for everyone with half a brain. I liked the post from a guy who was talking about the irony of having gone through fertility treatment, and still found life with three kids really hard sometimes.

On the other hand, I really hate the type of posts that more or less tell me what I should be doing as a mother, and that I can’t do it if I work in an office. It’s very easy for journalists to be smug about the fact they can work at home, but not all of us can, and I’m sure that since she is a national columnist, she is also able to earn just about enough money by working only during school hours, and/or being able to structure her time around her children. Funnily enough, banks generally need you to be doing your work with a big team of people who aren’t going to turn up at 9 pm just because that’s when you’re available.

So, we need some role models who have achieved things in their 50s. People who have gone off and done some big mountain routes, or just combined their own hobbies with their kids, or still had professional success. The one thing that seems incredibly rare is writers who were successful after 40, which is rather obvious given that writing is usually something you are driven to do, and will do with any and all time you are given. As I am happy to sit around wasting 123 hours of my life watching Grimm on Netflix (seriously worth it), as opposed to devoting those 123 hours to writing something I could actually sell (well, ok, for that little time invested it would probably have to be a sex-related topic), that’s my answer right there.

I’ve done some googling, and here are some people who achieved stuff in their field after 50:

  • Julia Child – wrote her first cookery book at 50
  • Stan Lee – wrote his first comic at 39, and then wrote the whole Marvel universe
  • Samuel L Jackson – 43 before he got a major part
  • Vera Wang – became a fashion designed at 40
  • Charles Darwin published the Origin of the Species at 50
  • The Zagats were 50 and 51 when they first started their restaurant reviews
  • Donald Fisher founded Gap when he was 41

It’s a strangely unconvincing list for me, because we only know about them because they were successful according to a fairly arbitrary definition. Who knows what their personal lives, or their self-perception, were like, before or after they were objectively successful. Who knows what anyone’s story was, really. I don’t have to “succeed” in anyone else’s definition, only in my own. I think I can be good at only two things at a time, so if I want to be a good writer, I have to choose to be a good mother or a good wife, but not all three.

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