My teenager has recently started TAFE, so our homeschooling days are officially over. I’m so proud of them and the direction they are choosing, but I’m sad to say goodbye to homeschooling too. It really was a pleasure and a joy – and, before you start wondering, no, there were no risks to their socialisation. A huge chunk of our homeschooling journey took place pre-COVID, so we were always on the move. Every week there was some sort of activity that we were off to. Perhaps a gallery visit, a 3D printing program at a faraway library, a catch-up with friends in the park or, for a couple of terms, participation in a hands-on learning co-op.
All of this was an adventure for my kid and for me – and my laptop.
Over my career, I’ve worked in many an airport lounge or hotel lobby. But working while homeschooling was a whole other juggle that I’m sure other parents can relate to, especially those with small children and a budding career.
I am currently reading Kate Grenville’s book Searching for the Secret River. It tells the tale of how she researched and wrote the Secret River – an absolute Australian classic, a must-read, by the way – and she talks about how she used to send her kids to her Mum’s house so that she could get some work done:
“I’d arrive at her house in the morning, and she’d have made me sandwiches and a thermos, as she did when I was at school. I’d drive off, park in a quite spot overlooking the harbour, and get into the back seat with one of the children’s kickboards across my lap by way of a desk. It was a fine way to work: the children happy with their Granny, the thermos and sandwiches a comfort, and that stunning view. I did some good work there.”
I was so lucky because, in my previous working life, I was the boss. This meant that, if I needed to work in the back of the car, my team just had to put up with it. I’ve taken phone calls from VIP clients in the Botanical Gardens and, unbeknownst to the recipient, I’ve submitted final art on important jobs from a corner of a library packed with noisy teenagers bunking off from their studies after school.
For a few years, my kids were well and truly into roller skating and we spent a hell of a lot of time at the roller skating rink. This was ok on a quiet weekday – definitely not during school holidays! The rink staff made decent cappuccinos, the kids happily sailed round and round and round for hours on end and I got an enormous amount of work done.
But I do have to confess that I once spent an entire Saturday evening filing email while my kids and hundreds of other people – including a lot of not-so-spring chickens – rolled around dressed in '80s costumes. Yet again, I make myself cringe. “Why are you not having fun?” one woman asked but, in those days, fun for me was an empty inbox. And I never did want to take the risk of a breakage or injury. One can’t file email with a broken wrist!
The car park outside the learning co-op was another scene for numerous work activities. The timing of the co-op meant that I’d have to lead our weekly staff meetings via Zoom from the back of my car. This was all very well until the diesel train roared past or the pack of galahs started screeching. A couple of times, I nearly jumped out of my skin when one of the other mothers started banging on the car window, hoping for a bit of idle gossip, while I was getting cracking on writing a quote, or taking part in a meeting on Zoom.
We used to love going to the State Library and working under the dome – that remains a real treat for me and both my kids. University libraries are awesome, as are the suburban ones at the right time of day. There’s something about the quiet murmur of the library environment that encourages one to get stuff done – perhaps it brings out our inner student.
There’s guilt there of course. There were many years where I felt like I wasn’t doing a proper job of any of it – work, or parenting, let alone tidying my house. Annabel Crabb has a famous quote that sums it up so perfectly:
“The obligation for working mothers is a very precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.”
If there’s one good thing that COVID did, it changed this. Our children are allowed on our laps in Zoom meetings now. And it’s ok to admit that you’re in the back of the car, or in the spare room.
This video of Professor Robert Kelly, where his little kids come into the room while he’s being interviewed on the BBC, never ceases to make me laugh. His daughter is a cracker – so full of confidence and personality. But the way he pushes her away out of the view of the camera is the old style. People don’t do this anymore. I’ve seen dads in Zoom meetings cradling a newborn and mums wiping away tears on a little one’s face.
There’s such a cultural shift happening because our family commitments have been laid bare. This is the new reality. Our digital lives and a genuinely flexible working culture make working and raising a family so much more possible. At least, that’s the only way I could make it work: flexibility, resourcefulness, and sometimes downright ingenuity.
This article on LitHub by Olivia Campbell celebrates the same theme. In writing about the ‘The Heartbreaking Ingenuity of the Mother-Writer’, she says: “Moms are wily, persistent creatures.”
And I’d have to agree.
I remember writer and comedienne Catherine Deveny writing years ago that, to get the peace and quiet she needed to take an important phone call, she laid down a blanket in the lounge room, got out a big tin of Milo and three spoons, and then let her three boys go hog wild for the duration of the call. I’m sure she paid the price later with an enormous three-pronged sugar rush to contend with, but it gave her what she needed to get through the call.
Nowadays, my work life tends to be more still. I have a super comfortable nook full of books, a big desk for all my papers and journals, and a window looking out onto pretty trees and the occasional rainbow lorikeet. I’ve made it through to this nice spot where my children are almost fully grown. They’re both delightful humans and I can take my foot off the accelerator somewhat because they’re in control of so much more of their own time. This means that the daily expectations of me and my hubby are somewhat – not yet completely, but nearly – relieved.
This, I hope, brings solace to other working parents who are on the move, or who are constantly juggling. There is light, my friends, at the end of that parenting tunnel. It breaks your heart that those little creatures become such enormous, independent beings but this growth gives you back some time to concentrate fully on the task at hand.
Here’s wishing you some semblance of stability, time and peace, no matter where you’re at in your working journey. Perhaps you dream of a working life in a hammock on a distant beach or on the back deck of a country property. May the digital future allow this to occur, and for humans to find the freedom that we need to live a good life – and raise happy, healthy kids – while still delivering the work on time.