In a few short weeks my time I’ll be returning to my job as a fulltime high school teacher, after three years of spending most of my time being a father to my twin boys. This will represent the first time in the short lives of the lads (now almost three) that I have been in full time paid employment. I went part time for the first two years so that Clare and I could share the parenting load, and a writer’s residency allowed me to extend the arrangement.
And one thing I’m sure I’ll be asked when I go back to school, in that well-meaning, filling-the-conversation-gap way that we all have, is ‘how are you coping with returning to full time work?’ It’s not at entirely outrageous question, the people asking it will mostly be full time teachers themselves, with one eye on the slow approaching avalanche of duties and expectations, The polite response, I guess, will be to look somewhat harried and mumble, you know, getting there. It will perhaps for a moment make them feel better about their own sense of slowly drowning.
The trouble is, it would also be slightly dishonest. The fact is, until I had children, I had absolutely no idea what hard work was. Sure, I done a lot of things that I’d considered difficult. I’ve juggled full time teaching and writing careers, worked twenty hour days on film shoots, climbed mountains, cycled a hundred miles fully laden with touring gear in the rain, that sort of thing. But that, it turns out, is all easy stuff. You grit your teeth, put your head down, get the hell on with it and then, before too long, you get a break. You reach a hut, or a holiday break, or a completion deadline, you get to sleep.
Parenting though, is an entirely different game. I write this not to complain, the past three years have been the most satisfying of my life, but rather to voice my surprise that I didn’t know any of this in advance. Somehow, the sheer scale of the sacrifice parents everywhere make in the name of their children had eluded me.
When we see an athlete standing on the podium, immediately we understand how hard they have worked to achieve their goal. All those times they have dragged themselves out of bed, even though they yearned for just a few precious minutes more with their eyes closed; the way they pushed on through set backs, when nothing was going to schedule and it became impossible to believe in success; the strength they found to dig that little deeper when adversity demanded it; the iron will they exhibited in sacrificing social lives, leisure time, or normal nutrition. We understand this because we are told it again and again, their story is made heroic, and woven into our collective narrative.
And yet, just as every Olympic medal speaks of remarkable character and fortitude, so too does every happy and secure child walking through the gates for their first day of school speak of a tale of extraordinary courage and sacrifice. The tale of the parent. Only, I deliberately misused the word extraordinary. The role of the parent, and more often than not here we speak of mothers, is so ordinary, so everyday, that we instinctively resist the opportunity to acknowledge how special it is. Everybody has parents, most people become parents, therefore parenting can’t be all that hard, right? This is the very strong bias we carry towards overvaluing the unusual, and so undervaluing the everyday. We carry a model in our head of a great many average people, living lives of average challenge, with average levels of aptitude and success, while a small and shining few live lives of true grandeur and meaning. It’s a mean spirited and destructive way of seeing the world, causing us to misapply both credit and value.
I write novels, and I have to tell you, it’s not actually that difficult. You have to put in a certain amount of time, you have to be open to criticism and set backs, but ultimately it’s a hobby, like sewing your own clothes or keeping an attractive garden. Writing novels has none of the hard work aspect of raising a child. Nothing like. I have never walked a novel along the waterfront at two am, in the forlorn hope that this might stop it crying. No novel has ever demanded my attention constantly, for every waking moment, for weeks, no months, on end. No novel has ever kept me from eating, forced me to spend hours plotting the circumstance in which I might make it to the toilet, or clung to me crying, pleading with its eyes that I find some way of making its discomfort pass. No novel has dragged me from bed, again and again, all night, every night, not for months, but for years.
And, quite frankly, I’ve never cared about a novel all that much. Not in the way that inevitably (although let me be honest, it takes a while sometimes) one cares for one’s children. If a novel isn’t working, you can walk away, no trouble at all. Teaching, even in its most difficult moments, is still a job that mostly finishes sometime before nightfall. Parents, mothers, don’t get to do that.
And I didn’t even have to do any of this alone. Clare and I shared the job, because we couldn’t see how else it could be done well. So on some level, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I think of a young parent, struggling financially, perhaps with very little social support, and left to parent alone, and I can not properly conceive of the quality of character required to make it through that (and yet still some people still resent the pittance of support we offer – barbarians).
I’ve watched a lot of mothers (and a few fathers) in action over the last three years. They are without a doubt the most impressive bunch of people I’ve ever met: talented, committed, generous and genuinely self-deprecating. And more important for the flourishing of a society than any other group I can think of. And so I salute them, and say without a hint of irony, that next year I return to full time teaching for a well earned rest.