My husband told me some great news last week. He got a job!
I hugged him and told him he was great. Then I went upstairs and had a bit of a cry. It was good news, but the last time he got a job my hair fell out. Admittedly, that job was in south-east Asia. But he needed to work, and if that's where the work was, he'd go. I told him cheerily not to worry about me. I'd be fine! The Coping Classes need a Queen, right? My parents were up the road. I booked the toddler into a creche two days a week and got a child-minder for Saturdays when I present my show on Newstalk.
We know several families in the same boat. Between au pairs, extended families and grim determination, everyone gets by. My own sister (and her two under-two babies) had moved in with our parents for six months while her partner went to Dubai. I bumped into a school friend whose husband was in Russia.
We laughed as she explained the tensions that arose on visits home. "No, we put that glass on this shelf now. It's one of the changes we've made - since you've been away." To be perfectly honest, I thought I'd thrive, without having to waste time negotiating every tiny domestic decision. Someone find that girl a peg!
Anyway, we agreed he'd give it six months, and sure, if it didn't work out, all he had to do was get on a plane. It wasn't the end of the world. It was the end of my cup of tea in bed every morning, but I just got up earlier and got myself organised. Clothes were clean. Lunches were made. The house was sorted. Radio shows were presented. Columns were written. Everything got done. But, gradually, nerves were frayed.
Unexpectedly, the sense that I was alone crept up on me. The writing slipped, as I found myself refusing commissions. Dropped calls on Skype and the time difference added to frustrations. The children, while knowing this was simply a new normal, acted up and out anyway, and fought me all the way. I hadn't a single hour to relax. I couldn't even go to Mass on a Saturday evening, my one escape from domestic mayhem. Not even Mass. Welcome to Martyrville! Population: The Women of Ireland.
The proverbial straw manifested itself as a rotten virus from the creche. One by one, we fell. My parents, who are champion full-backs, drew the line at infectious disease. My mother dropped off some shopping. Or rather, she gingerly shoved it into the hallway pleading, "I'm sorry!" and bolted. She might as well have painted a red cross on the door. So I nursed my sick children while sick myself and did what she knew I'd do: I got on with it.
It's a bloody creed, isn't it? I believe in the imperative to keep going. With a brave face and a manic smile. I reject the concept of not coping, believing it to be symptomatic of poor character. And here I was - a lousy three months, and done in by the basic requirement to look after my children alone. All I kept thinking was: how on earth do single parents do this for their entire lives? And then the phone rang. The contract had finished up early and he was on his way home. At precisely my lowest point, he was coming back. I got a day or two in bed to indulge my illness and, gradually, things resumed as normal.
A few months later, I found myself scratching my hairline and temples. An inspection revealed it was hair growing. That's when I realised what had happened. My bloody hair had fallen out. I was both appalled and victorious. I've lost many layers of skin in the past few years, but I'd never had a visible scar, and one that was healing too.
But now he's going again. It's only London, and it's only Monday to Friday. And it's only three months. It shouldn't be that hard. Maybe the first bout wouldn't have been so hard if the previous few years hadn't worn me down first. I can't say I feel any stronger now, but I am humbler. Who knows? Stripped of the moral compulsion to endure, the load might be lighter this time.