“Oh you’re so lucky, getting all that holiday.” It’s a phrase any teacher knows well, and a phrase which any teacher tends to find at least mildly galling. Yes, we’re ‘off’ for 5 weeks in the summer, but let’s not forget that for the rest of the year we are teachers, counsellors, social workers, nurses, parents, administrators, moderators, mediators, technicians, carers and negotiators, to name but a few of the hats we are called upon to wear during the school day. We are up late marking and planning, we are giving up weekends to report-writing, we are taking calls from parents before school, after school and in the microcosm of time they call ‘lunch’, and trust me, most of us will spend at least one of those enviable 5 weeks planning and preparing for the onslaught of September. As I saw posted somewhere last week, ‘we don’t get 2 months off a year, we just do 12 months’ worth of work in 10.’ Quite.
But this is not a diatribe about the role of a teacher in this league-table-driven society of ours. In fact, I do feel privileged to be a teacher, not least because of the nightmare which childcare presents to non-teacher working parents in those 5 weeks ‘off’. I am grateful that, as a teacher for the past ten years, I have pretty much escaped the juggling act of work with extortionately priced holiday camps, but as the mum of three small children, one of whom is profoundly disabled, I have not escaped the sense of challenge which those 5 long weeks represent. My juggling act has been of a different nature, and when even my teaching colleagues have wished me a ‘happy holiday’ it’s been difficult to imagine what part of the weeks that were to follow could possibly be defined as ‘a break’.
As a mum with 3 small children, a wheelchair, and a husband who is NOT a teacher, my holiday juggling act has been this: how do I manage to have all three balls (by which I mean children) in one hand (by which I mean at home at the same time) as little as possible? How do I use the childcare options available to mean that I have days with either the boys, or with Hannah, but not too many with them all? Let’s be clear: this is not because a) I CAN’T deal with the 3 children I freely chose to have, on my own, b) because I don’t WANT to be with those 3 children I freely chose to have, on my own, or c) because those 3 children don’t want to be together. I can deal with them, I love being with them, and they are the best of friends, but in all honesty, a day at home can be daunting. Put bluntly, it’s tough.
Other holidays – Christmas, Easter, half terms – aren’t so bad. Not because they’re shorter, but because the summer is always a particularly poignant reminder for me of all the things we can’t do. Social media doesn’t help, of course: endless pictures of holidays abroad, trips to the beach, picnics and farms and woodland rambles. Just the simplicity of being able to go to the park with all my children, just because the sun is shining – these things are not really options when I’m on my own. Not yet. My boys aren’t yet quite old and independent enough to be able to be left to their own devices, but my physical presence and attention must be Hannah’s. When I’m pushing a wheelchair with my 45 kilo daughter in it, my hands are literally full, and when she decides she doesn’t like the venue or the menu or the company, every other part of me is consumed by damage limitation too – singing, dancing, jumping, feeding – whatever works to keep her happy. But in the meantime, can I be sure my sons are safe? In school holidays, when queues are inevitable, places packed, crowds chaotic, the odds for a Hannah ‘meltdown’ are higher than ever, but my need to watch the boys is more crucial. Few parks have any equipment which is accessible for a wheelchair-user, and who can blame an 8 year old, watching other children swinging, climbing and playing, when she cannot, for crying? Most of the time, I want to too.
So, we stay home. But this is not without its challenges. There may not be queues, but in all honesty it still sometimes feels like one long waiting game. Waiting for the next meal , waiting for it to be a reasonable time to allow them to watch TV, waiting for Daddy to get home, waiting for bedtime. It falls on me, of course, to be the all-singing all-dancing all-entertaining clown, taking us seamlessly from one high-intensity activity to another. To be fair, it doesn’t feel a million miles away from teaching during an Ofsted inspection, and the 8 year old is the hard-to-please inspector! I will typically spend a good portion of the day dancing around the room to Olly Murs or One Direction, encouraging the boys to join me as backing singers and karaoke kings. It entertains our tough audience for a while, but Hannah’s personal playlist is set: if we veer from the approved tracks, it is met with screams and tears; when the playlist is done, we must move on.
So, we go in the garden. Hannah loves to watch the boys leaping around on the trampoline or racing frenetically up and down the grass – the noisier and clumsier the better! But inevitably, the life span of just watching is limited, and soon she is bored. I can just about lift her onto the trampoline, or into her swing, but these activities have a brief life-span too. The truth is that, in the absence of a truly amusing human (which, apparently, despite my best efforts, I am not), or of innumerable packets of crisps (which is not highly recommended by the dietician!), Hannah loses interest.
She used to love messy play – I would fill the sand table with cornflakes or cold spaghetti, and she would stand for ages exploring the textures, throwing food at her brothers, sneaking in a mid-morning snack when I wasn’t looking. But she can’t stand at the table anymore, and anyway, she developed a dislike of getting her hands messy not long after she was diagnosed. Sand and mud will go straight in her mouth, as will pens, paint, chalk, glue and scissors, making craft-related activities pretty tough too. It’s thrilling to me that my boys will sit endlessly and build, create, draw, colour, play, paint and imagine, but it is also a painful glimpse into a normality which we, all together, cannot inhabit. A summer holiday destination to which we do not have tickets.
So yes, the next 5 weeks do daunt me. For the first time in my working-parenting life, I have a non-term-time only job (as well as the teaching one) and two school-age children, so this summer I will be juggling work with extortionately priced holiday camps, working hours with childcare, lesson planning with the charity job with the kids. The two days a week of childcare options must now be used at the same time for all the children, leaving us all at home three days ‘off’ each week , creating our own chaotic, high maintenance, round-the-clock-entertainment, mummy-driven normality.
. I know there will be moments of giggling, fun and magic, and moments of frustration, helplessness and sadness. There will be moments when I feel like I’m doing okay, and moments when I feel like an utter failure. It is only 8.55am today and all of those moments have already happened: the magic of seeing my boys show Hannah the pictures they have drawn and hear her giggling at their excitement, swiftly counterbalanced by the frustration of the incessant screaming which accompanies every second of ‘waiting’ time. And let’s be clear, Hannah’s scream is that of a 45 kilo child who puts every ounce of her being and every fibre of her own frustration into every scream. It is the scream which brings me closer to the edge than anything else. But her giggle is the thing which makes me smile most too, and since she can switch between screaming and giggling within seconds, a whole day in our house can feel like one very long, unpredictable, emotional rollercoaster ride.
Today is day 3, and we’re doing alright. Yesterday we had 14 children round to play all morning, and another 3 in the afternoon – filling our home with those truly amusing humans Hannah loves, and creating a chaotic normality indeed! I know that we are immensely fortunate to have a house and garden to which we can invite people, and even more privileged to have friends who wish to come, so we will open up our doors and be the playgroup of the summer just as much as we can. If yesterday is anything to go by, the boys will have a ball, Hannah will be entertained as long as the house is full, will scream at me as soon as it is not, and we will all be worn out by bedtime. Which may not exactly be the dictionary definition of a ‘break’, but it’s as close as this teacher is going to get. Happy holidays.