February 27, 2013 by talkaboutyork
I had to rush the summary of the last part of my 20s because the blog post was already too long (as this one will be too but it’s the last one!). I could have written so much more about it.
The laughs we had in the Joburg office – the most fun I have ever had at work; our first ever Thanksgiving meal in Boston with the world’s worst pumpkin pie; the numerous nights out drinking cosmopolitans; the mini breaks to Bermuda, Rhode Island & Cape Cod; watching jazz legend Dave Brubeck play live while sitting in the rain drinking red wine; getting engaged next to a lake in Vermont; getting married in South Africa; honeymooning in Tanzania; our awesome Manhattan apartment one block away from the Flat Iron building with views onto the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. I could go on because it was such a happy, carefree time.
We had reached a point in our lives where we had travelled, had fun, earned a good wage, had a sense of achievement through work and generally just enjoyed life.
So why did we decide to leave?
Our friends were in the UK and while we had some good mates in the States, it wasn’t home to either of us. The UK wasn’t my home, but we were never going to return to South Africa so it made sense for us to live in a country that was home to at least one of us. After bidding farewell to the USA by driving from coast to coast across the Southern states, we headed to the green island with grey skies.
We spent about five months bumming beds from people while we tried to buy our first house. It wasn’t the best intro to Britain. I loved having friends who ‘got us’ on our doorstep. However, I hated my job. I hated driving an hour every day on the M4. I hated the negativity of the UK after the optimism-on-steroids you get in the US. I hated getting gazumped when trying to buy a house.
But we finally bought a 300 year old cottage in Oxfordshire. It couldn’t have been more different from Manhattan. It took a little adjusting. The day we moved into the house, I felt odd. Just odd. So I took a pregnancy test. And despite having been on the pill, there they were. Two blue lines.
Nine months later, my world changed again. Son 1 arrived in a blaze of screaming glory (me, not him).
Whatever I thought I knew about life seemed to stop the moment he was born. Son 1 started crying on day one of his life and he didn’t really stop until he was nine months old. I was a career woman. If something needed fixing, you just had to make a plan and it would get sorted. Son 1 hadn’t read the manual.
Other people had babies that did what the books said. Ours didn’t. I spent hours and hours and hours and hours and hours pat shushing the child, trying to get him to sleep. Or to Just. Stop. Crying. I was so tired. So lonely. So scratched to bits from his tiny fingernails. I couldn’t have been further from the glamour of Manhattan if I’d tried. I often thought that it was pay back for how I’d been as a screaming baby.
I had a few lovely friends I’d made through ante-natal classes, but meeting up once or even twice a week wasn’t enough. I needed my sisters or my mother or someone who would be happy to see me in my pyjamas and just take him from me.
At some point in my sleep deprived haze, I received an email from work to find that I’d been written out of the business plan as I refused to go back to a full time role running the biggest client in the office. The two hours of daily commuting, not to mention the hours involved in PR jobs (9 to 5 is a half day), just wasn’t going to work with a baby. So I left and freelanced for a bit and set up my first ever business (only 10 years late) as a specialist tech PR freelancer, because that’s all I knew.
I have no idea how (genuinely), I conceived son 2 when son 1 was only 10 months old. But nine months and two weeks overdue, he arrived. In comparison to his brother, he was a walk in the park. But he was still a newborn baby. I vaguely remember going for a literal walk to the park, pushing son 1 on a swing, while rocking a pram, standing in the cold greyness that is England, and wanting to cry. In fact I probably did. My husband had kept up his PR job with the demanding hours, leaving me as a single parent a good deal of the time. It was hard. I don’t think I have ever been so lonely.
To avoid losing my mind that comes when watching Cbeebies for hours a day, I decided I had to go back to work but there was no way that I was going to return to tech PR. I hated it with every fibre of my being. While pureeing carrots for son 2 one day I had a sleep addled brainwave that I could make baby food for a living. So I started doing market research (i.e. I walked around shops pushing a double buggy sussing out what baby food was out there). I quickly realised that making baby food was a minefield, one I didn’t want to go into for fear of losing my legs. But I did find a company that made baby food that I felt could do a better job of marketing themselves.
So I wrote to the company founder. Remarkably she replied. We met and just like that I got a client. I had never really done consumer PR, certainly not in the UK. So I spent my evenings jiggling a baby while flicking through baby magazines writing down the names of editors and noticing what types of things they covered.
That first client paid me the exact amount I had to pay the nursery to look after the boys for a day a week. The money came from them, into my bank account and out to the nursery. I just waved at it as it went by. But I realised that if I could do baby PR for one company, I could do it for others. So I set up a PR company specialising in the parenting sector.
I managed to secure a couple of other clients simply by writing to the owners, all of whom where mums. And from there it grew.
Never one to do things by halves, we moved house about four months after I set up my business. One county over. But it meant finding a new nursery and starting from scratch with no nearby friends or support.
For the next four years, I worked and looked after kids. And looked after kids and worked. Running your own business means no off button. Being a mother means no off button. The only thing the broke the steady march of life was having our house flooded in 2007, which meant we had to live in temporary accommodation for six months, while I continued to work from a flooded building with workmen bashing plaster off the walls all around me.
I started a blog in 2008 which charted much of this. It’s still there if you really want to read the minutia of my life. (You will need a lot of wine to get through it.)
Somehow life had become very tedious. I guess that happens when you’re a grown up. But I had forgotten what it meant to feel alive. All the excitement of my twenties seemed a distant memory. In fact, since childhood, I’d never had a life that just stayed the same.
So in January 2009 when I saw an advert for an around the world yacht race, with a boat crashing through a wave and a headline: ‘This could be you!’ I sat up and took note. I showed it to my husband and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something like this?’ His reply: ‘If you want to do it, do it.’
Think about that.
I had no-one to help with childcare. No-one else to run my business. I didn’t have the money to do it. And quite frankly, who goes and sails across an ocean when you have two young children at home? It was a ludicrous idea.
But I wanted to do it. A lot. Not because I had a burning desire to sail across an ocean, but because I wanted to know that life didn’t just stop because you had children and a laundry pile to get through.
It was a crazy year involving more work than I will ever be willing to do again, but in September 2009, I set sail from Hull to Rio for six weeks, leaving behind my children, husband and business.
I returned exhausted, a stone lighter and very grateful for the tedium of normal life. Mainly I knew now that just because I was a mum didn’t mean I had to stop living. That thought helped me get through the ironing pile.
Funnily, as my children grew up and more interesting, the thought of not being with them for that length of time horrified me. Life with children (rather than babies and toddlers) was massively interesting. They cast a very bright light on my own past. Everything they say or do makes me think back to when I was a child and I get to relive it again, only now with a parent’s perspective.
My children started school. I became the PTA mum. The cricket wife. I tried really hard to create a circle of friends. I lived the country life.
But it wasn’t right. Despite my love of open spaces and freedom and village smallness, both my husband and I knew that where we were living didn’t suit us. We could choose to keep living where we were for the next fifteen to twenty years, or we could break for the border. We cast our nets far and wide, searching all of the British south coast and as far afield as Seattle in the US. But nowhere seemed to fit.
Then one blustery January morning in 2012, while out stomping across fields, I asked my husband where home was to him. He said Yorkshire.
Six months later we were living in the centre of York. I’d sold my PR business the year before and was casting around for something new to do. I spent the first six months of living in York settling our boys into school, living through a big building project, exploring and trying to find our feet.
And here we are. I am on the cusp of turning 40. I am none-the-wiser about what I want to be when I’m big. I’m still torn between becoming a writer (which I think will make me no money but will keep me happy in a tortured way) or become an entrepreneur (current thinking being to make a range of toiletries for children aged 6 to 12).
I genuinely have no idea which way I am going to go. But then I’ve not really planned anything for forty years and I haven’t ended up in a bad place.
In fact I’ve ended up with two absolutely marvellous boys, a very long suffering husband who seems to just roll with whatever crazy notion I have on any given day, a new circle of lovely friends who have made my life here so much fun, old friends who I know I can pick up where we left off regardless of how many years it’s been, and a family that lives all over the world but who still mean the world to me.
So what did I learn from this decade?
I have learnt that children are a gift because they give you a chance to live your entire life again.
Becoming a parent doesn’t necessarily change who you are, but it completely alters your emotional range. Your ability to love, your patience levels, the fear you feel all balloon beyond what you ever thought was imaginable.
That if your life doesn’t feel right, it’s up to you to shake it up and make it what you want it to be.
And finally….where to from here?
I honestly don’t know. But here’s something I’ve always wanted to share:
Many years ago, at the junction of Broadway and West 24th street in Manhattan, I walked across the street in a tidal wave of people. I remember looking at all the anonymous faces passing me and having a profound insight. That I was just one of a billion people on the planet. Completely small and insignificant. Like those ants climbing that tree all those years ago in my teens. But I didn’t feel small and insignificant. I felt alive. Like I had my own small but important story to tell. And it hit me then, the title of a book I would one day write:
The startling reality of being ordinary
I’ve not written it yet, but perhaps these blog posts have been the start of it. I have no idea what my forties hold for me. But I know that whatever it is, good or bad, it will be what makes up life. So it will be worth remembering.