Before the Cock Crows ...
It was early in the morning, and I was sitting in the back of a taxi. The taxi driver was telling me stories of his children. One was an undercover police officer; another was studying to be a doctor; the third was excelling at school and probably going to be a lawyer. All three were intent on making the world a better place. "So," he asked, "do your children go to state school?"
There are times when questions about my children's schooling set me on edge. I become immediately defensive.
"Oh yes!" I replied with an unnatural emphasis. I was thinking about the younger one as I spoke.
"The one at secondary school, too?"
"Oh yes." This sounded more like a whimper. I offered no further information.
Could the taxi driver see the chink in my armour?
This is not the first time that I have concealed the nature of our son's schooling. There are times when it is more convenient that ballet remains a hidden secret. Often, I find it difficult admitting that my son attends a private school, and even more difficult - on occasion - revealing that it is a ballet school. Sometimes harsh reality does not correlate with the desired image. The perceived privilege of ballet does not fit in with who I like to believe I am: egalitarian, left-wing, iconoclastic. I fear that people will judge me to be entitled, elitist and pretentious. There is every danger that this second list is perhaps closer to who I am. But, if I admit that I have a son who dances ballet, and that I am paying for his education, it will be indisputable proof that I have become the very person I loathe. It distils into something potent - shame and embarrassment.
Sometimes I tell people that he is at ballet school, but I add a caveat. "Yea, but I didn't want him to go" or "He was taken against our wishes," or the even more fatalistic, "It wasn't my decision." The cognitive dissonance between what I want to be and how I fear I'll be perceived is so loud that all I can manage is a meek apology for my identity, and that of my son and family. I imagine a stubborn lack of comprehension, and so I subvert and undermine before I have even given myself a chance. I suspect that this is a pattern. I do this often - even when ballet is not the dirty secret. There are other things I conceal: my love of doing nothing; how much I care about cake; my passion for teenage American television; my fascination with the X-factor. I pay three quid a month so that I don't get adverts when I watch ITV on catch-up. I don't tell many people this. It doesn't fit in with the image I cultivate. Perhaps it's time to drop the hypothetical image. I have a child at a private school.
The reality is that life at a ballet school is tough. Our son displays resilience, courage and determination daily. He is living apart from the family who love him and developing a wisdom and independence beyond his years. It might be an environment that suggests exclusivity, but it is certainly not one of entitlement and privilege. He works hard and sacrifices a great deal. He has decided that there is something bigger than himself which he is willing to dedicate his life to. These are complex concepts to explain at six-thirty in the morning in a taxi to Heathrow. And sometimes it is just easier to keep things hidden, rather than attempt an explanation.
Two Short Blogs About Work
How Do They Manage?
I've returned to work. I'm making up the slight deficit caused by not really working for a year - I now accept everything that I'm offered. So, although self-employed, I appear to once again to be working full time. We get emails from the ballet school. 'Children's belongings can be picked up before half-term at 4pm if parents wish'. I snuffle with mild indignation. Four o'clock in the afternoon? Who can get there at that time ... on a week day! Not all of us can just take time of work. Then I remember that, until recently, with very little rearranging of my non-existent schedule, I could have easily got there at 4pm. But now, balancing work with our child's ballet commitments seems a delicate operation. I have to get used to being 'normal' again; no more leaving early to beat the rush hour. I'm there, with everyone else, sitting in traffic jams cursing the problems of urbanisation. I don't have the imagination to understand that by using my car, I am the one causing the problems. Nor do the other drivers on the road. So, I'm always in danger of doing the wrong thing - either turning down much needed work, or leaving my child waiting. Not having this worry was lovely while it lasted. But now it is over. I don't know how other parents manage.
2. Dilemma's Horns
We have two children, and this term, for the first time, their half-term holidays took place in different weeks. Their mother skipping her work for a week would involve work a loss of clientele. I'm in a different position; if I keep my diary free for a week, there is always work that I can pick up later - no damage is done. This has led to an awkward choice.
The financial implications suggest that I am going to be the one who covers the half term. This makes sense. However, I cannot afford to stay off work for both weeks that would unfurl, if I were to look after both children. I'm going to have to make a choice - stay with the one who is away at boarding school, or look after the one I see every day? In fact there was no choice. It felt like I was making a choice, but really there was none. I was going to have to pick the six year old; she has the greater needs. This means leaving our twelve-year-old son, who lives away from home, to fend for himself.
The week of our son's half term, I felt wretched. We don't get to spend much time with him during term time, and having him at home while I was at work felt torturous. We managed to arrange things so that he was never alone for longer than about 3 hours. His mum would pop back from work, or we'd arrange a bit of child-care for part of the day. It felt like a rite of passage. He is no longer a child needing constant care or surveillance; he is beginning to metamorphose to a young adult. And for the first time ever, we made him responsible for walking the dog ... alone. He is standing at a threshold - we can help him open the door and let him to look forward and backward. He needs to decide for himself when he wants to cross it. A week without his parents breathing down his neck presented itself as an opportunity to dip a toe into a more independent way of living. I had anticipated this moment in our lives being a source of pain, but it isn't. Rather than mourn for dependent child that I am losing; I am deeply in love with the young man who is emerging. On the final day of the week, Fate presented us a with a gift. A client cancelled. We spent the day together, and the time seemed even more precious because we hadn't ever imagined that we would have it in the first place.
The week with the six-year old was joyful. As our son is egressing the chrysalis of childhood, so is our daughter transforming. Although wilful (not necessarily a bad thing), she is witty, insightful and honest. We had a week of dog-walking, swimming, cake and cafes. Conversation brings out the best in her, and we had a time of luxurious limitless talking. I had been dreading these separate half-terms and the dilemma resulting. On this occasion, for once, it all felt right.