My family had gone on holiday, leaving me alone, and I was making a list. Of things to do now that I had the space and the time. Things to achieve. Pleasures to savour. Even the act of making the list felt luxurious. A sharp pen, a clean page, good posture, Mini Magnum, right. It was difficult, though, to know where to start. This was the first time in nine years that I’d had more than a night or two by myself, without the cluttered emotions and rigid routines of young children, school days, pasta, questions, the brushing of hundreds of tiny little teeth. I intended to use it not just wisely but fabulously.
Before they left I briefly sketched out a rough schedule for a potential affair: if I met an interesting stranger on the Monday, say, bonded over a good joke with them on Tuesday, ensured our politics, tastes, anxieties and peccadilloes aligned on Wednesday, took some time for self-care and personal growth, essential for any relationship, on the Thursday, met their parents on Friday, performed enlightening sexual adventures on Saturday, then said a chaste ceremonial goodbye forever on the Sunday, I could conceivably join my partner and kids in France having got it all out of my system by Monday, 11.30, 12ish? On reflection though, the admin seemed quite overwhelming, and wouldn’t I prefer, in fact, to walk lazily around the house and enjoy the velvet interior of my own mind?
1) Buy biscuits. I took myself to the supermarket and filled a basket with only my favourite things. This included, of course, an ample buffet from the yellow sticker shelf and the good biscuits. I was inspired by the meals in the Home Alone movies, such as minibar snacks, microwaved macaroni cheese and popcorn. I walked home in a fog of glory. There, uncomfortably full, I propped my laptop up on the desk of my belly and opened a Google doc. The five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries have just been reissued by Granta. I read a review that makes them sound poetic, petty, neurotic and great. It started at the beginning: in 1926 Woolf sat down, opened a diary and began, “I shall here write the first pages of the greatest book in the world.” Really good plan, really good start. And I had the time, I thought.
So, 2) Write the greatest book in the world. How hard can it be? OK. It should be pacy, colourful, romantic. It should be a love story, but with a twist. It should be a satire on equality, contain universal truths, and have dialogue written not in speech marks but in italics. Greatest book in the world.
Two things occurred to me at once. First, that I had three more episodes of reality show The Ultimatum: Queer Love to watch and, second, that Virginia Woolf did not work on a laptop, and her notebook did not contain every scrap of knowledge ever recorded, some very good shops, dogs in hats and a page that would happily display the last three episodes of The Ultimatum: Queer Love with a single tap. Sucked for her.
The show (a “social experiment”) features a group of women and non-binary people in which one half of each couple has issued an ultimatum: get engaged or split up. They each move in with a stranger from the group as a “trial wife” before recoupling with their original partner, then deciding if they want to break up or get married. I find myself shouting at the screen: but not if you don’t want to! Netflix will not stone you if you refuse! One beauty of queer life seems to be that you can redefine what a family looks like, so you needn’t settle for marriage as the end, nor as the only place to raise children! Live your lives! I love it. It’s a horrible trap, a kind of monogamy torture porn where they must date in front of their exes and drink cocktails out of chrome beakers and I love it. It sort of makes novels redundant. Which, happily, frees up my afternoon.
3) Discover who I am without children. I look back at myself as a new mother now with wide-eyed respect – 33 years old, practically a teen mom! And now, here I am, so old that last night I dreamed about cleaning the little drawer in my washing machine. At times, parenting, I feel like Mrs Doubtfire, just a guy in a cardigan pretending as hard as they can. The question of identity didn’t so much pop into my head when I had a baby as fall upon it like an anvil. Bang. And I quickly realised it would not be answered – who am I, what can I be now I am also a mother – when I was with my child. This week alone, I realised, was my chance. To emerge from the parental bog of rage, ambivalence and thwarted ambition as a fully realised woman, free of performance, of stains, of mumfluencers and anxiety – free. Unfortunately it was just as I was preparing to radically unmother myself that my phone’s photo app lit up. It was a “For You” slideshow, photos of my children when they were toddlers and, damn it, time disappeared and folded in on itself and then I looked up and it was Monday.